Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Thoughts on NUBC: Learning What It Means to "Do" Bioethics

By: Dr. Tiffany Cvrkel

A few weeks ago a group of my undergrad students and I returned from our very first National Undergraduate Bioethics Conference (NUBC). I thought I’d write down a few thoughts about our experiences, and (hopefully) make a case for why attending this conference is a uniquely worthwhile experience.

We have a pretty thriving group of undergraduate bioethicists at UCLA. Most are pre-med students who do independent research in bioethics as a compliment to their intensive lab work and hard science curriculum. They are a passionate (and inspiring!) bunch, and they are always looking for ways to connect with their peers at other institutions.

And that’s the story of how they – not me, their faculty mentor! – found out about NUBC. As they were browsing this “Bioethx Under 25” blog, they found a listing for a conference aimed especially at them. I got an email pitching a trip to Chicago.

It was fitting start. While faculty members are involved in the orchestration of NUBC, much of it is run by undergrads for undergrads. A few of my students decided to submit papers to the conference, and Jessica Kriksciun (one of our seniors) had her paper accepted. They also decided to form a Bioethics Bowl team and compete during the tournament. None of us had any idea what a “Bioethics Bowl” looked like, but it sounded like a decent way to spend a Saturday.

If you’ve never been to a NUBC before, you should know it is an odd marriage of two very different events. The first is the conference itself, run in a mostly traditional way -- paper presentations along with brief Q&As. The second is a tournament event called the “Bioethics Bowl,” where student teams compete by giving well developed/supported arguments and objections regarding bioethics cases. The team with the better arguments wins.

I’ll give you a few moments here to quip about competitive bioethics. Many of my colleagues found this whole set-up an endless source of hilarity. And to be honest, I was a little wary. Some of my colleagues were worried that this kind of thing just reinforces combative relationships between bioethicists – a problematic dynamic that already exists in some places of our discipline. It’s hard enough to work in a cross-discipline space. Shouldn’t we all be trying to get along, not score points against each other?

I had another, slightly different worry. When I paged through the cases that the Bioethics Bowl would be using, I noticed the “ripped from the headlines” format. But the fact that these are real cases involving real people adds an additional burden for our students. I am close with some of the ethicists who worked on one of the cases in this year’s packet. I saw first-hand the devastation and anguish that this case caused for everyone involved. I feared real people’s stories might be turned into nothing more than rhetoric-laden debate fodder, cheapened to score points.

I am not against debate as an intellectual exercise. I was on my school’s debate team as a student, and once upon a time, I coached it. But the goals of debate are not always to find the most subtle, respectful, and nuanced lines of reasoning. The people from these cases? They deserve nothing less.

And when the Bioethics Bowl came around, there was indeed some debate-style rhetoric and hyperbole. But happily, this was not the norm. Most of the teams we saw weren’t trying to be cut-throat in point scoring. They were trying to work through the issues in genuine and sincere ways. There was a lot of “we agree with our opponents on their position, but we’d like to raise an issue that might have been overlooked” kind of dialogue – the kind of dialogue that happens in professional ethics committee meetings. And with a few exceptions, my students left each round feeling like they both made new friends and got to practice articulating true, difficult positions.

But the Bioethics Bowl – by far – was not the highlight of the conference, which you would never know by looking at the attendance numbers. It quickly became clear that there are also two demographics at NUBC, the people who were there for the conference and the people who were there only for the Bioethics Bowl. And the vast majority of people fell into the second category.

This was such a shame. The conference part of the NUBC was amazing. Sitting around the breakfast table before a day of presentations, all of us huddled together, the following conversation happened. One of my students asked, “Um, Dr. Cvrkel? What kinds of questions should we ask the presenters? I’ve been to lots of conferences where I’m not really supposed to ask questions, and this is the first time I’ve been at a conference where I’m the intended audience! What does a good question look like?”

And that’s when we discussed the difference between being a student and being a colleague. We talked about the art of asking useful and supportive questions instead of “gotchas.” We talked about when follow-up questions are appropriate and when they’re not. We talked about how to approach someone to discuss related projects. We talked about how to do bioethics in the real world.

I teach two large lecture classes every quarter; that’s hundreds of students, multiple times a year. And while I try to teach each of my students some of the finer points of bioethics, the famous authors, the important arguments, I can never offer them the experience of doing bioethics with their peers. We always have a power differential in traditional learning environments, and this means students never get to practice wielding their knowledge as equals. But at NUBC, they present their ideas not as students looking for approval, but as scholars looking to advance an idea. And they sit in the audience not merely to learn, but to engage.

The NUBC has been the one environment where my students experienced what it is like to be bioethicists. And that’s not easy to teach. But of all the things I’ve tried to teach my students, I can’t think of any that are more valuable.

The folks at Loyola University of Chicago put on a wonderful conference, and though it was our first, it won’t be our last. We’ll be in Florida for NUBC 2015—you should join us.

Dr. Tiffany Cvrkel is a philosopher, bioethicist, and lecturer in UCLA’s Molecular, Cell, & Developmental Biology department. She is also the faculty adviser for UCLA’s Undergraduate Bioethics Club (aka: The Bioethics Brigade) and runs the UCLA Bioethics Lab, where students do advanced/independent bioethics research.

No comments:

Post a Comment