Ethics means a degree of trust

July 20, 2007

Being an 'ethical lecturer' is about being sensitive to your students' learning and pastoral needs, allowing them to express themselves and setting an example by your behaviour. Harriet Swain reports.

You're a good researcher. You're a good teacher. In fact, you're considered an all-round good chap to have around the university. But are you ethical?

In considering the question "what is a good teacher?" there is a tendency to focus on technical and performance-related issues, says Bruce Macfarlane, head of educational development and director of the Centre for Research in Tertiary Education at Thames Valley University. But what students really want to know is whether they can trust you.

In other words, can they trust you to assess them fairly; to give them the chance to contribute to discussions; to allow them to express their views without being censored or humiliated.

"Academics often talk about academic freedom to express their views but more rarely mention the crucial importance of making the same freedom possible for students," he says. He argues that in order for learners to think critically and challenge conventional wisdom, the lecturer's first ethical consideration must be to protect and foster student academic freedom.

"This will not happen by simply stating, 'you can say what you like', but by demonstrating to students through your own actions that they can trust you and do not have to self-censor," he says. "There are moral virtues or excellences of character here which are vital, such as respectfulness, sensitivity and fairness."

Christopher Megone, a senior lecturer in philosophy and director of the Inter Disciplinary Ethics Applied Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Leeds University, says lecturers need to be honest. He argues that they should display appropriate attitudes to openness and disclosure, as well as respect for confidentiality when necessary.

Courage is another important virtue, he says. You need to be willing to present yourself as you are, rather than a persona, and to be prepared to put possibly unpopular views up for discussion. At the same time, you need to be aware of potential harm to students in discussing certain topics, or carrying out practices that may conflict with religious or cultural beliefs, such as biological sciences experiments requiring students to uncover an ankle normally kept covered.

Macfarlane says you need to be open in the way you evaluate your own practice, striking a balance between defensiveness in the face of criticism and quiescence to any ill-founded or malicious remark. You also need the courage to innovate and improve as a teacher. "It is easy to slip into a teaching style based on doing things the same way time after time without trying to take the odd risk by teaching in a different way," he says.

On the other hand, you shouldn't be reckless by experimenting with your lecturing style or assessment practice at the expense of students. "Courage demands striking a balance between these two extremes," he says, "to take calculated risks to stretch oneself as a lecturer and benefit students in the process."

You need to be aware of your position of relative power in relation to the students, and not exploit it, adds Megone. You also have to understand that it makes you into an example. So being punctual and returning work on time are important because they encourage students to have the same attitude.

Students need to be able to trust their lecturer not only for their intellectual development, he says, but also on pastoral matters, and for things that cut across this divide. This involves practical issues from thinking about the setup of your room, to the teaching environment and how you speak.

Graeme Gooday, senior lecturer in history and philosophy of science and director of learning and teaching at Leeds, says it comes down to basic professionalism. This means respecting your students as autonomous adult learners, not exploiting their lack of knowledge, not choosing topics that are likely to cause offence, encouraging them to respect their fellow students on a reciprocal basis, and ensuring that any problem or borderline case is treated as a matter of negotiation.

"It would be somewhat patronising to make any more overt attempts than the above to foster a sense of ethics in our students," he says. "Our teaching is not primarily to make them better people, but rather to enhance their learning and help them become better learners."

But John Strain, a director of the Centre for Applied and Professional Ethics, a charitable company set up to aid higher education in the study and research of ethics, says lecturers should pay more attention to the effect of education on the whole person. He suggests that education that simply tries to make people better engineers or better historians is too instrumental. "We need to be not just good engineers in the sense of technically competent," he says. "But also in the sense of being able to reflect what it is all for, how we are going to benefit from it."

He says lecturers need to approach ethics not just as a set of rules to be rigidly obeyed but as a way of finding an accommodation between extremes, of being sensitive to particular circumstances. "Teaching subjects ethically is about identifying what are the virtues relevant to the discipline you are teaching and getting a balance between the rules, codes and principles, and the particular circumstances that you are addressing."

Lecturers need to encourage their students to scrutinise the rules of conduct that govern the way people act. They need to work out, for example, whether certain ways of behaving are the norm because they are the most financially lucrative, or because they provide some other benefit.

Strain believes ethics should be incorporated throughout the higher education curriculum but says lecturers should be explicit about this. If you're trying to be good, you might as well let everyone know about it.

Further information

Bruce Macfarlane, Teaching with Integrity , RoutledgeFalmer, 2004

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