Wednesday, May 23, 2007
Ask the Administrator: Blogging Boundaries
A department chair writes:
I have a question about boundaries for blogs. Several of the department’s graduate students blog, with varying levels of anonymity. In a couple of cases, at least, it would take only minimal sleuthing to figure out which institution of higher learning the bloggers are writing about, even though it is not named. As might be predicted given the time of year, current entries by graduate students who are also teachers focus on the pain of grading. I sympathize, but at the same time I am bothered by the public nature of the complaining, especially since the subtext of it is generally that the undergraduate students at this institution are not very capable. A few posts are also quite critical of certain aspects of the department’s graduate program. While the criticism is sometimes just, I wish that the graduate students would bring it to me before blogging about it. Some of the problems raised in the blogs are real and insoluble, as we are an institution with open admissions and little funding. Others could either be solved or at least be productively explained – but bringing them up in a blog is not likely to prompt either a solution or an explanation.
For the most part, I try to deal with graduate student blogging the same way I deal with ratemyprofessors.com – by ignoring it. And truth to tell, most of the blog content is fun and no cause for concern. But because many of the blogs are linked to each other, the opportunities for dissatisfaction to build on itself are clearly there, anonymity is a fiction, and I am no longer sure that ignoring all of this is the best idea.
The posts that instigated this email to you were written by a graduate student teacher who is complaining both about a student of his who plagiarized and about how he thinks I am handling the student’s appeal of his penalty. The posts also include snippets from several of his students' papers, accompanied by mocking commentary. On the one hand, I feel he has violated some professional boundaries here: in blogging about a specific student's unresolved appeal, in complaining about me in a blog that his fellow graduate students (and some faculty) will read, and in sharing students' written work in a context that would embarrass the students. On the other hand, I do not want him, and the other graduate student teachers (at least one of whom also has a recent post that mocks a student's writing), to feel that I am trying to interfere with their right to express their experiences, network with their peers, etc. I am pretty sure it has not occurred to them that I might read their blogs. Any thoughts? Am I right in feeling that lines have been crossed? If so, what guidelines are reasonable to offer graduate student teachers who blog?
I'll admit I have a dog in this fight, as a longtime (three years!) blogger myself.
Without knowing the specifics, I can't pass judgment on any single post. Instead, I'll offer several thoughts, and invite my readers to share their own.
As a department chair (or administrator of any sort), you need a thick skin. If they aren't complaining about you on the internet, they're complaining about you somewhere else. Back in my grad school days, we gossiped endlessly – and pointlessly, and often incorrectly – about damn near everybody, and nobody had ever heard of the web yet. There's a Robinson Jeffers line about raging at the sun for rising, which pretty well captures the spirit in which you have to accept student complaining. Grad students will bitch. Even if you were to have total control of their home internet access – which you don't and shouldn't – they'd just bitch in other venues. (Faculty are just as bad, btw.) As long as it doesn't rise to the level of libel or threats, you just have to be above it.
Complaints about undergraduate writing skills, and the bane of grading generally, are simply part of academic culture. (My contribution can be seen here.) Narratives of cultural decline are as old as narratives. Nobody who knows what they're talking about honestly believes that every student at every college is practically perfect in every way. A little venting of frustration, as long as it doesn't single out a particular student, strikes me as harmless and even healthy.
I'm absolutely fascinated at the evolving etiquette around pseudonymity. You're probably right that a determined sleuth who knew a few tech tricks could sniff out the identity of damn near anybody. But the peculiar dynamic of agreeing not to look too closely has developed as a sort of social norm necessary to the continued functioning of the genre. (That's why folks who happen upon the blogosphere often badly misconstrue it at first.) In my own case, had I known when I started how long I'd do this, I probably would have fictionalized some details of my autobiography; alas, too late now. (“When his baseball career ended, Dean Dad served briefly in the United States Senate.”) In my case, particulars would actually make the blog impossible, since statements of general principle would be read locally as coded indicators of a political agenda. I see “Dean Dad” as a way to address questions at a different – and higher – level than I can locally. I ask those who see value in the discussion to respect the enabling fiction of the pseudonym.
All of that said, the ethic of agreeing not to look too closely is predicated on a reciprocal ethic of using the freedom afforded by that discretion constructively. I've certainly written about things that have frustrated me, but I've never directly attacked anybody at my college. That would strike me as out of bounds. It's one thing to say “the paradox of faculty governance is that it coexists with a general antipathy to meetings.” It's another to say “Bob is a real dick. He can't even be bothered to show up to his own meeting.” (I'll admit a sort of 'public figure' exception. I've gleefully attacked President Bush directly on any number of occasions. For that, I'll just cite the 18th century pamphleteers as a precedent. If Madison and Hamilton could do it, so can I.)
