One of the student learner outcomes for Morehead State University’s First Year Seminar is to articulate the ethical consequences of decisions or actions. I have always loved our discussions about ethics, because the theme for my particular FYS is “From the Walking Dead to Superheroes.” I find that comic book characters offer a lot of opportunity to discuss ethics and over the years my students have explored a variety of ethical questions from the death penalty to vigilantism to corporate greed. Of course, that last may be inspired by the fact that one of the ways I introduce ethics uses this video about Monsters Inc, but then it might simply be that a lot of comics feature that theme (Batman, Green Arrow, Flash, etc.).
This year our FYS program introduced a new element. We were required to take our students through a formal process, including some form of written assessment, that demonstrated our students had used the MSU critical thinking formula (Monitor assumptions, Scrutinize evidence, Uncover solutions) to articulate ethical consequences. We were offered some packages addressing issues such as conspiracy theories, reporters, and police, but none of these felt right to me. I really didn’t want to step out of our comic book universes to simply go through some made up process. That seemed like a recipe for disengagement to me. Also, my students are working on projects they will share with middle school students as part of our service learning focus. Why not make this lesson an opportunity to model the kinds of ideas I would like them to address?
So I created my own scenario although I closely followed the structure provided by one of the FYS packages. The package called for students to consider whether or not they would reveal information to the police in a specific situation. I asked my students to consider this dilemma instead:
Your friend urges you to attend community story time. You think you are too old, so you sneak in to take a look before attending. As soon as the last adult has left the room, the woman leading story time puts down her book, pulls out a trunk of weapons, and announces they will be talking about knives. One of the children asks if he should keep watch and she tells him this is a good idea. When your friend asks if he can leave because he is not feeling well, she presses him about what he will do in the real world if he doesn’t feel well. When he leaves, the woman notices you watching and asks you not to tell.
Of course, fans of The Walking Dead will recognize this scene from Episode 1 of Season 4 (30 Days Without an Accident) where Carol uses story time as camouflage to teach children how to kill zombies.
After students noted their initial response to the basic idea (monitoring assumptions, scrutinizing evidence, and uncovering solutions in the process), we watched the initial clip of that scene as well as a follow-up scene (from Episode 2: Infected) where Carol pressures Carl not to tell and explains why she thinks it is so important for the children to be able to protect themselves. After class discussion exploring what students would do if they were Carl (and why), I shared the clip (also from Episode 2: Infected) that showed how Carl chose to handle the dilemma.
It was an interesting conversation as not everyone in the class is familiar with the nuances of the Walking Dead universe and characters, so students who supported Carol’s actions (and would have protected her secret) were forced to explain how/why they believe the ends justify the means while students who would have told the parents about the secret training school needed to explain how rules of ethical behavior can’t simply be bent for convenience no matter how good the cause. And, of course, we all had to consider whether certain situations dictate that we must suspend our moral code and ethics or whether those are the very times when we must adhere to them more closely than ever. As one of my students shared in a previous semester’s project: We must live and yet we must be able to live with what we have become. This is one of the essential questions that the Walking Dead continues to explore season after season and certainly something that all of us must resolve in our quest to become better humans.
How do you introduce conversations about ethics? Do you think comics are a good vehicle for teaching ethics? Was it ethical for me to go off the reservation with my prompt? Would you have protected Carol’s secret? When is it appropriate to use a scream extractor?