On Education, Blogs, and Other Ranting

The conversation about professorial personas, professional ethics, and blogging continues over at weezBlog, where Elouise considers the question of virtual fraternization — students reading professors’ blogs and vice versa. One of her commenters responds (copying his earlier post to Wealth Bondage, which, as Elouise notes, contains an indignation arising from that original conversation) by pointing out the level of control that students have over professors’ success, by virtue of paying tuition and reviewing class performances. Much of this entry originates in my ensuing comment.

I will confess that the consumerist model of education — implicit in the sense that students pay the salaries that we as professors receive — sets my teeth on edge. Part of that has to do with my institution, a small liberal arts college that prides itself on its adherence to a model of education that seems really outdated in this McDonaldized nation: we focus on one-on-one contact (professional contact, that is) between faculty and students, on discussion, and on a sense that learning is a goal in and of itself, rather than preparation for the job market.

And part of it is the sense that my profession — my vocation — and the ideals that many of us espouse are being insulted in this conflation with the service industry. No, students are not waiters (an analogy that the commenter takes issue with, but one that originated in the Wealth Bondage post) — but neither are professors. We don’t want to deliver credentials (or even knowledge) in response to a financial transaction. What we hope is that students are there because they honestly want to learn — and as it happens, we’ve already studied the stuff they’re now studying. This gives us a certain edge in our relationship, one that most of us use generously, giving to the institution and our students far more than we receive in financial compensation, because the other kinds of compensation we get — like satisfaction in seeing a student grow, and think, and understand more deeply than he or she did before — make it all worth it.

Yeah, start the violins. I’m weepy now, just thinking of my altruism. But I stand by what I’ve said, sappy or not.

About the question of fraternization, though: the IRL kind is risky, for the reasons that Elouise and several of her commenters note (difficult to use one’s authority with a pal; too easy to abuse one’s power with a subordinate; even easier to be perceived as doing one or the other by one’s peers, who are really the ultimate arbiters of one’s job security). The virtual kind, I’m still unsettled about. I know I’ve got at least a couple of students who read my blog, but only a few have left comment-footprints. I wonder, as George does on his site, though: has my writing changed since my students have found the site? Do I self-censor? If so, in what ways, and why? What parts of my writing self would I not want my students to see?

So, those of you students who are reading — pipe up. Let me know you’re out there. And if you’ve got a blog — do you want me reading it? What would you change if you knew that I were?

4 thoughts on “On Education, Blogs, and Other Ranting

  1. :slips in between the crickets:.

    I’m here, although, as my dorm Internet connection is presently about as functional as a hole in the wall, a bit late. I’ve been reading here since I found the link from your college-hosted homepage. I find the entries both thought-provoking and useful in a more functional sense (ie, “she says she’s been in her office, so she’s clearly not in England any more and maybe now would be a good time to drop by and grab my paper.”) I also like gaining more glimpses into what college life looks like from the other side, so to speak. As a child of faculty, I have some idea of what it must be like as a teacher, but the unfortunate side effect of this is that I tend to project my father’s views of college onto most professors until I learn otherwise. Hearing other perspectives helps me stop doing this.

    I’m not really willing to call my online journal a weblog, since that particular term seems to imply writing for the purpose of addressing the world at large, rather than writing for one’s self that happens to be on the Internet because it’s more convenient for accessing from multiple locations that way. I’m still faintly confused that anyone except for a few good friends would find my journal interesting enough to read. Still, it wouldn’t change at all if I knew a professor was reading it, any more than it’s changed because I know my parents both read it or because I know random strangers read it. It’s undeniable that its contents are quite different from anything I’d write in a private paper journal, but that’s been true from the first post.

  2. Do I still count if I am no longer your student? At any rate, I don’t read this to bother or restrict you, nor to gain insight into the mind of a purported superior or whatever similar assertion one might make, but just because I am interested in the subjects in which you are interested. I probably wouldn’t have found it without the real life connection, but that’s not really relevant, especially now that I don’t see you at breakfast every day.

    More generally, do you think you censor yourself any differently here than you do in the classroom? Obviously there are things you are not likely to say to a freshman intro class that you might say to a small seminar of interested seniors, but aside from that I think there’s a certain filter that separates one’s interactions with one’s friends from interactions with colleagues and acquaintances (and students), regardless of the medium used. As far as I can tell, which is not far of course, PO is just a more focused opportunity for you to explore the issues and concepts that interest you most, both personally and academically – not a diary type blog.

    That said, the interaction of “real life” and the internet always kind of creeps me out, regardless of circumstances. I wonder if that will still be true in 5 years.

  3. Rats. I just lost a beautiful comment that I’d spent ages composing — the ages I spent composing it might tell you something about my nervousness in the face of this issue.

    The short version of the message was this: Welcome. Thanks for posting. I’m really glad you’re here, and I’m sorry if I gave you the impression otherwise.

    The longer version, which I’ll try to reconstruct: We (and by this I mostly mean professors, though I’m sure the students have a similar line of conversation) talk a good bit here about the periodic sensation that we’re living in a fishbowl — that every move one makes here is immediately visible, either to one’s students or to one’s colleagues — a sensation that took me quite a long time to get used to, having moved here from the relative anonymity of the big city and the big U. Five years on, though, I have adjusted — and you’re right, Jake, to remind me of the million small daily acts of self-censorship that have become so natural to me as to be almost invisible.

    But there’s something about the web in general, and the blog in particular, that lends itself to paranoia; the technology allows for a kind of voyeurism, in that I can be seen, but I can often only see the IP footprints of those who’ve been through here. Knowing that there are pomona.edu readers, but having no sense of who they are, just heightens that fishbowl-effect a bit. Of course, the point of the blog is its publicness — otherwise, I could just keep these thoughts safely on my own computer — but I guess I haven’t quite adjusted (as you seem to have, Claire, and admirably, it sounds) to the idea that I’m being read by people who actually know who I am.

    If my post carried a bit more tension or aggression or condescension than it ought to have, I’m really sorry for that; the tone is an aftereffect, I think, of the origins of the concerns, in the flaming of another blogging prof who suggested that she wasn’t comfortable with discussing the ethics of professor-student relationships in a public space. I certainly don’t think of myself as your “superior,” except in the obvious ways that age, education, and position make inevitable.

    The bottom line is this: I’m glad you both posted. I hope you’ll stick around. I hope more students will join the conversation. And I hope I’ll get over my nervousness about the relationship between my professor persona and my online persona — and that it won’t take me five years to do it.

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