December 21, 2010

These days, as the national jobless rate continues to hover around 9 percent, it is clear that many in the country could use a helping hand.

But what does it really mean to give and, for that matter, to receive? Even more simply, what is a gift? Who gets to give?

During the 2009 and 2010 fall semesters, an interdisciplinary course at Amherst prompted students to think critically about these questions. 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” also forced participants to take a hard look at their own charitable activities, as well as those of their alma mater. 

Public Affairs’ Caroline Hanna spoke with Cobham-Sander and Mead about the class.

CH: This isn’t the typical Amherst College course. How did it come to be?


RCS: My Kenan professorship, which encourages the creation of interdisciplinary colloquia, made the course possible. I’d become interested in philanthropy when I served as the special assistant to the president for diversity and spent some time working with the college’s development office. I was intrigued with the idea of how a place like Amherst supports itself and what the role of philanthropy is in that process. I also had been hearing from a lot of students who felt as if they had two quite separate choices: the members of one group had decided they were going to work on Wall Street, while the others said they wanted to work 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 non-profit spheres.  Of course, another big pull was the chance to work with Molly and the CCE, and yet another was the challenge of incorporating what I had learned as an administrator into my teaching and scholarship.

CH: What do you cover in the class?

RCS: We open with a broad overview of what’s giving, what’s a gift, who gets to give, what it means to receive—the big  questions. From there, we look at some classic texts about giving from anthropology, history and philosophy. We explore how charity has been understood in various religious traditions and examine the historical relationship between philanthropy and democracy in American society. The second half of the course introduces case studies involving public welfare, international aid and specific foundations. These help students understand that  giving is not without its complications. The course doesn’t just celebrate philanthropic endeavor; it takes a critical look at the power relations connecting who’s giving and who’s receiving. Things can get pretty complicated on the ground when it comes to philanthropic activity.

That second half of the course really gives students pause. During that time in the semester, students often talk about how the class has made them re-think 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. Students do not become more cynical about philanthropy as a result of taking the course, but they definitely become a lot more thoughtful. They also come to understand how their own volunteer activities and charitable giving fit into a broader history of ideas, responsibilities and institutional structures.

MM: I think the challenge for me as a teacher and certainly at a place like the CCE is how do we, on the one hand, get more students engaged in communities and, at the same time, raise all sorts of critical questions about that engagement. It’s really important to be doing both. If we just had a lot of students off campus volunteering, it fits that stereotype of wonderful higher education who, out of charity and noblesse oblige, is going out to fix those communities that are less than them. Although we mock them, these stereotypes continue to be alive and well. On the other hand, if we don’t engage, it’s sort of the easy way out. Then the critical questioning can be almost cheap, because nothing’s really at stake. Particularly when it comes to charity and giving, there are really no absolute truths about who’s good and who’s bad, and we want our students to think about all of these issues.

A very wise educational philosopher believes that our final job as educators is to show our students how to make commitments in the world—commitments to sets of beliefs, commitment to actions, commitments to creating a life. Hopefully those commitments are informed by careful thought and analysis, but we don’t do our job if we don’t help students think through how one makes a commitment. I think what we’re doing at the CCE—linking learning with serving, linking serving with learning—is bringing those pieces together, and this course was a great opportunity to do that. So the goal has not been to do service in the course but to draw on the vast and varied service experiences that students have had and then raise thought-provoking questions. At the same time, we tried hard not to let it be okay to say, “Well, I’m now going to be a critic of everything everyone does.” 

CH: Were there particular moments in the course that struck you?

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.” We tried to imagine how the class would change if we all thought of ourselves as beneficiaries in the case studies we were considering and what made that status seem so uncomfortable. That was an awkward but really important moment because it raised issues of class and power in the classroom and at Amherst more generally. For the final portfolios, we asked students to include something of their own choosing, related to any issue we had discussed. 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 interest-free loans or grants,  financial aid often is stigmatized as an undeserved handout – even in the minds of recipients.

MM: We had one young woman, a senior, who was raised in a Greek Orthodox household. She was considering her post-graduation plans and started thinking about applying to the Peace Corps and Teach For America, two very secular activities. That’s not an uncommon at college—maybe a student is raised one way and then comes to college and is exposed to all of these new people and ideas and they maybe change their minds about things. But in the case of this student, I think through this course she kind of went back and decided that she wanted to do a year of service or two through an organized program of her religion. That was kind of exciting for me to see. We didn’t begin that journey with her, but she made a big circle from rejection to rediscovery. I think through the course she gave herself permission to circle back. I guess watching her grapple with these issues I would argue that it wasn’t a direct circle back to that starting point but a spiral. 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. That was really gratifying to be a part of.