How to ethically blog from inside the ivory tower
August 19, 2011 12:02 PM   Subscribe

Professors, journalistis, writers, lend me your brain: is it ethically okay for me to professionally blog about my grad school program?

I blog for a non-profit. I'm about to start a master's program in a field directly related to my non-profit work. Non-profit has asked me to do a series "from the inside". Content I'm thinking about: text & audio interviews with willing profs, blog essays that look at big picture topics that incorporate some of my required reading (with works cited, of course), and my own thoughts of how this academic program matches up with my own field experience.

What I'm *not* thinking about doing are course reviews, posting class notes/syllabi/reading lists, or quoting profs without their approval.

I do plan on telling my advisor when I meet him/her next week to get his/her thoughts. Are there any issues of intellectual property or general ethical squickiness that I need to be aware of based on my current blog content plan? Should I let my profs know about the blog early on (I will be approaching them early on anyhow to see if they're open/interested in being interviewed--"Hey, I'm writing a blog series for non-profit, and I'd love to do a short interview with you about prof's-area-of-expertise-related-to-non-profit's-work. Are you interested?"), or does alerting them sound needlessly pretentious and boorish? Or am I planting a nice little bean farm here? Thanks for your help!
posted by smirkette to Writing & Language (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
*journalists, even. Ugh. How embarrassing. And kind of funny.
posted by smirkette at 12:03 PM on August 19, 2011

If you're just doing a general blog about your personal experience and not focusing on anything not available to the general public that the subjects are not consenting to reveal, then I don't see the problem.
posted by inturnaround at 12:15 PM on August 19, 2011

Legally -- you can blog all day long about how much all your classes stink, or are great, or whatever. Of course you have every right to do this, and I would even say it's ethical. Anything someone says in public (inside a classroom isn't exactly in public, but it would be a stretch to say it's private) you can express an opinion on and not feel weird about it. That's straight-up First Amendment stuff right there.

Practically, though -- I think it's smart to not blog about what your profs say in class or what your fellow students say, lest they feel constrained or uncomfortable, or have weird feelings about you in particular. If you're doing this blog, I wonder if it will have the effect of taking you "out" of your grad program. To the extent that you're an observer, sometimes that makes you less of a participant. This may not be an issue or may not matter to you, but it's something I've noticed in 15 years as a journalist/ editor (who has also taught college, though just as an adjunct). It will change the dynamic if everyone thinks you're the reporter who is going to blab about everything that gets said on this non-profit org's blog.

But if you're just quietly blogging about the subject matter and writing about your coursework and required reading, I don't see any major problems. Your plan appears sound to me. Have fun.
posted by Buffaload at 12:18 PM on August 19, 2011

I doubt that you're raising any ethical red flags if you stick with what you've posted here. It would be important to clarify what your workplace's interest is in you taking on this project, because that seems just a little weird to me. But I don't know where you work.

You might want to consider checking in with your school's media relations department. They can probably give you some helpful guidelines, since it's their job to make sure the school is painted in a good light. They'll probably ask you to put one of those "This blog reflects my own views and not those of Big Ol' University" tags on your main page and possible as a footer on your posts.

If you inform the school, you also take the burden of informing off you and onto them, so they can inform your professors - or not - and you needn't worry about it yourself.

If I were you, I'd look to try to incorporate this experience into an independent study, thesis jumping-off point, or something you can get credit for.
posted by juniperesque at 12:22 PM on August 19, 2011

Regardless of ethics, it's not nice to quote people who believe they're speaking in a semi-private context unless you let them know that you'll be quoting them and allow them to clarify, correct or defend their own statements. Even innocuous statements can sometimes be embarrassing to the person who made them, and it can be upsetting to have your words displayed for the world when you thought they were spoken to a limited audience.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 12:42 PM on August 19, 2011 [5 favorites]

my own thoughts of how this academic program matches up with my own field experience.

There's so many ways this can go wrong. Is the non-profit going to pay you for the blog posts? Will you own the work or will they? What if you hate a prof, a classmate, a text?

