For the fourth meeting of our graduate diversity & ethics class, I had a bit of a break. Three colleagues from my department generously came to give a panel on research ethics. I asked these colleagues to emphasize the ethical considerations in the choices we make in our research questions that we pursue. (The students are also completing online ethical training that covers plagiarism, peer review, authorship, etc.) One panelist asked the students to read Killer Robots: The Soldiers that Never Sleep and I asked the students to read Censored Into Resignation?, Why the ‘Unhiring’ of Steven Salaita Is a Threat to Academic Freedom, This week, I resigned from my position, to try and get the students primed for considering.
The panelists made short opening statements, including considerations of funding sources (such as whether or not to seek military funding), how to decide what to research in the first place and how various factors can drive researchers toward unethical choices. Quite a bit of time was spent discussing military funding and applications hinting at whether or not one can ensure one’s research will only be used for (the ill-defined) good. In future years, I hope to find an appropriate article that considers the ethics of military funding and research for the students to read ahead of time.
More interesting to me is what didn’t happen. Remember, this course is an experiment for me as I have little idea of where the students (or faculty!) are coming from. First, there was no discussion of the corporatization of education and research, even though (I think) this has a huge impact on what we teach and study. I also hope to find a suitable article to have this arise as part of the discussion. I think that some of the above readings touch on this, but possibly not explicitly enough. Second, there were very few questions. Only three or four students asked questions – all male and all with very good English. This is an ongoing challenge, to ensure equal representation of ideas, and I have some ideas for democratizing this (for example, by asking students to each write down a question after the opening statements or based on the readings that a moderator can ask). Third, it seems that students and faculty alike are resistant to imagining our system of research undergoing fundamental change. I asked explicitly how one could imagine removing the influences that lead us toward unethical choices. This might not be fair, given little warning, but I think I could design an interesting assignment around picking a part of our system that can drive unethical research and imagining a way to change the underlying system or an entirely new system that would not suffer the same problem. All around, I have lots of ideas for next time around!
Someone pointed out after the panel, when I pointed out how few questions there were, that it is probably natural given that these students are incoming graduate students with little or no experience in research. Of course! And it refreshes the ongoing conversation I’ve been having with myself and colleagues across the university about the ‘right time’ to have this type of education. If we are only given one quarter in which to engage students, one could argue that later in one’s graduate career would allow for deeper consideration of the material, with more experience. On the other hand, at the start of your graduate program this course serves an orientation purpose – a chance to start off on the right foot. After all (for the moment at least), I only have a 1 credit course in which to engage the students. While this hardly does the material justice, I remind myself that it introduces our students to these concepts, it gives them the language with which to discuss these concepts, and it makes it normal to discuss ethics and oppression.