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 – 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.)

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. Given the creative nature of academic work, some tension is inevitable. Accept it and move on.

  7. 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.

Wise and worldly readers -- your thoughts?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.