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?