8KQ Sparks Interest in Rwanda

Image may contain: 5 people, including Mike Davis, people smiling, people sitting, table and indoor

In March, a JMU delegation consisting of Dr. Heather Coltman, Dr. Mike Davis, Dr. Besi Muhonja, Neil Marrin, Dr. Angela DiCosola, and myself traveled to Kigali to build new relationships with Rwandan higher education institutions and non-profit organisations. Meetings often began with our JMU team asking the new partner for ways they thought we might best engage with them. We asked questions such as “What would you like to see in a partnership with us?” and “What is important to your institution?”

Each school and organization struggles with challenges slightly different from the next in this young and rapidly expanding country. However, the need for debate, deliberation, and talking through ‘big problems’ came up in every meeting. Rwanda has a rich and practiced history of reconciliation that requires a ‘coming to the table’ in which participants work to understand the other person’s choices as separate from the innate value of that person. This cultural value on deliberating decisions fits perfectly with the goals of Ethical Reasoning in Action.

We were excited to promote the Eight Key Questions as one of the best solutions for engaging students in ethical reasoning discussions without the need for extensive backgrounds in philosophy or debate. A Dean we met with took one look at a purple 8KQ cards and said “Wow! We should use this today in our class discussion.” The simplicity of the cards allows for rapid deployment in already set curricula, and provides professors with the ability to tailor discussions to meet their time constraints and level of interest in ethical questions. Our partners were excited by the possibility of diving deeper into case studies, ethical debates, and maybe even hosting a Kigali Ethics Slam.

To our new partners and friends in Rwanda, we say murakoze cyane for allowing us to visit your schools and institutions to discuss future partnerships and the 8KQ! We hope to return to the beautiful land of 1,000 hills soon. This time we promise to bring more purple cards!

Written by Olivia Stephens, Engagement Fellow in the President’s Office.

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JMU’s Successful Showing at IBESCC

“Toothbrushes: We started using them around the time of our 2nd birthdays. Our entire lives we’ve been told that in order to have a healthy smile, we need to brush our teeth both morning & night, and replace it every 3 to 4 months. But, what about the unfriendly side of our healthy and happy smiles? How can something we so mindlessly use every single day, and replace multiple times a year be wreaking havoc on our environment?”

This past week, five JMU students traveled to Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, CA to compete against nearly 30 universities from around the world in the annual International Business Ethics and Sustainability Case Competition (IBESCC) and addressed this very question. How can it be that something so integral to our everyday lives will find itself in a landfill or our waterways for the next 400 years? The team consisted of five seniors: Hayden Gerloff, Katrina Libera, Julia Lindsey, Blair Ritter, and Miranda Via. After working all semester together, these five students presented on how Colgate can help tackle this problem through the production of a biodegradable toothbrush.

Once arriving in L.A., we quickly worked to get in a few last minute run-throughs of the main presentation. On Thursday morning, the team rose early to present their 25-minute pitch to the fictional Executive Board of Colgate. All five members of the team presented their PowerPoint presentation flawlessly, using the 8KQ to guide the analysis they delved into throughout the semester. Following their presentation, the panel of judges asked an array of questions regarding the specifics of the team’s three-step solution to implementing a biodegradable toothbrush at Colgate.

The following day, Julia, Katrina, and Miranda presented in front of fictional Executives again to dive deeper into the ethical dimensions of their proposed toothbrush solution. For 10 minutes, the team used the 8KQ to unpack the complexity of implementing a biodegradable toothbrush, as well as the adverse effects that plastic toothbrushes have on our environment. These three stood out among their division because of their ethical analysis and apt communication skills.

Shortly after the ethical presentation, Hayden presented a 90-second elevator pitch to another fictional Executive of Colgate. During this presentation, Hayden was tasked with explaining the importance of sustainability to an Executive while pitching the necessity for a solution. He started off by questioning the status quo in business and then followed this by explaining how Colgate can become the leader of the toothbrush industry through a turn towards sustainability.

After all of the presentations were completed, the team attended a closing banquet and award ceremony. For the first time in the three years that JMU has competed in the IBESCC competition, the team received first place for their 90-second presentation. All of their hard work paid off and it clearly showed in their presentations.

All of us here at Ethical Reasoning in Action are extremely proud of each of these students. Their work shines light on an often forgotten aspect of our everyday lives and were able to effectively reason towards an actionable solution using the 8KQ. The award given for the 90-second presentation merely scratches the surface of the praise they are deserving.

