A Shamelessly Stolen Great Idea
Some of the best professional development can come from recognizing what’s already around.
A couple of weeks ago, I put out a call for faculty to put together a brief, practical set of tips for teaching remotely, based on what they had learned since the pandemic hit. A good group stepped up and volunteered several suggestions, which I subsequently compiled and emailed to the entire faculty.
One idea, though, struck me as so good that it would have felt immoral to withhold it from my wise and worldly readers.
The topic was camera policies. Is it fair to require students to leave their cameras on, should they only be required to have them on at certain moments, or should students be allowed to leave them off at their discretion? The danger in that last one, obviously, is that the professor can wind up teaching to a whole series of black boxes. That doesn’t help build rapport. But when students are taking classes from home — and particularly from their bedrooms — it’s fair to have some qualms around privacy.
One professor solved the issue in their own classes with a mechanism drawn from Jean-Jacques Rousseau. To be fair, Rousseau didn’t use Zoom, nor would all of his teaching methods be considered particularly ethical. (The “Emile” is a glimpse into another world…) But in The Social Contract, Rousseau defined freedom as obedience to a law one prescribes for oneself. It’s a sort of law-as-collective-conscience, helping people overcome their baser instincts, or what he called appetites.
Lest that sound absurd, it’s the same theory behind hiring personal trainers. Paying someone to yell at me to “PUSH IT” doesn’t accord with my short-term preferences (or appetites). But I know that I should exercise, and I know that I won’t unless someone makes me, so I pay someone to enforce my better self on my more slovenly one. (This would be an even better example if I actually had a personal trainer, but the point still stands.) If there’s a better illustration of his famous line that people must be “forced to be free” than a personal trainer, I haven’t seen it.
The professor’s version was to have students develop, and vote on, a camera policy on the first day of class. Because they created it, they abide by it. The professor reports minimal issues since then.
I really like the idea. It bears a family resemblance to honor codes, but with the crucial difference that honor codes are handed down; the camera policy was invented on the spot. In theory, each class might come up with a different policy. In a departure from Rousseau, the professor actually conducted a class discussion on the merits of various options before having the students make their decision, so the students could be informed of some what-if scenarios of which they might not personally be aware. (For example, certain disabilities may be impossible to hide on camera, and some students might be embarrassed by their surroundings.) That way, the consensus reflected an informed decision, rather than merely an impulsive one.
For the record, the students voted to have cameras on. They’ve complied. The professor retains the right to approve exceptions in special cases, but by and large, the policy has worked.
My guess is that it worked precisely because the students chose it. Had the professor simply announced that same policy, it probably wouldn’t have been quite as effective. This way, students can’t blame the mean authority figure for the rule; they can only blame themselves.
I mention this because camera policies remain a contentious issue, and many or most colleges will still have an unusually heavy remote component this spring. Professors who weren’t entirely happy with the camera policies they implemented in the fall might want to try this.
In my own teaching, I noticed that students tend to be tougher on each other than most faculty are on them. This strikes me as congruent with that observation. When they know that it’s up to them, and that they’ll have to live with the law they approve, they go stricter than many of us — myself included — would have guessed.
The question is new, but the theory behind it has a track record. It’s practical, quick, and apparently effective. I hereby offer it to my wise and worldly readers, with a hat-tip to the professor who mentioned it. It’s just too good not to share.