Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Requiring My Students to Spend Two Hours Giving Someone Unusual Kindness, with No Formal Accountability or Reward

[Revised on Oct 31, from "Loving Attention" to "Kindness", plus several other changes concerning consent and non-sexuality, in light of feedback from several people.]

I'm trying an experiment in my giant (400 person) lower-division course Evil, the main topic of which is moral psychology. I'm requiring them to spend two hours giving someone unusual kindness. However, I will not check whether they have completed this requirement. In fact, I will insist that they they not tell me or their TAs whether they have completed the assignment or not until after the final course grades have been sent to the registrar.

I'm wondering how this will go, and if any of my readers have experience with anything similar (either as professor or as student).

Below is the full text of the assignment, in draft.

Reactions and suggestions welcome!


Philosophy 5: Evil
Kindness Assignment
Fall Quarter, 2018

There will be no lecture on November 30, and no reading is assigned for that day. Instead, you should complete the Kindness Assignment.

The assignment

Spend two solid hours on one day between Thursday, November 29, and class time on Monday, December 3, doing some act or acts of kindness for one person who would not otherwise receive that kindness from you during that time.

That’s it.

Recipient examples: The recipient of your Kindness could, for example, be a parent or sibling who you are normally too distracted to give extended help or attention. Or it could be a friend who is going through a hard time, or a stranger in need, or someone from your religious community or your dorm who could use some kindness.

Activity examples: The Kindness could involve helping them with something in a collaborative way, the two of you together; or actively and lovingly listening to them as they talk about their troubles; or taking some unusual special time with them doing something that they enjoy, making sure that their needs and desires take priority over yours. It doesn’t count as fulfilling the assignment if it’s something you might normally do anyway. It must be special and unusual.

Consent and nonsexuality

The recipient of this loving attention must explicitly consent in advance, understanding that this is an assignment for this class. They should not be surprised after two hours to learn that your motives in acting kindly to them were not what they seemed to be.

Also, your kindness must be entirely nonsexual. Spending two hours wooing someone to whom you are sexually attracted does not count as fulfilling this assignment. To avoid this possibility, I ask that the recipient not be someone you are sexually attracted to.

Err on the side of caution here. If there’s any chance that the recipient would interpret what you are doing as exploitative, flirtatious, misleading, or creepy, do something else!


Your Kindness Assignment will not be graded. I am asking you to do it on your honor.

The Kindness Assignment is required, but neither your TAs nor I will check to see if you have fulfilled this requirement before assigning your course grade.

I hope you will take this assignment seriously. I, Professor Schwitzgebel, will also complete the assignment.

Do not tell me or your T.A. anything about what you have done for this assignment. You will not be asked about it in section. I want you to do it privately, for no external reward.

There will be a page on the final exam in which you will be invited, but not required, to describe what you did for this assignment and what, if anything, you learned from it. I will read all 400 students’ answers to this question, and I will invite your TAs also to do so. However, we will not read your answers until after the final grades have been submitted for the course.

To consider

1. How do you feel about the fact that there is no formal accountability or reward for completing this assignment?
2. How do you feel about spending two hours in this way?
3. How do your answers to 1 and 2 fit with your understanding of the moral psychological views of Mengzi, Xunzi, Doris, and Staub?
4. Later in the course we will be discussing the question of whether the world has a “moral order” in the sense that morally good people tend to prosper and morally bad people tend to suffer. When we come to that part of the course, please also think about how your answers to 1 and 2 fit with this issue.

[image source]


Anonymous said...

Great assignment. Well described, and with noble intent. Good luck to the students and their communities ~

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks! :-)

Jorgen said...

I often do a smaller version of this in my sophomore-level Ethics & Values classes. Some time during the semester (usually in the last third), I will post an extra credit assignment that reads something like: "Perform an act of kindness for a stranger, which does not include money and for which you receive no reward" (sometimes I'll elaborate further). If they do it, they can email me stating that they've done so (without specifying what they've done) and I give them a little bit of extra credit. Part of the reason I do this is because I run a little section on moral psychology (having them read, among other things, part of Doris's 'Lack of Character', as I know you at least used to assign in your Evil class), in which he discusses how doing little things can lead one to performing larger, more substantive actions of a similar sort (whether good or bad) and so I use this assignment/opportunity almost as a 'nudge' in the right direction. Whether its effective or not I don't fully know. But I also have the students write a two page course evaluation at the end of the semester for a small amount of credit in which they simply give me an honest assessment of what they liked/disliked about the class. And students very commonly will list this little extra credit assignment as something that they found to be a valuable (some say the most valuable) part of the overall course (which is why I keep doing it). It'll be interesting to see how it goes with more students and more direction.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Hi Jorgen!

