writing: February 2006 Archives


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That'd be my variation on schadenfreude, designating the (only slightly) jealous pang I feel when someone else says or does something that I wish I'd thought of first.

That was my thought as I caught Ben V's latest over at if:book. In particular, check out the description of the subtitling for the American release of the Russian movie Night Watch:

What they've done is played with the subtitles themselves, making them more active and responsive to the action in the film [snip]:

"...[the words] change color and position on the screen, simulate dripping blood, stutter in emulation of a fearful query, or dissolve into red vapor to emulate a character's gasping breaths."

Very cool. The idea of spicing up the traditional white text at the bottom of the screen is something that should have occurred to someone (me!) long before now.

Also, mainly bc I want to save it for future reference:

The problem with contemporary discussions about the future of the book is that they are mired -- for cultural and economic reasons -- in a highly inflexible conception of what a book can be. People who grew up with print tend to assume that going digital is simply a matter of switching containers (with a few enhancements thrown in the mix), failing to consider how the actual content of books might change, or how the act of reading -- which increasingly takes place in a dyanamic visual context -- may eventually demand a more dynamic kind of text.

Avast, ye windmill!

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I want to both acknowledge and thank Scott Jaschik of IHE for being willing to brave the storm and ire of those of us who feel strongly about the whole Facebook situation. That's no small thing. In light of his visit, I thought I might lay out, without swearing, as clear a statement of my position as possible. I don't know that he will find it persuasive, but perhaps it will offer some context for the anger that many of us feel over this.

Let me start with a snippet from Katherine Hayles's new book My Mother Was a Computer (a book I hope to review once I've (a) turned back into Dr. Banner, and (b) gotten much more of my workload under control). Hayles attempts to make the case that we need to consider "code" at the same conceptual level as "speech" and "writing," sort of a parallel to Ulmer's (among others) orality, literacy, and electracy. Hayles writes

Code that runs on a machine is performative in a much stronger sense than that attributed to language. When language is said to be performative, the kinds of actions it "performs" happen in the minds of humans...[examples]...code running in a digital computer causes changes in machine behavior and, though networked ports and other interfaces, may initiate other changes, all implemented through transmission and execution of code (50).

Now, I'm taking liberties here a bit with Hayles's work, but my broader argument the past few days is that the difference among dorm room conversations, passing notes in class, and posting comments on Facebook are the differences among speech, writing, and code. The three aren't separate, of course, and Hayles says as much. But the issue I have with Scott and IHE's coverage of this event is that they have failed to appreciate the degree to which they are not simply "writing" about Facebook. They are also coding the event by creating resources that are more visible, accessible, and available, and for a longer period of time, than any of these other analogs.

Clay Spinuzzi puts it this way, rather nicely:

Collin's point is that defamation becomes a de facto part of a person's online record - the "portfolio" (my term) that Google and Yahoo are constantly assembling for everyone with an online presence:

When you write about this situation, and then code it, you are effectively contributing material to the online portfolio of each of the people involved. This is particularly relevant to those sites that have exploited the naivete of the students in that course--an irony I pointed out yesterday in reference to the fact that the Internet is far more a "permanent record" than a student's file at a university. The latter is protected by FERPA among other things, while IHE and other sites endure no such limitation.

Today's newspaper may be tomorrow's bird cage liner, but today's Internet story can be future employers' search results, even as far as several years down the line. You can still, with relative ease, locate things that I said and did in graduate school back in the mid-90s. That's one of the ways I would interpret Hayles's notion of "strong performativity"--by publishing names, by reprinting the page itself, by reproducing the comments, you are, literally, performing and participating in the event in a way that the "shield" of journalistic objectivity and coverage does not fully account for.

In this case, and let me put this as bluntly as possible, if you are willing to cede the possibility that this page constituted harassment (a possibility fully in line with determinations made both by SU and by Facebook), then it is not enough to simply put quotes around the page, or remove it from the "front" with a link. It is not enough to absolve you of the responsibility of considering that you, in consciously reproducing this document, have actively participated in the harassment that you are "reporting."

To assert that you are not responsible is to deny the very real, material effect that certain kinds of language have on the people around us. And it is to deny the very real, material differences among media. To post something hurtful, and to do so with the alibi that the material did not originate with you, is still to post something hurtful. And it is to implicitly reinforce that pain.

All the way throughout this discussion, I have not said anything about restricting Facebook, and I won't, because I don't hold them responsible for what was said. Once they learned about the abuse of their site, however, they had a choice to make. They could either leave the page in place, or remove it. There was no choice that they could make that was neutral. I believe that they made the proper decision.

Similarly, IHE and other sites posting screen grabs are making choices that themselves influence the perception of the story. By allowing these words and images to persist (without, as Spencer suggested, blurring anything), they are weighing in on the side of those who would permit this kind of behavior, because they themselves are reproducing the behavior for a wider audience. In the interests of "coverage," they are, inadvertently or not, affecting the lives of the people whose names they've "covered."

They are, of course, free to do so.
They are, however, also accountable for doing so.

And that's all I have for right now. I persist in the hope that more of us will do the right thing here.

[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.



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

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