Privacy is an increasingly important social implication of technology, and we spend quite a bit of time about it in our required undergraduate ethics and social implications of technology class, CS 4001. Since we’re talking about privacy, it makes sense to talk about surveillance. Since 2004, I’ve taught a class about The USA PATRIOT Act, and more recently I’ve added a class on information revealed by Edward Snowden. I spend more time preparing for those classes than for any other two or three put together—it’s confusing and complicated. There are provisions of the Patriot Act that are absolutely essential—like broadening the jurisdiction of warrants to tap phones to the entire country (rather than making you get a warrant in each state). And others that are egregious violations of our liberty—like the section 215 provision that lets the government get the records of any organization without a warrant or probable cause and bars the organization from acknowledging the search. The FBI can simply demand the membership list of a mosque—and they have done so. For the last two years, I’ve assigned my students to watch the PBS Frontline documentary United States of Secrets, about US warrantless surveillance (“The Program”) and information leaked by Edward Snowden. In our class discussion, we don’t focus on Snowden, but on other people—like NSA analyst Thomas Drake—and the tough decisions they had to make. After class on Tuesday where I carefully spell out what’s allowed under the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), I feel like a bit of fool on Thursday when we discuss The Program and the fact that all those rules aren’t really followed anyway.
I do my best not to express any opinions to my class—I present the facts, and ask them what they think. And as much as possible, I emphasize tradeoffs and try to show the issues as complicated. And then I walk back from class and scratch my head—what do I actually think?
After class last week, two things became clearer in my mind. The first is about checks and balances. My children are learning about checks and balances in elementary school social studies class. Checks and balances are fundamental to how our government works. And it suddenly became evident to me that most cases of the system going too far are situations where checks and balances are not occurring. You don’t need a court order to get records with a National Security Letter (NSL). Why not? A secret court like the FISA court could do the job. And if it’s urgent, the review could take place within a reasonable time after the fact (as FISA mandates for surveillance.) It’s too much to ask any one branch of government to police themselves. The FBI needs to pursue things as aggressively as they dare, and the judiciary needs to say, “You may go this far and no farther.” Parts of the Patriot Act removed checks and balances, and procedures without checks and balances are where we get into trouble. Everything you need to know we all learned in elementary school—but somehow, we’ve forgotten it.
The second thought is about means and ends. It is possible for me to describe a fictional situation in which reasonable people would agree that that the ends justify evil means—like recording everyone all the time, or torturing someone for information. If you don’t agree with that statement, make the situation more extreme until you do. But in real life, the evidence for the need is almost never that compelling. If you demand an iron-clad case, you’ll (almost) never say the ends justify evil means in real situations. Real life is not an episode of ’24’.
Can a MOOC teach course content to anyone, anywhere? It’s an imagination-grabbing idea. Maybe everyone could learn about topics from the greatest teachers in the world! Create the class once, and millions could learn from it!
It seems like an exciting idea. Until you realize that the entire history of human-computer interaction is about showing us that one size doesn’t fit all.
I went to two terrific talks on MOOCs a few weeks ago. At the GVU Brown Bag, Karen Head and Rebecca Burnett talked about their brave attempt to teach an English composition class free online, for anyone interested. They encountered intriguing challenges. The course said you needed to be fluent in English as a prerequisite, but some people who signed up were far from fluent. The course did reach people all over the world, but some of those people disapproved of Karen’s style of dress. Her attire was conservative by American standards, but the world is a big place and some people felt otherwise and said so, loudly. The instructors used YouTube as part of assignments, but YouTube is banned some of the countries their students live in. Trying to accommodate everyone everywhere turned out to be a stressful endeavor.
The second talk was by Ed Cutrell of Microsoft Research India at the ACM Learning at Scale conference. Ed has been studying engineering education in India. He explained that the top-level universities in India serve about 40,000 engineering students per year. The rest of the universities serve another 4,000,000 engineering students per year. The quality of teaching at lower tier universities in India is wildly variable. In some cases, the instructors don’t know the material themselves. Many aren’t career teachers, but are teaching on a temporary basis until they can find an engineering job. Given those constraints, Ed and colleagues are using a blended learning model where short videos by experts are followed by class discussion. With this approach, the instructor and students learn the material together. Trying to respond to the particularities of a learning context, Ed was able to design a successful solution.
