Report On Brooklyn College Teach-In On ‘Web Surveillance And Security’

Yesterday, as part of ‘The Brooklyn College Teach-In & Workshop Series on Resistance to the Trump Agenda,’ I facilitated a teach-in on the topic of ‘web surveillance and security.’ During my session I made note of some of the technical and legal issues that are play in these domains, and how technology and law have conspired to ensure that: a) we live in a regime of constant, pervasive surveillance; b) current legal protections–including the disastrous ‘third-party doctrine‘ and the rubber-stamping of governmental surveillance ‘requests’ by FISA courts–are simply inadequate to safeguard our informational and decisional privacy; c) there is no daylight between the government and large corporations in their use and abuse of our personal information. (I also pointed my audience to James Grimmelmann‘s excellent series of posts on protecting digital privacy, which began the day after Donald Trump was elected and continued right up to inauguration. In that post, Grimmelmann links to ‘self-defense’ resources provided by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Ars Technica.)

I began my talk by describing how the level of surveillance desired by secret police organizations of the past–like the East German Stasi, for instance–was now available to the NSA, CIA, and FBI, because of social networking systems; our voluntary provision of every detail of our lives to these systems is a spook’s delight. For instance, the photographs we upload to Facebook will, eventually, make their way into the gigantic corpus of learning data used by law enforcement agencies’ facial recognition software.

During the ensuing discussion I remarked that traditional activism directed at increasing privacy protections–or the enacting of ‘self-defense’ measures–should be part of a broader strategy aimed at reversing the so-called ‘asymmetric panopticon‘: citizens need to demand ‘surveillance’ in the other direction, back at government and corporations. For the former, this would mean pushing back against the current classification craze, which sees an increasing number of documents marked ‘Secret’ ‘Top Secret’ or some other risible security level–and which results in absurd sentences being levied on those who, like Chelsea Manning, violate such constraints; for the latter, this entails demanding that corporations offer greater transparency about their data collection, usage, and analysis–and are not able to easily rely on the protection of trade secret law in claiming that these techniques are ‘proprietary.’ This ‘push back,’ of course, relies on changing the nature of the discourse surrounding governmental and corporate secrecy, which is all too often able to offer facile arguments that link secrecy and security or secrecy and business strategy. In many ways, this might be the  most onerous challenge of all; all too many citizens are still persuaded by the ludicrous ‘if you’ve done nothing illegal you’ve got nothing to hide’ and ‘knowing everything about you is essential for us to keep you safe (or sell you goods’ arguments.

Note: After I finished my talk and returned to my office, I received an email from one of the attendees who wrote:

 

Brooklyn College And CUNY Owe Reparations To Student Activists

Yesterday, I made note of my attendance at a disciplinary hearing conducted by Brooklyn College and the City University of New York; the ‘defendants’ were two students accused of violating the Henderson Rules because of their participation in a ‘mic check’ at the February 16th Faculty Council meeting. Yesterday, I received news from the students’ counsel–the folks at Palestine Legal–that the students had been acquitted of three of the four charges. The one violation was of Henderson rule #2, and for that they received the lightest penalty: ‘admonition.’ A formal written ‘judgment’ will be issued next week. And this farce will come to a long-awaited close. But CUNY and Brooklyn College should not be let off the hook.

During my testimony, I was asked if the students had caused any ‘damage’ or ‘harm’ by their actions and speech. I emphatically denied that they had. Now, let us tabulate the damages and harms caused by Brooklyn College and CUNY’s administration. This is a charge-sheet the college and the university administrations need to answer to:

  1. The students protesters were immediately, without trial, condemned in a public communique issued by the college president and the provost. It accused them of making “hateful anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish comments to members of our community.” As I affirmed, no such comments had been made. Anti-Zionism is a political position; it is not hate speech. And nothing remotely anti-Semitic was uttered by the students. More to the point, the two students on the stand had not even chanted ‘anti-Zionist’ slogans. This condemnation by the college administration resulted in hate speech and abuse being directed at one of the students, a Muslim-American woman, one of our best and brightest, literally a poster child for the college because she appears on posters all over campus advertising our Study Abroad programs. The stress and fear this provoked in her can only be imagined; when she brought her concerns to the college administration, little was done to help her other than making note of the incident and asking to be informed if anything else happened again.
  2. The student protest occurred in February; the hearing was conducted yesterday, three months later, a week before graduation. Three months of stress and tension, and uncertainty about their academic fate for the students–because expulsion was on the cards. Three months of embroilment in a ridiculous charade that in the words of the Brooklyn College president Karen Gould, was supposed to teach the students that ‘actions have consequences.’ Yes, great wisdom was imparted to the students: that speaking up for causes near and dear to you, engaging in political activism, thinking critically–especially if you are a student of color, as both these students are–will provoke retaliation from insecure college administrations, unsure of the worth of their academic mission.
  3. Considerable CUNY resources were marshaled to prosecute the students: CUNY’s legal department was at hand yesterday, an external ‘judge’ had to be brought in from another college to chair the meeting, and at least a dozen faculty members spoke either against the students–for shame!–for for them. We could have spent yesterday reading, writing, attending to scholarship; instead, we had to spend hours waiting in sequestration chambers. I’m glad to have spent that time for a good cause, but it infuriates me that it was ever required.

