Monday, May 23, 2005

On Fairness 

In a major back room, eleventh-hour, unanimous move by our Faculty Academic Committee last week, Instant Messaging and "inappropriate internet sites" will be blocked during study hall next year, and TV will be prohibited in houses without soundproof lounges.

Happily, many of my earlier concerns about process seem to have been irrelevant or unfounded. Though I continue to maintain that attention should be paid to the recent research of Stephen Johnson and others, two hours of time for school study, rather than brain exercise, seems perfectly legitimate; this is, after all, a formal learning institution, so restriction of informal learning during a study period is fine by me.

Unhappily, however, I think we're about to shoot ourselves in the foot with this one.

My concerns about the computer bans revolve around issues of scope and implementation. While I see no real academic use of Instant Messenger during our two-hour schoolwide study period, the wording of the ban makes it difficult to imagine allowing in-house chat on our First Class system, despite the fact that such chat is quite often used by students as a quick check medium for homework assignment and study notes.

Similarly, though I am especially glad to see no comprehensive ban on the Internet during study hall (now that would really be a shot in the foot), the vague and subjective term "inappropriate" has no place in a rulebook. The category of content which any faculty member might understand to fit that term could both pre-empt creative use of research and lead to a slippery slope that would indeed be relevant to my previous concerns about Internet use. In reality, knowing our faculty, many would choose to ignore the regulation rather than be forced to take on the content police facemask.

Much more, though, a compromise on the TV issue based on accidents of dorm construction after students have already selected their houses for next year is just plain unfair. TV during study hall has long been one of very few allowable privileges for Seniors in good academic standing; had students known going into room draw that lounge soundproofing would determine whether or not they were eligible for this privilege, I believe some students might have chosen different dorms.

Surely, part of our responsibility as educators is to help students understand that the world just isn't fair. But inside a community, developing expectations of fairness where it is possible is one of the things that we can do, and should do, and too often fail to do, when working with our young charges.

The result will seem arbitrary to students, and many will complain; more than the loss of TV, though, will be the loss of credibility we face when trying to suggest to students that we are trying to help construct an environment for and with them which will best serve their needs. It will affect, in some small but significant way, all our future dealing with them. It just isn't worth it.

Such erosion is anathema to community. Community is more important than television. I say, take TV from them all in the name of fairness, or suffer the consequences.

Note: lest anyone think I am acting against the school by going public with this information, let me point out that committee minutes are public for faculty and staff, and that a student representative to the student life committee was present at the meeting. Thus, it is my belief that students and faculty all have access to this information, whether they realize it or not. If I am incorrect about this, someone should correct me, and I'll withdraw or amend as necessary.

posted by boyhowdy | 2:20 PM |

I am a day student right now, so this decision doesn't directly affect me, but it worries me that I found out just now, and not from the people who made the decision. It makes me think about two things - why they didn't, and what else might be out there that we as students really should know that they haven't told us.

We both have a friend in common who is a college professor who uses IM on certain days so his students can ask him questions and help them with certain academic things.

He has done this for 2 years, I reckon.
Hmm. I suspect the following:

1. There is always a gap between decisions TO implement a policy and careful crafting of that policy in clear language ready to release to the community. In other words, I don't think there's evil-ness occuring here, Mr. Anonymous Day Student, just the usual due process.

2. Since we have an in-house (First Class) chat engine, which can be accessed by all in the community regardless of their physical presence (i.e. for boarding and day students, on-campus and off-campus faculty), killing IM won't have any affect on the support-ability you describe, Shaw. Instead, it will restrict chat to in-community chat, which is that chat most likely to -- and entirely able to -- contain academic discourse during study hall.

It is an ability I have used in the past, too, by the way. The only argument for using IM instead of our in-house system would be if we didn't have access for all community members in-house during study hall (we do), and/or if we needed the capabilities that IM has that in-house does not,m which seem not relevant for study hall use.
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