You Were Warned (cont’d)

Over the past couple of weeks there has been a fair amount of discussion of my hoax course in the academic blogosphere. As one might expect from a discussion among academics, much of that discussion has been focused on the issues the course raised for education, the production of knowledge, and teaching in particular.

Views on the course have been decidedly mixed. Some people liked it, some didn’t like it, some thought it was an interesting idea but wondered why students had to be taught to falsify information in order to learn research skills. I received a few emails calling me various names that are anatomically impossible. And for a few days one blogger (the librarian at Oregon State whose blog is linked above) had a comment on her blog advocating a denial of service attack against me — which she removed after I asked her to take it down.

The whole thing had another brief blip of life when someone on the community blog posted a note about the class. But now the traffic has essentially ended — not surprising given that the main audience has been academics and the new semester is about to begin.

For those who wonder about the tangible outcomes of such a course, I would offer the following example of how one student in the class took what she learned and has translated it into action.

I received an email over the weekend from this student about a post in her blog in which she uncovered a hoax — one that received wide play in the mainstream media — about the Pope supposedly smoking a cigarette. Using the lessons she learned this past semester, my former student has exposed a hoax that even the Wall Street Journal bought into. To me, this is pretty good evidence that the learning from this past semester has carried over into my students’ subsequent work — a goal we always evince when talking about our teaching.

A a final postscript on the hoax course: A number of people have been angry that students in my class created (and then exposed before anyone noticed) a fictitious pirate entry on Wikipedia (likely to be deleted shortly). Some have erroneously reported that I required the students to vandalize Wikipedia. And, from the content of the anatomically impossible emails I’ve received, I suspect that most came from outraged Wikipedians. All those in the your-students-shouldn’t-have-done-that-to-Wikipedia camp will be glad to know that I have been banned (permanently?) from Wikipedia.

A small price to pay, I suppose given how often I actually edited Wikipedia entries, when compared to the learning that went on in my class.

11 thoughts on “You Were Warned (cont’d)

  1. Sage Ross

    The suggestion of a denial of service attack, I assume, was intended as an ironic way to promote a thoughtful pedagogical experiment, sort of the blogging equivalent of your hoax project?

    Anyhow, I’m sure you can get editing rights back pretty easily. If the block was just based on the incorrect assumption that you specifically directed your students to create the hoax Wikipedia article, it seems pretty straightforward. If that’s case, email me with your username and I’ll unblock you.

  2. Mills Post author

    I’d say that it was more than an attempt to be ironic…the suggestion was not in the blog itself, but in a comment posted by an anonymous user who hints at the denial of service idea without being explicit (wisely):

    “Professor Mills Kelly deserves some punishment for teaching his students to maliciously vandalize a community resource.

    But no authority will hold him to account.

    Historically, people on the internet have taken measures to sanction misbehavior. That’s just a fact: It has happened. People have found their email flooded with flames, for instance.

    Lynch mob retaliation doesn’t make me happy. But Mills Kelly needs to be held to account.

    I was actually more troubled that someone working in a university library would leave such a comment up on their blog, even if it was their personal blog. I am pleased to say, however, that when I complained, she took the comment down and encouraged the author (still anonymous) to reformulate it, which he or she then did. The edited version is well within the bounds of propriety…still mad, but mad is fine.

  3. Steven Walling

    As an active Wikipedia administrator, I will say right here and now that anyone calling what you and your students did vandalism is 100% wrong (and you can quote me on that.)

    Vandalism is an intentional malicious edit to the wiki, and your work was clearly well-intentioned, even if I think it should be deleted as not quite notable enough for inclusion.

    If anyone that is clearly a Wikipedian (i.e. included their user name or reference to being a contributor) sent you a harassing email, I’d like to apologize on behalf of the community. Such behavior on-wiki would be swiftly rebuked, and it isn’t acceptable off the wiki either.

  4. Mills Post author

    Hi Steven:

    Thanks for the note and the support. The emails I received were not from anyone clearly identifying themselves as Wikipedians. Rather, they were people who focused on the Wikipedia entry as the reason why they thought it fine to use such language in describing my supposed violations. And I never meant to insinuate (if I did) that such behavior was tolerated by the Wikipedia community.

    I have been following the AFD discussion on the entry and note that you were one of the contributors. A question — do those discussion pages get archived anywhere? I ask because I have my students write Wikipedia entries in a number of my classes and they are often puzzled by the deletion of entries they write (maybe 25% are deleted the first time out). It would be very helpful to know if the AFD discussions are archived so I can point my students to them.

    And for the record, I agree with those who have voted “Keep”.

