On June 17, 2012, thousands participated in a silent march to end racial profiling in New York City. (Image courtesy of longislandwins on Flickr. License CC BY.)

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

We all make decisions and hold attitudes in our everyday lives that reflect our ethical frameworks. How we value personal freedom in relation to our sense of social justice says much about who we are and what kind of society we want to live in. But our ethical frameworks are often deeply rooted and difficult to articulate, and they can be especially challenging to discuss with people who hold opposing views.

OCW has just published 24.191 Ethics in Your Life: Being, Thinking, and Doing (or Not?), in which this problem is confronted head on. The instructors of the course are Professor Sally Haslanger, Patricia-Maria Weinmann, and Brendan de Kenessey. These last two share the teaching team’s strategies for fostering lively and constructive student discussions about controversial topics on the course site’s Instructor Insights page.

Using Philosophical Tools to Guide Discussion

The subjects that students wrestle with in this class are difficult, to say the least: racial profiling, imprisonment in the US, video games and sexism, military funded research at universities, and more. The instructors use approaches from the discipline of philosophy to help students listen openly and respond respectfully to arguments that challenge their own ethical frameworks:

“Before entering the class, students tend to say, ‘I feel this way, but I’m not really sure why, and I can’t articulate why I think a particular stance is wrong or why I think it’s right,’” the instructors say. “But once we provide them with philosophical tools, they begin to articulate why they feel the way they do. They also begin to use logic to frame discussions about topics that can often spark heated responses…They learn to respond to the arguments of people holding opposing views and to engage these people in conversations, as opposed to dismissing them.”

So the course is “about taking the kinds of skills philosophers use to engage in dispassionate, careful discussions and applying them to cases where people tend to be anything but dispassionate.”

But for all this to happen, students first need to feel comfortable about openly sharing their views.

Getting Students to Make the Rules

Rather than dictating rules for how discussions will take place, Professor Haslanger “asks students to generate the guidelines for classroom discussions. Students talk about the importance of respect and of listening to others. The process of having students create conversation guidelines communicates, right from the start, that the classroom culture is collaborative and focused on respect.”

Knowing Each Other by Name

Some techniques for setting the stage for comfortable discussions about uncomfortable topics are surprisingly simple: arranging the chairs in a circle so students can see one another, and giving students name cards so they address one another using their names. On the first day, students are assigned to pairs, interview one another, and then introduce their partners to the group.

“There’s laughter in the room as they interview each other. It’s a great time of sharing and of introducing everyone to each other without stressing students. This practice sets the tone for a comfortable classroom culture.”

Adjusting the Volume of Student Voices

The instructors intervene when discussions get dominated by the more extroverted personalities (as they inevitably do in discussion-based classes) to encourage contributions from the less readily vocal. When the class approaches consensus on one side of an issue, the instructors shake things up by summarizing the discussion with particular support for the other side. But why shatter this social harmony? Isn’t that what the course is trying to achieve?

“It’s only after going through an intermediate stage of feeling confused by understanding both sides of an argument that [the students] can get to a more grounded conviction as opposed to just a knee jerk reaction to an issue. We feel we’ve succeeded as teachers when students come out of the class more confused than when they started! It means they’re considering all sides of an argument and realizing there’s so much more to know about an issue than what they initially thought.”

Confusion as a goal! It’s a philosophy class, after all!