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Prying eyes or protector?

Bridging the space. Photo: R. Ragu   | Photo Credit: R_Ragu

Teenagers’ pictures in comic books in the 1980s used to come with a long handle — an ear-ornament of a telephone, attached to a long wire. Their conversations used to extend even longer — jokes abound.

Today a caricature of a typical teen comes with the ubiquitous tablet or smartphone, and “conversations” happen over Facebook or Twitter. However, the analogy ends there and these conversations are no longer a sharing of confidences, a heart-to-heart or even, necessarily, a light banter.

Facebook posts could be seen at a glance by thousands of “friends” some of whom the user may not even have met face-to-face, some of whom could be living across the oceans, some well-meaning, some uncaring and perhaps some with bad intentions too…

Still, there’s no doubt today that people, in general, and students, in particular, speak their mind, and more than their mind, quite freely on community websites. Some of these statements are unpleasant, sometimes blatantly untrue, derogatory and end up pulling people down quite badly. In these cases, must the university intervene and, in fact, is it even possible to do this in a meaningful way?

Amber Habib, Professor of Mathematics, Shiv Nadar University, illustrates the impossibility of a university intervening methodically in such cases: “Our students run several Facebook groups, in some of which faculty participate and others in which they don’t. This is only fair — students have a right to privacy — but it does mean that the university may be unable to detect harassment.”

Find a way – collaborate

Some posts come as a deeper cry for support. They also bridge the space between the world of the Web and the real world. For instance, there have been at least two cases last year of students posting a message of depression or loneliness on Facebook and, a short time later, committing suicide. While it is the responsibility of the university or institution to care for its students and protect them, it is not a task they can perform without the co-operation of students. Sessions with a counsellor can be made part of the routine.

One possibility is that the university can get some student volunteers, who can afford time to take up extra work, to undergo training in counselling and recognising such warnings, and get them to include faculty members in taking action when such declarations are put up on social media. A cocoon of nurture should be provided which does not just collapse after a short while. Faculty members, especially those having a rapport with the students, could get involved in a group or club activity. This can help to raise an alarm when things look desperate.

Instead of thinking, in either-or terms, that the university alone, or the student body by itself, is responsible for the safety of students, a lively and humane collaboration between the two may be needed to penetrate those areas “sealed off” to the faculty, without the university playing prying eyes.

Faceless insults

On a less extreme note, but quite serious, is the case of derogatory, sexist or racist comments about teachers and students and other malicious posts. How can the university tackle these?

“These comments can come from fake IDs against which nothing can be done”, adds Prof. Habib. “A more effective approach may be to nurture a community spirit, and to educate students and faculty on how to navigate in social media.”

Some faculty members do engage with students over Facebook and Twitter. Prof. E. Arunan, of Indian Institute of Science, has many student-friends on Facebook. Of course, these students are not teenagers, being PhD, MTech and M.E. students. He strongly feels that the university should cultivate a culture where any student could voice his/her reservations or criticism to a faculty member or even the chairman, without having to face a penalty. He says, “There has to be a mechanism by which students can complain to their supervisors without fear. But the university should not try and look into their private Web pages. I am for students expressing their opinion freely, whether it’s about the Prime Minister or the director or a faculty member.”

While it is true that many universities abroad have this culture of giving critical feedback without penalties, don’t ugly comments get voiced on Facebook in the student pages there? There does appear to be more that the institution should do…

Lack of communication

Ram Ramaswamy, vice-chancellor of University of Hyderabad has a Facebook page himself and says that everyone has access to him on the page. He remarks on how difficult it is to judge the posts, “I have reacted in the past, but for the most part, Facebook is quite unregulated. Anybody can post anything, true or not. People can spread rumours and sometimes even do deliberate mischief. We sometimes can only watch as the arguments die down.”

It seems that the problem is not with the technology itself, or freedom of expression, for as Prof. Arunan says, “Anything, which can be used, can be abused.” One of the factors that jumps out at you, when you think about it, is the growing divide between people, between teacher and student, and the growing commercialisation of education. While the students cannot hope to shift the blame entirely on the university, the faculty cannot afford to just teach and not be involved in friendly exchanges with the students. A healthy collaboration, while not a lived-happily-ever-after end, can certainly alleviate trouble and help to reduce the lack of communication which does seem to be the worst of all evils.

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2022 11:37:01 PM |

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