  5. Shaun Huston

    “I was actually more troubled that someone working in a university library would leave such a comment up on their blog, even if it was their personal blog.”

    I’m not sure that Anne-Marie, the author of info-fetishist and my wife, will come over here to defend herself, but I would like to suggest that how to handle comments on one’s blog is a difficult question. In this case, Anne-Marie’s blog began attracting attention outside of the usual circle of friends and librarians who normally leave comments, and she has not, until now, had a comment policy because it has not been necessary.

    While it’s true that a blog is one’s private space, there is also an implied invitation to others to dialogue and comment, and that raises the question of where and how to draw the line on “acceptable” and “unacceptable” comments. The comment in question, as you note, while implying potentially malicious action, is not explicit about the direction that action should take. Upon seeing the comment, Anne-Marie immediately began thinking about how to handle it – take it down, keep it up with a rejoinder, keep it up on its own. She had been leaning towards removal, but thought that it would necessary to do so in the context of a broader statement about comments to her blog.

    None of us can control what happens to the text we let out into the wild on the internet. In this case, both the class experiment and Anne-Marie’s blog post have attracted some unexpected and sometimes undesired attention. Anne-Marie’s decision to leave the comment at issue up while she sorted her response was entirely fair and reasonable both to you and to the commenter, as was her eventual course of action. Had the comment contained more explicit threats or personal insults towards you, that would have been a different matter, but even then I think that Anne-Marie would have been right to formulate a policy or rejoinder first. There was nothing cavalier or obviously irresponsible about how she handled the comment that was actually made on her blog.

  6. Mills Post author

    I completely agree that it is very difficult to know what to allow up on a blog and what to delete. In my own case I am always very aware that my blog is running on a server that is owned by the state and so that imposes some very clear restrictions on what I can and can’t allow here. I’m also always aware that my audience includes colleagues, students, and just plain interested parties, so I’m always trying to think about what would be appropriate or inappropriate for my audience(s).

    I want to hasten to reiterate that I very much appreciate the fact that the comment came down as soon as I requested its removal. And, I think just as important, is the fact that the person writing the comment was given a chance to reformulate his or her objections to certain aspects of my course. This, it seems to me, was a very professional way to handle the matter.

    This whole case points to one of the more difficult issues for bloggers, whehter academic or otherwise, and that is whether to allow comments to go up immediately — thereby encouraging a closer to real-time discussion, or to moderate all comments — thereby slowing down the pace of that discussion and potentially hindering it or even stifling it.

    Some comments obviously need to be screened. For example, I see no need to promote the use of various performance enhancing drugs or online casinos. Other comments obviously need to go right up on the blog. Then, as you point out, there is that misty area where it’s not always clear whether they should go up or not. Each of us makes our own decision on letting these through (assuming they are moderated).

    My own policy–not explicitly stated anywhere–is to put through every comment that is an actual response to the post, whether the author agrees with me or not. Thus, you’ll find in my comment archive (more than 450 to date) plenty of comments that disagree, sometimes vehemently, with what I’ve written. In the case of this particular thread of discussion, I’ve not posted only one comment due to the nature of the language used (not suitable for minors).

    So, I completely agree that it’s a very difficult decision when a comment falls into that misty zone between keep and delete. We just disagree about whether a particular comment fell into that zone or not. But the exchange we are having is proof, I think, of the value of this particular medium. Where else could two people who don’t know one another and are not likely to meet debate such issues in an open and accessible manner?

    BTW, I found your post on rethinking your gened class very interesting. We have a great deal in common when it comes to our approaches to this sort of course.

  7. Shaun Huston

    Thanks for the quick and thoughtful response to my original comment. I think that we’re in fundamental agreement on the larger questions. And thanks for the link.

  8. Nym de guerre

    Especially in light of the above comments, it’s worth noting the fate of the Wikipedia user “Savethepirate”. That user created the Edward Owens Wikipedia page. That user appears to have been one of Professor Kelly’s students.

    That user has been blocked for vandalism.

    The Wikipedia block log shows:

    “11:45, 5 January 2009 The Anome (Talk | contribs) blocked Savethepirate (Talk | contribs) (account creation blocked) with an expiry time of indefinite ‎ (Vandalism-only account: created for Edward Owens hoax…)”

    And the “Savethepirate” Wikipedia user talk page contains the notice:

    “You have been blocked indefinitely from editing in accordance with Wikipedia’s blocking policy because your account is being used only for vandalism. If you believe this block is unjustified you may contest this block by adding the text {{unblock|your reason here}} below.”

    The “Savethepirate” user block is now 20 days old.

    I will take some small notice if that block remains uncontested after 30 days from its date of imposition. That’s now 10 days away.

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