Teaching Notes

You must become the flame on the candle. - Thich Nhat Hanh

Monday, January 26, 2009

TO MEGHAN, ASLEEP IN ETHICS CLASS (orginally published in Silenced Press)

What's Meghan's apparent attitude toward ethics? What does the poet think of her attitude? Whose point of view do you find yourself sympathizing with? Why? (The comments posted in the past in response to these questions have sometimes disappointed and surprised me with their lack of self-reflection. Don't treat this as just another task to get through -- think about what the poem is saying about ethical unawareness and those who cling to it.)Respond by noon Tuesday, Feb. 3.

As if what people are is all they’ll ever be
you close your eyes
and it’s suddenly night everywhere and always

nothing can reach you not even

the agitated ghosts of ancient philosophers
swirling around our hot basement classroom
but to you it’s just words love death etc.

so why wake you to see the firelight

beating frantically on the walls of Plato’s cave
when your sleeping face is beautifully composed
like that of a fairy-tale princess

with a piece of poisoned apple caught in her throat


Amy said...

Apparently, based on the fact that she is sleeping in class, Meghan does not particularly care about ethics. She would rather sleep than learn about something she will employ throughout her lifetime. It can be argued that the act of sleeping in class is unethical in itself, because not only is she hurting her education and wasting the money of whomever is paying for her education, but she is personally insulting the professor who has to stand in front of the class and watch her not give a damn about what s/he is saying.

However, I actually sympathize with both points of view. The author, who I'm assuming is meant to be her professor, seems somewhat upset by her choice to sleep in class. S/he seems extremely disappointed that Meghan is wasting her time sleeping in a class that she chose to take - that she is sleeping (something she can do any other time), rather than learning important lessons that she may never get the chance to learn again.

The tone of the poem is also somewhat sympathetic towards Meghan, because she has no idea what she is missing. Meghan chooses to not challenge herself and broaden her mind, and instead remains "all [she'll] ever be." She sleeps so peacefully, like a fairy-tale princess, but the poisoned apple in her throat represents the fact that, unless she changes, Meghan will always be someone who fails to challenge herself. Instead of finding interest in learning new things, she will continue to put her head down and fall alseep. The ethical thing to do is to avoid wasting tuition money and avoid offending the professor, and work to acquire new knowledge to better herself... but she doesn't see that.

Personally, I struggle with the whole falling asleep vs. learning something new conflict. Maybe not quite that literally, but it is tempting to see college as a time to purely have fun, and to treat classes as "just another task to get through." However, I keep reminding myself that I chose to be here. If I don't utilize this time to expand my mind and build skills for a future career, then what am I doing here? There's no point in going to class and falling asleep - I might as well just drop out. Therefore, I stay awake.

- Amy Rubinson

Kelsey said...

Meghan demonstrates her attitude towards ethics by her actions in class. She obviously passes ethics as something not pertaining to her. She'd much rather ignore what is being taught in her ethics class and live in her 'dream world' where everything she does is always right. I believe, like Amy said, that the narrator is the teacher. I wouldn't exactly say that the teacher is mad or angry at Meghan. I know it sounds cliche, but I would say the narrator is disappointed in her. I think by using the example of Plato's cave, she shows the disappointment. Her dream world is only a shadow of her ethics class could be showing her. I would say that I would sympathize with the teacher, only because ethics is such an important topic in the work place as well as in your entire life. But I would also sympathize with Meghan as well. Sometimes the idea of what is ethical and what is unethical can be a confusing concept to grasp. It would be that much easier to close your eyes and live in dream your whole life. However, I do not treat my education with such little concern that I would be falling asleep in possibly the most important class I will take in my entire college career. In the end, I would stick by the narrator's side because of values that I have in my education in ethics.

Tyler said...

In terms of ethical unawareness, the poet is stating in this poem that they believe if you do not express an interest in ethics, you can never be fully ethical, in the sense that interest implies capability. For instance, if I fall asleep during every history lesson I ever have on World War II, I will never be able to fully wrap my fingers around the ins and outs of it, just as Meghan will likely be unable to wrap her fingers around ethical discussion.

Further, the poet notes, "to you it's just words love death etc." This line implies the notion that Meghan can hear the words, and the lesson, and the discussion in class, but her attention is on her sleep, not listening to ethics.

