In my Master courses and the advanced Bachelor courses, the underlying theme I torture my students with is “ethics”. When I realised a couple of years ago that our students were quite brilliant when it came to economic analyses, but often lacked the basic understanding of decent business conduct (much to my horror), I decided to make ethical practices – in research as well as in professional life – the topic of some of my courses. Students are now supposed to create a lesson based on an ethical dilemma and then pick a (sometimes unrelated) topic for their research paper. I usually leave them free reign in choosing said topic, as I believe that giving them such freedom means they go for something they are passionate about and therefore more involved in.
So over the last years, a very diverse set of research papers have been handed in; the papers were not always up to the academic standards I had hoped for, but their range in topics meant it was almost certainly an interesting read. I had the pleasure of marking, among others, the influence of James Brown on the Black Power Movement in the 1960s, the economic justifications of surrogate mothers in India, the de-manning trend on cargo ships in the European Union, the agricultural subsidies system and its consequences for German dairy farmers, the questionable trend to award major sport events to countries with a dubious human rights record, the problems of detecting plagiarism in programming assignments for IT students, the ‘greenwashing’ principles behind the latest H&M campaign, and the use of performance-enhancing substances in sports where sponsorship is only available to the top performers.
Reading those papers always reminds me that, as much as I may think I know what I am lecturing about, there are questions and perspectives which make me see things in a new light or tackle them in a different way. The value of these assignments for me is not just in the confirmation that students have understood the ethical concepts I was trying to convey, but also the realisation that concerning myself with sometimes very obscure topics helps to spark and form new ideas in my own mind.