Fear of going “Totally Public”: Course Sites and Student Privacy

Welcome back to another week at the In Common blog,

Last Spring, the Commons team began encouraging faculty to use the Commons in their undergraduate courses as an alternative to proprietary platforms such as Blackboard, WordPress.com, or Canvas (you can read reflections from faculty who were early adopters here, compiled by the GC’s Teaching and Learning Center). In the upcoming updates to the Commons, the process of inviting users to a group will be made significantly easier in an effort to make teaching on the Commons easier.

This new initiative raises an important question: what privacy settings should you use on your course blog? Should you tread, boldly, into the world of being “totally public”?

In this week’s post, I want to make a brief case for doing so and I invite readers to post their thoughts in response. Do you use open courses? How? Why is it important to your pedagogy?

In a sense, the most significant difference between the Commons and proprietary software like Blackboard is that course work can be open to the public. Blackboard places not only student work but course materials behind a wall that limits accessibility. One of the guiding principles behind the Commons is that intellectual work is a public good that only benefits people when it is shared openly. Making a course “totally public” makes course material open to your students of course, but also students and educators all over the world. Additionally, it inaugurates students into a world where they are contributors to public knowledge rather than just consumers of it.

Volumes of ink have spilled describing the benefits of demonstrating to students that their school work has a potential audience outside the classroom. Instructors have used social media to have students engage with scholars through Twitter and Facebook, and they’ve invited colleagues and collaborators to respond to student comments and coursework. These hint at some of the enlightening experiences students can have when their work is made public. Public blogs also encourage students to collect useful outside materials in one place and share them, demonstrating the fact that students are already making use of other publicly available knowledge and ultimately helping out their classmates.

But what responsibility do instructors have to the privacy of their students? FERPA demands that student work not be made public without the written authorization of students. How should that affect the decision of instructors to make their blogs public?

The GC’s HASTAC has a useful post that addresses these issues succinctly, with recommendations from Kevin Smith, Duke University’s Director of Copyright and Scholarly Communication. In short, Smith argues that public blogs present no conflict with FERPA provided you follow these simple recommendations:

  1. Inform students at the beginning of the course that they will be required to post to a public blog and give them the opportunity to speak with you privately if they have any concerns about their privacy when doing so.
  2. Make it possible for students to participate in the blog under an alias or pseudonym. Most advice actually says that students should be encouraged to use pseudonyms.
  3. Strongly remind students not to post private information.
  4.  Consider whether you should provide an alternative way for a student to fulfill the class requirements if they are really concerned about participating in a public blog, even under an alias. Most students will think this is a perfectly fine, natural activity. But FERPA is in place to protect the rare, unfortunate student who may need to hide from a stalker or abuser. In those situations, fear may be a strong motivator for the student, and that apprehension should be taken seriously.

Having made my case briefly, I invite readers to comment below. What struggles have you had making courses open or what success stories have you had? What resources have you found helpful?

That’s it for this week,



Welcome to a new semester at the In Common Blog!

Welcome fellow Commoners,

We’re embarking on a new semester here at the Commons and that means that there is a flurry of activity. This semester the Commons Team is working hard to make teaching on the Commons easier so that undergraduate faculty to make use of the Commons for their courses. So I expect we’ll have a lot of interesting student projects and course blogs to browse this year. I’ll also be trying to rope in some of the Commons Development team this semester, maybe with interviews or guest posts, to discuss all of the work that goes on behind the scenes to keep this space up and running (and responding to your requests!). There’s a lot of public work going on even if it doesn’t always appear in the Recent Activity feeds on the Commons home page!

Here on the In Common blog we’ll be kicking off the semester next week with a post about opening your course blogs so they’re public. Hopefully it’ll spark some discussion about what are the benefits of teaching on the Commons and we can collect some of the ways people are already making use of open courses.

Until next week,


School’s Out for Summer!