The most profound statement, however, comes on the final line, when a person's unethical nature is referred to as a poisoned apple. This shows the poet's dissatisfaction with Meghan's actions, showing that if she would only devote her attention and listen, that poison would be removed.

Meg Zanetich said...

The fact that Meghan has fallen asleep during an ethics class shows the type of person she is. I think that this happens too often on college campuses. In this case Meghan is so blind to see why this class, or any other class for that matter, is important. This isn't just a class to get by, it is something that will have an effect on the rest of her life. "Nothing can reach you.." sums up Meghan all together. Her ignorance gets the best of her while she unknowingly proves to her professor the type of person she is.

I think the poet thinks of her as a lost cause. When he says, "so why wake you to see the firelight," its almost like him saying "whats the point." Why should the poet, who I also assume is her professor, waste his time when she clearly has no interest in what he has to say. Some people
have no drive to better themselves and Meghan proves herself to be one of them. The fact that she is so unaware of what is going on is absurd. This is a characteristic of her that will see no change and the author conveys that with saying "with a piece of poisoned apple caught in her throat."

I don't feel sympathy for Meghan at all. She is an adult who made a decision. No one forced her to go to college and no one forced her to make these decisions. She chose to waste her time and the time of everyone else in that classroom. She chose to waste her money or the money of her parents. She chose to waste an opportunity that isn't given to all. But most of all, she chooses to be the same person she has always been with no promise of change. My sympathy goes out to the teacher. This is a person who has spent their entire life learning on so many levels so they can better the future of others. Here is Meghan just sleeping in their class, its like a slap in the face. Everything they have worked so hard for to now see a student sleeping while they are speaking. Its disrespectful and demeaning to a professor who is just looking to change the face of education.

scott said...

Meghan apparently is not too interested in ethics. Maybe she thinks that she is above the words that the teacher is preaching and that she is enlightened enough to cost through that class. The author makes references to her as if she was sleeping beauty waiting for a kiss to wake her up. Many of classes I have sat in the back daydreaming, and counting the tireless minutes until I am set free. I am more on the authors’ side, why wake up if it is not what you want to do. I sympathize with the author because he knows the limits of power he has over cretin individuals learning processes and unwillingness to learn is difficult to overcome.

Ryan Smith said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ryan Smith said...

I completely sympathize with Meghan. She is missing out on valuable lessons that will effect the rest of her life. When a student falls asleep in class they are only hurting themselves. This is a warning sign for greater problems outside of school. The line "nothing can reach you" really makes me feel sorry for Meghan. No one should be labeled as hopeless or unreachable. I think the author feels sympathy for her as well. There is obviously a problem in Meghan's life that causes her to sleep through ethics class. The author compares Meghan to a fairy-tale princess with a piece of poisoned apple caught in her throat. I think the author is implying that Meghan isn't necessarily choosing to miss the ethical lessons but she was poisoned and fell into a deep sleep. Poisoned by what I'm not exactly sure. It could be society, her problems, life, or maybe her upbringing but something has poisoned Meghan and caused her to sleep through valuable lessons on ethics. I wouldn't judge her so harshly by saying that she doesn't care about ethics but more that something in her life has forced her to put them to the side. She doesn't see the importance of these lessons, they are just words to her and in my opinion that is just sad.

Arlene said...

It is obvious that Meghan seems to not care about ethics and the information being taught in class. She seems to be unaware of the fact that her sleeping in class, is affecting her purpose for going to school. In the last line “with a piece of poisoned apple caught in her throat” the author implies that she has put a barrier between her present and her future. Unfortunately she will remain this way until she sees reality and who knows how long that will take. We go to college to learn and increase our knowledge, not to stay at the same level of education that we left high school from.
The poet who seems to be the professor in class has a sarcastic sympathetic reaction towards Meghan. He sounds very disappointed and upset about her attitude and how she is wasting her time as well as his. He sees her as this girl who is just sitting back relaxed without realizing the potential she may have to accelerate in life.
I do sympathize with the author(professor) because he probably feels like his learning style or subject is not interesting enough to keep students awake. Teaching is his profession, it is his job and for someone to not meet the expectations of a professor is very frustrating. It is only right if the professor does his job, and us as students do our job as well.

Christine Picault said...

Meghan's apparent attitude towards ethics is that it is a waste of her time and she shows that she doesn't really care about the subject. The fact that she is sleeping in ethics class, shows that she needs that class the most to learn what good ethics are all about. I believe that the poet feels bad for her, in the sense of what is going to occur in the future if Meghan does not change her ways. I’m not sure if that class was required for Meghan to take, but the class is a good preparation class for the future in any career she plans on being successful in.

