“Our examination does not aim, as our others do, at study; for the purpose of our examination is not to know what virtue is, but to become good, since otherwise the inquiry would be of no benefit to us.” –Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics 1103b26
So last semester I had students in my ethics class participate in the community based learning program. This was my first venture into the enterprise that used to be called "service learning" until people realized how condescending that sounded. I had long been convinced that CBL should be a part of ethics courses, in part because I believe in two theses originally put forward by Aristotle: we study ethics to become more virtuous, and virtue is acquired by habit. I didn't think these premises were sufficient to show the importance of CBL, because there wasn't a connection to the kind of learning done in the university: how can you work the development of virtuous habits into a course that is based on reading and discussion, and where the instructor is required to be neutral on controversial political issues?
Then I saw Jim Liszka give a talk on community based learning. He clued me in to the importance of reflection in modern community based learning projects. Here is a description of the role of reflection in CBL from Edward Zlotkowski (????), which I encountered recently:
Indeed, service learning practitioners tend to place special emphasis on reflection as the key to making service yield real learning...What is distinctive about reflection in a service-learning context is its multi-layered quality: what students reflect on results not just in greater technical mastery ("course content") but also in an expanded appreciation of the contextual social significance of the discipline in question and most broadly of all, in "an enhanced sense of civic responsibility"
(Z is quoting key phrases from Bringle and Hatcher 1996) This is real. This is what the university should be doing. Indeed, Zlotkowski argues, it may save the university's ass.
The problem is that many people think that CBL, like blogging, is career suicide. It sucks up all your time and isn't rewarded by the administration because it is not another publication line on your CV. Liszka said you shouldn't try it until after you have tenure. So when I approached Ron Flores here at SLU about adding a CBL component to my ethics class my primary concern was that it not suck away all my time. Ron and his team assured me that they had everything set up so that it wouldn't, and he was right. From my perspective, using CBL was effortless.
Which turned out to be a problem. I was teaching a general ethics course using Liszka's Moral Competence. (More on this brilliant text in another post.) I decided to focus on caregiving in the CBL, simply placing students in situations where they would have to provide care for others (like the local nursing home or NYSARC, a local group that works with the retarded) and then inviting them to reflect on the experience in a journal. Ron and his team did an excellent job of handling the placements. I graded the journals. The whole thing took no more of my time than any assignment.
The lack of involvement meant that I had no way of dealing with problems that came up. While a many students reported having great experiences, many others had problems. The first warning sign was the low rates of participation. I had set the bar high: I wanted 40 hours from them for the semester. My impression was that most SLU students could spare that much time. This is a wealthy residential campus. People aren't commuting four hours a day and they typically are not working full time jobs. I thought the few that did work full time could strike individual deals with me.
No one gave the required 40 hours. The average student gave 10 hours. The student who did the best gave 27. Two CBL reports do not list the student hours, and I seem to have misfiled two more reports. (Should I gratuitously admit that in my blog? I'm sure they're here somewhere.)
More importantly, students at best managed to draw formal, strained connections between their CBL experience and the classroom material. My best student catalogued the feelings she had during her placement using Liszka's categories of moral emotion. The root problem was that I tried to do this on the cheap. I was unable to either motivate my students or help them draw connections, because I had no real idea what they were doing.
What to do for this class next year? Well, first of all, I'm not going to worry about committing too much time to the project. I am no longer playing the philosophy game to win; I'm playing for love. I don't care whether things I write will be cited after I am dead. I don't care if I ever get tenure. The important thing is to do the job I do well right now.
So the main thing I've decided is that I need to do a CBL placement myself, and see what the students will be doing. I can then pick out readings and topics based on what happens on the ground. Should I reduce the number of hours I require? If I can make the CBL component relevant to the class, I won't have to, at least not by much.
Also, I think I'm going to make all the students blog their CBL next time.
Bringle, R.G., and J.A. Hatcher. 1996. Implementing Service Learning in Higher Education. Journal of Higher Education 67:221-239.
Edward Zlotkowski (????) Pedagogy and Engagement