Tag Archives: surveillance

Default lecture capture: In defense of academic freedom, safety and well-being

This is a submission based on the collated and collective views of the Human Geography Research Group (HGRG) in the School of Geosciences at the University of Edinburgh as our institution is considering adopting lecture capture by default. I am sharing it here as it might assist other academics who are confronting and concerned about mandatory lecture recording and it might help students to understand why default lecture recording is not necessarily in their interests.

The HGRG is strongly opposed to the policy of default recording on four main grounds:

  • Pedagogical reasons
  • Academic freedom
  • Staff well-being
  • Staff and student safety

Pedagogical reasons

We understand why stressed, anxious and highly indebted students might well believe that their interests are best served by having access to recordings of lectures, but it is our belief that for the majority of our students it will have a detrimental effect on their learning.

Many of us are dealing with difficult and often quite controversial material in class and we try to encourage a high level of student engagement and class participation.   Lecture content is therefore often quite spontaneous and responsive to student input.  An interactive lecture requires students to be actively present in the classroom. This mode of participation is not possible when viewing a recorded lecture later. Furthermore, the fact of recording changes the way in which both teachers and students behave, deterring both us and them from dealing with sensitive or controversial content. For many students it takes a lot of courage to speak up in class and they will simply not do so if they know they are being recorded. Lecturers would be forced to substantially change their lecture content and style of delivery that will make lectures less interesting, interactive and engaging – hallmarks of “innovative” learning. We believe that recording will destroy the classroom rapport, spontaneity and informality that are fundamental for effective learning and critical thinking. Even if lecture recording has no impact on attendance (which is debatable), it might also encourage students to be less than present during the class as they know that they can access the material later.

We also live in a highly saturated media environment in which in addition to books and journal articles, we have instant access to a range of media content, include YouTube clips, documentaries, movies, Ted talks, podcasts, and radio shows that might well provide useful supplementary learning material for students. In addition, most students are active and competent users of social media and are used to being exposed to media texts that that can be consumed very quickly.  While instant access to this kind of media content is valuable in many ways, it does create an economy of distraction and is making it harder for many people to listen and pay attention to something for more than a few minutes.  Attending lectures in person and being required to pay careful attention to what is being said for one or two hours without being able to pause or rewind provides students with an important set of skills, namely the ability to pay attention for more than five minutes, select information and critically prioritize what is important within an argument and take a useful set of notes. Students need to learn to listen. The ability of thinking critically can only be acquired by focusing on the unfolding of an argument, by struggling – and perhaps disagreeing – with it and this is a skill best acquired in the classroom rather than through another online media text. There is plenty of useful material online already for students who wish to listen to a course-relevant podcast while relaxing, walking to campus or doing exercise. We should not add recorded lectures to this already abundant and often overwhelming media content.

There are of course universities and courses that specialize in online delivery (ODL), where all of the students study remotely and material is only available in an online format and delivered in a unidirectional way from teacher to student. While ODL works for some students, these courses lack the participatory and creative learning environments that in-person course delivery provides.  If there are students that wish to avoid class participation or need to study remotely for other reasons, there are courses that cater for this mode of learning. The learning needs of the vast majority of students are better served by lectures and tutorials that they attend in person and are combined with reading and independent study.

Furthermore, most of our students do not read anywhere near enough. The failure to read sufficiently is amply reflected in students’ written work and is a shared concern often raised during examination boards. Reading is central to getting a university education and good writers and critical thinkers are also avid readers. The best thing our students can do outside of the classroom is to read material from class reading lists, rather than to watch online a lecture that they have already attended. A good set of notes taking during the lecture is more than sufficient for reviewing this material later when doing assessed work. Even if recording lectures does not impact on attendance, it might impact negatively on the time students dedicate to reading.

One of the issues we struggle with at times is poor class attendance, which can very quickly undermine learning outcomes. Availability of online lectures is likely to deter some students from attending class as they know they can catch up later. As teachers, we try to produce a collective dynamic in the classroom based on co-learning (we all learn from each other) and in which insights unfold over the course of the semester.  The most stimulating classes are ones in which conversations are developed, evolved and built on. The only way to do this effectively is to do so in an embodied face-to-face way, by being present in the room with others and by coming to class every week.

