Teaching Notes

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

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

What Makes the Hottentot So Hot?

Have you ever failed to voice your opinion because you feared the consequences? What was the situation (try to make it a significant one, and if possible, related to social ethics)? Why didn't you have the courage to speak (don't pick a situation where you wouldn't be expected to speak -- for example, as a child)? Please post your response by 4 p.m. Tues., April 12.

(Bonus: What's the source of the above question? And what's the answer to it?)


Andrew Carden said...

I can think of several occasions when, fearing the potential consequences that could arise, I opted not to speak my mind. To my chagrin, actually, there's one setting in particular where, time and time again, I still find myself holding back: my grandparents' house.

Don't get me wrong, I adore my grandparents and love spending time with them. Unfortunately, they're the sort of FOX News-hooked, right-wing folks who, if they weren't family, I'd probably label "ignorant" and have an urge to punch. To be fair, my problem isn't their conservatism, but rather their gullibility to believe information that is certifiably false.

At family dinners, subjects like "death panels" (a false talking point by conservatives against health care reform) and "birtherism" (believing President Obama is not a natural-born citizen) will arise. I do speak my mind and respectfully disagree with my grandparents on these issues, but that's just the thing - should I be so respectful when such utter nonsense is being spewed? In another setting, with other people, I would mercilessly lash out at those spewing this, call them ignorant to their faces and, in all likelihood, tell them to go fuck themselves.

Alas, they're my grandparents, so I feel a need to respect their opinion, even if such opinions are often patently false. After doing this, however, I wind up pondering to myself if I should argue harder against such lies. After all, I hate that my grandparents are falling for this nonsense just as much as I loathe the falsities themselves. I want them to know the truth, and yet I know they'll take offense to me lecturing them over believing lies. To them, FOX News really is "fair and balanced." This is the sort of mindset I have to conquer here and, in the heat of the moment, I deem that it's just not worth the fight. I want them to know the truth and, yet, I know the last thing they want is folks calling them out at their own dinner table.

Oh, and, without a doubt, that quote is from "The Wizard of Oz." And, the answer is courage!

Dey Armbrister said...

To be quite honest, I've sat on this question for quite some time trying to think of a response....and honestly, I never had a problem voicing my opinion. I have always been the type of person who believed that each opinion matters in some form or fashion, and usually when I do voice my opinion it's for good reason. I especially voice my opinion when it comes to situations that deal with ethics.

Prime example of this: one of my friends tend to have the state of mind that you should do anything in order to progress in life, which includes using people for monetary means, and I always let that person know that you shouldn't use people as a means only. People definitely don't respect you if they see that you go to them only when you need something and you're the only person benefitting from it.

P.S. congrats to Andrew for catching the "Wizard of Oz" reference, it didn't ring a bell until I played the Lion's speech in my head a couple of times.

Maggie V. said...

My freshman year I went to a meeting about how to make money. When we arrived, there was this extremely good looking young man who described all the riches that would come our way if we simply took his advice.

For the girls he described all the make-up and shoes we could buy! For the guys a new car, or maybe even a new house. He then continued to quote Tiger Woods ( he was a golfer in case any of the girls didn't know), and told story after story of how successful we could be.

In his opinion success was measured in how expensive your clothes were and how many vacations you could afford to go on.

After he finally finished bullshitting for an hour, he began to describe what was undoubtedly a pyramid scheme. The whole time I didn't say a word or walk out because I didn't want to be rude and disrupt his speech.

How this guy was even allowed to speak at a school is beyond me.
If this ever happened today my response would be far from polite.However at the time I was more concerned with being nice, than standing up for what was right.

Maggie V. said...

Bonus: The question is from the Lion's Speech in the Wizard of Oz. The answer is courage.

Adam said...

There is one ethical quandary I found myself in when I was sixteen years old. I was working at a restaurant in near my hometown, in Lake George, NY. When I started there early in the summer, everything was great. I was making a lot of money busing tables, and being sixteen, I had never really had a full wallet before. The problems arose when the owners of the restaurant started importing workers from Eastern Europe. I have no way of knowing whether or not they actually had work visas, but I do know for sure that they lived in the owner’s basement. That was one thing.

