What Happens in Class Stays in Class?

BlogHer Original Post

Today, I began my Seminar on College Teaching by having the grad students and postdocs enrolled in it draw a picture that served as a metaphor for higher education today. Images of violence figured prominently in a few doodles. My students depicted the research university as a guillotine, a hunting lodge filled with trophy heads, and--perhaps most graphically--as a meat grinder into which students are fed like cheap steak destined to be hamburger.

Should I be telling you this story? Did I just violate my students' trust? What might they say if they read this blog post? Does it matter that I didn't provide students' names or identifying details?

Profgrrrrl recently considered issues of trust and confidentiality in the classroom. "When I teach," she writes,

I feel a sense of intimacy with my students. I tell them stories that are meant for their ears, not stories that will be broadcast for all the world to hear. (Obviously I don’t tell them things I couldn’t stand for all the world to hear, but there’s a sense of context here; I tell them things that I wouldn’t stand up and shout out to passersby at the student union.) We have a negotiated relationship that is affected by topic, time, and space as well as a host of other contextual issues.

She feels uncomfortable, therefore, when students discuss other professors' classes or assignments in front of her. She explains,

I never start these conversations, and I do my best to be minimally participative unless the student needs advice about how to best approach another professor. I don’t want to be in a position to pass judgment on a colleague, even if I don’t agree with things that the colleague is doing. However, I overhear an awful lot (students talking during break about other classes, things posted to Facebook and Twitter* about other classes, students coming to me directly to discuss other classes — and I always know who they’re talking about even if they don’t name names). The whole experience is both awkward and fascinating. I feel kind of like a voyeur, like I know things I should not know. Most unfortunately, it is the not-so-good things that are overheard in this way.

Her post raises questions about confidentiality, privacy, and student-faculty friendships. Should we talk about our students with our faculty colleagues? Should we friend our students on Facebook? Should we let them follow us on Twitter? Should students comment on faculty members' personal or professional blogs?

The answers to these questions vary, of course, with context, depending on institutional culture, the discipline (in my experience, humanities classrooms tend to be more touchy-feely), the nature or topic of the course, and the individual faculty and students involved.

I know of one course on AIDS where students would discuss sexuality, and because their classmates might reveal their own sexual orientation or health, students were required to sign a confidentiality agreement. And in this human rights course at Franklin & Marshall College, students were required to sign a confidentiality agreement by an organization working with the class.

Blogging—by faculty or students outside of class—raises another set of issues. Recall the case in 2008, for example, of a professor who was fired for naming on the (public) class blog six students who committed plagiarism. Or Anonymous Professor's 2006 post "I hate my students," which provoked this reaction from Erin O'Connor at Critical Mass:

AP is using his anonymity as a screen to protect him from precisely the sorts of repercussions that his post about hating students would bring if he blogged under his own name. But this is short-sighted and self-defeating. In other words, AP knows very well that his posting style is unprofessional and self-discrediting, and that's why he won't put his name to his blog. But if AP--and other anonymous academic bloggers like him--respect themselves and their profession, and if they want the respect of others, they won't yield to the temptation to put up posts such as this one. At a moment when academics are under fire for not doing enough teaching and for putting politics and personal convenience ahead of expertise and hard work, personae such as the Anonymous Professor only make the professoriate look worse to the general public than it already does.

Miriam Burstein at The Little Professor also reminds pseudonymous academic bloggers that even if they're disguising certain details, there still may be repercussions:

Blogging about students, colleagues, and administrators raises further questions; I suspect, for example, that we are all familiar with non-anonymous bloggers who purportedly "anonymize" their colleagues, even though their actual blog posts make it painfully easy to identify who is who.

Clio Bluestocking offers some thoughts on when it's appropriate to blog about students. She writes that it's not okay to write about students to blow off steam, but that such blogging might be useful in another scenario:

[...] to try to understand what they are thinking and why they are behaving the way that they do. I don't mean the second rhetorically. Ultimately, I see many of my frustrations with students as stemming from our differences in ages, backgrounds, and positions in relation to one another and the institution. I want to understand and minimize or utilize those differences. The focus has to be on the interaction and on my process, not on the individuals on the other end.

Definitely click through to read her thoughts about professorial prerogatives and power when it comes to blogging about students.

What do you think? Should the classroom be considered a relatively private space? Should students be encouraged to sign confidentiality agreements in courses on sensitive subjects? What has been your experience?

Leslie Madsen-Brooks develops learning experiences for K-12, university, and museum clients. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toybox and is the founder of Eager Mondays, a consultancy providing unconventional professional development.

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