It's not clear to me how the ethic of agreeing not to look too closely interacts with the job market. Given that many of the people on search committees are unschooled in the ways of the blogosphere, I suspect that some would scan blogs for ammunition, rather than reading them constructively. This may change with the generations, but academe is scandalously slow at generational change.
In your third paragraph, as I understand it, the grad student is divulging information about a case currently in process. This strikes me as a violation of confidentiality. In this particular case, it might be appropriate to email the blogger in question and ask “is this you?” The blogger may not have thought through just how public her writings actually are. The shock of discovering that you read the blog may be enough to prevent any future sharing of confidential information.
In terms of criticisms of the graduate program, I'd draw a distinction between general or constructive criticism -- “the mentoring for producing publishable work sucks” -- and personal attacks -- “Prof. Jones is a stinking drunk.” The first is the coin of the realm for creative workers; the second is potentially legally actionable. Even if the general or constructive criticism is inaccurate, it at least gives you a sense of what some people perceive. I've had times when perceptions of what I was doing were so far out of line with reality that I've actually had to step back and address the misperceptions directly. It happens. Think of the blogs as canaries in the coal mine.
Given the creative nature of academic work, some tension is inevitable. Accept it and move on.
The best guideline for blogging that I've ever seen was two words: “be professional.” Much of the actual content of that will be context-dependent, but learning professional context is supposed to be part of the point of grad school.
Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.
While I do think that IRB has gone way overboard in terms of some requirements, it seems like unauthorized posting of student work (especially in order to mock it) could be cause for serious problems (possibly legal).
Otherwise, I think you're spot on.
As for criticizing student work in specific ways, I often find it mean spirited and probably, as the above commenter said, unethical.
As someone who blogs openly, my rule of thumb is (and this was true even when I was semi-anonymous), only write what you'd be willing to say to someone's face. That goes for colleagues and students.
I have to say I am always shocked when bloggers print emails from students or whole paragraphs from papers, usually followed by something mocking the student. I agree that that is a violation.
And I think you've also discussed that all grad students need to be thinking about what potential hiring committees will think of what they say in their blogs - no matter how accurately they express their feelings about students in general OR if they just see their blog as a way to vent.
Great discussion of how complex this issue is - have you thought about submitting it as a Chronicle piece (esp. since they pay $$$)? or maybe you've already done this . . .
Again, thanks Dean Dad!
1) Go to the student's blog.
2) post or email her a link or trackback to this putatively "anonymous" question and response.
That way, YOU get to remain putatively* anonymous and deniable (no "snooping" accusations), the STUDENT gets to remain so as well, and you both get your respective messages across.
*yes, I know, I'm overusing the word. Sorry.
While the whole, "they should come to me/faculty" with their complaints and "we'll explain why it is the way it is" approach I think is well-meaning, I remember how I felt in graduate school, and that sort of approach I think can make one feel further infantilized as a grad student. One of the difficulties with one's position in graduate school is that one is in-between being a student and a faculty member. Sometimes that makes it feel like you get the worst of both worlds - little to no agency as well as having to deal with things like students who plagiarize. Your life can seem completely out of your control, and you can be paranoid about the motives of those who have control over your life.
One thing that public writing does is it offers a certain kind of power that grad students don't necessarily have in their day-to-day lives. People in the blogosphere - whether professors or fellow students - treat them with respect, and their voice matters as much as does anybody else's. Now, it's true that one needs to find one's voice in that context, and sometimes one will make mistakes, but I'd say that's probably a valuable and educational exercise.
I don't know. I guess I just wanted to speak on behalf of the grad students in this equation. I mean, yes, these people are junior to the faculty in a department but they are adults. They're not stupid. They know what the internet is public. They may even subconsciously want people who have power at the university to read what they're writing so that those with power will know how screwed up things are. And I think that to equate blogs with RMP is terribly patronizing as well as being off the mark.
First of all, by inviting questions that he then answers, Dean Dad has adopted a good way of writing about institutional things: tehy are real issues, but they aren't his colleagues. Frankly, I think that is ideal. Viz. the graduate student blogs: here's the problem, with anonymity, in my view: that they actually are out, and don't know it. This means that it is far easier to shed what we might call the "observing ego" when writing. In other words, the illusion of anonymity then makes it possible to be funny, sarcastic or enraged at the expense of others (who may or may not be aware htey have offended you) without being conscious (or perhaps being deliberately unconscious) about the damage it might cause. This is what happened to me with the student: I was actually annoyed at what she did in class, so I turned it into a funny story about myself. What then happened is that another student in the class told her abot it, she read it, and felt as though I might as well have taken out an ad in the school paper saying "Student X is an stupid jerk."
