Focus: May Webber, Ph.D. - A Series of Discussions on Research at St. John's

Friday, January 4, 2013

May Webber ’66C, ’69G, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Humanities in the College of Professional Studies (CPS). With bachelor’s and master’s degrees from St. John’s, she earned her doctorate in philosophy at New York University. Dr. Webber is a senior research fellow at the Vincentian Center for Church and Society, which is based at St. John’s. She has a longstanding interest in the ethical dimensions of real-life issues, including bullying.

What is the focus of your research?
I’m developing a three-credit, core curriculum ethics course for the College of Professional Studies called Bullying and Moral Responsibility, which will be offered in Fall 2013. It’s designed as a philosophical inquiry into the nature and variety of bullying in the 21st century, including cyber bullying and includes an Academic Service-Learning component, in the form of an on-campus, anti-bullying campaign.

The campaign will be created in collaboration with students in a public relations course taught by John DiMarco [Ph.D., Associate Professor of Communications, Journalism and Media Studies].

Why are you interested in conducting research on bullying?
As a moral philosopher, I feel an obligation to pay attention to a growing global problem that has resulted, in some cases, in victims taking their own lives. Bullying is a borderless issue of global proportions that transcends the workplace and the schoolyard.

It is my belief that philosophers need to start playing an active role in the community by addressing this issue and trying to stem it.

What do you want your students to take away from this course?
I want to raise their awareness about the prevalence of bullying and have them reflect on their own experiences, allowing them to think about whether they have been bullied or have participated in any way in victimizing others.

I also want to teach them how they can use their classroom learning to make a difference in the world by helping those in need.

What was the genesis of this project?
I was delighted when the CPS Faculty Development Committee gave me the opportunity to develop a new kind of course, which employs technology to enrich the learning experience while preparing our students for the workplace.

This course uses the latest social media, which are tailored made for this purpose, to explore issues associated with bullying. Outside experts in the field will address the class on Skype; philosophy and public relations students will collaborate online through Wiki; and students can find endless, real-life examples of bullying on YouTube.

What would you like to see happen next?
It is my hope that this campaign will lay the groundwork for future efforts engaging the community at large, as well as other colleges and universities. This is something St. John’s, as a University, does quite well — setting an example for exploring the moral dimensions of contemporary issues.

I envision the possibility of combining the study of ethics with all professional areas taught within CPS. I’ve already introduced a media ethics course in partnership with Basilio Monteiro, [Ph.D., Associate Professor and Chair, Communications, Journalism and Media Studies], and I’m currently designing a course on sport ethics.  All courses will have an Academic Service-Learning component.

How are you conducting your research?
I’m doing research in print and online, with a special emphasis on cyber bullying. I’m also taking into account how certain popular novels, movies and other media treat this issue.

In November, I attended the Fourth Global Conference on Bullying and the Abuse of Power, in Salzburg, Austria. I received feedback on my course proposal, learned more about the latest thinking on this topic and got to know the experts in the field. One of the biggest benefits was being able to invite some of the experts I met to participate in the course as outside lecturers, who will also interact with the students.

What else will the course cover?
There will be a list of required readings in moral philosophy, which will provide an ethical context for classroom discussions. We’ll apply those ethical theories and make moral judgments about the roles played by the bully, the bullied and the bystander.

What attracted you to St. John’s University?
I was particularly attracted by the University’s commitment to teaching philosophy from a moral perspective, and its longstanding dedication to serving those our society marginalizes. It’s a mission that allows me to teach a variety of courses, including media ethics as well as this one. I find that my own concerns about those who are vulnerable, including the victims of bullying, fit well with St. John’s commitment to helping those who are in need and voiceless.