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Video Killed the Faculty Star

November 18, 2010

In what seems the TMZ-ification of higher education, three separate professors have found themselves the subjects of “gotcha” YouTube segments in recent days.

While the cases differ widely, faculty members at Cornell University, Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge and the University of Central Florida have all seen pieces of their lectures go viral in the last several weeks. Taken collectively, the carefully edited clips play up familiar stereotypes about faculty: there’s the quick-tempered bore (Cornell), the liberal indoctrinator (Louisiana State) and the lazy test-recycler (Central Florida).

As one would suspect, there's more to these stories than any of the videos can provide. Moreover, there’s evidence at Louisiana State that clips were intentionally cut for effect. But there is one singular, unavoidable reality the spreading of the videos makes clear: professors “caught on tape” is a growing genre, and some think it could have a chilling effect on academe.

The most recent viral videos include a Cornell lecturer getting worked up over a student’s loud yawns; a Louisiana State professor who appears to attack conservatives over global warming; and a Central Florida professor criticizing a class he thinks is full of cheaters – inviting their counterargument that he should have written original test questions.

The video phenomenon thrust Louisiana State into damage control mode Wednesday, as a conservative watchdog group – Campus Reform – released a clip that appeared to show a professor berating students for their views on global warming. In a press release, the group selectively noted that Bradley Schaefer, a professor of physics and astronomy, had warned students who didn’t support government regulation of carbon emissions that “blood will be on your hands.” What the video and press release left out, however, were other provocative comments – found in a longer version of the video – Schaefer made toward students who supported regulation.

Photo: Campus Reform

Bradley Schaefer (circled in red to identify), a professor of physics and astronomy at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, is captured in a video seeming to admonish students who don't favor regulating carbon emissions. The video, posted on a conservative website, was very selectively edited.

“You want to get rid of the internal combustion engine,” he said mockingly to self-identified liberals. “How many people are going to die with that? How are you going to feed the people in the cities?”

In an interview with Inside Higher Ed Wednesday, Schaefer described his induction into the professors-gone-wild club as "a setup.” He said he was recorded unknowingly by a person who wasn’t even enrolled in his class. And while Schaefer did divide students in the classroom based on their self-identified political views, he said he did so as part of an intellectual exercise. The idea was to place Schaefer in the role of an antagonist, forcing students of every political persuasion to defend their views on how to deal with climate change.

“I was challenging all sides,” he said. “I was presenting all sides, and in a case like that you can always edit out and make anyone say anything.”

Oddly enough, Campus Reform was in possession of the longer video that shows Schaefer attacking both sides. So what’s with the selective clips?

“There was no editing job done. It was made to take the nuts and bolts rather than watch the full 40-minute video,” said Bryan Bernys, spokesman for the group.

Bernys went on to say that the "transparency" provided by the videos should be good for higher education. While some might agree higher education could use more transparency, selective editing is the very thing the use of video invites – and it’s something that should be a real concern for academe, said Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors.

“We have a genuine problem in what amounts to the public misrepresentation of what has taken place in classrooms, combined with the incredible persuasiveness of video,” he said.

Interestingly, the AAUP was weighing in on a related matter as early as 1915, Nelson explained. The organization stated at the time – well before anyone could envision an iPhone camera – that the dialogue between professors and students should stay within the closed community of the classroom. Technology inevitably changes that reality, but the basic principle still has value, Nelson said.

“The notion is that academic freedom and completely honest communication in the classroom requires a certain degree of privacy for all the people there, that they need to be able to be frank, that they need to express their emotions honestly, that the classroom is not a stage, that it’s not designed to be a public performance,” he said.

Balancing Video's Powers and Perils

Secret recordings may seem a peculiar invasion, but that’s not the only way to turn a professor into a YouTube sensation. The videos from Cornell and Central Florida both appear to be drawn from lecture capture systems commonly used by colleges to record classes.

Mark P. Talbert, a lecturer in Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration, probably never anticipated his talk to his class would find its way from a lecture capture feed to the Huffington Post. But that’s one of the many places -- including Inside Higher Ed -- where Talbert's talk landed this week. The 2½ minute segment that drew such attention features Talbert unsuccessfully searching for a student he suggests is yawning loudly. Declaring "my bad side is as bad as my pleasant side is pleasant," Talbert said he couldn't tolerate “one more of these overly loud yawns," instructing the unknown offender to "get up and walk the hell out.”

Photo: Youtube

Richard Quinn, an instructor in the management department at the University of Central Florida, told students in a video taped lecture that he believed many of them cheated. In response, an edited youtube video containing his remarks suggests students merely studied published test questions. Click here for full story.

The full video of Talbert’s lecture was available for anyone to view Monday. By Tuesday, however, it had been placed behind a password firewall. An editor for Inside Higher Ed, who watched the entire lecture prior to posting it on the site and before it was removed from public view, said he did not see or hear anything out of the ordinary in the class for the 40 minutes before the outburst.

The Cornell lecture was part of a lecture capture offering -- a service increasingly popular in higher education -- in which lectures are recorded and displayed along with slides from that class, as a teaching tool that can be used after class.

There are some solutions for colleges that aim to decrease distribution potential without sacrificing the obvious advantages of video, according to one company that provides lecture capture services. As with several other providers, Tegrity Lecture Capture allows password protection for videos. Additionally, Digital Rights Management tools make distributing content more difficult, said Michael Berger, senior director of marketing. Tegrity also allows professors to pause the recording mid-lecture if they choose, he said.

There's no perfect solution, though. If the Internet age has taught us anything, it’s that guarding videos viewable by lots of people is going to be a challenge. Phone cameras, the apparent source of the Louisiana State clip, allow students to surreptitiously record just about anything, and granting hundreds or thousands of students access to a video – password protected or not – obviously invites distribution.

Kevin Carman, dean of Louisiana State’s College of Science, said he’s concerned about the brave new world that manifested itself in an attack on one of his colleagues.

“I think that’s one of the real challenges of the generation we’re in now – of the information age,” he said. “We want to make information available, but this is an example of where it can be distorted in a way that does not serve academia well.”

 

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