Thursday, May 26, 2016

Do we actually judge others by whether they follow the rules?

I find myself irked by a couple of recent pieces about the State Department's inspector general review of the Hillary Clinton email situation, including this piece in the New York Times and this other one, an editorial from the Washington Post.  In particular, nobody seemed to ask, would following the rules to the letter be clunky, for example, by requiring the use of two different portable devices, one for official email the other for state department email?

To see how this issue plays out in other settings, I'm excerpting one paragraph from a very long email written by somebody who works for campus Technology Services and is a security expert.  (I'm still on the mailing list for [TECHSUPPORT].)

We get a fair number of requests each month asking our help in
untangling sticky privacy problems relating to work things hidden away
in personal containers. I wanted to mention at first that they all could
have been avoided, but that may be overly harsh- the reason I back off
of that sentiment is that those of us who have been around for a while
may have had our NetID and email accounts since very early on. People
generally had one e-mail account, and used them for everything from work
to leisure. There really was no concept of "work email" or "personal
email", or even more alien: "free webmail" or "throwaway email". You
used your email for everything, why wouldn't you? Bring that idea
forward to today with no discussion or change in expectation, and it's
no wonder we tend to mix work and pleasure. We blinked, the landscape
changed, and we probably didn't think too much about it. Habits. Sure
the problems we're having are avoidable, but only avoidable if we
acknowledge the new landscape, the risks of doing it the "old" way, and
the need to change. So as you read, I'd just like to plant that notion.
What's our ask?

I consider myself an old dog.  I do have multiple email accounts.  It is something of a pain to monitor them and mostly I am not using my phone.  I'm on my desktop computer at home, where this is much easier to do.  Hillary Clinton is 7 1/2 years my senior.  She is always on the go.  She is on her smart phone, not a laptop.  If there had been a real breach or near breach, there would be a story here.  Otherwise, this is just making smoke, whether there is actually a fire or not.

* * * * * 

As a faculty member, I'm confronted with lots of university rules.  As I teach my students, we faculty think of ourselves as bosses.  In considering university rules, I ask myself about the spirit behind the rule and whether that actually promotes the mission, keeps the university in compliance with the law, or merely is there to avoid liability in the unlikely event that things go awry.  Here's one rule on final examinations that I have complied with that many other instructors skirt around.

§ 3-201 Final Examinations

(a) All Students
(1) Requirement for final examinations: Final examinations will be given during the scheduled final examination period for each course, except in a course that has a character that renders a final examination unnecessary or impracticable. The head or chairperson of the academic department in which the course is offered determines when a final examination is not required.

The instructors who cheat do so by offering a third midterm during the last week of class and offering an optional final, for those students who think they might bump up their grade some by taking that exam.  The reality is that our semesters are too long and that students and instructors both are ready for it to end earlier.  So the vast majority of students are fine with this alternative approach, though in spirit if not in letter it violates the above policy.  And, indeed, the only reason there is an optional final is to claim that the course is in compliance with the campus policy.

While I am aware of certain administrators who are not happy with these instructors, do the students themselves rate the instructors lower as a consequence?  On this I'm ignorant, but I doubt there is any correlation between the two.  Indeed, because students want to go on break earlier, if they can, students might actually prefer the instructor who violates the policy.

I have, on multiple occasions, violated university rules on behalf of a convenience benefit that is tangible to me.   For example, on what is a Copyright violation and what is Fair Use, when I was a campus administrator I put some effort into getting clarity on the campus view, only to fail miserably at doing so.  There is campus policy on Copyright.  Good luck on trying to understand it well enough to guide individual decisions. 

Now I base my decisions mainly by feel and what is convenient, but also with a big driver being what is effective pedagogically.  This video illustrates.  It is almost surely a copyright violation because it uses one piece of music throughout, a song that was quite popular when I was a senior in high school.  Nobody will get bent out of shape out of this.   I also have the PowerPoint available for download.  Neither get enough hits to warrant anything but a yawn.  But does it comply by the rules, probably not.  Here's a little snip from a student's evaluation of the class back in 2012.

Thanks for the class! I learned a lot and had a good time. Also, the Halloween candy was awesome as was the silly portion we did about the evolution of the music industry.

This is a sample of one, so I don't want to overdo on the point, but to this student the message of that presentation got through, copyright violation or not.  The message getting through is what mattered.  

The Clintons, Bill and Hillary both, may be their own separate category because they have been in the public eye for such a long time.  For the rest of us, I believe we decide which rules we'll obey and which to violate and for the most part don't consider this an ethical matter at all.  Convenience dictates much of the time.  I hardly ever base my impression of somebody on whether they follow the rules or not.

Getting things done matters to me.  The rules, not so much.

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