A violation of trust in the classroom

Over at Mama Ph.D., “Math Geek Mom” Rosemarie Emanuele revealed something that happened to her last year which I find unbelieveably shocking and upsetting:

Ursuline College [her employer] has excellent programs in fashion design and fashion merchandising, along with several tangential programs, including interior design and the only master’s program in Historic Preservation in the state of Ohio. I often have students from these programs in my classes, and can’t help but feel a little self-conscious at my own wardrobe, which is classical “preppy”. It looks ok on me, and saves me money in buying new clothes, since I only have to replace things when they wear out. I make no pretense of trying to be in style, and I therefore don’t have to even try. However, last semester I discovered that my own disregard to fashion was not necessarily shared by my students.

I learned, from one of my math majors, that a student in one of my classes had been taking pictures of me in class and sending them to friends at another school. She overheard this student talking in the cafeteria about a new picture she had taken of me, which she was e-mailing to her friend [emphasis Historiann’s.]  I realized then that apparently the line about “no phones in class” on my syllabus needs to be put in bold. I was more annoyed that my own academic freedom in the classroom had been violated than that they thought I produced laughable photos; what if I had been discussing some recent, unpublished research that was now “out there” for the world to see? However, without catching the student myself, there was little I could do.

Stories like this are good reminders for why, when classes start week after next, I need to give my speech about how the classroom is a space we all need to respect and feel safe in, and in which we need to know we can trust each other.  How incredibly disrespectful of this student to surreptitiously photograph her professor for the purpose of mocking her.  Besides:  how tacky and juvenile!  Who after the age of 14 or 15 spends that much time obsessing about their teachers’ clothing?  I’m hoping this is just a case where the offender didn’t think about the implications of using technology in this way.  It’s one thing to snicker occasionally with a classmate or a friend about someone’s clothing–it’s another to photograph the object of your derision without her permission and to circulate those photos digitally.  (I’d be much less concerned about the violation of intellectual property that bothers Emanuele, unless it were a video with audio rather than just a still photograph.  Whatever the goal of this surreptitious photo shoot, it’s a basic violation of privacy and trust.)


Your hair will look just as stupid in 10 years.

We old-timers have opinions about what our students wear, too, although we’re generally mature enough to keep it to ourselves.  We’ve also been around long enough to know that what 20 year-olds think is the latest and greatest look and hairstyle will embarass them in another 10 or 15 years.  We also will hope that so long as our graduates are presentable and appropriately dressed for the work they do, no one will hold them up for derision because of their fashion choices.

I suppose I’m also shocked by Emanuele’s story because Ursuline College is a small women’s college, not a huge state uni with 300- or 700-person lectures, and therefore it probably is the kind of place where professors like her certainly know their students’ names, and like to think they know their students.  I wonder how a student would feel if she learned that a professor was secretly photographing her on a regular basis and sharing those photos with her or his friends (for whatever purposes)?  I’m sure that would be an offense for which a faculty member would be disciplined, if not dismissed, because it’s disrespectful, besides being creepy and stalkerish.

Have you ever heard of anything like this before?  For those of you old enough to enjoy a little Duran Duran flashback, here’s “Girls on Film.” Dig the big hair and the mullets.  For you “cool” younger readers:  the Dork Waits for No Man (or Woman).  Memento Dorki.

0 thoughts on “A violation of trust in the classroom

  1. GAH! how horrible! I mean seriously, what kind of law suit would that student and hir parents inflict on a prof who was doing the same whereas the student would just plead, “oh, it was just a stupid prank. I didn’t know better. We were just having fun.” The student is a peeping Tom! I feel dirty just reading this. I need a shower. How absolutely horrifying!


  2. It just shows my tech level that this would NEVER EVER have occurred to me. I keep forgetting my phone HAS a camera. Sigh.
    And yes, it’s icky.


  3. I am mildly curious whether majoring in fashion, which is a world which specializes in photographing people and exploring minute variations in clothing/accessories, might somehow inure a student to the idea that photographing someone without their permission is incredibly wrong. (Paparazzi don’t set a very good example, nor does People magazine with “fashion faux pas” sections.) Maybe the college’s responsible departments should consider a Fashion Ethics course.


  4. Erica–I hadn’t thought of your point about the student’s major, which strikes me as a good one. Still, since she was taking photos for the purpose of mocking Emanuele, it’s obnoxious. But you may be right that people majoring in fashion or design might not be inclined to think twice about taking a photo of someone.

