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Ethics of Teaching in Higher Education: #1 Content Competence

December 16, 2011

Teaching often gets short shrift in the higher education field, playing second fiddle to research which generates funding, prestige and career advancement. But those who teach know the importance it and the vast array of skills needed to navigate a classroom setting.

This lack of attention to teaching also extends into the realms of ethics – How often have you heard about Teaching Ethics? Now, how often have you heard about research ethics, or had to pass through an ethical review for your research work, or heard about the ethics of citing, plagiarism, etc..? There seems to be an obvious disparity here.

The Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE) has written briefly about “Ethical Principles in University Teaching” and outlined nine principles that they see as important in the discussion of ethics. In a series of blog posts, we are going to unpack each of the principles and how they relate to teaching in Higher Education, raise questions and, hopefully, provoke thought. Without further adieu:

Principle of Ethical Teaching #1 – Content Competence

There are two main points that the STLHE makes in this area. They are:

  1. The acquiring and maintenance of a high level of the pertinent course subject matter, including the prerequisite knowledge and the wider perspective of where that knowledge is situated in relationship to others.
  2. The need to present a wide spectrum of relevant information, varied viewpoints within the subject matter, and multiple interpretations of material.

Acquisition and Maintenance of Knowledge

Of course, as someone who has been hired to teach a particular course, you are supposed to have the information and knowledge to teach the subject matter. But do you have the knowledge of how to teach that subject matter? STLHE furthers this idea in stating the responsibility for “subject matter competence not only in areas of personal interest but in all areas relevant to course goals or objectives.”

Course goals often extend beyond attaining a particular subject knowledge. How will you help your students write effectively and critically? How will you teach them to critically engage in the knowledge and see connections? These should be course goals as well.

Beyond this, how does the maintenance of knowledge effect course design and implementation? Instructors should be constantly maintaining and updating their course syllabus to reflect advances in the field. Can you relate information needed to relevant current events? How can you help student apply their knowledge to current issues?

Multiple Perspectives

There is a major pedagogical issue underlying this section: Can or should an instructor make claims of impartiality of knowing? Often under girding this call for multiple perspectives is the  idea that, through varied perspectives, objectivity is attained. An instructor should present things impartially, multiple views where no particular view is privileged, no one theory championed. This is the project of a universalized knowledge, of the academic as impartial observer. This project is tied into the constructivist, neoliberal project that rejects power relationships – seeing knowledge as objective, universal and containable.

Critical education scholars, such as Henry Giroux, argue that everything in education (and society) is political and impossibly impartial. Everyone is situated in particular locations with particular viewpoints; everyone has opinions and these are (knowingly or unknowingly) transmitted in our teaching and research. This is in line with the Foucauldian maxim: Nothing is innocent. Knowledge is situated, localized and implicated in various discourses and power relationships.

So if impartiality is an impossible goal, what does that mean for teachers and their responsibilities in the classroom? Instead of presenting multiple viewpoints in an attempt for objectivity or equality, present multiple viewpoints as participants in a discussion. What are the relationships between different theories? Who does each theory privilege? How have these ideas come to be, what movements were they born of? Each theory or viewpoint is also implicated in different political projects and discourses – instead of ignoring our own biases and the biases of the knowledge, we need to recognize them and explore them in relationship to the subject matter and our teaching.

Even in such a seemingly straightforward ethical responsibility, such as content competence, there are many considerations and questions. How to present content in ways that allows students to engage on their own terms? How to decide which content is included in your course? What are your responsibilities in presenting content or in ensuring students attain competency in the content? Hopefully, through this brief series, we can engage further in what it means to be an ethical teacher in higher education.

Check out the rest of the series:

Part 2: Pedagogical Competence

Part 3: Dealing with Sensitive Issues

Part 4: Student Development

Part 5: Dual Relationships with Students

Part 6: Confidentiality

5 Comments leave one →
  1. February 4, 2013 4:31 pm

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    • February 9, 2013 1:01 pm

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  1. Blogging about Teaching and Learning in Higher Education « Wanderings
  2. Ethics of Teaching #2: Pedagogical Competence « Beyond A Degree
  3. Ethics of Teaching in Higher Education: #3 Dealing with Sensitive Issues « Beyond A Degree

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