Academy 2.0: February 2006 Archives

[Note: I've changed the title of this entry, in response to my colleague's objection that his wasn't really an attack. Fair enough. My original title ("when colleagues attack!") was less an accusation than a parallel to the prior day's entry and an allusion to the hyperbolic sensationalism of those old FOX tv shows.]

I was going to settle back down into my routine today, work some more on my manuscript, and keep an occasional eye peeled to see what IHE planned to do. That was before I did a little light Googling to see how much of this had seeped into search engines thus far. That was before I came across this blog entry at moralhealth.com, a site maintained by a colleague of mine here at SU in the Philosophy Department. Perhaps my colleague will revise his opinions in light of the information that has come out since last Friday.

For the moment, though, you have the opportunity to see one of the consequences of the misleading information published in our school paper. Based on that information, said colleague offers the following opinion:

Were the remarks absolutely unpleasant? Absolutely. Were the remarks threatening or harassing? Well, not if the remarks were rather like

I would rather eat the hair out of the drain than go to class

We do know because the University is rather silent about the matter. But I can only assume that we have been given an example of the kind comments that were indicative of the remarks that were made against the instructor. And if that is so, then what we have is an institution that is over-stepping the proper boundaries.

Let me save you the suspense of discovering that the payoff of this over-stepping in this entry is the single, hyperbolic sentence with which the entry ends: "Syracuse University is not supposed to be the Taliban."

Ummm....what the...?!?!?!

But really, that's just the cherry on top of the sundae. The flawed analogies begin much earlier. To wit:

I am at a loss as to the difference between this and two other things: (a) These students going on endlessly about [name deleted] to other students on campus and (b) these students filling out anonymous teaching evaluations about [name deleted] in which they say many of the same things.

First of all, by repeated using the instructor's name, and thus further cementing the associations that will turn up routinely in Google searches, my colleague has already demonstrated that he is indeed "at a loss."

Unlike campus conversations, and unlike anonymous course evaluations, Facebook is searchable. That in and of itself is a simple difference that Every. Single. Person. who has used these people's names in their coverage needs to understand. Every time you use one of their names, you are reinforcing an association that has consequences far beyond the immediate circumstances of your usage. Perhaps it's a generational thing, but I do Google searches on job candidates, on graduate program applicants, on people I meet/see at conferences. I do them all the time. These sites are not private. Really.

Oh, but wait. There's more.

There are in fact many black students on campus who are utterly persuaded that I am an Uncle Tom. They are persuaded that I care more about white students than blacks students and that my opposition to affirmative action reflects a deep inferiority complex or some form of self-hatred. Needless to say, there is nothing flattering here, either. But it would not occur to me to think that the University should somehow prohibit them from holding these opinions of me, or that students who posted such opinions of me on a public website should be punished.

I just want to be clear here. The analogy being drawn is between the writer on the one hand--a tenured, male professor who's written several books and had ample opportunity to lay out a position with which his students might disagree--and the instructor he's writing about--a female graduate student about whom students are making public, obscene comments.

If this honestly seems like a fair comparison to anyone, then I don't know what to say.

What I will say is that much of this argument is based upon information that was essentially a lie by omission. As the argument makes pretty clear, the local coverage of this event implied that the comments on Facebook were much milder than they actually were. The odd thing about this, though, even in the absence of revision on the part of my colleague, is that in his very next post he bemoans the work of the ACLU as an organization that can't "wrap its mind around," among other things that,

When the founding fathers advocated free speech, a fundamental part of their thinking was that people could be held accountable for what they said. Indeed, that very idea finds itself in the jury system itself: a person has a right to face her or his accusers. The very idea that a person could say anything he or she damned well please without being answerable to others for her or his remarks was simply unthinkable to the founding fathers.

I don't really have much else to say--it's rare that I read an entry where the author unwittingly publishes a rebuttal to the very things I disagree with.

So let me simply close with the sincere hope that, now that more information has come to light, my colleague sees fit to act on the principle he espouses. In other words, I honestly hope that he reconsiders his hyperbole and his own overreaction to the situation. While he was not responsible for the factual error his entry duplicates, he is responsible for each day that his entry remains unrevised or uncorrected now that the information is available.

That is all.

I've been telling various people privately that the DO coverage of the Facebook incident here at SU committed at least a couple of serious misrepresentations. One of these was that the comments reported by the story were far less objectionable than others they could have noted. Rather than get into the issue of "how objectionable is too objectionable" or repeat the comments themselves, I made the choice to let that mistake stand.

Unfortunately, other publications don't feel a similar sort of restraint. I won't link to it here, but you can visit Inside Higher Ed and see what the story looks like when journalism works without any consideration for the people involved. As I talked about in the last entry, for me, this is a question less of freedom than it is of consequences. I would never suggest that IHE (or any other outlet) is not "free" to cover the story in any way that they choose. I would suggest, though, that by choosing to include the names of the students and the instructor, and by choosing to include a graphic of the original Facebook page, IHE has effectively piled on.

