‘Asians in the Library’ and Lessons for Colleges

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

As educators interested in the impact of web media on students and learning, we had to be alarmed and, perhaps, a bit intrigued by all the attention surrounding the video (click here for the transcript), by UCLA junior Alexandra Wallace, which was posted in YouTube on 11 Mar. 2011. In her own words, this started as “an attempt to produce a humorous YouTube video.”* But moments after it was posted, she began receiving threatening messages and realized, too late, the serious consequences of her actions.

I saw the video and took it for what Ms. Wallace intended — an attempt at humor that’s slightly over the edge. I saw neither hate nor malice in it. In fact, like many observers, I thought the real hate flew in the opposite direction, toward Ms. Wallace. I’m concerned about her and her family’s welfare and safety and hope that cooler heads will prevail.

UCLA’s quick, open, and judicious response to the emergency was impressive, and I believe it mitigated far more serious consequences. In fact, the comments that people posted in discussions attached to literally thousands of articles on the subject seemed to serve as a safety valve for overheated reactions. In my estimate, those advocating tolerance and forgiveness outnumbered and outweighed the isolated instances of individuals crying for blood.

Perhaps one of the lessons educators can take from this incident is that the interactive forums attached to web publications can serve as a natural vent for anger that might otherwise be released as physical violence. By posting strong reactions as they arise, people have an opportunity to vent as well as be soothed by calmer voices. In this way, electronic forums may actually be an effective tool or medium for crisis resolution.

Another lesson, closely related, is that more responsible voices — belonging to students, teachers, and administrators — cannot afford to be silent. In this regard, UCLA Chancellor Gene Block’s social network connectedness (Facebook, YouTube, email) was a godsend. He responded via email and video and provided a forum for people to speak openly and informally with the person at the top. This social networking vent provided a 24-7 means for people to go straight to the top with their emotions, opinions, etc.

Perhaps, this incident will serve as a wake-up call for educators to develop procedures to deal with a range of possible crises that are directly or indirectly related to student use of social media. The current focus on cyberbullying is an example of how a problem can be systematically addressed in a nation-wide effort. The answers won’t be easy, and they might require lessons or workshops at all levels of schooling.

Still, from the standpoint of technology and education, I’m concerned about the impact this incident might have on the use of videosharing and social networking sites. Will campuses across the country use this as an excuse to severely limit access to and use of social media? I’m sure this might be the knee-jerk reaction for some, but I hope most will realize that locking out the open web will be about as effective as a band-aid against a breaking dam.

From the standpoint of a writing teacher, the tsunami of video responses and social network posts that Ms. Wallace provoked is a preview of, an early glimpse into, a 21st century rhetoric that places unprecedented publishing power in the hands of our students. This power goes beyond mere text. It’s visual and aural, giving our students an opportunity to express themselves in ways that were unimaginable ten or twenty years ago. For example, see the video below, uploaded to YouTube by DavidSoComedy on 14 March 2011.

Warning! This video includes language that may be offensive to some.

It’s not just the production aspects that have become universally accessible; it’s the publishing aspects, too. Students can videotape themselves with the cameras built into their inexpensive laptops; with movie-editing applications that come with their operating systems, they can manipulate clips and add soundtracks (using music they’ve downloaded from the web); and they can upload the result to YouTube for the world to see. And they can do all this from their desktops in their dorms in an hour or two.

The question for educators is, How can we accommodate or integrate this new rhetoric into our curricula? Obviously, when Aristotle defined “rhetoric” as “the faculty of observing in any case the available means of persuasion,” he didn’t have video cams, video production apps, and YouTube in mind. But if he were alive today, I’m sure he would be marvelling at the technical possibilities.

* Joshua L. Weinstein, “Alexandra Wallace to Withdraw from UCLA over Asian Rant (Update),” TheWrap, 18 Mar. 2011.

6 Responses

  1. Jim wrote, “I’m concerned about the impact this incident might have on the use of videosharing and social networking sites. Will campuses across the country use this as an excuse to severely limit access to and use of social media?”

    The real threat that might lead to such limits is not so much the initial posting of such views as it is the potential for a lawsuit in the aftermath, and laudable actions like the Chancellor’s forum might even make things worse.