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Developing Character in the Classroom

Character can be defined as an amalgam of traits or dispositions embodied in behaviors and actions. A virtue is a positive character trait or disposition that tends to make its possessor a good human being. Virtues involve aspects of how we perceive, respond to, and interact with our social environment. Those aspects include our emotions, choices, values, desires, attitudes, interests, expectations and sensibilities.

According to virtue theory, virtues can be habituated through practice. We become generous, for example, by responding and acting in a generous way. We develop the virtue of courage by acting, even in small ways, courageously. Honesty comes by telling the truth.

I have been developing a character curriculum. The learning objective is for students to, by taking the opportunity to explore their own values, intentionally develop their character. The ultimate learning objective is for each student to become the kind of person they want to be—to actualize their ideal self. The curriculum gives the student the opportunity to consider and practice virtues through a set of assignments that prompt self-exploration. The objective of these anonymously submitted and reviewed assignments is learning about their own sense of self and to stimulate wisdom. My working hypothesis is that when a student develops self-awareness through attending to and practicing their personal virtues, it will help guide both their personal and business conduct.

As I began the project I was overwhelmed by the many, varied lists of human virtues. Initially students considered ten virtues in a semester.  I quickly found that this was too much. I scaled it back starting with Aristotle’s four cardinal virtues—justice, courage, wisdom and temperance—and then I added a fifth virtue, gratitude. The assignments are simple writing prompts. Each of the five virtues is explored throughout the semester. The assignments are ungraded and anonymous. Because of this students can be honest and candid which is imperative for the integrity of the exercise. Although the responses are not graded, I have found reading them to be uplifting. The honesty and self-searching in their writings has given me hope and confidence in my students.

Developing one’s character and as well astheir ethics, moral standards, and values is a personal and intimate undertaking. My experience is that it can be worked on through personal reflection in an educational setting. A common objection to incorporating ethics into a course is time limitations—there is so much material to “cover”. Another objection is a lack of consensus on what constitutes ethical behavior. I have found, however, that if one gives students the opportunity to explore their own moral compass, anonymously and without the pressure of grades or moral conformity, that the outcome is surprisingly meaningful and worthwhile for them and for me as their teacher. It is a way of inviting students into discovering who they are, how they want to live, and how to begin to think about their lives.

A character curriculum works well to support the Eight Key Questions ethical reasoning strategy. The “character question” in the ethical reasoning method is often difficult for students. They may not have thought much or deeply about their own character, their own vision for their ideal self. A semester long emphasis on character provides the stimulus and space needed to reflect deeply on an important consideration in making decisions. What action helps me (us) become my (our) ideal?

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Using #8KQ as student staff

Transfer students only make up a portion of JMU students. The stats tell me we enrolled 739 transfers this past fall. Comparing that to our incoming first-year student class of 4,541, they are a small percentage (almost 14%) of our incoming students. However, just because they aren’t the majority, doesn’t mean our services and resources should drastically change. Right?

Every fall, our incoming first-year students start the academic year with a six-day welcome week program (1787 August Orientation) to assist in the transition to college. Our transfer students have a similar program that is three days (Transfer 1787 August Orientation). Orientation in collaboration with a variety of campus partners offers up what looks like a typical day in college: academic-related programs during the day and social programming at night. One of the Thursday programs is It’s Complicated, a workshop focused on developing ethical reasoning skills through discussing a scenario with a small group while utilizing the Eight Key Questions.

Starting this fall, our transfer students will have the option to attend an It’s Complicated session. To better prepare, I co-facilitated a workshop for our Transfer Orientation Peer Advisers so they were aware of the #8KQ and how to use them effectively, but also so they could have meaningful conversations with their transfer students during Transfer 1787 and beyond. With the Transfer Student Staff Graduate Assistant we brought two employment-related scenarios to their class. After introducing the #8KQ and how it relates to everyday life, we went through the scenarios that could impact their team. Below are some of the questions the students grappled with to make their decisions about covering for a coworker during training.

  • Is it fair to ask your coworker/peer/friend to cover for you in a mandatory training?
  • What occurs if I miss training?
  • How will my missing training affect my ability to work with transfer students?
  • What was on my contract that I signed to be employed? Am I breaking my contract?
  • Am I being my best authentic self by putting a coworker/peer/friend in a tough situation like this?
  • What will my boss think? Will I still have a job/boss?

Do you have a group of employed or volunteer staff who would benefit from a workshop focused on ethical reasoning? Please reach out! We’d love to assist!

2019 Transfer Orientation Peer Advisers

2019 Transfer Orientation Peer Advisers

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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
Link: https://flic.kr/p/K8YMN2
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