It's one thing to write a personal blog about your job or your coursework, but your employer's putting you in an odd position--almost PR, but not quite. And will you post once a week? Once a day? I'd start the classes and see how much time you have before you commit to the blog.
posted by Ideefixe at 12:46 PM on August 19, 2011

Here's a (probably) helpful link: Internet blogging rights and wrongs in regards to defamation and libel.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 1:35 PM on August 19, 2011

As a (relatively) recent grad student and (relatively) new faculty member, I think that the best approach is to inform the school of your intention and gauge their reaction. An open-minded department would see it as an opportunity for some good PR, a less open-minded department would see it as unwanted attention. See how your department feels about it and let that guide your decision. There are issues here that could become potentially uncomfortable for both you and your department that you should get out in the open in advance (What if feel that a particular class or topic is a waste of time? Are you free to write about that? And, if so, would you? Does the department have the ability to edit your posts or see them prior to publishing?).

Like any other profession, there are faculty members that are amazing, dedicated people that set the example for the rest of us to aspire to. There are also those that are small-minded, petty, and punitive. Luckily, my experience is that there are fewer of the latter than the former, by far. But nonetheless, it is important to be sensitive to such things, especially as a grad student. For example, I have a friend who had a graduate research assistantship working for Professor A. Professor A and Professor B had a serious disagreement about something unrelated to my friend which resulted in Professor B refusing to pass my friend on his comprehensive exams to get back at Professor A. The happy ending is that Professor B was eventually fired for intellectual property theft, but that was of small consolation to my friend, who was kicked out of the program long before that happened.

If you get the sense that there are any personalities in your department that are given to these types of behaviors, I would deep-six the whole idea quickly--it just isn't worth the trouble.
posted by jtfowl0 at 1:38 PM on August 19, 2011

You might look at how Dan Meyer of TED talk fame has written about his graduate work.

From an IP standpoint I don't see how you can have any issue if this is all your synthesis of what's presented. You could be harassed if you use stuff provided to you - say, a graph - though you'd eventually prevail on fair use in almost all cases.

However eventually prevailing is painful enough without potentially running afoul of the anger of people who can flunk you or make your academic life hell in certain ways. Even legal discussion about commercial note-taking services - which is a lot more detailed a use of someone's IP matetials - mention that legal protections doesn't mean a university can't go after students via honor code limitations. So I think you're smart to try to head off any problems.

That said, based on my experience as a student and as an employee at a university, I'd be shocked if what you are discussing registered on anyone's radar other than as a "wow, awesome" (the rest will not register at all). On an academic level most professors are delighted by anything that causes their students to synthesize material outside of class time. Add to that the large number of the more adventurous instructors who have come to embrace online writing as a teaching tool and it's not impossible you'll find yourself in classes that have an online writing requirement.

On an institutional level the institution is likely to be delighted to being written about. Mine has a dozen twitter accounts and various online outreach that highlights when things like your project come to its attention.

I'd simply go in to speak to each prof during their first office hours. It's good networking and brings you to their attention and you'll get the disclosure out of the way up-front. My only caution would be in asking them for too much guidance about what to write about since you're talking about something that isn't their requirement; they will be happy with things that help you achieve competency but not things that divert you from the point of their course.
posted by phearlez at 1:42 PM on August 19, 2011

Hi all, thanks for the thoughtful questions and answers here. That Dan Meyer link is pretty much spot-on.

Just to clear up some questions and concerns, I am definitely getting paid my standard hourly rate for all my blogging duties, so no worries re: unpaid labor or concerns about rights; things are spelled out in my contract. I'm shooting for one post a week, more when/if possible. But I can also not post any given week if I don't have time--my organization's very flexible, fortunately.

I would never, ever quote people without their knowledge or republish work without consent. Any time we use a quote from someone that wasn't part of a published work (with appropriate link-backs), we send the blog copy to the subject prior to publication for their approval as part of our standard practice.

I'm definitely not going to be reporting on classroom discussions at all--that's just hinky. As a former classroom teacher myself, I know just how important context, relationships, and the building of a conversational history is to what gets said. I may report or discuss the topics of conversation, but not the resulting conversation itself. Learning can't take place if everyone's feeling self-conscious all the time.

As for concerns about tone or overly personal content, while it's definitely coming from me and my own professional opinions about the field, literature, etc., it's still primarily a professional blog in that it's concerned with the subject of inquiry, not my personal feelings about my profs, classmates, etc. I've got an awesome copy editor who's really great about letting me know if something doesn't read quite right, is inappropriately subjective, etc.

If anyone else has anything else to add, I'm all ears!
posted by smirkette at 2:30 PM on August 19, 2011

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