People who hire and supervise others in the real world are desperate to hire people — our graduates — who have the "whole package": substantive knowledge plus "soft" skills (basic responsibility, working well with others, ethics, etc.) that contribute to success in the world of work. You might argue that teaching those skills isn't our problem because we’re providing educational foundations for professional knowledge. Or that we can hardly be held responsible for failings of families and society, which ought to be the ones instilling work ethic and manners and common sense.
Still, didn’t we open this can of worms ourselves when we started arguing that colleges and universities are engines of economic development and that government should keep (or go back to) investing in education because it creates a knowledgeable workforce? When employers complain about what they perceive as a lazy and entitled attitude among young workers, and we see an apparently never-ending stream of ethics scandals, maybe there’s another way to think about this that is directly congruent with our mission and, furthermore, falls directly within our expertise: embedding ethics and concepts of professional responsibility throughout our curriculums and courses.
If you think about it, doing so is a positive and preventive approach to what many perceive as an epidemic of cheating. There is research suggesting that an educational approach can be an effective strategy, and if enough faculty members purposefully and thoughtfully incorporate ethical connections into classes, it will help those among our students who mean well and want to follow the rules. If we can help those students to find a voice and provide positive examples, we gain, too.
Over the years, I’ve heard countless arguments about why faculty cannot or do not include ethics in their courses, or add courses about professional responsibility to their disciplines. The curriculum is too full already, and besides, you cannot teach people not to lie and cheat if they didn’t learn that in their families. The objections I hear go further, though, and betray a serious discomfort, fear even, about teaching "ethics": I don’t want to have to talk about deontology (I don’t like Kant or haven’t read it and don’t want to); it’s too hard or too subjective; I’m not qualified; someone else can handle it (bosses, the research compliance people, someone across the street, whatever). Ethics is boring and dry. I don’t know enough and don’t have time to go learn another field while I’m working on getting promoted/getting the next grant/serving on too many committees. What if someone asks a question and I don’t know the answer? What if I look stupid? I might come off as judgmental or not judgmental enough. A required event is going to get really bad student evaluations.
We Can All Teach This Stuff, and We Should
As higher education experiences disruptive transformation through the changing economics of what we do, price pressures and technological upending, homing in on what we uniquely do is likely to be part of our path to the future. What is more central to that than helping students explore questions about and learn to use responsibly the knowledge we are conveying? The responsibilities of professionals — researchers, scientists, scholars, teachers — are deeply personal ones, and too important to leave to others outside our disciplines to teach. Outsourcing shortchanges our students and ourselves.
If you think matters of professional responsibility in your discipline matter, if you care about accountability and transparency and fairness and rigor, you can and should teach ethics in your field, whether that’s a course or workshop that meets the requirements for responsible conduct of research education or topics that you integrate into your substantive classes — or both.
There are good reasons to teach in courses that are not about ethics, and it needn't be daunting or hard. There are some straightforward ways to do it and as a practicing professional in your field (they pay you to do what you do at work, right?), you can and you should. Here’s how.
1. Think and talk about your mistakes. Who hasn’t made a mistake at work? A big one? An embarrassing one? One you still cringe thinking about? What did you learn from those mistakes? If you’ve thought about it over the years, can you talk about it, obviously not naming names if that would violate confidences or confidentiality requirements?
How did you learn about, for example: How to deal with a student or colleague who disappoints you or violates your trust? What to and, even more importantly, what not to do when you make a serious professional mistake?
Have you ever looked back on something that seemed perfectly reasonable at the time, and with the value of hindsight, thought "How could I have been such an idiot?" Or, been sitting with someone who’s making a huge mistake and thought "no, no, no!"
If you can find a way to talk about those moments and the lessons you took away from them, your students will learn. Talking calmly and clearly about mistakes you have made will shape them as professionals and as people — and not so coincidentally, the world you are going to live in when they take over. (Another plus: modeling how you deal with hard stuff, and showing that life and careers rarely go in a clean, clear forward path without setbacks will be memorable and they will like you all the more for it.)
2. Articulate one of the lessons that govern your professional life. Where and when did you learn about the value of boundaries and when to refer students to other resources rather than trying to help them yourself? That it’s easier to start out relatively strictly in a course and relax the rules as you go than vice versa? That’s a lesson that extrapolates to a lot of other contexts. How did you learn to set the ground rules for talking to reporters about your work or setting boundaries when acting as a consultant or expert witness? When have you made a hard choice about a professional topic that you found challenging? If the lesson is connected to a mistake, it will be even more gripping to your class.
If you ask the students make a connection to the topic you’re teaching that day, you will likely be surprised and pleased with what emerges. And even if your examples are all from your life in academe, the examples will likely have relevant lessons for students looking at other careers.
3. Talk with students about ethical dilemmas or hard moments they’ve faced (or will face). For years, I’ve asked students to write a short (200 word) description of an ethical dilemma they have faced. (This is an assignment idea from Harris Sondak of the University of Utah, a friend of a friend who was kind enough to talk with me about his teaching techniques and syllabus when I first started teaching ethics in a business school.) Not only does this essay get students thinking about these issues in their own lives, properly managed it creates a wonderful set of discussion topics.
