Student’s Violent Outburst, Part One

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(Please note that the video discussed in this post contains violence and offensive language. Many of the comments left on YouTube are also offensive.) This past Tuesday, as I was getting ready to fly out to St. Louis for the Conference on College Composition and Communication, as I was polishing my talk on students reading and writing in New Media, a disturbing example of students’ digital literacies at my school went viral. During a discussion of peacocks in a class on evolution, one of the students became disruptive and violent. In a powerful example of unofficial digital literacies, several students used their cell phones to capture the incident, which ended up on YouTube. As of this writing, the video has had over 195,000 views, and the entire incident has moved from student/citizen journalism to various online and mainstream news outlets. There is so much packed into this incident that I’d like to dedicate a series of posts to it. I think it has that much to say. More importantly, I think we have that much to learn from it. For starters, given the subject of my talk, I’d like to think about this in terms of digital literacy.  We live in a world not just of surveillance, with cameras watching us all the time and with Google or Facebook knowing everything about us, but of sousvelliance. The term comes from  “Sousveillance: Inventing and Using Wearable Computing Devices for Data Collection in Surveillance Environments.” In the article, authors Steve Mann, Jason Nolan, and Barry Wellman define the term:
One way to challenge and problematize both surveillance and acquiescence to it is to resituate these technologies of control on individuals, offering panoptic technologies to help them observe those in authority. We call this inverse panopticon “sousveillance” from the French words for “sous” (below) and “veiller” to watch. (332)
Sousveillance participates in what Mann calls reflectionism: “a philosophy and procedures of using technology to mirror and confront bureaucratic organizations. Reflectionism holds up the mirror and asks the question: ‘Do you like what you see?’ If you do not, then you will know that other approaches by which we integrate society and technology must be considered” (333).  Rather than regulate mechanisms of surveillance, reflectionism aims to increase the equality between the “surveiller” and the “surveilled” (333). Generally, I am drawn to this concept of sousvelliance, both as an individual and as a teacher. But in this case my reaction is complicated. On the one hand, having students document what actually happened in the class feels important—for the teacher, for my school, for the public, for the students. On the other hand, it makes me wonder if sousvelliance is a remedy to panopticism or an extension of it. I don’t have an answer for this one. I'll continue to work through my thoughts on what happened as I finish up these posts, but for now I’d love your help and insight. What’s the effect of having this video on YouTube? Is this student digital literacy? Is this another kind of surveillance in a world that seems to have little privacy? More simply, let me ask you: should this video exist?
About the Author
Barclay Barrios is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Writing Programs at Florida Atlantic University, where he teaches freshman composition and graduate courses in composition methodology and theory, rhetorics of the world wide web, and composing digital identities. He was Director of Instructional Technology at Rutgers University and currently serves on the board of Pedagogy. Barrios is a frequent presenter at professional conferences, and the author of Emerging.