One evening in May while my wife was cooking supper, the ever-present National Public Radio played a piece about Facebook, privacy, and user anger at how transparent ostensibly private information can be. That kind of story drifts through the kitchen morning and night. But this one was different, because it offered a direct connection to a “social network” I did not know I had.
Because I teach at a giant state university, Facebook has always been an issue for me. I have been told not to have a page or to “friend” my students. And, although I have done just that until recently, I have had no complications. To the contrary, I get a lot of positive feedback about my work in class here and elsewhere. But there is no trusting the unregulated world of Internet-based commentary.
Once on the site ratemyprofessor.com—where I get about two postings a year from 500 students—someone posted a purely pornographic description of just how thrilling my lectures can be. (Think of Meg Ryan’s diner scene in “When Harry Met Sally,” but uncensored.) This could have been funny, I guess, if my stepmother had not been the one to point it out to me from New Orleans, and if her friend across the country whom I don’t know hadn’t pointed it out to her. But it wasn’t funny. Caught in front of students who are texting in class and using social media as if it were the phone, professors are vulnerable like never before. And what gets said matters, somehow. So, I had the ratemyprofessor.com Internet master take this blue ode down an hour later.
When the NPR reporter described a Internet site called “youropenbook.org” as a way to search Facebook without belonging to Facebook, I was interested. (Actually, what the youropenbook.org Internet site says is, “Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life. Whether you want to or not.”) A tool for transparency.
So, I was interested. As it happened, I had recently decommissioned my own Facebook page as a result of my own ambivalence about social media. Although the radio story was about user anger at Facebook’s failure to ensure users’ privacy, it gave me an immediate way to see what was being said about me on the biggest social media site.
So, I walked over to the laptop on the dining table, dialed up youropenbook.org and searched my name. (I was still holding up my end of a conversation from the kitchen.) Once on the site, I got 14 hits, most of which referred to my first and last names separately. They were not about me.
But one hit, which was listed as having been posted in my town a week earlier reported that another professor had “raped” the writer that Spring semester, while I and a third faculty member waited to “join in.” That was all. No explanation. No hint that it was false. I knew one of the others named, a mild-mannered woman on the communication studies faculty, but not the third. The writer’s name was listed, as well. So much for Facebook’s promises of privacy.
Let me say that I understood this language to be false, perhaps metaphorical. I did not hurt anyone. Instead, I guessed that the kid who had written that had been in my large lecture. But I didn’t know; I get to know very few of the students in this class.
My first fear was that this posting would be permanent, that my name and the word, “rape,” would become inscribed in the permanent record that is the Internet. What would happen to my next job search? Or to an award nomination? Or to my Internet-savvy stepmother?
I thought about what to do and realized that because the Internet offers a kind of organized chaos, I should jump in. So, I Googled the writer’s name. I found all of his Twitter postings, which reflected a steady set of “tweets” to get his friends out to the bars. (My university leads the nation with a 75 percent binge drinking rate. The norm is 50.) I found a picture of him. And the next day at the office, I pulled his transcript and confirmed that he had been in my class. I had never seen him in office hours or anywhere else.
But I was getting to know this guy really quickly. The composite I was able to put together showed a young guy who had started at the U with an A average in his first semester only to wipe out with poor grades and a withdrawal in the most recent semester.
For years I have been on two University committees devoted to moderating the hellacious drinking rate on our campus. Along with other, minor contributing factors, drinking contributes to a nearly 20 percent attrition rate among our freshman classes. And in spite of our efforts to moderate the local problem — several dozen bars admit 19-year olds in our small downtown area — alcohol-related arrests rose 53 percent last semester.
But apart from the demographic analysis, which is the high-altitude picture reserved for university committees, what do you do with the individual? With this guy? In this rare case, the “social network” of the Internet had intersected our local “social network.” In all candor, I was surprised to be so upset by the on-line behavior of one among the thousands on campus who were equally able to do the same thing.
And that is the place where having an ethical position became really important. My working definition of ethics has always been that all people in a situation should have the same access to the rules. Power relationships necessarily change that ideal, as in this case. So, instead, of “reaching out” to him myself, I e-mailed the Sr. Vice-President of Student Affairs, who referred me to the Dean of Students. Because I have been on the alcohol committees mentioned here with each of them, I felt safe in contacting them.
Within about two days, the student had been contacted by the Dean of Students, who had arranged an interview for him with the University’s sexual assault counselor. The casual use of the word, “rape,” points to another violent undercurrent on campus (on all campuses), one that is implicitly linked to risky drinking. I was gratified that the administration took his words seriously. And that they applied what I thought of as an ethical posture by requiring him to learn about the “rules” we have here for the use of language. The Dean had made him take the offending posting down, solving the permanence issue. (I checked the same way I had first found it.)
When the Dean contacted me, I told him that I wanted an apology for myself and for the other two professors. He said that he could not require that of the student, but that he would mention it. About a month later, the student wrote to apologize. He seemed contrite. And a little confused, but given his experience on campus, he probably was. In my reply, I assured him that I accepted his apology, that I had made my share of mistakes.
But here was another ethical juncture: He had failed out of the pre-requisites for my department’s major, my class included, and I am in charge of admissions to the major. I needed to make this situation better than before. So, I invited him to come to see me to go over the ways he could re-take my class for a better grade (a university policy), learn to study, and succeed. But in the interest of “transparency,” I told him that I had seen his Twitter postings, his Facebook page, his grade in my class, his transcript, and that he would have to spend less time in the bars and more at his desk to turn things around. I wanted to turn the lights on in the purest sense of ethics: I wanted him to know what I knew, and I was open to learning something from him.
I haven’t heard back. This new media environment does not come with a guide to ethical practices. Or unintended consequences. This experience with visibility on the Internet — someone else’s and mine — had the unexpected effect of putting a face on the numbers we deal with administratively. I’m still trying to decide about the nature of ethical relationships on the Internet. With some exceptions, the Internet has become too naturalized to be without unintended consequences. In brief, I don’t believe that my students have the wherewithal to do better than this. For now, I will continue to check to see how my name is being used.
And I’ll help where I can.