Professional Communication Ethics: A “Course Journey”

Reluctant to teach online as I mentioned in my video, I recently exchanged emails with students from my CAS 842 Professional Communication Ethics course offered for the first time last spring. The messages illustrate that instructors and students vis-à-vis an online course can have interpersonal connections. Prior to beginning this “course journey,” I expected little or no off-course interaction, let alone, communication after the course ended. 

Julia Lemke emailed this in August:

“Hi Geri! I hope you are doing well and enjoying your summer. I started watching "The Good Place" on Netflix and I think you would get a kick out of it. The premise is that Kristin Bell's character accidentally ended up in heaven (aka the good place) and her soul mate, a professor of ethics, is trying to teach her how to be a good person. Also, she wears U of M clothes because she's supposed to be a UM Law grad. Maybe you can tie the show into your curriculum somehow. ;)”

I responded, letting her know a student in my graduate theory course wrote a paper last fall about the cultural diversity and socio economic elitism of The Good Place’s characters. Julia then shared photos from her wedding with me, as her soulmate is an MSU alumnus who worked on a couple of my documentary films when he was a student. One of their groomsmen was also my professorial assistant when he was a freshman.

Touched and taken aback, I felt I had a meaningful conversation with Julia, who lives in California, despite the challenges of time and geography. I resisted teaching online because I feared not being able to engage and get to know my students. How rich could communication be when it’s mediated by a laptop?

This email exchange, along with others throughout and after the course, illustrated that one could connect with students in an online course. Another student emailed me, wanting to know if I heard Daniel Bereluk won the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography for images published in The New York Times to tell the story of the Philippine government’s war on drugs by killing at least 7,000 suspected drug users and dealers. One image that was especially haunting was a photo he snapped of a girl inconsolable, mourning at the funeral of her father. I had students examine Bereluk’s photos and listen to his interview to determine the necessity of the graphic rawness of his images. This was part of the weekly homework that used case studies to excavate ethics.

A few weeks ago, another student, Jennifer Orlando, emailed me, wanting to share this project that highlighted people in different neighborhoods in Detroit. Orlando thought I might enjoy it because it was similar in structure to TheAve, a project I worked on that featured businesses along Michigan Avenue in Lansing. As I step in to teach the Strategic Online Master’s program for the second time, I hold on tight to these unexpected email exchanges. I am reflective of and grateful to learning about online learning from Keesa Johnson, an MSU online instructional designer.

She gave professors who were averse like myself, as well as online veterans, resources and directions as they developed their courses. Keesa Plato-ified my course from day one by encouraging students to broaden narrow conceptions of online learning and to “know thyself.” That first day, Keesa set the topical tone of Professional Communication Ethics by introducing one of the dozen or so philosophers who we channel in this course— Jesus, Machiavelli, Confucius, Buddha, Kant, etc. By applying Harvard Professor’s Ralph Potter’s Box, students can splinter out their values and loyalties to help them see through ethical conundrums.

This Plato-esque beginning was appropriate, as it set a philosophical tone that by studying ourselves —our thoughts and our impulsions— combined with the teachings of others, we can transform our ethical decision-making. On the first day of the online course, she quoted Plato’s Republic:

"And isn't it a bad thing to be deceived about the truth, and a good thing to know what the truth is? For I assume that by knowing the truth you mean knowing things as they really are. What is at issue is the conversion of the mind from the twilight of error to the truth that climb up into the real world which we shall call true philosophy.”

And that’s why I teach. That’s why I became an academic— it placed me in a position where I can be a lifelong learner, gleaning information from students and texts to find truths. I am ecstatic about continuing this “course journey”, as it allows me to dig deeper into ethics and to communicate with students who may be separated by many miles.

By Geri Alumit Zeldes