But the real kicker was when I found out how much they were being paid. According to a few of them, they were only making only a couple of dollars an hour, without tips. I was only sixteen, but I think that’s hardly an excuse for my complete lack of confronting the owners. My newly found love of money was more important to me than finding out the truth. I was worried that if I brought the questions I had with the owners, whom I barely knew, they would get rid of me before I could clean another high-chair. Basically, my decision came down to wanting security to have enough money for the drive-ins than ask the questions to ensure that these kids weren’t getting entirely screwed over.

But this is really what life has become. Personally, I’ve never had a profound ethical decision to make. Our lives are so clouded with products and things, we value those things over people. But no one thing is too important. When we buy the gas – well, it’s just a tank of gas, it’s not that big of a deal. We remove ourselves further and further from ethical decisions by buying a million little things. But they add up.

Everything we experience is through a third degree of some medium, so we never have to think about the person who made it. We don’t feel guilty looking at porn, because we don’t have to look the girl in the eyes who was abused in it. We don’t feel guilty buying Nike shoes, because we don’t have to look in the eyes of the Indonesian boy who made them when we buy them. We’ve established a landscape in which every ethical decision is seemingly mundane, so it can easily be swept under the rug.

DJ HittaMixxx said...

I know the question being asks specifically asks not as a child, but as I think about the prime time examples when my courage to speak up was absent, I think of childhood. More specifically, there are many examples I can dig up right from my years in high school.

One student in particular was picked on in one of my classes for being different than the others. He had a very short temper and a violent past. I knew this as he was bullied and picked on but did not have the courage to say anything because I feared in my own selfishness that I would then be targeted for standing up for him. I was always nothing but nice to this person, but it still irks me that I didn't have the courage to do something to make the bullying stop. By me not saying something, I enabled the bullying to continue.

A situation like this in high school is something that is almost in a way a continuum story. Bullying is something that has only grown and become worse over the years, with the new adaptation of the internet.

I was not practicing good ethics by not standing up for him or at least saying something to someone higher up (a teacher, principle, etc.) There is a popular saying that goes, "if you see something, say something." This phrase is something that I wish I had abided by in high school. In my years in college, I feel that I have become a lot more confident in my skin when it comes to voicing my opinions, so I'd hope if I ever was in another situation like this in the future, I would handle things a bit differently.
--Evan Brieff

Bonus Question: This without a doubt is from The Wizard of Oz. The answer being courage.

Allison Weiner said...

Well, I’ll pretend that this question isn’t highly personal and tell you a story about my bitchy friends. I have a close-knit group of back home; there are four of us in total. As a group we have been friends for six years, some longer. There is one girl in particular who has a natural ability to do and say things that are ridiculous on so many levels. Although we laugh about it with her it is when she is not around when the claws come out. So many things about her are laughed at that it is a wonder that the others want to remain her friend.

In the past I have not had the courage to speak up against the group; to remind them that she is our friend and she is merely different than us and that doesn’t mean she deserves a verbal beat down behind her back. I didn’t speak up because I didn’t want them to turn on me and direct their anger towards me. To this day she remains blissfully unaware of what her own friend’s think/feel/say about her.

Although bullying is commonplace nowadays it should not be amongst supposed friends and I should have had the guts to stand up to my friends and tell them that. I recognize that my friend has annoying qualities but so do I and so do all the other girls. I realize that she is a close friend and not our personal punching bag.

Bonus: Lion in the Wizard of Oz. Courage.

Michelle Eisenstadt said...

There have been many occasions when I haven't voiced my opinion out of fear of the consequences. I am not the most outspoken person in the world and when it comes time to voice opinions, sometimes, I find myself holding back.

A few years ago I was working at a day camp. The owner was known for hiring people who were less than skilled when it came to working with children. One day when myself and other counselors were at an activity with the campers, the instructor shoved a child to the floor.

Now an immediate reaction would be to speak up. However this wasn't the first incident that occurred with this instructor. Camp counselors before me had been accuses of spreading "lies and rumors" about this instructor.

I chose not to say anything out of fear of losing my job. I was not thinking ethically out of fear of losing my job. Looking back, I should have spoken up even if only to give myself a piece of mind.

Bonus Question: The Wizard Of Oz and the answer is courage

umoja38 said...

