Intersecting Skill Sets

Last week, I created a video training series for the ethics board I’m on to help with onboarding new board members. Prior to COVID (the “before-times”), I would book out a meeting space on a Saturday morning to train new board members for 4-5 hours at a stretch. However, since we have been unable to meet face-to-face for the last year (we moved to remote in March 2020), it’s been difficult to help new members get up to speed. On the one hand, we could have accomplished the same training agenda using a video conferencing platform, however on the other hand, sitting on a training call for 4-5 hours is not a great experience for anyone involved.

We decided to go about the problem differently and embraced a flipped classroom format. By having training videos available, members can go through the lecture material at their own pace, then we can have a shortened video call to answer questions and do practice scenarios. Once I make the videos, they are always available, so there is no further cost to my time, except when we want to update content.

I was able to marry my experiences on the board reviewing ethics applications with my experiences vlogging over the last 7 years. Side note – our first podcast episode was released 7(!) years ago, on March 10th, 2014. Time flies!

Thanks to the time spent filming, editing, and publishing video content, I was able to put together an hour and a half series of short videos to go through the main points of being on the board and reviewing ethics applications. I had done something similar when I created a short onboarding video for my work at the college a few years back, but this was the first time I plotted out a multi-video series to create something resembling a course.

Admittedly, the fact that I did it myself shows in the quality. I don’t have the hardware to easily read scripts naturally, so I spoke extemporaneously with a set of notes, which shows in the final versions. Also, I don’t have a lot of experience with graphic design and after effects, so the shots can be a bit static. Nevertheless, it’s hardest to go from zero-to-one, from nothing to something. Everything after this point can be incremental improvements.

It was an interesting experience to marry these two different parts of my life. Vlogs, even the podcasts that I did with Jim, are more personal, with little actual expectation that people will see it. The videos Jim and I made were more for myself as a creative exercise. But these videos I’ve created are intended to help pass on some of what I learned while on the board and prepare them for the work we do.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Meaningful Actions

Over the weekend, I attended a virtual board meeting for engineering education. One of the reports pertained to a working-group’s findings and recommended actions to support the aims the 30 by 30 Campaign to address low representation of women in the engineering profession. This is a great initiative and I’m looking at ways we can improve our own processes to support women in STEM in our programs at the college. There was a comment that made me think, and it’s worth considering.

One of the board members expressed support for the report, but also commented that she had provided input as early as the 1990’s on this very initiative. Her comment was not meant to cast doubt over the process, but instead highlighted two important things – that this is not a new issue, and that many people have tried to make sweeping changes for the profession, which clearly hasn’t been entirely successful. Her advice was to be cautious about taking on too much scope with the recommendations, and instead to support a “divide and conquer” strategy for making targeted, meaningful actions to promote change.

I don’t hold any illusions that we will solve systemic issues overnight. If I’ve learned anything this past year, it’s that my hopes for reform are likely to fail and that instead of refinement, we should be aiming at transformative changes.

There is also another tension – on some level, this line of thinking suggests a teleological progression of progress for society and culture. I want to think that our culture is aiming at progress (“the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” is a powerful vision to work towards), but a skeptical voice reminds me that, like our misunderstanding of Darwinian evolution, there is nothing inherent in the progress of change that aims towards a higher, final form. A kind of defeatism can creep in when one thinks that meaningful actions do not contribute towards progress, but instead are just the spinning of our collective wheels.

I reject this defeatist view and want to aim towards a higher vision. I grant that the universe is largely amoral and unconcerned with our progress. So, instead, we must clearly define our values and principles, and take actions towards achieving these ends. The actions are neither good nor bad in an absolute sense. Rather, we mark progress with how close we come to realizing the values we want to see manifested in our lives. Meaningful actions are measured not against morality, but instead on efficacy for the outcomes. There are trade-offs and consequences along the way, and so we must be prudent. Both history and mythology have given us plenty of examples of why hubris should be avoided.

I don’t have a good answer on what meaningful actions we ought to settle on as part of our agenda. As noted, this issue has been discussed far longer than my tenure in the employment game. I’ll defer to folks much smarter than I, and try to learn from their efforts to do my part.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Supporting Community

Since the birth of our son, my wife has joined an online mom’s group in our town. Among the various posts asking for advice or to share items for sale, there periodically comes posts from the admin notifying the group of a request for aid. Families who find themselves in a financial pinch can contact the admin to anonymously ask for support.