Even if you don’t ask students to do exactly that, or if you adapt and ask them to write about ethical applications of your topic or questions they have, it will tell you a lot about where the students are. In the dilemmas I’ve gotten over the years, the same issues come up over and over again: bosses who put pressure on workers to cut corners to meet deadlines. Perverse incentives in reward systems. Peer pressure. Temptation and rationalization in the face of a desire to succeed. You know, all those human frailties that come up when you work with other people.
And not one of those is hard to connect to the kinds of problems our students will face in what they do after college or grad school. Believe me, they are all cued into power imbalances, fairness, and how to navigate difficult situations. Connect it to how you use what you’re teaching, even if you only do that once in a while, even if it’s only talking about your policy for awarding grades, and you’ll be contributing to their development in a broader way.
Students who’ve never held a job have faced dilemmas in school, like a friend who asked for help with an assignment when it was against the rules to collaborate. That situation is relevant to most every class and a great place to use it is it when you’re discussing the syllabus, especially if that’s all you do on your first day (contrary to advice offered here).
If you’re nervous about flying blind, take a look at the range of ethics resources, including “two-minute challenge” (2MC) collection on Ethics CORE. What’s a 2MC? It’s a problem that you cannot necessarily resolve in two minutes, but comes up and you may need to respond to it in two minutes — or less. It’s the kind of problem that comes up all the time in professional life and you need to be prepared to handle. Use the same simple framework for structuring discussion of your own or other ethical dilemmas.
Don’t come prepared with the “answer,” and do come prepared to point out that you already know what you would do in hard situations (mostly), and that you won’t be going to work with them, so it’s THEIR answers that matter the most. If you are going to opine or editorialize, do it only after they’ve all had their say. Prepare a few questions to keep the discussion going, using the framework as your basis for that.
If you do that, based on real problems people (in the room sometimes!) have faced, you’ll be doing some of the most important things that emerging research on efficacy in ethics education suggest: using short examples that carry emotional punch because they happened to real people. Modeling a way to talk about them. Helping to analyze them by practicing. Over and over. (If any of them are musicians or athletes, ask them to talk about the value of practicing scales or free throws for a useful analogy.)
You’ll be helping your students to anticipate consequences of various actions. Apply labels to what the problems are (deception, temptation, rationalization, slippery slope problems…).
Or pick articles out of the newspaper or journals in your field about someone who’s crossed the line. If you cannot find something, go to Ethics CORE and look at the recent news feed. There won’t be a shortage of examples. Look for the videos. Try out some of the role plays there. Read my most recent book and use some of those examples.
There are lessons that your students will learn from you directly about professional responsibility that you can teach better than anyone else: How you deal with temptation. What to do in the face of a bureaucracy truly stupid rules. What’s the difference between exceeding a 55 mph speed limit and a regulation that 55 parts per million is the allowable limit for contamination in a sample (thanks to Bob Wengert of the University of Illinois philosophy department for that example). How you decide what’s right and what’s wrong. How you act on it. What you’re willing to sacrifice for your principles. (Are they really principles if you’re not willing to sacrifice for them?)
You are a practicing professional. Who better than you to teach your students about professional ethics in your field?
C.K. Gunsalus is the director of the National Center for Professional and Research Ethics, professor emerita of business, and research professor at the Coordinated Sciences Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is the author of The Young Professional's Survival Guide(Harvard University Press).
On or very near your 50th birthday, the U.S. Postal Service will deliver a letter from the American Association of Retired Persons, inviting you to consider membership. And there is no escaping this. “A letter always reaches its destination,” as Lacan says in a different context. Opening it is the closest thing we have to ceremonially marking the passage from young adulthood (very broadly conceived, in a society where “40 is the new 30”) to the higher mysteries of middle age.
As of this writing, my invitation has not arrived. That’s probably just as well: I’ll retire when they pry the pen from my cold, dead fingers. (By then, assuming another 20 or 30 years of life, nobody will be using pens anymore. It will be a teachable moment for younger staff at the coroner’s office.) But this column is scheduled to run on the dreaded birthday in question -- and anyway, I prefer to think of it, not in terms of the AARP letter, but as the moment of transition between the fourth and fifth of Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man.
The playwright’s account of aging is nuanced, if too gender-specific. The fourth age in his schema is “the soldier,” who is “jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel / seeking the bubble reputation / even in the cannon’s mouth.” Here the military imagery counts for less, as such, than his broader point about adult life as the arena of careerism and its ill-tempered complement, egotism. By contrast, the man who has reached the next, less combative period is called “the justice.” Sober as a judge, “with eyes severe, and beard of formal cut,” the fifth-age individual is “full of wise saws, and modern instances / and so he plays his part.”
He has earned his authority. He knows what’s what. He’s at the top of his game. Shakespeare comments on his “fair round belly,” which sounds disobligingly personal, though having one counted as a signifier of success and health in an era when getting enough to eat was more of a problem.