I have always lived in a country of free speech. Yet there have been so many times that I have held back my opinion, not always for fear but at times, based on the circumstances my opinion would have had no effect on the situation at all so why even voice it?

However, my memory takes me back to the Island of Jamaica in the 1980s, when I was a teen and just started showing keen interest in politics and government affairs. I had lively and firery debates with my cousins and class mates on various issues along these lines. And then came the 1980 general elections campaign season which evetually lead the country into a mini-civil war it seems.Both political parties were up in arms and great violence with each other. After it all ended, over 800 hundred lives were lost and that was just the 'reported' figures.

It was during this time that I had to keep my many opinions to myself and from many debates with fellow students, neighboughs and even some relatives because there were dire consequences involved such as having your house burnt down, being badly beaten,or been shot in broad daylight or even in the dead of night by those who were affiliated with the other political party that shared opposite views.

I do think keeping my silence many times during that era saved my life. Courage is always needed, sometimes even in the face of death but it should be of worth and should make a mark in society for the better and not squandered carelessly.

I do think, if I remember well, that this question is from the fary-tale 'The wiszard of Oz' and the answer is 'courage' as the Lion in the story needed.

ESchoen said...

There have been many occasions where I have failed to use my voice and every time I feel ashamed. I have a fear of confrontation and I don't particularly like getting into an argument or debate with a person. I like to remain neutral.

With that being said a few days ago a topic came up and I really should have said something. In a small group of people I both knew and didn't know a religious topic came up. Apparently some new date has been "found" in the bible concerning the rapture. The people within this group were laughing and making fun of the things I believe in. I grew up in a christian household and I happen to believe in the rapture. They were making jokes about the worlds end and how it was gonna be the same shit, different day. I was really offended but I didn't say anything because I felt outnumbered. They were making jokes about concepts they didn't fully understand. Although I don't personally believe that the world is going to end in that date, I do believe in some of the things they were mocking.

It was from the Lion's speech from the wizard of oz and the answer is courage! Love that Movie!

Anna Han said...

One example of a time I failed to voice my opinion because I feared the consequences was during the time I was working at my parents' business. Being the only asian business in a predominantly white neighborhood, my parents were faced with distasteful experiences. The people in the neighborhood would make rumors and try to harm our business, when in reality, my parents were doing their best to work hard for our family. They were never shaken by these rude rumors and nasty comments said by some of the customers.

During the summer, when I usually help out, I was faced with many rude comments about our business, our race, and my parents. These people who have no right to say anything about us were continuously making outrageous remarks right in front of my face, thinking that I was unrelated to my parents. Sometimes I would get so angry that another worker would have to take over while I went off to cool down. I was mad at myself for not being able to muster enough courage to say anything back to them, scared that if i did, the whole neighborhood would team up and boycott our business, or worse, harm my parents.

When I discussed this to my mom and how she could bear with all these rude comments she faced at least once a day, she told me not to stress about it. I learned from that experience that I do not necessarily have to speak out directly at these people, but through my actions. When they talk nasty about my parents or our business, I smile back at them and in a louder voice saying, "You have a good day now..Thank You and come again!" and be extra cheerful and helpful in front of those who were making rumors. I feel like this is another way of being courageous, not by making an issue even bigger, but handling it the other way, which people are often taken aback by.

These people come back the next time and they don't seem to be so mean and gossipy, so I am guessing my actions have some kind of effect on them.

BONUS: The quote is said by the Cowardly Lion in the "Wizard of Oz".

Anonymous said...

There's been a few situations where I've had this happen, but not many that are really distinct or had a lot of impact in my memory. There's a recent one that kind of got to me. My mother and I were talking over Spring break about my boyfriend. The conversation was going okay until she said something rude about our relationship that was totally uncalled for. My boyfriend's a really great guy and he's definitely one of my best friends, so it hurt when she said that. I also don't feel it's right for someone to say something bad about a person they haven't met yet.

I didn't say anything about it and ignored it. My mom is stubborn and a lot of times when I try to open up about my feelings, or if she's said something that's hurt me; she shuts me out or just laughs it off like it's okay. A lot of times it feels like my opinion isn't important to her, like I'm just talking to a wall so I don't really bother with saying much to her anymore.