Fellow Commoners,

Just a short note this week: classes are out and the semester is over! That means I’ll be taking a break from blogging for the summer. The end of the semester means an end to some of the routines of academic work, but its also time for me to get to work on my own projects.

This summer I’ll be traveling to several port cities along the east coast to visit archives. I’ll be digging down into sailor’s journals and reading sensational literature from the early nineteenth century. It might not sound that interesting to everyone, but it’s a fascinating world for me and undergirds my dissertation project.

But, never fear, I’ll be back in the Fall, blogging again about the Commons and putting a spotlight on the interesting projects on which people are working on the Commons.

Until then,


In Common this week: Beyond the Hall

Welcome back fellow Commoners,

I’m going to do things a bit different in this post. Instead of going identifying a particular theme across new content this week on the Commons, I’m going to focus in on several aspects of one site: the conference website for Beyond the Hall.

Beyond the Hall is a conference scheduled for later this month that seeks to confront the unique history that the Bronx Community College (BCC) campus embodies. For a recent EdTech conference I was on the campus recently and so perhaps this seems particularly relevant to me this week.

BCC’s campus is beautiful by any standards, but certainly for an urban university and especially for a CUNY campus. Some of the schools, like Queens College where I teach, are lucky enough to have campuses that “feel” like a college campus–a reminder that the way we approach even something as supposedly universal as learning and knowledge is always based first and foremost in the material.

And the material campus of BCC is primarily from a former NYU campus that CUNY acquired in the 70s when NYU suffered financially and, with the changing demographics of the Bronx, decided that the campus was no longer a good investment.

This means that BCC students inhabit an academic world that, for many of them, would not have been accessible not that long ago. It’s a sobering thought, I think.

Most notable on the campus is the Hall of Heroes which enshrines, literally, in the shape of stone busts, “heroes” who were nominated for their work on behalf of Americans and the Bronx particularly. Yet, and perhaps predictably, almost all of them are white and wealthy, reflecting only one of the demographics that ever lived in the Bronx and hardly reflecting the students who actually use the campus now.

It is this strange history that the conference seeks to engage with. I think it’s a noble cause, too. But most importantly, I think, the conference organizers have sought to make the conference website more than simply an informational site for conference participants. All too often, genuine attempts to deal with history are cordoned off in academia and difficult to access, at the best of times, by everyday folks. The organizers are clearly seeking to change this by making the website a real archive of material about the history of the Bronx.

For that reason, perhaps the biggest contribution is the section of the site which sets of a virtual Hall of Heroes, with user-suggested Heroes. You can see what they’ve done here, in their special site “Visions of Greatness.”

The organizers have also been effective bloggers, releasing information about panelists both as a way of drumming up interest but also consolidating materials for future research.

Looking it over, I’m particularly struck at the care with which this material has been collected. For example, for the post on Elena Martinez, a panelist from the Bronx County Historical Society, collects Bronx-centered materials for researching the musical heritage of the Bronx.

Further, the blog connects to digitization efforts, pointing to projects that participants or community members might want to get involved with. It’s a great example of how the work that begins in a academic conference can continue on after an event.

This is a conference website that rewards poking around. I suggest you take a look and consider ways you can use the Commons in conjunction with your events to engage not only with the community of academics, but with the wider communities we of which we are a part.

Until next week,



In Common this week: Terms of Service

Welcome back folks,

A recent college study was highlighted in The Guardian lately that confirms something we all know anecdotally: few people read terms of service. In the experiment with over five hundred college students, only a quarter “looked” at the terms of service for a fictitious service. Of course, as the article points out, looking is not the same as reading since only a fraction of those that read caught the fact that participants were actually signing away their first born child.

Terms of service can be dicey. They can be long and they can be legalistic meaning that even those who take the time to read them may not understand what they say. This is especially concerning in a city like New York where even elections instructions and signs are printed in more than seven languages. Terms of Services certainly aren’t written to be as accessible as elections instructions and we’ve all been in long lines and maybe even made mistakes on ballots ourselves. Yet we’re signing away our rights often thanks to these agreements.

