Professional Writing and Codes of Ethics

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Gardner_Jun09_204.jpgThis week, I want to talk about an activity for a professional writing course that explores the ethical principles that apply to professional writers. Students will return to these principles throughout the term. This idea grew from work I did last week at the Pathways Summer Institute, sponsored by the Virginia Tech Office of General Education.

One of the learning outcomes in this new curriculum is the inclusion of ethical reasoning in core courses. To meet this goal in a professional writing course, students will begin by reading the chapter on ethics in the course textbook. After reading the chapter, students will compare the general information in the text to specific codes of ethics from associations for professional communication, such as the following:

In class discussion, students will identify the ways the codes overlap, noting the language and ideas that they have in common. As they compare the codes, they will also draw connections to the textbook. If necessary to help students understand, we will explore some simple scenarios to illustrate the codes, but applying the codes to specific cases will take place in another activity (more on that in next week’s post). 

At this point, students will have experience looking at ethical codes and thinking about how they apply to the work of professional writers. The problem is that most of the students I encounter in the technical writing course do not think of themselves as professional writers. Many understand that there are some expectations for writing in their fields, but they think of themselves as engineers, biologists, and software developers.

To help students understand how the ethical principles for professional writing apply to their own disciplines, I will ask students to locate codes of ethics for their own professions. For instance, an electrical engineer would focus on the IEEE Code of Ethics, and a biologist might focus on the Code of Ethics for the Society for Conservation Biology. Once they identify the principles for their fields, students will look for overlap between codes for professional communication and the codes for their own fields, addressing questions such as the following:

  • Where do you find principles related to writing or communication in the code of ethics for your field?
  • Where are there explicit connections to the same principles included in the codes for writers? Where are connections less obvious?
  • What ideas from the codes for professional writing are not mentioned at all? Why do you think they are excluded?
  • Is there anything else in your field’s code that stands out by comparison to the codes for professional writing?

By the end of the comparison activity, students should be able to identify and explain how ethical codes apply to the writing they will do in their fields. To demonstrate their understanding, students will create posters that explain ethical communication principles of their discipline to others in their fields.

As a class, we will explore posters from the U.S. Office of Government Ethics (like the “Expose & Disclose” poster shown above), noting how they focus on one aspect of the federal code of ethics. To simplify production, students can use an online tool like Canva. The posters will be shared with the class, and if possible and appropriate, printed and posted in a public space where others in the same field can see them (like bulletin boards in their departments).

As it relates to the Virginia Tech Pathways curriculum, the goal of this project is for students to “explain and contrast relevant ethical theories” (Indicator of Learning 1 for the Ethical Reasoning Integrative Learning Outcome). As a professional writing instructor, I am also hoping that it will help students gain a better understanding of how writing and communication play a role in their disciplines. Do you have projects that explore ethical reasoning in the writing classroom? I’m looking for assignments and classroom activities, so please leave me a comment, or drop by my page on Facebook or Google+.

About the Author
Traci Gardner, known as "tengrrl" on most networks, writes lesson plans, classroom resources, and professional development materials for English language arts and college composition teachers. She is the author of Designing Writing Assignments, a contributing editor to the NCTE INBOX Blog, and the editor of Engaging Media-Savvy Students Topical Resource Kit.