A moral dilemma for ELT materials writers

For reasons that will become clear very soon, I’ve changed all the factual details in this post.

A few days ago I received an e-mail with a rather disturbing subject line: “Please don’t use the circumstances of my father’s death in your exercises”. The sender explained that he felt it was “cruel and unkind for his family and particularly his children”.

Incidentally, the said exercise was not online on any of my sites (and had never been), but this is not the point, as I was responsible for creating that exercise (a cloze test, to be precise). Years ago I sent it to a mailing list for English learners and somebody decided to post it on a website belonging to a school in one of the former Soviet republics. The page (and the whole site) had no contact information except for my name so it was reasonable on his part to assume that I had put it online – but I hadn’t. Actually, I think it was copyright violation on the school’s part – not that it matters, really.

I apologised to the sender and promised to change the names in the exercise – but that’s when I realised that I didn’t actually have it online. I explained to him that I have nothing to do with the site that published my exercise and I can’t even contact them. Unfortunately, he said I was missing the point and I shouldn’t have created the exercise in the first place and called my choice of text “rather insensitive” and “somewhat morbid”. Let me make it clear that the article (taken from a local newspaper in his country) was not about the sender’s father; it dealt with the person who was found responsible for his suicide in a hospital. The 500-word article mentioned his father’s name once and that he was a patient at that hospital – in half a sentence. No details about the suicide or the circumstances were mentioned. The tone of the article was completely non-sensationalist in style; it gave a matter-of-fact overview of the events and concentrated on the moral and legal consequences. The sender came across the page when searching for his father’s name plus the name of his town (he shares a name with an actor so without the name of the town this 17-year-old story never comes up).

Still, I felt ashamed, as it was never my intention to hurt anybody’s feelings, especially in connection with such a tragic event. And my dilemmas start here…

In the future, if I change the names in articles like this, how do I make sure that those made-up names don’t belong to living people, who might equally (or even more!) be offended? Do I make up totally nonsense names? That would make the text look ridiculous. Do I change the names to AA and BB? That would ruin the language. Do I replace the names with references (“the manager”, “the victim”)? That would change the style and language of the original article and would make it sound unnatural.

And where do we draw the line when choosing potentially sensitive texts to work with? Of course, this can only be decided on a case by case basis – everything depends on your perceived audience and your teaching goals. But when creating exercises for online publication, where theoretically the whole world is your audience, should we completely refrain from using anything that might be controversial in this respect?

Frankly, before this incident, I only had my students in mind when deciding whether a text was appropriate or not. Now it seems that maybe we should take another factor into consideration. Or should we? This person was obviously looking for sites dealing with his father’s suicide 17 years ago. Why now – I don’t know and it’s probably none of my business.

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One thought on “A moral dilemma for ELT materials writers

  1. Oh how disturbing Elek.
    Names can be fraught with difficulties for ELT writers in other ways as well. Just popping over to an internet site on French/German/Thai etc names and then picking one at random can sometimes result in some strange choices. First name choices tend to signal a date range. For example, Ethel or Agnes in British English could signal it’s owner is elderly.

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