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03/05/2021

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Arturo Javier-Castellanos

"It may suck, but for better or worse I've found that before doing anything potentially risky--particularly tweeting or whatever online--it is advisable to ask oneself, "Is there any possibility that this is going to turn into a problem?" Maybe some readers out there think this is a terrible way to live."

I am one of those readers. Now I don't advocate for tweeting recklessly--I do ask myself a version of that question, namely "is there any possibility that I will *rightfully* get in trouble for this?" I often worry that something I say online might give other people legitimate grounds for complaint, but if I worried about the possibility that someone might complain about me on what, by my lights, are unreasonable grounds, I would just not say anything online. So, on my view, it is very relevant whether the students were right to complaint to the OP's department head.

Having said all that, since the claim is just that the smart thing to do is to ask yourself your version of the question--well, I'm not going to disagree with that. It's not smart to say things that might get you in trouble. The reason why I nevertheless refuse to live by this rule is because it often amounts to giving in to what I consider unreasonable expectations--for instance, that instructors not to talk publicly about their students' work in properly general and anonymized ways. If it gets me in trouble, so be it.

Shay Logan

Unlike Marcus, I do not think the "frank reply" is an important thing for the reader to hear. This is in part because what's passing itself off here as "frankness" is nothing more than grumpiness.

Twitter is a fabulous resource. Allow me to demonstrate three things, just off the top of my head, that it has helped with in my career.

(1) I regularly use twitter to keep in touch with my fellow logicians. Some of this is by DMing. One of the people I regularly coordinate seminars with I *only* communicate with via twitter DMs. And there have been many many times when I've needed a reference or a missing detail from an argument and logic twitter has supplied it for me when I ask. It's flat out the most useful platform I have for simultaneously asking a large number of logicians a question.

(2) I sometimes live-tweet my reactions to the readings I assign to students. Students sometimes read these reactions. Seeing that I react to articles with confusion, bewilderment, outrage, etc. has (according to more than a few of my students) helped them realize that their own reading habits were much healthier than they thought they were.

(3) I used to teach a lot of logic. When doing this, I encouraged my students to ask any questions they had via twitter. Here's a thing that happened often: a student would be doing homework at some godawful hour while I was asleep. They'd tweet a question. One of my friends on the other side of the world, where it was a normal hour of the day, would see it, and answer the student for me (probably as a way of procrastinating). I'd wake up, look at twitter, see a whole conversation where this student learned from one of my friends, and all of it while I was asleep.
----
Anyways, the 'just don't tweet cuz twitter is bad' response is ridiculous and small-minded. Keep on tweeting. As for the bad experience you had, I agree with what Marcus said: you should learn from it, but not catastrophize it.

But maybe one of the lessons isn't 'I was being careless' but rather 'oh yeah. 20-year-olds think people are thinking about them a lot more than people really are.' It seems like you probably didn't have these students in mind when you wrote these tweets. But 20-somethings generally just cannot grasp how little other people are thinking about them, and will read *everything* you say as somehow being about them. Bearing that in mind is likely to make your future tweeting (which I hope there is a great deal of) be more snafu-free.

Chivers Butler

There's an anonymous online forum designed to poke fun at philosophy students? What a terrible thing.

no tweets

I agree with the frank reply. Stay off twitter. Nothing good can come of it, as you've now found out!

Marcus Arvan

Hi Shay: Thanks for weighing in. Here, I guess, is why I think it's important to be exposed to those kinds of frank/grumpy responses (though I may of course be wrong): there are some *very* grumpy people out there, and some of them are department chairs, deans, provosts, college presidents, etc. - in other words, people who have a great deal of power over others' careers. If the Cocoon only shared non-grumpy comments sympathizing with the OP, then the OP could well get a false picture of things (i.e. everyone out there in the philosophy community is sympathetic with what they did). I was a bit conflicted on sharing the comment (due to its gruff nature), but figured it would be be better to share it than not share it for these reasons--and then offset it with a more supportive post to follow. Maybe that was the wrong call on my part - I'm not sure. But this was the (well-intentioned) rationale for it.

Marcus Arvan

Arturo: I totally get where you are coming from. But I still have some reticence in agreeing. Here's why.

You write, "Now I don't advocate for tweeting recklessly--I do ask myself a version of that question, namely "is there any possibility that I will *rightfully* get in trouble for this?"

