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Thursday, May 17, 2012

Mea Culpa on E-mail Correspondence, Blog Posts, & Student Privacy

As some may have noted, I've taken the liberty of deleting my earlier post on a student's accepting and then withdrawing from working as an RA. Deborah Merritt tells me that it was unprofessional of me to disclose the content of a student's e-mail, even though the student was not identified in the post, because classmates would infer the student's identity from the student's prior disclosures to third parties. (Other anonymous posters said the same thing, but I tend to discount anonymous responses).

Could the student have been identified from my post? I certainly did not think so, and I persist in the hope that anonymity was maintained. I hire several RAs each year. This particular student was one of many that I interviewed, and she never performed any work for me after accepting the job, because her work would not begin until June, two months after she withdrew from the job. I had never made a public announcement that she was one of my prospective RAs, so it simply did not occur to me that her classmates would figure out that (a) she had accepted a job with me, (b) she had withdrawn from that job, and (c) she actually wrote the message of which I complained.

But I am easily baffled by the internet and by students' social networks. Knowing the depth of my own ignorance on these matters, I really should have quoted the e-mail as a purely hypothetical message, without saying that it was from one of my actual students. On that point, Deborah Merritt is absolutely and completely correct, and, for that blunder, I sincerely apologize.

Not being able to put the genie back in the bottle, I decided to minimize the damage by simply deleting the whole post to cut off any further spreading of the correspondence. I remain hopeful that the student's identity was not actually revealed at all to anyone. (But she should feel free to e-mail me in person to let me know if she believes that she was "outed" by classmates: I'll apologize profusely to her as well, in person).

Lest anyone think that I deleted the post to hide evidence of the unpopularity of my stance, let the record reflect that the responses -- 75 of them by my last count -- ran heavily in the student's favor, with only seven or so agreeing with me that the tone of her message was too cavalier. The vast majority informed me that I was (using my words) a "hypersensitive curmudgeon." (There was some choicer invective as well).

Posted by Rick Hills on May 17, 2012 at 11:27 PM | Permalink


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