Thinking About Campus Transparency
To pass the science building at night is to wonder at the glow of lab tables and Smartboards, the white lab coats and goggles neatly hung, the textbooks and spider plants bathed in the light of energy-efficient dimmers. You don’t have to look closely to catch the faculty prepping the week’s lessons—or tending to something more personal: laughing out loud, scratching an itch, making a phone call. Through the glass, a passerby can see everything.
I remember when my school, Milton Academy (MA), caught the wave of the architectural design shift happening on college campuses. No longer would educational spaces exist down dark hallways or inside ivory towers. Rather, they would bask in natural light, the classroom now an open-air, Google-esque creative workspace, fluid and boundary-less, interdisciplinary, and collaborative—a space to be seen and shared. Good form is married to function, and architects knew that the educational world was opening its doors, transparency the new pedagogical fashion.
Nearly a decade since the opening of the science center, we still travel down this road toward transparency; the motto of our recent teaching and learning efforts was “I see you.” We make our “educational rounds,” in which we move through each other’s open classrooms in 20-minute increments to see each other at work. The goal of this visibility is metaphoric: To see each other at work is to better know ourselves as a collective of educators. To see our students is to better know them as individual learners—each has a unique story and learning style. Seeing you, the theory goes, promotes teacher-student connection and investment, and as a result, learning with more impact.
The suggestion, though, that transparent physical space breeds connective learning seems problematic to me. Recently, I’ve identified a pattern of behavior among my students that contradicts this correlation. When a class begins, almost invariably, someone will reach back to swing the door shut. This typically occurs after the chitchat of classroom business, a clear signal that the work now begins. Certainly this door-shutting occurs when the conversation tips into something more sensitive—the workshopping of a memoir, even the debriefing of a speaker or cultural trend. The shift is subtle, but I have felt it again and again. The students relax and lean in, ready to go now that they’ve reclaimed a private space—now that they’ve shut the door on transparency.
No “Safe Space”
I’ll admit that it’s hard to find fault with efforts for transparency. Proof abounds to confirm that shedding light can result in more free and open people. After all, transparency has advanced every social justice movement in our country’s history, exposing long-hidden inequalities and abuses of power. Posted cell phone videos capturing human rights violations have inspired protests, forced behavioral shifts, and resulted in policy change. Think about police body cams. Think about heightened awareness of rape on college campuses. Think about calls for schools to install all-gender bathrooms. Recently, on many of our campuses, a call for transparency has uncovered past sex abuse. Over and over again, transparency has driven positive social change. Most of us would agree that transparency, in so many contexts, promotes safety, including the safety of our students. It is no coincidence that the term “safe space”—language that blurs the physical and the emotional—has come into fashion during this same era.
But I can’t help but notice an irony when I walk past the all-glass building: no “safe space.” Along with this century’s architectural shift has come the horrific reality of school shootings—and the new requirement of lockdown drills. In my own beautiful glass classroom at the top of our see-through student center, I also have no “safe space.” To lockdown with my students, we must file into the classroom next door, one in which a solid wall obstructs visibility and creates cover. At a time in the school’s history when we are most committed to seeing each other, we are also the most exposed. This irony provokes me to wonder if we in the educational world have driven headlong toward transparency, without adequately assessing its literal and metaphoric risks.
In fact, seeing my students has convinced me that they have precious few private spaces in the world. Hustled by adults from one social commitment to another, from class to club to rehearsal to field, their time is cluttered with interactivity. Their classes are hives of group-work, students process-driven to exhaustion. At home, when finally alone, they find themselves drawn into technology’s required social interactions, its invasion of private space, its illusion of privacy. My daughter stumbles in from her ninth-grade day, craving “alone time” in her room, only to hear the ding of the group-text or math-chat signaling her to return to interaction.
And yet, we know that healthy human development requires a good deal of privacy, time apart to engage in the process of becoming: a closed door, a place to reflect, to trial different selves without committing to any one of them, to practice making mistakes without fear of judgement. Amid this culture of over-exposure, I wonder, should spaces of learning work instead to create refuge? Instead of wide-open, transparent space, should a small classroom of 12 students and one teacher, with the shared focus of intellectual and creative development, approximate rare privacy—function as a room of a group’s own?
