Friday, January 7, 2011

Gotcha! How Open is too Open?

I'll admit it. I made a mistake this past semester. It's the kind of mistake that seems trivial at the time but can quickly escalate into a crisis. And I should know better. I've been warned repeatedly against making the kind of mistake that  I made. I've read about other professors who have made the same mistake and paid dearly for it. Yet, there I was, unable to stop myself, only seeing the error of my ways after it was perhaps too late.

I talked about politics with some of my students. 

My students are chronically unable to find my office, so twice a semester, instead of class, I have informal meeting time in my classroom where students can come and talk to me about the paper I have just handed back, the assignment they are working on, and their progress thus far during the semester. I get more students than just my office hours, but not much. This past semester, a few students hung around the classroom and started talking about politics. Let me reiterate that this was not a formal class nor was I offering a lecture. I joined in their discussion about politics. I explained the Canadian parliamentary system. We compared the Canadian Left and Right to the American Left and Right. We had been talking about education reform, and so discussed the various politics of the current wave of reform. 

I admittedly said some inflammatory things but made sure that a) I made it clear that this was only my opinion and b) I backed up those opinion with some pretty solid reasons.  I played devil's advocate with my students and their ideas and opinions, regardless of their political views. This is my job as their teacher; to help them improve their critical thinking skills by, in one way, challenging them. They, in turn, challenged me and taught me about American and local politics. I was enjoying myself and enjoying the opportunity to get to know some of my students and to have them get to know me.

One of the students, however, was continually playing with his iPhone. It didn't alarm me; students are almost always doing something on their phones, even when I'm lecturing, let alone when I'm having an informal discussion. But I did think it was strange that he kept holding it up periodically. Trying to get a better signal? It only dawned on me after everyone had left and I was walking home that he may have been recording me on his phone. Recording our discussions on politics. A recording that could be edited and posted on web.


If you are at all paying attention to higher education, I don't have to go into the recent scandals involving professors who have been video recorded and then dragged through the mud online (like him or as described here). There have been questions about how much "freedom" a professor has in their classroom, especially with organizations such as FIRE ready to pounce (and rapidly disseminate) any evidence of bias or academic misconduct in the classroom. All I need as a contingent faculty is to have my face, voice and (probably misrepresented) politics all over the blogosphere. 

So far, so good. I've set up google alerts for any variation of my name and my university's name (it's only damning if it names names) so I can (maybe) be one of the first to know if it hits. And I might just be acting paranoid because of all of the attention lately to the illicit video taping of professors. But it scared me. And it made me wonder if I would have to fundamentally change who I am as a teacher.

I have written elsewhere that what I always admired in my favorite former teachers was their openness with us; they were human beings who shared with us their personalities and showed us a little bit of their lives outside of the classroom. I want my students to know me so they feel comfortable taking chances, offering opinions and even challenging me in my class. How can I ask them to trust me if I don't trust them? But with the risk of being taped and misrepresented, how open is too open now for me with my students? I include time in my office and when I run into them outside of class or even off campus (it's a small town) because who knows who is watching or listening? 

I can't let the fear of being caught (caught doing what? Offering opinions? Asking questions? Being human?) change how I teach. But I will definitely now think twice before opening my mouth to talk about politics. At least when a student is paying a little too much attention to their phone while holding it up like they're trying to take my picture.

*I wrote this post before Christmas. Last night, I participated, on Twitter, in the MLA panel "New Tools, Hard Times: Social Networking and the Economic Crisis" (check out the backchannel here). Apparently, I'm already too open by blogging as myself. The take-away from the rise in technology in higher education? Don't be yourself. Sorry, Academia, I can't, I won't, do it. 


  1. Yep---all our fears in a nutshell. I'm always hoping I won't show up on YouTube. Here's hoping you dodged a bullet.

    I enjoyed this MLA session--had to dodge out for another at the end--but it did make me think.

    Elizabeth E.

  2. Oh dear, oh no. I hope that you've dodged a bullet ..I really do.

  3. That is scary. I talk politics with my students too (I teach Spanish and Latin American literature), but I always let them know that what I am looking for from them is critical thinking. Although my political preferences are very clear, I also play "devil's advocate" with them, and my syllabus contain articles from a variety of political spectrums. So far, I haven't had a problem, but I know that I am very careful with what I say, and the way I phrase something. There are also certain things I never voice my opinion about: abortion, the war in Irak to name a few.

  4. I am writing from the other side of things. I was a nontraditional student who went back to school. I personally would have loved to discuss current events with my professors. But I realize that this can backfire too. What a fun posting to read!


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