Monday, November 06, 2006

in which the semi-anonymous academic blogger ponders a question of ethics

I’ve asked my technical writing students to discuss ethics issues this semester, including issues of blogging in the workplace, and I thought that I might take a stab at a question that has been on my mind.

Is it ethical to discuss students on blogs?

I have written posts about my students and have read many posts about others’ students, with varying degrees of specificity. But is this okay? There are so many variables to this question—I will try to squeeze them into one blog post and hopefully people will read it even though it’s long. Let me start with what I am calling semi-anonymity and how that factors in.

I am not truly anonymous. Sarah is my real name (but don’t you know twenty other people named Sarah?). I do not post my location or institution, and if you Google me, you will not find this blog. If you came across this blog accidentally, however, I have posted enough information that someone who knows me well, or even someone who is currently taking my class, might figure out that this sounds awfully familiar. This seems like a stretch, but it has happened to me—I found a professor’s blog accidentally. I didn’t know it was him until I saw his photograph—I don’t post my picture on this blog. But I have given my URL to friends and to two former students, and it has gotten around through the grapevine that I’m a blogger, and a few professors have asked me about it (with mixed reactions—one person said, “My opinion of you has totally changed.”—vague comment, but I doubt it was good). I don’t really hide it. I imagine that many bloggers have similar circumstances.

The point is, while I am not readily Google-able, any discussion of my students could potentially be linked directly back to me, depending on who is reading it.

But I talk about my students in person with my coworkers all the time. This blog has been valuable to me as a way to discuss teaching issues with other teachers, and I find conversation among teachers in the halls or in our offices important ways to learn and improve. One might argue that it is not ethical to discuss students at all, but I think that we gain so much through these conversations that makes us better teachers. So is posting about students on a blog different from talking about them in person (assuming, of course, that names are never used)?

Okay, long enough for now. Any thoughts?


Sarah said...

I'll be weird and comment on my own post, just to add that I've been trying to think of this issue from the perspective of a student. How would I feel if I stumbled across my dissertation director's blog and he was venting about how I'm not making any progress and need to stop taking on other projects that interfere with my diss. Fair criticism, and he's said it to me, in a much gentler way. But would I appreciate it if he told the blogosphere?

Anonymous said...

I don't know how much of an ethical issue this is, but I guess something to think about is how would you react if a student you wrote abut read your blog and approached you about the content? I can't tell you the articles I've read in law student/lawyer journals telling about law clerks or new associates writing about their co-workers in blogs who shortly thereafter get fired. I know this isn't exactly the same situation, but I think there are some similarities. A student isn't really in the position to "fire" you, but it would probably be very awkard if they brought up the issue with you.

Personally, I would not want one of my profs telling the blogosphere about problems they were having with me. I would probably view it as a breach of trust and would probably be very hesitant to approach any profs again who I knew were bloggers.


Amy Reads said...

Hi Sarah,
I'm kind of anti-blogging about students, personally, but then, I'm anti-blogging about most personal issues, in general. Is there a way to talk about the same issues (ethics, turnitin, etc) without mentioning students? I don't know, honestly. But I've read several blogs myself--of profs in power, no less--who blog about students and, while never using names, using identifying markers.
I haven't had coffee yet, so I'm going to stop here and come back later :)

Jennie said...

I am also doctoral candidate, and though I have not been teaching since my child was born, I can understand your dilemma. It is strange how teaching can be very isolating-- although you're with students, you rarely interact with peers in the way people are able to in other professions so it's nice to have an outlet to share stories and experiences.

People talk about people, all the time (regardless of relation, profession, or motivation), so I have to laugh a little because discussing this issue is so stereotypically (in the 'making a mountain out of a molehill' sense) academic! That said, I am someone who holds teachers to a higher standard. We're in a position of power, trust, and hopefully respect. We should be earning this through our actions, not just our degrees or the fact that we're standing in the front of the room. We ask students to learn and grow by challenging the way they think, we try to get them to question deeply held beliefs and practices, we want them to speak up if they don't understand, to learn what they don't know and go places where they have little if any experience. Esentially, I think we ask them to be quite vulnerable for the sake of education and therefore we need to be more accountable for how we handle that vulnerability.

I know teachers harmlessly blog about students, and I enjoy reading those blogs. I have even seen blogs help frustrated teachers see things from the student's perspecive, or to remind teachers that they don't really know who their students are or why they do the things they do, and yes this probably helps them become better teachers. But I also think it involves a breach of trust that is potentially detrimental to the educational process. In all honesty, the knowledge that certain faculty members talk about their students slightly changes my sense of how much I should trust them (even when this talk comes from an innocent or truly genuine place). And while I am not a particularly sensitive or insecure person, I wouldn't feel good about my dissertation committee blogging about me.

harrogate said...


Personally Harrogate doesn't think there's an ethical breach considering how you do it. While he shares Amy Reads's feelings about blogging personal stuff, it's pretty clear that in your case, you take personal experiences in the classroom and out, and quickly abtsract those experiences into a general site to which many can relate. It is one of Harrogate's favorite things about your blog.

And it is because of your immense skill at abstracting that, despite the power of Google, it seems to Harrogate a bit of a stretch to worry that you might be compromising your teacher/student relationships by discussing these things.

Finally, if Harrogate came across a blog by his committee chair, venting about Harrogate's lack of progress, he would have to take it in stride, understanding that Professors are people too, and that as such, they sometimes need to vent. Not to mention that in Harrogate's case, the venting would be totally justified!:-)

je m'amuse said...

I think that a good rule of thumb is this: if anyone in your physical world knows about your blog, then you probably ought to be very careful about what you say. I say this from experience. I was once negatively misinterpreted by a lurker co-worker. The backlash made my life hell for the rest of the year.

I don't talk about my blog, and I think that keeps me safe to vent.

Miriam Jones said...

Interesting questions. I recently blogged about a student in a humourous/good way (short version: everything that went wrong before her seminar presentation did, but she pulled it off), but even though it was complimentary I am wondering now if it made her self-conscious. After reading this post and comments, I have decided to pursue it by asking her if she would like me to remove or change the post.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

I think it depends on whether it's particular or abstract. Most of the student problems we see are not particular to one student. I think if you frame the post to deal with a certain type of student behaviour, it's not unethical. If it can break an individual student's confidentiality, then it's a problematic.