Academic freedom

The proposed policy states that opting out of recording will require the permission of the head of school. The members of the Human Geography Research Group are engaged in critical work in the humanities and social sciences but are based in the School of Geosciences. This school is dominated by physical scientists who often use quite different pedagogical strategies and tend not to teach the critical social theory and political perspectives that are central to our own teaching.  This school organization means that our heads of schools and directors of teaching tend to be physical scientists and sometimes do not have sufficient familiarity with approaches and pedagogical techniques in human geography and the critical social sciences. While we are confident that our existing head of school would support our requests to opt out, we cannot speak for future heads of school that might base decisions on a physical science model. It is important for our own personal safety, the protection of our academic freedom and the quality of our teaching that our need to opt out in respected in the future. It should not depend on whether the current or future head of school is sufficiently familiar with and sympathetic to our pedagogical approaches.

We recognize that for some lecturers and some courses and classes, lecture recording might be seen as a valuable pedagogical tool. The person giving the lecture is best placed to decide on the pedagogical advantages and disadvantages of recording and the decision on whether to record should be left to the class lecturer. Academic freedom is being eroded in all kinds of ways in British universities to the detriment of both teaching and research (see Karran’s 2017 report at https://www.ucu.org.uk/academic-freedom-in-2017) and this policy would exacerbate this state of affairs.

Staff well-being

There is already too much administrative work and bureaucracy at the University of Edinburgh and for many academics workloads are unsustainably high. This policy would create additional work and an unnecessary layer of administrative bureaucracy for both lecturers and heads of schools. We are not given sufficient time to prepare and deliver lectures, grade assessments and meet with students in our office hours. These things take far longer than the time allocated to them in the workload model and most human geographers are also working over capacity. So we do not have time for the additional work proposed by the policy, not only seeking permission to opt out from the head of school but also “reviewing and editing the recording, where required, and publishing it to the students on the Course(s) via the service, normally by the end of the next working day.” The policy assumes our time is elastic, but it is not.

Furthermore, with the change to an opt-out policy, the onus will be on us as individuals to explain and justify our decision to opt-out to our students – with the default being that recording is a “good thing” against which we will need to articulate an argument. We think that this could place an undue degree of stress on us as staff and detract from the learning aims of the course.

There is also concern that the recording of lectures could easily be used for a range of non-pedagogical purposes, including for evaluation by managers. Furthermore, mandatory recording would place intolerable pressure on academics. New hires or those developing new courses often have to prepare a large number of new lectures from scratch in a very short space of time. If staff were being recorded for all of them, they might well feel more pressure to prepare these lectures perfectly and this may mean they end up reading from scripts to remain in control of what they say and avoid any momentary lapses of concentration, fluffing of ‘lines’ etc. They will find that time for research and other non-teaching activities is even further reduced.

Staff and student safety

As noted above, as experts in our fields, we are the best placed to know whether recording is appropriate or useful. The decision on whether to record should therefore be in the hands of academics.  We believe that students should be exposed to difficult and complex material that might critique and challenge the cultural or political status quo. Students in human geography need to engage with a range of feminist, queer, anti-colonial, decolonial, anarchist, and socialist ideas that are central to our discipline and facilitate understanding the world through a geographical lens. We are doing them a disservice if we do not give them the analytical and theoretical tools to interrogate the uneven and unequal world in which we live. In addition to do so requires engagement with many of the complex issues of our time, including war and conflict, forced migrations, violence against women, racism, social injustice and socio-economic inequality.

We are however living in dangerous times in which white supremacy, colonial apologetics, sexism, racism, Islamaphobia, and anti-immigrant sentiment are resurgent and are promoted by the present political conjuncture, characterized by the Trump presidency, the politics of Brexit, austerity and the use of Prevent legislation in universities as well as other factors. Online trolling and abuse by sexist, racist, and neocolonial actors is often directed towards academics. To date, universities have done very little to protect academics from this kind of abuse and as a result many are suffering and living in fear. See for example:

“I’m a Stanford professor accused of being a terrorist. McCarthyism is back”


“Death threats are forcing professors off campus”


See also the numerous articles detailing the attacks and abuse directed at Farhana Sultana, Syracuse University, and Lola Olufemi, University of Cambridge, two examples here



Online lectures make it possible for small pieces of lecture material to be placed on the internet and shared on social media and potentially expose us and our students to all kinds of emotional and physical harm.  Streamed lectures can easily be recorded, edited into memes and other forms of social media content, and used for various non-pedagogical purposes. While the proposed policy states that students who share material would be subject to disciplinary action, there would be no way to identify who was responsible for its dissemination.

