Skip to main content

On the Ethics of Class Blogs

Grrr. I’m having an utterly infuriating time with air-l, one of the listservs that I’m subscribed to, because my subscription was apparently set up from my actual technical email address (which has a login id composed of a seemingly random collection of letters and numbers) but my email client uses one of my more sensible aliases (the eminently reasonable kfitzpatrick) in the “from” field, which makes the listserv think that there’s a message coming from someone who’s unsubscribed. Easy-peasy, I thought; unsubscribe from the random collection of letters and numbers, resubscribe from kfitzpatrick, and resend the message! Except: my subscription for some reason now requires moderator approval, and the moderator keeps on not approving.

What’s aggravating about this is that the conversation taking place, the one I wanted to throw my two cents into, is one that I really, really care about: using blogs as an instructional tool. And I’ve been feeling all squelched and stymied, and thinking, boy, I wish I had a way to get these thoughts Out There, into circulation.

Hey, wait! I have a blog!

So here’s the thoughts. The conversation begins with a post by a senior-type scholar of internet studies who raises the following question about class blogs:

I have Google Alert set to identify anything online that mentions my name. (I want to know who is talking about me and perhaps learn from their comments.)

Recently, I have been disturbed because Google Alert keeps popping up Blogspot entries that clearly come from class blog entries.

While I am happy that folks are reading my stuff, I am aghast that their entries are on the web for all to read. (Altho I smile that they say nice things.)

I know that I don’t post my students’ term papers on the web [I only give ‘em to Turnitin;-)], but this strikes me as an even greater invasion of the students’ privacy. Shouldn’t such within-class stuff be password protected?

Something about this message really got under my skin; it seemed to me a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of a class blog. There’ve been a number of good responses to this message that have come across the list (which I’ve had to go read from the air-l archives page, because I’m still not subscribed), but I really wanted my response out there. So here it is:

While there’s definitely something here that demands to be considered, I’m not sure that it falls within the realm of ethics. For the last several years, I’ve had almost all of my classes blogging, in public venues that are purposefully not password-protected. I do, however, have a series of frank conversations with my students about the value and the consequences of doing intellectual work in public, and I think such conversations are necessary.

For instance, I have my students use screen names under which they blog, and we spend some time talking about why — talking about the durability of data on the internet, and the ways that Google and the Internet Archive can make things they’ve written publicly available long after they’ve forgotten them. And I tell them that I want them to be free to take risks in my classes without having to worry that some future employer will google them in the process of a job search and discover some boneheaded thing that they wrote in my class. For some of them, this conversation causes the light bulb to go on over their heads, and they head out and google themselves, to see what can already be found.

But we also discuss the value of doing this kind of intellectual work in public, of writing for an audience that is larger than just ourselves, of genuinely engaging with a broader field of folks working on the same issues. And everytime something like this happens — a student posts a question about Scott Rettberg’s “Kind of Blue,” for instance, and Scott Rettberg himself pops by to respond — it absolutely electrifies the class, conveying in ways that no amount of talk from me will that they really are engaged in a conversation among scholars.

So yes, I think students’ privacy concerns need to be a subject of conversation, and I think that students need to be given some reasonable means of protecting themselves. But I think the benefits of such public course blogs far outweigh the risks, and I think the discussions of those privacy concerns are themselves really productive for students to engage in.


No mentions yet.