Failure to Communicate

Recent conflicts in higher ed make Robert Steele Jr. think it's time to replace some online discussion with the face-to-face variety.

December 22, 2005

I’ll be the first to admit that the Internet has proven to be an incredibly democratizing tool in higher education. Typewriters, mimeograph machines, floppy disks (the real ones) -- to me they’re the stuff of legend. Yet I’ve gotten to wondering if a few recent campus incidents haven’t revealed a disturbing problem in the way technology has changed the way we communicate in academe.

As a freshman way back in the technological stone age (the mid 1990s), I can remember professors announcing that we would experiment with e-mail to communicate class announcements -- a totally new concept for teachers who corresponded with family and friends with a pen, not a keyboard, when they were students. From that point on, I’ve enjoyed new technological tools as an undergrad, graduate student, and administrator. The benefits to higher education -- speedy communication, increased access to information, etc. – have been obvious. I for one couldn’t imagine not renewing my library books online, let alone what it must have been like to use a rotary phone in a dorm room.

At the same time, it’s hard not to notice that for many students and faculty members, the Web also provides an open environment to bash, belittle and bemoan. Trivial? Not so much when students utilize these tools to bypass their college communities and create a wholly unproductive debate on some hot-button social topics. The fact that the discussion on these issues has been essentially outsourced to the Internet is, frankly, somewhat troublesome.

Take the case of Ryan Miner,  a sophomore at Duquesne University. Miffed at the prospect of a gay/straight student organization forming at the Roman Catholic university, Miner decided to voice his opinion. But instead of seeking a meeting with the organization’s leadership or Duquesne officials to explain why he felt the group didn’t belong at the university, Miner simply posted his comments -- which described homosexual acts “subhuman” – on Facebook.

When fellow students discovered Miner’s post, they brought it to the attention of Duquesne administrators, who in turn alerted the university’s judicial services. A few letters and a hearing later, and Miner is facing possible dismissal from the university. Did Facebook allow for Miner’s opinion to be seen and heard? Absolutely. Did the post accomplish anything positive on either side? Not a single thing. n fact, the medium used to express his opinion only encouraged Miner to be callous and superficial.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with expressing your opinion online. But something gets lost when students decide to drum up support against a campus organization out in cyberspace. The American college campus has been, at its very core, a site for the exchange of views and knowledge -- a utopia for the promotion free expression. Thus, it’s all the more reason, first and foremost, to keep the debate on campus and in person instead of relegating it to the relative ambiguity of the Internet. If Miner would have sat down and spoken with gay students or university administrators, he could have articulated his case respectfully without yielding his position and, maybe, even learned about the issue through the views of others -- an outcome much more likely to occur in person than online. If appreciating differences of opinions and learning to work with others is a prime effort of the “college experience,” then effectively making your argument online by yourself makes zero sense.

Faculty members taking the same steps can be equally as damaging to the campus (not to mention themselves). John Daly, an adjunct professor at Warren County Community College, resigned this month amid the controversy over an e-mail he sent to a student regarding an upcoming symposium supporting the war in Iraq. Instead of taking his qualms to the administration, or seeking a meeting with the student to discuss the situation, Daly simply berated the student in an e-mail. The college specifically stated that Daly's letter was “sent as a one-to-one message, via e-mail, to one person, and not to the college community.” Daly might still have his job if he opened his mouth before punching the keys.

Similarly, University of Kansas Professor Paul Mirecki’s comments about an upcoming course on intelligent design, which he was slated to teach, created a stir on KU’s campus and recently resulted in the cancellation of the class. Mr. Mirecki’s comments, e-mailed to a student listserv, referred to religious fundamentalists as “fundies” and expressed the hope his class would provide “a nice slap in their big fat face.”

By using the Web as the primary vehicle to drive their arguments, Miner, Daly and Mirecki created combative situations that never stood a chance of being heard fairly, equally, and productively from all parties involved. Sure, they expressed their opinions, but this is less about freedom of expression and more about how we communicate with one another responsibly.

If these three cases are any indication of where we are headed, then perhaps there should be a fresh effort to remind students and faculty that their views about campus issues are, at times, better communicated through more traditional means. Colleges have spent a great deal of time and effort attempting to regulate e-mail communication -- why not promote the virtues of face-to-face interaction? Facebook and e-mail have one student close to expulsion, one professor looking for a new job, and another unable to teach a course he created. Would these situations been resolved to everyone’s approval had Miner, Daly and Mirecki rapped on their respective presidents’ doors? Maybe not. But if their views had been channeled on campus -- the place best suited for a fair and informed dialogue -- I’m willing to bet none of the three would be facing the problems they have today.



Robert Steele Jr. is a doctoral candidate at George Washington University.


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