Teaching Tough Topics

When classes take on sacred cows, ethical quandaries, and hot-button issues / Mary J. Loftus

Mid-semester in Biology 470S, The Human Genome: Promise and Perils, finds a student team at the front of class presenting a PowerPoint on fairness in the use of genetic information.

The presentation is informal, and students call out questions and comments: “So if someone found out they had the gene for Huntington’s disease, would they get more insurance?” “Wouldn’t that be insurance fraud? If you know you’re going to get a disease?” “It’s like the right to remain silent. You should be at liberty not to disclose your genetic information.” “Is there such a thing as genetic discrimination?”

Emory College juniors Siri Chirumamilla 08C, a biology and psychology major, and Jake Randolph 08C, a biology research major, are pleased that their presentation has stimulated so much class discussion. That, in fact, is the whole point.

“The more they discuss it with each other, the better off we are,” says Asa G. Candler Professor of Biology John Lucchesi, who sits at a desk in the middle of the class during student presentations. “What’s important is for them to understand the complexity of the issue, and to realize there are arguments other than their own.”

A glance through Emory’s course catalogue shows that professors—and students, judging by the popularity of these courses—aren’t reluctant to tackle hot-button topics from presumptions and prejudices to stereotypes and genotypes.

There are classes that address racism, sexism, and nationalism: Race and Ethnic Relations; Violence, Culture, and Identity; Ethics in a Time of War; Beyond Freedom Fries and the Bleu Cheese Boycott: France and the Politics/Poetics of Resistance. There are seminars that probe the future of science and technology: Neuroethics; Science and Pseudoscience; Twenty-first Century Medical Experiments.

There are courses that question presumptions about sexuality and gender: sexandthecity.org: The Pleasures and Dangers of Being Sexual in a Wired World; Pitfalls of Love: Death to Love, Love to Death; Dangerous Women: Feminist Science Fiction. There are classes that explore the paradoxes of religion and spirituality: Jesus on the Silver Screen; Religion and Conflict; Body and Soul in Ancient Thought.

And then there are the courses that would be hard to categorize: Animals, Cannibals, Vegetables; From Ghandi to Google; The Mad Russian.

Professors and lecturers who teach these classes say they design the curricula to be both topical and thematic, capturing students’ attention while providing an entry point to the larger worlds of history, politics, literature, philosophy, and the sciences.

From stem cells to stimulants: The Ethics of Science
“Neuroethics is hopefully going to become very important on this campus,” says Professor Paul Lennard, director of the Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology Program. “The term was coined less than a decade ago, but the key question is one we’ve been asking for a long time: What does it mean to be human?”

Lennard is coteaching a freshman seminar on neuroethics with Associate Professor John Banja, assistant director for health sciences and ethics and author of Medical Errors and Medical Narcissism. “We want them to understand the ethical implications of neurological advances,” says Banja. “What does it mean to tinker with the brain?”

Topics they cover in class include: Is the brain the organ of human individuality? Who determines the definition of brain death? Is it OK to enhance the functioning of a “normal” brain? Should brain imaging be used to detect addiction or arousal?

“We get a lot of our ideas from the newspapers,” Lennard says. “Scientists must engage the public and public policy in a much more effective way than we do now.”

Assistant Professor of Biology Astrid Prinz conducts the senior seminar Controversial Science. The class covers issues such as prenatal diagnostics, organ transplantation, and stem cell research. “The students tend to have strong opinions,” she says. “Sometimes they get so worked up that I actually have to keep them from speaking all at the same time.”

Prinz makes clear that students’ grades depend only on how well they argue their position: “It helps the students open up and speak their mind if they know that they won’t get punished for disagreeing.”

Associate Professor Barry Yedvobnick teaches the freshman seminar Twenty-first Century Medicine: Experiments, Issues, and Ethics. The class covers embryo destruction for stem cell harvesting, prenatal genetic diagnosis, abortion, and physician-assisted suicide. “Few people can appreciate all sides of an issue without being informed by others,” he says. “My experience with Emory students is that they choose these types of classes to grow, rather than use them as a forum to drive their own ideas.”

Sacrifice and Suffering: The Ethics of War
Thomas Flores 07PhD hopes his students will gain mediation skills from the undergraduate elective Religion and Conflict. “To observe without judging and evaluating, that’s a skill,” says Flores. “I’d like them to develop a willingness to consider other positions, no matter how uncomfortable it might be for them.”

The class discusses the beliefs underlying martyrdom, sacrifice, and suffering. They examine violent conflicts in Rwanda, South Africa, Sudan, and the Middle East. “It’s difficult for the students to imagine nations with thousand-year histories of enmity and genocide,” he says. “I want them to get a grasp of the schisms, how deep and complex they are, in different parts of the world.”

Near the end of the semester, talk turns to peacebuilding through conflict resolution, interfaith mediation, and humanitarian work. “All views are welcome,” Flores says. “This is not about bashing, but neither am I trying to create an atmosphere of nicety where you don’t feel free to be emotionally charged about an opinion.”

Professor of Philosophy Nicholas Fotion’s Ethics of War class examines conflict from a slightly different perspective: through the lens of the “just war” theory. This theory, which began in ancient Greece and was further developed by Christian theologians, states that a was is “just” only if it is waged as a last resort, launched by a legitimate authority, has a reasonable chance of success, and aims to reestablish the peace.