I guess I'm fairly skeptical (probably in part due to my current views about the nature of prudence and morality) about our capacities as individuals to unilaterally determine which ways of getting in trouble are 'rightful'--at least, when it comes to cases (like the one in the OP) that are plausibly in a 'moral gray area.' After all, there is ample disagreement about which forms of trouble *are* rightful - as the grumpy comment quoted in the OP (and the students' reactions!) indicate.

Now, one approach to cases like these is to stick to one's own guns, thinking "*I* know what's rightful, so I'll tweet anyway." However, at one point in your comment, you admit that you won't go that far (you write, "if I worried about the possibility that someone might complain about me on what, by my lights, are unreasonable grounds, I would just not say anything online"). And notice: this was exactly my point! It's just not prudent to get oneself into trouble for no good reason, even if the trouble one gets in is (by one's own lights) unreasonable.

Of course, there are cases where there might be good reasons to risk getting in trouble: you might get in trouble for standing up for justice, for example - and presumably, one should stand up for justice, even at real costs to oneself. But notice: that's a very different kind of case - one where one speaks because one feels morally obligated to do so. *Some* kinds of trouble may be very much worth getting into, if it contributes to helping to make the world a better place. My point--to perhaps clarify my initial line of thought--is merely that, as a rule of thumb, asking oneself "is there any way that I might get into hot water for this?" is a good way to stay out of *unnecessary* (or pointless) trouble.

anon

The OP writes: "The students thought I was publicly criticizing one of them." But what happened (as far as I can tell) is that the OP posted a tweet about how a student's work exemplified a bad trend in philosophical writing. So I think the OP should acknowledge that they did publicly criticize a student in this situation.

Shay Logan

Re: Marcus yeah, ok, that seems right. Mostly it's just that grumpy people being grumpy makes me grumpy.

Re: no tweets: any evidence to back this up? Any reasoning or thought at all? What about the good things I mentioned; are they not good?

Can anyone explain to me *why* so many philosophers are so upset about twitter? I keep seeing this and I keep being confused by it.

anon

The above responses assume that the student was wrong to complain to the head of the department. Of course we can't say for certain given the vagueness of the case as described by the OP, but I think it's also helpful to consider what to do if the student was right to complain (or if others complained on the student's behalf--a definite possibility, given the public nature of twitter and the smallness of some departments). Perhaps the student could have gone directly to the OP and had a productive conversation about why the tweet should be taken down, but how could the student have known how such an overture would be received? There's an inherent power dynamic between profs and students (especially if the student were an upper year undergrad or grad student, dependent on the prof for future letters), which may have made the student desire a third party mediator, and the student may also have been particularly worried about retaliation, given that they were just publicly called out on twitter by their prof. With these factors in the background, maybe the department head does need to be involved.

Its me, Grumpy

Shay and others
I never said "no twitter".
I said: "Almost everything on twitter is inappropriate. I hope you can sort this out, but stop tweeting."
Part I, is a general claim - really, look around twitter. Part II is explicitly directed at the person who is having trouble figuring out how to teach in a foreign culture. Twitter-use is covered in the advanced course for US culture.

Arturo Javier-Castellanos

Marcus: to some extent, I share your skepticism about our capacities to unilaterally determine which ways of getting in trouble are rightful, but I think that skepticism is largely compatible with my approach. I would rarely go as far as saying “I *know* what’s rightful, so I’ll tweet anyway.” But I am often *fairly confident* that I shouldn’t get in trouble for saying what I want to say, and in such cases, I tweet away, even if I know I might later get in trouble, and despite the fact I don’t know for sure that I wouldn’t deserve it.

I would agree that in many cases, we cannot be very confident that we don’t deserve to get in trouble for what we want to say—and to that extent, I share your skepticism—but my approach is sensitive to this fact. If I’m not sufficiently confident that I shouldn’t get in trouble for saying what I want to say, that’s the kind of consideration I take into account before saying anything online. As I said, the question for me is, “is there any possibility that I will *rightfully* get in trouble for this?" If I am not sufficiently confident that I shouldn’t get in trouble, the answer is often “yes.”

