Aristotle and Moral Education in Art

silhouette of three performers on stage
Photo by Kyle Head on Unsplash

I spent a large chunk of my weekend grading essays from my students. Their task was to watch the movie The Road, adapted from the novel by Cormac McCarthy and write a paper based on themes and ideas presented in the course. Based on the course content presented so far, I encourage students to examine the story’s protagonist and argue whether he is a good candidate to be considered a tragic hero as defined by Aristotle.

While grading papers, I mused about Aristotle’s strict criteria for what makes for a tragic hero. The tragic hero must be noble and good (though not a paragon of virtue), but possesses a minor flaw of character or error in judgment (hamartia), which when applied to circumstances brings about some sort of downfall or negative consequence (an inevitable reversal of circumstances, or peripeteia). It’s not that the character is vicious, but merely that their minor flaw is the cause of the negative outcome. However, the negative outcome must be caused by the character (and not, for instance, by the gods), and the consequences of outcome must be in excess of the original cause. The character must also see that they are the reason for their suffering (anagnorisis – the move from ignorance to knowledge). In the context of a narrative or telling of the story, this would elicit pity and fear, a purification of emotions (catharsis) for the audience.

On the one hand, Aristotle is spelling this all out as a way of formalizing and categorizing types of art (Aristotle was a philosopher and biologist by vocation). He might have even considered writing this down as a way of formalizing a set of guidelines to critique plays, finding a way to point out what makes some plays good and others not.

But I had another thought. Aristotle’s teacher, Plato, took a dim view of the arts. In his Republic, Plato was comfortable with banishing the poets from his ideal city, and only allow art that held up the moral authority. I’m wondering if Aristotle had something like this in mind – that art could be used as a moral education tool.

Maybe, the best examples of art are ones that teach the audience lessons, albeit in a less direct route (than, say, fables). If this were true, then we could interpret Aristotle’s criteria the following way. A piece of art is valuable as a moral training tool when the audience can build an emotional connection with the suffering of others. Rather than it being a spectacle for them to lose themselves in, the art gives the audience a moral framework to judge themselves against. The tragic figure is like them: not a god or immortal, but an example of a good person trying to do good things. The tragic figure might even be a little aspirational, something the audience can work towards. They aren’t depraved in the soul, but they are responsible for their actions, even if those actions have negative consequences.

Instead of blaming their suffering on an external cause, the tragic figure realizes that they are the cause of their own suffering. The audience sees this, sees that they could be this person, and through their emotional connection, learns to empathize with the tragic figure. In a sense, they could be the same person, were the circumstances be different. The audience feels the pain, takes pity upon the otherwise good person, and maybe even fears this happening to them.

Given that Aristotle’s ethics was predicated on relative moral excellence, it’s possible that he intended art to be educative, though I don’t have the scholarship background to confirm whether this is true (or plausible). To be clear, I don’t think art must function in this capacity. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to have art for its own sake, or for the creative expression of what’s inside the artist.

Still, the thought of morally educative art is interesting. I’ve often thought of what kinds of art I’d want to expose my own children to in the development of their moral character. What kinds of lesson would I want them to absorb and learn from as they develop an internal sense of ethics and morality?

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

The Value of Probing Assumptions

I was on a consultation call a few weeks ago about an ethics application.  The project was seeking feedback from participants about access to specific mental health information, and in my feedback to their application, I noted that their demographic question concerning the gender of the participant was probably too narrow.  The applicant asked for some advice how to address the comment.

On the one hand, they considered dropping the question as it a.) didn’t obviously connect to their research question, and b.) the literature supporting this branch of mental health was pretty well-studied in terms of incidence rates for the condition along the sex dimension, so they might not learn anything new by asking for the participant’s gender or sex.  On the other hand, if they left it in, they had to contend with whether they should use sex or gender as the focus of the question.  Since the mental health topic they were researching was a medical condition, it seemed like (biological) sex was the more salient feature, whereas my feedback suggested that if they chose gender, they would need to ensure it was inclusive.