Very interesting and encouraging. I also find interesting that you have students simply report yes or no, with no check on their honesty. I've taken an even more radical approach to not checking. I don't even have them report! But maybe that is too radical.

I am asking for two hours, which is pretty large (but compensated for by no class and no reading), so if it were graded it probably ought to be worth more than a tiny dollop of extra credit. Hm....

Callan S. said...

I wouldn't say you are definitely doing it, because that kind of contaminates the activity with peer pressure rather than fairly pure self reflection by the other people. You will face the assignment...whether you'll actually do it, they wont know until after grading. Also part of that is putting you on the same level as the other people involved. Teacher/student relations are typically asymmetrical, but following a system of principles should not have some sort of asymmetrical get out for a particular individual. Everyone should be in the same position - which means not declaring you're going to do it in advance as much as no one will be.

Also extra credit, if used, would be an external reward.

Anonymous said...

As a student of your class, I am fully supportive of this assignment! The material we've been going over often calls us to reflect on ourselves (as intended) and this is a neat way to bridge the gap between the classroom and personal life.

I only question requiring the recipient to "explicitly consent in advance, understanding that this is an assignment for this class". While it may be true that people would not go out of their way to perform their act of kindness without this prompt, I would not think it necessary for them to reveal this to be a Philosophy assignment, especially since there is no external reward.

I am mostly applying this to a personal scenario, as I would rather not my mother think that I would help her only because I was assigned to do so, although I am sure she would appreciate it all the same.

Callan S. said...

I think the consent element is rather crucial - to act as if it was spontaneous helping when it's not would be disingenuous. Given the ethics theme, that'd seem a bad idea. Indeed reflecting on whether oneself is using the assignment to appear helpful for social kudos aught to be part of the activity, IMO.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Anon and Callan!

Based on feedback from others, on balance I think the explicit consent thing is desirable -- mostly because otherwise there might be some students who execute this assignment in a misleading or exploitative way.

On revealing that I will do it: I think that will help students take the assignment more seriously, and it communicates (I hope) the message that I don't think I'm above the students and planning to just take the time off to do things unrelated to the class.

Callan S. said...

What I'm saying is for the students it's kind of like voting - it's secret whether they've done it until after grading is done. I think you should use the same secrecy, rather than saying you will definitely do it. Indeed even leave them thinking you're going to take time off just doing other things if that's what they are going to think. At most say the assignment is for you as well. Which would seem to fit into the themes involved: 'Why should I do it if nobody else is doing it?'. What do we do when we have no good example?

I mostly suggest it because of the reveal of what was done after grading. If the activity is going to leave people to their own devices to that extent, I would think it's best to go the whole hog and not influence them by saying you're going to do it. If you deliberately want to try and provide one touch stone of a good example for them to follow then fair enough, that's what you're trying to do. But if you're not trying to provide a good example for them to follow then I'd suggest saying you also have the assignment, but don't declare you're doing it. Instead really leave them to their own devices.

Well, that's my take on it. In the end the results of leaving them to not know what you're going to do, that is a question that fascinates me. So I go with my fascination. If it's not intriguing then fair enough.

Ben said...

I wonder: did any of your students openly refuse to complete this requirement? If any did, how did you respond? (If none did, how would you have responded?)

I ask because while I think that this is indeed a very interesting and potentially quite valuable pedagogical experiment, I would never attempt it myself, and if I were your student I would have deeply resented it. To me, it would have felt like a moralistic overstepping of pedagogical authority: how students live is their own business, and their philosophy instructors have no more authority to require them to be actively kind than they do to require them to have certain eating or exercise habits, to dress in certain ways, or to vote for certain candidates. Keeping it private whether I conformed to this requirement wouldn't have helped: the fact that it was a requirement, rather than just a suggestion ("try it; there's a good chance you'll find it gives you interesting things to think about after Mengzi") would have sufficed to make it unacceptable. And I've have felt obligated to be public about my refusal.

(I know this comment comes across as hostile, but I really don't mean it that way! It's just that we seem to have very different views about pedagogical ethics, and I'm curious about the thinking behind them!)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Callan -- sorry I missed your earlier comment! You might be right. I am genuinely unsure. It's an experiment.

Ben: Thanks for expressing that source of skepticism. I could definitely imagine some people having that reaction. So far, none have expressed that to me, but I wouldn't be surprised to see some people express it when I give them a chance to do so in the final exam.