Now you did say you were skeptical about our relevant capacities, “at least, when it comes to cases (like the one in the OP) that are plausibly in a ‘moral gray area’)”, and this is one place where we probably do disagree. I am sure many similar cases are in a moral gray area, but some are not. I am very confident I shouldn’t get in trouble for discussing a student’s work given proper precautions—there isn’t a lot of moral uncertainty there. I know some people disagree, and though that does make me lower my credence somewhat, it doesn’t make an actionable difference. I don’t change my diet because some people disagree with me about the morality of eating meat, etc., I’m certainly not going to change my social media habits because some people disagree about the morality of discussing students’ work. People disagree. Such is life.

Having said all that, I agree that “it's just not prudent to get oneself into trouble for no good reason, even if the trouble one gets in is (by one's own lights) unreasonable.” Like I said in my first comment, I agree that it’s not smart to say things that might get you in trouble. It’s not smart, it’s not prudent, but I think there’s something to say for speaking your mind and being true to your own moral conscience even at a personal cost.

Evan

Perhaps you should email them a sincere apology and reassure them that you were not criticizing them and that you did not intend it to be directed towards them.

Of course, if you do apologize, then that means they will know that you know they complained about it with the administrators, which can even make the situation worse or more embarrassing for them (i.e. knowing that the department head talked to you about them). From the perspective of the students, they’re probably already embarrassed by your tweet, let alone know that you know who they were who complained about you. It would just add to that embarrassment. It’s not going to be easy for you to “just move on” and learn your lesson. But it is possible. This is a tricky situation.

When I was in high school, our AP US History teacher used a student sample to teach us writing. Granted, the girl’s paper was considered excellent. That’s why he used it. But he forgot to anonymize it and so somebody from that class told the student and she cried. They were not tears of joy I will tell you that. He apologized and reassured her that it was because she wrote an excellent paper that he used her work as an example to show the students. After that, he learned his lesson and anonymized all his sample papers after that. This is of course an extreme case, but still relevant. A lot of students are self-conscious when it comes to sharing their ideas and work with others.

As Aristotle said, we’re all social animals and so gossip is bound to occur no matter how hard we try not to. We wouldn't be fully human if we didn’t gossip at all. I guess that’s one thing that makes us distinct from other animals.

But still, we should be cautious about how we go about doing it. As much as we want to poke fun at others who enter into our professional spheres, there are moral and prudential reasons to avoid many forms of it. It can be funny poking fun of students’ work amongst each other for some teachers, but such behavior and attitude are inconsiderate of the fact that these students are there to learn and improve.

Sure, they’re not at the intellectual level of professional philosophers. But why would we expect that of them anyway? If they were, they wouldn’t be taking your class in the first place. Most prodigies don’t take these classes. They teach them.

I used to be one of those people who would judge my classmates for having bad writing or just suck at something. Then my wise cousin once told me, “They’re there to learn and improve. That’s what college is for. Don’t be so hard on them.” I rationalized my judgment of them by expecting them to have learned some basics during primary schooling not realizing that the quality of education is different across America and that students come from different socioeconomic classes, life situations, cognitive abilities, etc.

A lot of us get so caught up with expecting others to be “like us” that we fail to consider reality. Teachers, at least primary ones have internalized this reality and so they are more forgiving and understanding than college professors. One wouldn’t be a teacher if others had nothing to learn or improve on in the first place right?

Malcolm

A few thoughts:

As I tweet publicly where students can read my tweets, I try to imagine that they actually are part of my audience. (I have reason to think that some are.) Thus I think a general guideline of not publicly criticizing students or complaining about them--in general or specifically--is a good one. Personally, I try to share only positives about my students (anonymously or tweets/articles that are already public), and I also try not to engage critically even with grad students online, given power differences and the potential for negatives to come from it.

But as OP may already be tending in that direction, it seems the other question is about "how to get back to normal." I wonder if the students' complaints are confidential. If so, then there's no way to directly address them without compounding the issue by their feeling as if their trust has been broken. (Frankly, even this discussion occuring publicly online here, plus what happened on Twitter, means that they may already know their complaint has been shared.)

If there is a way to address the issue directly, then I think there's benefit in doing so (perhaps the department chair can ask these students if it's okay that their concerns are shared, anonymously). It's good for students to see us professors own up to errors and model learning from our mistakes!

