Interview by Caroline J. Hanna

Last semester and in 2009, an interdisciplinary course prompted students to think critically about philanthropy. Co-taught by Rhonda Cobham-Sander, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Black Studies and English, and Molly Mead, director of the Center for Community Engagement, “Giving” forced participants to take a hard look at their own charitable activities, as well as those of their alma mater, and to think about what it really means to give and receive. The two instructors spoke to Amherst magazine about the course.

Q How did the course come to be?
RCS I was intrigued with the idea of how a place like Amherst supports itself. I also had been hearing from a lot of students who felt as if they had two quite separate choices: working on Wall Street or working at an NGO or nonprofit. There was an assumption that those choices were completely incompatible. I wanted to find a way to connect them, to help students think of philanthropy as important in both the for-profit and nonprofit spheres.

Q After studying philanthropy, do students become cynical?
RCS The course takes a critical look at the power relations connecting who’s giving and who’s receiving. Students often talk about how the class has made them rethink their goals. Seniors applying for jobs at nonprofits seem especially affected. It’s not that they abandon their dreams. Rather, they realize they have a new set of critical questions they need to ask about the goals of their chosen programs. I would say that students do not become more cynical about philanthropy, but they definitely become a lot more thoughtful.

MM Particularly when it comes to charity and giving, there are really no absolute truths about who’s good and who’s bad. A very wise educational philosopher, William Perry, believed that our final job as educators is to show our students how to make commitments in the world—commitments to sets of beliefs, to actions, to creating a life.

Q How else have you seen students change?
MM We had one young woman, a senior, who was raised in a Greek Orthodox household. She started thinking about applying to the Peace Corps and Teach For America, two very secular activities. But through this course she went back and decided that she wanted to do a year of service or two through an organized program of her religion. I think she began to re-own things that were important to her and her family—her value system—in a new, more sophisticated way.

Q Do students talk about their own experiences on the receiving end of philanthropy?
RCS Halfway through the semester in 2009, we noticed that we had fallen into the habit of speaking as if we only ever occupied the position of benefactors. We weren’t really thinking of ourselves as beneficiaries. Molly and I realized that we had given students few conceptual tools to talk about what they perceived to be differences in wealth and/or power among themselves, and as a result, students had begun to censor the issues they were willing to hold up to critical scrutiny. We ended up having a discussion one day about how in a meritocracy everyone wants to claim “humble beginnings,” but no one really wants to be described as “humble.” For the final portfolios, about a third of the students chose to include information they had never shared in class about how they were the beneficiaries of gifts. One student even put in her financial aid statement. I think that was a really important decision be­cause, even though more than half of all Amherst students receive need-based grants from Amherst, financial aid often is stigmatized as an undeserved handout—even in the minds of recipients.