Elements of Responsible Action: My Responsible Student Ethics

Professor Greg Carmer

NON310 Foundations of Work and Vocation

I consider myself a mediocre student with the potential to do well. Often people perceive me as someone who would have high grades, but when I tell them my grades, they are surprised. When professors reflect on my performance, they are often disappointed. My academics produce more anxiety than most other parts of my life. I get upset for not doing as well as I could, then I tell myself to stop taking pity on myself, and say that if I just try harder, or devote more time to my work, then I could finally grasp high understanding of what I’m learning. Maybe I could even challenge some assertions made the professor. Putting in insufficient effort upsets me. Low effort dishonors the hard work of my professors; however, Ann Seavey in the Academic Support Center tells me that I simply cannot maximize all values. If I want to do excellently in certain arenas, I’m going to have to drop my commitments or pull back from others. The tension that arises from many commitments leads me to want less commitments. I denied the RA position offered me for next year because I want more time to put into my academic tasks. I hope that this essay will give me insight into what turned me into a mediocre student. Through this essay I hope to reframe how I understand my past and decide on a response that will make me a better student.

I will frame this essay in the same way H. Richard Niebuhr in The Responsible Self framed his description of his third symbol for acting in the world: cathekontic, hermeneutical, responsible, or man-the-answerer; I will use his model to situate myself and frame my questions. [1] In this model, Niebuhr urges me to ask, “what is going on? What is the situation around me?” then, I ought to form an interpretation of the circumstances in which I find myself, and finally, create a response. [2] A fitting response involves a few aspects: what we experience, how we understand those experiences, it answers to an anticipated response, and it make this response within a continuing community of agents [3] What ought to come into fruition defines the good, the proper way defines the right, how we should act. The fitting determines the good and the right. We must take much into consideration when choosing a response: actions upon us, how we interpret that action, how others will respond to this action, and realizing that this action will impact a continuing community of agents. These subpoints of the fitting lead to a decision to be or do that has apprehended the many effects which affect, as well as the many effects it may affect. According to Niebuhr, we must contemplate four contexts when deliberating on a response: social, historic, religious, and with regards to sin & salvation. Each of these contexts influence us when determining our ethics; a careful analysis of each one leads to the best decisions. I will walk through each of these major components of Niebuhr’s model for responsible action as they are related to my ethics as a student: what actions are upon me, how I interpret them, anticipated response, my continuing effect on a community of agents, and how I respond. In each aspect I will consider the various contexts.

What is going on? Socially, the ways others have acted affects the way I perceive what defines an excellent student. I listen to Hannah draw out examples in relation to the conversation; Bryan making connections to philosophical ideas and movements; Chapman asking questions which beg further illumination of the ideas you present. These actions affect me by creating a sense of longing: to respond with pertinent examples, relevant questions, or insightful connections, because then I would become a better student.

Another element of what is going on socially is the influences that cause my thinking to become a certain way. My boss Jesse Torres has become a mentor figure for me. At times when meeting we will discuss my responsibilities as a student. How do I order my priorities when it comes to deciding how to use time? My primary responsibilities are as an RA because I am paid, but second to that come student activities. When I do not want to do something, I ought to do it. When I am tempted to spend too much time doing something, these conversations have helped reinforce the idea that I ought to not worry about fitting these assignments to the standards of my standards of perfection, but rather fit them to the needs of the assignment. These interactions have inculcated in me a sense of greater ownership over my work, and they have developed in me a lower tolerance for late work, as often my standards prioritize late excellent work over timely average work, as my submission for this paper demonstrates my tendency towards late work. Ideally, I would turn in timely excellent work, which is very possible.

What is going on temporally? With regards to what has happened in my past, and in the past surrounding me as a student, countless things have added to my situation. I am in a Western society with mostly German influenced teaching styles, rather than the Oxford type education which has smaller classes and nearly exclusive essays. This has led me to a higher likelihood of coming into a school like this, which is run in the larger German style. Gordon seems a mix of both. While this type of grading allows for some great things, like my nationally standardized organic chemistry final, it limits the amount of practice students have in paper writing and discussion with professors over subject material. I would have loved to have a St. John’s Oxford style education through Gordon where I regularly sit with classmates and professors and discuss the material, similarly to how Foundations of Work and Vocation is set up.