While discussing the implications on the phone, I tried to tease out what the purpose of the study was.  Their study was collecting qualitative information about how people access information.  In the context of the demographic information, they weren’t seeking to know how a person’s sex/gender relates to the condition itself.  But, I wonder aloud, it seemed the purpose of the study was to understand how people seek information, which could arguably be influenced by one’s culture, behaviour, socialization, and experience of how the world treats them.  In that way, you would want to focus less on a person’s physiology and instead you might discover interesting differences in how a person seeks information based on their life-experiences.

The applicant noted that they started the phone call intending to drop the question from the survey, and through my line of questions and probes, was convinced to keep the question and modify it to be more inclusive.

I am not telling this story as a normative push on how we should conduct inquiry (though by reading through the lines, you should get a sense of how I feel about the topic).  Instead, I share this story as an example of why posing good questions is important to remove ambiguity and clarify thought.  One of the goals of our ethics board when we review applications is to make implied premises explicit so that we can be sure of what we take as a given when we set out to study a research question.  We often default to accepted practice and proceed with common tools, but sometimes we don’t think carefully through the implications of what using those tools means.  By leveraging my outsider status, I have an opportunity to get the applicants to explain concepts and lines of reason without assuming I share the same understanding of the material that they do.  This helps to spot those areas where the project is weakened by unsupported claims and assumptions.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

The Animated Bibliography

*Update: I’ve added bullet points to the bottom since the time of original publication.  New points are identified as “New.”

I’ve made references to the concept of the “animated bibliography” in a few recent instagram posts.  I first started conceiving of the idea when I wrote a short self-reflective critique of my habit of reading self-help books.

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-/16 The Achievement Habit by Bernard Roth. The concept of design thinking and Stanford's "D School" has been on my radar for a few months. The book was listed in an article I read so I checked it out. Given what I've read over the last year, it's pretty par for the course. It was refreshing that it wasn't an animated bibliography of research like other books I've read in the genre. Instead, it is written with a lot of anecdotes from the author's life as a mechanical engineer and professor, which I found quite enjoyable and a nice change. To be honest, the thing I was more excited about was that I listened to this for free on the #Libby app using my @kitchenerlibrary membership. While I like my Audible subscription, I love my library more and am glad they offer this for audiobooks. #books #reading #selfimprovement #books #nonfiction #productivity #habits #learning #audiobook

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I doubt I’m the first person to notice this trend in publishing, and I’m not entirely confident that this is a new trend at all.  The more likely explanation is that this is something that has gone on for a while and I’m just too stuck in reading the same books listed on every “must read” list to see the broader context.  Were I to read books that were published earlier than the last decade, perhaps I would see that book have always used this strategy to convey information.

Nevertheless, it would be fun to take on a bit of a research project to see whether this trend has proliferated from a certain point in time, who the early adopters were, and how quickly it’s accelerating.

For the moment, here are my early observations:

