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Columns, Opinions

Pollard ’21: It’s time to talk about student-faculty online interactions

By
Staff Columnist
Monday, October 12, 2020

The University has implemented a myriad of new policies to address necessary changes for operating safely during the pandemic, but no adjustments have been made to address the issue of misconduct online, especially as it exists across professional power divides. Granted, social media existed long before the pandemic, but a recent interaction between students and a University instructor on Dear Blueno, the popular anonymous Facebook page for Brown students, is a reminder that much of our professional and personal lives exist online.

Though the University has guidelines for faculty engagement on social media, now is the time to better educate the Brown community about its rights online. Perhaps the University ought to have more stringent policies moving forward. But in order for students and faculty to consider future improvements, we all need to be better aware of current expectations and the recourse available to students who are uncomfortable with faculty-student interactions online. 

Social media demonstrates a unique opportunity for everyone to publish their thoughts, personally or anonymously, and these communications are invaluable — especially at a time when in-person interactions are limited. Thus, in this time, both our social environments and professional environments are more public and arguably more impactful than ever before, as our actions online can seldom be followed by face-to-face responses.

Recently, someone, likely a student, anonymously posted to Dear Blueno a critique of Richard Bungiro PhD’99, senior lecturer in Molecular Microbiology and Immunology, claiming he consistently runs over the scheduled class time. Bungiro’s insensitive and colloquial response, which included the phrase “beeyatch,” garnered attention across social media platforms. Some students were amused and defended his clapback while others criticized his use of derogatory slang to demean a student who was anonymously expressing their concerns. Responding to student feedback, Bungiro followed up on the original post, saying “I was insensitive, and I’m sorry. … Thank you for speaking up and calling me out when I needed it.”

Instead of any official remediation, groups of students online used pressure in numbers to hold people accountable, as seen with Bungiro, yet while the original complaint was anonymous, the majority of commenters addressing Bungiro’s comments used their own names. 

Although this was not the case for the exchange with Bungiro, this form of student accountability could present a plethora of problems. There is not a specific policy that stops any person in a position of power who has been criticized online from retaliating against those students who criticized them in grading or other academic treatment. For this reason, we shouldn’t have to rely solely on public pressures in social media in order to manage online conflicts between students and professors.

This case, in which an instructor used social media to jokingly berate an anonymous post that was critical of him, ended in an apology and a humble response to those holding him accountable for his actions. 

While in this case, there was an administrative response to the incident, it’s not necessarily clear that in the case that an instructor did not take students’ reactions to heart, there would have been consequences for their actions online. The University does not have an explicit policy for faculty social media behavior.

To be sure, the University does give faculty suggestions for using personal social media, as seen on the Social Media Guidelines and Best Practices. These suggestions cover basic education around professional conduct and protecting the University’s image, but they do not explain the extent to which faculty can be punished for behavior online. 

More rapidly now than ever before, the lines between our professional and private lives are being blurred: Professors are taking part in non-academic student spaces, and in classes students are often asked to have their camera on, revealing their private dwellings. Some students I spoke to expressed that they don’t know when and how they should push back on professors in these online spaces. Will students be punished? Will faculty? A lack of policy leaves some unsure.

And a lack of policy even left Bungiro unsure, it seems. In a follow up post to his apology, he stated: “it’s OK for students to anonymously attack their instructors, but if we respond publicly in a way that you don’t like then we should be disciplined and silenced by the administration.” 

While ethicists have been arguing over this topic for years, the pandemic has left us in unprecedented times. These adaptations to our new digital environment are understandable considering our needs for social interaction even in the strangest of times. Still, it’s time to carve out standards that moderate the extent to which professors can insert themselves into their students’ social and private lives. 

In order to balance professors’ rights to free speech online with students’ concerns for privacy and retaliation, we need to first have the conversation before attempting to make policies that address it. Students I spoke to agree that both students and likely professors, too, need to be better informed about their digital rights within the University, and believe that the University should take this opportunity to publicly address these concerns.

Clearly, students and professors should have a better understanding of their rights online in relationship to their educational institution. Even if it’s not in the form of formal policy, the University needs to clarify expectations for its faculty’s professional online behavior and the potential consequences through an educational campaign or, at least, a correspondence to the community. 

As online education seeps into our personal lives, students deserve to know our rights to privacy, and what to do when digital behavior crosses the line. Most importantly, professors should have conversations with their students and other undergraduate peers about their concerns and expectations surrounding digital privacy and social media presence. The challenges we face today in adapting to college life online provide an opportunity for all of us to better address the needs of our rapidly evolving community. 

Beth Pollard ’21 can be reached at beth_pollard@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

Clarification: A previous version of this article used the term “professor” to refer to Bungiro, when it is more accurate to refer to him as an instructor. Additionally, a previous version of the article did not specify that there was administrative response to the incident referenced. The article has been updated to reflect the changes.

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