Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Writing Ethics Across the Curriculum

During the past several years, Doug Sweet, a business writing specialist in SCU's English Department, identified a perplexing trend among his students: "I'm in a position to have students writing about various ethical issues in business-hiring and firing, sexual harassment. What I've noticed is that even when specifically asked to take a stand on a particular issue, students tend to want to avoid it."
[At the Center]
Troubled by his observations, Sweet wondered how widespread the phenomenon was and what he could do about it. When he learned that the Markkula Center's strategic plan called for integrating "ethics into campus learning environments," he approached Center Director Thomas Shanks, S.J., for help in developing a project that would use writing to assess and strengthen students' moral awareness.

With a grant from Leaders for a Just World, funded by the James Irvine Foundation, Sweet and Shanks designed Writing Ethics Across the Curriculum. Beginning this summer, Sweet and other interested faculty from all three of the University's undergraduate schools will design writing prompts that place students in hypothetical positions of authority and ask them to respond to ethical issues.

"The prompt is geared to be reflective of an actual work environment," Sweet said. "It's not a test; students don't pass or fail. Really, it's a survey of a need. To what extent do we feel our students are aware of moral issues? We're confident they will leave Santa Clara knowing how to be engineers or chemists or musicians, but can they see themselves in positions where they may be forced to make tough ethical decisions?"

And, adds Shanks, "Do they say they have the commitment and courage to follow through on their decisions, especially when that follow-through is hard?"

In the fall quarter, students will write responses to the prompts in classes across the curriculum. During December, faculty will meet to develop criteria for assessing the students' work. "What may make participation in this project especially interesting for faculty is the opportunity to see whether colleagues from divergent disciplines can establish a common understanding of ways to judge moral sensitivity, judgment, commitment, and courage," Sweet observed.

Once faculty have assessed the student responses, they can begin to consider how to meet the needs they have discovered. Sweet describes this Phase II as "a curriculum development project in the area of ethical moral sensitivity.

"We're going to try to find faculty who are willing to look at the results and haven't ruled out the possibility that they could integrate what we learn into assignments and classroom activities," he said.