Blog Post

Should Class Blogs Be Private or Public?

Every time I write up my syllabi for an upcoming course, I revisit the question of whether the blogs and projects my students produce as alternatives to research papers, journals, or field notes should be open to the general public or confined to our class collaborative blog, with access only by the students in the class.  You'll note how that binary itself makes a choice:  students in my classes do no writing that is read only by me.  I'm sure there are justifications for that kind of communication but it makes no sense to me.   My learning goal is for every member of the class to exceed expectations--mine, their own, and one another's.  I construct a lot of the class around peer learning and peer evaluation, with students taking turns (working in pairs) in the role of the teacher, setting the assignments for the week and evaluating them, determining whether the other students have mastered the assignment, and that means we spend a lot of time talking about standards, evaluation, and what is perhaps the single most important life lesson students take from my class:  how to give and receive feedback productively and creatively.  Students know at some point they will be evaluating all of their classmates.  Every other work, their work is being evaluated by pairs of classmates.  Learning with and from others is our method.   Given those parameters, openness within the class is essential.   Learning is our collective, community project. 


And perhaps the operative word in that sentence is "our."   My classes are collectives.  We learn together.   Some of what we do is public--such as this blog, where I (and the students) will sometimes articulate for those who are not part of our collective project what it is that we are doing.   In fact, in both of my Spring 2011 classes--"This Is Your Brain on the Internet" and "Twenty-First Century Literacies"--there will be a requirement for students to make two "public contributions to knowledge."   By this I mean that they will find the right venue and then advance knowledge in that venue.  It could be on this site or it could be on Wikipedia or on another public site.   They decide.


Here are some reasons, though, why most of what we do will be contained within our class-only WordPress blog:


(1) Privacy: Or, Not Every Future Employer (or Graduate Admissions Officer) Understands Web 2.0.    I want my students to be free to express themselves in my class but "free" is never unbounded.  (Yes, we will discuss this.)   Part of my job as a prof is to ensure that students inform themselves about how their own expression on line can be conscripted by others, presented as a representation of "them" that may or may not be what gets them that first job in a competitive market or eases their way into law school.  When I think of the most remarkable multimedia collaborative projects my students have created, I immediately come up with several that could jeopardize their future lives.   One brilliant one on the role of pornography in the creation and proliferation of the Internet was unforgettable, not least because the range of ages in the class was untypical for Duke (traditional college age students and then twenty years older than that), include two out (sort of) gay people and two presumably straight students, and students of different races.  (Even writing this paragraph I've gone back and changed descriptors to ensure privacy.)  In certain fields, being gay still means you do not get the job.   Yet the multiple perspectives on pornography offered by people with different points of view is one thing that made the CNN-quality video they made so intellectually rich and provocative.  If the blog had been public, they would have had to censor or at least to post anonymously.   Anonymous authorship in one's final report is a strange beast--stranger, in my opinion (and I'm happy to hear others), than producing a documentary for a closed, target audience of peers.


(2)  Intellectual propertyIn the documentary I mention above and in just about all of the other work in my class, we discuss IP issues--and then claim fair use for the materials we borrow from within the class.  We talk about Creative Commons and other forms of share-alike licensing.   But then we often disregard those rules in the creation of the class student-produced materials.  By that I mean, there are images and audio that are attributed, of course, to those who created them but nonetheless used in the production intended for our class and for pedagogical purposes only that would require fees and legal agreements were they distributed beyond the walled off class project.   We are at such a strange moment in the history of intellectual property, with everything changing and no one quite knowing what they want or why since the business model of so much online property remains in flux.  I want my students to understand the IP issues--but I don't want their intellect and imagination fettered by it.  


(3) Audience.    Especially in "This Is Your Brain on the Internet" we read across audiences and discuss the way knowledge changes depending on audience.   For example, we might read a brilliant scientific paper on attention by Stanford neuroscientist Clifford Nass (to cite one example) and then we read the sound bite "Even multitaskers are bad at multitasking."   And then we discuss how and why that sound bite is the one that "sticks" when there are other kinds of news in the article that get ignored.    Audience doesn't just determine knowledge; it "creates" it, in the sense that one or another idea is interpreted, repackaged, promoted for a certain purpose, in a certain context, and with certain kinds of ideological and polemical attributes.  Just ask any politician!  The audience for my classes is the class itself--except for those two assignments designed for "public contributions to knowledge."   We then discuss the difference.  What freedom and constraint comes into play when anyone can read your work?   How do you present the findings of that experiment or how do you recut that documentary if grandma, Uncle Ernie, and the Nobel Prize winner at the medical school you hope to attend are all possible viewers--and not just a class that has been entrusted with the explicit goal of my classes:   for every member of the class to exceed expectations--mine, their own, and one another's. 




What a great post. I've been asking this question myself in my own work. Especially in compostion/rhetoric, there has been a call to increase the amount of public writing students do, which makes sense. One of the hardest parts of teaching college writing is getting students to have a vested interest in the audience of their work. Oftentimes, I find myself asking students, "Why didn't you explain this outside source in your essay," only to hear, "Everyone in the class already read it, so I didn't think I needed to." They can't see their writing having an effect on anyone outside the classroom. And this is a problem because intellectual writers need to know how to engage in conversations beyond that classroom.

I have been teaching a research writing course called "Videogames as Persuasive Texts," in which I try to include public writing. As part of the course, students play a game and study the associated fan cultures and the genres of research those fans present, from walkthroughs to FAQs to strategy guides. They must then publish their own game research for the benefit of the fan community. Many of them get great feedback and see, sometimes for the first time, a conversation happening around their writing beyond the walls of the classroom. We run into few privacy concerns because within these fan cultures, one typically builds a reputation around a screen name, rather than a real name.

One point I think we must all consider as instructors is why we're putting student work out into the ether. As you rightly note, our students are keenly aware of the "lingering effects" of publishing writing in the digital age, and many of them are scared -- and rightly so. Before having students put their work out in the open, it's vastly important to have a conversation about what it means to publish online. Search engines make us so much more productive, but also allow us to stumble upon so many things out of context, and those doing the stumbling include future employers, friends, relatives, grad schools -- the list goes on and on.



Yes, that conversation about the difference between public and private feels vital . . . even as "privacy" has changing meanings historically.   And we may be in the midst of such a change now.  But, for the time being, I find it necessary to include both forms of writing and discuss what we can or cannot do in each.  Thanks for writing.


As a student, I would not post to the internet my true feelings on certain controversial subjects. I would alter it to be socially acceptable...I wouldn't want future employers to discriminate against me one day. Once it's out there it will be there forever!