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Ethics of Teaching in Higher Education: #6 Confidentiality

June 7, 2012

This post is part of a series examining the Society of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education’s (STLHE) “Ethical Principles in University Teaching“. Each post will focus one area and unpack it, raise questions, and attempt to further dialogue around how to teach ethically in the higher education classroom.

The sixth area on STLHE’s list is: Confidentiality.

Confidentiality around student grades, records and communications speaks to student respect and to the type of relationship you wish to have with your students. The STLHE compares the confidentiality between teachers and students to the doctor-patient or lawyer-client relationship but those are legally mandated; confidentiality in the teacher-student relationship is premised on respect.

The STLHE gives examples of breaches of confidentiality:

providing student academic records to a potential employer, researcher, or private investigator; discussing a student’s grades or academic problems with another faculty member; and using privately communicated student experiences as teaching or research materials.

How much information do you share with colleagues about mutual students? Do you vent at staff parties about particular students? I remember being party to a conversation (as a student) between two faculty members who were upset with another student’s actions; I shouldn’t have been there to hear that and should that discussion have even taken place?

There are no easy lines and, often, there are reasons we feel that justify breaches of confidentiality. In legal and medical relationships, often abuse or potential violence negates confidentiality. The STLHE states that “if there are reasonble grounds for believing that releasing such information will be beneficial to the student”, this trumps confidentiality. This blurs the lines even further.

There’s a show on television, Private Practice, about a group of doctors who flout the rules around confidentiality, sharing many of their cases and problems and fighting off legal challenges that try to stop them – all for the good of the patients they serve. It appeals to our sense of justice, of doing what’s best for the patient and the greater good, of breaking rules that seem designed to inhibit good practice rather than protect.

But the problem with the show, and with trying to decide when it is in the benefit of the student to break confidentiality,  is that it comes down to our sense of justice or what is best for the student. Our own lenses, judgements and ethics dictate what is best for someone else. This sort of ‘helping imperative’ is fraught with problems – what you think is best is not always what someone else might think is best. In this way, we privilege the way we think at the expense of how others think. How can you decide what’s best for your students? You can’t. Parents get to decide for their children, especially at an early age, what is best for them. That is not the type of relationship you should have with your students.

I think the answer to many issues around confidentiality lies in “student consent”. Be open with your students about what your policies are around confidentiality. If you want to pass on records, ask advice about an issue from a colleague, use a student’s words or stories in your own teaching or research – ask for student consent. It may seem onerous but it demonstrates your respect for your students and respect for their ability to decide. It shows respect for their intellectual property and creativity in your classes when you ask to use their words. When you need to ask to discuss an issue with a colleague, it shows respect for the problem as well as that you don’t always have all the answers.

Be open, honest and don’t assume that because you are the instructor you know what’s in the best interest of your students.

Check out the rest of the series:

Part 1: Content Competence

Part 2: Pedagogical Competence

Part 3: Dealing with Sensitive Issues

Part 4: Student Development

Part 5: Dual Relationships with Students


Openness vs. Safety in the Classroom

May 29, 2012

Words were said, and then voices slightly raised. Other words were returned. Hands shot up around the classroom, some shaking. One or two voices quivered. Someone left the room. The temperature of the classroom rose. Camps were set, flags raised and ideological ammunition assembled. All eyes turned to the front of the room, awaiting marching orders…

What’s your teaching style? Do you give readings, generate discussion, and then sit back and see where the discussion takes itself? Or do you have a rigidly structured class which involves copious amount of your personal politics, opinion or will? Or perhaps some sort of middle ground?

I’ve been having a lot of inner dialogue around this issue and have a few thoughts to jot down, which will hopefully stimulate some thought in your own practices.

1.) Openness and a ‘removed approach’ smack of a naive belief in objectivity, that somehow the instructor can be an objective, removed observer or facilitator that generously allows free dialogue, free thinking and free direction. We all have our agendas and politics.