I sympathize with the point-of-view of Meghan. I feel sympathetic towards Meghan because not only is she missing out on a valuable and important ethics lesson, but also the professor might have felt that she is wasting his and her time and gave her a failing grade. How will Meghan learn any form of ethics, if she sleeps in class?

Arantza said...

Like the rest of the other comments, Meghan couldn't care less about her ethics class. Does this however mean that she doesn't care about ethics in general? I'm not saying that falling asleep in class isn't wrong but she may have just had a long night doing work and fallen asleep by accident. However, if this were the case I doubt that whoever wrote this poem would have written this about Meghan at all. What I'm trying to say is that if this was her first so-called "offense" then this poem may never have been written because this was unusual for Meghan. But since it was written, I am assuming that this isn't unusual for Meghan to do.
But the fact that Meghan sleeps during class seems disrespectful and dumb on her behalf. First of all, she is and possibly with the help of her parents paying to go to college and for classes. Falling asleep in a class is a waste of money, time, and energy. So I think that Meghan's attitude towards ethics is that she deems it unworthy of her attention. I am not 100% sure who the author of the poem is, it could be the professor of the class or a classmate of Meghan's who sees the importance of the class and has actually been gaining knowledge from it. Whoever the poet may be, he/she is disappointed with Meghan's lack of attentiveness & the fact that she falls asleep during it. The author makes a point saying, "nothing can reach you... why wake you to see the firelight", meaning why even wake her up if it makes no difference to her. Everything the professor says are purely words to Meghan, instead of ideas. I find myself sympathizing with the author because they are right. It's disappointing and frustrating seeing someone like Meghan acting the way she is when important things are being said. "Nothing can reach her..." How frustrating.

Bridget said...

The image of a fairy-tale Princess sleeping with the beautifully composed face struck a chord with me. Like Meg, I think this is an image that is all too prevalent on college campuses. Everyone has seen, or at one point been, the 17 or 18-yr old freshman that doesn't seem to understand the importance of college quite yet. When I think of Meghan I see some freshman girl in her first semester, more worried about her hair and make-up and the party she is going to go to that night, then the issues she's being presented with on campus.

The image of a princess also brings to mind someone who has been sheltered all her life. As if she isn't really considering ethics as something worth studying because she has never encountered a serious ethical issue before. The line "as if people are is all they'll ever be" also seems to point towards the mentality of one sheltered. The author is urging her to look beyond what she sees on the surface, but she's not paying attention to him.

Meghan is not someone interested in the "agitated ghosts of ancient philosophers" or the ideals they preached. All she hears are words, empty and meaningless, unless she chooses to wake up.

So many people today, young and old alike, seem to be jaded by the world especially where ethics are concerned. We encounter so many unethical actions in the leaders of our economy and government (just look at the state of the economy today), that they seem to think ethics doesn't matter anymore. The author is speaking to Meghan, but I think he's talking to everyone who has their eyes closed and just don't care, because now more then ever, ethics are important.

Jennifer said...

Meghan's unethical behavior is apparent in her decision to sleep through a class lecture. The first line of the poem reveals her indifference to gaining knowledge and ignorance to the concept of learning as a whole. There seems to be some kind of unjustifiable assurance in her peaceful slumber that she knows all there is for her to know. Night, in the poem, represents the darkness of her general unawareness and disinterested perspective.

Despite the fact that her sleeping in class is unethical in the realm of the classroom and society, her mistreatment of knowledge and learning is unethical unto herself. These abstract notions of "love death etc." are meaningless to her. They are just words shrugged off as too complex to try to grasp or care about. The ideas of past intellectuals do not hold her attention because she is closed off to the possibility of expanding her own intellect. The ghosts are agitated because the apathetic student does not hear, understand, or even acknowledge their messages.

The author of the poem apparently feels there is not even a point in trying to force her to wake up and "see the firelight." Her boredom-induced nap has already deemed her unable to appreciate or learn from Plato's philosophic comment on the nature of reality and being in his Allegory of the Cave. Instead, Meghan remains in the dream-like world of fairy-tales, which makes her seem " beautifully composed" on the surface when, in actuality, she is being poisoned from the inside, affecting her personal growth on an educational and, ultimately, human level.

