Professional Responsibility

Teaching ethics should be part of the job of all faculty members in all disciplines, writes C.K. Gunsalus.

May 14, 2013

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?

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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).


C.K. Gunsalus

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