Tag Archives: Technical Writing

Technical Writing, Composition, Humanities

by David Bruce
(2004-12-08)

I took the Building Ethics Modules into Courses Workshop primarily because of a problem I have run into recently with students plagiarizing papers. Teaching students what plagiarism is and the consequences of getting caught plagiarizing is apparently not enough to keep students from plagiarizing, so I hope that a module on ethics will help convince students not to plagiarize. In addition, I hope to convince first-year students, who are sometimes not able to handle the freedom that comes with life at college, to attend class on a regular basis. Finally, I wish to include an ethics component in the planning of papers that my students write in ENG 305J: Technical Writing. I wish for them to think about whether what they will write is ethical.

Included in this ethics module you will find ethics questions and how I would answer them. In practice, this material would be gone over in discussion and not everything presented in this ethics module would be presented in class. For example, I sometimes write about contradictions in this ethics module (partly because I know Immanuel Kant was concerned about contradictions), but in class if I were to talk about a contradiction it would be as an interesting consequence of an immoral course of action.

FIRST DAY OF CLASS

Introduction

On the first day of class, I will go over the syllabus and then introduce a few ethical rules and questions. Because I don’t want to scare my students with the names of such great ethical thinkers as Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill, I will use the great ethical thinker who was my mother. I will introduce Mama Bruce’s ethical rules and ethical questions, then illustrate how to use the ethical questions with an easy example such as determining whether rape is moral. Then in class discussion we will determine whether such teacher expectations as that students should attend class regularly are morally justifiable.

Mama Bruce’s Ethical Rules

The rules of ethics are T-shirt simple, and chances are, your mother is an expert in ethics. I know that my mother was. Here are Mama Bruce’s T-shirt simple ethical rules:

• If you are allowed to do it, everyone (in a similar position to yours) should be allowed to do it.

• Treat other people the way that you want to be treated.

• Do actions that have good consequences.

Mama Bruce’s Ethical Questions

Along with the ethical rules go ethical questions. These are questions that a person can ask when determining whether an action that person is thinking of doing is moral:

• What would happen if everyone were to do what you are thinking of doing?

• Would you want done to you what you are thinking of doing to other people?

• What are the consequences of the action you are thinking about doing?

An Example of Mama Bruce’s Ethical Questions In Action

Of course, ethics systems should give the correct answer to the easy questions. For example, is rape moral? All would agree that rape is immoral, but let’s see how we can use Mama Bruce’s ethical questions to determine whether rape is moral. Let’s say that a man is wondering whether it is morally permissible to rape a woman.

• What would happen if everyone were to do what you are thinking of doing?

Suppose every man became a rapist. What would happen? At first, of course, many more rapes would happen, but it is plausible that once women catch on to what is happening, soon a handgun will be in every handbag, self-defense classes for women will be widely available, and women will not travel alone. In other words, heavily armed women will be travelling in packs. (This could make a good science-fiction novel.) Oddly, there is a contradiction here. A man makes the rule “I will rape women” so he can rape women, but if every man follows the rule, soon it will be very difficult — and dangerous — to attempt to rape women.

• Would you want done to you what you are thinking of doing to other people?

Some men may say, “I would be very happy if a woman were to rape me,” but of course that would not be rape. Rape is unwanted, forced sex, and if a man wants a woman to rape him, that is not rape. The proper way to answer this question is to think of an example of unwanted, forced sex. For example, the man is in a locker room shower, he drops his soap, he bends over — and the guy in back of him gives him an unwanted, forced surprise. In this case, few if any men would want done to them what they are thinking of doing to women. (And if they do want it done to them, once again it is not rape.)

• What are the consequences of the action you are thinking about doing?

Some men may point out that some women who have been raped go on to become rape counselors for other women, and/or become experts in self-defense and teach self-defense to other women, and/or volunteer at a 24-hour crisis hotline, etc. These things are good, and they probably would not have happened if the woman were not raped, so aren’t at least some of the effects of rape is this case good? Of course, that is a faulty way of looking at the situation. There are two sets of consequences here, resulting from two different actions. The first action is the rape itself, and the consequences of rape are bad. The rapist commits the rape, the consequences of the rape are bad, and the rapist is responsible for doing the bad action. The second action is the woman’s response to rape. Some women do become experts in self-defense and teach self-defense to other women, and/or volunteer at a 24-hour crisis hotline, etc. They do the action, the consequences of the action are good, and they deserve the credit for doing the good action.

