Thursday, May 21, 2015


The Other Lesson of Kennesaw

The Kennesaw State “advisor” video debacle is potentially far more radical than most people seem to assume.  For those who haven’t seen it, it’s a hidden camera (presumably cell phone) video of a white female advisor being aggressively dismissive of a young black male student’s request for help.  She seems to go out of her way to escalate an apparent misunderstanding into something much more sinister.  After the video went public, the advisor was placed on leave.

The video and its fallout have mostly been framed as being about racial and gender politics, and there’s good reason for that.  It’s hard not to wince when you watch it.  But it’s also about a shift of control.

I don’t know either of the parties to the video, so this isn’t really about them.  But as a manager, I saw the difference between rule-bound discipline and unbound discipline.  

Bureaucratic systems usually have strict rules about “progressive discipline,” what can be used as evidence, and what counts as an infraction.  That’s especially true in settings with tenure, collective bargaining, and/or civil service rules.  Managers’ hands are significantly tied. In a case like this one, absent the video, I could imagine a student complaint easily being minimized.  You’d have a literal he-said, she-said, with the presumption of truth going to the employee.  She could easily couch the incident in terms that would make discipline impossible.  (“He was not authorized to be there, and he repeatedly refused direct requests to leave.  I felt unsafe, so I called Security, as outlined in the procedure manual.”)  In many cases, managers who attempt to discipline for incidents like that find that not only can’t they win, but they themselves get run through the wringer for trying.

As a result, in many systems, managers necessarily become judicious in choosing battles.  To the untrained eye, that can look like doing nothing.

But social media consumers have no such rules.  They can look at a single video and immediately break out the pitchforks.  When political pressure from the outside finally enables internal managers to do what they wanted to do in the first place, it’s widely and incorrectly understood as “caving.”  

Something similar holds for classroom observations.  In the public systems that I’ve seen, the rules around classroom observations are thick and heavy.  Evaluation can only be done in very narrow ways, using specifically prescribed tools, by the right people, and with advance warning.  And anything negative can be contested without actually being disproved.

Those rules, though, are based on the assumption that the professor controls which sets of eyes are in the class.  In the age of cellphone videos, that assumption is no longer valid.  In the new world, you may be able to restrict what the dean can put on the form, but you can’t effectively control who sees what goes on in the classroom.  Replace an experienced professional observer who works in a system of rules with a viral online audience lacking both experience and context, and, well, anything goes.  

The contradictions of responsibility without authority under which most academic administrators work leave plenty of room for egregious employee behavior.  Most don’t take advantage of it, and many would be horrified at what a few do.  But those few can do a lot, and for a long time, as long as they substantially control the rules of engagement.  With viral videos, though, the game is changed fundamentally.  If a dean does an unauthorized recording of a class, the dean becomes the problem.  If a student does it and posts it to social media before anyone’s the wiser, the exclusionary rule does not apply.  At that point, the damage has been done.

In political science, “socializing the conflict” is the term of art for redrawing the boundaries of a conflict to bring more people in.  It’s a way of shifting the balance of power.  Social media can socialize conflicts with unprecedented speed and sweep.  When new people enter a conflict, the original parties to it often lose control of it.  That can be very good, as when exposure brings to light abuses of power previously hidden.  Or it can be deeply disturbing, as when context is lost and the original parties become mere symbols of much larger issues.

I don’t think going back to the old ways is either desirable or possible.  Big Brother may be crowdsourced now, but that just makes him that much harder to fight.  A difficult employee may be able to manipulate enough legalisms to hamstring a supervisor, as long as the employee and the supervisor are the only parties to the conflict.  But put that difficult employee’s worst moment on YouTube, and the legalisms don’t matter anymore.

The new reality of the threat of public exposure may motivate institutions to allow managers to address problem employees with greater dispatch before the problems go viral.  After all, “looking the other way” is only an option when you control who’s looking.  If you don’t have exposure control, you need damage control.  If you don’t have either, you’ll spin entirely out of control, and in less time than it would have taken to jump through the first bureaucratic hoop.  The Kennesaw advisor wasn’t the first to act that way, but she was the first to be exposed.  The game has changed.  The rules will change, too.

Growing up, my Mother used to say "Tone of VOICE!" as en entire critique of my behavior. I didn't always know what she meant by it (I did know I needed to shape up fast when she said it, precisely because of HER tone of voice).

If you looked at a transcript of this conversation you might come to a very different conclusion than you come to with the video. That, itself, is revealing I think. Videos like this give us more information on which to judge other people's experiences.
Which seems good. And yet.
I know you should never read the comments but... the YouTube comments are sexist and directly so and offensive to women. The Inside Higher Education comments are racist and indirectly so and not so offensive that it seems crazy to reply to them. But one one level the comments in both places are exactly the same. Socializing the conflict indeed. People are clearly bringing to this issue their prior views of power. It's almost exactly like the videos of police confrontations. And yet, despite the fact I've seen mind boggling abuses of power in some of those, people can defend anything. So I'm not sure the videos really change the type of discourse you get, they just make it more likely for things to go viral, given how visual we are.
You might find Jon Ronson's book So You've Been Publicly Shamed an interesting (if depressing) read.

