One of the important topics in my course on the economics of organizations is trust relationships - how they are built, what sustains them, when breaking the trust should be expected. There are different analytic frameworks from which one might consider these issues. I teach a couple of these. One is infinitely repeated prisoner's dilemma, which casts the issues in way that trust is privately optimal in equilibrium. This is pure economics in its explanation as all behavior is rational. Another framework takes a sociological perspective and is based the notion of reciprocity. An act of kindness from one individual to another begats another act of kindness by the receiver, though not as a quid pro quo but rather as a contribution to the social good. This is how I understand collegiality in the university. A third idea, this one I don't teach, take an evolutionary approach. Some people are the trusting type. Others are the doubting type. Under suitable population dynamics and the right initial conditions, trusting types can come to predominate.
Any organization that I work in, where I do so voluntarily and with enthusiasm, must be one where trust predominates. In teaching, I try very hard to create that atmosphere in my classroom. It doesn't happen immediately and, truthfully, it doesn't happen with all the students. But it does happen with the vast majority of those who regularly attend. The structure of the class makes that an important byproduct. Given my mindset, I was very bothered when reading this piece from today's Inside Higher Ed as well as this piece from about a month earlier on the events that triggered the current piece. While there is much here that one could find upsetting, and indeed there has been a lot of commentary on this episode, I want to zero in on one specific act that I found quite troublesome. The student who was offended by the TA's dismissive treatment when another student mentioned a ban on gay marriage confronted the TA after class and in that conversation recorded it with his cell phone. He made the recording without first alerting the TA that he was doing so, though apparently she suspected as much, as she asked him whether he was recording the conversation. This act of recording the TA seems to have received little to no commentary elsewhere.
If a student recorded an after class conversation with me and did so surreptitiously for the purpose of entrapment, I would be outraged when I discovered that the recording was made. This so violates my sense of trust that I would view the recording as an unpardonable act. (In contrast, students often ask to record the live class session. Invariably such requests come from students for whom English is not their first language. Such recording are benign for others in attendance, because the student is trusted to use the recording for self-study purposes only, not for broadcast.) Is there a way to discourage such surreptitious recordings in the future so as to make this a non-issue? Alternatively, might it become a regular apparition as disgruntled students get back at their instructors who were the immediate cause of their dissatisfaction?
Before I speculate about the answers to these questions, let me note the irony in that this recording happened after a philosophy class on ethics. Given that, and given the student understood the recording would be irksome to the TA, he lied to her at the time and denied making the recording, if one were to take the student's perspective on this there must be an ends justify means sort of argument to rationalize the behavior.
I also want to note that this sort of behavior - steeped in anger from prior held grievances - is the other side of the coin from the students-as-sheep sort of behavior that I've discussed over the last few months in a variety of posts. In both cases there is a sense of hopelessness in the face of authority. The only real difference is in the decision to capitulate or to combat. A potential third path, to negotiate, appears infeasible to the student.
Then I want to observe that there is no First Amendment issue here. The student may perceive that there was a First Amendment issue at root earlier, in the live classroom when the other student brought up the ban on gay marriage. (I don't believe there was. Every teacher has the obligation to deflect comments or questions that appear off topic. The student isn't free to pursue the topic in the classroom against the instructor's wishes, though he certainly is free to do so later, outside of class.) But with the surreptitious recording, the only issue is that the TA has a reasonable belief that she is speaking to the student with nobody else listening in.
Now to my hope on how to discourage the behavior. My answer is to encourage the opposite - respectful communication between student and teacher. As I strongly believe that reciprocity is the key, from the get go the teacher must treat the student with respect. By this I mean that the teacher asks the student do make voluntary contributions to class, and does so repeatedly in a polite and respectful way, perhaps also in a playful and friendly way. This may seem so ho hum as to not accomplish anything. But at least in respect to the culture on my campus, where much of it is rules based and meant to deter bad actors, an approach that instead promotes collegial interaction at the outset is a radical departure from the norm, one most students should welcome. In a more welcoming environment, the reasons to engage in offputting behavior are lessened considerably.
Can collegiality in the classroom overcome the inimical tension between liberals and conservatives? My sense of this is that it requires an open mind. The teacher must feel she can teach the students irrespective of their political views. Likewise the student must feel he can learn from the teacher irrespective of her politics. Suppose this is true most of the time, but then in some instances there is the possibility that they will come to loggerheads, as the political views get in the way. Here prior collegiality, and I mean the real McCoy no some surface things only, will allow each party to give the other the benefit of the doubt. If the situation doesn't linger, things can return to normal where the tension is absent.
What we seem to have instead is aggrieved parties who are looking to take offense at the first provocation. It's that sort of mindset that leads to the surreptitious recording. The thinking is that we're at war and all is fair then. It's that thinking which must be defeated.