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Ethics in Blogging

I just saw over at F&T that Bruce McCormack is giving a series of lectures on atonement theology in Edinburgh over the next couple weeks. More detailed summaries can be found over at Via  Crucis.

This reminded me of a question that came up in the fall for us here at memoria dei and I have wondered about since. When is it proper to report the content of a talk/class in the blogosphere? We provided a fairly detailed account of J. Kameron Carter’s excellent talk here at Notre Dame. Last week Andrew posted a nice summary of Enrique Dussel’s talk up in Chicago. Over at WIT their first post started with a point made by Carter during a more informal conversation with graduate students the morning after his lecture. A number of bloggers at Princeton have reported on the annual Warfield Lectures. It seems to me that this is one of the best functions of the blogosphere; public lectures now become much more available to the public. But it also raises some questions. Last fall we were specifically asked not to blog a on a public lecture since the person did not like their work summarized in the blogosphere (fearing misrepresentation). Although I think we could have posted a summary/reflection anyway (as a reporter-type at a public lecture), we respected that person’s wishes and did not do so.  When is it appropriate to post a detailed summary of a talk, particularly when it is much more detailed than one would find in a campus newspaper treatment of an event? What about a departmental colloquium, whether by a outside guest, a professor, or a fellow graduate student? What about a job talk? What about a class? Is it appropriate to post what a professor says in class (beyond “today in class we discussed x; here are my thoughts on the topic”)? What about posting on what one’s own students say in class? What about pointing to student blogs?

What are the lines for posts which report on these sorts of events? Obviously people may differ on what is appropriate or not. I think that a lecture that is clearly public in nature should be fair game as much to the student newspaper as it is to the blogger. Nevertheless, I also wonder about the ethics of a highly detailed summary if there is not prior consent from the presenter. Given that it is very easy to record such presentations, a summary could be a near exact replication of the paper – or what about simply putting up the audio? I doubt most people giving a conference paper, for example, would want their work in progress put out in that form.  This also reflects the larger question of what is “public” and whether making one’s work “public” means one is fine with it being “universally available.”

What do people think?

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  1. WTM
    January 24, 2011 at 10:52 am

    As someone involved directly, it seems to me that the fundamental consideration is whether or not the context of some remarks is public. For instance, classrooms are not public, i.e., the public at large are not invited to attend. But, public lectureships are (I’m prepared to honor lecturer’s wishes on these matters should they be expressed, but saying “no blogging” for a public lecture seems silly – might as well say “no blogging” of a book).

    The only real grey area with this rule, as far as I can tell, are lectures at professional societies: they general public is not technically invited, but there is certainly a public nature about the whole thing.

  2. January 24, 2011 at 10:58 am

    Good question. Personally, unless by specially request not to liveblog/post, public lectures are fair game. When it comes to a private seminar or forum, however, I think it is a different ballgame. Now, I have to admit, I did publish via my blog the contents of one seminar, but I informed the speaker beforehand and there was not an issue. I am willing to be the speaker regrets it.

    • January 24, 2011 at 7:32 pm

      Is there a typo in that last sentence or do just not understand it?

  3. Todd Walatka
    January 24, 2011 at 11:19 am

    The example of professional societies is a good one. It is not technically public so there is the assumption that the presentation is only available to the society (although the AAR also posts some talks online). Here it would seem to be too much to post more than a very general reflection or to build off a specific point or two.

    In terms of public lectures, is it fine to post the exact talk? In some sense, the bigger the event, the more the speaker can expect detailed reporting (something like the Warfield lectures). At smaller yet still public events there may be the assumption that it is basically just for those gathered.

    • WTM
      January 24, 2011 at 11:48 am

      I think trying to provide a typescript is improper. However, in-depth engagement ought surely to be fair game. One should probably always highlight the fact that you are receiving and shaping the material and, therefore, that it might not exactly represent the content of the lecture.

