Lessons from the EBEP Workshop (part 1 of 2)

I've delivered my last workshop as a Philosophy faculty member to educators in the School of Business and Economics (SoBE) at Fayetteville State University.  This finality is amicable in tone and tenor -- I'm simply leaving FSU in June for opportunities elsewhere (I'll say more in a future post), so if I return to provide further workshops, curriculum review, or assessment assistance, it will be  formally (rather than just functionally) as a consultant in Ethics pedagogy and assessment, rather than as a Philosophy prof.

It's certainly not the last workshop I'll be providing dealing with issues, programs, or initiatives in Ethics -- I intend to further develop and draw on the materials, bases, lessons, and collaborative model of the Ethics in Business Education Project (EBEP) which I co-founded with a Management professor, Beth Hogan, originally to assist SoBE in improving their Ethics assessment required for their specialized disciplinary accreditation with the Association to Advance College Schools of Business (AACSB)  It's not even the last workshop of the EBEP series -- later this month, we're bringing in a former FSU Philosophy prof, Michelle Darnell, who we lost to the Warrington School of Business (University of Florida) last year to give another workshop in Business Ethics pedagogy.  What becomes of EBEP at FSU after I leave depends largely on what the involved Business faculty choose to do with it and whether any of the remaining Philosophy faculty choose to step into the engaging space of dialogue we've created and take up the project.

I'm going to indulge in a little retrospective about what we've achieved with the collaborative project in its first year -- but put off fuller assessment for a followup post after Darnell's workshop -- and then discuss something very interesting, even humorous if you look at it in the right light, that occurred throughout the course of my last workshop, driving doubly home its lessons to me, if not to every one of the participants it was designed for and delivered to.

Back last Spring, I accepted an invitation to cross disciplinary divides, as well as physically cross over the train tracks which divide our campus into two, with a well marked-upgrading rubric for assessment of student's knowledge and application of ethical theories to case studies.  This was one tool, a central component, of the ethics assessment required for continuing quadrennial AACSB accreditation.

A few quick asides here about program- or school-wide assessment of student learning.  For many faculty members, assessment simply a necessary make-work evil, a way administrators, chairs, and some other faculty members bedevil them into wasting valuable class time to provide them with some report's meaningless measurements -- I know because not all that long ago, I held that mindset (or rather expressed it quite vocally!).  It was in fact the CLA that started my change of mind about the value and potential of assessment, but that's a story for another post.

Actually, assessment of student learning is quite valuable, and more importantly, if done well, it captures and conceptualizes something real.  Now, with the sort of assessment SoBE was and is conducting of student learning about ethical theories (or similarly, the kind of assessment FSU as an institution does with CLA Entering Freshmen and Rising Junior exams), several different dimensions of data are derivable from the collected and graded student responses.

First of all, assessment gives you a synchronic snapshot of where students are at any given point.  Are they grasping the material?  Are they progressing in building understanding of key concepts, distinctions, theories?  Are they able to apply these?  Are they able adequately to explain themselves, the claims and judgments they make, the reasons for the stances they adopt? Can they  -- for instance -- actually set this down on paper when required to do so?

Second, assessment also offers two different diachronic perspectives.  If you assess cohorts of students more than once with instruments that are substantively the same or similar enough, you can get an idea of whether, how much, and in which ways that cohort of students improved over that time period -- hopefully, though not necessarily, as a result of your pedagogy!  And, if you assess different groups of students at roughly the same point in their education from one year or semester to the next, comparing their scores helps determine whether there is noticeable improvement from one period to another, which in turn helps you determine whether efforts you make to improve pedagogy result in gains in student learning.

Three last remarks:  To do assessment of student learning well, it is absolutely vital to have a solid understanding, both in its generalities and in its specific aspects, of the subject matter one hopes to assess.  One also needs to have some definite corresponding idea of how to structure the assessment tool, so it actually gets at what you are claiming to assess, and provides students genuine, non-confusing opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge or abilities. Finally, it almost goes without saying -- but is often forgotten -- that you can only really look for evidence where it would actually be, or translated into student learning terms, your students must have been afforded opportunities to effectively learn what you're assessing.

So, I was invited over to the School of Business and Economics, in the capacity of a subject matter expert in Ethics, originally to evaluate, then help them improve their grading rubric used in their ethics assessment. That first visit consisted in a succession of "Oh. . . well. . .  that's another problem" moments, each of which revealed a new difficulty, problem, or need.  Business professors didn't see these until they were brought to light and pointed out.  Ensconced over on the other side of campus, we Philosophy professors didn't suspect their existence, or rather had no definite suspicions that, like breath-stealingly frigid water concealed under seemingly solid sheets of ice, they might reside there in the ethics resources, pedagogy, and assessments relied on by the Business faculty.  Actually, I was prepared to some degree for the conversation, because I had been giving considerable thought to, and had started writing a grant for, establishing an Ethics Across the Curriculum program at FSU.