  • The animated bibliography is a style of nonfiction where the author uses a micro expression of some authority to explain or contextualize some broader universal “truth.”
  • The authority is either scientific studies or biographical case studies.  Biographical case studies are not always literal examples, but can also be mythical or metaphorical examples.
  • The material is rarely discussed from the negative; that is, the material is presented as a causal relationship to explain a phenomenon, but less commonly are counter-examples, counterfactuals, or false-positives discussed.
  • The author is usually repackaging the work of someone else, rather than the original author of the micro expression.  For example, there is a difference between Daniel Kahneman writing a book reflecting on behavioural economics and his original studies, and someone invoking a study published by Daniel Kahneman to explain an phenomenon.  The animated bibliography would be the latter, but not the former.  The animated bibliography is a presentation of the things the author has learned.
  • The animated bibliography has parallels to how research papers are written at the undergraduate level.
  • The animated bibliography can be thought of as a narrative stitched together.  A series of vignettes (chapters) that bring stories together under a broader meta-narrative that provides a unified theory.
  • The animated bibliography is a method of delivering nonfiction, but it is not necessarily meant to be a moral lesson.  It is protreptic in aim – it attempts to be explanatory, if not educative.
  • The animated bibliography typically falls under a few key genres of nonfiction: business, productivity, leadership, personal development or self-improvement.
  • In isolation, the animated bibliography is merely a geneology of ideas, but taken as a genre it becomes self-referential.  The same studies and case studies start popping up over and over.  These, in turn, get meta-referenced by popular authors who write about them.  For instance, a reference could take the form of a book referencing another author’s book about a series of published studies.
  • Hypothesis: this phenomenon (if it is a new phenomenon) is an emergence from the overlapping worlds of start-ups and founder idolization, social media-fed ennui, high technology, scientism, and people’s inability to move from idea to action.  The books are proliferated as instructionals and how-to’s to solve a behavioural problems.  They paint an ideal way forward, but the fact that they keep getting published, and that a market still exists, means that no one book can actually be held up as the definitive voice.  The plurality exists because they singly do not provide broad answers.
  • The market creates a series of urtexts that spawn and inspire secondary and tertiary levels of reference.
  • *New* The author takes on an authoritative tone in the books, but uses the references to others as the source of their authority.
  • *New* Rarely is the book the result of a lengthy period of research or work in the field as a practitioner.  Instead, the book is the product of some period of immersion or research in the topic at hand (e.g. the author spent a year working on the topic and is writing a book about it).

I’ve deliberately kept things vague in terms of which authors and books I have in mind when I make the observations above.  Perhaps in time, I’ll have more courage and name names of those I find to be the biggest offenders of the genre.  For now, though, I choose to remain silent.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

 

Policy vs. Guidance Pedagogy

During an ethics board meeting recently, we discussed ways of providing direction to faculty members who have student-based research in their courses.  For faculty who have research elements built into their courses, it can be a challenge to determine what counts as research, and whether said research is subject to the rules governing conducting research at an institution (specifically in our case, whether an ethics application would need to be submitted to the board).  Not every scholarly activity necessarily counts as research, and not every kind of research requires an approval from the institutional research ethics board.  Since this can be a bit of a murky area, we have been considering ways of providing direction.

The conversation abstracted away from the specifics of this case, and we discussed some of the issues concerning policy and guidance, which applies to education and pedagogy more generally.

The benefit of policy is that it spells out clear expectations of what is expected, what the division of responsibility looks like, and what consequences might be considered in the event of a policy breach.  Policy is designed to protect the institution through due diligence, and it focuses on expressing what rules need to be followed in order to not get into trouble.  Loopholes arise when the policies are not sufficiently rigorous the cover contingency cases and when policies are not harmonized laterally or vertically with other policies.  Policy documents focus on the “ends.”

On the other hand, guidance documents focus on the “means” by providing suggestions and best practices that could be followed.  Guidance documents typically do not include comprehensive rules unless it’s appropriate.  Instead, the purpose of the guidance document is to provide clarity in ambiguity without necessarily spelling things out.  They are deliberately left open because guidance documents are meant to supplement and add to ongoing conversations within a field or system.  While guidance documents also do not provide comprehensive options to contingent situations, the strength of the guidance document is that it’s educational in intent – it provides reasoning that helps the reader understand the position it takes, and paints a vision of what success looks like.

I realized in the meeting that this has a lot of crossover into considerations for teaching.  It’s is better, in my opinion, to teach students frameworks for thinking, rather than rules for success.  In the case of ethics, I would avoid teaching students what rules they need to follow, and what they need to do to avoid getting into trouble.  Instead, I would seek to build good practices and habits into the material I’m teaching so that I can model what success looks like and help them understand why.  This way of conceiving the material is forward-thinking.  It gets the students to envision what the end-step looks like, and allows them to work backwards to figure out how they want to arrive there.  By focusing on the principles you want the students to uphold (as opposed to rules to follow), the students learn to think for themselves and are able to justify the decisions they make.  This also has the benefit of avoiding the problem with prescriptive policies – students are prepared to reason through novel situations based on principles.