If I am designing a class, even if I limit my audience to “Georgia Tech students,” that isn’t a specific enough. I would design a different class for undergraduates versus graduate students, for computer science (CS) majors versus majors in computational media (CM). I don’t always have the luxury of making those classes different—economics dictates that the CS and CM majors take almost all their classes together. Financial considerations push us to generalize.
Do you own any clothing that is one-size-fits-all? It works great for my nightshirts, but it wouldn’t work if I tried it for pants. And there are some people who don’t fit into one-size-fits-all, even for nightshirts. The analogy to online classes works pretty well. There are a few simple things where one size will work tolerably well. But in most cases we should stop trying to make one size fit all.
Since we’re talking about how to be a professor, here it is: The Professor’s Manual Wiki.
I have no idea if this will work… but it does seem like the kind of topic where sharing our collective wisdom might be helpful. Please jump in!
Matt Welsh at Harvard wrote a nice blog post “The Secret Lives of Professors” that has been reposted by lots of folks. I think he makes some great points. I thought I’d throw in my 2 cents.
Like Matt, it surprised me how much time I end up spending raising money. Time and angst. Early on in my career, a senior faculty member told me that writing these things is good for you–writing a proposal really helps you figure out what you’re doing. I laughed at the time (This is good for me? Uh, yeah–whatever). But the more I’ve done it, the more I’ve realized how right she was. When you’ve written a really solid proposal, the rest is easy. In some ways, some of the hardest students to advise are the ones with NSF fellowships. (OK, you can do anything. Now what?)
That’s the good news. The bad news: grant rates have gotten unreasonably competitive. And in the end, panels are often forced to pick between apples and oranges. Ie, here are four equally sound proposals on quite different topics, but we can only fund one. This contributes to the angst part of the equation.
Another thing that continues to surprise me is how much you need to build up your own set of heuristics about what is important–what you prioritize, and why. And to try to stay true to the rules you’ve laid out–to make active decisions about how to manage your time, and not just drift in the direction of the thing marked URGENT in your inbox. As a graduate student, if a nice person asked me to do something that seemed worthwhile and it was possible for me to do it, I said yes. This seems like a reasonable approach, doesn’t it? As a faculty member, it’s woefully inadequate. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. Yup, that conference is actually worthwhile, and I am really not busy those days. But if I squeeze another trip in between trip one and trip two, I’ll be coming and going continually. Many of my colleagues are always coming and going, and seem to like it that way. Me, I can’t get real work done that way. I can’t live that way.
In the undergraduate class “Computers, Society, and Professionalism” I teach, we spend a class on virtue ethics. I don’t think it’s the deepest of philosophies–but it might be the most useful. What kind of person (professor) do you want to be? I ask myself that all the time. There are more possible answers than you might think–there are lots of different kinds of things to strive for, to feel satisfied about. And it surprises me the extent to which the answer to that question is up to me, and the ways that my moment-by-moment decisions shape the bigger picture. I come home too often feeling frustrated that I didn’t get my paper written, when instead I should be thinking “I really helped that poor lost student today.” I try to remind myself of that, but it’s not always easy.
One Big Opportunity
I was an undergrad at Harvard, and I loved it there. Being a Harvard student is just one big opportunity–but it is what you make of it, and there’s not a whole lot of support. It’s easy to get lost. Different schools are good for learning different kinds of things, and for different kinds of people. Harvard has got a lot of prestige, and prestige opens doors. Some of the prestige is well deserved, some is nonsense. Some folks thrive there, and for others it’s absolutely the wrong place. And everything I just said I think sums up being a professor. I love it, and for someone with the right personality it’s just one big fantastic opportunity. Opportunity to do work you care about, and to influence the world for the better both through your teaching and the knowledge discovered and shared in your papers.