The bonus is from the Lion's speech in the Wizard of Oz, and the answer is "courage."

Fagnani24 said...

Without a doubt, I am one of the most opinionated people that I know and I also often seem to be the person who feels most affronted when others act in an unethical, unjust or unfair way, even when the significance of their action is small. I am also, unfortunately (or perhaps it is fortunate as I'd otherwise find myself getting into a fight or confrontation every day), extremely shy and non-confrontational, this class being one of the only courses in my academic career I have ever been outspoken in.

With that in mind, there are frequently situations that arise in my life where I fail to voice my opinion, despite possessing a strong one - and a desire to voice it. A good example came earlier this semester when one of my housemates decided to foster a puppy without consulting the rest of the household. Like the rest of the house, I was charmed by the dog, but unlike the rest I was also a little annoyed that he hadn't asked us about it first. I said nothing because it seemed minor - the dog seemed well behaved and friendly and irresistible.

But then the responsibility to walk the dog, or pick up dog food, or clean up after the dog when someone failed to walk her started falling to me and other housemates. When the one who had chosen to foster the dog would leave the house and I was the only person remaining at home, they'd say "Hey Matt, I'm going to my buddies can you feed Kayla at 6pm and make sure she gets walked?". Sometimes I wanted to say "No." but since I had no reason to and I liked the dog I would allow the responsibilities that I had never asked for to be thrust upon me time and time again.

Then, finally, one day I came home from class to find that they had left the dog home alone, and free to roam the house (most of our doors don't have locks) and that she had eventually found my room and chewed my eye glasses into oblivion. I was furious. Glasses cost upwards of $300 and I didn't have the money to replace them, nor should the cost fall to my parents. I wanted to confront the housemate who had fostered the dog and let loose all of my thoughts on his lack of consulting the household before adopting her, the fact that while I was happy to help occasionally, I had never asked for the (frequent) responsibility of feeding and walking his dog and that the responsibility was undoubtedly HIS to replace my glasses. Instead, I showed him the damage that had been done and settled for the fact that, since we'd only been fostering the dog anyways, she was to be adopted by someone else later that week and I wouldn't have to walk her anymore.

Fagnani24 said...

I was able to eek out a feeble "Well, I really feel like, I mean, I can't afford to replace my glasses and she's your dog... it's kind of your responsibility" but when my housemate told me they were sorry but they had nowhere near enough money to be able to buy me knew ones I knew (knowing my housemate well) that it was true. Still, I wanted to be mad, to insist that he or his parents replace them; that he start giving me $50 a week until he'd paid for them... anything, but I settled, not wanting to create a rift in our household (my other housemates took my side when talking to me, took his side when talking to him, and refused to commit when the subject was brought up openly). I had every right, in my opinion, to speak my mind and make a big deal over the ordeal, but I knew it would create a tension in the house that would last all semester and so I bit my tongue, made sure the dog was gone within the week and let my housemate forget his debt.

This is just one of many examples of situations in which I should speak my mind and stand up for myself and what I believe, but don't. I should have spoken up about the dog BEFORE it ever got to my glasses. I should have politely refused to take care of the dog except for in select instances, as a favor. Instead, I neglected to speak up time and time again until it ultimately impacted me in a more significant way. For some reason, as always, despite having a strong opinion and desire to be heard, I was unable to find my voice.

Apologies for the very long post.

John Brandi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Brandi said...

I've hated myself for this one for awhile now, maybe because it's so recent or maybe it was my best friend. However, the story goes, and it's pretty morally suspect on all parties behalf, that my friend was say, canoodling with a guy she met at this party. She didn't feel comfortable and she walked away. She was out of ear shot, but luckily *no, not really* I heard him call her a "slut."

I debated internally that I should say something. I should speak out, but i was concerned for my physical safety. There were two of them and things could of went south because alcohol was involved. I didn't defend her character and I knew this slander they were saying about her wasn't true. I felt terrible about it all night and then told her the next morning.

If given the chance, I would defend her. I'm not just saying that in retrospect, but because it's a serious character flaw and if you don't nip it in the bud once, then you allow others' to walk all over you and it becomes a vicious cycle. This weird domino effect of being treated poorly because it's like this stamp appears on one's forehead that reads "weak."

