The Academic Place

Have you been watching The Good Place? For UK viewers, it’s on Netflix, and it’s a very funny and sharp comedy based on exploring ethical points of view about what ‘goodness’ really is. I love it. The latest episode focussed on the Trolley Problem, which I have a particular soft spot for.

I’m a utilitarian, as I’ve said many times on this blog, and for me the trolley problem has limited discussion value. It’s also one of my favourite examples of a flipped classroom (you can use my flipped classroom here on TES Blendspace).

I was really lucky with this classroom that I had great engagement from my students, and there are a few elements of this that have really stuck with me. One of them was one of my students who flatly said no, she could not pull the lever to move the trolley. She could not bear the thought of causing a person’s death. The class had a brilliant discussion, and a truly equal one as well, where I walked away from the class feeling as though I’d stretched my understanding of ethics as well.

The trolley problem hinges, in my opinion, on the fact you know your inaction will result in five deaths. When you know the outcomes, does inaction hold equal culpability as action? I firmly believe that it does, and this is partly an outcome of my atheism. I don’t believe there is a final tally of good acts or evil acts, and the only ‘worth’ is how much you helped other people. It’s my ethical position, and informs my actions, and how I value other peoples’ actions as well.

This brings me to a less happy topic. The #MeToo hashtag has been spreading over social media, a visible way for people to say they had experienced sexual harassment or assault. Eventually, I posted too.

There was so many feelings swirling around before I made that post, but in fact it was walking away from a student engagement event that made me think about it. I have said in our Digital Footprint MOOC that I believe my Twitter (and indeed this blog) are a way for me to widen participation in academia, to help engage the public and students with the kinds of science I do. The fact is, I have been sexually harassed in my role as ‘student’, more than once. My feelings on this are very mixed. I feel ashamed. I feel guilty that I ‘brought it upon myself’. I feel relief, and a sense of fraudulence, that these incidences of harassment only made me uncomfortable and shaky, and didn’t physically harm me.

Ultimately, I feel that if a student under my care came up to me and told me they had had a similar experience, I would be furious. I would not be asking them what they’d done to bring it on themselves, even though I ask myself that. I would support them.

Saying #MeToo was deeply uncomfortable. It was frightening. I know other scientists who chose to disclose, and others who didn’t. No one owes someone their disclosure. For me, I wanted to say something because I knew it had happened, and staying silent felt a little like not throwing the lever and changing the trolley’s tracks. As uncomfortable as it made me, staying quiet was worse. It’s my personal ethical stance, and I don’t demand that everyone follows me.

But there’s still more. With the news that Oxbridge is less diverse than it was seven years ago, and the mental health challenges associated with postgraduate study are a terrifying read. I fundamentally think that we are all in this together, and we have to talk about the things that go wrong. We also have to help the people who contribute to harassment, to the stressful culture, who make the choices about who comes in. We’re them too.

Changing an individual person’s behaviour is hard, trust me, I know. Changing a workplace culture is even harder. But it’s worth it. By having the conversations, we might just be able to make the Academic Place . . . the Good Place.

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