Monday, July 25, 2011

Dear Uncle Ezra: Where's My Privacy?

I just returned from Ithaca, New York after attending the Institute for Computer Policy and the Law which is hosted every summer on the Cornell University campus. This summer, the Institute focused on the issue of privacy on college campuses and what educators need to do in order to protect it. Although discussions about privacy have never been out of vogue, they are particularly topical these days because social media are giving us unprecedented opportunities to reveal who we are online. And while these outlets are a boon for self-expression, they can, when wielded inappropriately, seriously, and sometimes permanently, damage reputations. Ten months ago on Sept 28th, Rutger’s freshmen Tyler Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge after his roommate surreptitiously streamed a live video feed of Tyler having sex with another male in their dorm room. The Tyler Clementi case serves as a reminder that student privacy is increasingly challenging to protect in an era of social networking and ubiquitous surveillance. If it wasn’t the event which inspired ICPL’s focus on privacy, it certainly could have been.

How should we as college administrators or college professors deal with this problem? We are after all in the business of building student’s reputations. But how best to help them in this age of hyper-connectivity?

FERPA, of course, offers some guidance (and attorneys at ICPL went over this at length). As university employees we need to be mindful of our student’s privacy as we’re carrying out our jobs. But beyond FERPA, I left ICPL with the strong impression that we also need to be engaging with our students so that they too take up the conversation. ICPL held one of these conversations in a panel discussion that was reported last week in Inside Higher Education. You can read the full account there but for me the biggest lesson I learned was that students actually value privacy. Although there has been some talk that students don’t care about it (a sentiment that would jibe with Mark Zuckerberg’s pronouncement that privacy is dead) at least one student on the panel seemed to suggest that this is a misconception. Students may treat their own privacy (and that of others) fairly casually in their initial forays into social networks. But it doesn’t take more than one bad experience posting too much of oneself online to inculcate more moderated sharing. So we can all sigh a bit of relief: it doesn’t look like the next generation is inclined (at least not en masse) to duplicate the foibles of Anthony Weiner. Like the rest of us, they too are learning the art of discretion.

The ICPL conversation mostly emphasized the dimensions of privacy that are defined when we make choices about how much of ourselves to share online. When we produce content and share it with others we are of course redefining what of our lives is private and what is public in fundamental ways. But beyond this production oriented definition I wonder whether privacy awareness could also be enriched by broadening the definition of privacy to include the experience of seclusion and solitude and the particular psychological and intellectual spaces that are created when we moderate not only our production but our consumption of digital resources. Privacy, after all, isn’t just about what we choose to share of ourselves online, but how much of our time we choose to spend in the company of others and how much time we choose to spend alone. These are the types of questions that William Powers takes up in Hamlet’s Blackberry and William Deresiewicz in a Chronicle of Higher Education piece titled “The End of Solitude.” On my campus we’re promoting these latter conversations about privacy as well in a project titled “Concentration in the Humanities” in which we ask students to alternatively work in private and communal spaces and consider which ones catalyze better writing. When the definition of privacy is broadened this way we can (potentially) engage students not only by appealing to their long term interest in reputation but their more immediate interest in being better writers.

As one speaker mentioned on the last day of the conference the mission of the university suffers when students and instructors have to worry about excessive surveillance. When we’re surveiled overmuch, students and professors feel constrained, and our interest in contributing to the marketplace of ideas diminishes. This is an important point. But it’s also worth noting that the mission also suffers when our students and professors are so connected that they can’t differentiate between their own thoughts and those of the digital hive. Discussions about privacy, are, ultimately, also discussions about identity and the extent to which we subscribe to individualistic or communitarian senses of the self. These senses of the self, in turn, give definition to competing visions of what a university education is for (Is it there to cater to the desires and ambitions of private wants and ambitions? Or is it there to cater to the broader needs of the community?) Privacy thus framed can then address the immediate pragmatic need to guard student’s reputations while at the same time broaching more fundamental problems about the nature of the self, what it means to be an educated person, and the missions of the university.

If the theme of this year’s ICPL talk was inspired by the Tyler Clementi case, it was especially fitting that the conference ended with a presentation on Cornell’s “Dear Uncle Ezra” which, in Ann Lander’s or Dear Abby mode, dispenses therapeutic advise online to students who write in with their questions. When it was deployed in 1986 one of the early questions and answers was from someone contemplating jumping off one of Cornell’s infamous bridges. Here’s the letter (and answer) quoted in full:

Dear Uncle Ezra:


Dear Considering,

Most people, at one time or another, consider suicide as an answer to their problems. As Ann Landers says, suicide doesn't solve problems, i t only passes them on from you to the survivors -- family, friends,loved ones, and other people who care about you.

Suicide is usually an attempt to deal with a crisis. The Chinese character for "crisis" translates into "dangerous opportunity." Suicide is a permanent solution, and eliminates other options. So if you're hurting so much that you are willing to pass the pain on to those who care, perhaps you could use this dangerous opportunity to try some other options first.

Ithaca and Cornell have a number of services specifically to help people in crisis. Call Suicide Prevention any time at 272-1616, go to Psychological Services in Gannett Health Center (255-5208), talk with a chaplain in CURW (118 Annabel Taylor Hall, 255-4214), talk with a friend, and use this opportunity to change your life for the better.

Problems have solutions. Your life has value. Please give it a chance.

Uncle Ezra

Clementi, who wasn’t at Cornell, didn’t get a chance to write directly to Ezra. And even if he had, it’s sheer speculation to say that Ezra would have turned the course of events with any more success than the help that was offered to Clementi at Rutgers. But that speculation isn’t my purpose here. I post the Ezra letter to show that the identity of the self in college can be a very fragile thing, whether we’re talking about the college experience in 1986 or 2010, and that we, as educators and administrators, can help to nurture that self by helping students to think through their sense of selves as private, isolated (and sometimes lonely) individuals and their selves as shaped and defined by a larger community of (as Ezra puts it) “family, friends, loved ones , and other people who care about you.” This isn’t to say that the conversation will yield simple answers about privacy. After all, it appears that in one sense Clementi didn’t have enough privacy. And yet, in another sense he might have been saved had he been less private about his suffering. Talks on privacy framed this way can, hopefully, deepen the conversation and bring our students into closer touch with the abiding questions that should be central in university life.

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