Recording What Goes on in Class

A freshman in a sociology class at the University of Wisconsin (Whitewater) recorded “a guest lecturer denouncing many Republicans as racist, classist, sexist, homophobic, and dishonest.” To his surprise, he–rather than the Republican-bashing lecturer–became the issue. Since the 1970s, the university has required permission to record and distribute classroom discussion, and now seems bent on reaffirming that policy. The student said: “People should have been upset that he came into the classroom and said that. but instead they were upset that I recorded it and made it public.”

But snippets of speech from close-door meetings are routine these days, and one wonders about double standards. Would the student have been in trouble for recording an equally baleful, generic attack on Democrats? How many questioned the surreptitious recording of Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” outburst?

Instead, the sociology class described by the Chronicle appears to have had ambitions that have been called “political” on the mild side to “indoctrinating” on the not-so-mild side. What a video exposé accomplishes is a moment when those not in the classroom can determine where the line might be drawn between the mild and less mild. Calling someone a racist is hardly the same as examining the social realities of racism.

The modern university classroom is no longer a sanctuary of thoughtful engagement with ideas and the pursuit of the truth. The problem with a good deal of sociology taught to undergraduates today is not its touching upon controversial and morally complex matters, it is how those matters are reduced to simplistic, often stupid, assertions about right and wrong. Textbooks and introductory courses in sociology are filled more and more with judgments rather than analyses, that is, it seems perfectly consistent to invite Republican-bashers into such a classroom without asking students to analyze those judgments. That is not what sociology is for.

Jonathan Imber

Jonathan B. Imber is Jean Glasscock Professor of Sociology at Wellesley College.

3 thoughts on “Recording What Goes on in Class

  1. If a student were to make a written record of a classroom talk and then publish it, efforts at suppressing that would obviously entail First Amendment problems. I can’t see any difference in using a device like a cell phone to make the recording, which would be more accurate than even the best written record. While there are issues regarding improper or disruptive use of cell phones, computers, and so on in classrooms, those issues can be resolved without a prohibition against using them to record what goes on in class. I think that students should be as free to record their interactions in classrooms as citizens should be to record their interactions with the police.

  2. Jonathan Imber describes the problem of academic sociology perfectly. Unfortunately, sociology as advocacy is today more the norm than the exception.
    On the issue of recording classes, I can see why an institution or an instructor could forbid unauthorized recording that seeks to make instruction available to people who are not enrolled students. I can also see how recording snippets of a class out of context could pose a problem of misrepresentation. However, events in a classroom are neither confidential nor secret. In this case, the student has simply the provided a valuable public service by documenting an instance of education being replaced by propaganda.

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