Monday, May 9, 2011

Advantage of Hub-and-Spoke Blogs over Centralized Systems such as Ning

Last week, I set aside a class period to have student-teacher conferences while the class worked on a three-page article on environmental justice that called on people of color to take action in bettering their environmental conditions.

Unfortunately, a few of my students misread the data-filled article as an attack on white people (??), and thus their responses reflected their animosity towards the perceived slander.

Now, as a teacher of writing, this reaction is worrisome, as it throws out of the window everything I have taught so far this semester: to read carefully and annotate, to summarize the main arguments, and to respond in a reasonable manner, that is, using a claim/thesis, reasons, and evidence. It also shows a complete lack of awareness of the fact that members of their primary audience (their classmates) may find their animosity alarming (as some of them indicated to me during the student-teacher conferences).

As a teacher, I understand that race issues in the United States are and have been hard to understand and discuss, especially since they are so distorted by the media and by politicians. Some professors have even suggested that I steer away from including readings related to race to avoid volatile reactions in the classroom. But I cannot make myself to banish discussions on race issues altogether, as that of which we do not speak just festers, to completely misquote Langston Hughes.

On the other hand, I could not endorse of the postings by these students, as they were not just inaccurate but inappropriate.

So I deleted their links to my class blog.

Of course, that does not mean I will not read their blogs or not grade their blogs as I always do. I saved their blog links to a Google Docs. It also does not mean that I will not counsel them on how to rewrite their blog posts if they wish to do so. I am, after all, a teacher and this is one of those “teachable moments.” (The move was suggested to me by Dr. J, who unlinks his blog from any student who plagiarizes on her/his blog until the student fixes the plagiarism).

Which brings me to the title of this blog post. I remember that Dr. Van Slyck had a similar issue a few semesters ago, but since she was using a centralized system (Ning), she found herself in a conundrum, as the options to distance herself from some of the ill-worded comments were drastically reduced by the fact that Ning (like Blackboard) is a shared space.

I could go on, but at this point I am interested in your views on whether such social “voting” (un/linking to sites, clicking on “like” in Facebook, etc.) is or could be useful as a teaching tool.


  1. One practical solution: you can set up ning so that you have to approve blog posts before they get published. You can set it up so that each time someone posts you get an email, or just go the page and click the "blog posts to approve" link. This way you can decline potentially offensive or plagarized stuff without delinking a whole blog.

    On the bigger questions, I totally agree that you should not back away from teaching about race.

  2. This is definately a "teachable moment" - and an unsettling one!

    You could block all the blogs, then close read the text as a class, then assign a new blog reflection where students assess the quality of their first readings and - if they were off-base - what triggered their misreadings?

  3. @ Prof T.: I guess what I was trying to say is that Ning is the sort of space that says "this is still MY class" whereas the networked blogs seem more of a community of choice that allows for individual expression--Am I making any sense?

  4. Hi X,
    the class blog is still a class property, so I understand the move to remove the links. On the other hand, it seems that we have a different reaction to something because it is written than something spoken. I doubt any of us would ask a student to leave the room whether because they plagiarized or because they said something that is unacceptable to some (unless it was an obvious attack or slur). Yet I feel that is what happens when we remove a link in terms of class analogy.

    At the same time, the student who says something in class says it in a moment and I am not forever associated with that outside the classroom, as would happen with a public link which anyone can access. At this point, and based on your experience,I think that perhaps I will need to add a disclaimer on my class blog about how the links are not endorsed by me and represent only the authors' ideas. I do not know how much that is a valid answer or a cop-out, and it could be something we will need some legal advice on as we create this new sphere of public teaching and learning

  5. @ L: Well, spoken words come and go, but written words have staying power and even become the law, as people in the Middle Ages knew well--that's why they were so suspicious of signing anything ;-)

    Also, my students are all connected to one another and to me, so many will not know the difference. Therefore, we need a better analogy than "throwing them out of the class." AND that is my point--it could be if one were working in Ning, but when it comes to networked blogs, it is more of a "vote" than anything else.

  6. @ Lizzie: Good suggestions. Unit reflection is coming up, so I may use it.

  7. I like Lizzie's idea (if I'm reading it correctly) of closing off the blog to the public--temporarily--and confronting the misreadings in-house. Then you could give your students the opportunity to decide when the blog reopens to the public whether they want to stand by their initial postings in a public (and permanent!) Web-based forum.

    For the sake of context, I might also link to (or just excerpt) part of the original article on the class blog, so that readers/digital passers-by will be able to draw their own conclusions about the misreadings.

  8. This sounds like a real challenge, X. I am curious: with a disclaimer as Luke suggests, would you feel more comfortable leaving the posts? Subseqently you could do a follow-up activity, perhaps involving close reading and peer critique? Do you think another round of reflective reading, leading to revision, would bring about interesting dialogues (and hopefully not just antagonism)?
    How about explaining the whole situation to the students and asking what they think could or should be done?

  9. @P: Asking the students may be a good idea. On the other hand, this is a highly volatile moment in the class because the CAT is looming (so I know part of the issue is raw nerves).

    Lemme thinkaboutit.