2.) Openness demands ‘good faith’ from all parties and, honestly, this is difficult (if not impossible) to achieve in a classroom of wide ranging power relations. Even with set ground rules, the potential for derailment is always there.

3.) Openness and ‘open air time’ allows dominant and privileged bodies the chance to reinsert themselves at will, often to the detriment of others. Certain students always come the fore and this is not always a sign of leadership or engagement but a desire to control conversation, direction, etc… Respected feminist and antiracist educator Peggy McIntosh never allows a class wide ‘debrief’ time after her small group discussions for this reason, particular students dominate the air space, choose who gets represented how, and deny space to others.

4.) Intervention can be well intentioned but harmful. We may think that we know what power dynamics are at play when, in reality, we’re just imposing our reading on the events. Be careful reading into things.

5.) All students deserve a safe space to learn. Openness can negate some people’s safety (as could intervention). How do we balance space for people to sort out problems collectively with moments that are symbolically, discursively, or epistemically violent for some?

6.) We all have a political and ideological positioning but by staking particular claims in particular ways, do we silence dissent or difference? How do we balance the goals of the instructor (and institutions) with those of the students?

These are a few brief thoughts in thinking through some of these issues. Balance between openness and safety in the classroom is not easy to achieve, especially around particular ‘sensitive topics‘. How, as instructors, should we be prepared to deal with this?

Edit: Lisa Kabesh adds to some of this discussion over at Dry Erase Writings – check it out.

Ethics of Teaching in Higher Education: #5 Dual Relationships with Students

March 26, 2012

This post is part of a series examining the Society of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education’s (STLHE) “Ethical Principles in University Teaching“. Each post will focus one area and unpack it, raise questions, and attempt to further dialogue around how to teach ethically in the higher education classroom.

The fifth area on STLHE’s list is: Dual Relationships with Students.

This fifth area is both the most obvious and perhaps the most difficult to ascertain. Let me explain. As STLHE says, the most obvious example of unethical dual relationship is sexual encounters with students – most universities have policies in this area and staff are well versed in the repercussions. The second obvious example that STLHE gives is a “close personal relationship with a current student”. The line between close and too close perhaps needs to be examined and the difference between a close working relationship and a close personal relationship defined.

A close personal relationship is defined in most university policies as: family, sexual, romantic, past working/job relationships, or those with whom you’ve had close interpersonal conflict with in the past. It’s a relationship that extends beyond what is expected from you in your role as an instructor.

A close working relationship is a natural extension of your job as an instructor: it fosters an open and honest environment, it shows care for the whole student beyond their work output (especially important in the case of graduate students), and it provides mentorship and care. But it is still professional.

If you’re unsure about the nature of your relationship with a student, the best course of action is to discuss it with the head of your department; it is best to be open and honest. Many times policies around student relationships are seen as ways to protect students but they need to be viewed as equally important ways to protect faculty. As the STLHE document points out:

The perception of favoritism on the part of other students is as educationally disastrous as actual favoritism or unfairness.

You don’t want your actions called into question and this demands awareness of and caution in the ways in which relationships can be read by other students, other faculty, or anyone else. How to do this?

  • Be transparent about intentions and communicate openly with students about your role so that there is less room for interpretation.
  • Establish boundaries, especially between work and the rest of your life, and make sure students understand them.
  • Beware what is said over email and how it can be read with the personal context removed. Once it is sent, anyone might read it and have their own spin.

It can be difficult, especially for beginning faculty, to figure out the lines between a mentor or instructor who is caring and committed to their students and an instructor who is trying to be a friend to students. I firmly believe that care for the whole student is an important method of deconstructing the fragmentation and competitiveness of the academy, but there is also a need for boundaries to be set – for both your protection and the protection of students.