I think about this especially because I work on digital tools and because I teach with digital tools. I signed up for Twitter initially because of a class requirement. “Join in the lively academic discussion!” the instructor said, with only a few comments on being aware that most of the information in Twitter is public. But we didn’t discuss the Terms of Service and what we would be giving away as our ticket into this discussion.

Now, I’m hardly a luddite or a privacy maven. This blog is proof of that, to some degree. I’m also, as I’ve written in other posts, a Social Media Fellow at the GC. I’m very aware of the value of digital tools, of social media, and of the intellectual discussion that can and does go on over many, many digital platforms.

But what I want to do this week is to take a look at Terms of Service of the Commons. Since I consider one of the reasons for this blog to be active promotion of the remarkable ways people at the GC are using the Commons and thus crafting arguments about why you might want to use the Commons, it’s still important to consider what the folks behind the Commons are doing with your data and what they can do.

Jumping in

The terms of service for the Commons can be found through the “About” tab on the site (you can’t find it from the backend when you’re in the WordPress dashboard).

At almost two thousand words, the Commons’ Terms of Service (TOS) isn’t a quick read, but it is, notably, a less legalistic document than, say, the TOS for a tool that many people use daily — their Gmail account (the link is just to the Google privacy policy since the Gmail TOS is broken into several pages; the Privacy policy is the longest). It’s a sign, I like to think, that the folks behind the Commons what the students who use it to know what they’re getting into.

Notably the posting to Commons (no matter the setting, this includes “private” or “admin only”), gives CUNY (not just the Commons) “a nonexclusive, royalty free, perpetual, and worldwide license to use the Content on the Site. . .including but not limited to, the right to copy, distribute, transmit, publicly display, publicly perform, edit, translate, and reformat the Content, and/or to incorporate it into a collective work” At first, it seems pretty scary, right? Do I really want my under-construction site to suddenly be picked up and plastered all over CUNY sites?

In reality, that’s unlikely to happen. As a Social Media Fellow, I’m particularly careful not to tweet out or link to Commons work unless I receive permission from the author or the information is clearly ready for public consumption: think of articles people have posted or content from organizations.

The last part of the sentence is related to the whole idea behind having a “commons” — a space that is not really owned by anyone but free for all to use. It’s a metaphorical relationship though, also an ethical one, that doesn’t always fit in with a University-funded project. Still, especially with the references to remixing and collaborative projects, is meant to gesture towards Creative Commons licenses (which have their own roots in academic ideas freedom of expression).

Importantly though, the Commons TOS continues though: that license remains until “you remove or delete [your content].”

That might seem like a common-sense addition. Surely, if you delete something, no one has access to it. But the digital world isn’t like that. Cached versions remain, backups, etc. Facebook and Google often have access to you data long after you deactivate your account unless you specifically request they delete them and even then, sometimes, on some platforms, you still do not have a guarantee as to your data.

Sometimes the right to delete your data is as important as the right to post data.

A Final Note

The TOS are too long to really break down in one blog post, but my point, really, is to encourage you to read them. The second to last section of the Commons TOS reminds you as well:

“We reserve the right to change, at any time, at our sole discretion, these Terms.  You are responsible for regularly reviewing these Terms.  Your continued use of the Site constitutes your agreement to all of these Terms.”

It’s a potent reminder that the TOS you agreed to when you first signed on with the Commons might not be the TOS that is currently on the site. This is true for most TOS you agree to–they can be changed at any time.

Further, it reminds us of the responsibility we all share to actually check in with TOS from time to time.

The Commons has one of the most readable TOS of any service I’ve seen and it shows a significant attempt to protect the privacy rights of its users. Still, it’s important that we all do our due diligence.

