Week 3: Ethics in the Social Sciences

I found this week’s reading interesting. The first concept that I liked out of the reading was that ethics are based on common sense. That with all of the complex and convoluted rules that go along with professional ethics, I think it’s important that we maintain enough agency as teachers as researchers as administrators to ask the question “is this right or wrong”. We should learn the rules and work to stay inside of their boundaries, but we can’t rely on a dead sheet of paper to tell us what’s right or wrong. The most important rules in our country, the U.S. Constitution, are interpreted and re-interpreted over and over. The rules only have value as long as we are critically and objectively thinking about them.

The second idea I really liked is that the ethics of the social sciences dictate that we work on issues that improve society. I have often felt this but didn’t know how to articulate it or if I should. I’ve seen a lot of research done on subjects because they were easy to research or a paper could be published quickly. While these criteria help people’s careers they don’t necessarily help the societies that they live in. Karl Marx one of the great heroes of the social sciences wrote so that he could help a group of people he thought were being exploited. In our publish or perish culture I feel like many of us, myself included, have lost track of what we’re actually aiming to do.

Thanks for giving me room to think about this

Week 2: The role of the research institution

I really enjoyed reading about the history of academia in the U.S. and specifically, the role played by the research institution. Thinking about what the U.S. university should do in America today became a lot more complex idea after learning this history. Should universities primarily be “teaching” institutions that try to transfer knowledge to students or should they be “research” institutions and work to create new knowledge? I’m not sure as a society we have to choose one or the other. It is a false dichotomy.  We have a huge and diverse population with the biggest economy in the world. There is room for both institutions and a need for both institutions. As a society, we have more than enough money and resources to support a whole host of different models.

Engineering students need to learn about ethics and the society they live in as much as social science students need an understanding of the science and technology that is changing their worlds.


Week 1: Introductions

Hello class! My name is Ben Louis and I am a graduate student in the PGG program. I began teaching as a GTA and Adjunct faculty and have run into some type of ethical question almost semester. I’m taking this course and getting the future professoriate certificate because my teaching experiences have made me aware of how much more complex and at time challenging teaching can be.

I really love the classroom and hope that I can learn and explore in this course new ways of thinking about what it is we do.

The fear of failure

I suppose that I am not unusual in having a fear of failure. It seems to be pretty inherent to the human condition. At times in my life, that fear has been so strong that it has paralyzed my actions. I wouldn’t take on certain projects or jobs because I thought that I might fail. This was unfortunate, thinking back to the opportunities I missed.

I found that a fear of failure is incredibly difficult to maintain when teaching. Every single day that I am in the classroom I am in front of students. Doing my best to engage them and develop concepts that can help them understand the world around them. If I am not brave that is a difficult environment to go into.

I know for a fact that I have a failed a number of times in the classroom this semester. I attempted a group project which despite my best efforts simply didn’t work out. I think the students were bored and didn’t learn much out of it. But by showing them and honestly acknowledging to them that I make mistakes, that I fail at things, I think it has created an environment where they feel more comfortable taking a chance in the class. Like my Grandpa used to say “You got to risk it, if you want the biscuit”

The Joy of Teaching

My mother is an artist. She told me a long time ago that she paints because that is what she finds joy in doing. She has never made a lot of fame or fortune through painting. Nor are you likely to see any of her work hanging at a fancy museum anytime soon, but she does it anyways. I think she has given me a great example when it comes to choosing a profession. Teaching is unlikely to ever make me the kind of money that I could make in other professions, and it is unlikely I will be known throughout the world for my scholarship. I am pursuing this career anyways because it is what brings me joy.

Not only do I get so much out of working with students, and writing and learning myself, but I think that I can give a lot more to the students if I do so with joy in my heart. Whenever I have taught a lesson about something that really interest me, I find that my students become more interested in the subject. This is unlikely because our interest match up so precisely, I think it is much more likely caused by them responding to my attitude and energy. So I will endeavor to do whatever it is I am doing with joy.

Creating a safe place for all types of ideas

In political science there are often controversial concepts and topics which need to be addressed. It is almost unavoidable. The teachers who avoid controversy at all cost soon gain a reputation for bland or un-engaging classes. There are also some teachers who try to create controversy just for the sake of entertainment and I find those classes to be lacking benefits also. There is no magic formula. Each teacher must make his or her own decision about the types of balance they need in their classes. And each group of students has different dynamics and maturity levels, and therefore need different structure in the classroom.

I have grappled with the right balance throughout the semester. Often I feel like I risk sacrificing student engagement if I handle controversial subjects poorly.

