51 Seeing Moral Dimensions of the Familiar | Peg O’Connor

The thread that runs through all my work is attention to the normative dimensions of our lives. All of the classes I teach are concerned with normative matters, such as the nature of oppression and discrimination and the responsibilities of members of the community to promote social justice. My commitment to the core values of the College prompted me to ask whether our College Curricula provide the best ways to realize these values. Creating community is one of the things I must do within a classroom, in the college, and in St. Peter.

One of the most important ways I serve the College and embody the mission is through the organization of teach-ins. If I had to identify one contribution that I have consistently made to the Gustavus and broader St Peter community, it would be the various teach-ins I organized about Kosovo, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and hate speech after the appearance of a swastika outside of Uhler Hall.  Teach-ins are one way to harness the incredible knowledge base our faculty, staff, and administrators possess, and by doing so show our students the multifarious dimensions of these events. We also create an intentional community of learners and teachers. With the hurricane Katrina teach-in, the geologist’s question about increasing water temperatures together with a geographer’s analysis of disappearing wetlands intersects with another geographer describing the layout of New Orleans, which leads to a political scientist looking at the concentration of wealth in parts of those areas hardest hit by Katrina while a theologian asks how God could do/allow this. These are just the sort of questions that we hope that our liberally educated students will be asking. They are sorts of questions that persons of moral character ask. It is my job as a teacher to help frame the questions and seek the answers. The teach-in about the swastika provided important history lessons as well as lessons about how such acts of violence or hate speech tear the fabric of a community. They are questions that point towards the responsibilities that community members have for the well-being of the community.

Questions about individuals’ responsibilities for the well-being of others—some of whom may be at a great remove from us—are the ones that structured the January term service learning course “Just Food” that Lisa Heldke and I taught in Boston. Working at various agencies that provided emergency food and/or shelter, students wrestled with issues of poverty, disenfranchisement, and the radical insecurity that a vast number of US citizens face each day. As a class, we grappled with questions about the extent to which one’s socioeconomic status may be somewhat a matter of personal choices or bad decisions, but perhaps far more so a matter of structural and systemic inequality and oppression. And where there is oppression, there is always its complementary companion privilege. What responsibilities do those of us who are privileged have for those who are not, since our privilege may be predicated on their oppression? But here, one must be careful not to let guilt or a sense of fatalism triumph and keep us from doing anything. Wrestling with questions and challenges such as these prepare students for lives of leadership and service.

Another way I seek to build community is by serving on the board of the St Peter Food Coop. I have been attempting to formalize connections and collaborations with the College. Recently I have been advocating for the coop to work with Noreen Buhmann in community service/service learning office. As a cooperative business that is for profit, the coop provides interesting opportunities for service learning projects in many of our marketing, financing, and accounting courses as well as some in communication studies. The coop’s values complement many of the College’s values and afford students the opportunity to become familiar with many of the moral and political dimensions of our food production, distribution, and consumption. I see my role as an educator to help students see these dimensions in the most familiar aspects of life. To me, this is one of the best things about a liberal arts education.