What College Professors and Adminstrators Get Wrong

In the age of social media and smartphones, what expectations—if any—should professors have for privacy for lectures and communications intended for students? That’s Colleen Flaherty’s question in Inside Higher Education. The larger question is what expectations should any of us have for privacy?

Flaherty tells the story of Rachel Slocum, assistant professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, who was. . . 

stunned earlier this month when what she thought was an innocuous. . . email to students about why they couldn’t access Census data to complete an important course assignment became national news.

Her email. . . blamed the “Republican/Tea Party controlled House of Representatives” for the shutdown and consequent U.S. Census Bureau website blackout. Then it appeared on Fox News, the Daily Caller, and in her local paper, after a student posted a screen shot on Twitter. It also caused uproar on campus, prompting numerous calls and emails to Chancellor Joe Gow, who sent an email to students, faculty, and staff distancing the university from Slocum’s ‘highly partisan’ comments.

Slocum said she probably wrote the email too quickly upon hearing her students couldn’t access the site, without sufficient explanation of her political reference. But the chain reaction was hard to believe, given that she never intended—or thought—that her email would be seen by anyone outside of her geography course.

Stunned, really? Michael Phelps can’t smoke a joint inside a dark fraternity house without smartphone pictures of it appearing in major newspapers. Why was it “hard to believe” your email was tweeted? It could’ve just as easily been forwarded, uploaded to Facebook, and blown up and pasted on the side of La Crosse’s busses.

Another tenured professor of creative writing at Michigan State University had his teaching duties reassigned after he embarked on “. . . what’s been described as an anti-Republican ‘rant on the first day of class in August.”

And Facebook helped Santiago Piñón, assistant professor of religion at Texas Christian University, make headlines last month, when a student he invited via email to a study session for “students of color only” posted the message on her page. Almost instantly, the invitation, which many said discriminated against other students, went viral.

Timeout while I replay in my peabrain what I said in class yesterday afternoon. Yikes! When discussing education reform I took shots at Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, Tom Friedman, and 44. When those deets are made public my university’s administration will probably throw me under the bus of public outrage too. If this blog goes dark sometime soon, don’t be surprised. Know that I cherished you dear reader.

Slocum said she saw close monitoring of professor’s words by watchdog groups as potentially chilling to free speech, and as a means of waging the nation’s current political battles on a new front, to the detriment of higher education overall.

Fear is the lifeblood of watchdog groups. And spineless administrators. That’s why tenure is so important. Slocum shouldn’t retract what she wrote, instead she should explain it to any upset students. Granted, they probably won’t agree with her reasoning, but their only concern should be whether Slocum’s politics prevent her from fairly assessing their work.

Gow, Slocum’s chancellor, said that. . . he would have responded “exactly the same way” if Slocum’s email had blamed Democrats or any other group for the shutdown. Both he—a longtime communications scholar—and La Crosse value free speech and academic freedom, he said, but now more than ever the actions of faculty and staff can influence public support for higher education.

Ultimately, Gow said, the Internet has “greatly blurred” the line between what’s public and what’s private, “and we do need to remember that what we’re saying to students may be shared more broadly.”

Come on Gow, “greatly blurred,” really? Try erased. “Blurred” might make more sense if Gow had actually come to Slocum’s defense. Read Gow’s words again. He’s saying maintaining public support trumps free speech and academic freedom.

Gow said that ideally, a student who was offended by a professor’s speech would try to settle the matter internally, first through a conversation with that professor, then through more formal complaint mechanisms as needed. La Crosse also takes student evaluations seriously in personnel decisions, he said.

Could Gow be any more out-of-touch with college students? This generation doesn’t do direct interpersonal conflict. For shitssake, they break up with one another via text messaging. Then there’s Gow’s mind numbing student evaluation hammer. All these years I thought student evaluations focused on whether students learned anything of value in their courses, but I guess they’re at least partly designed to determine whether students are ever made uncomfortable by a professor’s politics. Note to Assistant Professors at Wisconsin La Crosse—wait until you get tenure to express anything that could be deemed the least bit political.

Slocum expressed similar views, saying that taking complaints to the Internet before the institution “seems a breach of trust” and removes them from their context.

Of course that would be preferable, but it’s naive to expect it. Wisconsin La Crosse can update their student honor code, and implore students not to take their complaints to the Internet, but some still will. This generation lives on-line. You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.

At La Crosse and other institutions . . . Gow suggested that professors make up their own rules and include them on course syllabuses—as some faculty at various institutions. . . already do. But, the chancellor said, enforcing those policies could be another complicated matter. “That’s kind of uncharted territory there, isn’t it?”

Now I’m starting to feel sorry for Gow. And this excerpt heightens my sympathy for Slocum:

This had never happened to me before so it was a new, unexpected and unpleasant experience, Slocum said in an email. And I didn’t expect it because my emails to students are the boring stuff of ‘Why didn’t you turn in that’ or ‘Here are some important points to remember,’ rather than anything that might cause fury on the Internet.

Here’s some unsolicited advice to my syllabi writing brethren whether Packer fans or otherwise: Do not expect the Internet Generation to come to your office to discuss their concern with your politics. And don’t be surprised if they take surreptitious screen shots of you* and your communication. Or tweet something you’ve said or done. Or post about something you’ve said or done to Facebook. Express partisan political views at your own risk.

* I was a recent victim of surreptitious screen shoting while Skyping with the college senior. Told her about a fun Saturday night out where her mother and I watched Flamenco dancing at a downtown Olympia pizza joint. To give her a little flavor flav of the evening, I demonstrated my pretty astounding flamenco skills. Unbeknownst to me, she took a screen shot midway through the demo. Within a few minutes some of her friends on Facebook were eating it up. The worst part of that whole infringement of my privacy? You need video to fully appreciate my mad flamenco skillz.

2 thoughts on “What College Professors and Adminstrators Get Wrong

  1. What? Tea Party supporters were angered when someone suggested that their actions caused the government shutdown? I thought they were all patting themselves on the back for this. Perhaps they saw their latest poll numbers and decided that it was indeed a pretty stupid move after all.

    Waiting for this comment to go viral :-)

  2. Let us not forget that Slocum’s partisan comments were completely out of line. Similar comments from a conservative professor (if there are any) blaming Obama or the Democratic-controlled Senate would have gone viral +10.

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