Nov 11, 2011

Lessons From the Ethics in Business Education Workshop (part 2 of 2)

ethics business teaching eduction assessment best practices AACSB philosophy partnership
Back at Fayetteville State University last spring, I developed and delivered a workshop for faculty of the School of Business and Economics, titled Best Practices for Addressing Challenges in Teaching Ethics.  It was the third of a set of workshops I provided as part of the Ethics in Business Education Project, a collaboration between philosophers -- brought in as subject-matter experts in Ethics -- and business educators, the main goal being improvement of teaching and assessment of Ethics in FSU's Business courses and curriculum. 

For this particular workshop, I reflected on my years of teaching a variety of Ethics courses -- some of them straight-out theory courses, some of them various "applied" ethics courses -- as well as other courses in which ethical content either inevitably entered into components or key concepts of the course (e.g. Intro to Philosophy, Social-Political Philosophy, World Religions, and all the history of Philosophy courses) -- or where discussions involving Ethics always seemed to arise, whether I'd intended them to or not (e.g. Critical Thinking, Religion in American Culture, and other Religious Studies classes).  What I learned through experience in the classroom, thinking about what had worked and what had failed, broader-scope comparison and rumination, and redesigning courses, components, and content was that -- at least in our educational culture -- there were certain critical junctures, certain potential roadblocks, certain places in discussion where students would raise challenges, present problems, present objections, often exhibit strong emotional reactions.  These supply, to use that worn-out phrase, "teachable moments," and my goal for the workshop was to supply business educators with some tools and insights for transforming them into educational opportunities.

What was particularly striking to me when I provided the workshop -- and I wrote a little about this in part 1 of this post back in Spring -- was that the very issues, precisely the sort of misunderstandings and emotional reactions, exactly the sort of problems instructors could expect -- and sometimes dread -- to face in teaching about or even just bringing up Ethics matters -- those were what I encountered on the part of some of the Business professors while I was providing them the EBEP workshop.

This was not entirely unanticipated.  The resistances that students exhibit -- both arising in themselves and externalized towards the material, the class, the professor, even other students -- are the sort that can be expected as both spontaneous and culturally conditioned reactions when one starts to talk about right and wrong, good and bad, better and worse.  In fact, if instead of reading summations, consulting textbooks, taking the shortcuts provided by Cliff Notes versions of ethical theories, one reads the actual works of classic authors -- reads through them, not just skims them for main points, one of the repeated themes that gradually emerges is that Ethics -- teaching, thinking about, learning, and applying Ethics -- is no simple matter and involves processes vulnerable to being short-circuited by any number of failings residing not necessarily in the matter being taught or thought out, but in the learner, deficits often assuming the form of a defensiveness that already "knows it all", and thus not only does not need to, but cannot effectively be taught.

One might think, of certain interlocutors in Plato's dialogues, Meletus, for instance in the Apology, who brings the baseless capital charges against Socrates after putting his lack of docility, his uneducability, due not to intellectual but moral failings, out on display.  Or, one might recall the passages in which Aristotle an Epictetus upbraid readers of Philosophy who imagine that by acquiring knowledge of Ethics on an intellectual basis, they have become in any way better -- both of them make the point that by taking such a stance, by eschewing the more difficult commitment to practical application of what they think themselves to know, they assure and unveil their own deeper ignorance of moral theory and its demands. Already walking in, I knew I'd face some resistance, some attempts to take us off track, some efforts to take over the workshop conversation -- for three reasons.

First, in a previous workshop (during which I introduced Business faculty to rudiments of five main ethical theories and how they might be applied), I'd already found myself in the surreal position of being lectured by one of the workshop participants on how I myself was presenting basic moral theories incorrectly (since I wasn't, as he proposed, and as he'd done in a recently published article, treated them all as essentially just versions of more or less enlightened Egoism).  Second, anyone who has conducted a committee or departmental meeting with faculty, let alone provided workshops for them, knows that when placed in the roles of students, they tend to exhibit the very ranges of negative behaviors which they decry in their own students.  Third, my workshop was saddled with two characteristics that almost always induce some of the participants undervaluing both the content and the expertise of the presenter:  I offered it to them for free, for one, and for another, their attendance (since this was part of their strategy for AACSB reaccreditation) was mandated by the Dean.  Freud was right – if you want people to value something, even when it’s something good, you need to charge them.

The same types of behavior, the same responses and challenges, which often render instructors – particularly those without the sort of specialized training in Ethics and irreplaceable (and often, bruising) experience in thinking, applying, arguing through ethical matters which Philosophy programs and the practice of teaching Philosophy provide – uncomfortable, even unwilling to discuss ethical issues as such, let alone deliberately approach on introduce Ethics content, which does indeed possess its pitfalls, taking even the prepared teacher unawares sometimes in the midst of a lesson or discussion –those same types of behavior were replicated, reiterated in a reflexive way, by the Business faculty ostensibly there to learn best practices for preparing for such seemingly unpredictable predicaments, turning them into valuable lessons on multiple levels

Rather than attempt to summarize -- and thus be tempted to expand upon and digress further along points of -- all of the ideas we ranged over in the relatively short (1 1/2 hour), but almost boisterous  workshop -- having already made the slides and even video of the session publicly available -- I'm going to concentrate on just a few portions that illuminate the heart of the matter.

