The message on the dry erase board is somewhat ominous: Every Ethics Bowl student should be able to present or attack each case.
“Do you know why I wrote that on there?” Greg Pence, Ph.D., asks his Ethics Bowl students. “In case someone has to leave or gets sick,” Jennifer Ghandi answers to the laughter of her teammates.
|(From left to right) Ethics Bowl Team students Daniel Sandlin, Riley Carpenter and Michael Lester confer with coach Greg Pence at a recent practice.
“No,” Pence responds. “It’s in case someone gets stage fright.” The students laugh at that, too. Neither answer is right. The message is there to correct a mistake that occurred in the Southeast regional championship in St. Petersburg. He doesn’t want the same thing to happen March 5 in Cincinnati when his team competes for the first time in the national Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl.
“One of the team members left the table right before the last round started, and if the other team had started presenting their case before she came back, she wouldn’t have been able to sit back down,” Pence says. “Once a team is seated, no changes can be made. So every student needs to be able to present every case.”
The mistake in St. Petersburg was understandable. It was the first time UAB’s Ethics Bowl team competed in a tournament of any kind. To say their performance was a success would be an understatement.
The seven-member team shocked the field, finishing second. It outscored 18 teams in the competition, including Emory, the U.S. Naval Academy and West Point, to advance to the national competition.
“I think they thought we were a bunch of rubes from Alabama with no indoor plumbing,” Pence says jokingly. “Seriously, we got a very good seed at the regional. Now that we’re going to the nationals it’s a whole different story. They know who we are. Many of the other coaches know UAB now, and they’re going to be ready this time.”
Tough topics to study
Thirty-two teams from 10 regions will com-pete for the national title in Cincinnati. UAB’s team includes senior Riley Carpent-er, juniors Ghandi, Daniel Sandlin and Michael Lester and freshmen Chris Graves and Khushboo Jhala. Carpenter is Miss (All-Round) UAB. Jhala debated at Vestavia High School on a team that also made national finals, and the opportunity to compete on the Ethics Bowl Team persuaded her to turn down Brown, Hopkins and Washington University for a chance to matriculate at UAB. All of the students belong to UAB’s Early Health Professions Acceptance Program, which Pence directs.
Each team competing in the national tournament received 15 new case studies to review in early January. For the competition, the students must master the 15 cases involving ethical problems and defend or attack a position on cases chosen at random. A moderator and three judges will question the teams. They are usually real courtroom judges, physicians, business executives, college administrators and professors.
Topics for the national competition in-clude forced sterilization of a mentally handicapped teenager, whether a newspaper should disclose important information to the public even though a source has requested an embargo, the military’s desire to design automated killer robots and polygamy.
Some of the topics cover medical issues, which interest the team’s members. However, they say the topics facilitate a more important procedure that they are learning. “It’s not the topics that are going to help me, but the process that you have to go through in thinking about these things,” says Ghandi. “They’re hard cases. You don’t necessarily know what the right or wrong answer is.
“It’s more about looking at both sides and making a judgment on what you think is right based on the information you have.”
The Ethics Bowl team is part of an independent study course. The students say one of the things they enjoy the most about the course is the competition.
“For me, I like the challenge of thinking fast, especially in terms of rebuttals and commentaries,” says Sandlin. “It stimulates you to organize your thoughts in a logical, coherent, consistent manner and to do it very rapidly. And you address people in a structured and direct way. I enjoy the challenge of thinking on your toes like that.”
“There’s so many different ways to look at every case,” adds Graves. “It’s not like pro or con. There are hundreds of ways to approach these cases. There’s no set limit to what you can say or how you think they should be resolved. You can go in there with an entire presentation prepared and they can present something that you’ve never thought of before or even considered. Then you have to think of how to adapt to what they said and change to fit this case.”
Help from home
The team has had plenty of help from within UAB to help make this endeavor possible. The Department of Philosophy’s Ethics Center helped fund the team, enabling it to make the trips to St. Petersburg and Cincinnati. The team also has received special coaching from many UAB faculty during the past fall and spring semesters.
Justice Sciences Professor John Sloan, Ph.D., Philosophy Professor Theodore Benditt, Ph.D., and English Professor Wil-liam Hutchings, Ph.D., gave the team their expertise on various topics or judged practice rounds. Several others will do so in the next two weeks.
“Their input has been really valuable be-cause they bring their expertise and skills and a great understanding of some of the technical knowledge we may need,” Ghandi says. “They can point us in directions that we haven’t thought of before.”
Pence studies ethics cases in his own scholarship, which he says led him to start an Ethics Bowl course. “I think real cases are the way you really learn to think and do ethics,” he says. “They don’t always end the way you think they do. You have to master many details and facts.”
That’s what helped the team earn its second-place finish in the regional competition. Central Florida made a mistake in facts they were presenting about a case, and the UAB team pounced.
“We killed them on it,” Pence says. “If you say something factually wrong, you’re in trouble. Once they get their cases, there’s a lot of research that goes into this, and our team has worked very hard. I’m sure nationals will be a fun experience.”
To watch a two-minute video sample from a 30-minute Ethics Bowl debate, visit main.uab.edu/show.asp?durki=117464.