Our classrooms need to be safe spaces for our students and for us and our colleagues, particularly those who are BAME or who teach through a decolonial or feminist lens. We want our students to be able to ask questions, say what they think, and participate in class discussion and we want to be able to respond to them without fear that our words and interventions will appear on the internet without our consent.

Many of us draw on our research experiences in our teaching and some of us do research in countries with high levels of political repression and authoritarianism, often directed at political opponents of the government, feminist activists or LGTB people. If we criticize the government in power, as we often do in our classes to provide context or illustrate theoretical points, this could also expose us to danger when we do fieldwork, should this material be shared.

We know from historical and contemporary experience that the lives of academics can be put in grave danger because somebody doesn’t like their politics.

This policy must therefore be strongly opposed in the interests of sound pedagogies, academic freedom and the well-being and safety of both staff and students.




Coloniality, masculinity and big data economies

This is the text of the paper I presented at the recent AAG conference in Chicago on spatialized information economies in a panel entitled ‘Where’s the Value? Emerging Digital Economies of Geolocation’ convened by Jeremy Crampton and Agnieszka Leszczynski and also including Elvin Wyly and Rob Kitchin. Jeremy has placed a link to the audio of the entire panel on his blog and you can find it here. The text of Rob’s talk can be found here.

So I’d like to make a few points about cultural studies, media convergence and some of the masculinizing and colonizing fantasies that I think accompany the digital economy. For the last few years, I’ve been working on a collaborative research project on the geographies of media convergence and in particular the expanding interactivity between media technologies, sites, users and production processes. The project aims to understand how changes in the media environment are facilitating new relationships between politics and popular culture, in the context of persistent but increasingly contested neoliberalism, intensified forms of securitization and heightened political effectivity of various decolonial and indigenous movements. So questions of spatialized information economies are pertinent to this project, although initially I thought of them as marginal. It’s apparent that we can’t explore the democratizing and decolonizing dimensions of the new media environment, without also exploring the potential dark side of media convergence, the convergences between online tracking and targeting, RFIDs, predictive analytics, geodemographics, VGI capture, video surveillance, the Internet of Things and urban sensor networks. Cultural studies has tended to resist a ‘what media do to people’ model to focus instead on what people do with media, an approach that has often revealed interesting forms of popular pleasure or oppositional cultural politics. New modes of algorithmic sorting, surveillance and tracking complicate to some extent that approach. Furthermore, I’ve also become increasingly interested in these questions in the context of the neoliberal university where a hierarchy has been created between so-called big data and other kinds of research data.