Check out the rest of the series:

Part 1: Content Competence

Part 2: Pedagogical Competence

Part 3: Dealing with Sensitive Issues

Part 4: Student Development

Part 6: Confidentiality

Principles for Effective Online Teaching

March 20, 2012

Based on Chickering & Gramson’s (1987) popular framework for classroom teaching, this fantastic article breaks down online teaching to provide seven guidelines or principles that all online teachers should think about. They are:

  1. Instructors should provide clear guidelines for interaction with students.
  2. Well-designed discussion assignments facilitate meaningful cooperation among students.
  3. Students should present course projects.
  4. Instructors need to provide two types of feedback: information feedback and acknowledgment feedback.
  5. Online courses need deadlines.
  6. Challenging tasks, sample cases, and praise for quality work communicate high expectations.
  7. Allowing students to choose project topics incorporates diverse views into online courses.

While some of them might seem obvious, the article goes into some depth as to how these elements should be incorporated into online teaching and are a good starting point for evaluating and reflecting on your own online teaching practices. Reflective thinking is even more important when teaching online because much of what is taken for granted in the classroom needs to more explicit and thought out when teaching online.

More and more universities and colleges are moving toward online classes and there is an increasing need for instructors to reflect further as to how this affects their practices.

Ethics of Teaching in Higher Education: #4 Student Development

March 15, 2012

This post is part of a series examining the Society of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education’s (STLHE) “Ethical Principles in University Teaching“. Each post will focus one area and unpack it, raise questions, and attempt to further dialogue around how to teach ethically in the higher education classroom.

The fourth area on STLHE’s list is: Student Development.

The most basic stated goal of this responsibility is to “design instruction that facilitates learning and encourages autonomy and independent thinking in students”. This perhaps seems obvious at a first glance, most instructors are likely aware, at least at some level, of the need to see development in students. The issues arise when we examine: how do we facilitate development and how do we assess student development?

First, what needs to be examined is how we define development? Is it critical engagement with the material? Learning a specified set of information? Communicating certain learning objectives? Deciding this is intricately tied into how we facilitate and assess student’s development.

Once it is defined, how do we facilitate this development? This was discussed briefly in the area of pedagogical competence, but can we expect students to practice and develop critical engagement skills when we solely model traditional teaching methods such as the lecture?

Beyond this, how can we assess development? Does it always reveal itself in writing assignments and class presentations, or are there other assignments and activities that may better aid in assessment? Are there other ways to measure development aside from assignments? How do instructors account for different developmental models and learning styles?

The STLHE article also makes an excellent points about the power dynamics between instructors and students:

Less obvious examples of failure to take responsibility for student development can arise when teachers ignore the power differential between themselves and students…

There are certain power dynamics in the classroom that at the very least need to be recognized rather than ignored; this is part of the responsibility for student development. Without recognition there is the opportunity for the abuse of power, the failure to see the value of student’s knowledge and contributions to the class, and a failure to value student’s individual development. The STLHE lists a number of individual behaviors that result from failure to take power into account: derogatory remarks, sexual harassment, failure to acknowledge academic debts to students, etc… but there is more to the power dynamic than this. How is your classroom facilitated and your course designed with this power differential in mind, or is it at all? How can you mitigate this power differential? As the teacher, there is no way to abrogate the power completely but for student development it’s possible that handing some of the power back to students is beneficial in their development.

Another aspect to consider in this is how far this responsibility extends. Can student development happen fully in the classroom? Is there a responsibility outside class hours, in terms of availability for discussion and guidance or in terms of individual support? Many nominating letters for teaching awards speak of how instructors went beyond the class hours to communicate, guide, support and inform students of opportunities for further academic and professional development.

Finally, a focus on how faculty can ethically develop graduate students. The STLHE states that faculty should avoid actions such as exploitation and discrimination that detract from student development. With graduate students there is often a fine line between exploitation and development when they are involved in your research projects or acting as your assistants. How much are you teaching or developing their skills and how much are you exploiting their labor and time? There needs to be a conscious effort to not simply assign tasks or research but to work with graduate students in these tasks, to develop research and writing skills and to mentor them.