Until next time fellow Commoners,


In common this week: Collaborative Writing with Social Paper (a.k.a. Words with Friends)

Hi folks,

I’m in the process of writing my dissertation which means much of my time is spent doing the solitary work of writing. It can get lonely. I look forward to the communal work of revising–sharing writing, soliciting feedback, discussion, argument. Invariably, the dense, obtuse writing I produce when I’m on my own opens up through the process, is enriched and finally starts to look like the type of scholarly writing I admire. So this week I want to highlight collaborative writing Commons community members have been doing on using the tool Social Paper.

Social Paper is an experiment to develop a non-proprietary collaborative writing tool; an environment in which folks can offer their writing up for comments. It’s the brainchild of two Graduate Center students, Erin Glass (English) and Jennifer Stoops (Urban Education). You post your writing and either an invited group or the general public can comment on it by responding to the whole piece or in response to specific paragraphs. The tool is similar to Google Docs, but developed and managed by students and scholars. Google doesn’t own the data that’s there.

The list below is hardly an extensive run down, but it is inspirational. You can see all the publicly available papers on the Recent Papers thread on the Commons (check back regularly since it’s a live feed). Below are particularly interesting papers that demonstrate the benefits of the tool and the exciting possibilities that can be explored using it. Read them and be enriched by the content, see the vibrant discussion they are provoking, and (if you’re so inclined) chime in!

  • Erin Glass, a student in the English program at the Graduate Center (now working at UC San Diego), and one of Social Paper’s creators, wrote up this essay about why tool like it are important. She highlights that classroom writing is rarely read by anyone other than the professor; the grading process is helpful but not really a model of positive collaboration (it’s punitive, anxiety-ridden, and is high stakes).
  • Erin is also using Social Paper as part of her dissertation project on collaborative writing. She’s released her introduction here. The comments really stand out in this document, they add to and enrich the text she provides.
  • Karl Steel, Professor in the English program at the Graduate Center, is using Social paper as he works on his new book. The chapter he’s offered for comment most recently is the last in his book–apparently he works backwards. It’s a fascinating read about the symbolic importance of oysters in medieval and early modern philosophy. The benefits of collaborative writing environments like Social Paper don’t only go in one direction. Making scholarship that is in process available for comment not only provides the writer with feedback but also models research processes and methodologies for the readers.
  • A number of people use Social Paper to write grant proposals and project proposals. The grant application is a peculiar genre and getting a handle on it is easiest when you have a few other sets of eyes on it. Browsing through some of the recent proposals (20th Century Women Scientists Database,   Visual Archive of WWII Fashions) gives you a glimpse at some interesting ideas and a collaborative community being inspired by helping each other.

Get out there and get writing and commenting!


In common this week: Spring (break) into programming!

It has been fascinating to watch the activity on the Commons steadily over this semester as part of my work on this blog. In spite of the gravatars and the fact that many of the people who show up on the colleagues are colleagues, digital interfaces sometimes disguise the human work that’s being done here. Watching every week for what’s new and what people are doing has given me a sense of the way the Commons breathes, in a way. Right now it’s Spring Break at CUNY, so since mid-week or so last week, there’s been a slowing of work published. But we’re starting to see more, as people publish larger projects they’ve been pulling together over the break. It’s one of the many signs that social networks are, in fact, made up of people.

Perhaps in preparation for this week off, I noticed that quite a few people were talking about programming. Breaks are ideal times to work on that project that takes more time than is available during the relentless regular schedule. And, it makes sense that on a platform with the digital humanities in its ideological DNA, you’d have many participants interested in programming.

So this week, take a look at some of the programming resources folks are making available on the Commons (maybe you should try learning some code this week?) and also take a look at an easy, but effective, tool put together by one of the GC digital fellows using some simple code (inspiration!).

