April 13, 2004

Privacy rights for students and professors at a private university

A professor recently sent an e-mail to everybody in a class I took, giving each of our grades on the final paper (by name) and a few comments on the failings of our work. Like several of my angry classmates, I was quite surprised—surely this violates some norm of privacy, if not the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

But how much do we really know about what professors say about us behind our backs? Do they discuss our seminar grades, ask one another how to deal with closed-lipped or loud-mouthed students, or give advice on who to advise? (Yes, yes, and yes, I am told.)

For that matter, do professors have any idea how much we talk about them? Do they know that every e-mail they send to a student will quickly be forwarded to that student's friends, or that many office-hours conversations are transcribed and reported to interested classmates? When the professor is particularly reclusive, witty, or worshipped, a single student is often intentionally sent to ask questions on behalf of a group, prepared to recall everything. For that matter, how many professors realize that students write down smart (and stupid) things that they say in class, posting them on the internet on websites and weblogs? I suspect that many professors have little idea (which makes me wonder how much we students overestimate our own privacy from gossip).

This makes it difficult to say much productive about privacy norms between professors and students—surely to intelligently demarcate new lines, we would do well to know where our current lines stand.

Some things should clearly be out of bounds, and professors (who hold positions of both power and trust) should be held to much higher standards than students (who don't), and should never disclose confidential information about one student to another, even when they might be willing to tell one of their own colleagues. Students—I promise—will tell.

One professor wrote to me, "It's grossly inappropriate to e-mail everyone's grades to everyone, and isn't at all the sort of thing students should have to worry about their professors doing." Surely we can all agree on that—official professorial approval can grant a halo of authority (or substantiate a charge of arrogance) that adds nothing to Chicago's trademark academic free-for-all. Students are generally made uncomfortable by having their performance become public information, and have enough to worry about without adding shame to the already considerable penalties of academic failure.

All of that said:

Students—try, if you can, to worry less about keeping your grades and class performance private. Many of your classmates have probably guessed, and the rest are unlikely to care. To be sure, you have a right to the privacy of your grades, but remember too that the right is already more fragile than you believe.

Professors—please know that everything you say to a student (in class or out of it) may spread beyond its intended audience. Your comments are unlikely to go unrepeated unless you explicitly request confidentiality (even then, all bets are off) or the comments simply are not interesting enough to be worth the trouble. And never underestimate what your students will find interesting about you—or each other.

I believe that the culture of student gossip is a good thing. Professors are a limited but valuable resource, and anything students can do to gain access to professors' wisdom without inconveniencing them makes learning a little better here. Far better to have four students sharing information freely than to have each of them lined up on Wednesday morning to pester the professor during limited office hours.

But I worry that if professors ever realize that we students gossip like crazy, they'll be more careful about letting personal tidbits slip when talking to us. They can't control all of the information about themselves—we will find out who dates undergraduates and which faculty members were messily divorced from which other ones even if they don't tell us—but avoiding those naively-revealed tidbits would make them a little less human to us, and thus a little less fascinating.

The expectations of privacy students and professors bear are mostly illusory—students, especially, have much to gain and little to lose by unburdening themselves freely of everything that their professors do and say.