Teachers in England are asking for video cameras in the classroom*, to counter accusations levelled by students backed up by video clips (edited to remove context). Context is important, and singularly lacking in most viral videos.

As an example, consider the case of George Robitaille, a TTC ticket collector who was photographed sleeping on the job. Social media condemned him for that, with lots of self-righteous smugness. No one bothered to tap on the glass and see if he was OK. (Turns out he has a medical condition and died not too much later.

As TTC union prez Kinnear said when the shit storm hit the fan last January, "It is very discouraging that the picture taker and, apparently, other customers, made no attempt to see if there was anything wrong with this TTC employee. A simple knock on the glass might have determined if the collector was, in fact, asleep or whether he was unconscious as a result of some medical problem. The reports that passengers were laughing at him as they passed by the booth makes this even more disturbing."


(Parenthetically, people were passing without paying fares, which may have had something to do with the lack of taps on the glass. A free ride and 'gotcha' seemingly counted more than checking if someone was OK.)

And this is why I'd be leery of using a random video as evidence: it lacks context. Maybe the professor 'blowing off' a student is doing just that. Maybe they are tired of getting the same questions, several times a day. (I've had students who do just that, and when their questions aren't answered they file a complaint. It's their tactic for getting out of work, and the only defense is to log every conversation so when the dean starts an inquiry the professor can show that the student has been harassing the professor.) Maybe their spouse has gone into labour and they want to get to the hospital, and the student wants their questions answered first**.

Context is king. And that's one reason for all the rules: to make certain that everyone knows the context.

*Under impartial control, not the control of the head teacher, which says a lot about teacher/admin relations there.

**I didn't believe this either, then I met the student. "Self-centred" is too mild a term for them.
You will have a hard time getting and keeping good employees if you always assume that a selected video clip like that one indicates a pattern of behavior rather than a response to repeated misbehavior that even extensive training cannot always eliminate. As a man, you might not be aware of how often women on a campus are disrespected by male students when they do the same things that men do in a classroom or an office.

You seem to be drawing conclusions from the reporting that might not be supported by the facts concerning the entire history of (if the e-mail shown in the story applies to the event shown in the video) the interaction of a person apparently carrying out college policy and a student repeatedly seeking special treatment outside of that policy and refusing to follow standard protocol in that office.

The student only has to appear rational for the short span of the video to pull this off.

I would hope that your college would also have suspended the person with pay while a full and proper investigation is carried out, rather than react based on the publicity and the race and gender of the persons involved.

BTW, in my state the video itself might have been illegal.
It appears that you should assume that anywhere you go in public, you are probably being recorded on video, either by a camera operated by a business or the government, or by a smart phone video camera being operated by an interested passerby.

There are pluses and minuses in this. First, there is a definite loss of privacy if you are aware that there are video cameras everywhere that are recording just about everything you do. But you really have no expectation of privacy if you are in a public place, but video cameras are intruding into spaces which many people regard as private. But video cameras have been useful in solving crimes, as well as in exposing misdeeds by police officers. Without video evidence, the true facts of what actually happened in a nasty incident may never emerge, and might simply devolve into a “he said/she said” controversy. But very often short video clips (perhaps even selectively edited) may not tell the full story of what actually happened, or may give a distorted view of the incident.

I think that more and more businesses, as well as educational institutions, may introduce video cameras, simply in order to cover their butts in case there is a controversy or a nasty incident. If an offended customer or student sues or files a complaint, the institution can simply wave the video, saying “See, this is what *really* happened”. Perhaps a savvy professor should record on video every one of their lectures, just in case there is some controversy about what was said in class or in case some student complains. But what are the regulations about recording the students who are in the class? Does this require their consent?

Even in private, video cameras may become more ubiquitous. I have heard that some men are actually considering video recording of their sexual encounters, not for kinky purposes, but simply to cover their backsides just in case there is a question about consent that arises at a later time. In the future, just about every human interaction will have to be recorded, just in case there is a question that arises later about what really happened.

Perhaps a savvy professor should record on video every one of their lectures, just in case there is some controversy about what was said in class or in case some student complains. But what are the regulations about recording the students who are in the class? Does this require their consent?

Up here, professors are allowed to set their own policy regarding students recording them — but they aren't allowed to do anything to actually enforce it, so in practice students are allowed to record professors.

However, professors need to have prior permission to record students, and even one student in the room saying "don't tape me" is enough to make recording that class/interaction a disciplinary offence.

This asymmetry is an example of the administrative decisions that are making this place much higher stress than it was before we got a new admin team.
Anonymous@10:29AM -

That is surprising, but then state laws and college policies vary widely across these United States. Our situation is that students cannot record the class (even with those magic pens that sync to a special notebook) unless they have the permission of every student in that class.
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