Real Teaching? It Starts With the Students

This morning, a team of my students presented on the value of comedy in society. It was a fine presentation: They even cited a number of studies concluding that laughter is good for one’s health–but included the caveat that the studies were way too small to be considered conclusive. As this is a First Year Composition II class, I was quite happy that they had recognized the limitations of studies they had encountered in their research (something I wish more journalists were able to do) and that they felt the need to mention them. Research skills, after all, are part of what the class is designed to develop.

At the end of the presentation, I muscled them away from the computer/projector and brought up today’s New York Times, where there’s an op-ed by Jaron Lanier, “Should Facebook Manipulate Users?” Lanier writes:

The manipulation of emotion is no small thing. An estimated 60 percent of suicides are preceded by a mood disorder. Even mild depression has been shown to increase the risk of heart failure by 5 percent; moderate to severe depression increases it by 40 percent.

Add to that:

Research with human subjects is generally governed by strict ethical standards, including the informed consent of the people who are studied.

You see, then, why the studies my students found were so small…

And why researchers took advantage to Facebook’s user agreement to manipulate 700,000 unknowing users.

This proved a great, short lesson for my students. I got to talk a little about Institutional Review Boards and the responsibilities of researchers using human subjects–and to connect what my students were doing to the “real” world. They even got to see how an arcane dispute about responsibility has potential ramifications way beyond social media itself:

The principle of informed consent in the age of social networking can’t be limited to individuals who are studied; the public has every right to be informed of otherwise undetectable commercial or political practices that are made possible by the results of research into high-tech manipulation, and to choose whether to give consent.

No lesson plan, no “outcome,” no rubric, no goal, and no standard could have made what happened today. It was the students themselves and my response to them… a dynamic at the heart of all real teaching and one that remains ever unmeasurable… that created this lesson.

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