Also, if you are anonymous, most lurkers who know you will not tell you they are lurking, which means that they read themselves into the blog, sometimes at the blogger's peril. So I found there were a lot of people who felt more or less annoyed about having been "written about" when I hadn't at all. Since being out, I am more cautious about using characters, and I find that when someone feels they are in the blog, htey are more likely to pick up the phone and ask.
My analogy for anonymous blogging is to someone who is having an affair and is so jazzed on the pure pleasure of it that s/he drops clues all over the place while being confident the whole thing is a secret from everyone and s/he is in complete control of the information.
In some ways, the question that grounds this post reproduces the very things that the questioner is concerned about with the blogger: the question calls this particular blogger out and gives us a platform to shake our fingers in disapproval.
So is it a good idea to mock students on the internet? No, it's not. But part of developing a blog voice is figuring out what is appropriate to the genre/audience/medium. I know when I first started I made mistakes. I probably still do. But I suppose I resist the idea of professors as authority figures policing the blogosphere. Hmmm.... I think I'm going to do a fuller post over on my blog about this so as not to hijack comments.
I also read your correspondent's concern as not so much thin skin as feeling like her hands are tied. Despite her concern about the openness of the complaints, *she* is trying to act by the etiquette you talk about in #3. But she can't fix things if she doesn't know about them, and she's not supposed to know that the blogger is at her school so she can't use that as a source of knowledge.
I'm obviously all for pseudonymous grad-student blogging. For me, it's a relief to know my institution is not unusual. But I can see how an administrator (anywhere from chair to president) might see it as potential for very bad publicity, and want to remind the bloggers of that because it's not just their own life they're possibly sabatoging. To follow Tenured Radical's metaphor, discovery of the affair may be quite damaging to the whole office or company, not just the members of the affair and their families.
"Those poor idiot grad students" is a little bit how the conversation comes off. Dean Dad's "faculty are just as bad btw" helps a little here but only a little.
That's why I so appreciate Dr. Crazy's comment, before the grad students get entirely thrown under the bus here. She's right. Grad students don't have a lot of power. They don't always have much of a voice. Believe me, my department knows where I think the problems are. I've told them. Change is slow in coming, though, and my experience unfolds in the meantime.
Like many grad students, I feel like blogging gives me a voice and maybe the feeling that I've got a little bit of power, at least in the sense that I've got a public forum to talk about my experiences. Grad student "bitching" may be gossip and some of it may be, from a faculty perspective, "incorrect" but ultimately, I'm not willing to accept that completely. I'm telling you what it's like to be me and what goes on in my head. It might not reflect your viewpoint but that's what makes the discussion interesting and productive.
attempts to restrict grad student blogging bother me. We're already infantilized, underpaid, and overworked. Almost everyone I know is on some kind of medication for depression or anxiety. We work. We work for you. We do your photocopying, grade your exams, help you teach your classes and in some cases, help you complete yur research. At the end of the line, you keep telling us, we may or may not ever get a job in the field. But we do it because we love it. It's a tough position. It's made tougher by the expectation that we're supposed to shut up and be happy about it all. Just be grateful you've deigned to let us in the door. right?
Okay. Just don't take blogging away from me.
For the first: in their capacity as teaching assistants, graduate students need to proceed by the same rules (official or not) as other educators. Especially with increasing interest in protecting student privacy, there could be legal repercussions for these students. Anonymous blogging is no protection for the teacher in this case. The graduate students in this case need to know that what they're doing is wrong and risky both for their part and for the students in question. I would do the same thing with one of my colleagues should I discover they were posting direct or identifying student material.
On the second, well, I'm semi-pseudonymous and well aware that people on my campus and in my department know my blogging identity. I suspect that a lot more pseudonymous bloggers are known to their readers than they expect. My advice to everyone is blog about work as if you're posting this on your office door. The department chair in this case should be very careful NOT to come down hard on the student bloggers, however. A better solution to the "culture of complaint" the chair fears would be to have some general meetings with graduate faculty and students to address problems and consider improvements for the program. If there's this much buzz, you might be able to harness that unrest to a constructive end.
and I think DeanDad's point #1 is important especially in context of her points.
