Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Ethics and Conventions of Blogging While Academic

Dean Dad writes a post today in response to a reader's question about a blogging graduate student. Before you read what follows, I recommend you go over and read the post and the comment thread, though I suppose it's not necessary if you don't have the time or inclination. It's just I'm veering off from the original post, so if you're interested in all that, head over there. To summarize, though, the reader who asks the question (a department chair) is asking about what Dean Dad things is "appropriate" content for (graduate student) blogs and about what he believes are "reasonable" guidelines for students/teachers who blog. Dean Dad provides a pretty exhaustive list in response to the original question, and the comment thread takes off from there, and in my comments I tried to mount a defense for the grad student blogger(s) who inspired the question. Now, do I know the specifics here? No. Is it possible that the grad student blogger is being "inappropriate" on his/her blog? Sure. But what is interesting to me is how quickly people rushed to comment that the content of that blog - which none of us has seen - is inappropriate. And it got me thinking: what are the ethics/conventions that underly academic blogging? And who decides what those conventions are? And ultimately, what is the point of blogging while academic? What are we trying to do in this medium?

Rather than trying to write some manifesto that regulates what I think blogs by academics should do, I'm going to do a sort of free-form speculation that talks mostly about my choices. I'm doing this not only out of laziness (though admittedly, that is a factor) but also out of one of my long and deeply held convictions about one of the most positive aspects about blogging: for me, blogging has been about having a space within which to develop a particular writing voice. If this is what blogging offers - and offers in ways that other kinds of academic writing can't match - I thoroughly resist the notion that we need to or should codify a set of rules that all teachers or students (or professors, who are interestingly for the most part left out of the conversation over at Dean Dad's) should follow. The point is to figure out one's online identity. Whether one writes under one's own name or whether one writes under a pseudonym (however thinly that pseudonym might veil one's real life identity), the point is to come to a voice with which one is comfortable and that allows one to explore ideas that one might not be able to explore in another mode of discourse. Moreover, the point is to some extent about community, and this is why blogging is not merely about keeping an online diary. Part of the point is that writing on blogs is public. People who choose to keep blogs know this.

But there is a period of adjustment to the public nature of blog discourse. At first, I'd suspect that most of us don't really believe that people will read our blogs. We feel as if we are sending off messages in bottles and we wonder whether any response will ever come back. During this period, each of us is prone to make mistakes in judgment. It's not that we don't know that this is a public mode of discourse, but rather that we think our voices in that discursive network are insignificant. But if that's the case, then why write?

Well, I chose to start blogging for a number of reasons, but chief among those was that I felt like my experience as a junior faculty member who was single, who came from an elite graduate program but who now works at a regional state school, who was trying to balance professional demands with a personal life that had been pretty much on hold throughout my 20s, did not have a place in the narratives that describe professorial life. I felt when I started a profound disconnect between what I'd thought my life would be like once I got that coveted tenure-track job and the life that I actually had. And I felt a profound sense of alienation from academic community, in spite of having that tenure-track job. In other words, I felt like the narratives available to me ultimately marginalized me. I felt insignificant, and so I wanted to construct an alternative narrative.

Now, when I started I didn't know what I was doing. And the voice that I started with ultimately could not be sustained by me with any level of comfort. So ultimately I moved house and modified the voice and the kinds of things that I chose to write about so that I would feel comfortable. But that was a valuable learning experience for me, and I'd be reluctant to change that experience and I'd be reluctant to say that some sort of code of conduct should have been policing my behavior, even though in my former guise I was much more likely to write in ways that were angry, frustrated, and identifyingly specific. But I moved through that phase, and I moved out of it. I think that people who keep blogging ultimately do.

I suppose that one of the things that concerns me about this discussion is that I resist the notion that complaint can only happen behind closed doors or that frustration expressed in one medium "counts" while it doesn't "count" if expressed in another. I don't believe that when people blog about their frustrations as students, teachers, professors that they are necessarily trying to effect change. I think it's more often a case of trying to figure out a problem or trying to get support when none is forthcoming in real life. In other words, the blogging is not meant as *action.* But it does not necessarily follow that the blogger is not actually taking action in his/her life related to that which he/she blogs about. The very same blogger who is "complaining" on his/her blog may well be going through the appropriate channels in one's real life to deal with the issue. I think that there can be a place for both ways of negotiating the terrain of academia.

Now, I tend on this blog not to write specifically about students (though I'm sure there are a couple of exceptions), or to write about the specifics of department or university politics. If I *do* write about things that are going on, my tendency is to abstract what I'm writing about, but this is mainly because I want my blog to be interesting to those who read it. It is not because I feel it's my duty to be positive or supportive or some other bullshit. If you read this blog, you don't read it because you're looking for some shiny happy take on academia. You're not reading it because you want to listen to some disgruntled asshole, either, but there really is a middle ground between those two options. And I'm sorry: sometimes students (and professors and administrators) deserve to be mocked. Sometimes ALL people deserve to be mocked. Because sometimes ALL people are idiots. Do I tend to want to use my blog for that? Nah. But I'm sure I've done it sometime or another, or I've written in such a way that others believe that I've done that, even if I don't see it that way.

