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The Big Q

The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics prompts students to ask and answer life's big questions.

Want the answer? Look it up.

Students in classrooms everywhere hear that classic refrain and tap into a host of resources at their fingertips. But what if the burning question is non-academic and its answer can only be found in the murky depths of the “book of life?”

According to Miriam Schulman, communications director at SCU's Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, students are confronted every day with ethical dilemmas that may not come with ready, clear-cut solutions. “Roommate concerns, controlled substances, academic integrity—these are among topics that college kids across the country face all the time,” she explained.

For such tricky life issues, there are no handy study guides to prompt the right response. But, there is a place to “look it up.” The Big Q, a blog hosted by the ethics center, offers an online dialogue about the big questions college students regularly deal with. It’s open to undergraduates from all over the country, and to adults interested in student life. Here, participants can read about familiar situations, weigh in with an opinion, review comments from others, and engage in a virtual conversation.

“The Big Q project is a way to help students think in advance—maybe before a certain situation comes up—about how they’d want to behave and what the best decisions are that they can make,” said Schulman.

Every week, a new scenario involving an ethical dilemma is posted on the blog. It can be about anything from alcohol and drugs to jobs and money to sex and relationships.

At the end of every narrative, questions are asked: Your friend drank too much and passed out; should you call the EMTs? Someone on your dorm floor put up a poster you find offensive; do you confront her? How do you end a “friends with benefits” situation? How do you deal with a group member not doing his share of the work? Should you give money to a homeless person?

Blog readers indicate if they like a question’s response and the most liked are finalists in The Big Q contest. A winning response is selected by a panel of student interns and staff at the center, and the writer receives a $100 Amazon.com gift certificate.

According to Schulman, the number of responses for any given scenario varies.

“It really depends on whether or not people connect with the issue,” she said.

The Ethics Center launched the Big Q project about two years ago and since then, nearly 117,000 people have viewed the site. Among those are college students from throughout California—San Jose State, USC, Berkeley, UC Irvine—and in schools around the country, such as University of Pennsylvania, Sarah Lawrence, University of Virginia, Princeton, and Columbia.

Thus far, some 60 cases have been aired on the site. The scenarios come from students themselves and from interns and staff at the center. Schulman said some of the hypothetical situations may be inspired by news stories and court cases; others may be suggested by SCU teachers who want to see a certain topic addressed.

“We also work with co-curricular groups on campus,” she explained. “For example, Big Q questions sometimes coincide with Wellness Center programs; questions on academic integrity fit into things the orientation people are doing. One question on homelessness coincided with SCU’s Homeless Awareness Week.”

Some professors, especially those teaching communication classes, also use Big Q cases for classroom projects, Schulman noted, which helps to boost page views. In an effort to attract even more readers, the center sponsors outreach events and maintains an active social media presence.

Chloe Wilson is a senior sociology major and intern at the Center who often writes case studies for the biweekly contest.

“I try to frame them in a way that is not ethically black and white, but rather gray enough that a robust dialogue can emerge,” she explained. “I am always surprised when someone comes up with a solution that would never have occurred to me. I always feel very humbled and inspired reading the intelligent, multifaceted, diverse comments of our readers.”

Those managing The Big Q stress that they are not looking for a “right” answer when they select a contest winner, rather a response that offers a thorough, ethical analysis.

“The answers need to be holistic and well-rounded,” said another intern, Alex LeeNatali, a senior law and social justice/psychology major. “I think the best part of The Big Q is it provides the framework and foundation for very in-depth conversations with your peers. Having to defend and argue your opinion among your friends often leads to a greater understanding of alternative views and a strengthening of your own.”

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