St. Olaf College | News

New course broadens the horizon of ethical thinking

“The lifelong travels of St. Olaf graduates will have huge social and economic consequences. I want to make sure these consequences are for the better,” says Professor of Religion John Barbour, who designed a new “Travel and Ethics” course.

While studying abroad last fall, St. Olaf College student Karah Guzzi ’14 had an Australian classmate who strongly disliked the idea of Americans — even though he had never really known one.

“All of a sudden, I realized that I had an obligation to represent my country all by myself. I suddenly recognized the immense power I had accrued at shaping someone else’s worldview just by trying to expand my own by studying abroad,” Guzzi says.

Though she made some headway with her classmate, Guzzi is, one year later, still intrigued by the sense of agency she acquired while studying abroad. She is among a group of St. Olaf students who have spent the semester thinking about similar intricacies of international travel in a new course led by Professor of Religion John Barbour titled Travel and Ethics.

Designed to challenge students to think more cross-culturally, the course aims to analyze the major effects of the tourism industry, which Barbour says is one of the fastest-growing industries today.

Topics of consideration include service tourism, pilgrimage, studying abroad, traveling with others, social and economic consequences, and, especially pertinent to Guzzi, representing America while abroad.

“Travel is a significant act,” says Matthew Johnson ’14, who is not only using the class to reflect on his past experiences abroad, but also in anticipation of future travel. “You need to be intentional about how you travel because of the people you encounter. That puts a lot of pressure on a traveler. I become my country, my government, our collective philosophies. You have to be conscious of when to exert yourself and when to be passive.”

Barbour says the readings and discussions students have encountered over the course of the semester will better guide them in future cross-cultural situations — even in situations where the students are still on campus.

“‘Travel’ is not limited to those that jump on a plane, take a trip in the car,” he says. “Daily conversations and academic discussion are both places where cross-cultural interaction manifests itself. The lifelong travels of St. Olaf graduates will have huge social and economic consequences. I want to make sure these consequences are for the better.”

The course was designed in conjunction with Barbour’s appointment as the O.C. and Patricia Boldt Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Humanities. During his tenure as Boldt chair, Barbour aims to encourage academic and social discussion on campus around the theme “Travel and Cultural Criticism.”

St. Olaf ranks first among all baccalaureate institutions in the number of students that study abroad each year, and the college currently offers study-abroad programs in 54 countries, including nearly 80 semester or year-long programs and nearly 30 off-campus courses during Interim. Barbour hopes that courses, speakers, and opportunities on campus will give those who study abroad the rhetoric to understand the broader implications of their experience.

“There are a lot of questions that I still don’t understand — I’m better at raising questions than answering them,” Barbour says. “Still, I’m confident that students will find their own answers as we continue to explore this topic together.”

The Boldt Chair
Barbour was named the Boldt Chair in the spring of 2012. He is the seventh faculty member to have received the appointment, and his three-year tenure will end in 2015.

The Boldt Chair was established in 1994 by contractor Oscar C. Boldt and his wife, Patricia Hamar Boldt. It is offered to a current faculty member whose scholarship and professional endeavors advance the teaching and learning of humanities at the baccalaureate level.

Barbour joined the St. Olaf faculty in 1982 after having earned a B.A. from Oberlin College and an M.A. and Ph.D from the University of Chicago Divinity School. He was chair of the St. Olaf Religion Department from 1998 to 2001, and served as the first Martin E. Marty Regents Chair in Religion and the Academy. With his wife, St. Olaf Professor of Art Meg Ojala, he led the Global Semester study-abroad program in 2001 and the Term in Asia program in 2008.