Becoming Our Ideal Self: Paul Jennings Hall

A view of James Madison's Montpelier Estate

P/C: Ron Cogswell via Flickr

In President Alger’s February update, he publicly shared our university’s intentions to name the newest residence hall after Paul Jennings, a man who lived the vast majority of his life enslaved to James and Dolley Madison. This decisive act in naming has come with oversight, thought, and strategic approval from key stakeholders, including descendants of Paul Jennings, the Center for Multicultural Services, the Student Government Association, and James Madison University’s Diversity Council, to name a few, as elaborated by Thomas Robertson in a recent Breeze publication.

The news of the decision came to us on Valentine’s Day, while celebrating Black History Month and attempting to meaningfully acknowledge the lives, work, and excellence of black students on our campus. When I read the announcement, I could not help but to think of the character question we in Ethical Reasoning in Action believe must play a key role in the decision making processes of our students, faculty, staff, and greater campus community.

The character question asks: What actions help me (us) become my (our) ideal self (selves)?

The action of naming our newest residence hall after the personal manservant to the namesake for our university is one that dances with this critical question of character. Although I personally believe it is an important and necessary step, even if also painful and messy, my aim in this discussion is not to appraise the action as such, but rather to consider the multiple intersections of character that come to play in this action of naming Paul Jennings Hall. To better understand how the character question manifests here, I’d like to walk through the characters of James Madison and Paul Jennings, and then look to how the naming of  our newest residence hall speaks to a process of becoming and what the “ideal self” of our institution might look like.

James Madison was a man of many contradictions. He was a both/and ingenue who believed very deeply in the limitless pursuit of knowledge, higher consciousness, and independence, while simultaneously reserving these rightful pursuits for some and not for all. This past summer, I experienced Montpelier’s critically acclaimed Mere Distinction of Colour exhibit twice. With each visit, the sticky complexity of the man of Madison became more and more tangible. Madison himself gives the namesake for this exhibit, quoted in 1787 as saying,

We have seen the Mere Distinction of Colour made in the most enlightened period of time, a ground of the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man.”

In Madison’s last will and testament, he made a critical decision not to free the persons enslaved on his property, only asking his wife Dolley to avoid selling the family’s slaves, unless due to bad behavior. It is apparent, then, that this abhorrent contradiction of enslaving persons of color while noticing its oppressiveness, did not elude the person of James Madison, even in his final days. Much more can be said of the character of James Madison (and Richard Brookhiser does a good job of this), but as we consider his relationship to Paul Jennings, this is where I want to take leave of it.

Paul Jennings was born into slavery in 1799 on the Montpelier estate. From an early age, Jennings was kept as a house slave and granted the rare privilege of literacy, having been taught to read and write. With this small window of opportunity, Jennings’s gift for writing historical accounts with accuracy and precision developed. You can still read Paul Jennings account of the life of James Madison in his 1865 publication, A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison.

Although we will likely never have a full picture of the life and contributions of Paul Jennings, we do know that he held both James and Dolley in particularly high regard. In his book, Jennings wrote of Madison:

“Mr. Madison, I think, was one of the best men that ever lived. I never saw him in a passion, and never knew him to strike a slave, although he had over one hundred; neither would he allow an overseer to do it.” (p. 16)

Jennings’s account of Madison’s character stirs already murky waters, barring us from seeing either Madison or Jennings through one reductive dimension.

Jennings always envisioned himself free. While at Montpelier, he made multiple unsuccessful attempts to secure not only his freedom but also the freedom of other enslaved persons. Following Madison’s death, Dolley sold Jennings despite James wishes to the contrary. Eventually, Paul Jennings bought his freedom and carved out a life for himself and his family working at the Pension Office in our nation’s capital. Paul Jennings story is one of resilience, resistance, and as Raleigh Marshall says in The Washington Post, one of “relentless perseverance.”

How do the characters of James Madison and Paul Jennings intersect and impact our character as the institution of James Madison University? How are we engaged in doing the work of becoming our ideal self by acknowledging the persistent cognitive dissonance of Madison and the tremendous resilience of Jennings? Is this action a meaningful way forward on the path of acknowledgment, or is it a mere token?

At this, our predominantly white institution, where less than 5% of our undergraduate students are African American, the path to fair and equitable representation on campus is yet being uncovered. Vice President of Student Affairs Tim Miller was quoted in The Breeze as saying,

“We have a lot ahead of us, but I also think this can stand as the first step on that path.” 

