Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Moral Responsibilities of Professors as Professionals

During the past academic year, I participated in a professional learning community centered around faculty ethics. We read and discussed Rights and Wrongs in the College Classroom: Ethical Issues in Postsecondary Teaching, by Jordy Roucheleau (Philosophy) and Bruce Speck (English). The book is concerned with academic ethics in the classroom.
The book deals with a variety of ethical issues, including academic freedom, neutrality and advocacy in the classroom, grading, faculty-student relationships, conflicts of interest, and professional conduct. One thing that struck me as correct in the book is that the majority of responsibility for ensuring that faculty fulfill their responsibilities as teachers falls on the individual faculty member. But when someone is failing to fulfill their responsibilities, it is the professional obligation of others to address the issue. Such "self-policing" is one of the obligations we have in our professional role, and we would rather do this than grant oversight to administrators, legislatures, or the public, primarily because we are the experts in our field and know what it means to fulfill our professional responsibilities. As the authors put it in their conclusion:
Laws and university policies are not suitable means for addressing most ethical concerns in college teaching, such as the fairness of grades, the appropriateness of assignments, the amount of energy dedicated to course preparation, or the quality of faculty relationships with students...Because teaching does not lend itself to external regulation, instructors have a particular duty to observe ethical principles in their teaching (p. 169-170).
The problem is that many things are hinderances to the reflection and effort required to observe such principles. Heavy teaching loads, increased research demands, increased use of adjunct faculty, and other factors make this more difficult.

There are many things that can and should be done to help faculty fulfill their obligations. One that often arose in the context of our professional learning community was the need for faculty to address this personally and to take responsibility for helping one another deal with our deficiencies. All of the members of our community knew of cases (directly or indirectly) in which faculty were failing to fulfill their teaching obligations in an adequate manner. And many of these were going under the radar, so to speak.

Do readers (i) believe they have a professional responsibility to address cases in which other faculty members are failing to fulfill their classroom obligations?; and (ii) have suggestions for cultivating a commitment to ethical practices in the classroom on a campus?


  1. What a genuine conundrum; every professor and teacher I know has a delicate, daily juggling act between time and responsibilities--an activity that necessarily hampers interaction of any depth with their colleagues.

    In an ideal world, I think the problem of ethical accountability would be aided by a consistently applied hiring criteria--but those who have been on hiring boards know that hiring meetings are one more meeting squeezed in between classes and department correspondence--and also that human beings are more complex than a curriculum vitae.

    But I think of Chesterton writing
    "It is not all having plumes; it is also having a soul in one's daily life"...having a soul in one's daily life acts as a challenge to encourage ethical fidelity in others' daily lives (e.g. those of our academic colleagues).

    Not the mass, but the individual, as one Danish thinker insists.

  2. Mike,

    Great post. Unfortunately, it strikes me (in my experience, anyway) that most professors think of themselves far, far too strongly as independent contractors who have complete pedagogical autonomy with respect to deciding what is, and is not, good or effective teaching. When that classroom door closes at the start of the class, part of it says (for too many) "this is MY realm, butt out."

    My intuition is that until this sort of attitude changes somewhat, we won't even get to the point where we can talk about what ethical teaching is, much less feel obliged to hold others responsible for measuring up to those standards.

  3. I teach at a university that has somehow resisted any serious change in its rules from when it was a community college. There are no evaluations of any courses after one has taught here for two years, no rank, and no title.

    So: I have a colleague who has put less and less work into his courses over the years, and most recently has taken things to a new level. He cancels his classes for full days here and there, openly telling the faculty secretary that he has nothing prepared for that day. On other occasions, he dismisses three-hour long evening classes after less than an hour, on the same pretext. I also frequently find him relaxing in the faculty lounge, talking with others. After as much as twenty minutes (on some occasions), he reveals that he is in the middle of 'teaching' one of his courses and needs to go back and check on his students (who are in discussion groups). More often than not, he comes back to the faculty lounge after this check, says "They're still talking", and continues his little break for another fifteen or twenty minutes.

    Since he is never evaluated by peers or students, there is no way in which these acts officially find their way to the attention of our dean (unless, that is, the secretary has revealed the nature of his excuses to the dean). Also, the climate in my department is such that it would be seen as deeply inappropriate for anyone to mention that his chronically low enrollments might be due to something in his control.

    What's the ethical thing to do?

  4. CP is correct -- too many faculty think of themselves as independent contractors. And event hose who do not would rather circle the wagons (to keep administrators out of faculty affairs) than address professional deficiences in themselves and their colleagues openly and honestly. But in the end, it's students who must demand faculty professionalism. Unfortunately, many of them are at their institutions for the grade -- not the learning -- and will happily accept behavior (I won't even call it teaching) of the sort anonymous describes. No wonder academia lacks the respect of other professions.

