After teaching mostly theoretical ethics and narrowly focused applied ethics courses for a number of years, I'm now considering developing a syllabus for a course in "Social Ethics."  The standard practice in such courses, and the approach I'm considering adopting, is to pick a number of different issues of social controversy such as abortion, sweatshop labor, etc., and have the students read articles 'pro' and 'con.'  

Such a course seems to present a lot of opportunities for student involvement.  The issues are interesting to them, and the readings tend to be more accessible than, say, Kant's Groundwork.  But what's the best way to incorporate such involvement into the syllabus?  One possibility is to structure the week so that we read a 'pro' article on Monday, a 'con' article on Wednesday, and then have some kind of student discussion or debate on Friday.  Perhaps certain students can even be in charge of presenting the 'pro' and 'con' arguments on Monday and Wednesday.  

I'm curious to hear what other people have tried in a course like this.  What's worked well, and what hasn't?  I'm especially interested in the question of how to get students involved in classroom activity in a pedagogically useful way, but as a secondary matter I'd also be interested in particular topics/articles that have worked well or poorly for you in such a course.

4 Replies to “Student Involvement in Social Ethics Courses

  1. I’ve had very good experiences using class debates as unit reviews. I have done this with a bioethics course as well as a course on the ethics of globalization. I divide the class into three teams (pro, con, judge), and each team has to do each role over 3 debates. They prepare outside of class, and I structure it as a proper debate. This works better than short papers, and definitely better than quick on-the-spot debates. Students think very carefully about the other position, and come up with arguments that they wouldn’t have had it just been a 5 page paper.

  2. When I taught Medical Ethics, I’d do something like this: assign and discuss pro and con articles early in the week, or during the first week and a half of a two week unit. Then on the final day we did organized team debates. There would be a prepared 5ish minute presentation for each side, and then a formal 3ish minute rebuttal for each side, and then class discussion.
    I found that the success of this model had everything to do with the students. When I had students that were just there to fulfill a general humanities requirement, they didn’t do any work to prepare outside of class and the presentations were mostly unhelpful rehashings of the readings. When the students were engaged, friendly with each other and motivated, it was both fun and interesting to participate in the debates.
    I often made a point of having the students organized into groups that were debating the view they did *not* hold (it was fairly easy to identify which view was held by which student). Again, motivated, engaged students reacted well to this in my experience.
    Hope this helps, and good luck!

  3. In almost every philosophy class I teach, at some point I use Don Marquis’ “Why Abortion Is Immoral,” often at the beginning of the semester. Not only is his argument interesting, and often debate-provoking, but he starts by laying out a dialectic between (philosophically-minded) opponents on the issue and trying to show where each side has been misguided in its strategy. I’ve never taught a Social Ethics course per se, but I suspect this would be a great article to use (or even start with if you don’t mind starting with a hot-button issue).
    More generally, what I like about such articles is that the debate remains on a single track. One danger I’ve noticed when doing the pro/con readings is that I’ll have to choose between the quality of the articles and their relevance to one another’s arguments. It’s easy to find a pro-euthanasia/anti-euthanasia pair. It’s quite another thing to find two articles that are both good and are really responding to the same considerations.

  4. I have students write weekly 1-2 page response papers on a specific question and discuss their papers in class. Students learn to construct and evaluate arguments as well as to be concise in their writing. I do not grade these papers – it is credit/no-credit – but discussing the papers gives students opportunities to self evaluate their own work. It also builds self-confidence in one’s ability to discuss difficult issues with others. I use both small groups and total class approaches to handling these discussions. Occasionally I will give an in-class assignment of @ 5-10 minutes to write a response to a specific questions and then discuss their answers with the other students. This helps students to learn ‘think on their feet’ and to be able to defend their position with little time to prepare. These learning experiences can be intimidating to many students at first, but as the semester goes one and their confidence/skills improve this aspect lessens.

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