Freedom of speech

Piazza is an online forum tool that is heavily used in the academia. It is used to help students ask questions and get feedback from both peers and instructors. It has a goal that is similar to Slack in the sense that they both try to cut the duplicate emails sent by several people for the same or similar type of request. It is a good tool but every tool that comes with power has its own consequence.

Instructors can perform the following configuration when they setup the forum for the course.

Screen Shot 2018-02-09 at 11.58.12 PM

Basically, this option means that when you make a post, whether you can choose to be “Anonymous” to both your peers and instructors or to your peers only (instructors can still see who makes the post).  The following picture shows what this option looks like from student’s perspective:

Screen Shot 2018-02-09 at 11.58.33 PM

The intention for this option I guess is that some students may feel embarrassed to ask questions. They might think their questions are dumb and will make them look bad in front of peers or instructors. I think this option is used as a way to encourage students to ask questions bravely.

However, this option may get abused. From my observation, Piazza is used as a way for instructors to show off their teaching quality. This is important for Assistant Professors because teaching still means something (if teaching quality doesn’t matter, why institution asks for the teaching statement at the very first place?). In addition, the teaching quality in some sense is an important indicator for students to evaluate you as a person. This is important for professors who are looking for graduate students because research publication is only part of the story and how those professors interact with students may be a crucial indicator to how good a professor as a human being is (evaluation may be a better indicator but it is confidential). Thus, if some potential students look at the piazza that his interested professor teaches gets a lot of complaints. The students may have a second thought on whether he should work with him for research (maybe he is a very bad person even he is doing a good research).

Thus, the instructors have a strong motivation to censor the posts on the piazza. This scares the students because they don’t have a secure way to provide feedback to the instructor. Let’s assume that the majority of students has a good heart: they won’t say bad stuff to the instructor who actually really cares about students. Thus, the time that something slightly negative appears on the Piazza may be a very important signal to the instructor that something wrong with his teaching. However, due to the strong motivation for instructors to show off their teaching quality through Piazza, the instructors may start to censor the speech on the Piazza by turning the option off.

I didn’t realize this thing last semester. Last semester, the instructor from one course sets this option off and I was thinking maybe he wants to know the students who are shy to ask questions and provide some individual attention. However, this semester, the instructor from one of my course initially turn the option on so that everyone can truly ask questions as “Anonymous”. Then, until one day, someone makes the below post and the option is turned off. Now, no students dare to make slightly negative posts.

Screen Shot 2018-02-10 at 12.28.57 AM

 

I fully understand the interests conflict between students and instructors on the use of Piazza: students may think Piazza is a secure way to provide anonymous feedback while instructor may think bad posts on the forum make them look bad. However, I still think there should be a better way to address this conflict to protect both students and instructors especially with the technology we have nowadays. But, (unintentional) censorship is not something we want to culture especially in the Academia. By the way, for this course, I still think the instructor is good but the material is quite challenging without laying down a solid theoretical foundation beforehand. He went through the material again after this post but too bad the truely “Anonymous” is gone.

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