15 October 2014

Visioning Integrity

Here's the problem with teaching the humanities at a public R1: the annual ethics training.

Vince wonders why it is so important he train on ethics every year. 
How does ethics training help Vince? 
Please select all that apply
A. It reminds him of his duties under the law.
B. It gives him the knowledge he needs to make ethical decisions.
C. It reduces the likelihood that he will accidentally violate the law or university policy.

"All of the above" is an implicit option: you can check all the answers.  "None of the above" is probably not.  I'm not sure--I haven't started the ethics training myself yet.  I lifted the question from a colleague's Facebook post.  (Complaining about the ethics training is a campus tradition every October; it's a sign of how preoccupied everyone is with other matters this fall that ethics training snark has been hard to come by.)  If this online training is structured as it has been in past years (we have to do it every year), then the software won't let you move on unless you enter something.  So you have to pick an answer, even though none of them are right.  (A) is only right if Vince doesn't already know the law or if Vince's ethical intuitions are so far outside the norms of human interactions that he won't know the ways they differ from the law.  (B) presupposes that Vince is a moron, in which case it's not clear why the State of Illinois chose to hire him in the first place (although, given the state's history, it's not difficult to imagine a plausible yet unethical scenario in which it happens).  Anyone who has spent time among social sciences faculty has to be looking for a footnote to (C).  "Reduces the likelihood"?  By what factor?  How have the makers of the test determined this causality?   How did they measure it?

I have learned, from these tests, that there is an "ethics officer" in my unit and that I'm expected to rat colleagues out to that person.  Does having that information make me more likely to do it?  I'm honestly not sure.  Pretending not to see a colleague copy her campaign flyers on the department copier seems as likely before the training as after.  It's not a quandary I've faced: principles of fairness and professionalism generally seem to hold in my world, and frankly, the people I work with have limited opportunities for malfeasance: they don't consort with vendors, draw the attention of politicians, enjoy extramural realms of influence, or do much of anything that's worth a bribe.  If something untoward did happen (discovering that a colleague was selling grades, for example, or routinely violating student privacy), there is nothing I learn in the ethics training that would alter the steps I would take to address the situation.

If these are the only three answers, then, and if the words of the question are meant to track with some reality external to the logic of the ethics training itself, then the question is meaningless.  The ethics training does not benefit Vince.  But Vince is Us, and there is a reason why we do the ethics training:
D.  It doesn't. An incarcerated former IL governor decided that his sins could best be expunged by requiring every state employee to perform an annual rite of penance.  Vince will be penalized if he doesn't participate, so the training helps him avoid that consequence.
(D) is the truth of the matter.  (D) describes the alleged benefit to Vince honestly, as (A) - (C) do not. (D) isn't part of the training, and it doesn't even exist as a write-in option.

Teaching the Humanities is all about training students to be able to articulate answers like (D): to reason critically about the information they are given, to reject explanations that or narratives that don't square with the facts at hand, to seek the truth that exists beyond and independently of learning tools like Powerpoint slides and textbooks.  It gets harder and harder to do.  Students increasingly come to college conditioned by their K - 12 training to see education as a process of gaming questions like those that form our ethics training.  They have no expectation that the questions they are asked, much less the answers they supply, will lead anywhere but back to the classroom, the learning management system, or the test itself.  It's a struggle to get them to see that coming up with a D is even possible--much less desirable--and getting them to do it well is even more remote.

That's the job--though it becomes difficult to believe in that part of the university's mission, when the institution itself mandates a deliberate curtailing of precisely those critical abilities.

1 comment :

  1. Compliance is not a good foundation for ethics, but it works fine for bureaucratic management of one's underlings.