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Radical transparency or TMI?

Bloggers are the jellyfish floating along, sharing everything and the way we look is incredible with the light on us, but the monster is out there...waiting. For educators, that monster is a puritanical public that believes in they are the moral authority, and educators aren't measuring up when they foster 2-way communication, shared responsibility and trust in "the world out there." Miguel Ghulin, Jellyfish Blogger-Radical Transparency.

In Miguel's post linked above, he argues for a radically high level of transparency by educators. He asks if the reader sees this working:

Not just transparency, but Radical Transparency. The whole teaching, learning and leadership process laid bare, and opened to critical input from teachers, students, parents, and administrators without censure or penalty. Educational administration in public, via blog. Teaching and learning in public, via blog. Superintendents talking straight, unafraid of where the chips may fall, in mid-day postings.

While I appreciate Miquel's passion and rationale for that passion, he needs to acknowledge that there is a difference between transparency and TMI (too much information). The "monster" of the "puritanical public" may well be those people concerned about student and staff privacy, accuracy of information, and appropriate topics for public discourse. No matter how well disguised, people who are used as "bad examples" will recognize themselves (I know from experience) and the public outing will cause strained or broken relationships. Some situarions are sufficiently complex, nuanced, or values-driven that it is difficult if not impossible to explain them to a lay audience. Admitting one's mistakes, while perhaps cathartic, is not beneficial unless reflection reveals a lesson learned. And Miguel, like it or not, some people in an organization have as their responsibility to be the "voice of the institution" and doing an end run around them in a public forum is just damn poor manners. 

While I very much disagree with legal advice that suggests limits to anyone's free speech, including that of education bloggers, I would also hope that we as professionals are willing to accept some self-imposed limits about what, about whom, and about how we speak in public. In practice, radical transparency may well do more harm than good.

From Blogging and a little common sense, January 26, 2007:

When I first started teaching back in the mid-70s, the district I worked for had two rules. The first was that you had to live in the district; the second was that you were to set a "moral" example. And the good folks in central Iowa had a pretty rigid definition of "moral." Not being able to drink a beer on my own front porch rankled me then and it rankles me now to think that my free speech rights might be abrogated were I banned from blogging.

But I also remind myself that rights are always accompanied by responsibilities.

Here are some things I try to keep in mind when I write for the Blue Skunk. I honestly don't want Johnson vs. the Mankato Board of Education being studied in school law classes someday.

  • Write assuming your boss is reading. That's good (and common) advice as far as it goes. But I know my wife, my mother and my daughter all read The Blue Skunk now and then. (My wife is lobbying me to change how I reference her from the LWW - Luckiest Woman in the Word - to the BBWWLMEWIJ - the Beautiful, Brilliant Woman Who Loves Me Even When I am a Jerk). I assume my co-workers read the blog, as might anyone for whom I might work for someday, either as a regular employee or a contractor. Somehow this doesn't really narrow the scope of what I want to write about, but it does force me to ask questions about language, taste, and approach. Every time I've wondered if I should put something of questionable taste in the blog and did, it's usually come back to bite me. A person can tell. Mostly.
  • Gripe globally; praise locally. I don't think anyone really fusses if you express your opinions about global warming, the Iraq War, or NCLB. But you will never catch me dissing a person who lives close enough that he could easily come by and TP my house. Nor would I say bad things about a person who I might then have to avoid at a conference. Even going negative, I try to make it about ideas, not people. I have to admit I am really lucky to be working in a school with people I genuinely think are pretty darned good and with whom I am proud to be associated. I don't agree with every decision made, but I know that the decision was made thoughtfully.
  • Write for edited publications. I've been writing professionally for almost 20 years and certainly on a continuous basis since I've been working for the Mankato Schools. A good deal of what I write is opinion and I've even written a several editorials for the state and local newspapers. My bosses in the past have shared things I've written with the school board as a point of pride - I hope. Were the district now to react negatively to my blog, I believe it would have a difficult case showing that my writing impedes my employer's effectiveness or efficiency or otherwise disrupts the workplace, since it has not done so in the past. It would be a condemnation of a technology, not of a practice.
  • Write out of goodness. I have a difficult time believing that anything you write because you want to improve education, improve kids lives, or improve society will be counted against you. If you write out of negativity - to vent, to whine, to ridicule - yeah, you'll probably have problems. But I am guessing you were probably having problems at work before you started blogging if that is your blog content. In a workplace where dismissing someone for mediocre job performance or poor interpersonal skills is nearly impossible, supervisors are often looking for any legal means of firing people. If you are doing a good job at work, blog. If you aren't, don't blog.

