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How I build ethics into my introductory course from the first day

The basic foundation of ethical practices includes honoring and respecting those who have made our research and learning possible.

7 min read
John Hawks in the laboratory

As an anthropologist, I work with people in many countries around the world to understand the heritage that all people share. I bring that knowledge back into the classroom at the University of Wisconsin—Madison to more than 600 students each semester.

The laboratory is where students encounter the hands-on materials of our science: human bones, bones of non-human primates, and high-fidelity copies of fossils.

On the first day, I introduce ethical practices. Ethical behavior begins with hands-on skills like respectful handling of human bones. Ethics includes respecting the people and institutions that have made their learning possible.

In the syllabus

The syllabus of a course is a document that all students receive, and many of them refer to it throughout the semester. We've all seen the 1970s-era syllabus with its stark list of topics. In recent years universities have begun to require statements on plagiarism and other policies. I find that students don't read boilerplate.

Syllabus pages with text and images of monkeys and bones
A couple of pages from my syllabus

My syllabus looks like a newsletter. I assign a syllabus quiz during the first week to ensure that students have read through it and are familiar with its sections and contents. It's where I put information that I want all students to reflect on.

I include a clear statement about ethical practices in the course.

Ethical practice
One of the most important elements of biological anthropology is a recognition of anthropologists’ obligations to the communities and peoples who contribute to our work. There are many ways in which the study of human origins and biological diversity impacts people and their communities. Ethical practice requires professionals and students to be aware of the benefits and risks of research. In this course, such awareness includes the following:
Human skeletal remains in the collections of the University of Wisconsin-Madison are the continuing legacy of generous people who have offered their bodies to teaching science and medicine. All students in this course will learn appropriate care of skeletal material.
Skeletal remains of people, non-human primates, and of fossil remains from many parts of the world will be included within the virtual laboratories and inquiry assignments in the course. Students will learn about the institutions that have made these materials available to us. They will consider ways that learning in this course depends on the communities that support those institutions worldwide. They will also learn about the costs of such access to materials.
Representation is a key aspect of ethical practice in biological anthropology. Today’s biological anthropologists carry out research by collaborating with communities around the world. In our collaborations scientists and nonscientists help to guide research priorities. People have varied understandings of their past and the value of science in their lives. Ethical practice requires clear communication with people about the intentions and processes of scientific research.
One of the basic learning goals of this course is to develop understanding of the historical and social context that shaped past ideas about human diversity. Many past anthropologists and scientists participated in colonial systems that subjected indigenous peoples to violence and forced theft of cultural and skeletal remains. Some anthropologists and scientists studied human diversity for the purpose of justifying slavery or colonialism. Such attitudes and practices did not end in the nineteenth century. Colonial attitudes continue to shape the way scientists interact with peoples around the world in the genetic era.
This course will cover the history of ideas and practices in biological anthropology. In some cases, students will encounter uncomfortable stories and images, including images of stolen human remains and exploitative research practices. The course will introduce modern best practices and legal requirements that govern anthropological research, including case studies of repatriation of human remains internationally and within the United States.

In the laboratory

I first began teaching laboratory courses as an undergraduate teaching assistant 30 years ago. Respectful handling of bones and other laboratory materials was the top of the first day’s lesson in those labs. It remains so in my laboratory today.

When I was just starting out, I saw respectful handling first and foremost as a practical matter. Bones may be the toughest organs in the body, but many parts of them are fragile. Anyone who works with historic collections of human bones will see breakage, loss of teeth, and erosion of surfaces, some resulting from handling. In our teaching laboratories, donors provided these bones for students to learn from, and some degree of wear and tear is inevitable. Modeling responsible handling and and reinforcing that behavior by students helps ensure the future of collections.