What is going on in the religious context of my life? My experiences are in Christianity almost exclusively, and I have acted towards others taking their word and basking my actions on the belief that what they were going to say is true. Throughout high school and middle school I went to school and youth group. During high school I acted to get others to like me. Despite my behaviors of not telling the truth to my parents about what I was doing—they didn’t ask me. When my mom pressed me for details about my work I would get on a sour mood and turn away from her. I did not want to be bothered by my family to do work. I could do it myself I figured, and I found that if they told me what to do, I felt insulted. Looking at my time senior year, I would sit down to do work and fall asleep at my books. I never sat down for long to do work.

How do I interpret all of this in my past? I want to examine how I currently interpret it, and then determine where I need to reinterpret it.

I see myself now as a decent student with much room for improvement. My interpretation of myself may lead to a limiting view on myself, as I interpret my past as having lead up to a current status of mediocre performance with great potential. I look at my past as having not prepared me well for excellent academia now. I see myself as having a lot of catching up to do. I consider laziness to be the reason for much of my lack of hard, excellent work in high school. I understand the reason for poor academic performance my supremely high value of friendships through high school. However, there are many aspects which contributed to this behavior, to me being a student who can do well but does not do as well as he could. I view myself as not putting enough time into my work to do excellently. I also am not ready enough to fail at what I am doing. If I have a student attitude like that described by Jane Kendall et al. in Combining Service and Learning, which is one of willingness to fail in participating in class. [4] Kendall et al. paint an image of an ideal learning community, writing that “when people in a classroom begin to learn that every attempt at truth … is a contribution to the larger search for … truth, they are soon emboldened … to say what they need to say, to expose their ignorance, to do, in short, those things without which learning can’t happen.” Learning at its best requires a humble spirit, and if I see my past as ingraining in me an attitude of humility in school, then I will be a more humble, willing “to expose … [my] ignorance” type of student.

I reinterpret my past as one which has given me foundation to become the type of student which Steven Garber seems to idealize in The Fabric of Faithfulness—thoughtful, articulate, yet not asking questions and exercising intellect emptily. [5] This student does not inquire without action and life to back up the ideas he spews off and questions. Garber references Augustine’s correspondence with an excellent student, and in the midst of his response Augustine exhorts him to make sure he is living out the truths he is looking to teach, and that he ought to have compassion towards others. He admonishes this scholar to live a life which attracts people to want to learn from him.

Finally, now that I’ve laid out my experiences and interpretation, it is time for me to deliberate on and choose a response. I want to respond to my current situation. As I am realizing that I do have a past which has formed me to put excellent work as a high priority and has given me the potential to do excellent work, and to please my professors by good work handed in early. This will be hard to attain, but with work, and continual reflection on what has brought me to my current state, and how I interpret that, and how I respond to it, if I do this process in moments and little acts like choosing how much time to study one day, I can ask, what kind of student am I? And I will know that I am the kind of student which Augustine praises. Then I can ask, “what type of work does that student do?” My answer will guide me in the direction of what kind of student I should be. I will work hard, be humble to come for help, be in conversation and friendship with my peers and professors, start work as it is assigned and have it ready before it is due. Most importantly, as the role of a student is to learn and have one’s life freed (I am, to be specific, a liberal arts student, a student studying that which is thought to set people free), through my excellence being a student I will grow and become one who is thoughtful and better able to care for those around me, and those who I contact in the future. I am a student who works hard, ask questions which may be stupid but really need to have answered, and compassionately lives truth.



Carmer, Greg. "Essay 3 Prompt: Elements of Responsible Action." Wenham, April 2014.

—. "Living Responsibly in the World: Notes on Niebuhr’s The Responsible Self." Wenham, April 2014.

Garber, Steven. The Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Belief and Behavior. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2007.

Jane C. Kendall, et al. Combining Service and Learning: A Resources Book for Community and Public Service. Raleigh: National Society for Internships and Experiential Education, 1990.

Niebuhr, H. Richard. The Responsible Self: An Esssay in Christian Moral Philosophy. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999.



Introduction revised by India Boland, as well as Brandon of the writing center.


[1] (Niebuhr)

[2] (Carmer, Essay 3 Prompt: Elements of Responsible Action)

[3] (Carmer, Living Responsibly in the World: Notes on Niebuhr’s The Responsible Self)

[4] (Jane C. Kendall 112)

[5] (Garber 150-151)