Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Skeletons in the Closet

Halloween is coming up, and it’s time to talk about skeletons. No, not the kind that hang out with the ghosts, witches, and goblins, scaring little kids. I’m talking about the kind that are hiding in your closet, scaring you and threatening to ruin your career.

Everybody’s talking these days about how thanks to the Internet, people can dig up some of our deepest, darkest secrets and use them against us. Indeed, colleges and potential employers have been known to check out the Facebook and MySpace profiles of potential students or employees before making them offers, with the result that that one drunken picture of you holding up your middle finger to the camera could cost you a job offer.

In addition, “intimate” photographs that were meant only to be shared between you and a significant other can end up posted to the Internet to embarrass you after a breakup or by a roommate who had access to your significant other’s computer and wanted to have a little “fun.”

The snarky comment you posted online about wanting to “stick it to the man” back when you were in high school can come back to haunt you when the company you work for 10 years later has an important government contract, and you’re denied security clearance.

But I think this is just a fad. I hope this is just a fad. And this fad comes from our newly-found ability to dredge up stuff on people that was there all along, but that we just weren’t able to find before.

Let’s face it, we all have skeletons in our closets. We all said or did stupid things in high school or college that we wouldn’t want held against us now, and that we’re thankful that no one had the technology to find out about. Even the people who are doing the dredging have skeletons, which would make you think that they’d be a little more sensitive about it.

And what about those “intimate” pictures? As recently as 10 years ago a lot of those photographs wouldn’t have existed to be passed around by hand, let alone posted to the Internet. That’s because Kodak, or whoever the processor was, served as a filter. You could take all the intimate photos you wanted of someone, but unless you knew how to develop film yourself, you very likely wouldn’t ever get prints back of them. Sure, you could use a Polaroid to get “instant prints” that didn’t need to go out to be processed, but then you couldn’t get copies.

Then came the digital camera, and you could take pictures of anyone wearing (or not wearing) anything, and doing anything, without having to send them out to be processed. Now there was nothing to prevent you from taking a “funny” picture of your roommate on the toilet, and emailing it to 30 of your “closest friends.” And there was nothing to prevent one of those “friends” from posting the picture to the Internet, where millions of other people, including potential colleges and employers, could see it.

Once again, I’m hoping this is all just a fad. I’m hoping that once we realize that we all have skeletons in our closets, and that we all know stupid people with digital cameras, the novelty of being able to find those skeletons will wear off. I’m hoping that once we realize that we all have skeletons in our closets, one drunken or naked (or drunken naked) photograph won’t sabotage a career.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Paperless Classroom

There’s been a lot of talk about the paperless classroom. There’s been talk about it ever since the beginning of the personal computer era. And now that we’ve got ecological concerns, we’re hearing more and more about the paperless classroom, and paperless assignments. Be “green,” don’t give your students individual handouts anymore, put them online, where they can’t lose them, and can always refer to them (provided the connection is up and running).

But there are a few problems with this scenario. Aside from the obvious courses like art and music where it’s still pretty hard to be paperless at this point, there are problems. There are questions.

The first is whether going paperless really helps the environment at all, or just pushes the problem somewhere else in the system. On the one hand, we think of all the paper saved, and all the trees not cut down. That has to be better for the environment. But I’ve known a Forestry student or two (“Stumpies” we called them around here), and I know that for things like paper and Christmas trees, trees are treated like crops, and are planted and harvested systematically for those purposes. It’s not like they’re hacking down the Black Forest to make printer paper. If we’re going to worry about the environmental effects of planting and harvesting wood for paper, then shouldn’t we start worrying about the environmental effects of planting and harvesting corn, wheat, potatoes, etc.

Related to this is the issue of whether or not going paperless solves a problem or just pushes it somewhere else in the system. What does it take to build all those computers and to create the infrastructure that allows them to send documents all over the world paperlessly? What are the environmental effects of producing all those batteries and other electronic components?

The second question is whether or not going paperless really helps the student and the teacher. The answer to this is a definite “sometimes.” On the one hand, the assignments that are handed in to me electronically are the assignments that don’t get lost.

On the other hand, there’s the whole issue of handouts. I’ve tried working on my computer from an online manual, and unless that online manual is on my laptop and I’m trying to get the work done on my desktop, it just doesn’t work. Flipping back and forth between screens on the same computer is a disaster for me. Flipping back and forth between screens on the same computer has shown itself to be a disaster for my students. Sometimes you just need a piece of paper with the instructions sitting on your desk for you to keep referring to.

Even when I’m grading quizzes, which come back to me in email, I need a piece of paper to compile the results before putting them into the electronic gradebook. Once again, it’s that back and forth between two screens thing. Being able to jot it all down on a piece of paper and then quickly transfer the results to the gradebook is so much easier and faster.

Perhaps, rather than trying to go totally paperless, we should focus our efforts on eliminating the waste that comes when users don’t pay attention to what printer they sent their job to. Or the waste that occurs when students print out tons of the most inane ephemera - like posters on Pastafarianism.

The paperless classroom may arrive one of these days. But for now, as for me and my classroom, despite the fact that they’re available online, I’m giving out handouts again. My students will thank me, and their grades, which I’ll jot down on paper first, will go up.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Nothing to Sneeze At

There’s a group of nurses and other health care workers here in Syracuse NY who are protesting the fact that state law requires them to get the flu shot this year. They say that it violates their personal rights, and that it’s not fair for them to be forced to get the flu shot or lose their jobs.

I say, “You have got to be kidding!”

I could understand if these were auto mechanics, teachers, hairdressers, pastors, lawyers or people in a host of other jobs and professions we were talking about. There is absolutely no reason to require any of these people to get flu shots. Threatening them with the loss of their jobs if they didn’t get one would be stupid, totally unfair, and a violation of their rights. But hearing that complaint from nurses and other health care workers just rings hollow with me.

Because they’re health care workers, for Pete’s sake. These are people who will be around some of the sickest people there are and people with some of the most compromised immune systems. These are the people most likely to get it from one patient and give it to another, or to bring it home to their loved ones. These are the very people we need to keep healthy in order to take care of the rest of us. It’s just common sense that they should get it. We shouldn’t need a law to force them, but sadly, for some of them, we do.

Yes, I suppose you have the right to refuse to get a flu shot. And if you want to exercise that right, then you need to be in a field other than health care. Because as a patient, I have a right to expect that the people who will be attending to me have taken every reasonable precaution to stay healthy.

And these health care workers really should know better! They should understand how diseases travel and the importance of prevention. They say, “But I never get sick,” or “the last time I got a flu shot, it made me sick.” The “Spanish Flu” pandemic of 1918 killed more people in two years (at least 50 million) than AIDS has in 28 (25 million). It also unusual in that it killed healthy young adults rather than children, the elderly, or otherwise weakened patients. With that in mind, these people who “never get sick” are precisely the people who need to get the flu shot. And the sickness that they experienced after their flu shot was probably nothing like what the full-blown flu would have been like.

It’s funny though. What do these health care workers think of the laws that say that their children can’t go to school unless they’ve been properly vaccinated for a host of diseases? Do these laws violate their children’s right to an education, or do they understand the wisdom in these laws? You can’t even go to college now without a complete vaccination record.

It’s like this. Most people could understand getting the flu from a coworker or another patient in the doctor’s office, but if they found out that they got it from one of the nurses – who had chosen not gotten the vaccine – they would not be very understanding, and would have every right to bring a lawsuit.

And that is nothing to sneeze at.

For the record, I got my flu shot, as has everyone else in my family. Especially my wife, the nurse.