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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

post on blogging

I received an email from a friend last night, who read my post on committee meetings. First, I'm thrilled that someone is reading my post, but the content of the email (roughly paraphrased, since I haven't asked his permission to quote the email) was something like this:
You're writing about real people and not everything you say will be taken in the best possible light. Since people who will be considering you for future positions will be reading your blog, should you be posting in this tone? Will having a blog hurt your future career?"
His point was far more articulate than that, but that gives you the idea. He was able to pick out a few examples of things I've said that could clearly be taken in a bad light - and I can certainly see why they might be taken that way. So, I thought I should explain a little.

When writing a blog, there are three things that are never far from your mind - anonymity, veracity, context.

The first is anonymity: both my own identity and those of the people who participate in my life. Personally, I've made the choice to blog as an individual - so people who read my blog can figure out who I am. I ensure that I don't discuss my family or friends on the blog, as they have not explicitly consented to participate in this project. However, the identity of the people who interact with me in my daily life, particularly at work or school, where the bulk of the blog-related topics occur, is a fine line. I would hate for people to stop talking with me because they're afraid I'm going to blog something that's inappropriate.

So the point about my committee meeting post is quite valid - my committee members did not agree to be discussed on my blog. And yet, committee meetings are a core activity in all PhD studies, so talking about the lessons I'm learning from it is something important to me - as long as I am careful not to infringe on the privacy of the committee members themselves.

In terms of veracity, a good lesson from this blog has been that idle speculation is a "Bad thing" (tm). Going out on a limb where people can Google what you've speculated about can lead you to a boat load of trouble - and it stays on the web for a long time. Consequently, it's important not to exaggerate or speculate needlessly - and certainly slander is a terrible blog-crime.

In the example of my committee meeting post, I have to be careful not to dwell on my interpretations of comments, but just refer to the facts as I see them. However, the blog *is* about my interpretation of events - to which I'm entitled, and which I'm allowed to discuss so long as it doesn't violate the anonymity of the participants or misrepresent events.

The third point is context. In a conversation, it's easy to clarify a context if someone misinterprets what you've said, however blogs require that each entry be atomic and self-contained. If I miss the context in the post, the reader will walk away without knowing what I had in mind. However, this is difficult to do - and it's what separates the good bloggers from the bad. (And clearly, I'm still learning.)

With those three points in mind, here's an example from the post, describing how your PhD committee interacts with you:
"They may be friendly with you, but they're not there to give you friendly advice and guide you through your PhD. Instead, they are really engaged in an adversarial relationship in which they are the gate keepers that will decide when you can leave this pit of doom, and they are the ones that will open the door at the end when they believe you're ready to depart. Yes, they do have the roadmap to letting you out, but they would much rather you figure it out yourself instead of asking them to help plan it."
When I wrote that, I meant for it to describe the relationship that is mandated by the committee - not my relationship to my own committee members. Personally, I think I get along well with them, for the most part - although if they misinterpret that particular paragraph, that might change!

In reality, I have a cordial relationship with my committee - they do give friendly advice (particularly when discussions occur one on one), and they are all wonderful people. And while I may be guilty of some hyperbole (grad school isn't actually a pit of doom), the actual purpose of the committee is fairly accurately described. If you want advice, you should talk with your committee members - not wait for a committee meeting. And, in fact, I'm going to stand by my point that they want you to figure out the roadmap. Every student and every project is different, and there is no single way to get out. It's your advisor/supervisor's job to help you plan your exit - not your committee.

So, was I overly harsh? Perhaps - but it was all about making the point about committees, not about individual committee members. Having gone over the rest of the article, I can tell I've done a poor job of explaining the difference between committee members and a committee, so I'll make a few revisions to reflect that. That clearly shows I goofed on the point of context.

At any rate, that's why I love feedback so much - thanks to my friend's email, I've had the opportunity to re-evaluate and clarify the three points (anonymity, veracity, context) that underpin responsible blogging. And, of course, to learn from a valuable experience from excellent feedback.

To my anonymous friend who took the time to email me, THANKS!



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