Just to give some idea of how this played itself out, in the four somewhat hazily defined scoring areas of the rubric I had been brought in to evaluate (we would later clarify these by creating well-defined sub-areas), one focused on whether students could apply "ethical systems to the case," naming three such "systems": Egoism, Utilitarianism, and Relativism.  Right there, alarm bells went off, and red flags started flying, for several different reasons.

First, while Utilitarianism is in fact a well-defined ethical theory -- or rather, given  differentiations like those between Quantitative and Qualitative Utilitarianism, a family of closely associated theories -- with its own canonical figures, its texts, its general approach and focus -- one cannot automatically assume the same about Egoism.  In some cases, or meanings given to the term, it is really something more like a basic problematic stance standing in the way of more developed ethical theory.  There are figures to whom one can point as representatives of Egoism -- but do we mean the advocacy of selfishness as a virtue of Ayn Rand (certainly popular among businesspeople)?  Or do we mean something like Rational Choice/ Decision Theory?  Do we mean the everyone-for-himself, war of all against all egoism of Hobbes?  Or do we mean something like rational self-interest as we might find it articulated of Adam Smith?  Clarifying precisely what is meant by "egoism" is necessary if we want to call it a "theory," let alone a "system" in any sense.  Relativism, on the other hand is clearly not an ethical system -- assuming of course that by that term we mean what those in the discipline of ethics do, which may be roughly put as: the stance that moral values are not objective, but rather vary relatively to those who hold, espouse, or apply them.

Second, it turned out that this shortcoming of "Relativism" as a theory did not constitute a real problem, since the section discussing ethical theories in the Business textbook did not mean anything close to what that term means in the discipline of Ethics!  The author had -- as sometimes does happen in Applied Ethics -- i.e. "X Ethics" or "Ethics of . . . X," Nursing, Business, Communication, Legal, Criminal Justice, what have you -- either just made up their own terminology in ignorance of  the actual discipline of Ethics, or they had misappropriated terminology with determinate, longstanding, well-established uses to apply to their own pet theories.  And, someone who did not have a strong grounding in Ethics as a discipline -- more than just a class or two back as an undergraduate or in grad school -- and who was not spending much time with Ethics literature, would never suspect that such terms had quite divergent meanings:  a meaning those involved in Ethics discourses would expect others to rely upon, and then the idiosyncratic meaning created by the textbook's author and taught by the unsuspecting professor to equally unsuspecting students.  "Univeralism" turned out to be another such "theory" that was in the textbook, therefore being taught in classes as such, and was then proposed as an alternate, fourth theory students might engage with in the assessment.

There were a number of other problems with the rubric as well, and these came out in the discussion, but just following out the thread of ethical theories, what else was problematic with the rubric, the assessment as a whole, and the curriculum these were coming out of and were also supposed to assess?  Well, beyond weird, idiosyncratic, ill-defined additions to the normal panoply of ethical theories -- "Universalism" was being used to designate, not an actual theory, but any theory that held moral values to be objective! -- besides uses of terminology inconsistent with the mainstream discipline of Ethics, and beyond (possibly) assuming anti-ethical-theoretical stances (like Relativism) to be actual theories, there was one more major problem.

Look at even rather substandard (though highly popular) Ethics textbooks, like Rachels' Elements of Moral Philosophy, White's Contemporary Moral Problems,  Thiroux's Ethics: Theory and Practice (and it's worth checking out some of the negative comments on these), and what will you find?  At the very least, treatment of other major ethical theories.  At a minimum other Ethics textbooks -- and good Business Ethics textbooks (or sections on Ethics in, e..g Management textbooks)  -- will discuss Deontological Ethics (usually restricting themselves to Kant) and Virtue Ethics.  Sometimes you luck out and they have decent discussions of various ethical theories grounded in some sort of religious basis (in some respects, poor discussions of these is worse than no discussion), like the rather abstract Divine Command Ethics, or Natural Law Ethics (yes, granted, the point of Natural Law is to be able to appeal to secular as well as religiously informed reason -- just talking about how textbooks present it at times).  In a Business setting, Contractarian Ethics is well worth introducing to students (not least as a possible grounding for the rather fuzzy "Justice" or "Rights" Ethics you see discussed in some textbooks).  Another theory or perspective worthy of mention is the Ethics of Care.

