WOOSTER, Ohio — Experiential learning is a critical component of the curriculum at The College of Wooster, and the newest course on campus has expanded that emphasis even further by having students work in unfamiliar — and sometimes uncomfortable — environments to gain both insight and empathy.
Charles Kammer, the James F. Lincoln Professor of Religious Studies at The College of Wooster, introduced this “experimental class,” (titled “Just Work”) where students can explore the range of emotions associated with work — from rich and rewarding to toiling and burdensome.
The experiential aspect of the course comes through two unique components. The first is the inclusion of three hourly employees — one each from dining services, custodial services, and the grounds crew — to not only sit in on the class, but also to speak about their experiences in the workplace. The second is the requirement that students work in one of those three areas three to four hours a week to gain a greater understanding of what others do, how they are compensated, and how it affects their lives. In addition, the supervisors of those areas (Chuck Wagers in dining services, Ken Fletcher in custodial services, and Beau Mastrine in campus grounds) provide further insight with periodic visits to selected class sessions.
“The objective of the class is to look at what makes work meaningful…a calling, and what makes it a chore…something to be endured,” says Kammer. “We want our students to have a broader view of the multiple contributions that people in these types of positions make on campus, and encourage them to have a greater appreciation for what they do.”
Kammer’s course also examines the social construction of the value of work, in which some forms are considered important while others are not. “Higher value means more respect, more social privilege, and higher incomes,” says Kammer. “But why are some forms of work more highly valued than others? Are we being unjust to those who do critical work but are not receiving a just reward?”
Kammer addresses the issue of “just compensation” as well, and discusses whether all people are receiving a “living wage.” He also reflects on the impact of varying salary levels and how it affects members of the community in terms of the respect they receive and the way they are treated.
Another primary objective of the class is to confront some of the barriers that exist between faculty, students, and staff. “For the past three or four years, Linda Morgan-Clement (campus chaplain and adjunct professor of religious studies) and I have been trying to find ways to cross the divisions that separate us on campus,” says Kammer. “We have been looking for ways to break down these boundaries.”
The efforts of Kammer and Morgan-Clement resulted in a two-pronged proposal: his “Just Work” class and her “Intersections” proposal, a series of dinners in which faculty, salaried staff, and hourly employees come together for the purpose of getting to know one another better. Both initiatives are supported by a Mellon Grant earmarked for projects that “revitalize and renew life on campus.”
Clearly, the students in the class have developed a newfound empathy for the hourly workers on campus. “I think some of our students not only failed to realize the value of the hourly workers, but also failed to treat them with the dignity and respect they deserve,” says Kammer. “They are now gaining a greater understanding of the circumstances these employees face when they have to clean toilets, or pick up beer cans and bottles, or see some of the vandalism in the houses and residence halls.
“It has been startling for them in many respects,” adds Kammer. “We now have a group of students who see life at the college in a very different way. They are more aware of the impact they have on housekeeping staff, food workers, and the grounds crew, and I think they have developed a new sense of respect for what they do.”
As the semester comes to a close, it is clear that the 11 students in the class have, indeed, been deeply affected by their experience. “I have gotten a lot more out of the experience than I ever would have imagined,” says Aaron Brown, a senior religious studies and political science double major from Baltimore, who worked on the grounds crew. “I’ve learned a lot, not just about landscaping, but also about the campus and the community.
“The work experience has complemented the lectures and class discussions,” adds Brown. “I bonded with the grounds staff and learned a lot about the inequities (in the workforce). Our campus could not operate without these people, but they do not receive the same compensation as others. This experience has caused me to take more notice of people in these positions.” Brown’s experience has him thinking about a career in humanitarian law so that he can “help people who are overlooked and underrepresented.”
Another poignant observation came from, Matt Germaine, a junior anthropology major from Berkley, Mich., who said he never realized what a difference 4½ feet could make — a reference to the distance between standing on the serving side and the receiving side of the food stations in Lowry Center.
“We want the students in this class to see the importance of what the people in dining services, custodial services, and grounds crew do on our campus and how it creates a better college experience for them,” says Kammer. “We hope that this will give our students a greater appreciation for what these people experience and how they — and many others like them — are affected by the compensation they receive.”
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