A Code of Ethics for Teachers of History

Phyllis A. Hall, March 1992

I have long felt that the historical profession should have a code of ethics for teachers of history. The American Historical Association published its Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct in 1989 and included in it a section entitled "Teaching." Yet this part of the document does not fully detail the ethical responsibilities of teachers, nor does it deal with ethical problems that arise from the teaching situation.

In the spring of 1990, I attended a session of the Central Virginia Consortium on "The Ethics of Teaching." There I heard the following statement: "In teaching, the client comes first. Professors have an ethical responsibility for the growth and enhancement of their students." I returned to the AHA's statement, which stresses the necessity of communication skills, integrity, and competence for teaching. But nowhere does it say that for the teacher the student comes first.

It would come as a shock to most parents and aspiring students that for some college professors the students do not come first. Instead, economic necessity forces other priorities. Ambitious professors seek prominence in their professions, and academic institutions seek prominent professors in order to attract research grants, endowment funds, bequests, donations, and other capital to their schools. Economic necessity drives colleges and universities to seek every possible source of funding. Economic necessity drives many scholars to publish in order to become financially secure. Few realize that this often means students come last.

Everyone says teaching is important; yet we win approval and respect from our peers and tenure from institutions based on the quality of our research and the number of pages published. We need to rearrange priorities to favor students, but we cannot expect faculty and institutions to jeopardize their economic well-being. There must be a mediator between economic forces and the goals of higher education in history. I think this is a proper role for the American Historical Association. The AHA should discuss reasonable standards for the profession, making sure that economic considerations do not override educational goals. It is not clear from the Statement on Standards what professional obligations come first for teaching historians. Does the historical profession see that the main job of the history teacher is teaching with all the ethical responsibilities good teaching implies? If so, then the profession should say so.

The issue of the proper balance of teaching and research is controversial. Yet the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching found in a 1989 survey that 71 percent of all faculty members saw themselves as teachers rather than researchers. Recently, Donald Kennedy, president of Stanford University, called upon his university to make teaching its top priority. Across the United States, educators are reconsidering the relationship of teaching to research, and they are asking the kinds of questions that I feel the American Historical Association should consider.

In raising the issue of ethics in teaching, we could affirm that the clients, our students, come first. The historical profession, however, may not agree that the primary responsibility of the profession is teaching. If this is the case, at the very least, historians need to create guidelines delineating the ethical responsibilities of teaching and dealing with ethical problems that often arise in the student-teacher relationship. In calling for a code of ethics for teaching, I want to stress that most of my historical colleagues have high ethical standards. It is not my intention to indict my fellow historians for ethical lapses. Rather it is my hope that guidelines will help prevent ethical infringements by clarifying undefined areas. Now, when there seems to be renewed emphasis on teaching in colleges and universities, would be a good time to define our ethical standards.

The American Historical Association could add guidelines for teachers to the present Statement on Standards or create a separate code of ethics for teachers of history. In either case, the profession should give specific examples of the responsibilities of teachers and some of the ethical problems of teaching. Students should be aware of the ethical code and procedures for complaints when they suspect violations.

The Statement on Standards addresses some of the professional responsibilities of teachers. For example, it mandates "fairness and promptness in judging students' work on merit alone and a readiness to discuss their views with an open mind." But in my opinion, it is not nearly adequate in compass or detail. There is much more that should be included in a discussion of prescribed behavior. A code might include statements of the following type: Professors have an obligation to keep current in their field. Professors should be available for consultation outside the classroom. Professors should advise students who have shown interest in the profession about the nature and limitations of career opportunities in history. Professors should complete student references as expeditiously as possible. Professors should teach and enforce standards of academic integrity.

Besides defining professional responsibilities, a code should discuss ethical problems that result from teaching. Because the issue of teaching ethics has not risen to the level of conscious consideration and debate, some professors have unwittingly abrogated their ethical responsibilities to students. In a few instances, their behavior borders on exploitation of the people they are supposed to serve. One area of possible transgression is in research. There is a large section on scholarship in the Statement on Standards but it does not address some of my concerns.

Teaching influences our research. It does so because professors and students engage in personal interactions, and these personal interactions provide the spark of inspiration and the lens of insight. A student's unusual question or a comprehensive term paper can spur an avid historian onto the research trail. At other times, students enroll in a professor's course because they know his or her area of research and want to dig in the same field. In a sense, students can become part of the professor's research staff, especially in upper-level courses and seminars.

Ethical questions arise when research objectives and material evolve from teaching situations. For example, can we take someone else's idea and use it in our research? Is an instructor justified in developing a student research project to produce an article subsequently published under his/her name? The Statement on Standards clearly states that historians "should acknowledge assistance received from colleagues, students, and others." Yet in this case, is acknowledging the assistance of a student sufficient? Should the whole class be acknowledged? And how ethical is it for instructors to assign student papers on topics they, themselves, wish to explore further? By contrast, should an instructor secretly protect his or her area of research and deny students the rich experience of participating in discovery? Where does inspiration from students stop and exploitation of students begin?

Ethical questions sometimes result from a professor's involvement in political issues. Certainly, a professor should be entitled to the same freedom of thought and expression enjoyed by the rest of American society. There should, however, be some guidelines so that free expression does not result in the manipulation of students to obtain political ends. A popular professor easily can influence impressionable students. The Statement on Standards explains the importance of "the presentation of differing interpretations with intellectual honesty" and warns against "intentional use of falsification, misrepresentation, or concealment" of course material. A code of ethics should explain how these principles apply in the classroom. The historical profession should define limits for professors who use the classroom as a political rostrum, whether the issue is supporting a presidential candidate, saving the environment, or protesting against an "unfair" college administration.

There are other examples of student exploitation. The American Historical Association cannot legislate every situation, such as the "unscrupulous" professor who asks a talented student assistant to do some writing for him/her without acknowledging the student's contribution; the professor who refuses to give back a student paper until the student turns over to the professor some of the research materials he or she found; or the professor who makes it clear that a student will only do well if he or she studies with a certain professor. Certainly, such examples are exceptional cases and probably occur infrequently. In these instances, it may suffice for students to know that the American Historical Association has a code of ethics and with it a mechanism for dealing with unusual ethical situations.

A long-standing area of exploitation of students has been sexual harassment. The Statement on Standards covers sexual harassment thoroughly. It considers students under its professional condemnation of "all behavior that prevents or impairs an individual's full enjoyment of education or workplace rights..." In a clear and equitable statement the profession has come out emphatically against "generalized sexist remarks or behavior; requests for sexual favors; sexual advances; sexual assaults; and the use of professional authority to emphasize inappropriately the sexuality or sexual identity of a student or colleague." This is one part of the Statement on Standards that needs little improvement. If the American Historical Association creates a separate code of ethics for teachers, the above material should be incorporated in it.

The historical profession should discuss these and other ethical issues related to teaching. Inquiry into the ethics of teaching is timely. Renewed interest in teaching affords a remarkable opportunity to explore ethical issues that affect teachers and students. Now that the Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct is in place, it is time for the American Historical Association to enlarge it or create an additional code of ethics for teachers.

Editor's Note: In response to Professor Hall's essay, the Association's Professional and Teaching Divisions are developing a draft statement on teaching ethics.

—Phyllis A. Hall is a professor of history at the University of Richmond.