In a recent morning class, Fotion explored whether the Persian Gulf War of 1990–1991 would be considered a just war. “The first principle of a just war is that it support a just cause. President Bush said that this was, indeed, a just cause: our friend had been invaded. We were seeking nothing for ourselves, and our troops would go home after they had freed Kuwait. We had legitimate authority—the U.N. was going along, there had been a vote in the Senate. We had sent diplomatic missions. So was this a just war?”

Serving as an avuncular guide, he shows a documentary about the war on an oversized screen behind the lecturn, pausing the film to make comments and ask questions in a Socratic manner. At the end of class, he flips on the lights and says, “We’ll be spending another day on the Gulf War. If you want to, you can read ahead to the war in Chechnya.”

Back in his office in the philosophy building, Fotion says he “tries rather hard to present both sides of an argument. . . . the students don’t see me holding an ideological position.” Students may be hesitant to voice strong opinions in a lecture class, he says, but not in their papers: “That’s when the pacifists come out.”

Power and Indifference: The Ethics of Inequality
Developing empathy with others is a part of Kathryn Sweeney’s fall sociology course, “Eye of the Storm: Inequality and Hurricane Katrina,” as well. “I thought one way to use the disaster to create positive change might be through the classroom,” says Sweeney. “Katrina magnified inequities of class, race, and gender. I try to be very conscious of dynamics of inequality within our own classroom and use examples that apply to the students’ lives, such as where people sit in the cafeteria, or the fraternity culture.”

Women’s Studies visiting instructor Esther Jones takes on gender roles in her course Dangerous Women: Feminist Science Fiction. Long considered the domain of white male readers and writers, many sci-fi texts provide a rich territory for exploring feminist concepts as well, she says.

Students read sci-fi novels, short stories, and view the film The Matrix. “We take as our point of departure, frequently, discussions of the body—in terms of sexuality, self-esteem, social roles and attitudes, and identity,” she says. “For example, in The Left Hand of Darkness, humans only transform into male or female during the fertility cycle.”

These fantastical imaginings lead to lively discussions about such real-life topics as motherhood, mastectomies, and other identity-altering events in the female life span.

Neuroscience lecturer Lori Marino’s course Animal Welfare considers ethical quandaries that arise when humans interact with animals.

On one rainy afternoon, her class energetically debates animal use in zoological parks and aquariums for entertainment and education.

“Zoos actually have a very sordid past,” says Marino. “In the 1700s, animals were kept as trophies—symbols of wealth and power—such as the royal menagerie at Versailles. People would show off wild or exotic animals like collections of fine china.”

In 1906 at the Bronx Zoo, human pygmies were displayed in cages, Marino says, and “freak shows” were common in zoos through the 1930s. Historically, animals in zoos and circuses were kept in small, crowded cages without windows, light, or room to roam and interact with others of their species.

A generation ago during the zoo reform movement, animal welfare, conservation, and ecological concerns took the forefront at many zoos and aquariums, which recreated themselves as educational facilities for the public. “But how educational are zoos, really?” asks Marino. “Isn’t it still largely entertainment? The average person stands and looks at a zoo exhibit for three minutes or less. What are they actually learning?”

There is no doubt that animals in captivity have restricted lives, she says. “Cages are now called habitats, but are they still cages? That’s more of a philosophical question. Next class, we’ll talk about the psychological impact of zoos on us.”

Stephanie Owens 07C, of Chicago, plans to become a veterinarian, and decided to take Marino’s class after seeing a flyer for it. “I’m always intrigued by unique courses,” she says. “They serve as catalysts for my own thinking.”

Holy Lands and Nationalism: The Ethics of Culture and Religion
Benjamin Hary, associate professor of Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies, teaches the freshman seminar Viewing Israel.

Sixteen students gather around a rectangular table in a small meeting room in Candler to discuss the Israeli military, the Oslo accord, the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and suicide bombings. A map of Israel is projected onto a screen lowered from the wall.

Since many of his students are Jewish and several have visited Israel, Hary often asks them to consider, “What would a Palestinian believe in this situation?”

The conversation heats up when attention turns to the Jewish settlers living in Hebron in the West Bank—a small, guarded enclave in a city of Arabs. Some of the class sympathize with the settlers, who want to reclaim their ancient holy land where Abraham, Sarah, and other biblical figures are buried, while others believe that the resources used to protect these few hundred families could be better used.

“They are asking us to give up something holy, and what do we get in return?” says a student.

“Ah, but the site is holy to Christians, Muslims, and Jews, all,” replies Hary.

Professor of Religion Wendy Farley, author of Eros for the Other: Retaining Truth in a Pluralistic World, teaches Ethics in Time of War. “We are a nation at war. What I want to do is give students ethical categories for thinking about our own situation, moving beyond political positions,” she says. “It's a matter of getting your heart woken up.”

She encourages students to think about what makes people vulnerable to behaving in atrocious ways. “Fanaticism, abstraction, totalitarianism, terror. What would be a moral stance? How do you find your feet ethically in a situation that is morally chaotic?” Farley asks.

Student papers have focused on everything from the political use of Christian rhetoric to how the media report on terrorism. “By this point in the semester the students have begun arguing with each other,” she says. “The class is heating up in an exciting way, not a hostile way. It’s like a soup—put enough in and it begins to simmer.”





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