The fifth age is the best time of life, then, Just like the AARP says. Or it might be, if not for a disagreeable awareness that everything is downhill after that. With his “spectacles on nose” and “shrunk shank” (i.e., boney legs), the sixth-age man’s voice begins “turning again toward childish treble, pipes / and whistles in his sound.” In other words, you turn into Grandpa Simpson, pretty much. And the seventh age is full-blown senility -- the period of “second childishness and mere oblivion, / sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”
Come to think of it, even the fifth age might not be so appealing. I suspect that being “full of wise saws and modern instances” might be the euphemistic way of saying you turn into a sententious and garrulous old fart. The letter from AARP might as well be addressed to Polonius. On the bright side, you still have most of your teeth.
Speculating about the possible autobiographical implications of the “seven ages” speech is almost certainly a bad idea. It will just provoke angry comments from people who think that the plays and sonnets were the work of the Earl of Oxford, or possibly Francis Bacon.
This passage, from As You Like It, seems to me an example of the kind of thinking that kicks in circa fifty, when you need to come up with some kind of periodization that will render the course of your life more intelligible. It seems as if your deliberate choices, over time, would be distinct from the element of blind chance, but that’s not how it works. [See correction at end of article.]
But while working that out, there’s also what might be called a cognitive-affective short circuit to deal with. I mean the strong feeling – which an awareness of the arithmetic does not change – that it quite impossible you will be turning 50. No such dissonance seems to accompany the earlier birthdays ending in zero. Reaching 20 or 30 may make you happy or anxious. Hitting 40 can push you to take stock of the people and circumstances around you, to determine whether you want the status quo to remain in effect for the next ten years. But approaching 50 is a completely different order of experience -- perplexing and almost impossible to describe to anyone who hasn’t gone through it.
I have come to think of it as a state of irrational and involuntary disbelief – in particular, an inability to come to terms with even the possibility that so much time has passed. You have been alive for half of a century. This is mathematically obvious but hard to comprehend. Something happens to the metrics in your head; your perspective on time becomes foreshortened. A decade, which once felt like an enormous unit of time, becomes a diminishing fraction of experienced duration.
The feeling is especially weird. The most even-tempered person I have ever met tells me that it left her depressed; the most work-driven, that he couldn’t wait to get the birthday over with, in hopes of not having to think about it any more.
“Reflections at Fifty” by James T. Farrell is an autobiographical piece the novelist wrote in 1954 and reprinted in a collection of his essays by the same title, published the same year. It’s not an especially memorable piece, and in fact I forgot just about everything in it since last reading the book nine years ago, during the centennial of Farrell’s birth. I only remembered the title a few nights ago, while drifting off to sleep, and thought it might be worth revisiting. Unlike most twilight ideas, this one still made sense in the morning.
In a couple of the essays, Farrell recalls spending years writing a novel and then trying to figure out what to call it. Then one day he picked up a volume of poetry by Yeats. This was a good move. Yeats and Shakespeare must be the two poets writing in English whose work is most often pilfered by other authors in search of titles. From his description of the novel – a semi-autobiographical account set in Chicago at the start of the century – it seems likely that Farrell would have preferred to call it “The Remembrance of Things Past.” Proust’s translator had long since claimed that bit of Shakespeare, of course. but a phrase in the closing of Yeats’s “The Lamentations of the Old Pensioner” proved suitable. The final two lines read:
I spit into the face of Time
That has transfigured me.
And so it came to pass that the novel Farrell published his novel The Face of Time in 1953. He quoted the passage from Yeats again in “Reflections at Fifty,” the following year. It definitely seemed as if the poem had inspired some kind of epiphany he hoped would keep him going. (Farrell lived and wrote for another quarter century.)
Just reading the two lines in Farrell’s essay did nothing for me; they blasted down no locked doors. You have to spend some time with the whole poem to get any sense of the power and meaning in Yeats’s crystalline and highly concentrated language. By contrast, Farrell’s autobiographical musings are as prosy as they can be. But while waiting for the calendar to turn, and the letter to reach its destination, I find his thoughts serviceable to the needs of the moment.
“I, too, spit in the face of time,” he says, “even though I am aware that this is merely a symbolic expression of a mood: Time slowly transfigures me just as it transfigures all of us. There is no security in an insecure world. There is no final home on a planet where we are homeless children. In different ways, we find a sense of security, of permanence, or of home – for a while. To me, impermanence renders everything good or beautiful all the more rare. It stimulates my ambition and it strengthens the stoicism which is at the root of my outlook about experience. Those were some of my thoughts and feelings as I approached my fiftieth birthday.”
They point, I think, in the right direction.
NOTE: In the first published version of this column, I proposed that the speech was composed while Shakespeare was actually in the fifth age, since it appeared in The Tempest, often taken to be his last play. A reader points out that this was wrong, since the scene is from As You Like It, a middle-period play. But I am not about to let factual evidence ruin such an elegant theory. It is too early to plead senility, but clearly memory is the first thing to go.