Ethics and Instruction

by Ray Mort, Retired English Faculty

Many professions require a course in workplace ethics; however, to my knowledge, this has not been a requirement for teaching in higher education.  Yet, during my 30 years of teaching, a number of times I encountered situations which resulted in a struggle of conscience.  I did take an ethics course in philosophy, which I suppose helped somewhat in determining a right course of action, but, in the end, I still puzzle over some of my decisions.

In this issue, I’ll write about a few of the dilemmas I encountered without revealing how I handled them.  Then, in a subsequent issue, detail how I resolved the issues.  The one commonality most have is that the situations occurred early in my career, when I was a new teacher, new hire, or temporary, so didn’t have a network to consult about my decisions.

  1. At a large university where I was on a three-year contract, a large corporation donated 50 computers to the English department at a time when computers were hugely expensive.  I was asked to join with a large number of adjuncts and sit at desks where the computers were installed in order to take a photograph and send back to the donating organization.  The trouble was that the picture was supposed to be of students using the machines.  Furthermore, after the picture the computers would be taken from the classroom and given to full-time faculty members to use in their offices.

Dilemma: Should I participate in the deception or not?

2. I started my career working at a very small institution with most of the positions financed by government grants.  As such, when the grants came up for renewal, federal law required a posting to be made on a public bulletin board.  I was privately informed by my supervisor that the renewal had been posted, but I was not to tell a particular faculty member about it who they hoped to “get rid of.”  The supervisor indeed posted the notice–the legality had been met–but then the supervisor stapled an innocuous announcement over it so it couldn’t be seen.  I’d had no difficulties with the particular instructor.

Dilemma: Should I go along or do something else?

3. I had arrived early on the day of my first class at my first tenure-track position.  A knot of staff was gathered in front of the doors, including a couple security officers.  Since the doors were still locked, I joined them thinking I’d strike up some friendly relations at my new institution.  They were joking and very welcoming.  Then, after about 15 minutes of banter, one of the security officers told an overtly racist joke (it was an all-white group).

Dilemma: How should I respond?

4. Early in my career, I used a writing prompt asking students to analyze someone they admired, the purpose really was a value-clarification activity.  To my horror, one student handed in a draft about his choice: James Earl Ray.

Dilemma: First Amendment vs. personal reaction

5. A student was taking my freshman comp class for the third time, after receiving an A- in each of her prior attempts.  She had explained to me the nursing program was highly competitive and that without straight A’s she would be put at a disadvantage.  Unfortunately, when I’d calculated her grade at end of term, she was at an A- again, although only off from an A by a few points.

Dilemma: Do I modify the grade?

6. A student approached me one time and asked if I’d give testimony to his character at an upcoming trial.  He was a good student, earning excellent grades and freely participated in class discussion which benefited the class.  I told him I could only testify to his classroom demeanor and work, and he said that would be fine.  The next day on the front page of the local newspaper, I read about someone who was about to go to trial for raping inmates at a teenage girls’ detention center.  That “someone” was my student.

Dilemma: Do I testify or not?

7. My department chair pulled me aside one day shortly after being hired and pointed out a student meandering and gesticulating down the hall.  The student was obviously suffering from some brain disorder which manifested itself in severe speech and motor impediments.  The chair informed me that the student had managed to pass all the classes required to obtain a degree save one: the class I and only two other veteran professors taught.  He went on to say that should the student ever appear in my class, I was not to pass him under any circumstance as the college would become a “laughingstock” upon his graduation.

Dilemma: How to respond to this?

There are many situations we may find ourselves in that we probably resolve with the help of others.  However, there are times when we must keep our own counsel.  At those times we’re alone with our conscience, what do we do?


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