Each of these represents a well-articulated ethical standpoint with its own canonical texts, representative thinkers, key and distinctive concepts, and general approach.  I would even add that a good survey of Ethics ought to include not only an introduction but some grappling with the stance and the problem of Emotivism -- not least since I do buy Alasdair MacIntyre's argument in After Virtue that it is a default position of our late modern and fragmented moral life, embodied in many subjects, supported and set forth by many elements of our culture.

So, where do you start then, when you're brought in to evaluate a rubric, when you're taking the opportunity to infuse one of your areas of specialization -- Ethics -- into the curriculum that badly needs it (at FSU, there is no generally required Ethics course, none that counts as a Core course, and there is currently no Business Ethics course) needs it badly, and needs it taught well -- and each further turn in the conversation opens a vista onto another problem-strewn landscape?  At that point, you can either quit or advise the Business people to just leave Ethics to the philosophers, or you can lend a hand, work collaboratively.  And that is what we decided to to, forming the Ethics in Business Education Project.

The whole idea was to bring in philosophers, not to replace Business educators, to take over their roles, to teach the Ethics content in their classes, but rather to work with them, to "teach the teachers," and thereby to improve student learning in an indirect but much more sustainable way.  Most of the Business educators were not expected to wholly master yet another discipline, to take on the task of becoming experts in Ethics -- it should be mentioned that there are already a few I can think of at FSU who I would consider experts -- but if we could raise their levels of competence and confidence so that, on the whole, Ethics would be better taught and better assessed in the Business curriculum, we'd have done good service.

At the time we started EBEP, I had planned on remaining at FSU for at least another year or two, and I had no idea how much time my other commitments -- being drawn stage by stage into helping write the Quality Enhancement Plan for FSU, coordinating CLA examinations and a pilot Writing Across the Curriculum program -- would shave off each of my days.  So, we planned big, and we planned systematically. Some of the projects we envisioned would have been very useful, but we simply didn't get to them this year.  In one of those, I was to review all of the textbooks currently used in Business courses at FSU in order first to see what Ethics content they contained, second to evaluate the accuracy or adequacy of their treatments, and third to determine whether they were using terminology correctly.  In addition to a report, I was also going to produce a glossary of ethical terminology indexed to the textbooks.  We had much grander ideas of what resources would be progressively developed and housed in the EBEP website -- in fact, I've recently pared it back down to its bare minimum. 

Some of the other plans we have brought off and seen through successfully.  The assessment rubric has been redesigned, and I developed and provided a supporting workshop for graders, supplementing it by sitting in on additional grading sessions. We decided on the most pressing needs for additional workshops, where my expertise would be most profitably invested, and decided to focus the first (here's the PowerPoint) on the basics of Ethical Theories and what to look for as evidence of good student applications of those theories.  The workshops this semester focus on Ethics pedagogy, mine specifically on common challenges, problems, and questions that I have seen come up in class after class, year after year, so consistently that I've given a lot of thought not only on how to respond to them, but how to prepare to turn them into 'teachable moments" and how to structure courses to improve student learning in Ethics.

That leads me to what it is that my next post about EBEP will discuss in detail.  Something very funny, but also highly educative took place during the last workshop.  It was very animated, and there was a lot of give and take, back and forth, at times shooting off onto tangential lines of discussion, which I then had to steer back to the workshop.  I fielded all sorts of objections, challenges, arguments  from the Business educators attending -- reminding quite a few of them at points of the limited but definite designated topics of the workshop.  What was particularly interesting is that precisely the sorts of problems I was telling them students would raise and present, exactly the sorts of mindsets they would have to prepare to address, the very same emotional stances and ensuing behavior patterns I advised them about -- a number, though of course not all, of those highly educated, seasoned instructors fell right into them.  And why?  Because we were talking about Ethics. If you watch or listen to the video recently posted on my page (here's the PowerPoint) you'll see or hear me attempting, as diplomatically as I can (and I'm not a particularly patient or well-spoken guy) to get the equivalent of a gifted but very unruly class through the day's material -- which I hope you find as funny as I myself do.

In a follow-up to this post, I'll discuss the contents of that workshop in detail, and tell the droll story of how several off the Business and Economics professors enacted the very student behaviors I was telling them about and arming them to deal with productively.  Here's an interesting ending point to reflect on:  if educators themselves are prone fall into these problematic stances or behaviors during the course of a workshop on Ethics, isn't that even more likely to happen with our students when we teach Ethics?