Are This Class’s Expectations Ethical?

On the first day of the class, I will talk about ethics. I will introduce Mama Bruce’s ethical rules and Mama Bruce’s ethical questions, and I will use an example such as rape to show how to properly use the rules and questions. Then I will have the class determine whether my expectations for the students are morally justified. For example: Are students morally obligated to attend class on a regular basis, and if a student signs up for a conference with the teacher, is the student morally obligated to either show up for the conference or to cancel the conference in advance?

• Are students morally obligated to attend class on a regular basis?

Let’s say that a student is thinking about cutting large numbers of classes this quarter.

• What would happen if everyone were to do what you are thinking of doing?

Most students attend Ohio University to get an education; in fact, the purpose of Ohio University is to get an education. What would happen if large numbers of students were to cut large numbers of classes? Certainly, the students would find it more difficult to get an education. In addition, the professors are likely to get very angry and to toughen up the attendance policies for the professors’ courses. There is a contradiction here. The student makes the rule “I will cut large numbers of classes” so that he or she can cut class, but if everyone follows the rule, the result is that the professors will toughen their attendance policies and make it much more difficult for students to cut class.

• Would you want done to you what you are thinking of doing to other people?

Here the student can think about the teacher. If the student were the teacher, would he or she want lots of students to miss lots of classes? Possibly, an answer would be, “That would be great! If no one ever shows up for class, then I don’t have to teach!” But of course if no one ever shows for class, then the teacher will not have a job for very long. In addition, many students are supported in part by their parents while attending Ohio University. If the student were a parent using their money to send a son or daughter through school, would the student want his or her son or daughter to attend class?

• What are the consequences of the action you are thinking about doing?

Of course, we have to think about the consequences for everyone affected by the action. If the student misses lots of classes, then the student will not learn very much. If parents are paying lots of money (perhaps using money that could be used for their retirement) for the student to get a good education, then if the student misses lots of classes, the parents are not getting a good return for their money and perhaps that money should be used for their retirement. Much the same is true of the taxpayers; because Ohio University is a state university, tax money pays for part of the student’s education at Ohio University. If a particular student blows off lots of classes, the taxpayers may very well be unhappy and prefer to use their tax money to support a student who regularly attends class.

• If a student signs up for a conference with the teacher, is the student morally obligated to either show up for the conference or to cancel the conference in advance?

Let’s say that a student in a writing class sets up a conference to have a professor review a paper, then the student decides not to attend the conference and not to cancel the conference in advance. Of course, the student does not want to be punished for missing the conference and not cancelling it in advance.

• What would happen if everyone were to do what you are thinking of doing?

The purpose of a conference is get help from a professor. If everyone were to set up conferences with the professor, then not show up for the conference and not cancel the conference in advance, soon the professor will either set up a penalty for missed conferences or simply not allow any student to set up conferences. There is a contradiction either way here. The student makes the rule “I will miss a conference and not cancel it in advance, and I don’t want to be punished for it,” but if everyone does what the student is thinking of doing, then either the student will be punished for missing the conference or it will be impossible for the student to set up a conference in the first place.

• Would you want done to you what you are thinking of doing to other people?

Every professor has had the experience of a student setting up a conference, then not attending and not cancelling it in advance. To determine if the student’s action is moral, the student can think of a job interview. Suppose the student were to set up a job interview, drive to the site of the interview, get dressed up, and show up for the interview, only to be told, “Sorry, the person who was going to interview you flew to a meeting on the coast a couple of days ago and won’t be back until next week. Get out.” Would the student consider the interviewer’s action moral?

• What are the consequences of the action you are thinking about doing?

One consequence is a very angry professor — a very angry professor who will grade the student’s work and a very angry professor who is unlikely to write a letter of recommendation for or be a mentor to the student.

ETHICS AND WRITING ASSIGNMENTS

Introduction

I will use Mama Bruce’s ethical rules and questions throughout the course as they apply to assignments such as writing resumes and problem-solving communications.

• Is it ethical to exaggerate on resumes?

Let’s say that a student is writing a resume, but is tempted to exaggerate on the resume, doing such things as inflating job titles and taking sole credit for group accomplishments. Is such an action moral?

• What would happen if everyone were to do what you are thinking of doing?