Westernized universities, academic funding agencies, neoliberal governments and for-profit corporations seem to be uncritically embracing concepts such as big data/smart cities in ways that potentially undermine the groundwork put in place by feminist scholarship. As a number of feminist GIS scholars have noted, it tends to be largely men who are the main contributors and legitimizers of geospatial information, but spatial media technologies are also embraced by and for women and progressive social movements in empowering ways (see for example Stephens 2013; Leszczynski and Elwood 2014). Research became less about extraction and more about working with and allowing participants to shift the focus of the research agenda. It’s quite likely that many big data scholars never engaged with those perspectives in the first place, but we do appear to be experiencing a masculinist revival of post-political positivism (see Merrifield 2014: 3). Not only do contemporary big data discourses replicate and indeed celebrate the presumed universality, “view from nowhere”, neutrality, stable ontology and no need for social theory position of much conventional GIS, they also mobilize a teleological sense of progress and inevitability and are accompanied in the words of Boyd and Crawford (2012:666) by a “sweeping dismissal of all other theories and disciplines” which as they note “reveals an arrogant undercurrent”. There is also something quite masculinist in the privileging as Nafus and Sherman (2014) write, of size over substance. The ‘big’ in big data doesn’t just refer to the size of the datasets used, big sometimes means big funding, big promotions, and big space in ways that rework the gendered hierarchies and old boy networks of the contemporary academy and that deny the same privileges to those working with theory or with ethnographic or qualitative data and furthermore often produce work that stigmatizes and simplifies far more than it explains. We could say that the mobilization of big data by scholars, corporations and governments is often underpinned by what Boaventura de Sousa Santos (2007) refers to abyssal thinking. For de Sousa Santos an abyssal line divides metropolitan societies from colonial territories, the human from the subhuman, and it is only in metropolitan societies where the regulation/emancipation dichotomy has any purchase, while the other side of the line is characterized by appropriation and violence. There is evidence that the data doubles of certain social groups are located on the wrong side of the abyssal line. The streets of Bilwi and Bluefields in Nicaragua, where I do much of my research, are filled with small businesses, places to eat, market stalls and shops that have no digital footprint. Yet young Afro-descended people from these cities deprived of adequate economic opportunities are often forced to migrate to the capital to work in call centres – to participate in the digital economy even as that participation is fuelled by poverty and racial exclusion. Geographic digital exclusions and inclusions often work together in simultaneously negative ways. For low-income and racialized populations around the world, surveillance is nothing new, but it now takes on insidious new dimensions as it becomes harder to prove that you are a victim of discrimination because an ad for predatory pay day loan has appeared on your social media site or that you were stopped and searched not because the police had reasonable evidence that you had committed a crime but as a result of a convergence between your geographical location and Facebook likes. Such outcomes produce a tension between our growing collective resistance to being secretly surveilled and counted, even among populations whose relative affluence has been able to buy them privacy, and the contrasting demand as articulated by Eric Swyngedouw (2015) “to be counted, named, and recognized, theatrically and publicly staged by those ‘that do not count’”.

What hope is there for challenging the colonizing, racializing and universalizing processes that accompany the digital economy? In the past, elites saw popular television as a threat to democracy, while cultural scholars documented how ordinary people consumed mass media in oppositional ways. As John Hartley (2003) noted, indeed the masses seen from the outside as amorphous were actually increasingly sovereign. They could act in politically consequential ways. To what extent do new data mining technologies undermine this state of affairs? To what extent does it matter that we/they don’t know how the algorithms that track and target us work? The economy used to criminalize and to sell us stuff is also used to foment revolution and to refuse capitalist exploitation, smart city technologies fail as often as they succeed and they are increasingly vulnerable to being hacked from below, datasets are fragmented by tactical and unruly resistant practices and by highly selective modes of online self-presentation. We are also constantly confronted with the failures of surveillance. Some of these failures are quite mundane, such as when Facebook describes my ex-husband to me “as someone you may know” or when Sainsbury’s keeps texting me in Costa Rica with concerns that I’m forgetting to swipe my loyalty card, while others are quite serious and sinister, from whole airplanes that disappear without trace to London schoolgirls who communicate with known jihadis on social media and then travel to Syria on false passports without detection or interception. Big data economies also produce the resurrection of guerrilla technologies, molecular activities, reverse surveillance, the rehabilitation of secrecy, WikiLeaks, Edward Snowden, Anonymous. So I don’t really have any conclusions except to say that I am both seriously worried and tentatively hopeful.


boyd d and Crawford K (2012) Critical questions for big data. Information, Communication and Society. 15:5, 662-679

de Souza Santos B (2007) Beyond abyssal thinking: From global lines to ecologies of knowledges. Review 30(1): 45-89

Hartley J (2003) A Short History of Cultural Studies. London: Sage

Leszczynski A and Elwood S (2014) Feminist geographies of new spatial media. The Canadian Geographer / Le Géographe Canadien 59(1): 12-28

Merrifield A (2014) The New Urban Question. London: Pluto Press

Nafus D and Sherman J (2014) This one does not go up to eleven: The Quantified Self Movement as an alternative big data practice. International Journal of Communication 8: 1784–1794

Stephens M (2013) Gender and the GeoWeb: divisions in the production of user-generated cartographic information. Geojournal 78:981–996

Swyngedouw E (2015) Insurgent urbanity and the political city. In M Moshen (ed) Ethics of the Urban: The City and the Spaces of the Political. Zurich: Lars Müller (in press)