Sunday, March 30, 2014


The Desks Have Ears

Last week the Chronicle featured a story about an uproar at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater about a video recording that a student had made surreptitiously of a guest lecturer.  The video apparently showed the lecturer making some inflammatory statements about Republicans; it was picked up by Fox News, and the rest is predictable.

It reminded me of some discussions I’ve had over the last couple of years on campus about student recordings.  It’s a much murkier issue than it used to be.

When I was starting out in the classroom, a clandestine video recording would have been a challenge.  Cameras were big and expensive, and the quality of video and sound was often quite poor.  And distribution was still pretty much at a primitive stage.  Unless you somehow got your cassette into the hands of an interested news producer, which would have taken some connections and some doing, it probably wouldn’t get very far.

Now, of course, many students carry smartphones or other devices that make high-quality recording both simple and subtle.  YouTube and similar platforms make instant, wide distribution easy.  There’s still the issue of whether people will find the piece and care about it, but the first-order issues of production and distribution are substantially solved.  And if you have a sensational enough hook, the rest will take care of itself.

I’m glad I came up when I did.  Teaching in my field -- political science -- inevitably means touching on some controversial issues.  That’s doubly true in teaching political philosophy.  When introducing a new thinker or school of thought, for example, it’s commonplace to adopt a “devil’s advocate” position and try to present that school of thought in the most sympathetic way possible.  The idea is to push students to grapple with the actual content of the ideas, rather than just immediately assigning them to “good” and “bad” and being done with it.  I sometimes told students that they didn’t really understand a school of thought until they understood why a smart, well-meaning person would be willing to take a bullet for it.  Because in politics, they have.

When the devil’s advocate method works, it becomes clear that worldviews other than one’s own often have some sort of internal coherence, and that positions taken on certain questions have consequences for other things.  Of course, it doesn’t always work; frequently, students would recoil from foreign ideas, sputtering until they hit cliches that they would grab with palpable relief.  The idea that we might be able to learn something from, say, Marx or Nietzsche, was just too threatening for some students to entertain.

The devil’s advocate method -- and any method that relies on extended, non-hostile examination of threatening ideas -- requires the trust that you won’t be taken out of context.  It’s the same willing suspension of disbelief that allows actors to play parts.  If an actor playing a character murders another character onstage, we don’t call the police; we understand that it’s part of a performance.  But as a culture, we don’t yet understand the classroom that way.  We still think of professors, for the most part, as either telling the truth or pushing their own personal agendas.  (Whether that distinction always makes sense is another question.)  We don’t give professors the latitude we give actors.  I shudder to think what could have happened if some student had recorded and distributed five well-chosen minutes of a presentation on communism or fascism. Out of context, it could have looked awful.  Out of context, it would have been.  

As a professor, I always took care to explain to students the ground rules of what I was doing.  Grappling with ideas requires being able to try them on for size before rejecting them.  Some will surprise you.  But a five-minute video wouldn’t include any of that.  It would just show a seemingly monstrous professor ranting.

In an earlier age, the answer would have been to ban unauthorized recordings.  We do that on my own campus, as I would bet that many do.  But I suspect there’s an expiration date on that policy, as recording gets progressively easier to do and harder to detect.  In the meantime, recording is becoming normal in the contexts of disability accommodations and online instruction.  Students with certain kinds of disabilities often receive permission to record classes as part of their accommodation plans, though those plans also include strict prohibitions on unauthorized distributions of those recordings.  And everything that happens in an online class is de facto recorded, just in the course of things.  That’s inherent in the structure of an asynchronous class. It’s a feature, not a bug. The folks who profess horror at classroom recordings tend not to mention online courses, though they’re increasingly relevant.

I’m thinking that the way to address out-of-context recordings is not to ban them -- it’s a bit late for that -- but to flood the zone with context.  

If the problem is that people don’t understand the concept of the devil’s advocate, then provide plenty of examples of it.  The five-minute excerpt of the fascism discussion would look a whole lot less threatening if it were surrounded by the hour-plus of context-setting, rebutting, discussing, and housekeeping.  Part of the power of the forbidden snippet is precisely that it’s forbidden, which suggests that there’s something to hide.  There isn’t.  Put it out there, and educate the part of the public that cares.  That’s supposed to be our mission anyway.

I understand the appeal of a return to the golden age, but it isn’t going to happen.  If the desks have ears, let’s make sure everyone else does, too.  Otherwise, we’re at the mercy of the one student with a chip on his shoulder and a phone in his hand.

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