There are signs that we are indeed on that path. One such sign is that descendants of Jennings have graced our campus, including Raleigh Marshall, class of 2005. Moreover, just this past January, our university welcomed Dr. Brittney Cooper, author of Eloquent Rage and Professor of Gender Studies and Africana Studies from Rutger’s University. Dr. Cooper’s appearance and talk inspired multiple reactions, but also evoked a real sense of the lack of representation for women of color on our campus. One JMU Senior reflects on Cooper’s talk here and thanks Cooper for her boldness and willingness to speak into being what is often left unsaid in academia. After hearing Cooper speak, another JMU Senior reflected on how few professors of color she has encountered in her 4 years as a duke. As both student accounts suggest, Dr. Brittney Cooper’s appearance on our campus signals both an opportunity and an exigency for change.

As we consider the question of Character, I believe we can find great strength in pointing to the notion of becoming, and recognizing the obligation we as an institution have to become. The actions we take, the residence halls we name, the scholars we bring to campus, will all speak to the depth and breadth of our character on the path of becoming. Like James Madison and Paul Jennings, the character of our institution cannot be neatly or simply defined. However, we have a window of opportunity in this becoming to envision our ideal self, and begin to walk the path that lay ahead.

To engage with another student perspective on the naming of Paul Jennings Hall, click here.

References can be found by clicking on the hyperlinked text throughout this post.

If you haven’t already, visit the JMU Through Living Color Exhibit in Roop Hall 208, open now through April 5th. This installation highlights the lived experiences of black students on campus and the work that lies ahead in fostering a spirit of inclusion and access for all of our students. 

Photo Title: South View of Montpelier
Artist: Ron Cogswell via Flickr
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Bridging Theory and Practice in Diversity in Elementary Education: Ethical Reasoning and the 8KQ

When I came to JMU in 2014 as an Assistant Professor in the Early, Elementary, and Reading Education Department, I was immediately drawn to Ethical Reasoning in Action. I had recently found a book of cases that matched perfectly with the content and dilemmas that arise in my Diversity in Elementary Education course, and I felt excited to match teaching cases with the process of ethical reasoning as a means of bridging the theory to practice divide. Gorski and Pothini’s Case Studies on Diversity and Social Justice Education (2013) is full of disorienting real cases from Virginia schools that easily answer the questions I usually get: “Why do we have to learn about racism (or sexual orientation, sexism, etc.) to be a teacher?” While the book has its own process for examining cases, I decided the Eight Key Questions was a solid and engaging pedagogical strategy that students could systematically apply in class or in a field practicum. That being said, I was nervous to begin! Where to start? Did I know enough? Where would I find the time in my packed syllabus?

These questions rattled around in my brain and tried to convince me to abandon my plan to integrate ethical reasoning and the 8KQ into the course. However, after seeing yet another newspaper headline that described a situation in which teachers and students failed to respond ethically to dilemmas in the classroom, I knew this pedagogy was desperately needed. The upsetting headlines are no surprise when you consider that we rarely, if ever, provide either the skills or the time to expose our preservice teachers to the ethical dilemmas they may face when they graduate and enter our nation’s schools. Teacher education programs are full of methods, theories, and foundations courses, but we do not intentionally teach ethics in education even though it is a standard by which we are assessed. By intentionally teaching education students to systematically engage in ethical reasoning in action, we are preparing them better for their roles and responsibilities in their personal, professional, and civic life.

I felt a little intimidated my first semester here to experiment with integrating ethical reasoning into the course. I was not a philosophy or ethics professor and was worried that I didn’t have the skillset or the knowledge of ethical theories to teach my students ethical reasoning. However, after merely one 8KQ workshop and jumping right into this pedagogical strategy, I realized that THIS was the theory to practice bridge I had been looking for during my seven years of teaching this course. I wanted my students to see how ethical dilemmas play out in today’s classrooms, so they could explicitly work on their responses using ethical reasoning while I provided coaching and feedback. By taking a theoretical and practical approach, preservice teachers have experiences that help to shift and evolve their thinking from quick and superficial understandings of complex problems to much more thoughtful and caring approaches that consider many nuances and perspectives when examined.

Over the course of the semester, we delve into real cases that focus on complex issues such as sexual orientation, gender, religion, race, and language as they play out in classrooms. Each week, my students ask the 8KQ and apply the ethical reasoning process to each stakeholder in the case. They analyze, question, and reflect critically before making informed decisions. Each week their questions and critical thinking evolve. Soon, they are applying the 8KQ to their reading responses and classroom discussions without any prompting. Students work in groups to identify a current event in education that involves one of these course topics. They apply the framework through a scaffolded approach using brainstorming, questioning, and discussion. Finally, they write a persuasive business letter to a person in power (e.g., school board member, administrator, superintendent, SCOTUS, Board of Education, policymaker, etc.) that demonstrates their ethical reasoning of the situation, and the decision they would have made or can make, given the opportunity. By extending the in-class discussions to include advocating for a more ethical decision in the education milieu, students combine critical thinking, ethical reasoning in action, community engagement, and advocacy. It is my hope that this process and these learning opportunities foster these critical skills needed in today’s society.