Matthew Conti said...

Meghan’s apparent attitude to ethics is that she doesn’t really care for them based on the fact that she fell asleep in her ethics class. The poet is classifying her as just another beautiful, mediocre, lost person in this world because she doesn’t express any want to change her ways to better herself as a person of ethics. I find myself sympathize with the poet more than Meghan because she has a chance to learn and chooses not to stay awake in class and become a more knowledgeable person. The poet on the other hand is talking about the wonderful and interesting thinks that are taught in class and it is as if he is teaching all this fantastic thinks like Plato and old philosophers to the class, but Meghan and most likely her class mates don’t care about it at all. Imagine that you try to educate a person about your passion and they just push it aside like it doesn’t matter. That would hurt and that’s why I feel sorry for the poet. But is it ethical for the poet not to wake Meghan and make her listen and learn? I think he has the responsibility to take control of the class and make them learn in some way. So I feel that the poetic isn’t being ethical about letting Meghan sleep.

John Purcell said...

Megan’s apparent attitude towards Ethics is that it is, at the very least, not important enough for her to force herself to stay awake. I think the only class I ever fell asleep in regularly was a history course in high school, but if I remember right I still did decent. A monotone teacher reciting historic facts is not the most enthralling thing, to me at least. Let me just say, I would believe that a good portion of us have fallen asleep during a class at some point. I think it is important to take that into account. Her attitude in general does seem to be one of disregard for ethics. The “poisoned apple caught in her throat” seems to be what she has chosen to digest in life. I’m not sure how to go about explaining that, but I feel she has chosen what she became. Although, did she know the apple was poisoned? Some classical references would suggest that she possibly didn’t. The path she has taken doesn’t seem to be one she really understood at the time and probably never will.

The poet’s attitude towards Megan seems to be that she is more ignorant than anything else. She doesn’t understand the importance of ethics. In turn, I feel the poet is trying to say that she doesn’t care about ethics outside of class. The poet also feels that she has a lack for personal growth. This seems to be stated in the line “As if what people are is all they’ll ever be.” Maybe the poet feels Megan is already unethical and Megan feels there is nothing to be done to change that.

I find myself sympathizing with the poet’s point of view. Here is a professor who is trying to change and enlighten young minds, but Megan’s mind, possibly, is already made up. I think it would be a very difficult feeling to want to help someone, but there is nothing that you can do. I am sure many of us have been in this situation before. Yeah, it sucks that she is being disrespectful to the professor, but I feel it is worse that she is a lost cause. I think the poet wants to help Megan; it is just they don’t know how.

Marcy said...

Yes, Meghan is asleep in class. Yes, she is being disrespectful to her professor. This shows that her apparent attitude towards ethics is poor, but I was a little disappointed by a line the poet used. “So why wake you to see the firelight”, suggests the teacher has given up on the girl.

Is this really fair? Would a good teacher do this? I guess one would have to know if this is something she does on a regular basis. Everyone makes mistakes sometimes. Maybe she was having a bad day, maybe she finds the topic so boring on that particular day that she just can’t keep her eyes open. The line, “your sleeping face is beautifully composed like that of a fairy-tale princess”, suggests the professor may feel the girl is just another pretty face that doesn’t care about her personal enlightenment; the poison blocking her illumination.

I suppose I’m playing devils advocate with those statements. It is true that by sleeping she is not working to her full potential. Even if she is not interested in the class, it is possible for everyone to stay awake at the very least. I cannot say that I do not sympathize with both Meghan and her professor. Meghan may truly care about the class she is taking, and is being misjudged. However, at the same time I could understand the professors’ feelings of frustration.

Jon said...

Perhaps it was an early class, or possibly the last class of a very long and busy day. Yes, she is asleep in ethics class, but there must be more than just a lack of interest or ethical aptitude.
However, it is still beautifully ironic that one should fall asleep in an ethics class, as it is not necessarily wrong to do so, but not exactly the right thing to do either. If "Meghan" is paying to attend this class (more or less) then she has every right to use/abuse the time as she pleases--granted she is not helping herself at all.
If Meghan wants to be oblivious to the world around her, so be it. After all, she looks so pretty in repose. Why ruin that with intellectual thought?

Rachel said...

