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Xavier Magazine | November 24, 2017

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Ethical Lessons

Greg Schaber

Paul Fiorelli wants students to remember the important stuff. And the director for the Williams College of Business’s center for business ethics and social responsibility is willing to do just about anything—from magic tricks to using imaginative props to showing movies—to make sure undergraduate and graduate students get the point. “I’m shameless,” Fiorelli says.

“I think there’s a lot of ways of teaching—it’s not just I get up there and lecture. To me, that’s mind-numbingly boring for the students and, really, for myself. I think that you really can do things in many different ways. And if you have a great bit of film, that’s a place for a student to hang an idea.

If you do a magic trick, if you use a prop, if you use a game to tell a story, that’s an idea that takes an abstract principle and makes it understandable to the student. And even though it’s corny, even though it’s really hokey, I think it’s a very interesting way of making the idea memorable.”

For example, to make students more aware of privacy issues, Fiorelli places surveillance cameras on various desks in the room before his lecture. Later, he opens a dialogue about the presence of the cameras. He also uses card tricks to “guess” people’s thoughts and pulls out his “mind-reading device”—a stainless steel colander outfitted with a beeper and a flashing light—which he places on a student’s head to detect “true” and “false” answers to a list of questions.

Or, in a serious turn, he demonstrates just how much information is legally available about any given student via local government web sites.

For other issues, props may include bottles of Mad Dog 20-20 wine and Colt 45 malt liquor or a game resembling “Jeopardy!”

Fiorelli’s long-time use of film clips in graduate and undergraduate classes recently evolved into a new graduate course, Business Ethics Through Film. Over the 12 class sessions, the students view 11 films, each film chosen to illustrate particular ethical issues. The first session is dedicated to discussion and a quiz covering a pre-assigned text, “to make sure all of the students are up to speed.” Fiorelli then divides the students into teams, with each group responsible for preparing and leading a discussion of two films.

The film lineup has changed slightly each summer, as Fiorelli monitors students’ responses to each movie and discovers new movies that might offer a different perspective on an important issue. Last summer’s lineup included “The Conversation,” “Mississippi Burning,” “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” “Other People’s Money,” “Wall Street,” “The Philadelphia Story,” “Death of a Salesman” and “The Insider.” Fiorelli has taught the class for three summers on an experimental basis. This spring, he’ll take it before the curriculum committee, hoping to have it formally approved as a graduate course.

All of these techniques are aimed at helping students draw their own conclusions about ethical issues. “There’s a real danger that you come across as if you’re lecturing, ‘My ethics are better than yours, and you’re here to hear me preach the way of what good ethics really should be,’ ” Fiorelli says. “And I think that’s a real turn-off. So I try not to do that. But I think I can help people think through what their ethics are, and to challenge whether they’re doing things the right way or the wrong way.”

In fact, he says, many students—particularly graduate students in the working world—find themselves on an ethical island. They’re often surprised, not to mention relieved, to learn others share their views. And while he may take different routes to help students come to their own realizations, Fiorelli says his approach to presenting material is ultimately a tribute to the level of teaching at Xavier. “I’m fighting for memory space,” he says. “My colleagues do a great job of teaching. All I want is one small corner of the students’ brains.”

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