Graduate Teaching on Diversity: Week 4

For our fifth meeting of the Graduate Responsible Conduct of Research and Difference, Power & Discrimination class, I had the students read three stories that involve research misconduct or improper attribution of research.  The first describes the antisemitism and underappreciation of interdisciplinary research that lead to Lise Meitner’s not being fully recognized for her contribution to Nobel-prize winning nuclear fission research; the second describes Rosalind Franklin’s unacknowledged contributions to the DNA helix-structure discovery; the third describes a recent account of falsified research that was popularized by a This American Life story before the falsification was known.

To try to involve everyone in the discussion, I adapted a spokes council forum for the classroom.  I gave the following task:

Propose solutions to prevent or mitigate future instances of research misconduct and improper attribution. Try to build consensus in the classroom on the proposed solutions. Use the three articles as examples of research misconduct in your discussions. You should be able to argue that your proposed solutions would have prevented or mitigated these instances of research misconduct and improper attribution. You may wish to start by identifying and discussing the research misconduct and improper attribution in these stories.

And the following guidelines for a spokes council forum:

Break into small groups of at least 3 people. Each group picks a spokesperson. Alternate between small group discussions and spokes council discussions (as moderated) to build consensus around a proposed solution.

Only spokespeople talk during spokes council discussions. Spokespeople must faithfully represent and advocate the opinions and decisions of their small group, even if these conflict with their opinion. The spokesperson may change from one spokes council discussion to the next but not during a spokes council discussion (with consent of the small group). Small group members may whisper or pass notes to the spokesperson as a means for clarification.

Small group discussions should generate new ideas and reflect on the opinions of other groups as expressed during the spokes council. New arguments and counterarguments may be generated to respond to other groups in the next spokes council. Proposals should arise from small group discussions and only be communicated during the spokes council.

Consensus is not majority rule. Supporting a consensus opinion does not necessarily mean that the proposal being considered is one’s first choice. When deciding to consent to a proposed solution, you should consider the question “Is this proposal something I can live with?” rather than “Is this proposal the best proposal in my opinion?” Part of coming to consensus is to try to modify the proposal such that it suits your needs better while it remains something others can live with (or preferably agree is an improvement on the original proposal).

Spokes councils have been used for different community groups (for example) to come together on a joint issue.  I am not sure if spokes councils are used to come to consensus across a large group, but I thought this adaptation might work well to counter some challenges I’ve described in this class so far.  By allowing the students to form their own groups, I hoped that students would be among other students they felt comfortable speaking freely with.  (This seemed to work: I think I saw everyone speak at some point during small group discussions.) I hoped that all student views would be represented through the spokes council, even of those that may not typically speak up in the classroom-wide space.  We ended up spending 10 minutes in small group discussions then 10 minutes in spokes council discussions and repeating this once.  An hour-long lecture slot is never long enough!  I moderated the spokes council slightly to make sure that the spokespeople were representing the views expressed in small group discussions only; students self moderated a handful of times.  In future I may moderate the spokes council discussion for time, to allow for an extra round of small-group and spokes-council discussion.

Some interesting points and suggestions that arose include (but are not limited to):

  • A desire for positive reinforcement rather than through punishment.  The former seems more challenging to come up with; the latter easier to implement.
  • Having a bar exam and licensing equivalent for researchers, possibly through professional societies.  Concerns were raised about how you even ‘test’ for ethical behavior and how this could be implemented in a non-punitive ways.
  • All for the publication and promotion of negative results.  This was spurred by last week’s discussion, where it was discussed that the pressure to publish motivates unethical behavior.  Concerns were raised about how you would set standards for such publications.

Even though I knew that one lecture slot would not be enough time to result in consensus in one solution, I think by stating a goal and giving a method for reaching the goal, the discussion was much more in depth than in a more open-ended discussion.  A good suggestion came from a student after a class: they pointed out that it was difficult to get started having just read the articles without knowing what the purpose of the discussion was to be – I think this can be fixed by having a warm-up/reflection assignment due at the start of class to ‘prime’ the students.

From my point of view, I think this worked really well.  Or at least, met my aims.


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