 

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

5 Post-Conference Thoughts

I was away in Montreal for the Canadian Association of Research Ethics Boards conference last week, so I didn’t get a chance to write a blog post leading up to today (hence why the post is late).  However, I didn’t want to leave you hanging, so here are some thoughts on attending the conference.

-1-

This was the first conference I attended where work paid for it.  It was nice not needing to pay for the entrance, the flight, or the hotel room (previously, I would billet with conference organizers to cut down on cost).  It was pretty rad to stay at the same hotel that the conference was operating out of, which made life way easier.

-2-

Conferences can actually be a great learning opportunity.  I learned a lot from the experiences of others as we shared stories and case studies, all of which I have brought back with me to bring to my boards.  I took around 11-pages of notes over the three days, so lots of stuff to review and implement.

-3-

Networking is not something I have a lot of experience in.  In general, I’m terrible with schmoozing and making small talk.  On the plane from Toronto to Montreal, I downloaded my copy of Keith Ferrazzi’s Never Eat Alone and brushed up on some conference networking best practices.  That hour I spent reading on the flight was pretty helpful over the next three days.

-4-

I handed out business cards and collected them while in town.  I’ve already received an email from the President and CEO of an organization out of the US to follow-up on our conversation about receiving accreditation.  This is an example of what you should do with business card swaps – you go in, make a personal connection with the person, and give them a reason to follow-up.  If you give out your card, make sure to follow-up shortly after the conference to keep the connection going.

-5-

Attending the conference put me a little out of my comfort zone.  I could have stayed comfortably in the hotel the entire time and avail myself of the amenities.  However, at various people’s prompting, I did venture out to explore the downtown core.  I made friends with one of the local bartenders as we smack-talked KW, and I was able to enjoy some genuine Montreal poutine.  For my first dinner, I went out alone, but on the second night, I made sure to go out for dinner with a group of people.  Meeting new people is challenging and not a natural thing for me, so I had to intentionally choose to put myself out there.  Having said that, I also respected downtime, and spent the evenings quietly in my hotel room enjoying movies and YouTube to recharge after the day.  I think it’s possible to strike a balance, and it’s good to respect your own personal limit.

All in all, it was a great experience.  I’m glad I went, but I was very happy to return home.  In the end, I felt “conferenced-out” and was looking forward to seeing my fiance after an intense three days of talking about research ethics.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

Keep Your (First Aid) Skills Sharp

I wrote my masters thesis in 2012 on the relationship of knowledge, first aid, and the moral requirements of rescue.  The thesis argued that 1.) if you have special knowledge or training (first aid), you are morally required to render aid, even if there is no pre-existing legal requirement; and 2.) everyone should be trained in first aid.  While it is the case that I have to keep my first aid certificates current in order to work at the bar, I believe that it’s important to keep these skills fresh and sharp regardless of your occupation.

You never know when you’ll need to draw upon the skills, so frequent practice is important if you want to be effective.

There have been two instances while working at the bar where a pedestrian was struck by an automobile while I was working.  The first was New Years Eve a few years back, and the second was this past St. Paddy’s Day.  Thankfully, in both instances the person did not seem to be critically harmed in the incident, and both were conscious when they were loaded into the ambulance to be taken to the hospital for further attention.  I suspect that while both had some degree of recovery ahead of them, they thankfully won’t likely experience prolonged physical suffering.

In both instances, I was working on the door, so I was the first responder on scene to start treatment.  In the case of a traffic collision, the most important steps are to protect yourself, and start control of the scene.  I can confidently say that I’m terrible at the first thing, and half-decent on the second.  This is why consistent practice is important.