There is no one way to participate in the community of academics who blog. Some people choose to write purely professional blogs; some people choose to write more personal blogs; some people choose to do a mix of the two. This is both exciting and potentially dangerous. But I suppose it's that element of danger that makes this mode of discourse interesting for me. It's like the difference between writing free verse (blogging) and writing a sonnet (a journal article). Each has its conventions, its defining rules, but in one there is more room for certain kinds of experimentation. If we try to stifle that experimentation, I think we risk valuing conformity in ways that are at rock bottom anti-intellectual.

So what would my advice be to people who choose to blog while academic? Whether these people are students or professors or somewhere in between? Am I even qualified to give advice? About that last question I'm not sure, but for the sake of argument, let's say I am. Here are my thoughts:

  1. A pseudonym will never shield you completely. People will always figure you out or you will inadvertently reveal who you are. That said, it is a particular projection of your identity, and you do have some control over it. Who do you want to be? It's good to figure that out and to figure out a way to be somewhat consistent in such a way that if somebody does connect the pseudonym to the "real" you that you're not embarrassed or angry with yourself for that identity that you projected.
  2. It's important to take this writing seriously, for it is public. That said, it's also important to feel some measure of freedom, or there is no point in keeping a blog.
  3. If all you're doing on your blog is bitching, it's probably not a terribly productive way to spend your time, and it's probably making you miserable. But if you sometimes bitch and you sometimes write about non-bitchy things, well, you're human. And I think that it's positive not to idealize what an academic life is like, and so give yourself a break if sometimes you're not so idealistic.
  4. Not all blogs need to deal with "issues" and not all blogs need to be professional documents. I mean, jesus, aren't we professionalized enough? And I don't necessarily follow the rule that I should be "professional" on my blog. Because guess what: I'm not getting professional credit for this blog and I don't want it. And I also think that some who think that they *are* professional on their blogs are deluding themselves.
  5. Ultimately, all of this is *really* not that big of a deal. Or it doesn't have to be. It only becomes a big deal when a few try to regulate the many. Ultimately, the fact that I blog doesn't mean squat in the broader scheme of my life. It's a hobby. And a pretty lame and nerdy hobby at that. It is not who I am as an academic or who I am as a person. And I wouldn't want it to be.
So I don't know if this post is helpful or productive or if it really contributes to the conversation that began over at Dean Dad's, but these are my thoughts. And as for grad students who blog (and many of whom read this blog): if it makes you feel slightly more empowered or if you feel like you get something positive out of it, then I think it's a good thing, but it is useful to be aware that you're not writing in a vacuum.


k8 said...

I agree it is difficult to judge the grad student blogger without seeing the post. However, if the student revealed information about a specific student's case before academic affairs, he or she needs to be reminded about the importance (and necessity) of confidentiality. I'll admit that I don't have much patience with those who ridicule specific students, students who could be identified, online. Yes, those of us who are grad students have little power, but we have a lot of power over (and responsibility to) our students.

Having said that, I don't think it is possible or desirable to set blogging rules. But, if someone writes something, he or she needs to be prepared to handle the consequences of that action. Like I tell my students, all words/writing/talk/etc. has consequences. While it isn't necessary to be 'professional' on a blog, we need to remember that student rights (or anyone's rights, for that matter) of confidentiality regarding their coursework and grades don't fade away simply because we are online and think that we are anonymous.

I know that anyone could figure out my full name with very little work. My students know where my blog is because I don't have a separate blog i.d. when I comment on their blog posts for class. Which, actually, is a good way to remind myself that anyone can see what I'm writing.

Fifi Bluestocking said...

This is a great post, Dr C. You've given me plenty of food for thought as I continue to debate whether to start blogging myself. This seems a good time for me to say how great it has been for me to be able to read your blog and those of other junior faculty in this my first year on the tenure track. Although I have mostly remained silent and have only recently begun to comment here and there, I have gained a huge amount from reading these blogs in what has been a period of incredible personal and professional upheaval for me. So thanks and please keep doing what you're doing!

lazy ladybird said...

Do you have an e-mail address where you can be reached? (anonymous, of course!)

Dr. Crazy said...

K8 - I agree that if there is a case before academic affairs that the grad student is discussing on a blog in a specific way that it's inappropriate, and I agree that teachers - whether grad students or not - do have power over and responsibility to students. I suppose the thing that I find troubling about this sort of discussion has to do with a few different things. 1) I have trouble with the sanctimonious tone that can typify the conversation, wherein a bunch of people talk about how it's wrong to blog in such and such a way - as if the medium rather than the message is the issue and as if our conversations over the copier are somehow exempt from the same ethical constraints. 2) Perhaps this is contradicting my first difficulty, but if what we're really interested in is maintaining total confidentiality then probably we shouldn't blog about the positive things in specific ways either, but I've never seen anybody called out for doing that. 3) I do feel like the discussion of this grad student is replicating the very problem that the chair notes - talking about students who could be easily identified in an online context without the student having knowledge of being discussed and having giving his/her permission to be a topic of conversation. I feel like in this sort of discussion those on the side of "oh, that's so wrong," do try to have it both ways, and that just doesn't make sense to me.

