Chad Wiener is a lecturer in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Old Dominion University. His students complete self-directed projects with diverse goals and accomplishments.
Why did you choose to ask students to do civic engagement projects?
Teaching ethics at the college level is primarily theory based. But this is problematic. The study of ethics ought to enable us to examine our actions, our society, and our lives (you can find Socrates examining all three in the Apology). Requiring a civic engagement project often accomplishes all three—or at least engages the student directly in these examinations. Plus, most students enjoy doing their project, once they get far enough into it.
Which of your courses get students out of the classroom?
I assign self-directed civic engagement projects in my Honors Introduction to Ethics course at Old Dominion University. I hope to expand civic engagement assignments to my regular Introduction to Ethics course in the next three years, but these classes will participate in an on-going project with a community partner, most likely addressing climate change and resiliency in the Hampton Roads area.
What project(s) do your students do?
I encourage students to do what they are passionate about, so the projects are diverse. Many of my previous students have worked in schools doing various activities with younger students, from art and physical education to tutoring. Recently, students organized a toy drive for toddlers who spend much of their time at a local hospital, and another student designed a website for a local nonprofit.
Give an example of a successful project.
There are so many to choose from! Here are three of my favorites so far: Two students set up an art auction to raise money for Alex’s Lemonade Stand, a foundation that raises funds to combat childhood cancers. They raised over $600! Two other students worked together in a local high school to raise awareness about the steps needed to go to college and how to pay for it. Both were first-generation college students. Last, but not least, I had a student who, through the aid of other organizations, brought a drag show to Pacific University to raise money for a local charity. You can find many more examples on the website!
What do you think students gain from doing this civic engagement?
Confidence. Initiative. Planning skills. Communication skills. A sense of accomplishment. I believe students get much more than these, but these skills and character-building traits cannot be accomplished solely by traditional academic work. Students also learn that real projects do not follow a linear path—they require many revisions, and demand your creative attention to fix or address problems as they arise.
What does the civic engagement project offer to wider communities?
To be honest, I think that the answer is mixed. The self-directed projects I assign do not require a community partner, although often they have one. These partners receive the benefit of a small project that might not otherwise get off the ground or might lack coordination. The problem is that community partners are often nonprofit groups that work year round, not on an academic calendar. So they often feel the commitment level on the academic end is not as secure or consistent as it should be. One thing I do recommend, which Old Dominion University just did with multiple universities and colleges in the area, is to hold a session at which professors can meet and interact with representatives of local nonprofits. Professors can learn about the nonprofits’ interests and concerns and how we can tailor our projects to help respond to actual community need—rather than how we, at the university, conceive the community’s needs. I always stress with my students who work with a partner that they should listen, be respectful, and work with their partner rather than try to force what they want to do. It is a great learning experience for those students who do work with a partner.
If someone wanted to do these projects at their own institution, what steps or resources would you recommend?
I would recommend at least four things. First, find a professor who has done similar projects in the past, whether at your own institution or elsewhere, and discuss the nuts and bolts. I was lucky to have Ramona Ilea as my mentor when I started teaching ethics at Pacific University, and she was very helpful. Second, be sure you have some institutional support. This could come in the form of seed money, to get projects off the ground or to help students fund their self-directed projects (some will require money, others will not), or in terms of a course reduction. Third, be sure to do your planning in advance. This is obvious, but be sure your class hits the ground running. These courses often require extra student-contact hours early in the term. Get your students working on their projects early, so they can finish them by the end of the term. Finally, I would also write a separate syllabus for the project requirements.
What do you like about teaching this way?
I think that the payoff is huge. Students learn best what they directly apply in their own experience, so they learn and retain the ethical theories and views they applied to their own project. But they also come to see aspects of the world very differently than when they entered the class. I had a student volunteer and help coordinate at a soup kitchen, and, by interacting with homeless people, he realized they were there for various reasons and faced various hardships. There is also a clear correspondence between effort put into the project and the quality of learning experience the student gains from doing the project. And, as I mentioned above, the students gain a sense of accomplishment that is distinct from that felt after writing a good paper or doing well on an exam—it’s a sense of pride and ownership of their projects, knowing that they were directly responsible for the results their efforts brought about for others.