Protect yourself

I fail on this in two regards.  I have a tendency to run out into the street to reach the pedestrian quickly, meaning that I put myself at risk of getting hit by a car while on scene.  The other thing I’m bad at is getting to the pedestrian and starting treatment before I finish the scene survey (which includes putting on medical gloves to protect myself).  These are big no-no’s.  I expose myself to unnecessary risk while trying to be first to the injured, when realistically I should take an additional 15-30 seconds to stop, take in the scene, and put on my gloves.

Control the Scene

I am adequate at this because I tend to default to immobilizing C-Spine and trying to talk to the pedestrian if they are conscious.  I could do this better in a number of way, such as having a fellow staff member control the spine while I assess for additional injuries and control the scene (directing people around me, updating EMS, taking notes, etc.).  In regards to the staff at the bar, I am probably the most experienced first aider, so removing myself from the decision-making portion of the response has benefits and drawbacks.  I am the best person to perform first aid until advanced medical care arrives, but I also have enough experience to understand the dynamics of the scene.  At this point, it’s best that I trust my fellow staff to respond appropriately.

Responding to a traffic incident is chaotic, noisy and confusing.  On top of this, adrenaline courses through your body, making your hands shake and your limbs jittery.  Your brain feels like mush because your thoughts are lightning quick.  Time seems to slow down, and that ambulance that is 5-8 minutes away always takes an eternity.  You are hyper-focused on your patient, but aware that there is a light din of noise at your periphery.  It’s like a bubble is around you, and you are hoping like hell that you don’t mess anything up under the spotlight of the gawking mass of people encircling the scene.

This is all normal.  It (sadly) gets easier the more you do it.  You become calmer each time you respond; it’s happening to me already.

The lesson to take from this is to always keep your certs current, and find time to meaningfully practice your skills.  Someones life may depend on it.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

 

 

 

 

Blog – Breathing Room

This term has been killer for me.  I say “term” as a reflection of my added teaching load I’ve had since September.  I’ve been musing recently that I think I finally hit my stretch/break point.  Balancing all of my separate obligations is finally starting to test my ability to keep all the balls in the air.  In sum, these are the priorities I can think of off the top of my head:

  • Full time job at the college
  • Part time job at the bar
  • Part time job teaching
  • Treasurer of the ethics board I sit on
  • Podcasting
  • Maintaining this blog
  • Daily art project
  • Monthly mutual-improvement group meetings
  • Maintaining a long distance relationship
  • 2016 reading challenge (42 book finished as of last night)

These are just the things I’m managing to keep in the air.  Of course, to make space for these things, I’ve had to slack on some other priorities, namely:

  • Sleep (I’m averaging about 5.5 hours per night)
  • Nutrition (scaled back for budget reasons)
  • Gym (I’ve had a hard time justifying going for myself when I should be working)
  • Video game time (yes, this is a weird one, but I want more guilt-free downtime)
  • Other social time with friends (I rarely see friends outside of work or meetings)

These aren’t meant to be humble-brags.  I’m not one that thinks of “busy” as a badge of honour.  I know that busy people are notoriously unreliable in my circles.  There is a saying that if you want something done, give it to a busy person.  This is perhaps true in some cases, but in my experience the vast number of busy people tend to be chronically flakey on showing up and late on deadlines for deliverables.

Thankfully, there is some light at the end of the tunnel.  As of writing, I will be delivering my last lecture this week, and by December 21st I will be done with all course work grading.  Shortly after that, I’ll be on holidays from the College until the new year.  I’ll still have shifts at the bar, but those are select evenings.

