A “Professional Issues” Course: Grounding Philosophy in Workplace Realities, James Franklin

James Franklin

University of New South Wales


Some courses achieve existence, some have existence thrust upon them. It is normally a struggle to create in a scientific academic community a course on the philosophical or social aspects of science, but just occasionally a confluence of outside circumstances causes one to exist, irrespective of the wishes of the scientists. It is an opportunity, and taking advantage of it requires a slightly different approach from what is appropriate to the normal course of events, where a “social” course needs a fight to establish it, and faces a struggle for more than marginal existence.

Some five years ago, the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, instituted a policy that all its undergraduates should undertake a course in “Professional Issues and Ethics”, appropriate to their major. The academic community by and large opposed this, regarding it as an attempt to substitute hot air for serious content. But University policy is decided by a Council dominated by parliamentarians, business people and other outside interests, who believed the concentration of undergraduate education on technical content was not preparing students for the workplace. It was rumoured too that the University feared being sued in the future by employers facing losses through unethical behaviour of graduates, graduates who might then claim in court, “But the university never trained me to behave ethically.”

The Council gave little guidance on what should be in such courses, beyond laying down that they should be specific to individual degrees, should include some ethics, and should help students appreciate the general issues of the professions to which they were most likely headed. Beyond that, individual Faculties and Schools were left to develop their own course content. Many disciplines, such as law and medicine, had in effect been doing similar things for years, and needed to change little. The Faculty of Science, not surprisingly, was caught unprepared. Given the diversity of career destinations for science graduates, what are the “professional issues”? Apart from whether it is acceptable to work on bombs, what ethical issues are there in science? Most importantly, how are we going to find someone to teach these courses?

As the only academic in the School of Mathematics with some humanities background, I was approached by a sheepish Head of School with a message along these lines, “We’re not desperate to find someone to create Professional Issues and Ethics in Mathematics; but if you don’t do it, we will be.” I accepted.

The gift of a greenfield site and a bulldozer is a happy occasion, undoubtedly. But what to do next? It seemed to me I should ensure the course satisfied these requirements:

  • It should look good — to students, to staff, to promotions committees.
  • It should in fact be good, in containing content and activities of benefit to the students.
  • It should allow me some space to promote my enthusiasms, but not too much.
  • Subject to these constraints, it should take a minimal amount of work.

Looking good to other staff was easy: if it required no action from them and fulfilled the University’s formal requirements, they were ecstatic. Looking good to promotions committees was probably impossible, so there was no point worrying about it; I used all the time saved on the course to write a book on something else. Looking good to students, and genuinely benefiting them, took more care, especially as the course was compulsory (for all mathematics majors) and hence contained a proportion of students unhappy about being there. To make matters worse, mathematics attracts both some of the best students, often intent on a research career, and some of the worst, sometimes with poor English and substandard communication and research skills. The class size —  about 30 — and course length — 27 contact hours — meant some personal interaction was possible, but not serious individual attention for most students.

To convince students very quickly that something of interest to themselves was happening, I open the course with a discussion of careers in mathematics. Since I, as a typical academic, have not soiled my hands with anything that could be called real work, I need outside information. It takes little effort to search the major job web sites for the relevant keyword “mathematics” and show the class a selection of results, calling attention to the demands of employers for
“communication skills”, “teamwork”, “ethical behaviour” and the like. Then I use a quarter of the contact hours for visiting speakers from “industry” (widely understood), who can speak with credibility on what it is like “out there”. The School is happy to pay a fee for them, especially as there are benefits to the School in maintaining contacts with its graduates. As the course has progressed, I have used ex-students of the course itself as visiting speakers, for “when I was in your position a year or two ago” talks. Students soon to graduate learn something genuine about what they face, and even the students planning research careers find their minds expanded by seeing how their discipline is used in the real world. I had my doubts about the perspective of one recent graduate: “I would have taken the statistics job with the tobacco company, but my name would have been mud”, but a productive variety of points of view will probably not damage student minds irreparably.

