History is about opinion, judgement and (often) getting beyond monolithic assumptions about ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. At the same time, the classroom should be a safe and ethical place for the exchange of views and a space that is marked by respect, sensitivity and integrity. The seminar leader is in an important position as moderator/choreographer. A teacher needs to be impartial, fair, measured in tone and deportment, calm and patient. COVID-19 has also necessitated important changes to teaching and learning practices, and, in turn, raises ethical and accessibility issues. Here, Karen Jones, Professor of Environmental and Cultural History at the University of Kent, offers some suggestions for approaching ethics in the classroom.
Before you start
- Familiarise yourself with various sector and institutional guidelines on ethics in an educational workplace (e.g. compliance).
- If your institution makes it available, take bystander and unconscious bias and other training courses (this will be a requirement for some institutions and is highly recommended as a way of checking/maintaining good practice).
- Think critically about the sources you are using in terms of their EDI profile and also within the context of the ‘decolonising the curriculum’ imperative.
- Keep appraised of important reports on HE ethics. Recent RHS Reports on Gender, Race and Ethnicity and LGBT+ Equality have lots of suggestions for good practice.
- Make sure you are appraised of the different learning needs of students and the most appropriate forms for the delivery of material.
In the classroom
- Practice clear communication and set expectations at the outset about appropriate behaviour and ethics in the classroom using a respectful tone.
- You might want to set out these in “student charter” in the handbook, with the convenor’s approval, or put on a slide at the first class – a sample is included at the end of this document – or have the students discuss how to create the optimum environment for a positive learning experience
- Be mindful that the tone you set will make a difference – evidence suggests two main causes for problematic classroom dynamics: 1) using negative language to motivate the class (fear, embarrassment, criticism) instead of encouraging/supportive prose and 2) disengagement on the part of the instructor (coming to class late, complaining about marking, interrupting students, rudeness).
- Discuss issues of vantage, race, gender etc. as pedagogical issues for the discipline and in the sources you are looking at.
- The classroom is a multi-faceted space, which includes various activities (group work, presentations, class debates, individual conversations): be alert to the ethical dimensions of different kinds of inter-personal engagement.
- Know what to do if you encounter a problem, so that you can tackle it effectively and appropriately.
- Do not endorse or ignore inappropriate behaviour (this might include lateness/leaving the class; inappropriate use of technology; talking over others or side conversations; unacceptable remarks or conduct).
- Be aware of the potential causes of problematic behaviour (especially health, personal or developmental conditions)
At the end of the session
- Ask students for feedback on the session and if there are any follow up questions.
- Be accessible in case students wish to see you.
- Be aware of your limits – you are a seminar leader and not a counsellor or ethics expert: know who to refer students to or who to talk to if you identify a concern.
- After the class, reflect on the session in terms of your own inter-personal interaction and the class dynamic.
Sample Student Charter
- To practice personal conduct and behaviour that does not negatively impact the experience of other students or bring the University into disrepute.
- To engage in courteous and respectful communications with staff and students at all times both in person and across electronic mediums.
- To positively contribute to the learning environment as a place of tolerance and respect.
- To value the contributions of others and commit to making shared learning spaces dynamic and collaborative forums for the exchange of views.
- To treat others respectfully regardless of their gender, religion, ethnicity, community background, sexual orientation, age or disability.
Your institution will probably have a student charter statement, which you could use as the basis for your own statement, e.g. University of Kent Student Charter (2017).
- Being informed.
- Being organised.
Ken Fincham and Peter D’Sena, ‘Curriculum Conference Report’, Historical Transactions – the Blog of the Royal Historical Society (July, 2020).
Kay Hack, ‘Decolonisation of the curriculum – a conversation’, Advance HE (May, 2020).
Royal Historical Society, ‘Race, Ethnicity & Equality in UK History: A Report and Resource for Change’ (Oct., 2018).
Karen Jones is Professor of Environmental and Cultural History at the University of Kent, where she works on landscape, ideas and species encounters across a global geography and has published extensively on environmental and US history, including Epiphany in the Wilderness: Hunting, Nature, and Performance in the Nineteenth-Century American West (2015) and Calamity: The Many Lives of Calamity Jane (2020). She can be followed on Twitter at @drkarenjones.