Rachel Freeman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rachel Freeman said...

A time that sticks out to me as when I didn't have the courage to speak my mind was when I was hanging out with a group of my friends and they were all talking about another girl who they were seemingly friendly with and I was actually very good friends with.

They just kept talking about how boring she was and imitating her voice. It was incredibly insulting and I felt really bad hearing it. While I'm sure I said something along the lines of "Guys, c'mon...," I could have said much more and defended her as a person. She's a close friend of mine and I should have stood up for her. I didn't want to deal with the effects of speaking my mind and the responses from my other friends so I just remained silent.

My friends are not mean spirited people, and I'm sure they were just joking around, as they find this girl to be a nice person, but they think she has no personality. I thought it was wrong of them to speak so poorly of someone they considered a friend and whom they acted friendly towards. I really should just have expressed that I was uncomfortable with them talking about her in front me and how I found it offensive.

Jonathan Novick said...

I think if I had to pick a situation where I wanted to say something but didn't it would probably some random instance of bullying in school growing up. There was always the cool kids in school and then there were the extremely uncool kids, aka the unfortunate victims of bullying. When I was growing up through the public school system surprisingly enough I was never bullied, picked on, or really made fun of by any of my classmates. They all understood my condition and never used it as the end of a joke or just something to make me feel bad about. There were some instances outside of school when I would get picked on and hazed on playgrounds and in parks by children who didn't really know me, but for the most part I was left alone.

As I got older I witnessed situation after situation where someone was being bullied or made fun of and I did not do anything about it. I either remained a spectator or actually joined in because I wanted to be a part of cooler crowd. Looking back now I am ashamed of what I either did, or did not do in terms of coming to their aid. Although I wish I was a better person when I was younger I do understand why I did it. I was in a position where I had seen both worlds and I understood which one that I liked more and wanted to be a part of. I figured that in terms of my own social health and wellness it would be best that I keep my head down and just be content with the fact that it was not me that was being picked on. In some instances when I would join in on the mockery it would be for the security that I was part of the better crowd and ultimately protect myself more.

When I look back on my choices when I was young now I am not proud of them one bit. However I still consider myself to be so horrible and believe that I was so young that I didn't know any better. At that age life is strictly watered down to social experiences that take place in and outside of school. No one is particularly concerned with the kinds of jobs they will get with their level of reading or arts and crafts skills. So in the youthful terms that I was confronted with the decision whether or not to speak up for those being bullied around I chose to remain silent. I did so on completely selfish motivation that it was best for me and my (social) life to just be happy that I was not one of the ones being harassed. If the situation were to arise now I know that my actions would be different.

Andrew Wyrich said...

I want to start this off by saying that by nature, I am not usually one who is quick to confrontation. I like to consider myself a pretty calm person who likes to take things in stride and settle disagreements in a well thought out manner, rather than resulting to a screaming match of equally stubborn shouts.

I used to think that maybe this was a reason for me not speaking up in this situation, but the more I think about it, the more I think I was just not strong enough (or comfortable enough) to speak up and defend my friend.

For almost a year, my group of friends picked on one of my closest friends for a multitude of different things. One day it would be for a comment he would make, other days it would be for the clothes he wore and some days there really was no rhyme or reason to the insults being flung his way. Soon the insults almost became a regular part of everyday.

While looking back on the whole situation my friends said the jokes were never meant to be harmful or too degrading, but I later found out that my friend was deeply hurt by many of the things that were said or done to him. He once told me he no longer wanted to come to school because he thought his friends hated him.

If I could do it all over again, I would certainly speak up – which I attribute to me maturing as a person. At the time all of this occurred, being part of a group and not sticking out was the norm. In my incredibly small high school (90 students were in my graduating class), image and friends were everything and risking that is something that isn’t taken lightly.

I oftentimes look back on those days and wonder why I didn’t speak up or against my group of friends who were many times openly verbally attacking one of my best friends. I would almost wince at some of the comments but never once took the opportunity to stop it. I’m not proud of my inability to take a stand.

Now, all is well and those insults are part of the past but I still wonder if I could have stopped it sooner if I had the courage to just speak in defense of my friend.

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.