Maybe something along the lines of, non-defensively, saying "I understand my tweets came across as if I was criticizing some of you. While I wasn't, I can see how it would be distressing to read criticism of an anonymous student online and feel as if it was aimed at you. After hearing about this, I've decided to x, y, z. I'm glad to have the opportunity to know about this, and in the future, please do let me know about concerns as I take them seriously."

If the OP isn't already finding anonymized ways of checking in with their students, this could be a good time to do so. Online platforms like Canvas, Blackboard, or even Google Forms etc. allow for polls where students can share feedback anonymously before end of sem surveys when you get surprise criticisms.

This is a tough situation, but it's good to learn early (in one's first year) about some of these pitfalls. The anger and despair hopefully will pass and there will be a new set of students to engage with and learn from.

Sam Duncan

I do think it's important to be supportive here, but I do want to push back a bit on the fact the OP seemingly feels betrayed by the students. I think it's important here to put yourself in the students' shoes. How would you react as a 20 year old who was really in to philosophy and who had a close relationship with a professor if you perceived that professor to be making fun of you and your work in a public forum? I know it would have been pretty devastating to me. I like to think I would take it up with the professor in question, but I dunno it takes a lot of guts to tell off someone with authority over you to their face. So it's understandable the students would go up the ladder. Now I think it likely that some of my professors, even maybe some of the nice ones, probably made fun of my writing in private. I had a bad habit of thinking that needlessly roundabout, wordy, and pompous writing was good philosophical writing, because man it sure sounded profound to me at least. (Props to Mitch Green and Dan Devereux among my undergrad professors for breaking me of that habit). And I've made light of bad writing even by good students over beers with friends. But splashing it in a public forum is a different matter. I don't think the OP should really get in trouble for this and definitely shouldn't face any real consequences to his or her career. But they do need to realize that they've acted wrongly here and the students have a legitimate complaint. It is a bit of a personal betrayal. I have some tenured friends whose prose I think could use some work in various ways. I wouldn't put those criticisms on Twitter though. There's also the power differential to think about here. Mocking the bad writing of a big shot might be a little jerky depending on how it's done but I don't see anything wrong with it. It certainly takes guts at least and it might even be useful. I can't say the same for criticizing undergraduate writing in public.
It's also worth keeping in mind here the professional standards that govern every other field. All of my non-academic coworkers have colleagues and clients who annoy them or who they find ridiculous in some way or other. None of them would gripe about those people or draw light to their foibles on Twitter though. Not only might they get in trouble for it but it could also complicate their work relationships in ways that make it really hard to do their jobs.

Sam Duncan

Non-academic friends I mean. You should all feel free to make fun of me in whatever forum you like for not proofreading my work more carefully.

Jonathan Ichikawa

People make mistakes. It's not the end of the world. You should apologize, and learn from this experience that this is something to try to be more sensitive and careful about.

You talk about the large amounts of time you have been mentoring and proving "hours and hours of counselling" to them. That means they have spent hours and hours making themselves vulnerable to you. You owe them more consideration and care than you do most students.

You don't have to abjure twitter altogether. You don't have to avoid saying anything with any possible risk of misconstrual. But you should be more reluctant to say things like what you said this time. That's what negative feedback is for.

You don't have to apologize to the students, thus showing that you know who they are. They read your twitter. You can apologize there. You can say something like "After some conversations with colleagues I realized that these tweets were ill-considered, because they were likely to make my students feel attacked. I'm sorry for the error in judgement; I am trying to learn how best to balance my responsibilities in a respectful way."

Evan

I would be cautious about apologizing solely on Twitter simply because the students may decide to never visit the account ever again. In which case, OP’s apology would be meaningless or futile at resolving the issue. I think Sam and Malcolm’s advice about a general apology to the student body of OP’s classes would be better insofar as the specific students will see it and still feel like their identity has been protected.

Daniele Mezzadri

OP writes:

I wrote in a tweet "I am reading a student's paper and I would like to share some reflections…". The reflections were very general and had to do with the profession in general (use of philosophical jargon, i.e., something we ALL do). The students thought I was publicly criticizing one of them.

It seems to me your reflections should have been shared with the students themselves, rather than with your twitter audience. If they were not aimed at mocking the students' writing, and from what you say they don't seem to have been, but were rather constructive remarks, why not sharing them with the students as critical feedback?

