a tale of inappropriate comments

In the Fall of 2006 I received an email, filtered down through the chain of departmental command, regarding my course website from the previous Spring. The email regarded a comment exchange between two students from my Technical Writing class. Now I make it a practice to at least skim all of my students’ comments. Early on in the semester I read them more carefully to ensure that students are “getting” the appropriate content, style, etc of blogging. Once I’m assured that they understand the basic principles, the 100+ comments a week don’t get the same careful attention. Nonetheless, I read to catch the flow of the commentary and the basic ideas behind their comments. I also use that time to choose blog entry “conversations” to promote to the front page for further discussion. Clearly it would be difficult for an obviously inappropriate comment to escape my notice. So, when I received this email I felt certain that there must have been some kind of mistake. However, navigating to the comment location I did indeed find three student comments disparaging a professor, a clearly inappropriate exchange for a Purdue course website. They were there; they had been posted; and I had missed them. And then I looked at the date. The comments had been posted several days after I had tallied and recorded comments for the semester. Why then, did my students post comments that, even if they were posted prior to the due date, would obviously not receive credit? What compelled them to air their grievances on what I considered to be my site? Most importantly (to me), why would they create a permanent record of their disdain? What could be gained by posting them and is there any consideration for what might be lost? Finally, whose site was it?

Last night at Starbucks two students sat down next to me and began to loudly complain to one another about the instructor whose class they were preparing for. The instructor’s name was mentioned on more than one occasion along with several expletives. Here we have the “old school” version of inappropriate student comments. I don’t mean that students should not express their opinions; I do, however, question the propriety (and prudence) of doing so in a public space. And it wasn’t as though they had forgotten my presence or that there were others within hearing. They turned from their conversation and addressed me with (roughly) the following comment: “I don’t want you to think that we’re awful people, but our instructor is terrible.” This was followed by the usual specific complaints that we’ve all received: too much work, etc. I wasn’t surprised by what they were saying; inappropriate conversations abound in public spaces (especially one cell phones, but I won’t get into that now). But in the public space of brick and mortar and fleshy bodies words disappear as they are uttered. Unless you are recording or transcribing, it’s difficult to repeat, much less remember over time, spoken comments. On the web we have no such restrictions; you are accountable for your words in a very different way. There is no “you must have misheard me” or “that’s not who I was talking about” to disassociate yourself from the spurious comments.

These are fairly benign anecdotes. The web has a sadly large number of hateful comments and folks aren’t usually too embarrassed to express the same sentiments in the world of flesh and brick-and-mortar. Still, benign or not, these posted comments are public (and to a large extent permanent) and they don’t just expose private information about the individual poster. They expose and make inaccurate claims about another. How do we ensure that kind of privacy? (Especially if we are using Blogger?) Is it our responsibility to monitor our students once they are no longer our students.