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Writing about current students

A commentary written in association with an ongoing series about the wonderous and wonderful people associated with our small college in the middle of the corn and soyfields.

In this series, I’ve written about alumni I know, about alumni I don’t know, about groups of students, current faculty, about former faculty, about emeritus faculty, about current staff, about former staff, and even about administrators [1]. But I haven’t posted anything about individual students [2], even though I had planned to.

Now, there are certainly potential FERPA [3] issues with posting essays about students [4]. However, I rarely post essays about people with their permission, so that seems to meet the spirit and the law of FERPA. But I’ve realized that I still shouldn’t post essays. Let’s explore why.

Recently, I wrote an essay about one of my current students, a student who brings joy to my work and who makes our department better. I was getting ready to send it to them for approval, and then I thought a bit more. There’s a power dynamic involved; it’s probably hard for a student to say no to a faculty member. So then I thought about telling the student to ask their parents whether it was okay. That made me realize that, as a parent, I’d feel a bit strange if a faculty member wrote as much about a student as I’ve typically written about my subjects [6]. That’s not to say that I shouldn’t write so much about people. Rather, it’s that it feels different when it’s about a student than about an alum or a colleague.

It’s also not to say that I don’t regularly write so much about students; after all, what’s a recommendation letter than a long essay about a student? However, once again, context matters. Writing for a recommendation letter is different than writing for a public site. Students request recommendations and I write in response. In contrast, I write the essays and then request student permission. Recommendations are private; these essays are public. Recommendation letters focus on academic strengths, with a few other issues tossed in. These essays are on all sorts of random things.

There’s also the issue of apparent favoritism. If I write about certain students, will it make other students feel as if I care less about them? I can see students asking why I wrote about particular other students. And, given that Grinnell brings in more than four-hundred new students each year, there’s no way that I could keep up, even if I wrote about a different student each day [7].

In the end, this means that you will not see essays about any individual students, at least while they are students. I’ve also removed the names of all current students from my list of Grinnellians to write about [8]. But once they graduate, I’ll consider them fair game [9].

When I restarted the essay series, I ended up writing a few essays about why I wasn’t posting the essay I had originally written. Surprisingly, some folks told me that they particularly enjoyed the what I won’t post essays. If you’re one of those folks, this essay is for you.

[1] I may only have written about current administrators. Let me think. Erik Simpson was on Council. Does that make him a former administrator? I think not. But I’ll find some to write about. Maybe Donald Tom. Maybe about our former associate Deans who have gone on to be Deans and Presidents and such.

[2] I was going to write I haven’t written anything about current students, but that isn’t true. I have. I just haven’t posted it. And I won’t.

[3] Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act, a law that governs disclosure of student data.

[4] And alumni [5], now that I think about it,

[5] Or at least alumni who should not be considered public figures.

[6] As my wonderful wife says, all of your profiles feel a little bit creepy.

[7] Okay, there are only about 120 students who take CSC 151 each year, so it is possible. Nonetheless, it doesn’t sound like a good time.

[8] Or at least I hope I have.

[9] With their permission, of course.

Version 1.0.1 of 2016-12-06.