Check out the rest of the series:

Part 1: Content Competence

Part 2: Pedagogical Competence

Part 3: Dealing with Sensitive Issues

Part 5: Dual Relationships with Students

Part 6: Confidentiality

The Value of Mid-Course Student Assessment

March 13, 2012

Whether you’re teaching a course for the first time or a season veteran, there is great value in doing at least one mid-course assessment. Often, there is a mandated student assessment of their instructors at the end of a course but any feedback given cannot be implemented in that course and, especially for beginning instructors, unsavory feedback can adversely affect your career. So, if something is wrong or if you’re simply not connecting with this group in the ways you thought you were, you could have perhaps fixed things with a mid-course assessment. It’s a chance to get feedback without the departmental implications.

A very simple assessment technique is called Stop, Start, Continue. Hand out index cards and have students write out one thing they would stop (something they don’t like) in the course, one thing they would start (a suggestion), and one thing they would continue (something they like). It will give you a brief snapshot of what’s working and what’s not, as well as allowing student input into the course.

A very detailed handout from the University of Colorado has many more suggestions for questions, such as:

  • What topics interest you that are not currently being covered by the course?
  • What teaching strategies in this class are most helpful for your learning?
  • In what ways has the instructor increased your interest in the course content?

Of course, the catch with asking for mid-course student feedback is that you have to be willing to adapt and take that feedback into consideration!

What Teachers Can Learn from Kony 2012

March 11, 2012

The internet exploded last week over the release of Invisible Children’s new documentary film, Kony 2012, which documents the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), Joseph Kony. The goal of the film was to “make him famous” and the video has indeed become a viral hit.

While their message has resonated with some, as evidenced by the 5 million dollars they raised in two days, others have been more critical, citing how the film doesn’t portray an accurate picture, how Invisible Children is poorly run, and how the premise is based on the White Man’s Burden of saving Africa.

Regardless of your take on the issue, I think there are some valuable lessons that instructors can take away from this.

  • The Danger of a Single Narrative: There’s a fantastic TED talk out there by Chimamanda Adichie called the “The Danger of a Single Story” that is well worth a watch and highlights what I mean here, especially in terms of Africa. Kony 2012 is one story, told from the perspective of North American filmmakers – what other stories are not being told or are hidden by this narrative? Ugandans are criticizing the film for simplifying the situation, for using old footage that doesn’t accurately portray the situation, and for opening old wounds. In the classroom, reducing complex issues to simplistic answers is dangerous. It doesn’t encourage critical thinking and analysis. It reduces the complexities of the lived experiences that students bring to the classroom. It positions the teacher as able to distill complexity into simplicity, as if this were the end goal of knowledge. Teachers need to be willing to engage with different narratives, value them, and encourage students to bring their own stories into the classroom. Perspective matters, both our perspective as instructors, as well as the students’ perspective. Things like gender, race, sexuality, and disability matter in how they shape perspectives. Very few things in life or in the classroom are simple and to portray them as such does a disservice to the intelligence of the students.
  • The Power of the Storyteller: When you stand in front of the class or behind the camera, there is great power in being able to tell the story in your words and in your way. By remembering this, teachers can understand the effects of what they teach (and how they teach it) but also, hopefully, remember to share the power, to let others (especially students) also have the power to tell stories in their way. As teachers, you are in a position of power – how are you going to use that?
  • Knowledge is Political: Much of the discussion around the film has been about awareness, raising it being the specific goal of the film. But to what end? Awareness is good but what is the goal of that awareness? Much like the knowledge we teach, what is the end goal? Beyond test scores, what goals are we explicitly or implicitly looking to achieve with what we teach and how we teach? We can be more efficient in reaching our goals when we recognize them and, at times, when we reflect we can see how our methods actually detract from our goals.
  • Know Your Audience: Much of the success of the film can be attributed to the filmmakers knowing their audience (North American, college aged, etc…); their use of social media targeted this and how they made the film played on this. As instructors, we also need to know our audience. What excites them? What will engage them in the topic? What medium is best to do this? When students care about the material they’re studying they engage with it – also, we shouldn’t necessarily assume we can make them care about something we care about or think is important.