Tuesday, September 10, 2013


Smartphones, YouTube, and Academic Freedom

Remember when academic freedom was mostly about faculty and administration?  When the goal was to convince pinheaded administrators to leave faculty alone to pursue truth as they saw fit?

The world has changed.  

In olden times -- I’m thinking basically pre-2008 or so -- it was relatively difficult for a professor to get in trouble in the press for what she said or did in class.  It could happen, but most of the time, it took real effort.  Quotes often came down to one person’s word against another; in the rare cases of tape recordings, there still wasn’t an easy mechanism to disseminate anything.  Most kerfuffles could be kept on campus.  In that setting, if you had a reasonably enlightened administration -- it happens -- you could just teach and not worry about that.

But now, students have phones with video capability, and YouTube and similar sites offer easy distribution.  It’s no great challenge for a student to record a class clandestinely and then put it out there for the world to see.  Once it’s out there, the game has changed.

The Michigan State case from earlier this week was a spectacular example of the dangers of in-class video, but it could happen anywhere.  

Video offers the seductive appearance of objectivity, even though it can wreak havoc with context.  For example, in my political theory classes, I routinely voiced political positions I didn’t personally believe in order to help them become more concrete for the students.  (Think of it as halfway between “devil’s advocate” and “visual aid.”)  Depending on what we read that week, I’ve portrayed conservatives, liberals, anarchists, fascists, socialists, monarchists, and all sorts of hybrids.  I saw that as part and parcel of my job, and I still believe it was.  But it would have been easy for some kid to record, say, five minutes of the fascism rant and post it.  It wouldn’t have been “faked,” exactly, but it would have been materially misleading and, in some settings, devastating.

Folks who went to grad school in the 90’s will remember Foucault’s reading of the panopticon..  The panopticon was a surveillance tower in the center of a circular prison that had one-way windows.  The idea was that a guard in the tower could see into the cells, but the prisoners in the cells didn’t know when the guard was looking at them.  As Foucault told the tale, if you don’t know when you’re being watched, you start watching yourself.

Smartphones represent an unanticipated inversion of the panopticon.  In the classic panopticon, the authority figure watched his charges.  Now, the charges watch the authority figure.  Surveillance happens from below, and viral videos can spread at a speed that the old purveyors of samizdat could only envy.  As Neil Postman put it, big brother is you, watching.

But the effects on campus discourse could be similar.  Professors build rapport with classes, based on familiarity, and the professor can operate within that rapport.  Picking out five random minutes and posting them to the world exposes statements out of context to people who didn’t get the rapport.  Was Professor Reed illustrating a concept, or is he actually a fascist?  From a five minute video, who knows?

Yes, it’s incumbent upon administrations to defend academic freedom against abuses, whether from within or from without.  And yes, we can (and do) have a policy against recording of a class without the instructor’s permission.  But the latter is hard to enforce; a video could already be viral before anyone on campus even knows it exists.  With cameras finding their way into laptops, tablets, phones, watches, and glasses, the idea of ferreting them out in advance is becoming untenable.  

I’m interested in hearing from current faculty about how they’ve handled students recording classes without permission.  Is it part of the collective faculty consciousness yet, or is it still mostly below the radar?  Have you personally made adjustments to your teaching in light of smartphones?  Or is this just destined to be the academic equivalent of the occasional random lightning strike?

Students have been pretty good about asking permission to record, this being a strategy in use from the days of battery-powered portable tape recorders.

Economics makes a lot of use of figures and equations, and I invite students to take pictures of those at the end of class -- often I make the effort to leave the particularly complex diagrams alone for the duration.

Now as far as Professor Penn, there have to be less provocative or insulting ways to express one's disagreement with Republican policies, and I suspect similar teaching strategies are available to a political scientist channeling a fascist.
I record myself so the students can watch it again later.Since I am the one who presses record, I feel like I am in control of when the camera goes on or off and since they know they will have access to the recording, they don't record me! Also, I can assess the recording before uploading and edit out any thing that might be dodgy!
I had one student videotape an exchange I had last year with another student who was being increasingly threatening and disruptive in class. The video was very handy for demonstrating the sort of behavior we were talking about to a dean that didn't believe "anyone would really do that".
I teach small classes (25 and under), and I have a technology policy that devices should be turned off (or set to vibrate, should there be some sort of situation that the student must be available for) and put away at the start of class, and my students follow it.

But also: I think that one of the primary requirements of an effective learning environment is trust and respect between professors and students. I teach a LOT of controversial material, and the reality is that students even without the aid of video could probably have lodged complaints against me based just on the material in the syllabus. They haven't - not even when I was teaching as a grad student or when I was not protected by tenure. Because I respect them and I gain their trust, and ultimately, I earn their respect and their trust. I realize all of this is touchy-feely, but even still I think that when professors start determining the content of their courses or their teaching methods based on a fear of being "caught in the act" then it basically goes against the principles that should guide creating an enriching classroom environment.

In my state it is illegal to make such a recording without the permission of everyone being recorded. Makes sense, because it is more likely that a student would be embarassed for some statement or question than the prof. There is an expectation of privacy in a classroom.

That said, I have allowed it for specific purposes (like a demonstration) but I am always disappointed when I didn't get a copy like I asked.

BTW it isn't just phones. Ever see one of the pens that records while you take notes with it? Really cool, and also illegal here, but less likely to be noticed.
Two thoughts about the Michigan State situation that are unrelated to your question:

I would be surprised if that person wasn't recording a video because of the reputation of that particular prof. Even positive anonymous reviews about how he taught creative writing said he was a jerk.

As Dr. Crazy implied, it is a lot easier to notice someone holding up a phone in a class of 20 to 30 than in a class of 200 to 300.
In my instance, the student was video taping another student's speech so he could "show her how bad she was doing." I don't tolerate that one bit--he wasn't a speech expert, that's my job, he certainly didn't have A's in my class and the speaker he was taping had improved vastly, at her own pace and level since the beginning of the semester. The class actually forced him to delete it--they self monitored before I even heard about it--but he tried again next class and I said I'd throw him out and he'd never be asked back. Now every semester I give a spiel about how any video/audio recording must be pre-approved by me, or there will be immediate removal from the class. I don't know if I've ever been recorded myself.
I don't teach a class where there might be controversial political topics, but if I did, I suppose I would have various hats or other props I could wear or use associated with a person/type, so even if taped, it would definitely appear that I was "in character". Other than that I don't know what could be done.

I give a talk at the beginning of each developmental English class I teach about public places and private places and taking someone's picture and publishing it without their permission in a place which is considered private, such as a college classroom.

Then I spice it up with what if some stalker is looking for a particular person and finds the video of him/her in a class put on Youtube or elsewhere. I'm sure no one wants that to happen, so let's have any videotaping posed and rehearsed and people in it wanting to be in it.

So far that has been effective, but I am aware every minute in my classes that I may be taped, so I prepare myself to be on camera and watch what I say. As I said, my subject doesn't have opportunity for many controversial discussions.

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