Also, I think the issue here is not really about _blogging_ so much as it's about _writing_. If one is a good _writer_ one thinks about audience and one thinks about writing as something that can have consequences. One learns to own one's words, and sometimes one learns that by making mistakes, whether those mistakes happen on a blog or in a hastily written email or in some other forum. So I suppose what I'm defending here is not so much everybody's ability to say anything that they want anonymously or pseudonymously, but rather the right for people to learn how to negotiate these issues in writing, if that makes any sense. I'm fairly certain that the student in question probably has crossed a line in what he/she has posted, but I am really uncomfortable with the idea that this means grad students should be given "guidelines" by a chair about what is appropriate to write on his/her blog. For me, this isn't a BLOGGING issue. This is a TEACHING issue. It's about saying what is appropriate to communicate about students IN GENERAL in WHATEVER medium. And should it necessarily involve singling out individuals because they blog? I don't think so.

And Fifi - I'm glad you've found something here that's been useful. Sometimes I don't know whether I'm saying anything that's helpful to anybody but me!

Dr. Crazy said...

You can reach me at reassignedtime [at] gmail [dot] com. Feel free to drop me a note!

The History Enthusiast said...

Great post! I used to be one of those bloggers who didn't think that anyone would figure out my real identity, even though I did try to speak abstractly (for the most part). This illusion was shattered when a current student found me and started posting comments (anonymously) where they demanded to know their grades, or they resented some of the things I had said about being disenchanted with teaching at the college level, etc.... I tried to tell them that I was not using my blog to attack students, but that it was my personal place to vent frustrations. He/she refused to accept that. And, admittedly, I may have been harsh with them, simply because I felt violated...I was fine with crazy internet psychos reading my blog, but I did NOT want students to find it. This is part of the reason for why I have stopped talking about teaching at all on my blog. Also, this student found me (I think) by reading posts about specific readings and pedagogical strategies, etc..., which makes me hesitant even now to talk about these issues, not because I think its bad to talk about pedagogy, but because this appears to be one way to discover my *real* identity. Anyway, I didn't mean to hijack your comments, but I felt like I should share this.

Anonymous said...

It's funny...I don't think I'd mind if a student or former student of mine found the blog. on the other hand, I'd mind terribly if some of my faculty found it. I may think out loud on my own blog about why that is but I won't take over your comments here.

in reference to your post, i agree completely with the notion that people should be allowed to make errors in writing and move forward from them without any kind of heavy-handed penalty. blogging and reading blogs has been a gentle way for me to learn some lessons about voice and tone, about embracing my own authority (such as it is) and I think that's been a good thing. I also think it translates.

I also agree profoundly with your statement that this is a HOBBY. are we not professionalized enough? Egads.

The impulse to create rules and regulations, to enact codes of conduct, to police what people are saying, even to peer review blog just makes my skin crawl because it seems so antithetical to the potential of blogging.

Anonymous said...

i mean it translates to real life. I sort of didn't finish that thought. I also mean to say, i've made clear errors in judgment, which is why i've deleted my blog altogether (twice) and overhauled it once in order to get it right. It's been a learning process. People who blog get that, I think. People who don't? I don't know if they really understand. A blog is a living thing in lots of ways.

k8 said...

In terms of self-editing, I tend to use the 'would I tell this to my grandmother' test. Doesn't work for everyone, obviously, but it works for me most of the time. Of course, grandma was pretty cool. But, as I said earlier, I know that some of my students look at my blog. It doesn't bother me. I occassionally write about teaching issues, but it tends to be general. And if I'm trying out something new with a class, I'll often ask them what they think of whatever it was that we did. So, if I write about the 'experiment' later, it isn't a surprise.

I definitely agree that blogging can be a great way to develop one's voice - especially when grappling with ways to talk about what it is we do with people outside of our areas of specialty. And it's a great way to try out some ideas.

The original post over at Dean Dad's bothered me in the same way. Although, I keep wondering if I'm more annoyed by the need to consult with someone in such a public way about the grad students' blogs or the fact that the original poster needed to ask anyone to begin with. Part of me wants to just tell the advice seeker to deal with it. But, I'm feeling critical today.

adjunct whore said...

i like what you've said here about developing a writing voice and it is always good to note/remind people that of course the medium is public....that said, and perhaps this is just a problem i have with dr. dean's blog in general, the moralizing tone and presumptive position to guide (him, not you, although i suppose anyone) students on how to blog makes me quite sick. is there a reason why we need to replicate the hierarchy of the academy in the blog world? there are, of course, insitutional alliances and shared experiences, say, of junior faculty members, etc. but what seems so correct about your position, dr. c., is that this space is something apart, even if you are not anonymous. grad students and everyone else need to figure out their voice and if that includes bitching for awhile, then by all means, they should. there are so many other ways to connect or oppose or listen or comment--i prefer those blogs that move between the intellectual, personal, irreverent, humorous, etc.

but what i dislike about dr. dean's space is the consistent rush to judgement that gets made. and in this context, the blog world, i find it even more unecessary than in the real world.

wwwmama said...

amen, adjunct whore.