    I’m glad I’m not the only person freaked out by this. I thought Emanuele’s reaction was remarkably restrained, as though her anti-fashion wardrobe somehow justified this student’s derision.

    What are our rights not to be photographed without our permission? Do we have any? Does it matter that Emanuele was at work, versus going about her business on the street?


  5. I’m not surprised. After all, RMP is full of snarky comments on professors’ attire (particularly female academics who are either unfashionably dressed or just not pretty enough).

    Of course, many students simply don’t see their professors as people — we’re more akin to vending machines or maids in their minds. They’re more interested in scoring points with their friends than scoring well on the course material in these cases, I find. These are usually the same people who are absolute creeps to anyone in customer service positions.


  6. Something vaguely like this happened to me, only different. I gave a small extra-credit assignment that involved students taking pictures of a polling place during the 2008 primary season, subject to the existing electoral rules, and to be done withoutany subterfuge. The objective was to get them to at least see the election going on, and even perhaps vote in it. Most of the submissions were pretty pro forma and lame, even duplicative, although not all of them. The Fashion Merchandising or other vo-tech subject majors tended to put more design mojo into their presentations, I guess reflecting their training. One of the submissions included a picture of me in the class, which–shocked though I was–was actually a better shot than I usually take. Hadn’t thought about that episode since then and I doubt whether it ever got Photoshopped or Flickr’d.

    Who knows, though? I agree this one is unambiguously outside of the bounds, and by a good margin. But what are the bounds? Pictures from on a campus showing generic students (or faculty, or administerians) for whatever artistic, scientific, or editorial purpose?

    Ah, an ’80s music revival! Can we haz some Big Country one of these days, Historiann?


  7. Indyanna–at least they used a flattering photo of you! (And, to be fair, you set them loose with cameras into the world.) I’ve been photographed for promotional purposes by Baa Ram U., but only in staged settings where I think we all had to sign release forms, so there was no question about consent. I wouldn’t object to being photographed by a student for a legitimate educational exercise–but that’s not what happened to Emanuele, who was photographed illegitimately and without her consent. (As you say, well out of bounds.)

    I just think it’s normal and respectful to ask people if they would consent to be photographed. If not, then no photo.

    Janice–I agree that it’s not totally surprising that Emanuele was made into an object of derision because of her wardrobe. We all know that that’s the most important thing about women professors: their fashion sense! But don’t overdo it: I’ve been criticized by students who were intimidated by my being well-dressed. (By graduate students, actually! Can you believe it?)


  8. Not only is that horribly juvenile, but at my institution we have a code about non-academic misconduct that I put into my syllabus every year, and I think this student’s conduct could fall under that definition; it includes things like videoing instructors without their consent, being disruptive in class, threats, etc.

    I’m so sorry, Math Geek Mom, that you had to deal with that! It is so incredibly inappropriate.


  9. I agree this is appalling, though at least (hopefully) the student emailed the photos to a friend, and did NOT post them on the internet for anyone to see. That would be worse. I understand that students will gossip and make fun, etc., and while I don’t actually *like* that, I can accept it. It’s when it becomes so public that it really bothers me. This example creeps me out.

    But, thanks for the DD clip!


  10. That’s just rude and creepy of the student. I do think that many of the younger generation (I will unpack the fact that I even typed that later…) have very, very different ideas about privacy and appropriate use of technology than those of us who didn’t grow up with camera phones, webcams, text messaging, etc. Instead of just whispering to their neighbor about their prof’s appearance, they can snap a pic and snicker about it with all their friends. The difference is the persistence… their friends can also forward the image on to whoever, or it can be posted to the web, etc.

    I did a little digging, and it is perfectly legal to photograph people in public places — that, if you are in a public place, you have very little (if any) expectation of privacy. “Members of the public have a very limited scope of privacy rights when they are in public places. Basically, anyone can be photographed without their consent except when they have secluded themselves in places where they have a reasonable expectation of privacy such as dressing rooms, restrooms,
    medical facilities, and inside their homes.” (1) The key here would be whether the classroom can be considered a public place. What about at a public institution? A private one?

