Ethics Beyond the Textbook

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Alexandria Yuan, Business Administration (Home Department: Goldman School of Public Policy)

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2016

The Problem: There are two things that I have to actively fight in the classroom: complacency, and its closely related cousin, a kind of superficial motivation for students to participate in class simply for the sake of “getting the grade.”

I teach Business Ethics at the Haas School of Business. As a GSI, I feel a personal sense of urgency and investment to get students to care about issues beyond their usual sphere of concern. Topics like corporate social responsibility and ethical frameworks may not land them their next interview or job offer, but will have long-term consequences if not taught properly. If I am accepting of the status quo of the business world, embedded with corruption as individuals decide to “do as they please,” or whatever “feels right,” then my students will be too.

The course’s required readings and lectures are fantastic, but in the chance that they are neglected by students, I have to still drive the message home that, in short, business decisions surely cannot always be driven by what is most beneficial to a corporation’s bottom line.

Solution: I knew I had to marry these topics with students’ personal lives, some way, somehow. And so, each week, I would try hard (and still do) to think of creative ideas that would implicate the students in some kind of decision-making. For instance, when we arrived at our unit on income inequality, I wanted them to feel, at least to a small extent, the bite of wealth disparity. They read about it often enough. I brought in a big, delectable pumpkin pie and told my students we would be sharing this pie. They applauded, probably hungry and eager for free food. But then there was a catch. I divided the room into fifths, with each segment representing an income quintile. Their faces fell and they bated their breath — they knew what was coming. The first two quintiles received crumbs. The third quintile received a thin sliver. The fourth received a decent slice, but not really enough to split among 8 or so people. The rest of the pie went to the final quintile. There was healthy and joking outcry. “What the heck?” We then had a riveting discussion about how the pie could be divided, and how slices could be shared (philanthropy, government intervention and the like.) Students couldn’t wait to speak up. And then, at the end of class, many students asked me to split the pie evenly for all to enjoy — I thought about it and then refused. Students, as much as I love you and want to be egalitarian, I was illustrating a point.

During another class, we discussed the tensions between collective welfare and individual gain. It’s easy for students to point a finger of blame at large corporations or leaders and say, “They should’ve known better.” But I wanted to show them that yes, as egregious as crimes are sometimes, the pressures these individuals face are real as well — and if students were put in the same shoes, they too would need to check their motivations and be honest with themselves. And so, I adapted an activity from my graduate school game theory readings, and told my students one day that I would give them an opportunity for extra credit. They could choose either 2 points or 6 points for themselves. Each of them had to take out a paper and write out how many points they wanted, but again, there was a catch. If more than 10% (four students) of the class chose 6 points, none of them would receive anything. And that is what happened, in all of my sections. As the students reflected back on themselves and to the class, they were candid and honest, as some of them realized that yes, it can be pretty darn hard not to be selfish.

Effectiveness: The extent to which a student becomes more “ethical” is very difficult, if not impossible, to quantify. But in classroom exercises like the ones mentioned above, the looks on their faces say it all. The fruitful, rich and honest discussions in class, and even the chatter between students after class has ended — about what just happened, about what they learned — tell me that they have been encouraged to develop a sense of personal investment beyond textbook definitions and the regurgitation of concepts on exams. I’m hoping that as small of a success as this may be, it will possibly catalyze something far greater down the road as they graduate and enter the working world.