Classroom Spotlight: Service component brings ethics theories to life for students

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Daybreak Center

Dr. Charlie Thomas felt like something was missing from her Introduction to Ethics course. She had been teaching the class since joining the faculty at Mercer in 1994, but she had never been totally happy with it … until now. 

Dr. Thomas, professor of philosophy and a Mercer alumna, reworked the course in spring 2019 to include a service component, and it has made a huge difference. This is the third semester that students have worked with Daybreak homeless resource center in Macon, and students in the online version of the course last summer partnered with local agencies of their choosing.

In teaching ethics, a professor risks making students more callous toward important human issues – such as how people treat one another or the responsibilities that adults have in their communities – by giving them abstract rationalism or having them approach situations in ways that are almost too rational, said Dr. Thomas, the most-recent recipient of Mercer’s Joe and Jean Hendricks Excellence in Teaching Award.

Dr. Charlotte Thomas

Dr. Charlie Thomas

About 15 years ago, she realized the course wasn’t really helping her students become more ethical, and she feared that it might be doing the opposite. She changed the course so she taught it with literature and was more pleased with that format, but she still wasn’t quite satisfied.

“I thought, the problem here is my students aren’t facing real people. It’s not real for them,” Dr. Thomas said. “So, I connected with the Daybreak Center.”

She worked with former Daybreak volunteer coordinator Gaye Martel and launched the new version of Philosophy 195 last spring. Fifty students took the course during the spring and fall semesters and 15 students in the summer.

“Mercer has a history of collaboration with Daybreak,” Martel said. “We’ve always had positive experiences with the professors who have partnered with us. Dr. Thomas’ is just such an energetic, open, kind and brilliant person. She gave the students a lot of freedom, but she created a structure that would keep them on point, that would help them create a project that would really engage our participants and build those bridges that we strive to build, both Mercer and Daybreak. It was just a natural fit.”

Dr. Thomas received support from Mercer’s Research That Reaches Out office, which has helped pay for project supplies and poster presentations. 

“Dr. Thomas intuitively followed every best practice out there for reciprocal, mutually beneficial community partnerships,” said Hannah Vann Nabi, associate director of Research That Reaches Out. “Dr. Thomas partnered with Daybreak, and together they worked with students to develop project proposals that met a variety of needs with Daybreak. Students’ engagement with the material improved, and the way they thought about service and the ethics of engagement was flipped on its head.”

Students work solo or in groups on a project that is important to them and benefits Daybreak. During the semester, they write project proposals, regular journal entries, three essays relating ethical theories to the service work they are doing, and final reports reflecting on their experiences. They also create posters on their projects.

“It’s changed the way that I do ethics,” Dr. Thomas said. “I adapt my teaching all the time. You want to teach from a place that you feel good about; you don’t want to just be lecturing from yellowed notes. But I’m not used to making a change like this, and it’s just been so overwhelmingly different and overwhelmingly an improvement.” 

Dr. Thomas has seen her students tackle a wide variety of projects. A student who was a licensed cosmetologist provided basic cosmetology services to a dozen women at Daybreak. For each client, the student set aside an hour for consultation, an hour to perform the needed service and an hour to journal about the interaction. 

Students have also done simpler projects like organizing cookouts, cornhole tournaments, music events and sports activities for clients; inviting clients to work with them on garden beds at Daybreak; and painting a mural at the center. These activities are a great way for students to share their time and connect with the clients.

“These projects give them something to normalize their situation and make them feel like they have stability and things to look forward to,” said sophomore Ariel Yitzchaki, who took the course in fall 2019 and is serving as a preceptor for it this semester. 

A few business students offered resume consultations. When only two people came to the first session, they shifted the focus of their project to support those Daybreak clients in their job ventures. They also created a directory of businesses in town that are open to hiring ex-felons after realizing that was one of the challenges clients face during their job searches.

“The course has just been so surprisingly good right out of the box,” Dr. Thomas said. “The thing that is so interesting to me and so good is that I am getting the best theoretical work out of my ethics students I ever have. The Daybreak center is happy, and maybe we’re making some small impact there.

“At the same time, for the first time in 25 years, I feel like these ethical theories are actually hitting home for my students, and that is amazing.”

With classes currently being held online, Dr. Thomas had her students this semester adapt their projects to provide indirect service rather than direct service. For instance, a group planning a benefit concert has created a resource guide, secured commitments from partners to do the event in the fall, and some group members have agreed to help with the event even though they will be done with the course then.

A group assembling emergency kits has adjusted the items they will provide after doing research on what would be most useful for current circumstances. The “Doughnuts and Devotionals” group is sending letters of encouragement to clients and urging them to write back with their prayer requests.

Yitzchaki, a media studies major, said she really enjoyed learning about the different ethical theories and interviewing Daybreak clients for her video project last semester. She wanted to get involved in more service projects with Daybreak, and being a preceptor for the course has allowed her to be a part of every project this semester. 

“The motive of the class is really important,” she said. “I think it’s really cool that you can participate in something like that and also be fulfilling your general education requirements. I think it’s a great thing for the community.”

Students have been very honest in their reflections on their projects, Dr. Thomas said. The first semester, some realized that their projects had no moral value and they had taken the easy way out. They committed to adjust their behavior so they wouldn’t see people as a means to an end in the future. 

By working with Daybreak, students see a narrowing of the gap that exists between them and the homeless population. It’s an eye-opening experience as they discover that many of the Daybreak clients are facing housing insecurities because they didn’t have anyone to turn to for help when something happened to them.

“I love Mercer’s mission to change the world,” Martel said. “It’s a big goal, but I think Mercer does an excellent job of showing their students that they can change the world by changing small parts of their community just by being engaged. We’re just really excited and happy to have that partnership.”

Project showcase

Click here to see a virtual showcase of the service projects completed by students in the course this semester.

Research That Reaches Out podcast

Check out the new Research That Reaches Out podcast for stories from Mercer University faculty and staff about working with students to address real-world problems by integrating research and service. Click here to listen to the first episode, “Reframing Ethics with Dr. Charlotte Thomas,” and to subscribe to the podcast.

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Andrea Honaker