I wonder if people venting/bitching about teaching has any relationship to their access to a community of people in the same position? I feel pretty isolated, as a grad student in the place I'm at, and I don't get a sense that any of us teaching assistants really get much time to deal with teaching and learning to teach and deal with students. So I can see a temptation to vent about it because who else can I talk to but myself?
I do think people bitch in whatever venues they have available to them, regardless. But the specific position of grad students makes it extremely common and perhaps kinda necessary.
Related to that, I think that many of us tend to associate the web and blogging as well as other things like IM with the ephemerality of speech (complaining in the halls to a friend) but in reality it's on the Internet forever (or close to it). I think that's the real problem- mistaking the immediacy of the blogging environment with the fleeting nature of conversations.
The fear of being quoted out of context, which I think motivates both blogger paranoia and the chair's question, is real, but I hope it's transitory. We've learned how to write blogs, but we're still learning how to read them. (Sadly, some terrific bloggers aren't always very careful readers.) They're more personal than juried articles, but more public than diaries. They're not really stream-of-consciousness, either; they're more like informal conversation that happens to be asynchronous and preserved. (I like to think of my most successful posts as conversation prompts.)
My hope, which I'll admit is aiming a bit high, is that we'll gradually habituate the readership to the tone of blogs, so that the occasional "grad school sucks" post isn't taken as a formal indictment of a program or university (which I think was the fear that motivated the original question). It's worth doing, because I think the discussion occurring in the best academic blogs is far more truthful -- and therefore more valuable -- than the discussion of academia just about anywhere else. That's not to say we can just blow off FERPA regs or ignore libel laws, but it is to say that we've carved out a space free of the tyranny of footnotes and p.r. offices. It would be a shame to lose that, just to appease some latter-day know-nothings, whatever their office.
Dean Dad cleanses the specifics when he writes and responds to questions about administrative-type things.
The analogue for teachers would be to work very hard to maintain anonymity for our students.
That said, any post that gives enough detail for a student to identify their own work, by grad student, faculty, freaking president of the university, should be out of bounds unless the student has okayed making use of the work. If you want to quote, rewrite, don't scan, seems to be a pretty strong rule.
One of the parts of writing ed research is figuring out how to treat your subjects with respect. You have to assume that they're going to read your papers. If you paint them negatively will they ever take part in a study for us again?
Students often know when they're making crap up (I did/do). I've found that presenting them as complex figures who do make crap up (which can be funny) is okay as long as we also present them as people who do smart stuff sometimes too.
Speaking as a graduate student, I've seen some things done to my fellow students which would make your hair stand on end. It's a struggle to keep a state of mind where I don't walk around terrified of what can happen to me on a day-to-day basis.
If I were seeing departmental problems being brought up on blogs that I hadn't otherwise seen, I'd be grateful for the BS-bypassing mechanism, not irritated that the folks complaining didn't bring it to me first. Further, if you're reading the critiques and they make sense, then the forum is, by definition, constructive and basically successful.
It sounds like the letter writer, while he or she has some valid concerns, is unconsciously reinforcing the scary power dynamic that leads to pseudonymity in the first place.
A clear memo and regularly updated FAQ. For blogging ethically in HE, I'd suggest it be crafted with some input from the Registrar (FERPA issues), HR/Diversity (respect), but also whoever is sharp about IP as well as an education person.
That last because, as others have said, whether the complaints are bang on, or repeatedly seem to mistake the facts, you're seeing clear communication. It's up to this dept chair to take this opportunity to change the blogging discourse through better, more open, more productive departmental discourse.
I am one of those isolated, savagely ignored PhD student/ adjunct/ cheap labor/ dogsbodies. My university studiously avoids becoming aware of what their grad students say, because they might - *gasp* - feel ethically obligated to fix something, admit something, or honestly discuss something. At least by noticing, this chair is on the way to doing the right thing.
Because of the power dynamic Kimmitt correctly diagnoses here, any direct response on my part will make it appear that I am policing/monitoring/snooping. The only ways to avoid this appearance are to remain a lurker or to stay away from the blogs entirely (which would be a shame, given that they are interesting and insightful and fun in addition to being occasionally worrisome). I totally agree that the best approach is an open environment for communication within the department, but it still seems to me that if people bring a problem directly to my attention it's more likely that I will be able to do something to correct it than if they complain about it on a blog that I am not expected to be reading.
