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.

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.

This sounds remarkably naive. Fox (or any other station with an agenda) will simply pull the 'incriminating' five minutes from your recording and use that, out of context, to 'prove' their point.

Sure, you'll have the proof that it was pulled out of context, but that won't matter. The story will be out there, and will be believed. Truth never catches up to juicy lies.
If you are not a public figure, and most random professors are not, you can sue their pants off for defamation ... particularly if they didn't follow normal journalistic ethics and ask you for comment on it before it aired.
The full context wouldn't have helped in this case. The guest lecturer was an SEIU organizer characterizing Republican electoral victories in Wisconsin as the result of racism in the GOP (including, presumably, the rank and file).

But I think Dean Dad is right, in general--this kind of thing is only going to happen more. Faculty & universities need to be a bit more sophisticated about the whole thing. But it's not always about context. For example, back during the federal government shutdown, a poli sci professor at another UW campus got into trouble for telling students in an email that the Republicans were responsible for turning off access to some databases the class needed to complete an assignment. I appreciate the professor's frustration, but it would have been better to leave the blaming out of the email.
right-wing professors don't need to be worried about being quoted out of context, as there are no right-wing professors. or almost none.

thanks to richard for the additional details on the case. this apparently wasn't a "devil's advocate" situation. it's unclear to me why any professor in a public institution should have an expectation of privacy in the classroom.
No right-wing professors? I wonder where you work/teach. Just look at your business school. Everywhere I have worked, there have been plenty of right-wing professors, who also promote their "agendas." I think it's good for students to be exposed to all kinds of ideas and philosophies, but I just don't see a lot of questioning going on at all. Schools and departments create worldviews, and hiring companies expect that graduates of those programs will share that worldview.

Doesn't address the issue of taping, which, FWIW, scares me quite a lot, as I am a devil's advocate kind of instructor.
No right-wing professors? Must not be in my department (or, more likely, you have a "No True Scotsman" argument going through your head).

Though the ones around here prefer the term, "libertarian" because it isn't cool to be Republican because Fox News is just mind-numbingly stupid. It's difficult to be labeled as an intellectual conservative these days because the Republican party has made that phrase into an oxymoron. So, they're "libertarian" and "independent". 10 years ago, many they self-labeled as "McCain-type conservatives" but they felt abandoned by the choice of Sarah Palin.
This whole matter of classroom recording and taping brings up another issue—who owns the intellectual property rights on the recording?

Back when I was working at Large Telecommunications Company, I taught several in-house courses on technical subjects for the employees. Towards the end of my career there, my classes were all video-taped. I suspected that the purpose of this taping was to replace me by a video tape player and a television set, which is certainly what eventually happened. The company was certainly within their rights in doing so, since I was an employee and my classes were “works for hire”, and the company owned the intellectual property rights on the recordings, not me.

But in an academic setting, things may be different. If a professor’s class is video-recorded, who owns the rights on the recordings? Does the professor own the recordings of his lectures, and can they take them to another school or even sell them on the open market? But since the professor is an employee of the college or university, would the recordings be treated as a “work-for-hire” and be owned by the employer? This is such a murky issue that a savvy professor would be wise have to have all of this cleared ahead of time and put into writing before they allow the recording to go ahead. At Proprietary Art School where I teach, there is a written statement in our contracts that individual classroom teachers own the intellectual property rights on the classroom materials that they create, but that the school owns the syllabi.

This is a hot issue in the online education world. If you create an online course, who owns it? You or your employer? Can your college or university lay you off and have a poorly-paid part-timer use the course materials that you created? Could you take your online course to another university? Again, before you agree to create an online course, you would be wise to negotiate the intellectual property rules and have all of this put into writing.

If someone surreptitiously records my classroom lecture and posts it on YouTube, could they be infringing on my copyright? After all, they are making available for free something for which students have to pay tuition to see. They could also be infringing on my right of publicity, namely they are using my image and words without my permission. But I suppose that courts and lawyers might conclude that these things are OK, provided that they were not done for any sort of commercial gain. YouTube has run into all sorts of legal hassles over people who post clips from movies, music videos, or TV shows.

In today’s environment, almost everyone has a video camera in their smartphone, and one should assume that just about everything you do or say could potentially be recorded. And if what you did is in any way embarrassing or controversial, it is sure to appear on YouTube and perhaps go viral.

Baloney, Edmund Dantes. Don't believe the talking points.
Edmund Dantes, I think that whether the professor has an expectation of privacy in the classroom or not is an open question. However, the students in the classroom DO have such an expectation enshrined in FERPA laws. Consider this: If I were doing research on classroom teaching techniques, wanted to video the class, and could not guarantee the anonymity of the students in my class, my IRB provides two choices. I can either get signed releases from each and every student in the class, or I can forget doing the video.

The student who did the video (head of the local College Republicans, if I'm not mistaken), may or may not have violated the professor's right to privacy, but he definitely ran the risk of violating the students' FERPA rights. What if one of the other students, not knowing the class was being videoed, stood up and agreed with the speaker about racism being endemic to the GOP? They are acting properly as a student participating in a classroom discussion, so their remarks are covered by FERPA. Did the student with the camera even consider the possibility? And what would have happened to the student who agreed? The UWW campus has seen a number of racist attacks on the person and property of African-American students over the last couple of years, so this is not a fanciful concern.

This is what strikes me as most irresponsible about what the student did, and he should face up to the fact that he endangered the other students.
Mr. Dantes,

I have only read the OP and the comments, but based on what's been said so far, it could still be a devi's advocate situation if, for example, the instructor was otherwise going to present the pro-Republican argument, either in the same lecture, in another lecture, or with another guest speaker.

I'm withholding judgment, b/c I have encountered/witnessed/been a participant in(to my shame) biased instruction. So it's not impossible. I'd just need to know more.

Given that all Republican election victories since Nixon implemented the Southern Strategy are (and have been admitted to be*) based at least partially on racism, the statement is trivially true. So . . . then what? We aren't allowed to say pretty much anything ever now?

I've had the pleasure of conversing with any number of right-wing professors. I've even worked with a couple during my grad student days. Racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia are hardly banished from academia.

*cf: Atwater, Lee

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