Blind Man with a Pistol


The Avenir of Education and Cyberspace

By now you should have heard the story of Ryerson University, facebook, and Chris Avenir. While many would prefer to boil the story down to the question did he or didn’t he, most people realize that more is at stake than a single instance of academic dishonesty.

The first issue that springs to mind is one of policing: policing, surveillance and coercion. The administration at Ryerson University believes that because they can access facebook and the Internet, they should be permitted to use whatever evidence they find there in cases of student discipline. The internet, as far as the University is concerned, is public space. One hundred and forty-seven students question that assumption.

I sympathize with Avenir’s professor, whose generous gesture to the students to offer a take-home assignment in lieu of an exam backfired. But her anger should not signify betrayal by the students, but rather her own failure as an educator to predict the students’ response. If she did not want the students to collaborate she enjoys access to a simple solution: hold an in-class exam. The students simply outmaneuvered her attempt to randomize each assignment with a unique selection of questions from a list of problems. It is as unfortunate as it was inevitable.

The University responded by charging Avenir with one count of academic misconduct and 146 counts—one for each group member—of “enabling.” This response is reactionary and panicked. It signals an administration clueless as to what the Internet portends and a heavy-handed attempt to claim cyberspace for itself. They are attempting to foreclose any future student forays into facebook and stamp-out any dissenters. It is, in short, a land grab.

Society has designated, arbitrarily, certain aspects of our life public and certain aspects private. As new technologies appear and as social conventions develop, these arbitrary boundaries become redrawn. The mass-produced automobile, for example, turned individual travel from a public into a private affair for the masses. When the telephone first entered public use, users were reluctant to use it, citing stage fright. Historically, those with power control how this redesignation occurs.

In his study Becoming Modern in Toronto: The Industrial Exhibition and the Shaping of a Late Victorian Culture (U of Toronto P, 1997), Keith Walden outlines a similar disconnect in cultural and technological expectations:

On 2 September 1892 Hannah Heron was struck by one of Toronto’s new electric trolleys in a downtown residential neighbourhood…Shortly before 3 p.m. she was being escorted to the Church Street car by her host’s companion, who saw the trolley approaching. As they stood on the northeast corner of the intersection, Heron was told she had to board at the southwest. She raced across the street, intending to cross diagonally. Recognizing the danger she was in, the driver rang a warning bell, but the noise disoriented her. She stopped in the middle of the street. Too late to brake now, the motorman started to shout, increasing her bewilderment. Finally, she darted in front of the car, which knocked her down and passed over both her legs below the knee. She was carried back to her aunt’s house, where she died five hours later.

[…]

When Hannah Heron stepped into the middle of Church Street, she was articulating a particular understanding of what a Toronto roadway meant—of the nature of the vehicles likely to be encountered there, of the dangers that needed to be considered, of appropriate ways of moving through that space, of the status of a human body relative to all these things. Unfortunately, her understanding, based on past experience, was contested by the street railway company, a much more powerful entity, which wanted to run cars at speeds faster than had been possible with horse-drawn wagons. By changing just one element in the situation, the entire web of signification had to be reknit…such questions, which went to the heart of the meaning of the street, bodies, machines, and citizenship, all had to be renegotiated because hierarchies of speed and power had changed. (3-6)

Like the fate of Ms. Heron, at stake is a question and dispute over reading—over signification. We can accept uncritically the University’s insistence that it has a right to police the Internet and affirm their dismissal of 147 students as “naive,” or, we can respect that the students oppositional worldview may hold merit. Significantly, the students of Ryerson—a great number more now than Avenir’s 146 co-conspirators—have come out in force behind Avenir and in contradistinction to the administration. Consider too that younger generations tend to understand the cultural implications of new technologies far earlier than the older, and in fact, facebook was originally created exclusively for students’—not administrators’—use. Unlike Ms. Heron’s ill-fated clash with the Toronto street railway company, the debate on how we read cyberspace is not yet closed, nor is it as starkly drawn.

If, like me, you find the increasingly popular state practice of universal surveillance odious, you should resist the University’s appropriation of cyberspace. In fact, I hold the University to a higher standard than I would the government, so I would expect such an institution to resist such practices actively rather to capitulate to them. Free Avenir.

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