When I started teaching a colleague gave a bit of advice to incoming instructors: think of at least one of your courses as a story unfolding. This is central to my approach and each year, although the syllabus indicates what we will be doing, the story has unexpected twists and turns based on what the students in the room bring to our discussions.
I often confess to my students and colleagues that Introduction to Social Work and Social Welfare is one of my favorite courses to teach—maybe it is because this particular course focuses on breadth versus depth (which resonates with my own broad interests and questions related to direct practice, human development, social policy and community organizing) but I also think it is the constellation of students: first year through seniors, potential majors, those rounding out a major in another discipline etc. This combination means that students bring a lot from their other classes to bear on the questions we consider in our class about the social welfare system in the United States and the current and historic role of social workers.
Last week our class grappled with the question: "Is the foster care system in the United States functioning or fractured?" Most everyone came with a provisional answer to this question based on personal experience or popular media representations. We worked to gather evidence that would help us engage this question more fully: narratives from those closest to the system (professionals, parents, children) and data on social and health outcomes for children and families. Of course we also had to examine this country's history of out of home placement which led us back to our discussions of Mary Ellen Wilson, Charles Loring Brace and the Orphan Train Movement, the establishment of the Children's Bureau and speeches delivered at the National Conference of Charities and Corrections in the latter part of the 19th century.
But the answer doesn't matter as much, for now—this is college and we have the privilege of thinking about what we know and the limits of our knowing without direct implications for people's lives. Our job is to struggle with the question. However, we first have to know what the question actually is—is it just about foster care or is there a more fundamental question at stake?
Not to my surprise (I have followed the main story line several times), we were back to the question we started with at the beginning of the semester: "How do we respond to human need?" Undoubtedly this question overlaps with the enduring question of our first year Paideia program this fall: "What does it mean to be human?" and we are reminded that no single discipline can fully answer this question. Can we answer the question about how to respond to human need (in this case, the needs of children in foster care) without also grappling with the question of what it means to be human? Aren't the arguments for and against out of home placement connected to what we think it means to be able to develop to one's full potential and the conditions suitable for that development?
We use the tools and evidence we have access to right now to attempt to answer the question at hand. We examine our current and historical views on the "deserving" and "undeserving" and we grapple with moral and ethical dilemmas that force us to see the tensions between the safety of the child and the rights of the parents. We consider the implications of removal in tension with what we have learned about attachment and early childhood brain development from our colleagues in psychology and the sciences who provide empirical evidence in these areas. And in the end we find ourselves in what Parker Palmer refers to as the "tragic gap" between irrelevant idealism and corrosive cynicism as we realize the limits of what we know and how that shapes our answers to questions about direct practice.
Grappling with the questions on the surface as well as those that are deeply embedded from multiple perspectives is what college is about. We don't have to get it right, yet. However, someday these students will be in jobs where the answers to these questions will be reflected in the decisions they make that do bear on real people's lives.
I unabashedly admit that I love teaching in a pre-professional program at a liberal arts college. My colleagues are brilliant in their respective disciplines and skilled at seeing the connections between their areas of expertise and other disciplines on campus. It is a place where the vulnerability of not knowing is a strength, not a limitation. It is a place of intersection and possibility as we, along with our students, see the connections between our work and strive for a more integrated approach that weaves together our academic, civic, spiritual and social lives as the story unfolds. In the end this is what makes teaching and learning at Luther a transformative experience that prepares us for living lives of service for the common good.
Britt Rhodes has been a professor in the Social Work program since 2002, focusing on the topics of fundamentals and human behavior. In January Term, Professor Rhodes leads a course where students travel abroad to Northern Ireland and examine the difficult yet inspiring Northern Ireland peace process through the lives of its participants. Students explore the challenges and potential of grassroots peace building, with special attention to issues of identity, culture, and memory as challenges and the principles of forgiveness, mercy, justice, and peace as potential.