The purpose of a resume is to give your employer evidence that you are capable (you can do the job), responsible (you will do the job — no one needs to look over your shoulder every minute to make sure that you are working), and pleasant (you can get along with your co-workers). If you exaggerate or outright lie on your resume, you may be able to get away with it — as long as other people don’t do the same thing. But if everyone exaggerates on their resume, soon the employers will realize what is happening and they won’t believe your resume. There is a contradiction here. The student forms the rule “I will exaggerate on my resume so that I can have an advantage over other job applicants,” but if everyone does what the student is thinking of doing, then the student will be unable to get an advantage over other job applicants because the potential employers will not believe the student’s resume.

• Would you want done to you what you are thinking of doing to other people?

If the student were an employer, would the student want potential employees to send him or her resumes listing exaggerated credentials? Or would the student prefer to read honest resumes?

• What are the consequences of the action you are thinking about doing?

A possible consequence, of course, is that the student would get the job. It is also possible that the student will not be able to live up to the expectations created by the dishonest resume. After all, a resume can get the student a job, but competent job skills will result in keeping the job. I once had a student who took a course in writing computer programs. She did very poorly in the course, although a computer genius offered to give her and an acquaintance of hers the answer to the final. My student’s acquaintance took up the offer of the computer genius and received an A in the course, and she listed the A on her resume although she had not learned computer programming. My student flunked the course the first time she took it, then she took it again and learned computer programming. Both my student and her acquaintance got jobs, but my student’s acquaintance was quickly fired because she didn’t know computer programming. Therefore, my student made a copy of her paycheck, wrote “Ha! Ha!” on it and sent it to her acquaintance.

• Is it ethical to take credit for someone else’s idea when writing a problem-solving letter?

Let’s say that an employee has been asked to solve a problem at work, and that Maria Smith in Accounting has a really good idea for solving that problem. Should the employee give Maria Smith credit for the idea when the employee writes a memo about solving the problem?

• What would happen if everyone were to do what you are thinking of doing?

If everyone were to take credit for other people’s ideas without giving credit, very soon people would stop sharing ideas because they would be afraid that other people would steal their ideas. There is a contradiction here. The employee makes the rule, “I will steal other people’s ideas so that I will look competent to my employer,” but if everyone does what the employee wants to do, soon it will be impossible to steal other people’s ideas because they won’t share their ideas with you.

• Would you want done to you what you are thinking of doing to other people?

Would the employee want other people to steal his or her ideas and not give him or her credit?

• What are the consequences of the action you are thinking about doing?

Stealing other people’s ideas is likely to lead to a lot of hate and discontent for the thief and for those other people. Employers want employees to get along and to work together to solve problems and make the company profitable. Stealing other people’s ideas is likely to lead to employees not working together to solve problems and make the company profitable.

Other Places I Can Use Ethics In ENG 305J: Technical Writing Or In Other Composition Courses

Introduction

At various times during the quarter, I can use different ethical questions about written composition. At various times during the quarter, I can show sentences on a transparency and ask students whether the sentences are ethical.

When is it ethical to use the passive voice?

• “Mistakes were made.”

This sentence is from the world of politics, and it is an unethical use of the passive voice. The passive voice is being used here to avoid saying who made the mistakes and to avoid taking responsibility for making mistakes.

• “I have been informed that you have been taking office supplies home each night.”

This sentence can be ethically justified, in my opinion. If someone tells a boss that an employee has been stealing office supplies, and the employer finds out that the charge is justified, then in talking to the guilty employee, the employer is, in my opinion, justified in using the passive voice in order to avoid telling who informed the employer that the employee has been taking office supplies home each night.

Is it ever ethical to use doublespeak?

Here is a definition of doublespeak:

“Doublespeak is language that pretends to communicate but really doesn’t. It is language that makes the bad seem good, the negative appear positive, the unpleasant appear attractive or at least tolerable. Doublespeak is language that avoids or shifts responsibility, language that is at variance with its real or purported meaning. It is language that conceals or prevents thought; rather than extending thought, doublespeak limits it.” — William Lutz, author of Doublespeak

In my opinion, this is an ethical use of doublespeak:

“In the Chemistry Department at Bakersfield College in Bakersfield, Calif., we faculty members stored volatile organic chemicals in a small, old refrigerator. Several times we asked for a new model, only to have the college finance office reject our requests. Eventually, we figured out that the finance people thought we only wanted a new refrigerator for cold drinks and snacks. So a colleague wrote a purchase order replacing the word ‘refrigerator’ with ‘automatic low-temperature maintenance apparatus.’ Our new icebox was quickly delivered.” —Tom Kimler, Reader’s Digest, August 1996

Here are a few sentences that I could show on a transparency:

• After boxer Mike Tyson had been convicted of rape, the Reverend Al Sharpton said, “Mike may have been guilty of being very overly aggressive with his approach to women.”

