Friday, September 27, 2013

Student Construction of Private Spaces in the Classroom

The topical focus of my Composition I course is currently privacy. Inspired by Edward Snowden, we've been discussing the right to privacy and the relationship between the individual and the government. In the second unit, we have shifted to teen privacy, primarily on the internet.

Yesterday's reading was “Social Privacy in Networked Publics: Teens’ Attitudes, Practices, and Strategies" by danah boyd and Alice Marwick. The authors' project was to determine from interviews with teens how they establish and maintain privacy both irl and online. The teens often didn't feel they had privacy at home because of their parents, but they could construct privacy at places like Panera through a process Erving Goffman calls "civil inattention." This is something you have probably experienced yourself at your local coffee shop, where you ignore the presence of others and expect them to ignore you. It's a quiet sort of privacy, and it's part of the way that everyone, teen and adult, constructs boundaries between the public and private.
Image courtesy of Sura Nualpradid,

In class yesterday, I had to reprimand a student who was assiduously applying lip gloss. This is the sort of behavior that has always been a mystery to me. Students will try to read for other classes, check their phones, check their wallets, check their reflections in their phones, etc. I often ask myself and other teachers, "don't they know I can see them?" 

Last night it occurred to me that they are establishing a private space in the classroom. To them, the norms of civil inattention require that I not see them. They have mistaken the nature and function of the classroom. Instead of a work-focused, active public space, they confuse it with a public in which they can retreat and establish privacy. 

I remember I used to engage in private behavior in class, too. How did I grow out of it? Do you have students who similarly establish private spaces? Have you found ways to enlighten students aside from reprimanding them in class?

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