I feel empathy for Meghan as well as the poet (observer, teacher). “As if what people are is all they’ll ever be” makes me feel that Meghan is disappointed with the world. It isn’t as if she is bored with the class, she just hasn’t seen the point. It is almost like she has tried before to understand people and life, and has been disappointed. However, the comparison of Meghan to a fairy-tale princess makes her seem na├»ve. She hasn’t comprehended and truly understood ethics, so she writes it off as just some other “words love death” that don’t have any real meaning or effects on her life. The princesses usually get themselves into some sort of distress or trouble, in which they must be saved by the just and “good” (ethical) hero. Does Meghan need to be saved from naivety by the enlightened author? The author feels that she hasn’t fully appreciated learning and education, but he doesn’t completely hold it against her. It may not even by sympathy-- maybe disappointment? The idea of waking her up to see the “light” (enlightenment) of education and learning seems to be in vain. He seems to wonder what the point would be, why he should put effort and time into helping this person understand, when she seems content with giving up and not being conscious to her surroundings or present in her life.
I feel empathy towards Meghan because I have been that student, who didn’t realize her educational potential, and instead of being present in a situation, would rather close my eyes to try and make it disappear. It is clear that the reader is supposed to understand that Meghan, being asleep in a class about ethics is ironic. However, the phrase “nothing can reach you” makes me think the author understands that there may be other demons troubling her. Is it ethical for the author to let her sleep? If she is left in the dark, will she eventually die from that poisoned apple? And will it be the author’s fault, for letting her sleep and choke on her thoughts?

lisa said...

Meghan seems to be turning her back on ethical issues. She is apathetic to what is going on around her and ignorant to ethical issues that are raised in this world.
The poet seems to think, “why am I going to bother trying to make her care?” when she is so content in her own world. The poet also probably figures that he could not force her to become engaged in these issues.
I understand that Meghan’s point of view, that it is easier to turn your back on ethics, rather than try to solve almost impossible issues. Simultaneously I fear that if everyone takes Meghan’s attitude, then the world may become even more corrupt then it already is. So I do not agree with either point of view presented in this poem.

Joanna said...

By falling asleep in ethics class, Meghan displays a blase attitude toward the subject. We all know what it is like to be tired in class, but Meghan is sleeping in more than one sense of the word. Yes- she has physically shut her eyes, but it seems that the narrator is expressing more than plain frustration with a sleeping student. For Meghan, it's "...night everywhere and always," an indication that Meghan is always sleeping (or not paying attention). For Meghan "..it's just words love death etc." but where is the meaning, the value of these words? Meghan doesn't seem to care. She doesn't appreciate the value of the wise words of ancient philosophers, otherwise words like "love" and "death" would mean so much more.
I like the image of a fairy-tale princess- I think of a beautiful girl with a world of opportunity at her fingertips. Unfortunately these opportunities will wear away if they are not taken advantage of, hence the "...poisoned apple caught in her throat" that is preventing Meghan from speaking up. Meghan is choking in the classroom- and she has no one to blame but herself. She is there with an opportunity to learn. She has chosen not to take the opportunity.

I sympathize with both the professor and Meghan. I can't imagine how frustrating it must be for teachers to put all of their energy into teaching students who don't care. I also know how frustrating it is to be in a class that I have no interest in and have to try to pay attention because whether I like it or not, I am getting graded.

In terms of ethical unawareness I'm going to revert back to the idea of "choking." I think a lot of people choke when it comes to ethics because it comes down to money vs the right thing to do -or- the easy way out vs. the right thing to do. Too many people choose the money or the easy way. And so... "We're F*ck@d"

Deidre Drewes said...

The main point of the poem is summed up in the last three lines

"when your sleeping face is beautifully composed
like that of a fairy-tale princess

with a piece of poisoned apple caught in her throat"

The author more feels bad for Meghan, rather than despises her, because he knows her ignorance is only hurting herself.

Meghan is obviously missing out on a lot, and I know I very much enjoy my ethics class and the debates and conversations within the classroom. In fact, it is the only class this semester that I truly enjoy and look forward to.

Meghan doesn't value her education, and will be one of those people who expect to merely get along on their good looks (obviously not the means in which Warren Buffet and Bill Gates gained their success). Meghan is not the kind of girl who has ever been expected to work hard, so why would she start now?

Personally, Meghan is the girl I have always despised. I envision her as the daughter of a wealthy family, driving around the Audi that her parents lease, and is simply going to college because it's what she's expected to do. Her apartment is paid for and she has never had to worry about bills. She is blind to the world around her, as near as the ongoings of her college town and as far reaching as the struggling townships in underprivelaged countries. Meghan is that obnoxious girl on "My Super Sweet 16".