This is an ethically unjustified use of doublespeak. There is a word for what Mike Tyson was convicted of — rape — and that is the word that we ought to use.

• “We have had a negative patient outcome in Room 222.”

In this use of doublespeak, a nurse tells a doctor that a patient died in a certain room at the hospital. The purpose of the doublespeak is to keep from upsetting patients who may overhear the nurse and doctor, and this use of doublespeak is ethically justified.

• Should “body bags” be called “transfer tubes”?

In the current war in Iraq, body bags have been newly renamed transfer tubes. In my opinion, this is an ethically unjustified use of doublespeak. This use of doublespeak is designed to keep news consumers from being aware of the nature of war, which is that people get killed.

Is it ever ethical to use sexist/racist/discriminatory language?

• “Each customer should take his purchase to the cash register.”

As long as all the customers are male, this sentence is correct. However, if some of the customers are female, then this sentence is making an entire sex invisible, and so the sentence should be revised to read, “All customers should take their purchases to the cash register.”

• “I am a proud member of the Swarm of Dykes.”

Some minority groups will take a word that is normally used as an epithet and turn it into a word that is anything but an epithet. This use of sexist/racist/discriminatory language is justified, in my opinion.

WHY ISN’T PLAGIARISM ETHICAL?

Introduction

My main reason for taking this workshop on building ethics modules into courses is that I have had a recent rash of plagiarism in my courses at Ohio University. Simply letting students know what plagiarism is and letting them know the consequences of being caught plagiarizing a paper is apparently not enough to keep students from plagiarizing papers. I am hoping that adding an ethical component to my courses will help persuade students not to plagiarize.

I will ask my students the following questions about plagiarism:

• What would happen if everyone were to do what you are thinking of doing?

If everyone plagiarizes papers, the professor will think of another way to have students write papers that are not plagiarized. For example, a professor friend of mine recently stopped giving take-home exams (the answers to which were sometimes plagiarized) and started giving in-class essay exams. There is a contradiction here. The students makes the rule “I will plagiarize my paper,” but if every student follows the rule, soon it will become impossible to plagiarize.

• Would you want done to you what you are thinking of doing to other people?

Suppose the student writes a truly excellent paper, then later finds that the professor has plagiarized large sections of the paper and published it in a journal. Of course, now the student is unable to publish the paper which the student wrote because the student will be accused of plagiarizing the professor’s paper. Is this fair?

• What are the consequences of the action you are thinking about doing?

One consequence, of course, is that the student will learn much less than the student would have learned if the student had actually done the work. It also means that parents and taxpayers are getting a poor return on the money that they are paying for the student’s education. In addition, a teacher who has been overwhelmed with cases of plagiarism may think of leaving the education field in order to pursue a lucrative and exciting career as an international jewel thief.

• When is it ethical to use someone else’s words and ideas?

Of course, the correct answer is when the student gives credit to the other person.

• Suppose someone plagiarizes an excellent communication created by an experienced professional working in the field and that communication receives an A. What happens to the student-written papers that would have normally received an A?

The standard for an A in the course is likely to go up. If the plagiarized paper gets an A, then the student-written papers that would have normally received an A may receive grades of A- or lower.

CASES AND DEFINING GOALS/ANALYZING AUDIENCE/THINKING ETHICALLY WORKSHEET

Introduction

Of course, I want students to write ethically in their own communications. I have used a Defining Goals/Analyzing Audience Worksheet in my Technical Writing course for years. For one or two papers that students write, I require students to fill the worksheet out for credit. In addition, we fill out the worksheet in class for a couple of cases that we go over in class. In this final section, I include both copies of a few cases that we use in class, and a copy of the worksheet which I have revised to include some information on ethics. Both the case and the worksheet are adapted from materials in Paul Anderson’s Technical Communication: A Reader-Centered Approach.