Over the years my perspective has deepened. I have been able to collaborate with scientists and heritage specialists from many other countries. I've also served a wide range of people of varied backgrounds within the U.S., both from the public and as students in my courses. In the institutions where I work, we maintain strong compliance with all relevant laws and best practices for curation and work with skeletal materials. I have assisted in the repatriation of human remains, and have consulted with heritage authorities both in the U.S. and internationally.

People have very different approaches to their understanding of the past, but I have found that they share a deep interest and reverence for the ancestors who came before us. That common ground is an essential foundation for the science of human ancestry.  

During the Covid-19 pandemic, I could not have students in the laboratory as usual. So I worked very hard to create virtual laboratory materials and videos that would enable students to examine the bones and other physical objects within our lab.

As part of the first video, I gave a presentation on why ethics are essential to our study of human ancestry. I'm happy to share those remarks here:

Biological anthropology is a comparative science. Being able to access materials, to look at them, to study them, and to compare our subjects of study with what has been studied by anthropologists around the world is tremendously important to our work. Our laboratory work is a big part of that.
Here in the biological anthropology laboratory, we are fortunate to be the beneficiaries of the past generosity of many people, and the responsible stewardship of past generations of anthropologists. I want to say a few words about the ethics that guide what we do here in the laboratory, and the ethical behavior that we expect of all students in the lab.
Human bones in our laboratory are the gifts of people who have chosen to share their bodies with science for scientific learning and scientific research. This is an exceptional and irreplaceable gift. We cannot today purchase or replace most of the bone materials that we have from people here in the lab. That demands that we treat things with great care, and we will teach you how to handle skeletal remains appropriately.
We owe our respect to people who have been generous by donating their bodies to you to learn from. We do not share photographs or videos of these remains except in the course of our education and outreach at the University. They should never be shared as memes or for any other purposes outside of the learning that we’re going to be doing in the course.
That’s also true of the non-human primate materials. Primate materials in our laboratory have been acquired by the University in several different contexts. Some of these bones are from animals that were part of research at the Wisconsin Primate Center in the past. Others were collected by researchers in the past for their scientific work. We treat all of these bones with respect because they’re irreplaceable to us today, and because it’s the basic ethical requirement upon us.
Casts that we have in the laboratory are copies of material that is held by other institutions around the world. Many of the casts represent World Heritage objects such as fossil hominin remains or ancient artifacts. We are fortunate that nations around the world that are guardians of this heritage have made them available to us for learning and for research. That comes with obligations on our part to recognize those institutions, to treat the materials appropriately and to use them in the way that they’re intended. When we introduce cast materials in this course, I will be talking about the institutions where they came from and the contexts in which they were given to us at the University.
This is also true of virtual materials. We use 3D models today more and more, and we’re really fortunate today to be able to bring lots of 3D models of things, to allow you to have high-quality virtual experiences with the materials of biological anthropology. That means that we have to recognize the generosity and the scientific collegiality that has allowed institutions to share these 3D models with us.
You’re now a part of that process. And I’m going to do as much as I can to emphasize the openness of our science. The way that we share materials with each other as researchers and share materials with you as learners. Ethical sharing is what allows us to move our scientific research and worldwide understanding of human heritage forward.

That last paragraph is essential. The invitation to learning from other people's heritage is also an obligation to act with respect and care.

I know that many people hear the word, “ethics”, and think about ethical breaches like falsification of data, or p-hacking, or idea theft. More and more attention has been brought to these issues during the last decade. It is important to train students about why these practices are unethical and how they damage science.

But those instances each involve a choice by individuals to mislead or defraud. The underlying assumption is that people can be ethical by avoiding dishonest choices.

In my field that is not sufficient. Ethical practice requires us to act at all times with respect and integrity toward people and their heritage. I believe the best way to convey this obligation is to help students to understand that when they learn, when they collect and observe data, they are responsible to the people and institutions that have enabled their work.

ethical practicesteaching
John Hawks

John Hawks Twitter

I'm a paleoanthropologist exploring the world of ancient humans and our fossil relatives.

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