    There are limitations as to how the image can be used – commercial, educational, personal, libelous or otherwise “outside the normal sensibilities”, etc. (2) But you’d have to find the picture in circulation, hire a lawyer, and meet whatever the legal standards are.

    Apparently, things have more rights when it comes to photography than people do. (3) If we can patent genes, why can’t we trademark ourselves?

    (1) http://www.krages.com/ThePhotographersRight.pdf
    (2) http://pcworld.about.com/news/Jun062006id125893.htm (scroll to photographing people in public)
    (3) http://www.wipo.int/sme/en/documents/ip_photography.htm


  11. I’m shocked no one brought up the fact this is sort of old news. A few years ago, when RMP started posting pix of professors, lots of us were a bit concerned about students taking our photographs (and videos of us!) without permission.

    I’m not surprised by any of this, especially considering it’s a fashion student critiquing clothing (if an inappropriate way…I think Erica hit the nail on the head analyzing that part….but we’re all foolish if we think Pat the Math major might not do the same thing). It’s just more evidence that some (many?) of our students are just 14-year-olds in adult bodies.

    Just more evidence that some (many?) undergraduates do not respect their professors (or their classmates…and far too often themselves).


  12. Just wanted to echo Digger’s point that this current group of students had all this technology (and the ability to distribute images etc instantaneously) when they were too young to have thought carefully about boundaries. I’m in my mid-20s and while I don’t take Historiann’s view towards sites like facebook, I did grow up with a strong sense of decorum and privacy that informed how I used the technology I got my hands on in my early 20s, as opposed to my early teens. (Not that everybody my age learned such lessons; I’m always staggered by how rude people can be with blackberries and texting while talking to a live person, among other things.) My sense of this group is that what lessons they receive in decorum and privacy come alongside or after they get their hands on tech. That’s not to excuse what happened to this professor but reading about this incident has persuaded me that, somewhere along the line, these lessons need to be taught. Who’s to do that? I don’t know.


  13. Digger–thanks for looking into the legalities. I suspected that in public we have very few rights, but I would argue that the classroom is a kind of in-between space–it’s not a public space, in that those who are eligible to be there have either been admitted to the university or have a series of qualifications that most people don’t have. Even at a public university, it’s no one’s right to attend the meeting of a particular class unless they’re enrolled in the class or teaching it, or have the permission of the instructor.

    This is what was at stake when those comedians got ejected from John Yoo’s class, and why it’s such a big deal when ideological brown shirts attend classes they’re not enrolled in to collect syllabi and report back to Campus Freedom Watch or whatever.

    At my uni, faculty are nearly sovereign (thank dog). If it’s on our syllabus, we can set whatever rules we want to for conduct as well as academic standards, grading, etc.

    As for What Not To Wear: I’m pretty confident that that show must get a LOT of entries that are just mean–not from friends or trusted colleagues, but from nasty people like this student. I’ve seen that show a few times, and I get the sense that they’re careful to sort through and select the nominees for the treatment carefully.


  14. Last semester I had a student take a photo of my shoes — and though I was a little weirded out, it wasn’t super-surreptitious: he’d exclaimed about my shoes to moment I walked in (Pucci, bought on mega-sale, and way more fabulous than I myself am), and then he snapped a photo with his phone a few minutes later. He didn’t ask permission, but he wasn’t hiding what he was doing.

    If it happened again I’d say something, but at the time I was too surprised. And I admit: the fact that he was a great student and a fun personality — and that it was clearly intended as a compliment — made me more inclined to let it slide.


  15. All this goes to show that we are public figures – sadly we don’t get the paychecks and assistants of celebrities, but for all intents and purposes we live in a similar bubble because students know us but we don’t always know them. And the behavior of this particular student is like the paparazzi (as someone mentioned above) because we’re public figures to be mocked or admired.

    Perhaps I could request that Brangelina send me one of their assistants, I’d love to have a research assistant!


  16. I haven’t had pictures taken, but I know my students discuss my clothing and appearance in class. I have had students on evals comment on my clothes. It’s kind of strange because I generally wear jeans and either a button-down shirt or some kind of polo-style shirt. Nothing out of the ordinary.

    But I do keep in mind that my students generally favor style over substance, and I’d be *more* shocked if they actually engaged in an extended deconstruction of some intellectual point I made in class.