And it's not in the interests of journalism. It's entirely possible to lay out this argument, to report on this situation, without naming the people involved, without publishing pictures. It's voyeurism, pure and simple, and it's a shitty thing.

Among other things, the story reports on the worries of one of the students:

“I will have a reprimand on my permanent record for seven years,” she added, “so if a grad school inquires into any interactions with judicial affairs or asks on an application if I had any violations that required punishment, this would apply.”

Setting aside the whole "permanent for seven years" thing, what this young woman doesn't seem to realize is that, long after the reprimand vanishes, guess what? she appears in a story accessible in a Google search on her name, one that makes certain, with graphic clarity, that what she did and said will be available to anyone interested.

By publishing their names, IHE has played their part in ensuring that this incident will survive long after all of the people involved have left Syracuse. And in the case of the instructor, who did not volunteer to be treated like this, publicly and offensively, IHE has repeated, and effectively extended, the harassment represented by the original site.

IHE knows this. The unfortunate thing about this is that they will hide behind the shield of saying that they're just covering the story in as much detail as they can. They won't endure the consequences of their choices the way that the people whose names appear in their article will. And I'm not sure what's worse: the idea that they understand the consequences of reposting harassing materials but choose to do so anyway, or the idea that they didn't think it through. Neither option provides me with much comfort.

It provides me with one certainty, though: it's a fucking shameful thing that Inside Higher Ed has done. Fucking shameful. I expect better from them. Here's what you can do: email info@insidehighered.com and ask them to remove the instructor's and students' names from their story and to take down the graphic of the Facebook page. Hell, copy and paste this entry into that email if you want. That's my plan.

I'll update this entry if and when IHE decides to do the right thing.

That's all.

Facebook drama at SU

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That was fast. In the past couple of weeks, our student newspaper on campus (the Daily Orange) has run a couple of front-page articles on Facebook, one about campus security using it to try and curtail underage drinking and now another that hits a little closer to home, as I'll explain below. What hasn't taken long is that these articles, including Wednesday's, have already made it to the Wikipedia entry on Facebook.

I'm not going to replicate our paper's policy of using names here, or comment too extensively on a situation with which I am only peripherally at best connected, but a couple of issues seemed worthy of mention. The basic story is this: some students in one of our FY courses created a group on Facebook that was basically devoted to disrespecting their instructor. Despite the near-ubiquity of Facebook, much of what goes on there is outside the purview of a lot of us who teach, but I don't think it would surprise many to learn that this is a fairly widespread practice. I've heard myself of several instances of "I hate X" groups on Facebook, where X is either a particular course or a particular professor.

What's different about this process isn't the hurtfulness or the aggressiveness of some of these groups--from time immemorial, students have complained about various professors and classes. Goodness knows I did my share of kvetching in college. What's different about Facebook and other SNS is the degree of speed and transparency they bring to what once was a form of institutional underlife. I might complain to a roommate about the unreasonable policies of a particular professor, and I would certainly do so without fear of being brought before a campus disciplinary committee. And if you read this account from the DO, one of the patterns that emerges is the students' outright shock over the severity of the potential consequences and the response by the university. Their complaints about the length and uncertainty of the process I take simply as an unfamiliarity with procedures that are actually designed to protect them from overreaction, a system that no student familiarizes hirself with until s/he's actually involved with it.

But the Facebook question is a different one. Clearly Facebook accomplishes something that conversation does not, or it wouldn't be successful--students would just keep on talking. We don't have a whole lot of language to describe what Facebook does yet, because it's not something that fits comfortably on the public-private spectrum. By establishing a separate space for social networking, though, Facebook certainly moves away from the private towards some form of publicness. One consequence, as the Wikipedia entry makes fairly obvious, is that what at one time happened primarily as a form of underlife, with Facebook no longer stays underliven.

I think that this is an important change. Part of what's happening is that the transparency that information and communication technologies have brought to faculty (think 24-7 email requests) is now also having some effect on student life on campus. There's one sense in which the students are right to be shocked by the response--not so long ago, administrators couldn't have had access to these kinds of activities. But to imagine that this is somehow a breach of privacy (as one student in the article does) is to misrecognize the situation to a degree. The most obvious change that Facebook makes is this step towards transparency or publicness, but there's a second step as well. There's a difference between expressing an opinion in conversation (where it is likely to be taken as opinion and unlikely to have consequences beyond the immediate conversation) and placing something on a site like Facebook or one of the rating sites, where it takes on both a more public and permanent quality.

It's not just that these kinds of activities are less private on Facebook, in other words. It's that they have potentially greater consequences. Regardless of what the students may intend (and my guess is that there wasn't a lot of intentionality in the first place), the (semi) public suggestion of an instructor's incompetence is an act that has very real consequences for the instructor hirself. This kind of disrespect can be contagious, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy and affecting the quality of a course. It can persist beyond the immediate circumstance, poisoning future courses, or in the case of some of the ratings sites, affecting job prospects. While no one would argue that all instructors are equally good, or that constructive criticism is unwarranted, I think it safe to say that many of the comments on these kinds of sites are not primarily motivated by a desire to improve instruction (two words: chili peppers). There's a great deal of aggression being vented, and in fact, many of these sites market themselves specifically on the idea that they provide a place for students to revenge themselves on their teachers--RateMyProfessors specifically promises a space where students can "turn the tables" on faculty. And there's been no shortage of stories about how that particular site has been used to harass particular professors, to provide misleading information, and/or to offer up a pretty bleak account of student values.