My other major effort to create something of value, both real and perceived, came in the assessment. In mathematics education, assessment tasks are typically small, rigidly specified, objective, individual and the same for all students. Many students choose to study mathematics because they like it that way. But employers of graduates, and even many graduates themselves, complain that this process creates graduates who have good technical skills, but lack lateral thinking and the ability to listen or to communicate their results. The main assessment task in Professional Issues and Ethics in Mathematics is therefore a large essay/report plus class presentation, done in teams, on a topic chosen by the team (subject to approval). The topic must be interesting (judgement again subject to the lecturer’s approval — experience has shown that certain topics always lead to uninteresting essays and need to be forbidden, such as “Pi” and “The abacus”.) Some students experience a kind of intellectual vertigo at the prospect of actually choosing a topic of their own, and plagiarism is sometimes the upshot. But surely it will not hurt people who have been studying for some fifteen years to let go of the alma mater’s apron strings just once before they graduate, and think of a question for themselves.

Some of the contact hours are then allocated to class presentations, guidelines for which are issued and marks awarded. Presentations are in small groups, using the best students from previous years as tutors. That leaves some twelve hours of class time for lectures, though some of these too draw on local resources for guest lectures on popular topics such as “Women in mathematics”. I have time to talk about special topics I am enthusiastic about, such as mathematical modelling, the evaluation of evidence and natural law ethics. (I debated whether to treat philosophy of mathematics in the strict sense. Though it is an interest of mine, a less than happy experience when I once taught compulsory medieval philosophy to aspiring parish priests left me in doubt as to whether it is a good compulsory topic. I omitted it, but encouraged any students showing an interest to write their essay on it.) Students who may wish to give an extra talk are welcome to do so — no-one is concerned about “completing the syllabus”.

As to minimizing the amount of work, readers will have observed that that bird has been killed by the two stones of guest lecturers and class presentations. There  is some assessment work marking essays and a short-answer test on the lecture material (a device to ensure attendance, physical and mental), but the number of essays is small because of their team nature.

The experience has been a pleasant one for all concerned. Student evaluations are good, and ex-students report its relevance to their work. The best students, catching on to the idea of modelling, entered the excellent international Mathematical Contest in Modelling and brought home very good results. I am subject to no more, perhaps less, stress than I would be with any other teaching of equivalent length.


While others teaching the philosophical issues connected with science may not be subject to the fortunate accident of being supplied with a course and students without effort on their part, there are two lessons of general applicability that arise from the experience.

The first is that the close connection between workplace issues and philosophical topics can be taken advantage of by a teacher to convince students that philosophical issues are of direct relevance to them. On the large scale, it is this connection that allowed the philosophical profession to create many thousands of jobs for itself over the last twenty years in `Applied ethics’. Ethical issues really are of importance in the workplace; the forthcoming U.S. litigation over Enron and Andersen is only the latest demonstration. Such issues are typically not about subtle dilemmas, but about broad principles offraud, deceit, duress, confidentiality, accountability, conflicting demands and so on. Real cases involving real people will motivate the kind of student who always asks “Will this benefit me in my future career?”— as well as, perhaps, the autistically scientific student who has not yet asked any questions at all.

Ethical issues are far from the only types of philosophical issues that are well exhibited by cases arising in the workplace, and that can be credibly taught by visiting speakers with real experience. Philosophical issues of the application of mathematics, for example, are best seen in cases of mathematical modelling of, for example, resource allocation, which involve discovering the mathematical structure of a real-world system. More traditional philosophy of science issues concerning the relation of theories to evidence arise in, for example, DNA evidence in courts of law or in the report on risk evaluations undertaken before the Challenger disaster. If there is sometimes a loss of abstractness and generality in dealing with issues as they appear in real cases, there is a corresponding gain in the concepts being solidly grounded in reality.

The second lesson arising is that one can run a humanities course related to science with minimal effort from the teacher and maximal work placed on the students. Given that the aim of teaching is to cause learning, there is much to be said for demanding the students take some initiatives. A framework is needed, for example, some examples of titles for essays, a model essay (perhaps from a previous year’s student), a list of information resources where research could start, and guidelines on how the essay and presentation will be marked. But if one awards marks for what one actually wants from students, for example, for “interesting choice of original topic”, one will get positive results which costs one nothing but some justified praise.

Cocteau’s remarkable contributions to film and other artistic media were stimulated by something Diaghilev once said to him when they were walking down a Paris street together. It was “Surprise me.” Students who are convinced their teacher really wishes to hear something interesting will produce something interesting.