The students I teach at Penn were horrified by Lower Merion's laptop-gate. But then I discovered they were secretly spying on me

A few weeks ago, my college students and I discussed the Lower Merion webcam spying debacle in class. They were almost unanimously horrified that a school administrator might observe a student in the privacy of the student’s home. There was much discussion of invasion of privacy by hidden technology.

Then, last week I discovered that the students had bugged my classroom. [SIGNUP]

The students certainly didn’t intend to invade anyone’s privacy. Nor did they set out to run afoul of Pennsylvania’s two-party consent laws, which prohibit the recording of a private conversation without the consent of all parties involved. No: they were just using cool new high-tech gadgets they found in the campus bookstore.

I discovered the recordings by accident. I was leading a small group exercise and I noticed that a student’s pen had a little panel on its side that read “Rec.” “Is that a spy pen?” I asked. I was joking.

“Sort of!” he said. He wasn’t joking. “It’s a Smartpen. Isn’t it cool?”

“I have one too,” said the student next to him. “It’s so great. Your notes show up on your computer, and you can listen to them. See?” He showed me the screen on his Mac, where he had uploaded his notes and a sound file. He tapped a spot on the screen and I heard my own voice parroted back to me — a dumb joke I remembered making earlier.

Anyone who watches reality TV is familiar with the reveal: the instant when the celebrity realizes she’s been punk’d, or the moment when the homeowner returns to a living room transformed by the neighbors. Rarer (but more entertaining to watch) is the disastrous reveal, when you see a homeowner who clearly hates the tasteful ecru stripe that has been applied to her Aunt Fanny’s end table. That homeowner manages a quiet “Oh, look at that,” and struggles to hide her rage.

Me? I felt like I was looking at Aunt Fanny’s end table being incinerated.

Students commonly record lectures, and many universities routinely put lectures online for students to download. But I’d never heard of anyone recording a seminar. Yet if three of my twelve students were using spy pens, I clearly had to address the situation.

Class dismissed, I called a few professor friends for their input. Everyone had a story about a hearing-impaired student who’d used a recording device in class. In each case, the recording had been arranged ahead of time; the student talked to the professor, or the office of student disability services had been in touch to make arrangements. I’d had this too. In each case, there was no question that everyone knew that the class was being recorded. We were all fine with it.

But the secret spy pen recording felt different. My professor friends agreed: In a lecture, recording without a professor’s knowledge would be appropriate. A lecture is a public performance. Only the professor speaks, and lecture material often comes up on exams. But a seminar is a more private conversation, in which students and professors feel freer to speak their minds. Learning happens through interaction in a seminar. And mine is a writing seminar — which means no exams.

None of my friends had dealt with this issue. “I didn’t know they had recording pens,” said an earth science professor. Another colleague said that we didn’t have a university policy, to the best of his knowledge, but that it would have been appropriate for the students to ask before taping. My friend Google told me only that university policies vary. Some, like California Polytechnic or the law schools at Georgetown and the University of Georgia Law School have adopted guidelines that explicitly ban recording without permission.

I realized that this was best treated as an etiquette issue. My students hadn’t been taught that it’s rude (and often illegal) to record someone without their knowledge because the issue never came up before. Livescribe only started marketing its spy pens in 2008. To a student who’s grown up in a world where every telephone includes a camera, a pen with a hidden mic seems perfectly normal. Possibly retro. And the idea of a secret spy pen is pretty irresistible, I admit. In addition to a mic and speaker, the thing has an infrared camera that reads the microdots embedded in special smart $25-per-notebook paper. Using it in class must make you feel like you’re Nancy Drew, Steve Jobs, and Inspector Gadget all rolled into one. Not to mention the name, Smartpen. If I could find a pen that would make me smarter — or even appear smarter —I ’d buy it in an instant.

The next class, I asked the students to refrain from recording, and suggested that they might consult with their other professors before recording in the future. They agreed. In that happy instant, all of my dread fantasies about being caught, Nixon-like, in some pedagogical disaster vanished. In fact, it seemed that the students liked the gadget more than they liked its audio track. Smartpen recordings, all three students told me, don’t compare to the old-fashioned process of taking notes in class. “I don’t mind turning off the pen,” one student said. “I never listen to the recordings anyway.”

MEREDITH BROUSSARD is a Philadelphia journalist.