Inside Higher Ed has an article today that serves as a cautionary tale about taping class lectures. Apparently a professor at the U.S. Naval War College recently lectured on Machiavelli’s discussion of the goddess Fortuna and his argument that a strong leader needs to force Fortuna to give him what he wants. In essence, Machiavelli uses language of rape and violent oppression to make his point. And, the professor used similar language in summarizing Machiavelli’s argument. He then went on to reject Machiavelli’s entire approach, suggesting that good leadership should be virtue-based.
Although the entire lecture was videotaped, someone posted to You Tube just the portion of the lecture where the professor is summarizing Machiavelli’s position. Without the broader context of the lecture, it sounds as though the professor himself is promoting rape as a legitimate method of persuasion. Because of the resulting furor and the administration’s concerns with some of the language the professor used in the lecture, the professor has been placed on administrative leave.
While reading the article, I began reflecting on my own teaching style. As my students know, I like to press arguments from every side, often pursuing ideas radically different than my own, to make sure that we’ve thought carefully through an issue. Last semester alone I found myself arguing for Arianism, Mormonism, Pelagianism, and the Inquisition, among other things. Any one of those could become a 2-3 minute video on You Tube, which, shorn of context, would present me in a light far different than originally intended.
So, that leaves us with the question of how to navigate in these digital waters. With lectures being videotaped by students and schools more than ever before, professors have increasingly less control over what happens with their lectures after they’ve been presented. But I would hate to see the day that we need to monitor every segment of our classes for fear that some portion might be replicated later out of context. That would truly suck the life out of a good class. And, I can’t imagine that we can (or should) reverse the trend toward taping class lectures. So, I fully intend just to continue making outrageous arguments in my classes. If someday someone comes across a 2-minute You Tube video and actually becomes convinced by it that I really do think the Inquisition was a good idea, so be it. I probably wouldn’t want them in class anyway.