Aristotle insists in Nicomachean Ethics that when studying ethics, “we are engaging in the investigation not in order to know what virtue is but in order to become good people, since otherwise there would be nothing of benefit in it.” Too often, our ethical teaching in academia suffices with an investigation into what virtue is. We hope in vain that if our students can come to know what rightness consists in, they will be able to make the right decisions when the time comes. This pedagogical approach fails because ethics is a practice, and mastering a practice requires the development perceptual and practical skills—a refinement of our orientation in and engagement with the world. To teach for this practical development rather than for mere conceptual grasp is difficult. It takes intention, strategy, creativity, and energy. The following is a collection of thoughts on my own approach to this different sort of teaching. At the most general level, this approach rests on four pillars: collaboration, backwards design, cura personalis (care of the whole person), and radical student engagement.
Collaboration is the backbone of my course design. While I have commitments concerning what works and what doesn’t in the classroom, our teaching is more likely to be both effective and just if we invite others to participate in the process. At Ethics Lab, I have had the great fortune to design Philosophy courses and course embeds in Computer Science classrooms alongside ethically- minded philosophers, designers, and computers scientists. Diversity of perspective has led to more careful reflection on course objectives, better attunement to effective methodologies, and a far more intentional presentation and facilitation within the classroom. The input I seek does not come solely from within the bounds of our small cadre, however. This semester, I am playing a role in ideating the shape of a new major, minor, and certificate program in Tech, Ethics, and Society at Georgetown. As we imagine what the foundational courses might look like, we are aiming to reach out to professors, practitioners, and students, in order to better understand what will enable our teachers and students to succeed both inside and outside of the classroom. When teaching courses at Ethics Lab, I include my own students in the process of shaping the class architecture. I meet with each student three times throughout the semester to set and track their own goals for the course. Doing so allows me to remain agile as I tailor my methods to meet their goals.
I am a strong proponent of backwards design. I like to think of teaching as a process of goal- setting, methodology, and implementation, at different layers of specificity. What we do in our units should serve the goals of the course as a whole, and what we do in our class periods should serve the goals of our units (and so on). Our methods are only successful if they serve our goals, and our implementation is only successful if it fits our methodology. With this in mind, I begin crafting every syllabus, run of show, and assignment by setting out learning objectives. Once I know what I want my students to be able to do, I can strategize on how to get them there. For instance, in my Introduction to Tech, Ethics, and Society course this semester, I have structured the chronology of assignments such that, through a careful mix of iteration and addition, they enable students to build each skill they will need to demonstrate for their final projects. They will practice succinctly explaining a complicated socio-technical system by first attempting to do so solely within the space of the back of an envelope. They will practice breaking down the ethical landscape of their chosen topic by first creating physical maps with pens and markers on table-sized paper, and then by structuring various timelines of ethical choices using Miro (an online community whiteboard). Small assignments practice the notes, midterm assignments practice the scales, and only in the final project do all the skills come together in symphony.
Caring for our students requires a mindful awareness of their experience of the world. Our students are not blank slates. They come to our classrooms with hope, curiosity, and intellect, but they come also with depression, anxiety, and trauma. The relations among our students (and between teacher and student) are not blank, either. Unjust social structures insert themselves within the walls of the classroom whether we want them to or not. No teaching method can fully heal a student, nor cover over the social constructions we carry with us. But a teacher can and should strive to understand their students, to care for the whole person, to show each student compassion and respect. I mentioned above that I meet with my students three times over the course of the semester. In the first meeting, students set goals for the semester and flag any worries they might have about the course (whether about assignments, course content, or the social dynamics in the classroom). In the next two meetings, we track these goals and anxieties, troubleshoot issues, and surface problems that might crop up over the semester. These meetings offer a crucial space to demonstrate to my students that I care for their success, that I find what they say intelligible and worth expressing, and that I take their psychological safety seriously. Inside the classroom, I balance voices by diversifying my syllabi, by giving students a chance to think before discussing, by breaking into small groups before coming together as a whole class, and by waiting for new voices rather than calling on the same students. I also aim for the difficult balance between validating students when they have the courage to speak up in class and pushing back against anything that might endanger another student’s comfort or safety in the classroom.
Finally, good pedagogy is radically engaging. We will fail to reach our learning objectives so long as our students are bored or checked out. The more active we can make a student’s brain, the better. This means using technology to our benefit, and varying up our “readings” with podcasts, video clips, blog posts, and documentaries. It means creating activities and assignments that are visual, auditory, tactile, social, and creative. These objectives may include traditional ones like conveying certain philosophical concepts, but more importantly I set goals concerning what skills I want my students to develop, or what orientation or mindset I want them to take up. In my course on Social Media and Democracy, for instance, I wanted my students to see that “getting the ethics right” in content moderation is far from simple, and yet at the same time that there is no ethical option of simply giving up—it must be done, albeit imperfectly. Our team at Ethics Lab designed an exercise in which students were asked to develop content moderation guidelines for a fictional platform, decide what actions their guidelines recommended in response to various content that we described on PowerPoint slides, and then reflect on various issues embedded in the task—the lack of context, the speed of decisions, the difficult translation from abstract guidelines to practical decisions about specific content, etc. This exercise made good on our objectives, and it did so effectively by engaging our students (visually, auditorily, tactilely, socially, and so on) to foster an experience of translational ethics rather than merely reading about and discussing it.
The more we are mindful of these four pillars—collaboration, backwards design, cura personalis, and radical student engagement—the better chance we have to build the practical orientation and mindset best suited to an ethical engagement with the problems we face in our society. If we make our classrooms inclusive and open and brimming with life and creativity; if we care for our students and show them our investment in their intellectual development; and if we are intentional about structuring our teaching so as to deliver on the right objectives; then, as is unfortunately not always the case in academia, our students will leave our classrooms better able to face the real world than before they stepped into them.