This is about giving academic credit on an independent study basis for doing service or work for a community or political organization, where the faculty member is doing this as an optional overload. It is not about official service-learning courses, nor about official internships that are part of a coherent program. A number of organizations set up programs where students get academic credit for working for them through the mechanism of an independent study. Recent requests have raised ethical issues for me, and I thought this might be a good topic for more general discussion and reflection. The ethical issues such arrangements raise are both academic and political. Here’s my thinking:
Academic issues. Should a student get academic credit for a non-academic enterprise? Some faculty say no. Some faculty deal with this issue by requiring relevant reading and a paper as part of the package. I have dealt with it by distinguishing graded and ungraded experiences. Before I give a student an A for something and help their GPA, I like to know there was some academic content, and I personally don’t have the time to construct intellectually meaningful mini-courses around these experiences, so I mostly refuse to give independent study credit for a grade. But I have been relatively liberal in agreeing to sign off on these on a pass/fail basis, figuring that it is good for students to have such experiences, and I am not distorting their academic credentials if I give no grade. (The more organized of these programs provide detailed evaluations of the student’s participation, and the suggested grade is not always an A, although it is rarely lower than a B.) But other people probably have different views on this.
Political issues. Is it appropriate for the faculty member to impose a political criterion on what s/he is willing to sponsor on this kind of basis? This is the issue that brought this to my mind. In the past, I’ve signed off fairly liberally, even if I did not particularly agree with what the group was doing. But I’ve been asked about a particular group lately that I just did not feel comfortable supporting, because I really disagree with its agenda. On the one hand, this is a voluntary overload activity by the faculty member, so you can argue that you have no obligation to provide support for something you oppose. And I know I would never give such support to a White racist organization. But what about stuff that I merely disagree with but do not consider to be actively immoral? And, on the support side, if I do make political distinctions about what causes I will and will not give implicit free labor to by this mechanism, am I in danger of running afoul of the principle that, as a public employee, I should not be using my position to support partisan causes? (This issue could also come up about service to religious organizations.)
I welcome your thoughts.