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Ethics in Teaching


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Dealing With Difficult Group Members

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Ethics in Teaching

(Source: Julia Christensen Hughes, Teaching Support Services, University of Guelph)

During your time as a TA you may find yourself facing an ethical dilemma, or wondering about how to introduce topics of an ethical nature in class. This section is meant to give you some insight into the types of ethical dilemmas that some TAs have unfortunately encountered, as well as ways to foster ethical discussion in the classroom. Please be reminded that should you find yourself facing a situation that you are not sure how to handle ­ there are resources available to support you (see 'Overview of Support Services', or contact your graduate program coordinator).

Ethical Scenarios

Listed below are seven 'real life' scenarios that were developed by a University of Guelph TA, all of which contain ethical dilemmas. For each scenario, consider how you would respond if it happened to you. What are the ethical issues? What alternatives do you have? What are the implications of your various options? To learn about how other TAs would respond ­ visit the TA Web Site . In formulating your responses, you may wish to refer to the nine Ethical Principles listed in the next section.

  1. You are strictly a marking TA for a course in your discipline. The professor for whom you are TAing hands you the midterm and asks you to take it home and grade it in five days. When you return the papers to him, you mention that the mean grade is 53%. He tells you that this is very low, and decides he will raise the grade 10% for the entire class. He asks you to come to the class in which he will return the midterm. He explains to the class that you have graded the midterm "harshly" and that he is raising each student's grade by 10%. You believe you graded the exam fairly and that the students did not do as well as they should have.
  2. You are a seminar/discussion group leader for a course in your discipline. It is a GREAT experience and you really like the class ­ the students are interested and involved. The class decides that they want to continue to talk about issues in your discipline by going to the 'Keg' as a group after class. They ask you to come along.
  3. Your graduate advisor is teaching a class in which his/her significant other is enrolled. S/he asks you to grade their partner's work because of departmental perceptions. When you submit the grade for the partner, your advisor tells you you have graded too harshly.
  4. A student in your class is struggling with some serious personal issues that are affecting their work. S/he asks you to meet with them to discuss the problems, but doesn't feel comfortable meeting in the department. S/he requests a meeting in a lounge/bar/restaurant.
  5. You are the TA for a night course. This evening, for the second time, the professor has come in drunk. The first time s/he managed to pull off an acceptable, if rambling, lecture. This time however, s/he begins the lecture but can obviously not continue.
  6. You have been assigned overall responsibility for a course which has topics far outside your area of expertise. The department feels strongly that these topics must remain in the course.
  7. You are a TA in a course dealing with sensitive topics ( such as women's studies or race relations). While you recognize that courses which deal with controversial subject matter such as this will generate serious introspection and internal struggles for students, you try hard to keep the students focussed on the content issues of the course. After grading the first set of assignments a student accuses you of being racist/sexist/homophobic because of comments you made on his/her assignment. You are certain that you have not behaved in a racist/sexist /homophobic manner, and feel that the accusation is untrue. From your perspective your comments were intended to help her/him focus on the topics covered by the course.

Nine Ethical Principles

(Source: Adapted from 'Ethical Principles in University,' Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 1996)

The Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education recently published a document outlining nine ethical principles in university teaching (for a complete copy of this document visit the Teaching Resource Centre, Room 125 Day Hall or visit The Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education web site). The nine principles are summarized below:

1. Content Competence

A university teacher maintains a high level of subject matter knowledge and ensures that course content is current, accurate, representative, and appropriate to the position of the course within the student's program of studies.

2. Pedagogical Competence

A pedagogically competent teacher communicates the objectives of the course to students, is aware of alternative instructional methods or strategies, and selects methods of instruction that, according to research evidence (including personal or self-reflective research), are effective in helping students to achieve the course objectives.

3. Dealing with Sensitive Topics

Topics that students are likely to find sensitive or discomforting are dealt with in an open, honest, and positive way.

4. Student Development

The overriding responsibility of the teacher is to contribute to the intellectual development of the student, at least in the context of the teacher's own area of expertise, and to avoid actions such as exploitation and discrimination that detract from student development.

5. Dual Relationships With Students

To avoid conflict of interest, a teacher does not enter into dual-role relationships with students that are likely to detract from student development or lead to actual or perceived favoritism on the part of the teacher.

6. Confidentiality

Student grades, attendance records, and private communications are treated as confidential materials, and are released only with student consent, or for legitimate academic purposes, or if there are reasonable grounds for believing that releasing such information will be beneficial to the student or will prevent harm to others.

7. Respect for Colleagues

A university teacher respects the dignity of her or his colleagues and works cooperatively with colleagues in the interest of fostering student development.

8. Valid Assessment of Students

Given the importance of assessment of student performance in university teaching and in students' lives and careers, instructors are responsible for taking adequate steps to ensure that assessment of students is valid, open, fair, and congruent with course objectives.

9. Respect for Institution

In the interests of student development, a university teacher is aware of and respects the educational goals, policies, and standards of the institution in which he or she teaches.

Fostering Ethical Discussion in the Classroom

(Source: Adapted from 'Ethical Discussion in the Classroom,' Ethics Research Group, Department of Philosophy, University of Guelph)

In its statement of Aims and Objectives, the University of Guelph has declared its intention to create a learning environment in which students can develop, among other things, the ability to make mature moral judgments. TAs can help their students achieve this objective in a variety of ways. [Please note: if discussion pertaining to ethical issues is not a normal part of the curriculum for your course, before engaging in this type of activity please share your ideas with the course instructor].

  • Identify the ethical debates in your discipline ­ there are almost always ethical issues that arise out of a course.
  • Lay the groundwork ­ at the beginning of the course introduce the idea that there are some important, ethical issues/areas of debate related to the course content that you wish to explore (about which reasonable people may disagree). Indicate that any such explorations will be carried out in a respectful manner ­ have the class establish a code of conduct (e.g., be critical of ideas ­ not the person; respectfully disagree; derogatory language is not acceptable).
  • Raise an issue: Bring in a relevant newspaper article for discussion; raise an issue in response to a student's question; describe an ethical scenario that specifically relates to the week's topic.
  • Generating discussion: Outline a position (either common sense or devil's advocate) and invite the class to support it/attack it; outline two respectable positions and invite the class to consider which is better; stage a debate; invite guest speakers to outline their views; have students share their opinions in small groups.
  • Keep the discussions going by asking follow up questions: Is someone being threatened or harmed? Who stands to gain? Who stands to lose? If you were on the receiving end, would you think differently? What ethical principles are involved?
  • Ensure the students stay respectful of one another by referring back to the code of conduct as required.

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