Wednesday, September 23, 2015


You Make the Call: Social Media Edition

Let's say that you're in an administrative role at a public college.

And let's say that a student at your college tweets to his adoring followers, bragging about how he lied to his professor about observing a religious holiday when, in fact, he was cutting class.  He even goes so far as to include screen shots of text exchanges, including the professor's name.  Someone forwards it to you, asking whether you want to contact the professor.

What do you do?

a. roll your eyes at the folly of youth, enjoy a good chuckle, and trust karma to do its work
b. tweet back to the student something like "FYI, Twitter is public.  Sincerely, Dr. so-and-so"
c. forward a link to the student's professor
d. all of the above

I go with A.  B seems needlessly provocative, and could easily degenerate into the sort of bitter Twitter battle best fought by noodle-eating poodles.  (I don't often get to drop Fox in Socks references.)  C casts the administration in the role of speech police, and while I'm no fan of idiotic braggadocio, I'm also no fan of speech police.  A certain amount of idiotic braggadocio is the price of freedom.  That explains a lot about our politics.

Students have always bragged to each other about things authorities wouldn't consider brag-worthy.  The difference is that now those brags can reach much wider audiences, and in very different contexts.   Some students either haven't figured that out, or somehow assume that it doesn't apply to them.  

There's a case to be made for B.  If I knew the student personally, I'd probably do that.  But just as the initial tweet was public, so would be the public shaming.  At least in the case of something relatively victimless, I'd prefer not to risk the public shaming escalating out of context.  

Wise and worldly readers, you make the call.  What would you do?

If the professor is mentioned by name, then it is polite to call the professor's attention to it. Otherwise the professor is being publicly embarrassed without a chance to reply.
I would alert the professor. The professor can make the tough call about free speech, etc. Only the professor had all the information about what they were doing in class that day, whether this is part of a larger pattern, whether the absence imposed hardship on classmates, etc. The professor can choose to act on it or not, but they should at least be informed.
Does the college have a student honor code? If it does, lying to professors is often classified as a serious violation - and faculty and staff (and deans!) who are aware of an honor code violation and don't report it would also be in violation of the honor code at many schools.
I'd go with C, but I'd also discuss responses with the professor. You want them to make a supportable decision, backed by the regulations of your school, and they deserve your support, so you should start on the same page.

I might go as far as to check with all the student's professors, and ask if this has happened before. If you discover that the student is selectively Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian… then you have a larger issue to deal with.

And someone should have a chat with the young lunk. They need to learn that doing that when employed would probably result in losing their job. An unpleasant conversation now could be a useful part of their education if they learn to be more honest (or more circumspect).
Option A. It's the professor's job to handle issues in their own classroom.
In your position, who forwarded it to you might be relevant: college employee, student, random taxpayig citizen? I don't see this as embarrassing the prof. I see it as exploiting college policy and procedure. The significance of the latter would depend on what sort of makeup the student got. The issue I see is one that administration always emphasizes to us: are all similarly situated students being treated the same way? Here the answer would be no, if the student got an extra day to study for an exam after friends had seen that exam.

I assume your college has a policy requiring faculty to respect religious holidays. Ours does, requiring advanced notice and appropriate documentation, then mandates makeups and any other relevant accommodation. That makes this partly your responsibility. For major things, like a missed exam, especially a final exam, that is only covered by syllabus policy, faculty regularly have staff check with the doctor's office to see if the excuse is valid because those are so easily forged. Perhaps you should suggest to the prof that s/he ask for a rabbi's note?
I'll reiterate what CCPhysicist said: it depends upon what sort of makeup the student got.

From the description above, it sounds like just cutting class. My response is -- so what? As a faculty member of both a HS and a CC, one of the biggest differences to me is how attendance works. In HS there are "excused" and "unexcused" absences, but in my CC classes there are only absences. You get three to use in any combination of lecture and lab, and I'm not going to ask how you use them. If you decide that staying home to watch television sounds more appealing than attending my lecture, go for it (as long as you won't exceed three absences)...I'd rather not have to waste my time investigating an excuse. If you miss a quiz or exam, there's no make up...but I drop the lowest quiz and lowest exam, so you're really not at a disadvantage anyway.

The bottom line: Emergencies happen. Cutting happens (a lot). Why bother trying to differentiate the two?
E. Establish a twitter account called "NoodleEatingPoodle" that sends "This is your Periodic Reminder that Twitter is Public." tweets.
F. Sell him the rights to a lifesaving AIDS drug.

I'm coming back to elaborate on something I left hanging in a rapidly written comment.