  10. I think that I agree with Lizzie on this one, but I totally understand the conundrum. I guess it would not be a "bad" idea to put a disclaimer on the blog. If a student acts in a manner that is disrespectful to others (or me), I tell them that it is clearly written in the syllabus that such behavior will not be tolerated. Sometimes students have come almost to "Jerry Springer" proportion discussions when it comes to skittish issues. But, how can we expect to conduct any dialog in class or cyberspace if there are no rules? We are a society, and with that comes rules of behavior and actions. Let's face it, it's hard to speak out against hateful messages although we may be sitting on our hands to not lurch out. That being said, I agree with you about not steering clear of the "race" issue, but the bigger question may be (and often seems to be) anger, and outright rage at their positions in school and life, and perhaps having to come to school and pay without credit or moving forward. The internet is filled with so much information/misinformation/hate/and bias that I even address this in my classes.
    If we allow that kind of expression on a blog, even in the name of "earnest blogging" then that makes us the vehicle for hate, and I would not allow it. Would this be any different if it were inappropriate sexual content (and I received some of that at another college and deleted it)?
    Were the students actually "reading into the text" without actually comprehending the content, or were they skimming and confabulating as a result of their own anger? Regardless, I think you are right to question it or you become a vehicle of intolerance. I'm going to put a disclaimer now myself on my blog.

  11. This is a tough one... I think it's important to control the overall tenor of the class while still allowing students to express themselves freely. Having said that, I would also have blocked the blog for now -- at least until you can figure out how to proceed. You are still the professor/ringleader and as such you have the right to pull back the reins if offensive or downright incorrect material is being posted (forgive the mixed metaphors).

    It's upsetting, of course, when students misunderstand a text so blatantly but that, to me, is an argument for addressing controversial issues like race in an academic environment where close reading and critical thinking can help clarify misconceptions. This sort of thing can happen during class discussion, too, but then at least you can address it immediately.

    Also, the power of the written word, and the fact that the blog is public, adds a level of seriousness to what they write. That's one of the reasons why I like the private FB group, which allows anyone to post what they want but feels less exposed since the audience is limited to students in the class.

  12. As you stated, this is a teachable moment. I think this can be a time for a group discussion and have students reflect on the comments. I would want the group to re-write the inappropriate comments so that the students can still express their feelings. It has to be made clear that certain statements are neither acceptable nor professional but they still need to learn how to express their feelings.

  13. I just want to make clear: the fact that I de-linked the blogs does NOT mean the students cannot participate in the class. All students are connected to each other and to me independently of my blog.

  14. HI all--I am interested in the classroom analogy and how far it can be stretched before it no longer makes any sort of sense. It seems to me that individually owned and controlled blogs are not "my space" like a classroom is. And in class most of us DO censure student speech either actively or covertly. However, in college we tend not to censure speech in the hallways and leave it up to the group dynamic (students correcting one another).

    Like X, I do not think a spoke-and-hub blog ring is a "classroom" and is specifically designed not to be one. De-linking is more akin to strong disagreement where as a corrective comment might be incorrectly seen as a challenge to further argument.

    I think the phrase I used when talking with X about this was "I cannot have my professional name directly attached to that sort of comment, or someone might think I agree with you when, I most certainly do not."

    On the classroom analogy, would this be "May I speak with you in the hall?"

    It seems to me we have a new paradigm and we are just trying to "hold up the walls" of the classroom, so to speak, by using that analogy.

  15. So I have an article title: "Holding up the Walls of the Classroom in the Wireless Age; Or (Better Yet) Not."

  16. I actually had one such instance in my class this term, where a student insisted that based on Theroux's strong dislike of masculinity as expressed in the piece "The Male Myth," Theroux was most likely sexually violated by a man when he was a child. I questioned how the student arrived at this conclusion, and in response the student posted a new post entitled -Prove me wrong, where the student proceeded to give me a vocabulary lesson on trauma and some research on men who have been sexually assaulted. Sorry for repeating what I have blogged about previously, but now that Dr. X has brought up this issue, this occurrence in my class takes on much larger importance and its implications seem much greater. While I responded to the Prove me wrong post and the student has not responded nor has he pursued the issue further, I just left it at that. So these two blog posts still appear on his blog. But now, based on what Dr. Smith's comment here, should I be worried about having my name connected to such gross misreading of a text? While I cannot offer an answer to this, I feel that by responding to these posts and expressing my disagreement with the thoughts expressed there, and asking the student to support his claims with examples from Theroux's text, I'm safe (whatever that means?)and cannot be accused of endorsing such ideas.
    On the other hand, what should I do regarding the issue I blogged about last week, or a peer reviewer from another class pronouncing my student's paper as racist(which by the way it is not!). Should I tell my student to erase this comment which completely misrepresents my student's work and which in no way is justified?
    And if, and this is just hypothetical, a student's paper were racist, do I de-link the class blog from that student's blog?

  17. fascinating discussion--reminds me of the old days (that would be early 90's) when students wanted to discuss Farrakhan--which we did and more recently of issues around the veil...then (the old days) Will Koolsbergen and I started our classes with a set of ground rules for discussion--it was really a good idea and could easily be applied to blogs--so if we know we are entering difficult terrain in any given course, they (the ground rules) can be constructed with the students...then removal of inappropriate material has a clear justification--here's a link to our old ground rules in case anyone wants it--oops, I'm not seeing anything that allows me to put a link so maybe I will post it in another place when Dr X teaches me how!

  18. My comment, which I posted on Thursday May 12, has been deleted by blogger. If I have some time this week, I'll try to recreate it.