John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

What Do Our Students Do for Privacy?

November 19, 2010John N. GardnerPrivacy0

Please note I am asking: “What do our students do for privacy?” and not what do they do with their privacy. This question is prompted by several events, one of them tragic, and the other a recent discussion I participated in about this tragedy.

I refer to the suicide death of a Rutgers University first-year student, a promising musician, who jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge earlier this fall. His self-inflicted death came subsequent to his enormous humiliation when his privacy was violated by two of his fellow students who surreptitiously filmed him in behaviors he thought he was engaging in privacy.

About 6 weeks later, I was attending a meeting of publishing editorial people at Bedford/St. Martins in Boston and we found ourselves discussing this tragedy and what it says about the need college students have for privacy.

One of the participants in that meeting, Bedford Editorial Assistant Karen Sikola, kindly forwarded to me subsequently the following quote from a recent edition of The New Yorker:

“Young people discovering their identity and their desires need a zone of privacy where they can be who they are, perhaps in the company of another human being, without feeling that somebody else might be tweeting it, filming it, or blogging about it, or that maybe they themselves ought to be—there’s such a thing as violating your own privacy, too. The unobserved life is so totally worth living.” -Margaret Talbot

Read more at http://www.newyorker.com/talk/comment/2010/10/25/101025taco_talk_talbot#ixzz131WEs3No

I really appreciated Karen sending me the above. Just think about this: “the unobserved life is so totally worth living.” This has really pushed my reflective capacities!

I reflected back to my own beginning college days. How I hated the old style “dorm” living and its total lack of privacy. As an upper middle class child I had had my own room, and my own bathroom and many other forms of “privacy.” Lack of privacy was a major adjustment for me in college. I also had to eat every meal communally with other people and couldn’t even do that privately. There was, in fact, very little that I could do privately.

But I could and did spend hours walking the beautiful brick streets and parks, and river banks, of the historic river town in Marietta, Ohio, where I was fortunate enough to go to college. Those walks were my private time. They were times for reflection, which often lead to important actions. My whole college experience would have been different had I not made an effort to find privacy and use it constructively.

So this brings me to today’s college students. Some questions:
1. What do they do for privacy?
2. Do they value it in their culture of share all and total transparency?
3. Given how totally and constantly “connected” they are, how do they find privacy should they seek it—that is privacy by means other than sleeping—i.e., awake privacy.
4. How could we inspire, encourage them to want to seek privacy as a context for their own development?
5. Could we provide any mental templates for use of the private time to structure some of their reflection?
6. How do we introduce to college students the merits of reflective thinking and teach and reward them for engaging in such?
7. One of the reasons I have been so drawn to service learning as a pedagogy is its inclusion of reflection as a mandatory component. How else could we be building reflection into our curricular—and co curricular learning contexts?
8. And finally, what do we need to do to protect students in their search for and use of their privacy?

So many good questions we need to be asking about our students, what they need, how we could or should support them.

-John N. Gardner









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