Penn State faculty offer teachable moments from difficult events

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – While the University community continues to cope with the gravity and complexity of issues related to the Jerry Sandusky allegations, several Penn State professors have integrated it into the classroom to help students share their thoughts about the issues and learn from them, too.

The Power of Words: Feature Writing and Journalism Ethics
At the beginning of every semester, Russell Frank, Penn State associate professor of communications, tells his journalism ethics class that something big is going to blow up in the media. So big, in fact, that they will be able to cover half of the topics of the class from one media story. What Frank didn’t know was that during this semester, that story would be about Penn State.

Frank has found instructional opportunities in two of his classes, feature writing and journalism ethics. Students in his feature writing class studied scene-setting pieces that introduced State College and the mood of the town.

Frank had his students search Google for news stories about the issue. “We found countless stories using the words ‘nestled,’ ‘sleepy’ and the phrase, ‘things aren’t supposed to happen in a place like this.’ We talked about parachute journalism, where reporters drop into a town they’ve never been to before, have preconceptions about the town and write it all down before they even get off the plane.”

To read more about Frank's class go to http://live.psu.edu/story/56527 online.

Sport Science: Ethics in College Athletics
According to Scott Kretchmar, who teaches ethics of sports management classes for the kinesiology department at Penn State, what’s happening at the University lines up perfectly with what he’s teaching in his class. Kretchmar, a professor of exercise and sport science, is talking to his students about athletics reform at large institutions.

“The problem with college sports is the big business behind it,” he said. “The book we’re using, ‘Fair Play’ by Robert Simon, talks about the power behind sports, powerful coaches and the necessity to win, make money and get on TV, at any cost.”

To read more about Kretchmar's class, go to http://live.psu.edu/story/56528 online.

Theatre: Art Interpreting Life
Charles Dumas, professor in the School of Theatre, and Jo Dumas, senior lecturer in the College of Communications, have responded to the struggles of students trying to cope with recent events in an unconventional manner -- by creating a play.

“For the last two weeks it’s been the primary topic of conversation in class,” said Charles. “As teachers, Jo and I both feel our job clearly is to help students get through these extraordinary circumstances and trying times. So we asked them, ‘How do you feel?’ and the floodgates opened."

To read more about this theatre project, go to http://live.psu.edu/story/56529 online.

Sociology: Relating Through Conversation
No strangers to difficult conversations, sociologists Sam Richards and Laurie Mulvey addressed the issues stemming from the Sandusky allegations in their 700-student SOC 119 course, Race and Ethnic Relations, by structuring two classes around the discussion.

“The No. 1 reason we addressed this in class was because our students were begging for us to talk about it -- via emails, Twitter, in our discussion groups, from facilitators -- across the board. We saw that we had an obligation to help shepherd them through the turmoil, so we went right for it,” said Richards. “Really, it came from the students.”

“It didn’t feel like a choice,” added Mulvey. “There was no way to go into class as ‘business as usual.’ So we stepped up.”

Richards said that what they wanted to do was not just focus on Penn State. “It wasn’t about that,” he said. “What it was about is helping students understand the sociology about everything that was happening around them: child sex abuse, how and why it happens, how to address the issue, looking at it sociologically, and what else could we do? ”

“We had the opportunity to speak with students from SOC 119 about a week later, and we asked them what happened when they read the Grand Jury report. It was stunning. One young man said he cried; another said he felt like he was going to vomit. They were devastated," Mulvey said. “I felt amazed and sad, that the rest of the world doesn’t get to hear this part of it as much as they hear about things like students going downtown and being destructive. There is so much going on deeply underneath, and we all need to be aware of it."

To read more about SOC 119 and its students, as well as Mulvey's International Dialogue students, go to http://live.psu.edu/story/56530 online.

Moving Forward
Faculty from all across Penn State are taking the opportunity to discuss their thoughts and share commentary with colleagues in their fields of discipline on the way the campus community is dealing with the tragic allegations that has altered the world’s view of Penn State and its students. Skip Niles, counselor and distinguished professor, and head of the Department of Educational Psychology, Counseling and Special Education, shared a piece with his American Counseling Association counterparts at http://my.counseling.org/2011/11/21/penn-state-professor-speaks-out/ online.

Additionally, Penn State’s Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence has provided an online resource, “Difficult Dialogues in the Classroom,” for faculty who might be seeking ways to incorporate in-class discussions about the many issues related to the Sandusky allegations.

Angela Linse, executive director and associate dean of the institute, said that regardless of the course, discussing the issues does fit into the curriculum, because curriculum is about more than content -- it also is about critical thinking and processing information.

“Most faculty want their students to be able to think critically about any issue they encounter in their lives,” she said. “Faculty might not necessarily see themselves as role models or leaders, but on campus that’s how students see them, and President Erickson made it clear we need to do whatever we can to help students get through this.”

Linse said faculty can approach the conversation from the perspective of how thinking goes in their discipline -- the way a mathematician, philosopher or engineer would talk about issues. She said it’s important to acknowledge what students are going through, because if students are upset, their learning will be affected.

For more information on helping students process these recent shocking events, or any that might occur throughout the future, visit http://www.psu.edu/dept/site/2011/11/difficult-dialogues-in-the-classroom-resources-for-penn-state-teachers.html online.

Last Updated December 09, 2011