New Courses Explore Motivations for Social Engagement

Author: Susan Love Loughmiller

Megan Andrew

Selfishness. Selflessness. Religion. Social activism.

The interrelationship of these ideas lies at the heart of two new courses for undergraduates in the Department of Sociology.

To help students explore the connections, Assistant Professor Kraig Beyerlein draws on his extensive research in social movements, civic engagement, volunteerism, and religion-based mobilization.

“How are faith communities responding to social issues?” he asks. “Does religion make them more or less likely to help to others, especially strangers?”

Beyerlein, who joined the Department of Sociology in the summer of 2009, says his interest in subjects related to social action directly feed the two courses he developed—Religion and Social Activism and Selfishness and Selflessness.

“I wanted very much to bring the voices and experiences of activists as well as the social context in which they are embedded into the classroom,” Beyerlein says. For example, if people live or work where there are several blood banks within a few blocks, does this explain why certain people but not others choose to give blood?

Selfishness and Selflessness is premiering this spring semester as a core social science class. Religion and Social Activism debuted last fall as an upper-level undergraduate course, and was supported by one of the Center for Social Concerns’ course development grants. The class size—about 17 students—encouraged debate and discussion, student Phil Sitter says.

“It was definitely a mind-opening experience,” Sitter says. “To read firsthand accounts of religious activists in civil-rights movements, in-depth strategies and doctrines of terrorists and right-wing militias, and the motives and methods of nonprofit workers was fascinating.”

Students in the class also engaged in service projects ranging from after-school tutoring to studying the sustainability and ethical values of different food systems. Sitter volunteered at South Bend’s Dismas House, a nonprofit home for recently released prisoners who need assistance with job searches and substance addiction. For her service-learning project, student Anna Mayer worked at the local Catholic Charities office.

“I really appreciated the opportunity to integrate classroom learning with service work and observations from the community,” she says. “Too often we isolate these two things, but I think that combining them to create a well-rounded learning experience is part of what makes Notre Dame unique.”

Formerly a professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Beyerlein says he joined the Notre Dame faculty because of the University’s emphasis on Catholic social teaching and concern for human dignity and social justice—which support his ongoing research in a way that is “incredibly flexible and natural.”

Beyerlein says he has also been impressed with the level of engagement that students here have displayed.

“One of the things I found most interesting was how activism can influence one’s personal faith,” Mayer says. “Often we think of religion as a motivating factor for activism, but we sometimes miss how important this service work can be in changing how one looks at their own faith.”

Originally published by Susan Love Loughmiller at on April 15, 2011.