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SAGES Teaching Fellow & the Ethical Teaching and Learning Program


As part of its mission, the Beamer-Schneider Professorship has funded a teaching fellow in SAGES, the Beamer-Schneider Teaching Fellow in SAGES.

In addition to offering ethics courses, this fellow leads an annual seminar for faculty who teach in SAGES, providing them with the know-how to obtain the ethics goals embedded in SAGES’ learning objective design.

The current and inaugural fellow is Dr. Kevin Houser.

With his hard work and the support of Dr. Michael Householder of SAGES, Dr. Houser has created the Ethical Teaching & Learning Program, the name for the faculty seminar. For more information, please contact Dr. Houser at:

This year’s program is as follows:

SESSION 1: Can Empathy Be Taught?

Philosophy has long recognized a link between empathy and morality. There is now a burgeoning literature on empathy’s importance in pedagogical contexts. The point of our first session, however, is not to learn how to teach students aboutempathy, but to consider how to teach them to be empathetic—i.e. how to teach them to habitually engage both written works and one another in a charitable, attentive, and open-minded way. Such a goal may seem mushy, vague, and un-assess-able.

It isn’t. We’ll look at specific ways to “operationalize” empathy for every classroom regardless of subject matter–i.e. whether for courses in STEM or in the humanities. We’ll look at ways to inculcate empathetic habits of engagement, and ways to see whether we have succeeded in doing so. To this end I’ll offer a template designed to both inculcate and assess empathy in two contexts: the reading of texts, and student-to-student critical discussion.

*Note: this session will open with a brief look at the results of the SAGES ethical learning survey from this summer, which will orient this session and sessions to come.

SESSION 2: Which ‘Good’? A Map of Moral Discourse

The leading cause of death for good moral discussion isn’t ill will but equivocation: specifically, equivocation on basic terms like ‘ought’, ‘should’, ‘moral’, and ‘good’. Students cannot consciously navigate the moral discourse without the ability to identify and foreground the diverse commitments behind claims (“That is immoral!”) which, on the surface, sound the same.

To address this difficulty, this session will provide a conceptual map of three different, widely accepted ways moral terms are used and understood—i.e. we’ll look at the essentials of each of these views of what makes an action or attitude merit the accolade ‘moral’. We’ll then translate this information into concrete and class-room-ready activities, including exercises enabling students to (i) spot evaluative language in readings, (ii) recognize the commitments embedded in the author’s language, and (iii) do the same with respect to the language of their fellow students as well as their own.

Finally, we’ll look at assignments designed to impress upon students how the different answers to “What makes an act moral?” can yield polar opposite verdicts about what is moral to do in some particular case.

SESSION 3: What Is the Structure of Moral Critique?

The general focus of session 3 is the proper merging of critical thinking and moral thought. Moral arguments have a peculiar structure. When this structure is not explicitly acknowledged, the resulting arguments will be both badly constructed and badly critiqued, for at least two reasons. First, though it may still be clear to students that they find some action objectionable, it becomes hard for students to (i) discover and articulate precisely why they find it so. Absent the ability to specify this ‘why’, it also becomes hard to (ii) notice the problem of false agreement–i.e. notice when agreement about what it is moral to do in a given case conceals deeper disagreement about why it is moral to do it.

We’ll sketch out ways to foreground this structure; consider in light of this structure several substantive and classic objections to the three different moral views described in the previous session; and devise assignments encouraging students to do the same within the course content of individual group members.

SESSION 4: How Can Institutions Be Immoral?

We don’t merely apply moral terms to describe actions and persons. We also use terms like ‘unethical’ or ‘immoral’ to describe and/or denounce collectives and rules—e.g. associations, policies, and institutions. This creates three problems for our attempts to guide students in moral discourse.

First, it isn’t clear we are saying the same thing in these cases—i.e. it isn’t clear that the actions of Andy and the institution of Aristocracy can be ‘immoral’ in the same sense. Second, it isn’t clear how to assess individual culpability when individuals make their decisions within these morally questionable political arrangements/environments. And this raises a third issue: the question of conflict of duties to individuals, communities, and institutions. For instance: how much do I owe an institution designed for people in general vis-à-vis how much I owe those with whom I have a more local or intimate arrangement—i.e. my customer, my client, my city; my friend, my son, my self? We’ll look at discussion-starters, assignments, and exercises that enable students to foreground these questions, see how they arise differently in the three moralities discussed, and discuss what kind of synthesis between the individual and institutional ‘ought’ a coherent ethical viewpoint would require.

SESSION 5: Assessment

In this final session (first week after Thanksgiving break) we’ll consider, in light of the SAGES ethical learning outcomes with which we began, precisely what challenges we’ve successfully met, and what challenges remain.
Central to this process will be presentations by group members, delivered to the group and any interested guests that group members wish to invite. These reports ‘from the field’ will provide an overall de-brief about what worked, to what degree, in what context, and why. We’ll then be in a position to issue specific recommendations going forward, both with regard to next year’s Ethical Teaching and Learning Program series and for the SAGES program as a whole.

Page last modified: September 20, 2016