Tuesday, March 04, 2008

School daze: anti-fake course a fake

Inside Higher Ed ran a story, This Course Brought To You By …, dealing with an anticounterfeiting trade organization’s undisclosed sponsorship of a Hunter College course that induced students, for credit, to deceive other students by creating a fake student whose blog chronicled the trauma she supposedly experienced when, after she offered a $500 reward for the return of her Coach bag, she received instead a (fairly decent) counterfeit. Counterfeit Chic has cringeworthy excerpts from “her” blog and a further account of an anti-fakes event she organized (apologies to Alanis, I’m going to go with that being ironic) but did not herself attend, due to (a) an announced family emergency and/or (b) not being real.

Inside Higher Ed describes the many and varied ways in which the course was troubling:

Some question why a for-credit college class at a public university should be doing, in effect, discount marketing work for an industry group. Some wonder about a college using some students to fool other students. Others are concerned about the circumstances of the course itself. It was created without any curricular review. The professor who taught it says that he was pressured to do so even though he has no expertise in advertising or public relations (he teaches computer graphics) and had ethical qualms about the course.

Further, the professor — and other professors who have investigated the circumstances of the course — maintain that the professor was required to teach only one side of the issue, had to accept industry officials watching him teach, and had little clout to fight back since he didn’t (and still doesn’t) have tenure.

The title of the IHE story, of course, discloses precisely what the college and the trade organization didn’t want students to know: that the course was sponsored. The college made students pay to do the sponsor’s work: did it deceive them about the nature of the educational experience?

I’m not sure that all falsity corrupts, but courses planned in stealth to satisfy non-university, profit-seeking groups are unlikely to have the best interests of students at heart. We expect ads to be one-sided, and we’re still vulnerable to their sweet nothings. It’s worse when we expect a teacher’s considered judgment – Ellen Goodman has identified this as epistemic corruption, a degradation of the channels through which we used to be able to expect noncommodified messages to travel. The professor “said that, looking back [], he has ‘real ethical problems’ with the course. ‘I don’t know if the problems that they have with copyright are concerns I necessarily share. It’s all very strange to me to be in a situation where I had to advocate those views,’ he said. ‘They gave us $10,000 and they got some good, cheap publicity.’”

Bonus questions for Zachary Schrag: Did the students crafting messages to reach their fellow students need IRB approval? Did the anticounterfeiting organization need IRB approval to give students in the course their assignments and then write a report about the results?

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