  17. Andrew Mc–thanks for dropping by to comment here. Welcome!

    Your students discuss your clothing and appearance in class? That’s over the top! I take it for granted that my students do this, but none of them have had the temerity to do it in unflattering terms when I’m present. (I do get compliments from the women students on my outfits and accessories sometimes–compliments are fine.)

    I agree with you about style-over-substance in most students’ minds.


  18. Years ago, before personal computers, digital cameras, cellphones, etc., this behavior occurred. A colleague told me that at one of the Seven Sisters colleges, her friend and faculty member participated in the tradition of having a seminar to her house for supper. One by one her students would disappear to the bathroom, sometimes twice or three times, and for some length of time per visit.

    Only later did the faculty member discover that the class had been trying to ascertain whether she used birth control.

    I find that my female students assume, that because I’m also female, that there is an instant friendship–and that sort of 18-year-old, just-outta-high-school type of friendship. Mentions of boyfriends, roommate problems, biological functions, etc., in office hours, as well as remarks about clothing. And then there’s the cry when I flunked a female student on an exam and she said “But you were my friend!” Oy.

    I did get a student evaluation that read “should teach in the nude” in my early days of teaching. Double oy.


  19. Mmmmm. Bad writing skills. My students discuss the clothing I wear and my appearance, as I present myself in class. They don’t do it in class, no.

    Sorry for the confusion. Late night, early morning.


  20. Historiann, you LIKE compliments on your clothes while you’re at work? I guess the complimenters mean well, but to me they’re annoying. I hate that it’s rude if I don’t thank them for their offerings or fake a show of pleasure. As if they’ve done me a favor by approving of my attire or haircut.

    I sound crotchety, eh? Maybe I’d enjoy these comments if I felt well-esteemed at my job on the substantive side. “Nice shoes” and “Hey great outfit!” sound reductive, and remind me of what I’m not getting.


  21. LadyProf–I see what you mean. The compliments usually only come in classes that are going well, not in every class, so it’s usually from a student in a group in which there’s a good repoire. And, they’re not extravagant or embarassing–just, “nice dress” or “great bag.”

    If it felt insincere or smarmy, then I’d be crotchety.


  22. Perhaps it is where I teach, which is a pretty beauty obsessed place, but this story did not shock me at all. Maybe it is b/c 10+ years ago, a now decorated colleague in my field did a whole comic strip about me on his personal website and only took it down when he went back on the market. I found it through an old link about 5 years ago and was horrified. That was before digital cameras and video phones, but it still had my name on it and a rendering that was far worse than a photo.

    Or maybe it is just b/c these things are becoming common. There was a pretty big scandal in a law school of male students taking photos of female professors and creating an internal site of the sort of “hot or not” variety 2 years ago. I cannot remember where but I do remember the scandal broke when a blonde professor’s credential came into question and the site became public.

    For a generation who dance in their undies on youtube wailing about their teen idol its hard for them to see the violation. Some youtubers have gotten famous humiliating others. Besides Perez Hilton and the Britney guy, there is even one youtuber who spent some time being interviewed by entertainment shows like ET and E! b/c of a weekly segment he does with his bestfriend (female) where they go to the mall, videotape unsuspecting ppl (usually slightly overwieght 40+ women) and then mock everything wrong with their outfits. He was actually invited to comment on celebrity outfits in the segment I saw.

    It’s a world without boundaries where cruelty is becoming/is the norm.


  23. PS. lay off Duran Duran’s hair. I paint myself like a jungle animal and streak through the woods in my cousin’s yard in celebration of that hair every summer. ;P


  24. Awesome! Bring on the big, bad hair, susrro! Hungry like the wolf!

    I take what your saying about the different boundaries the current generation may have, as opposed to older broads like us. Still–don’t you think that at least some of the will mature to regret their callousness and heedless use of technology? I certainly engaged in my share of cruelty as a teenager and even as a college student–mean nicknames among my friends for certain teachers and classmates, for example. But, they were kept in confidence in a small group. We didn’t make a fake Fb page with pictures of all of our targets, labeled with the cruel nicknames.

    I still feel bad that I even doled out some cruel nicknames privately, let alone broadcast them on the web for everyone to see.


  25. I don’t know, I hope so. But I worry that b/c ppl’s public cruelty is validated and even lucrative these days that there is less incentive to “grow out of it.” Paging historians specializing in gossip columns and the like . . . how does tech facilitate these behaviors and are they similar over time?


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