6 Skills that Promote Moral Engagement | Peg O’Connor

I have become more convinced in recent years that my job as a philosopher, and more particularly as an ethicist, is to teach people valuable skills that enable them to engage in productive, respectful, and transformative moral inquiry and dialogue. My teaching philosophy seems to simplify the more years I teach: equip students with the ethical and conceptual tools to live in a highly complex, rapidly changing and diverse world. I am prepared to say that nothing is harder than this. At the same time, nothing is more rewarding.

One of the courses I regularly teach is Philosophy 247: Applied Ethics. This course is the exemplar of my pedagogical approach. The course revolves around acquiring certain skills that promote moral engagement and facilitate the transformation of long-term trenchant debates. Some of the skills involve identifying the conflicting or clashing values, ranking priorities and considerations, identifying competing rights, values, and virtues, learning how to listen (the big challenge), reframing problems, evaluating the facts, seeing what each side gets right, judging cases to be similar or dissimilar, and turning problems into opportunities. An example will help to clarify the virtues of this skill-based approach. Our class was having a very heated discussion about an article in the New York Times about a mother living on a Native American reservation who had started to sell drugs in order to support her family. Initially students were outraged; there was little to no room for understanding how someone might reach the conclusion that selling drugs is an acceptable or even the only way to provide for one’s family. We then started comparing her actions—selling drugs both on and off the reservation—with other acts that parents might undertake in order to provide for their families. While in general there is disapprobation of stealing, all the students conceded that they would be willing to steal if all other options had been exhausted. From there we were off on an exploration of options, and what counted as legitimate one. We started gathering facts about the exceptionally high rates of unemployment on reservations, which is accompanied by some of the greatest poverty in the country. This raised the question of whether some people are more worthy or deserving to be parents on the basis of their economic class. That started to make some people very uncomfortable while others thought it was a reasonable consideration. At the end of the discussion, some students had more empathy for the mother, while others had little and saw her as a traitor to her people (which prompted another question about whether whites can be traitors to their race in the same way), while others identified poverty and hopelessness as the problems and wanted to explore ways to address them and not just demonize this one person.

Discussion is my primary teaching tool I utilize in the classroom, and I find it is an ongoing challenge to create good productive conversation. With courses the content of which is centrally moral and political, I am constantly interrogating myself about my role as a teacher. How well am I creating an environment in which all students can learn and participate? I am aware of the tremendous power I exercise in the classroom and the ways in which students often believe (mistakenly) that the key to a good grade is agreement with the teacher. I foreground this concern, and make it a point to discuss this very dynamic with my students at the beginning of each semester, and to revisit it throughout the term.

Often it is the case that students like small group discussion but are reluctant to speak in a larger group. The classroom can go from a veritable buzzing beehive of activity to silence of a tomb in my response to my saying “Let’s come back as a large group.” Recently I have generated a list of cards that contain a specific instruction. At some point in the class period, the student must play her card. The cards require students to ask a question, offer an example, rephrase what someone has said, make a comparison to another reading, etc. There is also the wild card that asks students to identify my favorite disco classic by humming the tune. No one has succeeded yet, though I can hope. While the cards are an artificial mechanism, they have worked well, especially for those students who require some sort of external push to contribute. Some of the most initially reluctant students have become active, regular discussion participants.

My strategy in most of the classes I teach is to adopt a chameleon persona. I tell my students that one of the important things that must happen in classes such as these is that multiple perspectives need to be part of the process of inquiry. But this is incredibly hard for students to do, especially when students fear being perceived as ignorant or biased or even in mild disagreement with other members of the class or with me. Thus, when some position is missing or being silenced, I gladly animate it. But I will never preface an argument with “I am just playing devil’s advocate.” To me, that qualifier functions as an apologetic, and does more to locate my beliefs and make a judgment about that particular perspective than anything else. Thus, in a recent discussion of homosexuality and the issue of whether sex education ought to have any information about gay sex, I found myself arguing against its inclusion for a variety of religious and moral reasons. No student was willing to make those arguments, but they have tremendous power in shaping public policy decisions about sex education funding. Oftentimes in the last class period, students will ask me finally to tell them what I really think about these issues. I will not (since I still will be evaluating them) and instead make them guess if they want. Let’s just say that often they get it really wrong, which in many ways I regard as a success.

No matter how great the success of a class, there are always challenges. These challenges can be great pedagogical opportunities as well. One of the most pressing pedagogical challenges I face is working with students for whom English is not their first language. In particular, students who are Hmong or Somali face challenges in our classrooms that are different in kind not only from native speakers of English, but also from speakers of Romance Languages. This means that we face complementary challenges as teachers, challenges for which we are significantly unprepared and lacking in knowledge. How do we work with students who come from a culture having an oral tradition but not a written one? This may affect the work we assign, our expectations for class participation as well as our expectations for how we ought to evaluate students.

One way the question has been framed in my presence several times concerns how we teachers are to be fair to our other students if/when we provide additional or alternative opportunities for these students to rewrite papers or evaluate their work in ways that differ from how we evaluate others’ work. One very blunt way a colleague put the matter was “We are cutting them slack but not the other students.” This “cutting slack” description struck me as very contentious and disagreeable. One assumption that we often labor under is that equality and fairness require exact sameness in treatment. However, this is not often the case, given that people begin at very different starting points and may also have knowledge and abilities that do not neatly translate into some preexisting rubric. I see this often when grading papers, especially when I am evaluating the ways that students can use and understand concepts and make arguments. I’ve worked with students whose written work clearly does not reflect their abilities. By no means is this problem unique to non-native speakers.

Different sorts of assignments present different challenges. With written assignments, I have had students read the assignment back to me, and then say in their own words what I am asking. In other cases where I give an assignment orally in class, I return to my office to send that assignment in writing to the student via email. With paper assignments, I often meet with the students at each stage from outline to final draft. The process may not end with the final draft; on some occasions I have had students talk me through their papers sentence by sentence. In other cases, especially those involving showing the relationship between concepts, I have had students make visual representations, which enabled them to more clearly explain the concepts’ relationships than they could in prose. This is a very labor intensive process, and it is one that I need to explore more fully.

These language-related challenges point toward the broader challenge, which is to create an environment in which students can learn. Meeting this challenge requires a willingness not only to try new pedagogical methods but also a willingness to make mistakes and learn from them. It also requires a willingness to become a student of pedagogy as well, and treat teaching as the art and skill it most surely is.

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