OP

@Daniele Mezzadri: Yes, I did. My hope was just that other students too might benefit of that.
@Marcus, Jonathan, Evan: Many thanks for the good advice.
@Sam: Let me push back by explaining that I was *not* making fun of the student. The point was just "Should we use this kind of jargon? I see pros and cons, for instance…" [thread followed]

OP

@Arturo, Evan(1), Malcolm, Shay: Thanks for all your advice. I created an anonymous survey for complaints on Canvas and a different student filled it immediately. Not extremely nice, but better than having them calling my chair to complain
@Grumpy: Thanks for the crash-class on US culture! I admit I am used to students who are more thick-skinned. It doesn't need to be good, it's just different and I will need to adjust. I will try to mention it in passing, so as to "warn" them, just in case I should say something else which looks completely fine to me, but hurts them. This incident proves to me that I will never be 100% on the safe side.
I share @Shay's overall impression: I had a lot of positive experiences on Twitter. I can add that it helped me being in touch with colleagues doing this tough year and helping students far away in the world, who would otherwise have not found the courage to write to me directly. It also helped me figure out some elements of American culture (this blog helped too, by the way, thanks Marcus!). In this sense, I will stop using the word "student/s" in my tweets and just refrain from any pedagogical remark or question, but… I will miss being able to ask for advice or share advice.

WL

My two cents: I would apologize to the department head. And, in your apology email to him, I would ask him if it would be okay to apologize directly to the two students by emailing them. Assuming he says that is okay, you should apologize to them.

When issuing these apologies, make sure to convey (a) that you understand that your tweet hurt one of the student's feelings because he or she was able to recognize his or her writing in your tweet, (b) that you understand that you should not have sent the tweet, and (c) that you will not do anything like this in the future. Do not say anything about whether your tweet was a minor or major breach of professional duty (and definitely don't say in your apology that what you did was "trivial," as that would indicate that you don't adequately understand that what you did was wrong).

To be clear, I think that anyone who thinks about the matter clearly will realize that what you did was a minor breach, not a major breach. You didn't name any students' names, so no public harm occurred. But still, you should leave the judgments about how serious a breach this was aside when you issue your apologies. Your goal in apologizing is not to state the objective truth of the matter (which is that it was a minor breach), but rather to get the matter to be over and done with. The best way to do that is to apologize with nothing but points (a), (b), and (c) from above conveyed.

Once the apologies are sent, that will end it. And this won't matter when you come up for tenure. As long as you never do this again, it will be a non-issue. We all make mistakes. I can't tell you how many stupid things I've said while teaching and then worried about later. But people understand, because they say stupid things too. Nobody wants to hold anyone else to a standard that says, "One minor screw-up and you're in big trouble." After all, if that were the operative standard, we'd all be in big trouble.

Evan

I have a subsequent thought about Marcus’ claim that we are a highly litigious society. I agree that we are. However, I still wonder why exactly that is. Perhaps shedding light on it will help you navigate (North) American ethos easier.

First, I think our highly litigious culture is *a* symptom of our lack of trust in each other. Research on trust shows that America ranks very poorly compared to other countries in terms of interpersonal trust. A quick google search will tell you.

Part of it I think has to do with our culture to be highly competitive and so people are quick to take advantage of others to get to where they are in life. Even in my personal life, I've known family members who would take advantage of each other when doing business. As well, we may be more prideful and immature when it comes to admitting we’re wrong or taking responsibility for our wrongful or problematic behavior.

Thus, part of our highly litigious culture is a symptom that we just don’t trust that the other person (or people) will *truly* understand our harm and take hence will take responsibility for it. They might brush it off or call us insensitive. I think a lot of us Americans are resigned to the fact that perhaps interpersonal or informal dispute resolution is futile here. This is more prominent in larger cities where everyone is hustling to get by and willing to eat anybody who gets in their way of their goals. I wish this wasn’t the case, but it is.

Evan

This is not to say that our culture of being highly litigious is wrong pre se. Indeed, I think different people have their own way of adapting to the ethos or fact of life of that particular culture of which they are part of. For example, Japanese prosecutors are extremely cautious about prosecuting a person. They tend to not prosecute a person unless they *definitely* know they will most likely win the case. This is because culturally, losing a case is interpreted as being wrong, which is seen as a sign of incompetence in the minds of many or most Japanese civilians. Most prosecutors in Japan don’t want to carry that baggage of being embarrassed by their community.