Other aspects will change as well.  Podcasting will go on a holiday hiatus; the daily art project ends  at the end of December; and the long distance relationship will move back to a local distance relationship.  I will finally have some breathing room.  I plan to use that time to reflect on my obligations and regroup.  My birthday is coming up, and I always take that time to reflect on the past year as well as my current state of affairs with an eye towards my future.  This will be a well-deserved holiday break, when I finally get some breathing room.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Thoughts on Email and Ethical Research

I sit on the Board for the Community Research Ethics Office.  Our organization helps community organizations have access to support and research ethics reviews traditionally only offered to members of an academic institution.  We field a number of applications each month that explain a research project to us, and we evaluate the degree of ethical considerations made by the organization/researchers and sign-off on projects that align with the requirements set out in Canada’s Tri-Council Policy Statement on Conducting Research on Human Participants.

At each of our monthly meetings, the Board dives into lively discussion on topics not often considered in the course of normal research.  During our last meeting, we had a discussion concerning the use of email during the data processing phase of a project.  In a review we conducted, there was mention of researchers using email to share data across geographic distances (the study was occurring in multiple cities).

When we consider email, especially at a corporate level, our intuition is that it’s reasonably safe.  There are the occasional reports of data breaches, but if you use adequate security measures, your content is relatively safe.

But there is a crucial consideration that we need to make when we conduct research.  In research, the most important element is the rights of the participants.  If a researcher wants safeguard the participant’s interests while the participant freely participates in a research project, then a number of additional measures must play into your research system.

The participant, by agreeing to participate in a study, trusts that the researcher will not only always make research decisions that respect the participant’s wishes, but also the researcher must work to actively protect the participant’s right to safety, security and privacy to the fullest extent possible.

This is where emailing data to researchers gets complicated.

The intuitive thought is that as long as your computer terminal is secure, the data is safe – if you can prevent anyone (except maybe a super spy) from breaching your data, you have done your due diligence.

Community-based research has become cut-throat in the last few years…

So, here is your security weak-points and your measures to guard against a breach:

  • Physically accessing terminal location – lock the building/room and restrict access
  • Accessing computer terminal – password protect computer terminal
  • Accessing data/email on terminal – ensure login credentials are enabled and encrypt the data before sending

Yes, there’s a problem with the third bullet: email is more complicated that that.

When you send an email, you are not taking a document/letter, folding up a copy and sending the only copy via the web to the recipient.  If that were the case, then email would be fairly secure.  But, what happens with email instead is you end up copying the information to various sources as it gets uploaded, transmitted, copied, and downloaded over the web.  There is a copy created in your computer’s cached memory, there’s a copy that get uploaded and saved to your email server, the data is transmitted to your recipient’s server, and that information is downloaded as a copy to your recipients device.

That’s right, device, not necessarily a computer. You see, a further layer of complexity is when we route mail to our mobile devices, which is yet another copy of the information.  A computer is cumbersome to physically lose, but cell phones are lost/misplaced all the time.  Same with external hard drives and flash drives.  And don’t forget your mobile device; if you send the data on the same email platform that is accessible on an app on your phone, that information can be retrieved from your sent messages folder.

All of these points are potential security breaches.  So, let’s update the list above as to the number of ways data can be compromised:

  • Physically accessing your terminal location
  • Accessing computer terminal
  • Accessing data/email on terminal
  • Your mobile device
  • Email server(s)
  • Recipients physical terminal location
  • Recipients computer terminal
  • Recipients data/email on terminal
  • Recipients mobile device

There are probably other ways the data could be breached that I’m not considering in this example, but I think I’ve made my point that ethical and security issues are ridiculously complex when considering research projects.  Regardless of whether you think your data, if exposed, will actually harm your participants in any meaningful way, that is missing the point entirely.  Your participant’s data was important enough for your to collect in the first place, and therefore you have an obligation to protect the rights and well-being of your participant to the fullest extent that you can.

The point of our ethics reviews is not to halt research.  Our purpose is to help the researchers think of all of the ways we can conduct good research and ensure that our good practices ensure we can continue to conduct research in the future.  We must learn from past mistakes and the harm that has come to people who participated in research (inadvertently AND in good faith).  Respecting our duty to care is the cornerstone of what it means to do good research.