Identity, Privacy, and Teaching Ethics

In a column in Xtra, “‘They’ is me: TRANS REPRESENTATION / Call us what we wish to be called”, Ivan Coyote tells the story of receiving a email from a student who was looking for Ivan’s legal name as part of an assignment for a university course. Ivan writes: “This young woman had tried and tried, she said, to find it online, but couldn’t, and she really wanted those extra marks. Would I be so kind as to just tell her?”

Ivan’s reaction? “I took a deep breath. I was flabbergasted, skin crawling with chill fingers at how totally creepy this felt, an entire college English or writing or queer studies or whatever class assigned the task of violating my privacy for extra credit at school.”

After reading the column, I shared Ivan’s reaction. I thought this was an appalling assignment. But after talking about this issue with library science and journalism professors it turns out that this sort of assignment isn’t out of the ordinary. Students are often asked to track down the legal name of authors. One student told of being asked to find a particular writer’s home address. I’m still not clear what purpose this serves in the study of library science though I can see the purpose for journalism students, I guess. It seems to me there is an interesting question of teaching ethics here. Has anyone dealt with this before?

5 thoughts on “Identity, Privacy, and Teaching Ethics

  1. I’m a teaching librarian at the university level. As part of reference coursework, future librarians are often asked to locate the answers to challenging, nigh-unanswerable questions. They then have to provide an answer and “show their work” by explaining, in detail, how they arrived at that answer. It’s an extremely important skill for librarians to cultivate and it definitely does have a purpose. With the advent of powerful search engines like Google, it is getting harder and harder for people who teach reference to create these challenging questions. I would assume that the completely inappropriate questions described above are a result of an instructor struggling to stump Google. However, librarians and related information professionals are also supposed to have a well-developed awareness of professional ethics and privacy issues, so I’m surprised and displeased to see that questions like these made it through the filter.

  2. I agree with Raina. For example, the Writer’s Union of Canada used to publish a directory of its membership, and many large libraries would have that (and that’s where I found a certain writer’s home address, although I think the assignment merely asked for contact information, and some students found her campus address). There is a LOT of information that is available as part of the public record, and not difficult to find, if you know where to look, and librarians are expected to know where to find that information.

    But that does not excuse the instructor in this case (who may or may not be a library school instructor) from being culturally insensitive in asking for Ivan’s birth name.

  3. I didn’t understand this fully. Did the author use “legal name” in a couple of places where he meant “birth name”? Because first he said that he didn’t like his legal name, but then he said that he changed it a long time ago. Or is Ivan Coyote just a nom de plume and he doesn’t want his current legal name uncovered in order to preserve the pseudonym?

  4. The issue with which most people commenting on this (here and elsewhere) seem to be most concerned is privacy. I’d certainly agree that this IS a vitally important issue. The internet is becoming more and more invasive; privacy concerns relating to social media have, of course, been making the headlines recently precisely because people do recognize the degree to which we potentially expose ourselves here — on blogs, on social networking platforms, and elsewhere.

    But there is also a related, and to my mind, more fundamentally important question here. Who, exactly, controls online identity? Part of the power of the internet has been, in fact, the way in which it has allowed all of us to create new public identities for ourselves, identities that are not merely “masks” behind which we “hide,” but that may be fundamentally connected with who we believe ourselves to be, and how we wish to be seen by others in a non-digital environment. No one has the right to manipulate, control, or potentially undermine how I see myself and wish to be seen.

    The question of control over identity is, perhaps, of more obvious importance when examined in the context of TG issues — but it is arguably no less vital to to anyone that it is they, and not Google, Facebook, Blogger . . . or a misguided academic and her/his students — have the final word on who we are.

  5. You’re right, Mark. The bulk of the debate about online identity is about privacy, or the negative aspect of identity, rather than about control, which includes the positive aspects of managing one’s online identity. I think I’m with you in thinking that many of the philosophically interesting ideas are in this broader conception. Thanks for clarifying.

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