The true ‘damage’ and ‘harm’ to CUNY and its community has been done by Brooklyn College and CUNY’s punitive and mean-spirited action against the students. Acquittals don’t address this damage; reparations are due.

Brooklyn College’s Punitive Retaliation Against Student Activists

On February 17th, I wrote a blog post here about the student protests at Brooklyn College that took place during the monthly faculty council meeting held the day before. Today, I attended a disciplinary hearing conducted by Brooklyn College–to determine whether two of the students who had participated in the protests should be ‘disciplined’ for ‘disrupting’ the meeting by violating the so-called Henderson Rules. (As Palestine Legal notes, they are charged with “violating Rules 1, 2, 3, and 7 of the City University of New York’s (CUNY) code of conduct, or the Henderson Rules. The charges against the students range from intentional obstruction and failure to comply with lawful directions to unauthorized occupancy of college facilities and disorderly conduct. The students may face penalties ranging from admonition to expulsion.”) My attendance at the meeting was as a ‘witness for the defense’: I testified on behalf of the students.

Continue reading

The February 16th Brooklyn College Student Coalition Protests

On Tuesday, February 16th, in my capacity as departmental delegate for the philosophy department, I attended the monthly Faculty Council Meeting at Brooklyn College. During the meeting, members of the Brooklyn College Student Coalition, who were attending the meeting (as non-voting observers), staged a protest action, which consisted of a reading out of their demands for changes in the City University of New York. As their protest continued, the meeting was adjourned. Some faculty members applauded the students’ action; others simply left. There was no rancor or violence or abuse.

Apparently, that was not the impression others had. Continue reading

Workplace Dynamics And The Treatment Of Support Staff

A couple of days ago, my Brooklyn College colleague Corey Robin asked (on his Facebook page):

How many academics would get tenure if the review took into account how they treated the department’s secretarial staff?

A year or so after I had begun work at Bell Laboratories, I told a new hire that she should always strive to keep three classes of co-workers (or ‘staff’) happy: secretaries, computer system administrators, and security guards. Later, I extended this claim to other members of our building’s facilities crew. This imperative suggested itself to me as prudent and moral (and political). It still does in my current location at my academic workplace.

The first two on the list above made our daily tasks much easier; they helped us navigate workplace mazes, administrative, logistical, and bureaucratic; they let us concentrate on our work, which was supposedly technical and creative. The third were the first ones to greet us on our entry to the building, and the last ones to bid us goodbye when we left; being friendly and personable in our interactions with them served to provide a kinder, gentler bookend to our days at work (And if you forgot your ID card on the weekends, in the days before high-speed dial-up connections, you could count on them not blocking your entry to the building in case you desperately needed to get some coding work done in your office that could not be accomplished from home.)

I’m happy to say that over the years I have followed my directives quite faithfully, and have generally enjoyed good relations with most members of my ‘support staff.’ These have made my workday experiences considerably more pleasant. The exceptions to this have occurred with some security staff who insist on taking their badges and uniforms a little too seriously and adopt the demeanor of the police a little too eagerly.

Despite these fairly self-evident considerations, secretarial staff still remain unappreciated, frequently overworked, and poorly treated. (The sexism and harassment directed at female secretaries is legendary.) In my corporate workplaces–which were mostly manned by folks with technical backgrounds–there was a great deal of patronizing and dismissive behavior too. In response, secretarial staff often scorned the head-in-the-air attitude of those they served, decrying their inability to accomplish the simplest tasks by themselves and directed some scathing disrespect at them behind their backs. To the credit of my colleagues at my two university employers–the University of New South Wales and the City University of New York–I have witnessed fairly pleasant and egalitarian patterns of interaction between them and our administrative staff. (Robin’s question above seems to indicate there is trouble in paradise.)

At academic workplaces the power differential is clear. Faculty might imagine themselves, PhD and all, as the bees knees, with administrative staff, possessing perhaps only a lowly bachelors or associate degree, as mere dust to be shaken off their feet. (This was certainly the case at Bell Labs, which was populated by graduates from the nation’s top science and engineering programs.) Faculty are also often overworked too, and their requests for assistance can be made a little brusquely. Status and class anxiety does not help this already complicated picture.

It might behoove all of us ‘non-management types’ to remember that a more equitable and harmonious relationship among ourselves is one of our primary protections against the impositions of our ‘bosses,’ that there are allies here, if we were only willing to look a little closer.

On Becoming More ‘Confessional’ In The Classroom

A few weeks ago, in the course of a conversation with a colleague here at Brooklyn College, I remarked that over the years I had become more ‘confessional’ in my classroom  interactions with my students. When gently pressed to explain what I meant, I said that I had become more unguarded there, in that space–in expressing some previously undisclosed sentiments of mine about the teaching experience and about my ongoing relationship with my students.