Case: Announcing the Smoking Ban

Imagine that you are the president of a small company that manufactures fitness exercise equipment. In fact, its name is Fitness Exercise Equipment, Inc. So far, this company does not have a written smoking policy but has allowed employees to smoke whenever and wherever they want. However, a new state law requires all companies above a certain size to have a written smoking policy. This has made you think about the current smoking policy and you have decided to ban smoking in both of the company’s two buildings. You have good reasons for this:

1) It doesn’t make sense for a company devoted to promoting good health to allow smoking all the time and everywhere.

2) You won’t allow smoking in private offices because not everyone has a private office and that policy would not be fair to employees without a private office.

3) It doesn’t make sense to force health-conscious customers and employees to breathe in secondhand smoke.

4) The company, even with the addition of a second building, doesn’t have enough space to designate a room as the smoking room.

Because of the new policy, you have decided to write a memo announcing the new smoking ban to all employees. You are sympathetic to the smokers and have decided to offer a free smoking-cessation course to any employee who wishes to take it. You also hope that the free course will raise morale since some employees are grumbling because profit-sharing was stopped temporarily to enable the company to buy its second building. When you write the memo, you will have to take into account that rumors are rampant about the smoking policy and that employees’ feelings are running high about the smoking policy. Some rumors say that the smoking policy will not change; other rumors say that smoking will be banned. Some smoking employees have threatened to quit if the policy is changed; some non-smoking employees have threatened to quit if the policy is not changed.

Case: Drug Testing

You work at a company that manufactures specialized medical equipment that keeps people alive during organ transports; in fact, the company is called Life Support, Inc. The company has never had a problem with its employees using illegal drugs, but Maria Tonti, the President, is thinking about implementing drug testing. She has asked you and the other managers to each write her a memo expressing your opinion and giving arguments for it. In class, we will brainstorm a list of pros and cons about drug testing at this company, and then we will practice coming up with ways to rebut the objections on each side. In addition, we will discuss the morality of drug testing.

Planning Guide: Setting Goals Worksheet

Planning Guide: Setting Goals,

Analyzing Audience,

and Thinking Ethically

Overall Purpose: Identify the final result you want your communication to achieve.

What are you writing?

What prompts you to write (other than it is an assignment)?

What outcome (final result) do you desire?

Profile of Readers: Learn your readers’ important characteristics, and learn who all your readers will be.

Who are your primary readers?

What is your readers’ relationship to you?

What are your readers’ job titles and responsibilities?

Who else might read your communication?

How familiar are your readers with your subject?

How familiar are your readers with your specialty — knowledge you learned in your major?

Do your readers have any communication preferences you should take into account?

Should you take into account any other things about your readers when writing?

Readers’ Attitudes: Tell how you want to change your readers’ attitudes.

What is your readers’ attitude toward your subject? Why? What do you want it to be?

What is your readers’ attitude toward you? Why? What do you want it to be?

Situational Analysis: Learn about the context in which your readers will read.

What events and circumstances influence the way you should write? How will your readers use the information you provide?

Readers’ Informational Needs: Learn which information your readers will need.

What are the key questions your readers will ask while reading?

1.

2.

3.

4.

5.

Stakeholders: Identify all the stakeholders.

Who, besides your readers and yourself, are the stakeholders in your communication? (Stakeholders are people who will be affected by your communication even though they may not read it.) In the next section, you will answer this question: How will the stakeholders be affected by your communication?

Ethics: Determine if your communication is ethical.

Is this communication ethical?

• What would happen if everyone were to do what you are thinking of doing?

• Would you want done to you what you are thinking of doing to other people?

• What are the consequences of the action you are thinking about doing? (Be sure to consider the consequences for all the stakeholders.)

Legality: Determine whether your communication is legal.

Is this communication legal? For example, if you are making a recommendation, is the recommended action legal?

Strategies for Achieving Your Goals

What are some strategies you can use to make your communication persuasive? What arguments will you use? What persuasive points will you make? (For example, telling the benefits for the readers is persuasive.)

1.

2.

3.

4.

What are some strategies you can use to make sure your communication gives the readers the information they need? What informative points do you need to make? How can you make it easy for the readers to use the information you provide? (For example, using headings makes it easy to find information.)

1.

2.

3.

4.

CONCLUSION

If you wish to use or adapt anything you find in this ethics module, feel free to do so. (Give credit to Paul Anderson if you use either of the cases or the worksheet.)

Tagged , ,