      • Todd Walatka
        January 24, 2011 at 11:56 am

        I agree. I guess the spread of theo-blogging should adjust the expectations of those giving the lecture in terms of who might actually end up hearing or reading an in-depth account of the lecture. I would assume that most would welcome a broader audience.

  4. January 24, 2011 at 7:31 pm

    The idea of someone requesting a lecture to not be ‘blogged’ seems bizarre (as understandable as it might be in their minds). Even to ask that classroom seminars be not blogged also seems bizarre (I might grant that live feeds or verbatim posts be a boundary crossing . . . maybe). Perhaps this is one area where students should strongly consider ‘taking a stand’ on the larger access of ‘privileged’ information, even if technically less-than-legal on some finer points.

    • Todd Walatka
      January 24, 2011 at 7:49 pm

      We thought the request was kind of odd but apparently this speaker is worried in general about being misrepresented.

      Live feeds and verbatim posts would cross the line for me if the presenter was not aware of it. I think most of us giving a presentation would reasonably assume that this would not happen.

      Seminars are another thorny issue. They are not really public since you have to be registered for the class. Furthermore, seminars should be a place for students to be adventurous and try out ideas. Blogging on the general topic or a line of discussion from a class seems fine – particularly since this usually ends up being about one’s own reflections rather than the class. More detail (and particularly using names) would probably hinder the openess of the seminar.

      • WTM
        January 24, 2011 at 8:47 pm

        Totally agree re: the classroom. Classrooms are privileged space, and ought to be safe space. Having to worry about whether those inside the room are going to broadcast your comments to those outside the room drastically undermines the safety of the space.

  5. January 25, 2011 at 8:37 am

    On one hand, such lectures are “public” and lecturers ought to understand them as such. If you don’t want people talking about their take on what you have to say, you probably shouldn’t be giving a public lecture. The Internet simply makes it easier for the “public” around the world to gain access to the conversation. On the other hand, there is a big difference between a lecture and a listener’s second-hand report of the lecture. It’s bad scholarship to engage (I don’t mean posting comments and joining the conversation — I mean drawing firm conclusions, especially of the dismissive kind) second-hand material and not the primary source.

    Lectures like this are also often the lecturer’s reports on a work-in-progress. We have to engage them with the requisite measure of grace.

    As one of the guys blogging the current Croall Lectures, I’m trying to be very explicit about the fact that I am not summarizing the full contents of the lecture but instead hitting the high points and interacting with the bits that really strike me. My hope is that this will prompt readers to recognize that blogging about someone else’s lecture is not only an informal undertaking, but one that is a significant step removed. Even the best summary or engagement cannot be a substitute for the genuine article.

    Reading a student’s blog and drawing too firm conclusions about the content of the original lecture betrays the Reformation principle of ad fontes. By analogy, one might as well study the thought of Augustine only by reading Lombard’s Sentences.

    • Todd Walatka
      January 25, 2011 at 9:46 am

      As I said above (comment 6), a key conclusion from this is simply that those who give public lectures simply have to have new expectations from what they would have had 10 years ago. Rather than having a few people talk about the lecture, maybe exchange an email or two, or reference it generally in a publication, it now can be reported on in great detail almost immediately.

      I should also reiterate that I am very grateful to those who offer reflections on these talks. As I said in the original post, this is one of the best functions of the blogosphere.

      I think the secondary nature of the reporting is clear as well. I do not think anyone is going to cite a blog report academically in arguing for or against a person’s argument. There is a kind of parallel with synopses of books. I hope that people would not take my synopses of Kathryn Tanner’s Christ the Key as an excuse to not engage the work more fully. Of course, that also raises a key difference: I can access a book and argue against the interpretation given on a blog; I cannot dispute the interpretation given of a talk unless I was there – which puts even more responsibility on the shoulders of those who report on the latter.

      I think the question of how much detail is appropriate is still a real one although I don’t see any way to really resolve it – it is up to each person’s judgment.

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