Privacy in the Pandemic: Approaching Privacy in Academia in Early 2021

Sitting here in early 2021, with the pandemic still raging, despite endless rounds of magical thinking, it is hard to see how we in academic libraries have done so far. We lack perspective and are still in the crisis management point of this experience. At the beginning of the pandemic, I thought it would be interesting to see how well anyone was able to follow their stated values in a crisis, but I was too overwhelmed by everything going on in my personal life in addition to work life to do any research on this topic. It was not an unproductive period, however. I was able to work on new services, however slowly the work went, and despite presentations being canceled was able to “replace” all those presentations with others, leaving my CV intact for 2020. The values I was mostly concerned about were privacy, and throughout these presentations and new services was able to integrate reminders about the importance of privacy. I am always the privacy bird in meetings, after some idea is floated, I pop up and say, “But what about privacy?”  For example, in setting up a new contactless pickup service we discussed this for managing the hold pickup shelf and trying to keep as much of the communication as possible in systems with retention policies. But were we to carefully analyze all the privacy gaps in that service, I know it wouldn’t meet the highest standards that we set for ourselves (though even those are hard to meet).

Even if we do not have perspective, I want to spend some time attempting to wrap my mind around all the changes in expectation that, if not permanent, seem likely to be in operation for the next several years. I personally don’t believe that “everything will change forever”, but people have had to make a massive investment in new infrastructure and ways of working, and those are unlikely to be discarded instantly. That will affect values, which are always shifting anyway. The pandemic itself simply tore away norms or illusions of norms—but what is comfortable and easy will return in time.

That said, meeting the crisis in this moment has required flexibility that would have seemed incredible just a short time before. Perhaps not everyone looked up periodically during their workdays in April and said, “How is this our lives?” but I certainly did. As more realities crashed down upon us, what is effective and pragmatic tended to outweigh the more ethical ideal. The first shift came with remote learning, the second with massive protests and uprisings, and concomitant requests for academia to confront its institutional racism. Both these put the people with the least political capital (even though they might be the actual paying customers) in positions of defense against institutions which assumed that the students were going to do things like cheat or organize against administration. And maybe the students were going to do those things, but maybe those things needed to be done.

Academic integrity in remote learning was one of those topics I followed with interest based on my membership in an academic technology committee at my university, but the software the university had was treated as a niche and experimental product with only a few departments where it was relevant, and a price tag that kept it there. That of course all changed when classes that had exams in person and teachers who only had ever thought about giving exams in person needed to shift to being remote. Some people came up with byzantine strategies involving printing and scanning to ensure a time limit for students to have access to the test materials. Personally, the one time we really needed a printer for an important legal document that needed to be handed in on paper (though why remains a mystery to me) we had to visit the UPS store down the street, so that would have been tricky on a three-hour time limit.

Many turned to software instead. The proctoring solutions for remote exams often rely on showing the personal environment of the students in detail, which requires a level of autonomy and preparation that few people have. Right now, I have a giant pile of odds and ends on my desk that are out of view of my camera, so irrelevant to my work colleagues. But if I had to show all the material on my desk it would tell a story I might not want to tell—the at minimum three Dunkin Donuts coffee lid plugs being a major one of my pandemic gluttony and failure to throw things away. Other items are merely looking for a new home after a massive decluttering and reorganization project to make my home office livable, and I will get to them in time, but they are not urgent enough to warrant attention yet with everything else going on. Everyone is in the same situation. Few people have a prepared work area at home that they would want to show the world. (Side note: since writing this paragraph and publishing, I have cleaned up my desk because I have the kind of brain that needs an empty work surface to feel creative, which I know is opposite from many people).

The response of faculty or others in positions to assess and select tools has varied widely. In my personal experience, some people were casting about for whatever would recreate whatever method they already understood. Of course, it wasn’t possible to do that, but disciplines or courses built around a high stakes final exam were hard to retool in the middle of the semester. I heard some attitudes with which I didn’t agree. The most charitable interpretation of these is that students were under intense pressure themselves and removing temptation would be beneficial. I’m sure you can fill in the least charitable interpretation yourself.

On the other hand, many people are very concerned about surveillance of students, and the concurrent surveillance of everyone else. Asking public questions was a dangerous thing for Ian Linkletter who works at the University of British Columbia for being publicly outspoken about the dangers of Proctorio, though the  CEO of Proctorio claims the software was his own reaction to other more privacy-violating software. Perhaps there is no software that can truly be ethical in this space. I suspect not.

As we begin a semester that at least for now promises to possibly end with more in-person possibilities for exams but will necessarily involve mass surveillance of constant health testing to be on campus, where privacy fits in all this remains complicated. We cannot exist in public spaces currently without being tracked, and we cannot exist in private spaces without being tracked. Then again, last week saw one very public internet presence shut down for causing a seditious riot that was planned in public. Yet again, who is surveilled and for what cause indicates values.

academic librarianship

My life as an engineering librarian thus far

I became the liaison librarian for the Engineering Sciences department on the not very auspicious week of March 9. I had a meeting with a student on March 10 and shook her hand with thinking about. “Oh my, I’m so sorry!” I said. “I forgot we can’t do that any more. But I just sanitized my hands.” We then proceeded to sit close together in an enclosed space for 30 minutes. The naivete of March. In any event, it was a hard week to take on a set of responsibilities I hadn’t had for years.