  • Rachel Rakov, a Computational Linguistics PhD student here at the GC, penned a wonderful and personal essay about how the perceptions of learning a program language are significant barriers to people learning.
  • The GC Digital Fellows as a program have been particularly supportive of people using Python, a language well suited to helping researchers parse data and create visualizations (good for STEM and the digital humanities). They routinely have events to introduce folks to Python but also have created an easy guide, in the tone Rakov suggests, for people who want to just dip a toe in the water for programming.
  • They’ve also compiled good lists of resources for those who are hoping to use their Spring Break (or any time) to learn to bend computational power to their will…
  • But what’s the use of all this without a flashy example? Patrick Smyth, a Digital Fellow, has put together a small app that allows you to see the impact of NEH grants in your neighborhood. Enter your zip code and adjust the distance radius to see grants in the neighborhood you select. It’s a good example of a way that data from a giant set can be quickly personalized for people. It makes a strong argument for the benefits of NEH grants while actually saying very little. It’s a personalized anecdote machine and has the side benefit of telling you about interesting projects in your neighborhood with which you can get involved or check out.

That’s all for this week. Next week I’ll be writing about Social Paper, the collaborative writing software developed for the Commons. We’ll have links to interesting in-process writing, but also discussion about how to use collaborative documents in class.

Until then,


In Common this week: Getting Access

Hi folks,

There has been a lot of activity on the Commons recently as a result of people thinking about what it means for material, spaces, nations and organizations to be accessible. It’s not just the Commons, either. The New York Times published an article this week about wheelchair access on NYC subways. There’s even a related, and effective, interactive video ride-along with a subway rider in a wheelchair. So this week I figured I’d give a shout out to some of the folks working on this important issue here on the Commons.

    OA HULK BORN THAT DAY.” The interview dramatizes (in all caps!) the issues of open access for scholarly publications, but also blends social mediums an interesting way. The interview, posted on the Commons, makes use of twitter and Storify, a tool to cultivate narratives using social media posts. So the interview is interesting both because of its content and the way it makes use of the different social networks people use to share content.
  • Jenifer Polish penned a a thought-provoking piece on the importance of anti-ablest pedagogy and the types of questions thinking about dis/ability raise. She says that it’s the first in a series, so I’ll be on the look out for more.
  • The Open@CUNY blog posts about open access issues regularly (they also hosted the Open Access Hulk Interview mentioned above) and recently re-posted reports about the consequences of textbook marketers moving to access codes. Among other things, access codes work to prevent students from doing simple things like sharing textbooks and making photocopies–or these days, taking digital photos with their phones. This reduces accessibility to those without the ready cash to pay for expensive textbooks and requires they have internet connections to access the information.
  • Professor Janet Calvo at the CUNY Law school makes public an article she wrote in 2008 about the negative consequences of restricting immigrants’ access to health care. She argues how such restrictions negatively affect U.S. population broadly and the article is timely in the wake of the recent failure of the Republican Authored American Health Care Act. It is also a potent reminder that issues of immigrant’s access is not restricted to borders.

That’s it from me for this week.

All the best,


In Common this week: (Re)envisioning the Data

Hi folks,

I’m an English student, so it’s not surprising that most of the time I’m reading texts. I love texts. For the past few months I’ve been visiting museums and archives to reads nineteenth-century sailor’s journals as part of my dissertation research. Recently, I came across a journal with vividly painted watercolors, fragments of (poorly written) original love poetry, and collages of articles from periodicals. It is a text, for sure. But it’s not a straightforward narrative and requires a different sort of reading that I would do of a more conventional textual narrative.

So it’s with questions about how works can be read in new ways on my mind that I call attention this week to two recent posts on the Commons about visualizing unique data sets.