To wit, I have become more open about telling my students that I regard my teaching as a kind of continuing education for myself, one in which they have a significant role to play. I tell them that I teach the material on my reading list in order to understand it better; I might have read an assigned article or book or excerpt before, but I do not consider myself to have truly understood it till I have discussed it in a classroom with those who are experiencing it for the first time. I tell my students that I consider philosophical education to proceed in three stages: first, reading the text by my self; second, discussing the book with a ‘teacher’; third, discussing the book with ‘students’; I, as a teacher, am now in the third stage with regard to the texts I have read before. I tell them that I teach a wide variety of classes because I consider my philosophical education incomplete and hope to make it more well-rounded by doing so. (This leads to a related confession: that I often place material on my syllabus that I have not read before precisely so that I will be obliged to take the time to read it. Sometimes I even tell them that old joke about an academic who asked another if he had read a particular book and was told, “Read it? I haven’t even assigned it!”) I tell them that when they do not do the readings, my disappointment is made more acute by the fact that these objectives of mine have been thwarted. I ask them to consider me a co-learner in the enterprise that we undertake in the classroom; I express the hope they will take this responsibility seriously.

Most of these ‘confessions’ occur in the first class of the semester but on occasion, I find myself returning to them during the semester too. I hope, of course, in doing all of this, to make them regard the classroom experience as something more than a mere passive exercise in receiving wisdom from on high. I hope that my ‘confessions’ will make them take the task of reading the assigned texts more seriously and help them come to class prepared to talk about it with me–and other students.

Like every other pedagogical ‘strategy’ I have adopted, this has only had limited success. I do not know if my students take me seriously, or if they can bring themselves to believe that they could actually move my education along. But because I do not consider myself to be insincere when I indulge in these confessional sessions in class, I intend to keep persisting with this ‘strategy’ for the time being.

The Rainbow In My Roster

Two weeks ago, on 8 September, after finishing my morning stint my gym, I headed to the Brooklyn College campus. I arrived at 12:20, five minutes after the 11:00 AM to 12:15 PM classes had ended. The campus was overflowing with students: streaming out from classrooms and lecture halls, clogging the corridors, the walkways, the quadrangle, the benches outside the library and the library cafe. I walked among them, marveling once again at the splendid diversity–in the linguistic, cultural, ethnic, political dimensions–of our student body. I’ve been on this campus for just over thirteen years now, and these glimpses never lose their freshness.

I could hear, around me, Russian, Bengali, Urdu, Punjabi, Spanish, Chinese, Haitian Creole, Caribbean Patois, Hebrew; I could see headscarves and hijabs and chadors, yarmulkes, turbans, colored hair, ponytails, topknots, shaven heads. They walked in groups; they walked singly. They talked among themselves; they zoned out on their headphones. They sat; they stood; they sprawled out on the grass. Some rushed to the local Starbucks to refuel on caffeine; others began their lunch, outside, in the still gloriously warm weather, before the next round of classes began at 12:50. I walked on, through this riotous medley, feeling a curious melange of emotions surge through me; I felt protective, proud, and hopeful.

Like any teacher, I’m used to moaning and griping about my students: they don’t do the readings; they’re late for class; their writing sucks; they ask me questions whose answers are on the syllabus; they disappear for weeks on end and then show up, at the end of the semester, to ask whether they can still find redemption; they check their smartphones in class; they stare blankly at me when I ask them to show me they have understood the points made in last week’s class; the list goes on and on. There is truth in all these complaints but there is much more to my students.

As I have noted on this blog, my students’ interactions with me in the classroom are a constant source of intellectual enrichment for me; my understanding and appreciation of many philosophical works has been enhanced by my discussing it with my students; I might have a PhD in philosophy and the title of ‘professor’ but I’m still a student, and my teaching is how I continue to learn. It wouldn’t work without my students; it takes two to tango and all that.

But the point I actually set out to make is that the diversity on display that day on campus reminded me that the sheer range of lives and experiences I encounter in my students is another education altogether. My students raise points in the classroom that are inextricably linked with their backgrounds: the Puerto Rican nationalist; the lesbian Orthodox Jew; the working single mother; the trans men and women; the young man struggling to break free of a family afflicted by alcoholism; the immigrants; the native New Yorkers; the senior citizens who audit; the first-generation students; the religious; the skeptical; the conservative; the politically radical; they all bring missives from worlds I only partially experience and understand. They are walking encyclopedias all on their own; they edify and enlighten. They make me realize that my life, varied and rich as it has been, is only the tiniest sliver of all in the giant mosaic of human experience. They point me to much more that lies beyond the narrow confines of my life. Every classroom holds a veritable United Nations, a pleasurable Babel of language, class, ethnicity and political orientation.

I remain ever grateful that I’m a teacher–especially when my students write me appreciative notes!–and that moreover, I’m a teacher here in Brooklyn, in New York City.