Service-Learning in Introduction to Ethics (or Henckell’s Opportunity)

“I have often been asked by students, ‘Did I pass?’ but never have I been asked, ‘Did I learn?’” *

-Martha Henckell

1. Earning before Learning

Henckell argues that there is an opportunity in realizing that students tend to rank earning (credit) before learning: once we understand that students are motivated by earning we can leverage that motivation to teach them course concepts more easily.

But the potential is broader than that.  In my mind, community college teaching shines when it helps students see how their studies can infuse their regular lives. I came to this view sometime after I started teaching adult-only Introduction to Ethics courses back in 2009, but it wasn’t until I started teaching at Onondaga Community College that I realized that service-learning is the key to leveraging (what we might call) Henckell’s Opportunity to show students how their academics might influence their real lives.

But wait: what’s service-learning?

2. What is Service-Learning!

Service-learning can take many forms, but the key is that students perform some form of community engagement (the service) and then reflect on that engagement (the learning). Their reflection should deploy course concepts to help them understand/organize their thoughts about their service activity. Onondaga Community College (where I serve on the Service-Learning Committee) recognizes four types of service-learning including direct service (like volunteering), presentation (like a movie screening with discussion), project (where students work with a group to create), and advocacy (in which students “offer their voices and talents to the effort to eliminate the causes of a specific problem and to make the public aware of the problem”).

3. Introduction to Ethics, Local Controversies, and Advocacy Service-Learning

In my Introduction to Ethics courses, I present ethical theories as decision-making procedures: ways of organizing what’s important and what should be ignored when making a decision to act. So Utilitarianism (which defines the right action as the one whose consequences maximize happiness and minimize unhappiness) judges various options based on how much happiness and how little unhappiness they cause. For the Utilitarian, whether you should lie in a situation isn’t about being an honest person (as it would be for the Virtue Ethicist) nor about duties or absolute moral rules (as it would be for the Kantian). It’s about whether lying in this situation is likely to yield humanity the most happiness and least unhappiness. If it does, then lie. If it doesn’t, then don’t. This approach takes an ethical theory of right action and uses it as a way to decide what to do.

Essays for Introduction to Ethics center around local controversies to ensure students can deploy these ethical theories toward understanding issues that impact their community (i.e., their lives). As local controversies are often culled from the op-eds, it was a short leap to imagining an Advocacy Service-Learning option class centered around a letter to the editor. The assignment requires three things: 1) research (ideally including interviews), 2) submitting a reflective research write-up (that serves as letter-writing prep), and 3) submitting a concise letter to the editor. Their letter, organized around one or more ethical theories, seeks to a) argue in support of public action to eliminate the causes of a specific problem, b) make the public aware (or aware of the severity) of the problem, or c) both!

Thus, in writing their letter, students deploy course concepts to understand a real world situation, blazing a trail between the classroom and their community.

4. “Did I learn?”

Much as Henckell suggested we use students’ desires to earn credit to help them learn course concepts, service-learning can be a way to use their desire to show them how course concepts plug into their everyday lives. The letter to the editor option serves as a bridge between what we do in the ethics classroom and how students understand and interact with their community beyond the academic walls. Their advocacy is their service, and they learn that it’s possible to use concepts from their educational lives fruitfully in their everyday lives. And to me, that’s the real opportunity: to show students the great possibilities that open once they start taking an active role in placing their education into their own lives.

*-Henckell, Martha. “Assessing Student Learning Online.”  “Teaching the Humanities Online: A Practical Guide to the Virtual Classroom” Ed. Hoffman, Steven J. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 2011. 125-140


About benjaminjh

Benjamin Hassman is Director of the Conversation Center ( and a Lecturer in the Rhetoric Department at the University of Iowa. The Conversation Center builds on his experience with Service-learning, peer-leadership programs (like the Berwick Boys Foundation) and teaching for the Rhetoric Minor, including Speaking Skills, Advanced Speaking Skills, and the Conversation Center’s own RHET 2090 Conversation Practicum (based on an experiential learning model). His PhD in Philosophy of Language studied paradoxes, and their implication for how we understand the relationship between our sentences and the world.
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