I’m guessing you think this post will be some sort of whimsical sobfest about how I wish I could have been the one who’d invented Facebook leading to fame and money.
Well, that assumption is wrong.
In reality, this post explores and questions our social responsibility(ies). Wikipedia says social responsibility “is an ethical framework which suggests an entity….has an obligation to act for the benefit of society at large…..a duty every individual has to perform so as to maintain a balance between the economy and the ecosystems…..”
The page continues with words/phrases such as “ethical decision making,” “morally binding,” “improving the quality of life,” “conduct,” “ignorance,” and “normative status.” A google search of “social responsibility” brings up articles or related searches on “corporate social responsibility,” “individual social responsibility,” and “social responsibility in science and engineering.”
Social responsibility blossomed into an important part of many higher education institutes mission statements over the years, and it is a phrase that often finds its way onto instructor’s syllabi as a course objective.
Teaching social responsibility is important. But I still haven’t told you why I’m writing this post.
I’m writing this post because I teach college students. And the other day I received my course evaluations for the last term. I must admit, the majority of the reviews were flattering and positive. However, I always seem to remember….to cling to….the negatives or weaknesses students point out in my teaching. Focusing and ruminating on these weaknesses gets me thinking about my social responsibility to students as a teacher. My stream of consciousness runs along these lines…..
“Ugh… I didn’t push some of the students hard enough…But some of the students thought there were too many assignments… Not everyone got an A or a B and it was an upper level course…. How could I design a course that doesn’t have too many assignments but pushes students incredibly hard but reaches every student and incorporates diversity? Who were my best teachers? What did they do… Well… He mostly lectured and just had really tough tests and he was a great teacher but I think a lot of other students didn’t like him. Do I want to follow that model? Do I want to focus on the students who are high achievers? How can I implement more challenges into my classroom without being abrasive? But now, I’m thinking of a male example and I’m female. Do I come off differently to the students because I’m female? How do students perceive a challenging female professor compared to a challenging male professor? Hmm, one comment says that I didn’t talk enough about socioeconomic status… Do I offend some of my students or go off topic too much? How can I get all of my students to both love coming to class and learn a lot and relate it to their future careers?”
Okay now, let’s get real. The above may be a stream (flood?) of thoughts I have reading through my weaknesses, but in the grand scheme, I can look through my overall evaluation and see that, even though one student commented I didn’t challenge them enough, over half the class rated my course as more challenging than other courses.
But my dramatization of students’ recognitions of my weaknesses got me thinking. What if I were Mark Zuckerberg and I had launched Facebook?
Frankly, I would probably be an in-patient somewhere receiving excessive amounts of psychiatric care. If I had invented/launched Facebook, I would never stop thinking about how Facebook changed society, and society is a lot bigger than the 20 or so students in my class. My mind would be racing a mile a minute thinking about how I ruined human productivity, created a place for individuals to plaster his/her “best self” on the internet (effectively ruining everyone’s self-esteem because most of us can’t live up to the “best selves” we see of everyone else in light of the total/full self knowledge we have of ourselves), prompted the creation of a million other social media outlets, changed the way we receive news, most likely increased everyone’s need for immediate gratification (decreasing our ability to invoke self control in other situations? probably contributed to the obesity epidemic)….. And the list goes on. This is not to say that Facebook is bad. No, that’s not my point.
We can never predict the effect of our words, our actions. Facing social responsibility as a professor/teacher/scholar/etc… remains challenging to me. I want to reach all of my students (okay, clearly I haven’t been doing this teaching thing for very long because I’m fairly confident most teachers become a bit jaded on this point). I want my students to be motivated, grow, learn, etc… I want to evoke change…paradigm shifts in the way they approach learning and knowledge. But what counts as being a socially responsible teacher?
Am I “acting for the benefit of society” if I try hard enough? Am I doing my “duty” if I show up and provide the content and the information? Now I’m getting philosophical, but I don’t think effort counts in these cases if there isn’t an effect. And I care whether there is an effect. I want my students to learn, and when I am forced to face my weaknesses I wonder if I am successfully fulfilling my social responsibility.