Monday, September 17, 2012

Teaching Ethics in a Large Class Setting

In 2004, the Commission of 125--a collection of the top civic, educational, cultural, political, and business leader in Texas charged with studying the University of Texas and offering advice for improvement--released a report of its findings.  Among their recommendations was the exhortation that all University of Texas students "examine questions of ethics and the attributes of effective leadership."  In the wake of Enron and other corporate scandals, among many other ethically questionable happenings across the US, it has become clear that universities have a responsibility to ensure that their graduates leave with an awareness of what are generally considered moral imperatives (e.g. don't cheat, keep your promises, do your duty); an ability to recognize when a moral imperative has been violated; and well-developed skills in ethical analysis.

In response to the recommendation of the Commission of 125, the College of Undergraduate Studies began to offer the possibility of "flagging" certain courses with an Ethics and Leadership Flag.  The Ethics and Leadership flag is one of six flags in a new core curriculum currently being instituted by individual colleges and schools at UT.  To fulfill the core curriculum requirement, students must take (and pass!) at least one course that carries an Ethics and Leadership flag. To flag their course, instructors submit a description of their course objectives, sample readings and activities, and possibly a syllabus to a committee charged with ascertaining that the course meets the requirements of the Ethics and Leadership flag ("at least one-third of the course grade must be based on work in practical ethics, that is, what is involved in making real-life ethical choices"). 

A recent initiative of the College of Undergraduate Studies has focused on redesigning large lecture courses (100+ students) to carry the Ethics and Leadership flag.  In Fall 2011, Jess Miner approached me about adding the flag to my Introduction to Ancient Rome course (Classics was one of the "target departments" for this initiative, and also the field in which Jess holds a PhD).  I was intrigued--the history of ancient Rome is rife with ethically questionable actions, after all!  At the same time, I was unsure how I would be able to add more content to a course that was already overflowing.   I realized that, in order to integrate the ethics component fully and devote enough time to practicing ethical analysis with the students, I would need to shift at least some of the content delivery out of the classroom. 

I was a bit reluctant to change the design of a course that, frankly, was working very well and seemed to be well-received by students.  At the same time, I loved the idea of integrating pragmatic ethics and getting students to see how the lessons of ancient Rome might have applications to their own lives.  After a lot of mulling and consulting with different people, I finally settled on a plan for redesigning the class: I would pre-record the delivery of the Roman history content (essentially, the in-class lectures) and have students watch these outside of class.  In class, we would work though a set of case studies involving ethically questionable actions (e.g. Rape of the Sabines; Brutus' deception and misuse of Lucretia's body to end monarchy and found the Roman Republic).  In other words, I'd "flip" my class.

I did most of my flipping from June-August 2012.  The redesign was funded jointly by Liberal Arts ITS and the Provost's office at UT and I benefited tremendously from the advice of Mike Heidenreich in LAITS and several members of the Center for Teaching and Learning staff (in particular Stephanie Corliss, Mike Wallace, Erin Reilly, and Mario Guerra).  I consulted frequently with Jess Miner to select my case studies, get tutored in the basics of Deni Eliot's Systematic Moral Analysis, and to work through my approach to teaching the case studies.  Among the many lessons I learned this summer: designing and creating a good class is a team effort. 

We started our second case study in class today--Brutus, Lucretia, and the end of the Roman Monarchy.  On Mondays, I use i>clicker questions to review material from the out of class lectures and assigned reading of a short selection from an ancient primary source.  The aim is to bring out key points for our detailed ethical analyses on Wednesdays (on Fridays, one of the TAs leads a review of the out of class material that I don't cover).  A couple of the key issues today: the fact that Brutus himself was a member of the Tarquin clan; and the topic of deception. I continue to be impressed by the students' perceptive comments; their eager participation; their preparation (about 75% of them get the i>clicker questions right); and the natural way that they are using ethics to deepen their understanding of the complexities of Roman history.  It's not just that they are learning about ethics; it's that their learning of Roman history/culture seems to be significantly deeper than that of previous students in this course precisely because the ethics component encourages them to think harder about the subject matter.

On Saturday, in the aftermath of the bomb threat and evacuation, I posted a note on (a site we are using for discussion) suggesting that they could apply what they knew about moral laws and ethics to the UT administration's late evacuation of campus.  Within an hour, a pretty active conversation erupted, with a range of viewpoints.  I was so impressed to see how quickly and easily they were able to highlight the important issues and make arguments pro and con.  It was an impressive demonstration of student learning.

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