Every Wednesday this semester, roughly 20 students walked into McCosh 50 for one of Princeton’s 15 undergraduate classes taught in person. But this class was unique for another reason; although the students are together, no professor awaits them inside.
Professor David Miller has taught EGR 219: Business Ethics — Succeeding without Selling Your Soul through the Keller Center for over five years. Popular among upperclass students preparing to enter the workforce, the class provides frameworks for evaluating ethical decisions that arise in the business world.
However, the class looked very different this year, as some students gathered in person on campus while Miller taught remotely. As the semester comes to a close and the student body anxiously awaits a decision on the learning format for the coming year, EGR 219 provides an example of finding a creative middle ground.
Miller’s class on business ethics is a continuation of the work he started while getting an M.Div. and a Ph.D. at Princeton Theological Seminary. There, he was guided by the question “how do you compete well and stay grounded in your values and not compromise yourself?”
Miller takes advantage of his connections from 16 years in the business world to provide new perspectives for his students. In just the past couple of years, he has invited such guests as the CEO of Tyson, the founder of the Vanguard investment fund, and the whistleblower at Enron.
After cancelling the class in the fall, Miller was originally resistant to the idea of teaching the class during the pandemic at all.
“[It] has this huge personal practitioner component … I couldn't get my mind on how I could do that in a two-dimensional screen with little boxes,” he said.
But in November, when the administration offered the faculty the option of the hybrid model, Miller wanted to give seniors one last chance to take the class and decided to put in the work to offer the class in this format.
“The pandemic’s going longer than we all thought, you know, it's not a one- or two-semester problem,” he explained. “For all we know, it could be a five- or six-semester problem or a challenge to pedagogy and everything.”
With a dictated maximum class size of 42 people, the limits to in-person learning quickly became clear — Miller’s class usually enrolls 150 students. Rather than meeting, as per usual, in one of the mid-sized lecture halls on campus, Miller’s class meets in McCosh 50, which normally accommodates 445 students.
Although Miller was originally going to teach the class in-person, personal circumstances kept him in Florida during the semester, adding another wrinkle to his efforts.
Teaching remotely poses additional challenges to Miller because of his enthusiastic, interactive teaching style and his pedagogy of mixing theory with practice.
“As I walk around the classroom, I call on students whether they've raised their hand or not … to engage in a conversation and help practice thinking on our feet and practice ethical discourse,” Miller explained.
Miller has run into complications with translating his participation-heavy class to a hybrid format. During the first class, Miller worried that students in McCosh 50 were left out because these students could not participate in discussions conducted on Zoom.
To solve this issue, Miller and his preceptor suggested that every student, even those present in the classroom, log in to Zoom. Since about half of the class does not meet in person, this practice allows for each student to participate equally. So what’s the point, one may ask?
Amy Abdalla ’21, at least, has an answer. Although some students have stopped coming to McCosh 50 simply to log in to Zoom, Abdalla said she continued to go. “Little peaks of community ... can still happen,” she said.
Such “moments of community” occur in even the most mundane of circumstances. Abdalla remembers that the students in McCosh 50 collaborated to help the preceptor figure out an issue with Zoom during the third class this semester.
This technical issue was one of many. Miller specifically cited the Office of Information Technology, the McGraw Center, and the administration for their help in setting up the class.
But Abdalla still thinks more could be done. “I think that there has not been enough support on the technical side from the University for the hybrid model to run as efficiently as it could,” she said. She felt time was lost getting all the people involved in the class in disparate locations on the same page.
Miller acknowledged these difficulties. “We've had to, frankly, learn on the fly,” he said, speaking of his lead preceptor and himself.
It’s far from perfect, but students agree that this special class is worth the extra effort.
Miller schedules one-on-one meetings with each student every semester to ensure that he gets to know everyone well, this semester being no exception. He also keeps in steady touch with students from every year since he has been teaching.
Having taken the class in her junior year, Tiffany Chen ’20 expressed that it was unlike any other in her course of study.
"I think that a lot of classes at Princeton are not very practical ... but Business Ethics was one of the most applicable classes, and I could see very clearly how it would affect my decision-making when I went out to work in the corporate world,” said Chen.
Alumna of the class Devon Naftzger ’16 said that the class instilled in her the idea that everyone must bring their whole self — including morality and ethics — to work every day.
“When I got to Morgan Stanley, Dr. Miller's class really helped empower me to speak up,” Naftzger said. “It gave me the courage that I think I needed going into an investment banking career where I was the lowest rung on the totem pole,” she said.
This year presents difficulties for students and professors alike, but Miller and his class rose to the challenge.
“Gee, if we're part of the Keller Center and we're all about innovation, I might as well innovate," said Miller.