Privacy, Consent, and the Virtual One-Shot

Guest poster Nora Almeida is an instruction and outreach librarian at the New York City College of Technology (CUNY) and a volunteer at Interference Archive. Nora researches and writes about critical pedagogy, social justice, neoliberalism, performance, and place. You can find her on twitter: @nora_almeida.

In April 2020, when the City University of New York (CUNY) shifted classes and student services online, the one-shot library instruction sessions mostly stopped all together. I sent out a few emails during the early days of the COVID-19 lock down in NYC as I deleted most of the now obsolete notations in my calendar while doom-scrolling and listening to perpetual ambulance sirens. But everyone’s semester had been thrown so wildly off-course and midterms had already ended and the consensus seemed to be to try to get through the semester and then reset for fall. In truth, most of the faculty that I emailed never even replied to my messages.

I did teach two virtual guest lectures in May and thought nothing of the fact that the instructors recorded them—something we’d discussed in advance and which seemed important given the emergency outside of all of our apartments and the very real technology barriers that students at CUNY face.

Then in the summer when both courses ran again and the instructors emailed to ask if I could reprise my guest lectures, they both indicated they could also just use the recordings from spring if I was busy or away. I responded immediately that either was fine as though we all implicitly understood that in virtual education contexts, ourselves and our pre-recorded simulacra are basically the same. Aren’t they?

But then, upon further reflection, I felt a little odd and I began to wonder how many MP4s of me had been recorded or shared since the pandemic had started. I thought of a virtual conference panel I participated in, which I learned was being live-streamed to YouTube only after the session had commenced: “thousands of people are watching right now,” one of the organizers said, proudly. Then in June, I was asked by a faculty member who I’d worked with before to do virtual library instruction for a research-intensive course and was startled to join a Zoom session and see the red recording button blinking before I opened my mouth.

I wondered then, gloomily, if part of the natural progression of higher education in this moment is not only the loss of corporeality but the end of the ephemeral educational encounter altogether. Or perhaps we are all experiencing some kind of temporal implosion in which college exists both nowhere and everywhere, and classes are attended by black boxes on a screen, which may or may not represent the attention and presence of actual students, and the teacher might be ported in from another time and place.

When it became clear that we weren’t going back to campus in the fall, I started to talk about the recording issue with colleagues, suggesting maybe we should create a departmental policy. Then, as the new semester approached, CUNY released their own policy, which importantly considers the privacy of students and requires explicit student consent for video recording of synchronous course sessions. The policy trickled down to the campuses a little late but I believed that perhaps it would make some difference.

In our department we planned to go forward with our usual instruction program with some changes to accommodate asynchronous classes. We provide library instruction for all of the first-year composition courses at our college in addition to discipline-specific instruction upon request—amounting to about 35 sessions per semester for the average instruction librarian. I carefully added language about video recording to the email template that I use to correspond with faculty. If they wanted synchronous instruction, I requested that they let me know if they record their classes (presumably with consent from their students). If they wanted to record the one-shot, I asked them to let me manage and share the recording if their teaching platform allows it (Zoom does but Blackboard, our institutional LMS, does not). If they were teaching using a platform that doesn’t allow a guest to maintain control over recording, I asked to opt-out.

Some faculty have responded thoughtfully to my message and have worked carefully to ensure that student needs are accommodated and that everyone can consent to or opt-out of recording. Some have ignored my message altogether. Some have been confused and thought that I wanted to keep the recordings for myself. Some faculty don’t have the technological capacity to honor my request or to change the settings on their Zoom account to ensure that students can’t record one-another. Some have pedantically referenced the CUNY policy and indicated (incorrectly) that any kind of recording isn’t permitted. Three-times I have joined a class and, after being confronted by the red blinking light, I have requested firmly and politely that I manage the recording and share a link later. This past week, I taught a one-shot for a faculty member who I had to email six times before they sent me a link to access their course and then they recorded me without my consent. I didn’t say anything in part because I felt weird that I had sent this person so many emails. They had acted as though they were doing me some large favor by sharing a link to their course so I could help their students do research and I thought I might alienate them further by insisting I maintain control over my own intellectual property.

I don’t know exactly what I’m worried will happen with the videos, which are not exciting and I can’t imagine many people rewatching. I certainly would never rewatch them, in part because they are, with some small deviations, almost identical. In the background are small personal details-—a framed May Day poster a friend designed, a dying succulent, my swimsuit drying on a door-knob, my husband walking by. Parts of the videos are potentially dangerous out of context in that they are mildly political; almost all students in first year composition courses are researching social and political issues. It’s unlikely but not impossible that pieces of the videos could be recontextualized and weaponized by alt-right cyber-trolls who spend their days harassing and doxxing liberal academics and students of color (the majority of students at the CUNY campus where I work are Black and Hispanic).

Certainly, the videos could be reused later, without my consent or when the information they contain is out of date. Zoom, the primary platform that faculty at my institution are using for remote instruction, can also access videos and other content that is recorded and stored on their cloud servers (or the cloud servers they license from 4th parties, mostly Amazon). According to their privacy policy, Zoom does “not guarantee that any customer content you or any user provides to the Services will not be viewed by unauthorized persons” and even they recommend that we “should be cautious about the access [we] provide to others.”

Beyond these privacy concerns are larger, scarier labor concerns. While I am a full-time (untenured) faculty member at CUNY with enough job security to write a blog post like this, many of the people who teach one-shots in the CUNY library system are adjuncts. The post-COVID fiscal crisis has severely impacted CUNY and New York state, which the university counts on for 60% of its operational budget, has opted to only release funds to the university on a month-to-month basis. This funding model has put contingent employees within the libraries, in an especially precarious position. If an adjunct librarian teaches an instruction session that is recorded this week, and they are fired at the end of the month, their video simulacrum might actually replace them. As increased austerity seems likely and rumors of more layoffs and retrenchments circulate, it seems important that we all consider how the digital learning objects we’re creating can and might be used by the university in the future. Even if CUNY’s IP Policy indicates that our pedagogy belongs to us, the policy does nothing to address circumstances where our own IP isn’t even accessible to us. 

At the end of a day when I teach two or three one-shots to the void of Zoom boxes that may or not be listening, I feel perhaps that I’m not all that different from my simulacrum after all. We repeat the same phrases. We tell the same jokes. We have the same teaching assistant (my cat, Goose). Today we are more animated or tired. Today some of the Zoom boxes contain videos of real students. I hear some of their voices. Some of them type in the chat box and I type back. But these are small signs of engagement and even before the pandemic, I had my doubts about the one-shot. Most of these students have never even been on campus, many of them have never used an academic library and it’s unclear how much an hour-long virtual instruction session really helps. It’s hard to be interactive or check to make sure students are following along. Sometimes mid-session, when I feel like I’m truly just speaking into the void, I ask, are you guys still with me? Some days I wonder: if I shared my screen and just pressed play on a pre-recorded one-shot would anyone even notice?

I wonder why I feel so protective of something that probably matters so little. Especially when so few people around me seem to share my concerns. Perhaps my little cloud folder of carefully labelled un-downloadable videos that will become unavailable on the last day of final exams is a way for me to assert control during a time when so much seems far beyond my control. Or perhaps my attempts to control recordings of my teaching is a small protest against a culture that devalues and erases library labor and the labor of contingent workers.

If nothing else, I hope that by making some noise about these issues more people will start to think about privacy, consent, and labor in relation to digital education. I hope that more university systems will create spaces for faculty to discuss and learn more about privacy and consent. And I hope, most of all, that more educators start to talk about these issues with one another and with their students.

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