While this is not an exclusive list -- and if you think of any broad concern I left out, by all means let me know in the comment section -- in my experience, the most common problems, roadblocks, detours that arise when approaching matters of Ethics in college classes are these

  • Issues arising from students' emotions, attitudes, experiences
  • Standpoints (e.g. relativism) that stand in the way of ethical inquiry, reasoning, and evaluation
  • Inexperience in working with multiple perspectives
  • Questions that seem very difficult or problematic to answer
  • Lack of actual common vocabulary or concepts
Is this a listing of mutually exclusive, non-overlapping matters or phenomena?  By no means, and it was not intended to be such. In fact,, in any given student, class (even instructor), several of these may combine and complicate, even lie concealed under each other.  Some of these stem particularly from our late modern culture and from the moral conditions and actualities of our educational institutions, which have become and remain all too intellectually and emotionally allergic to any substantive inquiry into Ethics.  Some of this is the result of certain lacks of development on students' own parts -- which to be sure, they're not entirely responsible or -- parents, educators, culture, and peers exercise key roles in forming young people's moral manifolds -- but do bear some responsibility in, since after all the governing assumption of higher education is that it is being provided to developing or developed, more and more autonomous adults.

These broad categories represent the types of factors that can easily result in a class session turning into a failure, either raucous or quietly instructive -- but they can also, with some understanding and effort, be prepared for, and then with adequate practice, be transformed into excellent opportunities to drive home quality lessons about Ethics, the sort that keep them thinking after the class session, even after the semester ends.

Here, I'll just discuss two of these categories very briefly, since in my view those were the main ones motivating the challenging responses I got and dealt with from the very Business faculty who were ostensibly thinking about, discussing, and learning best practices for dealing with these common problems.  Emotions coming into play -- both positive and negative -- reinforced by appeals to their own experience or expertise was one common source of problems.  Another was the sort of questions that I call, with a deliberate double-entendre, challenging.  So, let's start with those.

Some of the examples which I gave were:
  • But, it’s legal, isn’t it?
  • But what people really do is. . . . Right?
  • This is so black and white. Who doesn’t see. . .?
  • Isn’t this just a gray area?
  • What if there’s more to the situation?
  • Aren’t you just assuming that we already accept this ethical theory?
These are challenging in one sense.  They are questions that easily stymie a would-be instructor who has not thought them through, mapped out and traversed those grounds multiple times.  And this is because they represent actual concerns, they can be genuine and deep philosophical questions that call out for adequately developed answers.  They are often challenging in another sense, since they're often not really the expression of a genuinely questioning attitude, desirous of making progress in understanding, but rather something like a defense mechanism, assertions masquerading as questions, attempts to bring the often uncomfortable exposure of disagreement, potential failure, moral demands and evaluations, to a close, to end inquiry.

All of these, with the exceptions of the "gray area" and "legal" ones, came up -- or rather out of the mouths of the workshop participants.  One of them stressed several times (to a professor who teaches Ethics!) that Ethics is complicated, that there's always a lot of particular factors that have to be looked into, and worried that I was trying to oversimplify matters.  And so, I reminded him that, while, yes, practical application of ethical theories does have to take into account many particulars, that is already something that ethical theories stress, and that to focus on the general is not to negate or rule out but actually to better illuminate the particular -- as well as that what we were actually focusing on in the workshop was how they could reach and teach their own students better.

Another professor kept coming back to his conviction that it was all really quite simple.  Instead of teaching all these ethical theories and applying them, and then assessing the students on their knowledge and ability to apply theories, we should be teaching students how to be good people and assessing them on whether they are in fact good or bad. While acknowledging that such are the ultimate goals of Ethics, I reminded him that as a school, they were already committed to assessing student learning of ethical theories and demonstrable abilities in applying theories to cases -- and that this workshop was primarily about ways in which they might teach Ethics to their students better.

The professor who had kept telling me and the workshop participants in a previous workshop that all of this was besides the point because it had been scientifically demonstrated that we are all egoists, so that Egoism (which would somehow naturally morph into Virtue Ethics) was the only theory we ought to be considering -- he reverted to type in this workshop as well, and I had to use the tack of saying that while that was a very interesting meta-ethical issue, which we could discuss at another time, the workshop now in process was actually about. . . .

What really underlies all of these -- and others which I've skipped over -- reactions (at least in this case, pretty easily identifiable as such), was the sort of strong emotional responses that commonly occur when moral matters are brought up, particularly when they're being examined and explored at length, rather than quickly resolved.  I suspect that this is one of the areas of Ethics that actually is and generally remains poorly understood not only by students, not only by instructors who are not experts in Ethics, but even by many of us who are have studied that discipline extensively, who have worked, published, conversed, and taught in that field for years -- awareness of how the entire affective dimension of human being, relationships, desires, emotions, needs, habits, attitudes interpenetrates and interacts with (and when poorly ordered, infects) our intellectual, cognitive, argumentative activities and positions.

What I'll say about that dimension and about education, to bring this to a close, is this: Studying moral philosophy -- perhaps not so much in a strictly academic way -- but in a more vital, experiential  manner, whereby one connects with and converses with great thinkers through the medium of their texts, measuring one's own life, experiences, choices, stances, commitments,  and evaluations against the distinction, examples, arguments, explanations one progressively learns from them -- is one important way whereby an attentive practitioner becomes better aware of this affective dimension in self and in others, to discern better where and how we get it wrong or right.  Teaching Ethics is ultimately one of those pedagogical activities in which, when done well or at least when one is moving closer to doing it well, one of the tests for whether the subject-matter has been mastered is the degree to which it guides the very teaching of it.  And that remains, it strikes me, a subject in need of further exploration.