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Establishing Ethical Boundaries: Experience of an Emerging Evaluator by Christina Peterson

My name is Christina Peterson. Shortly after starting my first semester as a PhD student at the University of Tennessee, I had an opportunity to participate in an evaluation project as a data collector. It was just the type of experience I felt I needed to establish myself as an emerging evaluator in my community. Instead, it ended up being a lesson on establishing my ethical boundaries. Fortunately, the faculty in my department had provided the Rad Resources I needed to navigate this situation early in my PhD career.

Rad Resources:

Researcher Journal. Reflexivity is a critical evaluator competency. During my first semester, we were required to start a reflexivity journal to explore our growth as evaluators. The first exercise was to write about our personal ethics in conducting evaluation. I found clarity in the key words from this statement: self-determination, transparency, and autonomy. I described how it was important to me that people were respected and had a voice in the evaluation protocol. Because of the journal, I was also able to reflect back on the two major themes that emerged from my entries about this situation: integrity and social justice.

AEA Guiding Principles. The concerns I saw emerging in my journal are addressed explicitly in the Guiding Principles of the American Evaluation Association. Two principles provided the direction I needed to make a decision about moving forward with the data collection: integrity/honesty and respect for people. One of my concerns about the project was that the poorly constructed survey items would provide misleading information about the population. Furthermore, since there was no clear purpose for the data collection and the survey protocol did not include informed consent, I was not confident that this work would maximize benefit and reduce unnecessary harm to the community.

Mentorship. Although I felt confident that I needed to let go of this opportunity, there was a lingering feeling of self-doubt. Who was I to question the survey protocol of a professor? What did I know about conducting field research? The AEA Guiding Principles provided direction, but is that how evaluation really works in practice? For the answer, I turned to a faculty member who I knew had talked openly in class about making similar ethical choices as a novice researcher. She reassured me that this protocol was not business as usual in field research and we discussed the courses of action I could consider.

Later that evening, I notified the lead researcher that I could not continue my participation in the data collection and, in line with the AEA Guiding Principles and my personal ethics, I was transparent about my concerns. These Rad Resources were essential to my development as an ethical evaluator.

reflective pool of water in brick pavers

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4 thoughts on “Establishing Ethical Boundaries: Experience of an Emerging Evaluator by Christina Peterson”

  1. Hi Christina,
    I am currently taking a course on program inquiry and evaluation. I came upon your blog post while specifically searching “ethical” into the search bar as I keep coming up with questions throughout this course on ethical evaluations.
    I really enjoyed your post because it reminded me how important constant reflection is. I do it a lot as a teacher, but I liked the idea of your journal, always having something to come back to and check in with. It’s easier to write things off without having something to remind you that this isn’t the first time or something similar has happened before because for me at least, writing things down helps me process and remember them. Something clicked when you mentioned the role of mentorship in your reflection process. That’s something I am missing right now, but have had the privilege of having before. I appreciate your honesty of your feelings of self-doubt. It’s hard when you are in an inferior position and questioning the doings of someone above you. I can relate to that a lot as a new teacher.
    Although your situation was specific to your role as a data collector in an evaluation project, I feel that those Rad Resources are helpful in many ethical dilemmas. I found it impressive that you were able to end your participation in the project by being transparent about your concerns. That must have been a very intimidating position to be in, but I guess that’s the point of ethics, the right thing is not the easiest solution. Hopefully your perspective shared some insight to the lead researcher and some changes were made. I wonder if there is often this gap in perspective between the higher up lead researcher and those on the ground doing the data collecting because they are more removed and therefore less connected?
    Thank you,

  2. Pingback: Theory & Practice Week: Getting to Know You: The Necessity of Evaluator Reflection by Cherie Avent · AEA365

  3. Hello Christina. Your observations of the usability of and lack of purpose for the evaluation, along with your clarity and commitment to the ethics and integrity of the evaluation, guided you to a decision you were comfortable with. In addition I think you articulated your position clearly to your mentors and project leader. This is a teachable moment for evaluators reminding us to be mindful of the guiding principles for good evaluation.

    I think the one point that really stands out for me in your article is you recognized there was no clear purpose for the evaluation. So, why is it being done – for optics, symbolic? If there is no clear reason or purpose for the evaluation, how can the data collected be of value? With no clear purpose, what/who determines how the data is used? What prevents misuse? Kudos Christina!


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