Academic Leigh Speaking

A professor, four kids, and a crash course in work/life balance

Ethics Seminar May 17, 2012

This is a little bit of a cop out post, but I’ve been participating in Ethics Seminar at my university this week, so I thought I’d post the ethical considerations there are in my field that I’ve been dealing with. Also, I designed a couple of case studies that you might weigh in on as well–if you want.

When I think about my teaching and research, I generally assume myself to be an ethical participant in the learning and production of knowledge processes. Yet, in the process of thinking about what kind of ethical divides that might exist in my profession, I can identify several potential areas for examination. For the purposes of this exercise, I’ll limit to those most pressing to my teaching and scholarship over the next year; these include 1) the presence of a service learning component in my EN 101 Composition I course; 2) teaching canonical texts as a core requirement; and 3) engaging students in discussions of legitimate cultural relativism and morality in the areas of equality and gender studies.

My EN 101 class involves a service learning component that requires students to serve at a food bank, soup kitchen, or other location that helps alleviate hunger in the DC metro area. Students then write an observation report where they link their experience to the other information we’ve uncovered about hunger. While many of them cite the experience as a highlight of the class, I’d like to ground the experience a little more in questions of their ethical obligations. On the other side of this, I still have issues with my own use of this assignment with the potential for allowing students to use vulnerable populations as laboratories for their own learning. Furthermore, does this involve sympathy on the part of the students or do they harden themselves with logical reasons for hunger?

As a literary scholar trained in ethnic literature and studies, I value engaging these texts in my classroom. Yet, as a teacher in the liberal arts core, I’m expected to teach students a set of agreed upon texts of cultural and community value. This means that somehow I have to balance what I think it’s valuable for students to study without sacrificing their basic knowledge in the areas of literature they expect to see on the syllabus. This means putting someone like Benjamin Franklin in contrast with Elizabeth Ashbridge or Santiago Tafolla. Don’t know who they are? Blame the canon.

Perhaps most urgently, I seek to know to what degree it’s necessary for me to set aside my own emotional and logical reactions to texts and ideas to allow my students to engage with different value systems in the classroom. For instance, a student wrote her final paper on the presence of domestic violence in the literary texts that we read. She was looking for a cultural explanation for degrees of violence and number of incidences of violence. I come from a paradigm that believes culture is important to consider, but in the case of domestic violence, all women, no matter their ethnicity or religion, are potential targets due to power structures embedded in most societies. Therefore, arguing for long periods about who experiences “more” violence serves to divide women on an issue that has some degree of need for definition but a more urgent need for systematic solutions.

I told my colleague that I was going to write a 5 paragraph essay, hahahaha literary joke, but then I didn’t write a conclusion, so I’m even worse than the standard.

Case studies that relate:

Case Study 1


Your EN 101 instructor has just informed you that your assignment is to go to a food bank, soup kitchen, or other place that helps alleviate hunger in the DC area. You choose to go to a soup kitchen that you can access on Metro, because you don’t have a car. When you arrive there are many people standing around outside waiting for breakfast; a volunteer coordinator gives you a tour, and soon enough you’re set up at the pancake serving table waiting for people to come in. A steady stream of people go through the line. A couple of people try for a second serving, but the woman in charge of the line turns them away. You’re serving pancakes as fast as you can and you’re smiling at the people in line because the volunteer coordinator told you that everyone who comes to breakfast should get food, a smile, and a bit of dignity. You only notice a few people—a woman with short hair, a man in a Redskins coat, a man in a wheelchair.


When breakfast service is over, you’re ready to head back home. As you walk to the Metro stop, a man on the sidewalk asks you for some change. When you look, you realize it’s the man in the wheelchair.


What do you do? As a participant-observer in this situation, what kinds of ethics bind you?

Case Study 2


You are the donations manager at Mt. Pleasant Food Bank. While you generally have enough donations to meet the needs of your clientele, occasionally you run short—and you always run short on fruits and vegetables. However, you’ve managed to strike a pretty good balance with the demand for your services and the food you’ve solicited from donors.


Today, you are meeting a truck from a food distribution company who has offered you some supplies for the food bank. When they arrive, it’s a potato chip company “Fluffles,” and they’re offering your food bank 5000 bags of Blazin’ Hot Chili Loaded Potato Chips. They market tested these, and they were a huge flop, so they’ve been donating them to food banks across the country.


The Good Samaritan Act in your state has limited the potential liability of food donors, and the Fluffles company will get a tax deduction for the food that they’ve donated, if you accept it.


What are the ethical dimensions of this scenario? What are the “professional ethics” involved? What are the “general ethics”? Does one trump the other?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s