    News Item: An NBA referee has sued the Associated Press and one of its reporters for tweeting that the referee had made a bad call intentionally to make up for an earlier bad call. (http://www.denverpost.com/sports/ci_17619279).

    New Item: A doctor has sued people participating in several forums because of comments they made related to his situation. (http://www.sun-sentinel.com/sfl-diver-social-media,0,3686134.story) He was recently found guilty of violating maritime laws during an incident in which he raced his boat at high speed near a dive boat flying a dive flag (meaning: Stay away!) that was picking up divers. The doctor ran over one of the divers, who lost both legs in the incident. The doctor said he thought he had hit a turtle and so did not stop to render aid as he is required to do by his profession. He did call his lawyer while speeding away and had him meet him on the dock, apparently concerned that the turtle might file suit. The doctor claims that the people who said unkind things about him have damaged his good name, and he wants compensation.

    News Item: An Austrian has sued Florida-based ScubaBoard and 100 forum participants for discussing her company’s role in the death of a scuba diver due to an improperly maintained and located compressor that put carbon monoxide into his tank. (http://www.scubaboard.com/forums/scuba-related-court-cases/321427-gundi-holm-sues-scuba-board-101-members.html) The suit was filed more than a year ago. It is still progressing and costing hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend.

    Note that in 2 of the 3 cases the organization that made the alleged defamatory remarks possible was sued as well. By providing a forum for students to discuss controversial topics like this, UCLA could be setting itself up for a lawsuit. This is the sort of thing that could force schools to limit social networking to private sites open only to course members.

  2. John, thanks for the comment.

    It concerns me because it plays on a palpable fear that permeates education. This fear is all the more insidious because it has the potential to ultimately stifle discussion and discourage innovation. “Watch what you say,” it warns, “or you will be sued!”

    In our recent private email discussion on a similar topic, I asked you to point to cases in education that focus on discussion forums. I’m still very interested in seeing these cases.

    In this case, the UCLA administration decided not to take any official action against Ms. Wallace because they felt she is well within her First Amendment rights — and that these rights take precedence over institutional policies. They also decided that the video is neither hateful nor malicious.

    The “actual malice” burden of proof is on the party filing the suit, and the cases you cite are based on financial harm to specific individuals. Again, please provide First Amendment cases that involve electronic forums in educational settings. -Jim S

    • Whether it has happened or not, the fear of this has been impacting decisions like this for years. In my previous work, we kept all discussions in house, largely for fear of what would happen in uncontrolled environments like this. When we were considering how to use Web 2.0 technology, fears like this were very much on our minds.

      • Hi, John. Thanks for sharing this with us. One of the most important missions of schools and colleges is to prepare students for what you refer to as “uncontrolled environments.” How to do this has always been under contention — as it should be. From the tension, we derive a balanced approach that involves both risk and caution.

        To answer the question I raise in this article — I think we need to teach students about First Amendment rights as well as responsibilities, especially as they apply to electronic forums and other social networks, from the time they begin to use them.

        Ideally, the Alexandra Wallace case would be used as an example for in-depth discussions on appropriate and inappropriate comments. In this way, it could serve as a learning opportunity for both students and teachers.

        The free and open discussion of ideas is the foundation of education. And this means the removal of fear via the light of knowledge. Without this freedom, we’re left with censorship and brainwashing. The laws of our democracy aren’t designed to limit freedom. They’re there to guarantee it. -Jim S

  3. I find the reaction of at least Robert Naples, associate vice chancellor and dean of students at UCLA, reported in the Daily Bruin (UCLA’s students’ paper) difficult to understand:

    ….Naples said the university will examine Wallace’s video to see if it violates any part of the student code of conduct. But he cautioned that the code does not usurp the authority of the First Amendment….

    Why so, if film and music companies’ restrictive EULAs “can usurp the power” of the copyright law?

  4. Claude, thanks for your comment. Your question, “Why so, if film and music companies’ restrictive EULAs ‘can usurp the power’ of the copyright law?” is a good one.

    My take on this is that copyright laws are struggling to keep up with the growing number of unprecedented challenges generated by the new technology. Because of universal e-access to published works, copyright, like First Amendment rights, has to be included in the curriculum when students begin to use social media.

    You’re our resident expert on copyright issues so I hope we’ll see an ETCJ article from you on this subject. :) -Jim S

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