It is our professional duty to share what works for us and ask for help when we are stymied. Blogs allow us to do both and it would be a crying damn shame if the advice of an overly cautious lawyer stopped this flow of information.

Earlier I mentioned that rights are accompanied by responsibilities. Another thing usually must come along as well - courage. Be brave - blog.

Miguel, perhaps I am too cautious, too cowardly, too traditional. Thank you for challenging my thinking.

Other random thoughts on blogging

Don't blog the cat and other virtues, April 28, 2007

Don't blog the cat unless...

Liz Ditz's thought on blogging ethics, December 2005 - still good

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Reader Comments (5)

Doug, my scathing sound and fury response here:

Warm regards,

July 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMiguel Guhlin


I'll put on my flame-retardant pajamas before reading!


July 12, 2012 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

My managers and co-workers read my blog (though not as speedily as I would like). My mother reads my blog. So I don't "write as though" they read it; I write knowing they read it. They all know I am fallible, that I sometimes have bad days, that I'll call someone out if they deserve it, and (most importantly) that I'm passionate and care about my work. Which makes most mistakes permissible.

I gripe where the griping will do the most good. If necessary, I'll redact names - my long tirade about my doctor didn't need to name the doctor, but it still needed to be said (and was probably read by him). I've written of the incompetence of our provincial government, just before the election in which it was defeated. I'll say good thinsg where they're warranted - but the main point is, if I ever want to see my ideas implemented locally, I have to write about what's happening locally. (I find my influence on the global area to be pretty minimal).

I sometimes write for edited publications, but I don't like it when they edit my work. Part of this is my own style - I really hate revisiting work I've already written. But part of it is aesthetics - I find first draft work a long more authentic, if rough around the edges. Some people think by means of writing; me, I write in order to express my thinking. These are two very different acts. My employers have reacted negatively to my blog in the past, so it's hosted on my own server, which I pay for myself, and any other concern is relegated to our common understanding that I enjoy freedom of speech, even as a member of the public service (I add in passing that I am amazed at how many Americans say they can't say this or that for fear of reprisals, all the while proclaiming to be the most free people in the world).

I do write out of goodness, but it's not a stance I take in order to make the rest seem acceptable. I honestly believe that what I have to say is good and that I am producing good in the world by expressing it. This hasn't always been the easiest thing to believe. I have, as a matter of fact, been writing since I was young, but until I was 23 or so my writings remained mostly private. When I started university I joined the student newspaper, and had a very solid shell of shyness to surmount. I still grill myself on a regular basis: am I relevant? Is what I say accurate? Do people care?

So - this is the thing about transparency. It requires a lot of courage on the part of the person being transparent, but it requires more that the people observing understand that they are viewing a real person, with real faults, real opinions, real ideas and real fears. We harm ourselves and each other by assuming that everybody must conform to some sort of magazine-perfection.

July 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterStephen Downes

Hi Stephen,

Thanks so much for this response. I consider you among the most honest and forthright voice writing in education. I don't always agree with you but I never doubt your sincerity or selflessness. Rare qualities in writers.

You may not know this, but a response you gave to one of my blog entries five years ago really changed my view of blogs and blogging <>. You argued then as you do now of the importance of the personal voice in blogging. You convinced me.

I don't know that "writing out of goodness" rules out being critical. But I do think it demands that the criticism be constructive in nature. Not just describing how something is wrong, but also how it could be better. I wish more of our politicians followed this here in the US.

Wishing I had your courage and intellect!

Have a good weekend,


July 13, 2012 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

> I do think it demands that the criticism be constructive in nature. Not just describing how something is wrong, but also how it could be better.

Fair enough, but I don't always feel an obligation to solve a problem before pointing out that it exists. Imagine the sate of the world if I could not complain that I'm sick without also describing how to cure myself! Very often, the larger part of the battle (as people like AA know well) is getting people to see that there is actually a problem.

Other times, it's just me the small spider yelling out loud at the big shoe that's stepping on me. I don't feel any need to do anything other than yell; it's the great big lout with the boot who has the power and the means to step somewhere else.

July 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterStephen Downes

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