The engineering students were lovely to work with in remote learning, in truth, since they were used to problem solving and adapting and comfortable with technology. Flipping them to remote research appointments was easy, and the major work I did with the students in late spring was social justice in engineering. This mostly involved finding public datasets, which is more or less second nature to me, and talking through systemic inequality with students. Not exactly prescient, but let us say, a perennial topic of relevance.

Over the summer as the research projects were less pressing, and into the fall where the students were some of the few back in the physical campus labs, it felt more pressing to me to go back in time and figure out exactly what skills I actually needed to succeed at working with engineering students in particular. I worked in a science library all through college and was trained to do basic reference there, so I don’t feel uncomfortable with science librarianship, but I knew there was more to learn.

My first step in trying to figure this out was reading blogs and trying to find “day in the life” posts so beloved by librarians to explain what their days look like. I made a nice long list of bookmarks, and set a few initial learning goals. These were:

  1. Read Naimpally, Ashok, Hema Ramachandran, and Caroline Smith. Lifelong Learning for Engineers and Scientists in the Information Age. 1st edition. Elsevier, 2011. While slightly out of date, the overall messages are still relevant and it’s the only thing I have easy access to through work.
  2. Join the public ASEE Engineering Librarians Division mailing list, with an eye to joining the association in the future. I was quite impressed with the outreach from this group, and having been on the list for several months now I think I will put some money down on this. (I did join the Science and Technology Section of ACRL as well when I was renewing).

I’m still working on a new set of goals for the next few months, but this small amount of research and participation has helped me to feel more comfortable with this role. As long everything is still hybrid, outreach is going to feel strange, but that will probably be the most important thing to figure out.


Favorite Music of 2020 (and 2019)

I missed seeing live music in 2020. I did actually make it to four concerts in January-March, the last one being on March 12, and probably a bad idea in retrospect, but I suppose shows what my priorities are. (I saw Lala Lala/NNAMDI/Sen Morimoto on Jan. 16, Hot Snakes and others at the Empty Bottle winter festival Feb. 22, The Makeup on Mar. 6, and of Montreal on Mar. 12). The story of music I enjoyed this year is mostly one of loss and change–canceled tours, musicians and venues barely hanging on, virtual performances, and a general sense of unease. Looking back, I see phases of where certain albums were particularly resonant in that period of the pandemic or in my life, and perhaps less so after that. There were a few albums from 2019 that still were really important to me to this year.

Here is my Spotify list for Favorites of 2020, roughly in chronological order for when I listened. I’m sure some things are missing, but mostly those would be individual tracks from albums I otherwise didn’t love start to finish, and I haven’t put that together.

Everything up to Sea Wolf is pre-pandemic. Some of these didn’t last for me through the pandemic, though I still like them. For example, Sea Wolf is something I listened to several times a day in the early pandemic days, and not since then. Here’s what I would call my top albums of 2020, without an order in particular.

Hilary Woods: Birthmarks

I first listened to this in January while walking across Philadelphia by myself in the dark to attend a crowded event in a bar. There are so many strange things about sentence. I didn’t like it much then because it was too creepy for me at that moment, but I kept going back. This is best exploration of pregnancy and childbirth in music I have heard. I bought it on vinyl later in the year and it benefits even more from having two sides.

Melkbelly: PITH

This is something I leaned about from Sound Opinions, and I immediately found it completely cathartic. One early listen was on a long rainy sad run on Mother’s Day, but I kept coming back throughout the year. Miranda Winters sings just how I felt so much this year. I am eager to see them in person whenever that can happen.

Midwife: Forever

While this about a traumatic event that occurred in 2018, it felt like the natural backdrop to 2020–not to mention that 2018 was a complicated year for me too. I listened a lot in May as I realized how my life was changing. “Anyone Can Play Guitar” in particular was a backdrop to thinking about all the ways that life can change without any notice.

The Beths: Jump Rope Gazers

The Beths could sing the phone book and I would happily listen, so this one was a given. Since this came out right when I was starting what turned out to be a three month stay away from home, it was so good to have this to keep me company as I missed home and what little social life I had had at home in pandemic times. What I mean by this is that I cried listening to this many times. I got a Carpark Records sticker from the vinyl record and my kid stuck it to his school laptop, so it also helped me to start a new generation of hipsters.

If you look at my most listened to in 2020 list, you will see a few 2019 records on that list, so I will mention those here.

Vagabon: Vagabon

This came out in late 2019, and was absolutely one of my favorites of 2019. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened, and this concert being canceled in the spring and then again in the fall was very sad. Lots of people love “Water Me Down” and “Every Woman”. I love those, but “Secret Medicines” is one of my all time favorite songs.

Emily Jane White: Immanent Fire

I found this for the first time this summer, and proceeded to listen pretty much non-stop after that. It hits all the points of our environmental and social degradation, and while one major theme is prior California fire seasons, it keeps being very relevant.

Here’s hoping that shows can happen again in 2021, and everyone’s quarantine records who weren’t too depressed to make music.