Teaching Issues: Behavioral Ethics

As graduate students, we share our opinions with the force of fact.  In many fields, this unwavering confidence is necessary for ideas to be considered.  We are required to frame our ideas so we receive thoughtful insight,  constructive criticism and no nit-picking.  Typically, this means significant amounts of preparation and burrowing into the ideas which we support.  What a fantastic skill to develop!

Have you ever considered what happens when you stand up in front of an audience with this strong bias towards your own ideas?  As a presenter, you are serving as an “expert” on a topic.  While you may want to persuade your audience of an opinion (yours, your advisor’s your department chair’s), doing so without all of the relevant information, including opposing points, is deceptive.

As teachers and mentors, what is our responsibility to our students?  Is it ethical to share your opinion without letting them form their own?  Or to present one side of a research argument without at least mentioning the other?  The one-sided or incomplete seminars I have experienced left me skeptical and unexcited.  The classes I’ve taken taught by stubbornly opinionated professors have left me questioning the expertise of the professor.  Perhaps these are conscious choices of the presenter, but it is unclear if these individuals understand the mistrust they instill in their audience by forcing their own perspective or missing important information.

I found an interesting series of videos on behavioral ethics that discusses social influences on individual choice.  As leaders in the classroom, laboratory or organization, graduate students have influence on undergraduates and peers.  It is important to acknowledge this influence and use it carefully and thoughtfully.  When you prepare for your next class just consider what you are sharing, or not sharing, with your audience.  Consider if you are being honest about what you do and don’t know to support your conclusions.

Have you ever considered this perspective or your responsibility as an authority figure?  Leave comments on the post to continue this discussion…

2 thoughts on “Teaching Issues: Behavioral Ethics”

  1. On the flip side, I’ve enjoyed getting to notice biases from certain professors regarding course content and prided myself on being able to identify them while trying to educate myself on how to form my own opinion about the issue. My experience with undergraduates, particularly, in the sciences is that they don’t realize how “in flux” content can be. They want to live in a world, with black/white answers they can easily memorize using flash cards, when we as graduate students realize quickly through research, that there are so many gray areas. I’m constantly reminding my students (in the classroom and the laboratory) not to accept everything they learn in the classroom as finite.

  2. I’ve found that, the more nuanced an argument I present to students, the more fruitful the class discussion. By lowballing them with only one side of the argument, we’re shortchanging them, though obvious constraints of time and place are always the enemy, and every argument is essentially truncated. Nonetheless, we have a responsibility to present information in as objective a manner as possible. This doesn’t preclude informing them of the merits of an argument that our time and place currently favor. In my field of art history, a thorough discussion of the ethics of repatriation requires that each side of the argument gets a seat at the table, but it would also be remiss not to explain that the pendulum generally swings in the direction of repatriation, and why. Even more instructive would be subsequent discussion in which the students, armed with this information, form their own opinions and debate them with each other, with the instructor stepping in to moderate. I’d prefer to let them think for themselves, not merely to mimic me.

    The monster lurking beneath the surface, though, is the framing of the information. The creation of the syllabus. The choice of textbook. Classroom discussion is a product of these things, and while I can present several arguments on the meaning of the Farnese ceiling fresco, what my students and I don’t often discuss is that I didn’t have to present that work of art at all. It was a choice on my part, even though it’s a canonical work and a staple of every art history survey. Whenever I put a PowerPoint together, I have to decide what story I want to tell, and the canonical one is simply one option. I could discuss other artists who don’t occupy privileged positions in the art historical canon we use today. But, invariably, I do show the Farnese ceiling.

    So the discussion of repatriation can be done in a responsible, well-rounded way in class, but the decision to include repatriation in the syllabus in the first place is also subjective. Again, time is usually the enemy, but whenever I do have a moment to explain the narrative of art history that I chose, the students’ realization that there could easily be others is sort of like Neo discovering that the Matrix isn’t real. I have found that assignments that engage with scholarship that does question traditional methodologies have been very successful. To my great surprise, students once told me they enjoyed analyzing two feminist art history articles because it made them think about art in a completely new way. That’s not a response that I get every day. Those readings were very challenging, but I find that most students almost always rise to the occasion.

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