So while I posed my original question in terms of bloggers' rights/responsibilities, Dean Dad is absolutely correct that the readers' role has to be part of the discussion. Where I'm stuck (and thank you, Ceresina, for distinguishing between hurt feelings and a sense that my hands are tied) is that if, as chair, I am assumed not to be reading a particular blog, that blog is, in effect, contributing to open communication between the blogger and me only by accident. By outing myself as a reader, I may well affect what the blogger is willing to share, thereby potentially shutting down rather than maintaining communication.
So long as the issue is criticism/dissatisfaction, lurking is feasible, and I can, and do, find other ways to approach the problems identified in the blogs. Nor do I believe that every complaint requires or seeks a response -- sometimes venting is its own reward.
Lurking feels less possible when material on the blog seems to me potentially harmful either to the blogger (e.g. credibility and job market issues mentioned by Dean Dad) or to students quoted or mentioned in the blog. This is really the crux of the matter in my view.
Then again, I'm an historian, so reaching to the past may be my standard crutch...
I am an advocate for reminding anyone who writes publicly that in fact, they are writing publicly and that there are potential consequences for doing so. The consequence in this case is simply embarrassment or greater self-awareness. In the future, in other contexts, the consequences could be more severe. However, my feelings on this matter seem to indicate that I have an internal sense of certain blogging ethics that may or may not exist. However, I assume when blogging, that anyone I know could read it, and write accordingly.
In fact, it is extremely unprofessional that a GTA would air their grievances with the chair over an administrative process and with the student's writing in this manner. As the GTA is preparing for a real career, they need to be informed that this is unacceptable.
The student issue? I come down totally on the other side. The moment I found out that an instructor of ANY stripe was publicly complaining or mocking a student in a way that could identify that student, I'd be having a little chat with said instructor--be it a grad student or tenured prof one semester from retiring. Comments like that are inappropriate, gross, and illegal. It's one thing to bitch to your officemate--another to go permanently public. If I know it's out there and don't take steps to stop it, I would think I'd open myself to a student privacy lawsuit.
Iron fist in velvet glove, right? :)
1) To what extent are graduate programs helping graduate student TAs understand the need to place parameters around their own blogging?
I suspect that the need for boundaries is not obvious, not only to graduate students, but to many others as well. For example, I think that it is highly likely that the graduate student whose blog occasioned this exchange has read the original posting and recognized his or her situation in the level of detail which was given in the email copied into it. If so, that graduate student has probably been following this exchange with something like a feeling of horror.
Poetic justice, perhaps, but what a harmful way to learn this lesson. Providing leadership up front about blogging parameters would be so much better.
2) To what extent are graduate programs making sure that their graduate student TAs feel supported and understood by their departments?
People tend to use "the right channels" for complaints when they genuinely believe that their complaints will be heard and respected. They tend to build an underground network of discontent when they believe that their complaints will be resented and ignored. Of course there are many exceptions to this generalization, but it has the advantage of placing the ball in the court of leadership and giving it something postive and active to do about discontent.
Personally, I have problems with this myself. I am happy to discuss students by name with colleagues when I share the student -- and on my campus, we pretty much all have interaction with all the students in the college -- SLAC is a small place. But I have a couple of colleagues who want to have discussions about students in mixed company (i.e., in front of their spouses who don't teach with us), often in public places, and who are more than happy to use names. Since these are senior colleagues, I don't argue too much, but do try to say things, like, "I'd really rather not discuss students by name."
Grad students often know through experience that drawing attention to themselves can be bad, so don't blame us for not always running to the people with power with all our complaints. Blogs allow us to vent and cope and keep working through it all. Blogs give us a sense of community and protected space, even if we know on some level that anyone could be reading. That's part of it too, of course, because we are being honest enough with ourselves and each-other and on some level, we might want you to hear us.
Personally, I wouldn't name names or post specific excerpts from student work. At the same time, I can't judge others who have done so, because I've made other professional mistakes that I've had to learn from. The best of us make mistakes and learn from them. We bloggers just happen to have a new medium to make waves and mistakes in. It's going to happen. If we're wise, we'll keep having these very dialogues and focus on the real (open, honest) conversation that is happening here between academics at all levels. That's another aspect of the medium, but we wouldn't have it without the blogging and all the "mistakes" that come along with it.
So, while you higher-ups are listening, how about tuning into all the other things we blog about, like when we rave about how great our students are or how (and why) we sweat over our work? Or how about working to get a real living wage and some health insurance for your adjuncts? Maybe we'll be more inclined to come and talk to you face to face if we feel like we actually have a hope of being treated with respect.
Oh no, I'm complaining again. Oops.