  5. Not to be persnickety, but I think it's crucial to keep separate (a) effectiveness in the performance of one's duties, and (b) outright failure to fulfill these duties at all due to negligence, etc.. Most all cases of (b) will of course turn out to be instances of (a), but the reverse doesn't hold: Some people fulfill their duties but incompetently. And there's a lively discussion within the academic world as to what effective teaching is (heck, isn't that what ISW is for?) and perhaps on that question there's space for reasonable disagreement and for a strong sense of faculty autonomy, as alluded to by Chris and by Anon 9:54. But examples like Anon 1:41's strike me as examples of (b): flat out indifference to the serious task of teaching. In other words, there's a big gap between being a bad teacher (not helping students to learn, etc.) and being an unethical teacher (not even meeting minimal standards, such as not cancelling classes on a whim and so on).

    And it's the latter where I think the faculty self-policing function is most important. One of the difficulties here, unfortunately, is the tenure system: Yes, it protects people from meddlesome interference, but it creates some perverse incentives. Most notably, faculty who try to draw attention to unprofessional or unethical conduct amongst their tenured peers in particular are not likely to see much happen to those peers (dismissals of tenured faculty are not unheard of, but rare). So the self-policers don't exactly have the administrative winds at their backs, if you get my meaning. Simultaneously, there's a strong disincentive to introduce discord within a department, given that you may have to have the unprofessional or irresponsible peer as a colleague for decades to come!

    This is a long way of saying, "self-policing, yes" but ALSO "strong administrative oversight with real teeth, yes".

  6. I somewhat agree with Micheal's points, but not entirely.

    Whereas we talk about this sort of thing at ISW, and perhaps even at conferences, I don't find faculty (at least in my experiences) to be all that open to these sorts of discussions -- beyond a pretty superficial level (the experiences of others may obviously differ).

    Also, I think the egregious cases (like the above) generally deal with things on the outside of what one does in the classroom. Not showing up, say, or threatening students, or sleeping with them, and so on. I think there's widespread agreement on this sort of "external professional conduct" -- and even still the independent contractor model (not tenure, I see this as a separate issue) can get in the way.

    My thinking here was more directed towards the cases that have to do with what one does inside the classroom (pedagogical methods, approaches, how one grades, etc). My intuition is that if faculty find it hard to confront one another about the former easy cases, confronting one another on the latter cases will take a serious shift in the way we think of ourselves as teachers. At the very least, we'd have to figure out what those internal things are (not restricted to what entail ineffectual teaching either, I don't think).

  7. I hope there will be more discussion about this greatly important topic! It is disappointingly rare for anyone even to mention our moral responsibilities to our students and to be self-policing (both as professors and as members of a department) in this regard.

    To begin with, I'd be keen to hear how others' departmental and institutional arrangements leave room for this. At my school, a great deal seems to be in place to ensure that these kinds of departmental discussions _cannot_ take place. Anyone who does not wish to be evaluated can choose not to be, and those of us who do have (voluntary) student evaluations have to make a considerable effort in order to have those evaluations looked at by others (not that others are even all that interested in it). So while there might be some good basis for _guessing_ that this or that instructor is not doing a very good job, a big part of the picture is missing.

    There are trends that one picks up on, though. For instance, I have noticed that a considerable number of our dedicated upper-level students, including those who have taken an advanced course in subdiscipline X (sorry, I need to be vague here) seem not to know the first thing about it. It isn't that difficult to sort out that the person here who teaches on subdiscipline X at my school is not well-informed on the issues. Actually, I have noticed at the bookstore that this professor's required texts are generally not even philosophy books: they are, by and large, books written by lay individuals who have little or no education, writing for a wider audience on some topic the instructor presumably deems to be relevantly similar to subdiscipline X (this professor actively sneers at the idea of keeping current, boycotts our colloquium series, etc. He/she is devoted to a worldview that is apparently incommensurate, in his/her mind, with the standard practice of contemporary philosophy... or something).

    So there's an example of something that concerns me: our students, who need to have a good background in subdiscipline X (it's one of the core subdisciplines of philosophy, and comes up everywhere), are apparently not getting what they're signing up for. These are upper-level, required courses, mind you. But what can I say or do without getting _myself_ into trouble in a way that wouldn't help solve the problem, since my colleagues seem not to have a problem with this?

    Any thoughts? How are these things dealt with elsewhere?


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