Defining Moment Assignment, Business Ethics/Final Project, Sy Syms School of Business, Yeshiva University
Many of you have expressed concerns regarding this assignment. I would like to respond to some of the issues you have raised and clarify the precise contours of this assignment.
If you are feeling anxious about this assignment, that’s probably not a bad sign. Most likely it’s an indication that you are taking it seriously and that you would like to do a good job (and get a good grade, too).
Some of you have asked me if you can do a more traditional “research project,” instead of this assignment. In a sense, I am asking you to do a “research project,” but certainly not a traditional one. What I’m asking from you is to do an internal research, to examine yourself and to understand better how you got be where you are now.
A defining moment, as we discussed in class, is an event (or a series of events) that reveals, tests, and shapes your identity. I make no claim that each of us has one (and only one) defining moment that has shaped us. That seems just as silly to me as it does to some of you. Most of us have many defining moments. I would like you to choose one to write about.
A defining moment is not necessarily an earth-shaking event (although it might be), rather it may have been a chance encounter or a brief exchange with a family member, a teacher, a boss, a friend, a principal, or even a stranger that you might not have even noticed as you were walking through it. Now, however, upon reflection and critical self-examination, you may begin to realize just how important it really was!
Defining moments don’t come with labels attached to them–”I’m a defining moment so be careful.” In some sense, there is a personal choice (free will?) involved in deciding whether or not an event or an encounter or an exchange is to be considered a defining moment. There is no right or wrong answer here, and this is obviously disconcerting and causes some anxiety. All of us (including me) have been taught over and over again that in school, at least, there’s always one answer or one solution to a problem. And, even if there is not an obvious solution, there’s certainly an answer the teacher is looking for in order to get the good grade.
I can assure you that this is not the case with regard to this assignment. Everyone’s defining moment will be different. The circumstances and choices that have shaped, revealed, and tested your character are different than my circumstances and choices. I don’t know what your defining moment is until you tell me about it.
Having said this, I imagine you’re now thinking to yourself, “Ah! So anything goes.” That’s not right either, though. Remember in class we talked about how Jewish ethics is about “interpretation.” We said that interpretation is neither invention (anything goes) or discovery (only one right answer). But, somehow, interpretation combines the best of invention and discovery and ends up being something all together different. In a sense, what I’m asking you to do is to interpret yourself!
One of the metaphors I introduced to you was the idea of thinking of doing ethics as the writing of a new chapter in a chain novel. Your chapter must be true to the previous chapters (you can’t just ignore the stuff that came before), but it also must extend the story in some creative and imaginative way (I’ve got to be me).
I think that this might be one way for your to approach this assignment (not necessarily the only way). I’m asking you to write your chapter. Tell me about what happened and tell me about how it has affected you as a person and how you anticipate it affecting you in the future (obviously no one can be certain about this).
Here are a few hints from personal experience and from reading hundreds of these papers over the years.
The more honest you are the better your paper will be and the easier it will be to write. To the extent that you’re making stuff up or hiding things, you’re going to have a hard time with this assignment.
Don’t try to make your paper sound like someone else’s.
Don’t try to figure out what I’m looking for because what I’m looking for is your defining moment and it lives in you, not me.
Do try to relate your personal story to broader issues like respect, care, concern, love or broader themes like the tension between organizational and individual responsibilities. Some of you have expressed a genuine and valid concern that this really wasn’t a course on business ethics. I want to turn the challenge around. How about you telling me how your story does relate to business concerns. Relax your criticism for a moment, and test it. You don’t have to make this link explicit, but I do think that you will see (with a little imagination) that almost every defining moment affects organizational and business life.
Think of your paper not as a final or definitive statement about who you are and who you are becoming, but think of it as a first draft or as an opening statement in a broader conversation about what it means to live an ethical life. I guess, if I had to narrow down the overall objective of this course it would be that I am trying to help you better participate in dialogs centered on ethics. I think this is why I get so upset when everyone talks at the same time during class, or worse yet, when someone gets up and leaves in the middle of the conversation. It hurts me because I know I’ve failed you.
Unfortunately for everyone, I do have to grade your papers. This does seem a bit unfair (especially in light of what I’ve just written), but if you ever have the opportunity to read through your class’s papers all at once, it does become obvious that some papers are better than others.
Let me try to be as precise as possible (despite the fact that grading papers is as much an art as it is a science.) First and foremost, I’m looking for papers that sound real to me. If you start to tell me how you’ve been struggling with whether or not General Motors should be laying off so many workers right now, I’d have my doubts! I would summarize this first criterion as authenticity.
Second, I’m looking for creativity. Do you the author see all the connections between your defining moment and some of the broader issues identified above. Can you relate your story in a real and substantive way to some of the many issues we’ve discussed during the semester. Third, the paper should be interesting and compelling. How does this all turn out? Fourth, I’m looking for consistency. Or, if this is not possible, let me know that you’re aware of your inconsistencies. Fifth, I’m always in a good mood when I learn something important about ethics and what it means to live a meaningful life. So dazzle me and put me in a good mood. You’ll probably get a better grade if you do.
I’ve written this not to confuse you but to illuminate you. As I re-read this, I’m afraid I might be scaring you even more. That’s not my intention. Please feel free to call me or stop by my office to discuss this assignment. I hope you have learned something from this course that you’ll be able to take with you beyond YU. Most importantly, stay in touch and keep the conversations going.
PS: Your papers should just long enough to fulfill the above requirements and no longer. If I have to be more specific here goes: The paper should be 5–7 pages (probably closer to 7), one inch margins, double-spaced, 12 point font, and times new roman script. It is due in my mail box on the fourth floor of Belfer by the end of business on the day of our final.