Further, is private space the key to connected, relational teaching and learning, to the possibility of seeing each other? Most of us have witnessed the subtle or not-so-subtle shift in our classes when a visitor is present: The exchange among the students now slightly more performative. Parents’ Day is the most obvious example. A colleague of mine remarked on how she always loved the moment after the departure of a classroom interloper; back together again, the class could revel in honest debrief.
Here, after dozens of classroom hours spent together, in the company of ourselves alone, we begin to see each other, not because we mine each other for information, but rather because we have come to know each other’s quirks and habits—where he sits, how she gestures. Together, we have contemplated, privately and in conversation, the many worlds, textual and real, that we enter together over the course of a year. On occasion, when the moment feels right, we have ventured something of ourselves to the group—a personal story or truth, perhaps one that inches us forward into the “light.” The process of seeing each other happens slowly and over time, if at all, and not because we have designed it, willed it, or institutionally prioritized it, but because, I suspect, we have shared a private space.
We Can’t Hide
The contrarian in me wonders, too, if our own well-intentioned charge to see all of our students is yet more evidence of the impulse of this generation of adults to over-parent, to over-protect, to keep children controlled through constant oversight. Most of the teachers in my life didn’t really feel the need to see me, a kind of benign neglect very much in fashion in education of the 1970s and 80s. They weren’t unkind, and in the class periods I spent with them, I felt valued and encouraged. But I knew I was one of many in their charge, and I didn’t presume to deserve any more visibility than my classmates. Left alone, I made my way just fine, hammering out an identity through trial and error, in my favorite private spaces: the great backyard pine tree or a local ski hill.
Does our well-meaning, protective instinct to see students quietly erode their journey toward independence at best, and, at worst, nurture in them a quiet narcissism? Then, my most alarmist, dystopic self wonders if a normalized state of transparency develops in us an ever-present, baseline self-consciousness? We can’t hide. In the science building, how does a student pick his nose, a teacher nurse her baby? Soon, without realizing it perhaps, we might never let down our guard; fearing being seen, we learn to maneuver to defend ourselves, to cover our asses from inevitable accusation.
We have all witnessed the self-distortions that accompany self-consciousness. In this era of selfies, Instagram, and Snapchat, we discover that a pose must always be at-the-ready, and the self is never just a single-hit but rather a thing to record and post, to replay until viral. We act to be seen, and we act because we are seen. Is my cocked-hip, hand-on-waist, close-mouthed smile my “natural” self, we might ask ourselves, or a pose trained for the eye of the ever-present camera? Of course, self-consciousness, in healthy dose, can save us from the worst parts of ourselves, but as steady diet, it can shift us away from ourselves’ freer, uninhibited versions.
I’ve just had cause to unearth some poetry written in my class a decade ago by Noah, one of the most uninhibited Milton graduates I’ve taught. Now, he’s a lawyer, living in Israel and clerking for the Supreme Court there. He’s in the process of applying to a writer’s residency to finish a book of poetry. As a senior, Noah wrote a pantoum about a narrator “being halfway down the block at dusk.” The poem’s first stanza is an anthem to the private space of unrestricted thought: “I let my mind graze/Listening to city streets’ whispered phrase/As cars blow, like leaves/I let my mind wander for days.”
I still teach Noah’s pantoum to my creative writers, because it’s an excellent example of the form. Yet, I like it even more now, a decade later, for the unexpected nostalgia it summons in me, for its celebration of a privacy that is now so hard-won. At the end of the day, I’ll fight for more transparency rather than less. But as I walk down the block at dusk past the all-glass of the science center and gaze into that glowing orb, suddenly tugged toward the nearly irresistible mandate to see, I must catch myself. When we can’t see everything, I suspect, the real teaching and learning begins.
An earlier version of this article appeared in The Milton Paper in Spring 2017.