On That Privacy Class

On That Privacy Class

David Parry bio photo By David Parry

This semester I have been teaching an upper level Communication and Digital Media class, Privacy and Surviellance in the Digital Era. I have previously taught one of our introduction to the major courses, Communication Ethics, in which we talk about the ways in which digital media impact a range of cultural issues, everything from things like socialization online, to intellectual property, and of course privacy. Over the course of the last five to six years I have noted a decided shift in interest on these issues. Several years ago I would have said the section on privacy I did in the intro class tended to be one of the least popular in the course. Which is not to say students were not interested, especially when I introduced them to cookies, adblockers, and the whole tracking ecosystem, it’s just that students were not engaged as with the other sections. However in the fast two years something shifted and this has become one of the students most engaged topic areas (as judged both from in class experience and reading evaluations). I am not sure what has caused this, one could attribute it to a post-Snowden bump, but I am not sure that really is the case (as students generally seem more concerned about corporate privacy versus government privacy). After experimenting last semester with some ideas in this lower level course, I decided to offer an upper level course, solely focused on this issue.

You can read the syllabus here, this is also the class website, so you can see assignments etc. There are a few things though I wanted to explain as the logic behind the syllabus isn’t probably entirely clear, as well as some atypical assignments (that I hope will work out).

I wanted to students to understand that the issue of privacy is a complicated one, not simply a matter of privacy versus security, which is how the issue is all too often framed in the public debate. So my first goal was to get students to understand that privacy has a complex history, especially with regards to media, and secondly to think about privacy as a value, ask themselves what it is and why they do/do not value it. So, that is the first part of the class, we read broad discussions about privacy and looked at how (both within the US context and global one) developed as a value.

In the second part of class I wanted students to pull apart the multiple angles upon which privacy is threatened. The idea here is to get them to see that this isn’t just about government surviellance, but also corporate power, and social surviellance. It’s not just 1984, but Huxley, and Kafka. This is the section we are working on now, and will finish after spring break.

For the third part of class I wanted students to experience privacy in a different way. Typically my default behavior as an instructor is to have students write a reasearched paper as a way of synthezing the material they have learned in class, but I have also been trying to develop other ways of having students experience the knowledge. So I designed two assignments that students will complete over the third part of the class.

  • Privacy Plan: The idea here is to get students to articulate 1. What they value about privacy. 2. To research and then use the tools available to them to maximize a particular aspect of privacy that they find important. 3. To reflect on that experiment and develop a concrete plan for once class ends what they will do going forward. My thinking here is a to have a directed staged assignment in which students hopefully come to reflect on privacy, but also understand the specific steps they can take in the future to maximize their own.
  • Mock Congressional Hearing: I shamelessly stole this assignment from another professor here at Saint Joseph’s University in political science who has a widely popular and succesful Mock Supreme Court Hearing as her final. As much as I wanted students to understand invidiual choice in this matter, I also wanted them to have a sense of how these are also policy questions and political discussions shaped beyong particular individual choices. So as a final for the class we are having a mock congressional hearing where students play the role of legislators and various interest groups, and articulate said position (even if they don’t necessarily agree). I cooked the books here a bit to combine house members and senators on the same hearing panel, in part because there were perspectives from each I wanted students to see. Some students are going to play the roles of legislators, others of corporations called to testify, others of law enforcement groups, and some of civic organizations with stakes in this debate.

The class should be finished in a couple of months and I’ll update this post at the end of the semester for those who want to borrow this syllabus, tell me how to improve on it etc.