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Teaching Social Responsibility at Vanderbilt – A Report from the CFT’s 25th Anniversary Symposium

Posted by on Monday, October 3, 2011 in Events, News.

by Joe Bandy, Assistant Director

The CFT’s 25th anniversary symposium involved three major themes on the future of teaching at Vanderbilt, two of which have been the subject of previous blogs – changing technologies and economic challenges to higher education.  The third theme was focused on the challenges of teaching social responsibility in today’s world of higher education.

Marshall Eakin began the discussion with his opening remarks.  Among other important points, he drew from Peter Gomes’s first-year reading, The Good Life, specifically its argument that higher education has failed its students by focusing too much on scholarship and career placement, and not enough on principles of leadership and social responsibility.

The faculty, staff, and graduate students present at the following two-hour discussion were among the campus’s many leaders in advancing the teaching of social responsibility, and they immediately engaged in a wide-ranging and fruitful discussion.

The first hour of the discussion was focused on whether and how Vanderbilt as an institution teaches social responsibility to its students. This yielded the following points:

  • Vanderbilt currently is involved in many efforts that encourage students and staff to critically consider various social issues and to practice community engagement.
    • Many departments and programs offer courses that teach subjects that are crucial to analyzing and acting to address any number of social and environmental problems facing our society.
    • The Alliance for Community Engagement, the Office of Active Citizenship and Service, the Department of Human and Organizational Development, the Center for Nashville Studies, the Commons, and other efforts from the Medical school to the Divinity School are focused on this issue and seek to develop critical skills of leadership.
    • Vanderbilt has immense capacity as an institution to have positive impacts on the greater Nashville community.
    • This said, there was much discussion of the various disincentives to teaching social responsibility at Vanderbilt, including:
      • The siloed or compartmentalized nature of academic work into disciplines limits the communications and collaborations among faculty and staff on social responsibility issues or community projects.
      • This compartmentalization also limits interdisciplinarity, which is vital to understanding complex social and environmental problems.
      • The imperatives of academic research can focus our work around the minutiae of disciplinary scholarship and often not the subjects that are of greatest public relevance or interest to our students.
      • Many faculty and staff fear teaching public issues that are often, by their nature, controversial or contentious subjects.  This can be manifest in fears of poor student evaluations or fears of disrespect from peers and superiors, both of which may lead to concerns about reappointment or tenure.
      • The three institutional goals of research, teaching, and service are not valued equally in everyday life at Vanderbilt.

In the second hour of the discussion, we reflected on what more Vanderbilt could do to address these challenges. The ideas that emerged were many and provoked further analysis:

  • Vanderbilt would be equally committed to all three of its primary goals – research, teaching, and service.
  • Vanderbilt faculty would be vocal, active, and committed to community engagement.
  • Vanderbilt faculty would engage in robust interdisciplinary dialogues, courses, departments/programs, and research agendas.
  • Vanderbilt faculty and staff would continue to use its living-learning communities, especially the Commons, as a place to engage students in issues of social responsibility.
  • Vanderbilt would develop increased opportunities for, and impacts of, student-run community service organizations on campus.
  • Vanderbilt faculty, staff, and students would be intentional and self-reflexive about community service so as to ensure meaningful and mutually beneficial projects with the Nashville community.
  • The entire Vanderbilt community would ensure that our commitments to multiculturalism and diversity are honored in every area of campus life.
  • Vanderbilt administrators would make a large and sustained commitment to community development in Nashville and beyond.
  • There would be incentives – professional advancement, awards, resources, etcetera – for staff and faculty to engage in community development and service.
  • Vanderbilt would demonstrate its commitment to its community by ensuring voice for, and fair treatment of, all its employees.
  • Vanderbilt would help develop social responsibility as primary ethos and way of life across campus.

Before the end of the symposium, many participants voiced a desire to continue the discussion in follow-up meetings throughout the year.  The CFT and its campus partners will endeavor to have a variety of venues for continued discussion of this and the other two major themes from the 25th anniversary symposium.

Please join our mailing list to receive further information about these and other upcoming CFT events, as well as our newsletter or blog, by writing the CFT’s Rhett McDaniel.

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Visual notes on the discussion provided by Perrin Ireland of Alphachimp Studios


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