Don’t blog about your fake ID

So little life lived so far, yet so much angst to share with the whole world.

John Hoff

I think most teaching assistants, at some point, Google some or all of their students. There are certainly professors and adjunct faculty members who Google their students. Some will actually give fair warning during the first few days of class.

You can tell somebody has been a teaching assistant for a while, as I have, by their careful distinction between “professors” versus “adjunct faculty members.” The haggard look on their face is another clue. Supposedly, being a TA is a job which requires, at a maximum, 20 hours a week. Personally, I rack up 20 hours every two days with quite some frequency, and there still isn’t enough time to get everything done.

Maybe I just care too much. Maybe I should shoot for a Ph.D. so I could at least have the pay and the glory to go along with the workload.

I sort of fell into being a TA, and into the practice of searching the Internet to see what was being said on, for example, “rate your professor” Web sites. But I figured out the Internet could reveal things students desperately struggle to hide, or even refuse to believe about themselves – the precise stuff an effective professor or TA needs to know about his or her students.

Painful difficulties with the written word, for example, are revealed rather quickly on student blogs. (Don’t these crazy things have spelling and grammar checks?) Passions and interests as well as strong dislikes are also quite evident. The quiet ones who never speak are revealed to be a fountain of repressed creativity and intellectual ferment. A small-town kid longs to embrace the sophistication of the city but feels overwhelmed. The professionally-dressed student with perfect posture is constantly thinking of dropping out.

I want to know just the right moment to say, “What do you think about that?” or “You’re doing better than you seem to think” or “Everybody feels that way sometimes, really.” There are never enough hours in the day to help students in all the ways they need help.

Not all the good information, or even most of it, is found on blogs. Sometimes, interesting student government minutes are posted online. Local newspapers report about students who win athletic awards and prizes. The possible sources of information are endless. Common surnames make the information treasure hunt much more difficult. Truly unique name combinations are quite helpful.

Of course, the ultimate prize in this information treasure hunt is a MySpace account, or something similar. Jackpot! Dark diary of pain. OMFG!!!

Often, it’s not necessary to seek out information, because students will freely volunteer the URL of their blog. After a while, if students decide their TA or instructor meets some unknown, undefined standard of coolness, they will jot down the address of their Web site and thrust it forward eagerly, as though to say, “I’m interesting. I’m important. Check out my blog and you will see my amazing potential.”

The things I read on some blogs make me blush, and some make my jaw drop: details of psychiatric medications; pet names for body parts conferred by some significant other; intimate mushy emails, copied and pasted for all the world to read; petty crime, ranging from minor drinking to much more serious matters. So little life lived so far, yet so much angst to share with the world.

Why would you put this stuff online, knowing somebody close to you might read it, like your parents? If people in the Amazon can get Internet access, what’s to stop anybody else, including the very person you are writing about? One student I knew called one of her professors a “retarded goldfish.” I must say, she made a fairly amusing case in favor of her assertion.

Some students have a tendency to “let it all hang out” and engage in complete, unbridled honesty. In person, they will freely confess to being hungover, to not reading assigned material, even borderline cheating. I’ve lost count of the number of students who have told me about their fake ID. My response is usually something like, “Don’t tell me about that. I’m plugging my ears. I’m singing a song. Naaaa naaaa naaaa.”

Do you think if somebody knows the real you, with all your warts and imperfections, they will think well of you, just because you are so honest and so honest and so real? Do you think nobody will attempt to get information about you, and use it against you, to gain some unseemly advantage?

In the real world, if somebody finds out you are taking medication for a psychiatric problem, an excuse will be found not to hire you.

And, unless that person doing the hiring is dumb enough to blog about it, you will lack any compelling evidence to show job discrimination. In the real world, somebody who might make a great husband or wife will quickly form impressions about your gambling problem, your drinking problem, and your promiscuity, just based on a cursory glance of the stuff you’ve selected for display in your little corner of the Internet.

On the one hand, I find all this private information very useful. I don’t put a lot of time or effort into seeking it out, but then again, it doesn’t take a lot of brains to simply run names through what George W. Bush calls “The Google” or search MySpace.

Yes, if students are getting drunk instead of reading course material, and they are willing to put that in writing, this is something I’d like to know. But, on the other hand, I would prefer for students to learn about handling their personal information in a mature way.

I believe one of the lessons of the college years involves learning to project professionalism, figuring out what parts of yourself should be made permanently public or kept deeply private. Put your best foot forward on the Internet. Spill your tortured soul into some private, completely inaccessible space for a future generation to read Ö like quaint, old-fashioned paper. Bond paper will withstand the centuries better, FYI LOL.

And don’t tell your TA about your hangover or your fake ID.

John Hoff welcomes comments at [email protected]