If you would like more information on how to integrate ethical reasoning in action into your classroom activities or assignments, please do not hesitate to reach out. I can’t imagine teaching without this bridge from theory to practice and would love to help you envision it in your classroom context.

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JMU Competed in the Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl

This past weekend eight JMU students along with their two coaches, Dr. Joe Derby, College of Business, and Scott Ingram, Ethical Reasoning Engagement Fellow, traveled up to Marist College in New York to compete in the Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl Northeastern Regional Competition. This is the second time that JMU has fielded a team at an Ethics Bowl competition. The team consisted of students from a vast array of backgrounds and areas of study who each have a vested interest in unraveling moral dilemmas.

Team members:

Abby Wallen – Public Policy Administration

Allahjah Smith – Justice Studies

Brook Poyer – Psychology

Kailee Cunningham – Marketing

Katrina Libera – International Affairs and Psychology

Mira Gruber – Psychology and Philosophy

Nick Langkau – Political Science and Philosophy

Olivia White – Justice Studies

Throughout the semester, the team worked together to use the 8 Key Questions in analyzing fifteen difficult cases that would be argued at the competition. The students enrolled in a class where they learned the 8 Key Questions in depth, along with various argumentative strategies and debate techniques. Over the course of the semester, the students would develop positions on the cases and then would argue with one another to determine what stance the team as a whole would take. Sarah Taylor Mayhak from the School of Communication even came in to teach about particular debate strategies, having competed in persuasive speaking competitions herself.

When December 1st rolled around, the team was certainly well-prepared to face difficult opponents such as Yale, Salisbury, and St. Francis. In the first round, the team went against Yale and discussed cases dealing with midwife practices in the Amish community and law enforcement’s usage of genealogical data. After an extremely close match, the Dukes fell to Yale by only 1 point. The team went on to face Salisbury University, where they fell after another competitive match. This match highlighted one major challenge that teams face in preparation for Ethics Bowl: how should teams handle judges who disagree with their position? In the second round, our team argued in opposition to the censorship of vulgar language on television, which seemed unsatisfactory to one judge in particular. After the completion of the round, the team received both the highest and lowest scores during their time at the competition. For a coach, this seems extremely perplexing with regards to how we can best prepare next year’s team. Our practices were both extraordinary and insufficient in the eyes of the judges, so whose advice do we follow? Thankfully the team finished off the day by dominating in a round against St. Francis, where they discussed cases of trans-racialism and reinstating felons’ right to vote.

Overall the entire experience was worthwhile for the eight students seeing as how they were able to better themselves and bring to light the distinctive practices we have here at JMU. Ethics Bowl exists to serve as a means to prompt difficult discussions about ethics and to prepare students to adopt a critical stance in ethics debates—our students did that and more. After deepening their understanding of the 8 Key Questions and putting them into practice throughout their course work, the students were able to learn how to better interrogate ethical dilemmas. Regardless of the outcome of the weekend, JMU stood out as an exemplar of critical thinkers and cordial individuals. Our students set the tone for what was expected in each round and clearly showed that they were capable of analyzing both sides of a case. Having presented first in all three rounds, the team from JMU was able to work the language of the 8 Key Questions into their own presentations. This language was then picked up by the opposing team and the judges, providing a common ground for the entire room to rely on. If nothing else, this competition showed how useful the 8 Key Questions are in both interrogating moral questions and serving as an easily adaptable language to effectively communicate the complexities of the question at hand. It is encouraging to see such great potential in a group of students who care deeply about finding answers to pressing moral problems and who are able to reason to and articulate possible solutions to these problems.

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Using Plays to Discuss Ethical Reasoning

Every year the School of Theatre and Dance at James Madison University gathers a team of approximately 14 people to serve on the Season Selection Committee (SSC). This super group of students and faculty assemble bi-weekly to take on one of the greatest challenges the unit faces: picking three plays and one musical from a large list of community-generated proposals to produce on the Forbes Center Mainstage.

Deciding a mainstage season for the School of Theatre and Dance is difficult work. Sure, it’s fun to read plays and talk about their merits with a group of intelligent and motivated artists. However, more often than not this yearly puzzle is a shape shifting monster that refuses to be tamed. The committee has to consider a myriad of questions ranging from “Why is this play better than that play for our students next year?” to “Do you know how difficult it is to build a usable grave on stage?” Pedagogical and practical implications abound!