I mentioned "student" because of the possibility that a student in that class (or perhaps a former fried of the student in question) is using you as the means of submitting an anonymous complaint to the prof, even if the message didn't say so.

I mentioned "employee" or "taxpayer" because of the possibility that the twit tweeted with a hashtag that brought it to the attention of your college's social media people. That raises the ante, if the intent was to signal that your new college (or that prof) has a low reputation for academic integrity or standards. That might mean your social media maven wants to do something.

I personally have an "emergencies" policy of replacing a missed or low exam, but that would not apply to an absence due to jury duty or a religious holiday. There I am required to give a makeup exam if I was given advanced notice of the conflict, which changes a "meh" situation into an "honor code" one.

And by the way, I now think the answer is "E": Contact the prof and find out what was done in class on Yom Kippur (I'm guessing), because you had an inquiry about excused absences. (Keep it true, but vague.) If it turns out the answer is "nothing special", then the answer is "A". It is pretty common for freshmen to think the fact that we take attendance means it counts for something like it does in HS. Here it is just fed into the maw of the great Beast of Financial Aid Accountability, and the people who give points for participation/attendance know that one day means nothing at the end of the semester.
At first, I thought A as well, but now I'm definitely C. If this incident is not a PR issue for the college, then admins have no business being involved (option A). I agree with your perception on that one.

Thing is, there is still another party involved - the professor - and by not making hir aware of the incident, you as admin are making a judgment call as to what speech the professor should be exposed to. That makes the admin a different kind of speech police, one that I thoroughly disagree with. If the professor is (justifiably) offended, then the professor should have the right to pursue action through some academic or student honour code avenue. That call is not for the admin to make; that rests solely with the professor. Depriving the professor of the awareness of this incident is wrong, so the admin must make the professor aware, and remind the professor of the college-sanctioned avenues to pursue action.
This might or might not have ever come up in a class I taught. My attendance policy had been (for maybe 20 years prior to retirement) (1) I do not take attendance; we're all adults here and you have to judge whether coming to class is worth it; (2) I give a daily quiz (which cannot be taken early or made up), and the total of the quizzes can be used as an "extra credit" test score; (3) (2) means I will know if you were in class, so don't try to scam me on that score; (4) there's a detailed test make-up policy, and any excuse for missing a test must be documented (in this case, I'd ask for evidence of participation in whatever relevant activity there was).
One thing I want to add is a quick question about consistency. You know about this one Twit (*cough*, sorry, I meant 'Tweet') because someone you know just happened to notice it and forward it along to you. I'm assuming that you (and, more importantly, your college) do not have anyone scanning social media for references to the college in a consistent fashion.

I wonder if there would be legal implications for trying to enforce a punitive policy, specifically if the student could contest this as selectively targeting them. I know that the student isn't being targeted, as can anyone with common sense. But if the student gets punished for this while other people are 'getting away with it', will there be issues?
The professor deserves to know. And for all you know, those screenshots will find their way to the professor as well.

So I'd suggest sitting down with the professor and deciding how to handle it. You know what actions they can take, within your college policies, and what type of response you'd prefer they make, in keeping with the tone of the school you want to maintain/establish. Two sensible adults should be able to come to a consensus.

(If it was one of my students, my gut reaction would be to tell the kid that any future absences/etc would require documentation, as he/she had just proven that I couldn't trust their word about such things. Would your policies support that? Or would that be considered 'singling out' a student if they had to provide proof, although no one else did?)
I'm inclined to say "A," but the others' arguments for "C" sound good to me, too.

One reason I shy away from "C" is that an administrator (I presume the "you" in "someone forwards [the Tweet] to you" is an administrator) sometimes has power over the instructor, especially if it's an adjunct. And forwarding the Tweet to the instructor could be interpreted a subtle way of saying "This is the way you manage your class? Fix it now." That may not be the intent, but it could plausibly be interpreted that way.
Good grief, I could not imagine giving a shit.

I knew which students didn't attend class regularly. They failed the final. The students who were the exceptions, I gave no shits about, because we're all adults here.

13th grade, except that it's really Grade 9A, isn't it?
As a Soldier, we were always taught to praise in Public, discipline in Private. Not that a good public shaming doesn't have it's advantages--results of Article 15s (non-judicial punishment) were posted on the bulletin board as a warning to other Soldiers. I would go with option C and let the Professor handle it. The Professor (if he wished) could call in the student and explain that he knew the truth but didn't want to shame the student publically. How else will Youth learn about its folly?
It's Punditus for the win. He nailed it.
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