[One of the difficulties with any of these sorts of sites is that they are too easily reduced to simple analogies--it's like X, only digital. But that "only" is misleading; most SNS sites combine various features of their analogs. For example, it's possible to argue that Facebook, in some ways, is simply a remediation of note-passing, and it does offer the convenience and immediacy of that proto-genre. But it's useful to me to think of it as well as a remediation of posters or fliers, and there's some indication that it's used in that way as well--as a site for general announcements. Things that we wouldn't think twice about putting in a note we definitely should think twice about putting on a poster or a flier, for instance...]

I guess my point here is ultimately a simple one, and that's that writing has consequences, and for whatever reason, it's been a point that's been slow to sink in on this campus recently. All sorts of behavior has been defended lately on this campus from the perspective that the pain being caused hasn't been intentional ("it was just a joke," e.g.), and yet pain has been the consequence of this behavior, and there's been a lot of shock expressed when the people who have behaved badly have been required to bear some of the consequences of their actions.

I'm not sure that it's ultimately the university's responsibility to warn or prepare students to accept the consequences of their behavior, or that such policies or workshops would even have that kind of effect. I think it's important for all of us to understand how codes of conduct extend to all sorts of venues, Facebook included, but I suspect that, just as being "dooced" entered the parlance of bloggers, it's going to take a critical mass of stories about students being held accountable for their Facebook activity for it to finally sink in. I don't think that this is an issue that can simply be "solved" with a policy or a workshop, and yet it's one that needs to be addressed in its full complexity.

I'm not in the habit of offering disclaimers on my entries here, but it should be mentioned that this is my take on this situation, and doesn't represent my program, college, or university, or the principals involved in the incident.

That's all.

Yummy class management

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Lest you jump to the conclusion that February is some kind of personal snark holiday of mine, let me hasten to add a link to Bradley's reflections on using del.icio.us last semester to manage his course on computers and writing.

From my perspective, he does a better job here of articulating what's possible (and how it worked) than I managed in my spring course, where I tried something similar. Del.icio.us starts with bookmarking, but ultimately, it can be a really simple but robust tool for all sorts of organizational tasks, and I think Bradley's post demonstrates this. I also really appreciate the discussion of how his tagging practices have evolved. Not enough of those kinds of discussions yet.



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(CCC Online fed through Bloglines)

Here's one of the top items on my wishlist for our field, and here's what we've done to get there. Although there aren't a lot of subscribers yet, one of the things that using MT allows us to do with CCC Online is to publish RSS/Atom feeds of new issues of the journal.

Imagine with me for a minute. Rather than having to subscribe to all the journals, to guess when they're coming out, to borrow them from colleagues, or to hear about a relevant article months after its release when someone else cites it in a paper, imagine being able to just have a folder in Bloglines, or a feed page in Safari, or a bookmark in Firefox, that simply allows you to browse the most recent articles from the various journals in our field. Imagine that, rather than asking our graduate students to figure it out on their own what the journals are, we could just give them an OPML file that contained the feeds of all those journals. Imagine having all of those abstracts at your fingertips, and being able to bookmark them for later, email it to a friend you know would be interested, etc.

This is already possible with CCC Online. And in fact, it's theoretically possible for those journals that are oligopublished, like Computers and Composition or Rhetoric Review--I know that the big kids are slowly moving in a 2.0 direction. To generate a feed of new articles for CCC takes us (and this is including all of the other site features that we build in) maybe an hour or so an issue. Leave off the tagging, and the internal linking/trackbacking, and we'd be talking maybe 15 minutes, 4 times a year.

That's 1 hour. 1 hour per year.

For an hour's worth of work a year, a journal could make that metadata available in a much broader fashion and much more conveniently to the entire field. It really is that simple. Really. Just copy and paste, and a little bit of elementary design on the front end.

Maybe part of it is that I've been living with this idea for the last year or so, because it seems bone-crushingly obvious to me. It requires so little effort, and what effort is required is distributed so broadly that it's negligible. And the benefit is so clear and present--to have the last year's worth of articles in the field at our fingertips? Genius. There's no reason why publishers couldn't hop on to this as well: feeds for various subject areas, including books and chapters from edited collections.

Every once in a while, there are complaints about the flood of information we're faced with, even in a field as relatively small as ours is. We need to poke ourselves in the head, though, with the sharp fact that this is true for every discipline, much less every field of endeavor, and there are solutions out there, solutions that are pretty easy to implement and that could really transform the way we handle that flood.

That is all.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Academy 2.0 category from February 2006.

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