Rebecca Barrett-Fox

A Reminder of Who is Hurt by Insisting that Students Share Images of their Personal Lives

If you require that students attend live classes digitally, you are putting their privacy at risk. The data that you demand is stolen by tech companies, the class can be terrorized by racists and other kinds of bigots, and the images that you require can be captured by others and circulated online forever.

Students and colleagues alike must be able to say “no” to digital meetings that require outsiders entering the private space of their homes for the reason alone that they do not wish to have guests in those spaces. That’s sufficient. A switch in job duties related to a move to remote teaching is not enough to mandate that people invite others into the sanctuary of their homes. You find a baby on your doorstep in the  middle of a blizzard? Yes, you have an obligation to bring the child inside to warmth and save a life. Your college president tells you you have to host a live class session from your bathroom, since that’s the only room that has a lock on the door that keeps your toddler away from you? No. (And, yes, I know some of you aren’t in a position to tell your college president no. But a lot of you can still speak up on behalf of those who cannot, and if you are a tenured faculty, make use of your tenure by leading the charge against this bad labor practice, bad teaching practice, and bad learning practice.)

But there are more specific reasons, too, why a person is endangered if you demand that they show participate in a digital meeting.  Like, for example:

Note that telling them to add a Zoom background does not fix any of this; these backgrounds do not work with all computers, use valuable computer resources, and do not prevent others from appearing on the screen.

Above, George Rouault’s The Poor Family III (1912). The painting is also called Interior or Refugee. A man in blue pants and a white shirt sits and a table while a woman in red stands in the back, perhaps carrying a child, while two other small figures appear in the background.

Even if none of these things apply to your students now (which you have no right to know), they could arise later. Will you you count students absent if they later cannot attend an online meeting for one of these reasons? Will you demand that they bring you these excuses for your evaluation? Should a student have to risk telling you that they are limited to 20 minutes a day of interaction with others by an abusive boyfriend for you to design a course that respects everyone’s privacy? Should they tell you that their undocumented father just moved into their apartment–and risk you telling someone else?

They will not. They’ll just not show up, and then you’ll be worried. Or you’ll be irritated at them.

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If you didn’t think about these things before you moved to remote teaching, don’t berate yourself–that’s just evidence that teaching online requires a different way of thinking as a teacher than does teaching F2F, and since you haven’t been taught it, you don’t know it.

But you need to stop requiring that students show up and show you their lives, especially in ways that can be recorded by their peers and then circulated online.

That you didn’t read about Zoom’s terrible track record on privacy before you mandated such participation should make you ask yourself What else am I possibly ignoring? Why am I naive about how surveillance technology can harm people? And if you did not fully explain the privacy implications of such technology on students, you should ask yourself What assumptions do I hold about my role as teacher? Why do I assume that I–not students–should decide if the risks I am demanding they take are safe for them?

It’s okay to remote teach imperfectly, but privacy violations are not a place where you, as the teacher, can repeat mistakes. To be blunt: people can die, go to jail, be deported, and be exposed to online bullying if you do.

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