SPRINGFIELD, Ohio – When 17 Wittenberg students signed up for Assistant Professor of English Fitz Smith's WittSem course titled "A Few Ideas That Changed The World: Christianity, Democracy and the Self" in August 2006, it was simply their way of filling an academic requirement. Little did they know that the course would change their lives by leading them on a journey of self exploration.
A regular listener to National Public Radio (NPR) program "This I Believe," Smith incorporated a similar project into his WittSem, an integrated learning course taken during freshman year, by creating the "Believe in Belief" project. Smith asked his students, who came from a wide range of backgrounds, to write an essay that examined their morals and values in depth.
"‘Believe in Belief' doesn't allow for generalizations," Smith said. "Students have to be specific in their reflection, but there is enough leeway for creativity while still getting to a specific point."
Near the end of the course the students' essays were submitted to the show's producers in hopes they would be selected to be read on-air (anyone who had an essay selected automatically received an A on the project). Smith also extended students the opportunity to read their essays in front of their classmates. Out of the 17 students in the class, 16 volunteered to share their essays, creating a bond as the students saw one another as more than just another stereotyped classmate.
"[The project] turned into an amazing, tremendous experience for me as a teacher, and for the students," Smith said.
A "funny development" occurred during the final days of class when the lone student who decided not to read her essay received correspondence from NPR that it had been chosen for the series. No further communication has been received, however, regarding the status of the essay and its use in the program.
"Believe in Belief" created a unique educational experience, and it became a freshman year activity that integrated public speaking into the curriculum. While public speaking could become a required part of the Wittenberg curriculum in the future, Smith doesn't necessarily see this project as part of that.
"This project is special and tender," he said. "I believe in a strong system of general education requirements, but if the project were a requirement for every section, it would turn into an empty exercise, not an experience. It was a good way, though, of getting students in the habit of presenting to an audience."
Smith said projects like "Believe in Belief" show students that there are things going on outside the Wittenberg realm to which they can contribute. While the course topics might change in the future, the "Believe In Belief" project will continue to be incorporated into Smith's course curriculum.
As time goes on, Smith hopes students will carry this experience with them and use what they learned as a way to shape their futures.
"Every student remembers the project," he said. "It's not something they took lightly, and I would be willing to wager that every student could remember the essays of at least three other students. It turned the class into a group of people, rather than anonymous humans."
Written By: Erica Strauss '08