But the whole point is that Mommy and Daddy will cut Meghan off, she will have no real life experience, and she will be forced to fend for herself in the real world. So all along the things she should have been learning in school but didn't pay attention to will be shoved down her throat in one hard lesson called reality. And at that point, I no longer despise Meghan.

And besides the whole ramble on why I dislike Meghan's character, she is obviously not concerned with ethics based on the way she lives her life. She half-asses everything she does and expects things to be handed to her. I sympathize with the author because the poor guy's job is made ten times harder when he has a classroom full of students who could care less. It's extremely hard to educate someone who doesn't want to learn (I would assume it would be the educational equivalent to pulling teeth).

As for Meghan...if you were going to sleep through class you should have stayed in bed.

Nicole Moss said...

I think that it is difficult to say what Meghans apparent attitude towards ethics are just based on the fact that she fell asleep in class; who knows what has led her to fall asleep in class. That being said, if Meghan is just merely being rude and is sleeping in class without a good reason (ie- spending the previous night in the hospital with her grandmother), then I would have to say her ethics are a little off. It then seems she would rather sleep then gain knowledge which may help her throughout her life. This act does not show inform us of her ethical beliefs on any topic other than she does not seem to care about education, or being polite to her instructor or other class mates.

The poet seems frustrated with Meghans choice to sleep during their class, that she is missing out on important teachings of "ancient philosophers", and that her act of sleeping shows she only see's the things she is taught as words, and not learning experiences.

I do not have a specific side that I sympathize with, I understand the instructors frustration with Meghan not seeing the big picture and the importance of learning, but I also understand that while I do not condone sleeping in class there may be a reason behind her unethical actions on this particular day.

Nicole Moss said...

I think that it is difficult to say what Meghans apparent attitude towards ethics are just based on the fact that she fell asleep in class; who knows what has led her to fall asleep in class. That being said, if Meghan is just merely being rude and is sleeping in class without a good reason (ie- spending the previous night in the hospital with her grandmother), then I would have to say her ethics are a little off. It then seems she would rather sleep then gain knowledge which may help her throughout her life. This act does not show inform us of her ethical beliefs on any topic other than she does not seem to care about education, or being polite to her instructor or other class mates.

The poet seems frustrated with Meghans choice to sleep during their class, that she is missing out on important teachings of "ancient philosophers", and that her act of sleeping shows she only see's the things she is taught as words, and not learning experiences.

I do not have a specific side that I sympathize with, I understand the instructors frustration with Meghan not seeing the big picture and the importance of learning, but I also understand that while I do not condone sleeping in class there may be a reason behind her unethical actions on this particular day.

Is Media Ethics Education DOA?

It sounds like a joke Jay Leno would tell during his opening monologue on The Tonight Show. Hear about the graduate students at the prestigious journalism school? They got caught cheating on an ethics exam. Ha ha ha. Except that’s actually what happened at Columbia University in late 2006.

Students had been given 48 hours to sign onto a Columbia Web site to take the final exam in a required course called “Critical Issues in Journalism.” They then had 90 minutes to answer two essay questions.

The students were warned to not discuss the questions with each other, but apparently they did. As the headline over a story reporting the scandal put it, “Ivy J-Schoolers Fail Ethics, Ace Irony.”

No one admitted cheating despite pressure from the school’s administrators and pleas from classmates, who feared the scandal would damage the market value of their degrees. Meanwhile, the teacher of the course, New York Times columnist Samuel G. Freedman, refused to comment. But if the disgruntled posts on RateMyProfessors.com are any indication, his students hadn’t exactly been soaking up knowledge. “Maybe he could e-mail his ‘speeches’ to the students instead of making everyone suffer through the most wasted class in j-school. . . ,” one read.

There’s an old cowboy saying that goes, “When your horse dies, get off.” Journalism ethics education is a dead horse. Or else those aren’t vultures circling in the sky.

A Question for Socrates

The question of how ethics is learned, or even if it can be, is as old as Western philosophy. In Plato’s dialog Meno the title character asks, “Can you tell me, Socrates, whether virtue is acquired by teaching or by practice; or if neither by teaching nor practice, then whether it comes to man by nature, or in what other way?” Of course, Socrates, being Socrates, resists giving a definite answer. But we can’t. The sad fact is, students had better get an effective ethics education now or they may never.