I have come to believe that what is most important however is creating an environent where students are courteous, open, and thoughtful. I have tried to create this environment a number of different ways throughout the semester. I think that in the end if I am successful any kind of idea can be discussed in a safe environment.

The role of technology in a political science class

I began my career in political science when professors didn’t use powerpoints. Nor did they blog, or know what social media was. My professors lectured almost exclusively. Usually from notes on a yellow legal pad which look like it had been serving its purpose for years. Supplementary materials were exclusively books, not videos or other media.

I am not trying to teach in the environment that I studied in. Technology is so important to the average student in my class, that only the most experienced and competent professor could hope to hold their attention for 50 minutes just by talking. And just for the record I am not the most competent or experienced professor.

This leaves me with little choice but to accept the benefits and drawbacks of technology in the classroom which has become such a hallmark of the university.

I discovered in my defeat, in my surrender to this trend that there was actually a lot to be gained from utilizing technology. I supplement lecture with videos, blogs, or other things. I communicate to my students through a host of methods and have found it very effective. In the end some times you have to give a little to get a lot.

The Heavy Responsibility of Teaching

This week for the first time I had a student approach me about some personal issues that were affecting her ability to continue in the class. These are not the typical “my dog ate my homework” excuses that I am fairly accustomed to, instead, she came to me and shared some legitimate crisis that she was having in her life and wanted to know if I could help her.

Even though I am 31 years old, my intitial response was to try to send her to one of the “adults”. There must be some person who deals with this type of thing and is older and wiser than me. But she didn’t go to an “adult”, she came to me. And regardless of my age, I felt very immature when faced with this situation. I simply hadn’t had a lot of experience in this department.

I tried to hide my self-doubt and let her know that she could be open with me, and I would do what I could for her. She seemed relieved that I was judging her or worried about the quiz she had missed.

In the end I couldn’t do much for her except listen and refer her to some other services that the university offers. Since then I have seen her back in class and make a point of asking her how she’s doing. It turned out well, but it made me realize the sobering responsibility all teachers have towards their students.

Future of the University

One thing that I think should change is trend towards fewer but larger universities. There has been a trend since at least the massification of higher education after the Korean War to make institutions more efficient by making fewer of them and making them larger. There are obviously some important parts to this. Of course universities would save money by moving as many people as possible onto as few campus’ as possible. Services could be used by multiple people greatly increasing the efficiency of a university system. For instance landscaping or lawn care would be cheaper if they didn’t have to move from place to place and could just focus on one yard.

The question then becomes are colleges losing anything when they gain efficiency in this manor. I think very obviously they are. Classes become larger, students become less of an individual and more of a statistic, and professors are stretched thinner and thinner as they try to serve all of these students.

Especially in the humanities I think that students do much better when they get more individual attention, something that is impossible under the current mega-schools.

Week 7: Everything I learned about inclusivity, I learned from Uncle Sam

This week’s readings on inclusivity in the class room and hidden biases made me think about my time in the Navy. Much like the university setting the Navy brings together people from all walks of life. All races, all genders, all sexualities and all religions were represented in the Navy. From day one we were taking good ol’ boys from Alabama and black kids from Detroit and saying that not only are you going to sleep in the rack above this guy, but you are going shower with him, eat with him, work with him and depend upon him doing his job to keep you alive when things get bad. The situation that these young men and women were put in seemed unlikely to work– people from such different backgrounds obviously couldn’t come together to create a cohesive team, and yet overwhelmingly the Navy has been successful in bringing people together.

I think Uncle Sam has developed some skills which might be applicable in the college classroom.

  1. There is ongoing training that sailors are exposed to on dealing with people from a different background. Whether that is a sailor of a different race gender or sexuality, the Navy gives lots and lots of training about the importance of inclusivity.
  2. There is a clear point to the training and inclusive behavior. Sailors learned that hidden biases or bigoted behavior made them less safe, affected the quality of their work and the work of their shipmates, and created an environment where the Navy couldn’t fully take advantage of everyone’s strengths and talents. Nobody was expected to do participate in these programs just for the sake of doing them.
  3. Finally, I think that sailors were given a new identity that became more important that their backgrounds. We became sailors, we became members of a specific community, we joined a 200 year old fraternity of men and women. I think the esprit de corps that developed, helped people not discount the differences between themselves but realize that the similarities were more important.
The Navy like the University is certainly not perfect and there is a lot of work left to do in creating more inclusive communities. But whether it is giving students more training, letting them know the practical benefits of the training, or creating a Hokie identity that unites all of our students, the lessons created to keep men and women safe at sea can be used to keep our community safe in Blacksburg.