The other day, my wife saw one of these posts, and in reflecting on how expensive life can be with our newborn, she felt instantly connected with the call for help. The pandemic has been hard on most people, but we feel we’ve been very fortunate to have our jobs reasonably secure this last year. While I have lost two side jobs over the course of the pandemic, my main source of income allows us to be fairly comfortable.

So, without much deliberation, we picked up some gift cards for the grocery store, loaded it with funds to help with groceries for a week, and offered them to the administrator. This is on top of the automatic monthly charitable contributions I started in November.

In the moment, this had me reflecting on what it means to be a part of a community. Setting aside questions about the role of government and the problems caused by exploitative capitalism, there is a strong moral case to be found in looking out for our community neighbours. We want our communities to be vibrant and healthy. Hyper-individualism may maximize utility for you and your family unit, but I think that outlook discounts the intangible benefits we see when we pitch in to help people feel safe, secure, and taken care of. Take your pick of moral argument:

  • Deontological – we have a moral imperative to help those who experience suffering due to a lack of resources.
  • Utilitarian – the morally right thing to do is to use surplus utility to offset the suffering experienced by others.
  • Feminism & Intersectional Ethics – redistributing wealth, even in the short-term, helps to buttress against the effects of systems that oppress people. This also applies to those who by luck or happenstance are experiencing suffering.
  • Rights-based & Social Contract – people have a right to security of person, and while this right is usually handled by the state, the community shares some of this responsibility as part of the social contract; if you want to derive the benefits of living in a community, you ought to be willing to support and contribute.
  • Virtue ethics – charity and magnanimity are virtues of the ethical person; giving neither too little, nor to excess.
  • Theory of Justice – if I were not in a privileged position to feel safe and secure, I would hope that my community could help me. It is better to work to lift all life conditions and raise the floor of suffering.

In truth, I often feel like a terrible neighbour because of my social habits. I feel awkward meeting new people and making small talk, so I’ll wave at neighbours at a distance instead of striking up conversation. Over a year into living in this house and we just learned the last names of one of our neighbours (who have been fantastic the entire time we’ve lived here – dropping off gifts for our son a few times since he’s been born). Where I lack the social grace to learn about the lives of my neighbours in a meaningful way, I hope I can make up a little bit of good will that comes from answering a call from a stranger online.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Vigilance and the Price of Progress

I recently joined a book club, and last week we met virtually to discuss The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.

The book has been circling my periphery for some time, coming up in recommended reads lists for at least a year. When it came time for me to suggest the next read, I chose this book without really knowing much about the subject. I was vaguely aware that Henrietta Lacks’s cells were instrumental to many scientific and medical advances, and I was aware that the obtaining of the cells was likely done unethically, as was the case for many Black Americans who found themselves under medical scrutiny in the middle of the last century. Since I review research ethics applications on two ethics boards I serve on, and because of the ongoing conversation around Black lives, I thought this would be a good book for us to read and learn from.

In short, the book is fantastic as a piece of writing.

But the story of Henrietta Lacks and her family is heartbreaking. The book paints a vivid portrait of who Henrietta was, and gives intimate glimpses into the life of her decedents. It also presents a comprehensive history of both the rise of research ethics since the end of World War Two and of the many advances made by science thanks to Henrietta’s cells. However, those advances were done with cells acquired neither with proper consent nor compensation. For many years after her early death, Henrietta’s name became lost to obscurity outside of her family, but everyone in the cellular biology community knew her cells because of how abundant they were. In a tragic twist, the very medical advances that gave way to better understandings of radiation, viruses, and vaccines, were often not available to the impoverished Lacks family. While the Lacks’s remained stuck in poverty, others profited.

I highly recommend everyone read this book.

As we discussed the book last week, I realized that this was an example of why it’s important to enlarge the domain of one’s ignorance. Learning about history shouldn’t be an exercise in theory; often we forget that history is presented as an abstraction away from the stories of individual people. If we forget about their individual lives, we can sometimes take the wrong lessons from history. As the saying goes, those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. In this case, we continue to exploit the voiceless, and profit on the backs of the disenfranchised – those who don’t have the power to speak back.

Reading books like this gives me a greater context for history, and it helps me understand the lived-history of people. I review research projects to understand the ethical consequences of our search for knowledge. If I lack a historical context – the history of how research was and is carried out – then I run the risk of perpetuating the same injustices on the people of today that the research is meant to help.

Research is supposed to be dispassionate, but we must understand and situate it within its proper historical context.

In an allusion to Picard, I close with this: constant vigilance is the price we must pay for progress.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

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.

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.

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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.

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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