by Daisy Breneman

January 27th, 2022

One year ago, Justice Studies, the JMU community, the local community, and the global community lost Dr. Terry Beitzel. Terry was deeply committed to work around justice, peacebuilding, and responsibility. The central question of his work and life was “who is responsible to do what for whom?”

That question resonates at this particular moment, as the pandemic continues its terrible toddlerhood, offering still more unpredictability, stability, and loss–but also opportunities for positive change.

As teachers, we find ourselves in the position of balancing multiple and sometimes conflicting responsibilities, always, including legal, ethical, personal, and professional, and to a wide variety of stakeholders, such as our students, our institution, our disciplines and fields, students’ future employers, and our communities. And, we also have responsibilities to ourselves (which are so easy to forget).

Particularly in a time when democracy is in peril, reflecting on our civic responsibilities and prioritizing society as a stakeholder reminds us that JMU’s core mission as “a community committed to preparing students to be educated and enlightened citizens who lead productive and meaningful lives” often requires us to make difficult decisions.

Through the pandemic, our many responsibilities have changed and intensified. We are responsible not just for teaching, and teaching well, but also for keeping our students and communities safe; for heightened attention to issues of justice, equity, and diversity in times of crisis; for providing accessible and inclusive learning materials and opportunities in a variety of formats; for responding to rapidly shifting conditions and needs. Add those to the increasing and changing demands and needs of the other stakeholders to whom we respond. Add, also, that we are deeply exhausted, struggling, and conflicted ourselves.

Philosopher John Rawls’s “difference principle” holds that just arrangements are those that most benefit the least advantaged. Terry often reminded me that, as teachers, we owe the most to our struggling students–the ones who often fall off our radars, or least participate in the learning situations we create, or frustrate us the most. It’s easy to teach to the “good” students (the ones like us, usually!), but we can’t forget that often those aren’t the students who need our energies and attention the most.

Reflecting on our responsibilities as teachers, we also have the responsibility to teach students responsibility and to give them opportunities to reflect on their own obligations to themselves, each other, and their various communities. JMU’s Ethical Reasoning in Action offers opportunities and resources for helping students develop ethical reasoning skills, putting responsibility in the context of other ethical and justice considerations, such as fairness, rights, and empathy. We can also raise students’ awareness of programs of study that focus on such complex questions, such as the Ethics Minor or Justice Studies.

Here are more ideas for teaching responsibility:

  • Build in conversations about our responsibilities for learning, and to each other, in earlysemester and ongoing community-building activities in class. This can be a way to move away from dictating classroom “rules” to cultivating students’ sense of responsibility to each other. (For example, instead of forbidding disruptive behaviors, we can talk about how we owe it to each other to avoid distractions.)
  • Consider building in community service-learning and community engagement opportunities for students. The Community Service-Learning office offers resources and support to build meaningful opportunities for students to apply their learning and reflect on their responsibilities to the community. CSL can support faculty in making sure the opportunities we build are not extractive, but rather prioritize community needs.
  • Accountability is, of course, an important dimension of responsibility. Encourage awareness of and compliance with standards, agreements, and codes of conduct, including with the JMU Honor Code and JMU Student Handbook. The Honor Council and the Office of Student Accountability and Restorative Practices (OSARP) offer resources for explaining and enforcing those standards to help students learn and grow from mistakes. Likewise, we can model responsibility by owning our mistakes and the harm we cause, insisting on accountability from our own institutions, governments, and communities.
  • Share resources from offices such as CMSS, ODS, and SOGIE, and invite peer educators to class, to help students reflect on their own responsibilities in relation to their privilege and positionality with regard to marginalized identities.
  • Create a community of care in the classroom. Especially during challenging times, we all need–and owe–each other.
  • Incorporate civic engagement and career readiness activities in courses, as appropriate, to offer students resources that would help them to align their strengths and skills with community needs and that would allow them to imagine and work toward more just, equitable futures.
  • Support colleagues, particularly those with marginalized identities. Recently, a mutual friend and I were discussing Terry’s ability to just make everything better, with his presence and with his kindness, patience, unique humor, and deep commitment to bearing one another’s burdens. Terry steadfastly believed, even as the world seemed like it was collapsing, not only that we can make it better, but also that it’s our responsibility to do so. We can honor Terry’s call, and his legacy, by reflecting on our responsibilities, including as teachers, and encouraging our students to do the same.

About the author: Daisy L. Breneman holds a joint appointment with University Advising and Justice Studies and is the co-coordinator of the Disability Studies Minor. She is also a CFI faculty associate in the teaching area. She can be reached at


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