Last summer I conducted an ethics workshop for some reporters and editors at the Poughkeepsie Journal, a small daily in upstate
New York owned by Gannett Co., Inc. The woman in charge of organizing the workshop had supplied us with several case studies to examine. I remember one dealt with a classic conflict of interest, a copy editor who moonlighted at a local radio station.

But what I remember most is the air of defeat that clung to the staff as we sat on hard plastic chairs in the break room discussing the cases. I could hear in their voices the bitterness and cynicism of employees forced to follow corporate policies they despised. Recently, for example, the paper had started running display ads on the front page and section fronts, a much more grievous ethical lapse, their mumbled asides suggested, than anything the case studies might have to offer.

I don’t want my students to ever wear the gray, defeated expression I saw that day on the faces at the Journal. But given the downward direction in which the media are moving, and fast, how in the world can I prevent it from happening?

Teaching Media Ethics by Telling Stories

A friend of mine who teaches at a big Midwestern university recounts in class the events of her first week as a reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune. She was sent to Duluth to cover Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey on the campaign trail. When they were introduced, Humphrey vigorously shook her hand. “Oh yes, Susan,” he said, “I read your stuff all the time.” He couldn’t have read her stuff, though; she hadn’t written anything yet. “Just a few words,” she explains to her students, “but words that taught this fledging reporter a great lesson about pols and the little lies they tell.”

I usually find occasion during the semester to quote I. F. Stone’s dictum, “Every government is run by liars and thieves, and nothing they say should be believed,” to make the same point. But Susan’s story makes the point better. That’s because it has existential force. Her story vividly captures in a way a secondhand quote can’t the realities of a reporter’s life.

Some might think telling “war stories” is a waste of precious class time. I’ve a colleague who didn’t want to fall into the “trap” of regaling students with stories ad nauseam (“which, let’s face it, is easier than teaching or grading,” he said). So one semester he kept track. When he toted it all up at the end, he was surprised that he’d used less than an hour - out of 45 – talking about his newspaper experiences. And yet, he admitted, it was his stories that students seemed to remember most.

“Stories teach us how to live,” Daniel Taylor said in his essay, “The Ethical Implications of Storytelling.” What he meant was that stories preserve our experience for contemplation and evaluation. Although not all stories carry a heavy message, there’s an entire category of stories, so-called “exemplary tales,” that are told to convey a moral.

Our war stories are potentially just such tales. They can provide evidence, in ethicist John Barton’s words, of “how real human beings live through various crises and trials and remain human.” My colleague who kept tabs on his storytelling has described his stories as cautionary. Most, he said, deal with “screwups I learned from.”

But sometimes the storyteller and the audience can’t agree on what exactly the moral of a story is.

When Susan was a cub reporter on the Tribune, she interviewed the Beatles, who were on their second tour of the States. She got into their hotel room by dressing up as a waitress in an ugly, mustard-colored uniform and accompanying an actual room service waiter upstairs. Ringo took one look at her little plastic name tag – it read “Donna Brown” – and snorted, “What kind of name is that?” The waiter nudged her in the side. “Tell them what you real name is,” he urged. She did, as well as her reason for being there. Rather than throw her out, the Beatles politely answered her questions. They even let her phone for a photographer. The next day her story ran on the front page, with a photo of John sitting at a table and looking up at her and laughing as she poured coffee in his cup. She still has a glossy print of that photo somewhere.

Many of Susan’s students think she’s nuts for not having the photo hanging up in her office. They also think she’s nuts for saying she’d never participate in the same kind of stunt today. To her celebrity-struck students, disguising herself as a hotel waitress to get an interview with the Beatles seems soooo cool. They lose all sight of the fact that it wasn’t a story of vital public interest that demanded undercover methods.

Susan intends one lesson when she talks about her hard day’s night, but her students, living in a paparazzi-saturated culture, draw another. “It may be a lost cause,” she remarked to me.

Or maybe not. Negotiations over what the point of a story is can be part of the point of the story. In the process of negotiating, we test different interpretations, try out different themes. This is helpful. This is educational. Lawrence Kohlberg, the Harvard psychologist famous for his research on the stages of moral development, contended that “the teaching of virtue is the asking of questions. . . not the giving of answers.” Stories don’t necessarily have to yield clear moral rules to be of value. It’s enough sometimes if they just give us something to think about.