  • Jacob Cohen posts to his Commons site on Affective Music Theory and Exploration about “Phishmaps,” visual schematics of songs created by Mike Hamad of the Hartford Courant. The maps chart what Hamad is hearing as he listens to the song and, fascinatingly, they are to scale. So if you look at the maps in the middle, you’re looking at what Hamad is hearing at roughly the midway point in the song. It’s a remarkable (and low-tech) way to “see” sound and Cohen’s gallery well curated. The site is a companion to a poster presentation for a poster Cohen presented at the 2017 Society for American Music conference.
  • Beyond the Vale: Visualizing Slave Life in Craven County is a project by a CUNY Graduate Center student inspired by the student’s own discovered history. Filling in information on slavery on North Carolina, which is underrepresented in the literature, the project aims to make the local history of slavery, in one small county, visible. There are charts and graphs, each made with Google sheets which show how even with simple, freely available tools, important scholarly work can be done to reinterpret and re-envision the historical archive.

Well that’s it for this week.

All the best,


In Common this Week: Dipping a Toe in Open [Source] Waters

Hi folks–

One of the ideas, embedded in the name of the CUNY Commons, is the idea of shared resources. It’s also a simple idea that is important to a public research institution such as the CUNY Graduate Center and should have profound impact on the way each of us situates our own research.

Of course, a “digital commons” can also seem contradictory when you consider issues of open access. Not everyone has access to fast internet, unlimited data, or significant computing power. It remains, in some sense, a goal rather than an achievement. OpenCUNY, another CUNY WordPress community, has published remarks from Dr. Scott Dexter who spoke last semester about issues at the center of movements driving digital commons and open source communities. It’s a helpful introduction to the politics behind these issues and why projects like the Commons matter.

In this weekly round-up, I want to draw attention to three open-source initiatives and tools that have their roots here in the Commons. They’re each simple and offer opportunities for even the least technically inclined to get involved in “open” activities. You’re already participating in an open source community if you’re reading this blog. You’re already a contributing member if you’re running you’re own blog here, helping to edit one, or even if you’re commenting. These projects and initiatives are routes to be more involved and which may change your perception about what goes into such work.

  • The Visible Pedagogy blog has a wonderful new post titled “Steal this Book” in which Jesse Rappaport discusses the ideas animating his plan to write a textbook for his upcoming Logic course that he’ll offer to his class for free. There is a detailed but well-written discussion of the ethos of “Open Source.” It’s an ambitious project that not everyone has the time to take up. But his work can be used by others, especially the students in his classes who will not have the fork over the $80 for a traditional textbook. At public institutions like CUNY, that can be a significant burden for our students. This is a great example of a type of project that “lives” in the Commons.
  • Doc-A-Thon for Better Docs was a past event, but I think it merits discussion. Doc-a-thon was a movement to increase and improve documentation for free and open source tools (read “Help” and “FAQ” pages). The GC organized a doc-a-thon here at the GC for projects such as DH Box and Omeka. Free to use tools, put together to solve local problems or with limited resources usually have the least amount of documentation. There just isn’t always time for coders to create comprehensive instructions (and really, sometimes they’re not so good at doing it anyway!). The idea behind a doc-a-thon is that the communities that use a tool can help create the documentation. People who have solved problems can write a paragraph for an FAQ. People who are good communicators can read over and introduction and clean it up, clarify and simplify. These types of small, manageable changes ultimately make a tool more accessible and potentially increase the user base. It’s the type of project that can also be used in other contexts. What would happen, for example, if you had a doc-a-thon in your program? Student and faculty created guides to update resources on the first and second exam, methodologies for dissertations, FAQs for navigating the challenges of archival research, etc. Doc-a-thons highlight that we each have knowledge–something that we acknowledge as CUNY scholars–but that even what we imagine as mundane knowledge is still important to document.
  • A GC Digital Initiative long in the process has been the creation of a Maker Space. Last week the Digital Initiatives Commons site sent out the invitation to all to make use of the GC’s new maker space. Maker Spaces are all different, but they are under-girded by the same ethos as the Commons–shared resources enable us all to enrich our shared knowledge. A 3D-printer, computers, pod-casting equipment, audio production equipment, and more are all available so that people can.make.things! If you stop by during the open hours, a GC Digital Fellow will be there to help you explore the equipment and see what you can do.

That’s all for now. Happy sharing.

Until next week,