Given the fact of life of American ethos and how we tend to treat one another interpersonally, it is perhaps wise to actually be more litigious than other countries. I guess that’s just our way of adapting to our fact of life here.

Malcolm

As a pretty heavy Twitter use who hasn't (yet) gone private or (to my knowledge) entirely stepped in it, I am not sure that the OP needs to go this far:

"In this sense, I will stop using the word "student/s" in my tweets and just refrain from any pedagogical remark or question, but… I will miss being able to ask for advice or share advice."

I think that talking pedagogy on Twitter can be really useful. I also think that any comments or questions which could be read as about a particular student are not a great idea. I see people describing what they're doing in general ("This week, my students are doing cool thing X") and asking for feedback or ideas, or saying "I'm struggling teaching students X--any thoughts?"

Either of these, a student reading will not take you to be talking about them in particular. But prefacing a tweet with "I was reading a student paper..." will immediately mean students reading might wonder if it was them.

Outsider

Evan
One correction. The litigiousness is AMERICAN, not north American. I have lived and worked in three countries, including the USA and Canada. Nothing compares to America. Things escalate out of control quickly, and people somehow think that making a formal (and legal) complaint solves problems. You may be right to connect it with a lack of trust. Indeed, the constitutional protections in USA are built on, among other things, a lot of mistrust of the government. (though they were intended to enable the colonists to raise a militia)

Evan

Outsider: Given the history of American civil rights over the years from the time of the colonies under British rule to now, it seems like litigiousness is as American as apple pie haha. I also think our popular culture exacerbates it such as those very popular law and court shows like Law and Order and Judge Judy. Indeed, in a lot of these shows, they actually encourage viewers to seek ligation if they have interpersonal issues they need to resolve. Our legal systems and firms are the wealthiest in the world for this reason. It’s a big business over here. It can be frustrating for a foreigner, but stick around longer in a big city like NYC, LA, or Miami, and you’ll soon discover that not a lot of people in these areas are of integrity in their personal lives.

Even watching Judge Judy you’ll quickly realize that these interpersonal disputes get seen in court because people are very entitled and refused to take responsibility for the harms they caused the other in the first place. Plaintiff sues and sometimes the defendant counter-sues.

As Marcus has written before, powerful tenure professors can get away with many things. As more stories of problematic behavior by professors show up, students are beginning to realize just how futile it is to resolve certain things interpersonally.

I do think that us Americans have thick skin. It’s just our thick skin is futile given our fact of life here at resolving informal dispute. We have thick skin, but we also have a very prideful and entitled population that often times refuses to admit they were in the wrong and actually take responsibility for it.

It’s funny because my college friend once told me an incident that occurred in her business class. One group was doing a project together, but one girl in the group was an American. Everyone else was an international student. The international students all agreed on a particular route. But the American student said, “Nope, we’re gonna do things differently” and took control of the whole project. None of the international students said anything because they did not want confrontation. I was like, “That is such an American thing to do.”

Evan

I do think what OP did was a good move by creating an anonymous survey. I think having something like that is good for students to “vent” their frustration without having their identity exposed. It’s an effective alternative. We actually see this in other institutions such as the DMV where they welcome suggestions or complaints from people in their yellow survey form.

But of course, these types of anonymous surveys would be meaningless or pointless if the professor doesn’t actually commit to changing their behavior once the students have anonymously expressed their concern. Indeed, I actually think a lot of these anonymous surveys you get at the DMV or other institutions are just ways for them to *seem* like they actually have our interests in mind since little to no improvement actually occurred at my local DMV even after *years* of going there and giving my own suggestions.

OP

Thanks again, Evan, WL, Malcolm and Outsider. Your comments are really helpful to get less surprised and demotivated by the reaction of the students. It is, more in general, really eye-opening for me that no one shared my reaction.

@Malcolm, thanks for the comments concerning Twitter usage. I will think about them (perhaps in some weeks, though…).

@Evan: I applied one of the corrections suggested by the anonymous complaining student, I explained why I cannot implement another change (basically: I cannot give top marks in participation to all) and I will make a poll for their last point. I agree with you that it is unfair to get feedback unless one is ready to implement it.

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