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Academic ethics, student relativism and bad training: Differences in degrees or kinds?

May 18, 2010

In my mid-academic career I was fortunate enough to take a number of anthropology courses. Coming from a strong business discipline I thought it was an important stretch for me to understand the study of people and cultures; after all, were not organizations filled with people – from different cultures – who came to a [presumably] common culture under the umbrella of the organization? Throughout the coursework and seeping into my thesis work I was immersed in the study of anthropology and sociology as both my chair and my mentor represented the disciplines. Interestingly I did not always agree with the viewpoints held by my academic counterparts in these different disciplines, however, I learned a great deal from them.

A lesson of distinction was held out by my mentor at the time who explained to me the differences of differences as being one of degrees (i.e. related on a continuum) or kinds (i.e. categorically separated and perhaps only related by overarching concepts). Subsequently I have looked at problems as either being framed by issues different by degrees or different in “kinds”.

Each semester I pose the question of who holds the responsibility for student learning, regardless of course topic. Without fail a lively discussion ensues and the majority of students seem to agree they are responsible for their own learning beyond those responsibilities held by the instructor. Generally, students have indicated the instructor’s role is to provide information, clarify that information and facilitate the process of uncovering whatever is required to achieve learning objectives. Ultimately though, consensus indicates students represent they hold ultimate responsibility for their learning outcomes – but do they really believe it?

I have encountered students who have stepped up to the plate (so to speak) and pursued their assignments with the same intensity they would apply to their career endeavors. The exceptions are made up of students who are surprised when their grade isn’t what they expect or want, even in the face of their failure to do the work. (Which makes me wonder how one can expect a satisfactory grade when there is an absence of something *to* grade…oh well, never mind…)

Along the same lines, I have seen a lot of relativism with regard to academic ethics and the intentional recycling of assignments previously turned in for another class. An example might be changing the cover page to reflect a different course, different instructor and different date but submitting the assignment as if it were fresh work never before submitted for a grade. I have had vigorous discussions with students about the fact I cannot permit them to do such things (if they are brave enough to ask) citing my liability and potential loss of teaching privileges as well as the fact that such practices simply aren’t ethical. Sadly, some never “get it” and the reflection of this gap in understanding is present throughout their academic work and most likely reflected in their professional lives as well: where’s the shortcut? how can I get out of doing the full breadth of what I must do? (I’m not talking about efficiency and process revision here: I’m talking about taking the easy way out regardless of whether or not the work is acceptable – or even [gasp] good!)

It is at this juncture I shall expose my biases. The inner, perpetual student in me deeply resents this ethical relativism and here’s why: I have stayed up late, worked 7 days a week and studied/written assignments while everyone else was off doing fun things that normal people do. I have missed countless family get-togethers and had holidays full of sleepless haze because I still had to make sure my domestic obligations were fulfilled as well as my academic obligations. To me, this was an acceptable price of admission to finish my degree(s). I knew at the end of the day whatever I yielded would be directly commensurate with my efforts. I owned the outcome. My results reflected it – good and not-so-good. I have approached all of my graduate work the same way. My thought has been that the only representation my peers and profs have of me is my work. It had better be good as my resulting career would follow suit. So, if I could stay up all night and get my “things” done, why shouldn’t others have to do the same if that’s what it takes?

[It should be noted I also have such a visceral reaction when students give me ridiculous reasons for why they have not finished their work. Students would be better off simply asking for grace and skipping the “dog ate my homework” story. I would also submit to students they should refrain from telling me why another course’s work is more important than the one I am teaching…really.]

Here’s the big caveat: one can and should certainly build many papers off previous research. It should be that way by design. How else would individuals develop their knowledge to the point of being considered subject matter experts? Having said that, the angle of the paper may be a little different, the observed outcomes may be different and the audience may be different…but the paper, on the whole, is not substantively the same. A difference in degrees perhaps but probably a difference in kinds in many cases. Interestingly, the same debate about re-using work and research exists within the academic community as reflected in some recent “Inside HigherEd” articles. It’s no surprise that as students in the temporal view carry forth their values and ethics systems into academic and professional realms, the concept of ethical relativism is present.

Think about it…

If students aren’t pushed to develop themselves by instructor example and meaningful academic exercise (NOT busy work – busy work is insulting), what then can the world expect from them as members of a workforce? Is “good enough” really good enough? Will they be inclined to put their best efforts into job-related organizational learning if they carry forth lukewarm expectations from their professors? Sure it’s a different kind of learning, but the habits and attitudes are the same.

The million dollar question here is what can organizational learning professionals do differently to avoid intentional hostage taking and the resulting torture of employees who are subjected to compulsory and developmental learning on the organizational level. Developmental and professional learning can usually be interesting and useful if the material presented directly applies to their jobs – followed by direct application at the work site. However, compulsory training (think safety and compliance for example) is usually tough to deliver, somewhat boring and mostly hard to relate to – thus, the torture. The resulting question: is reusing bad compulsory training over and over when the learners are disengaged any different than students who recycle papers, never improving and never learning anything new? I would submit it is not even a difference in degrees because the similarities are too strong.

Shiny new technologies won’t do it either. Bells and whistles don’t engage learners; the research supports that conclusion. Usable, well-delivered content does. High expectations clearly outlined at the beginning of a learning experience are a must. Personal ownership of learning is pivotal. On all fronts, expect results commensurate with efforts. Always.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 18, 2010 12:01 pm

    Hi C – great post. I might take this in a slightly different direction….let’s see where it goes.

    Your closing statement about “personal ownership of learning” struck a chord. The student mindset is no longer “seeking” to learn, it’s “what can you teach me.” This attitude is prevalent in schools, public service, churches, and society at large.

    Daniel Quinn’s book “Ishmael” discusses the difference between takers and leavers. There are an awful lot of “takers” that think the world revolves around them. They show up, consume, and expect to be served.

    In another example
    My soccer coaching colleagues talk about this common exchange from parents….

    Parent: Hi Coach, why is my child not improving (ie learning)?
    Coach: Do you bring them to practice twice a week?
    Parent: No. Once a week is fine
    Coach: Do you play soccer in the backyard with your child?
    Parent: No.
    Coach: Do you talk about soccer during the week?
    Parent: No, we talk about school work and basketball.
    Coach: Do you watch soccer on TV?
    Parent: No. It’s boring.
    Coach: So you expect your child to improve based on a 1 hour practice session each week?
    Parent: Yes. I pay you good money to train my child.
    Coach: (shaking head)

    No personal ownership of the learning process. Parents and players (learners) expect to be magically fed a “skills pill” that makes them a better player (ie student, learner).

    In reality, the parents, players, students who excel take personal ownership of their path. They are students of their trade and practitioners of their domain.

    I have the vision of a young Alex Hamilton reading as many books as he could find by candlelight, late into the evening. He was educating himself. He took personal ownership of his learning.

    have a great day

  2. corizuppo permalink*
    May 18, 2010 1:04 pm

    Well said JD. As a gross academic underachiever until well into adulthood I can attest to the fact that input of effort equals output of quality of outcome. Talent is only part of the equation. The rest is hard work. Like everything else though, the motivation is intrinsic, not extrinsic. However, as you point out, one cannot bemoan the meager outcome if they have not invested in it. Entitlement is not an organic state.

  3. corizuppo permalink*
    May 29, 2010 2:31 pm

    Thanks Christian! Much appreciated.

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