Seeing as we’re already asking so many questions about these plays, I thought it might be prudent to introduce a few other questions into the mix. Have you guessed where this is going? YES! The Eight Key Questions! The plays we choose are, of course, some our best teaching tools for the upcoming academic year. Part of introducing 8KQ into our season selection process is to find a new opportunity for students, faculty, and staff outside of our unit to use these same tools.

My goal is to work with SSC students to create a single-page document for each play on our upcoming 2019/2020 mainstage season. These documents will use the 8KQ framework to kick start conversations by asking a few sample questions related to the ethical dilemma(s) found within the plays.


Here’s an example using Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:

Fairness—Was it possible for R&J to act equitably and balance the interests of their families?

Outcomes—What choices could have been made to achieve a happier outcome for all involved?

Responsibilities—What responsibilities do R&J have to their families? To one another? To themselves? Did they shirk responsibility for their love?

Character—What actions might you take if you were either of these characters? What better choices could have been made for R&J to become their ideal selves?

Liberty—How might audience consent apply when showing suicide on stage? Does this play need a trigger warning?

Empathy—How might you feel if you were Juliet (or Romeo..or________)?  How would you feel as a family member at the end of the play?

Authority—What are the major authorities at play? How might religious authority dictate the actions of R&J?

Rights—Do R&J have the right to be together? What are the character’s rights when it comes to carrying weapons?


Prompt Ideas:

  1. Pretend you’re Romeo and use the 8KQ to decide whether or not you should fight Tybalt.
  2. Do the same for Paris in Act V, Scene iii (and rewrite his speech starting at “This is that banish’d haughty Montague” using the 8KQ).


My hope is that students and faculty will use these documents as a starting point to dig into individual moments or talk about our plays in general with an ethical reasoning lens. Additionally, I’d love to hear if/how this sparks other ideas about how to use the 8KQ in theatre, literature, film studies, and playwriting courses.

  • Is this type of resource you might use or modify for your class/team/group?
  • Do you have any suggestions for making the most out of this new effort? Let me know in the comments or at

PS…Now is the time to get involved in the School of Theatre and Dance’s season selection process. We’re currently accepting proposals for the 2020/2021 season!

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A “Wicked” Proposal

Friends, how have we already turned a corner into November? Fall, with all the trappings of Homecoming, Halloweekend, Voter Registration, and so much more, has flown by just as the Birds zooming across campus. From where I sit, my students are beginning to crane their necks to see ahead to final exams, presentations, and the respite of fall semester’s close.

As we look ahead, I’d like to bring your attention to the work of the first year Honors College students. Back in August, I shuffled onto one of several packed buses and caravanned with 200-some-odd, bright and shiny students to James Madison’s house. On that day, myself, Honors College faculty, and these fresh-faced students opened a loop. We began to ask what it means to be Madisonian in 2018 and what responsibility that might rest on the shoulders of this new Honors cohort.

Within the School of Communication Studies, we have spent the semester considering this question through the lens of persistent public problems. A symphony in three movements, our students have asked:

  1. What do I care about?
  2. So what am I going to do to about it?
  3. What can we do to help here?

First, we have asked our students to identify a particularlywickedpublic problem. Our definition of wicked in this case is not the stuff of Oz, but rather, problems that are hard to define, and even harder to identify solutions for. It took a little digging, but our students began the work of identifying diverse and complex wicked problems. Sexual Assault on College Campuses, Literacy, The Digital Divide in Education, Mental Health, and Binge Drinking are just a few of the persistent problems our students worked to articulate and flesh out.

Next, after sifting through the muck to find their wicked problem, our students worked with the Ethical Reasoning Educators to start the wobbly process of articulating solutions using the language of the 8 Key Questions. From this perspective, our students were able to start identifying the benefits and drawbacks of potential solutions. This month, in a forum style presentation, groups are sharing out potential solutions and deliberating with their peers to determine which solution best addresses their persistent public problem.

Finally, in an effort to close the loop we opened in August and bring these wicked public problems home, our students will develop Civic Action Plans to ask what we can do HERE to address this public problem. With the help of the Center for Civic Engagement, student groups will dream up how to make these incremental solutions come to fruition in specific and tangible ways. The gestation period for this project has been long, but we have operated under the hope that you, our students, will feel capable of addressing these looming, impossible problems floating just above you.

With that said, we want to share the fruits of this fall’s harvest with ALL of you! On behalf of the Honors College SCOM Faculty, I want to formally invite you to our December Symposium to see what wicked public problems JMU’s newest batch of Honors College students want to see SOLVED. We so hope you join us for compelling presentations, critical questions, and complimentary snacks.

Join us on Sunday, December 2nd between 1-4 PM in Harrison Hall. Schedules will be posted on the first floor of Harrison, just beyond the faculty lounge.

In Ethics + Empowerment,

Sarah Taylor Mayhak, MA

Instructor; The School of Communication Studies

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