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This week saw the continuation of troublesome student governance issues.  As the CAMPUS and MiddBlog have reported, a new Web site, called Middlebury Confessional, has captured the attention of Middlebury students.  An independently run forum, with no formal ties to the College, the site encourages students to post their inner-most thoughts—anonymously.

If the number of posts is any indication, this site has been irresistible for many students.  And some of the discussion, as Jason Mittell suggests on his blog, is—or could be—valuable.   My concern here is that the site has also become a place for individuals to post derogatory comments about other people and groups of people.  This week, my colleagues and I received a number of emails and phone calls, from all sectors of the community, urging the College to “do something” to stop the irresponsible posting.

We are limited in our ability to impact this site since it has no official ties to the College, but students can work to improve the tone on this forum.  To that end, I sent the email included below to all students.

I am aware of the potential irony here, and the larger question my email (sent by a dean) raises. How do we develop a framework for students to hold one another accountable for their conduct? This is the goal of self-governance, so evident in the honor code that we have in the academic context.  But the administration also has an important role in this discussion: to uphold the values of the community and to stress that the College in no way condones the demeaning commentary that appears on this forum.

Of course, we are all free to exercise our speech rights, but in an educational community such as ours, we are also obliged to exercise these rights responsibly.

When it comes to Middlebury Confessional, we can, and should, do better. The question is how. 

 

********

Dear Students,

I am writing to express my concerns about the newly launched Web site, Middlebury Confessional, and to tell you what many of you already know—that the derogatory, highly personal comments that have appeared on this forum are at odds with the values of Middlebury College.

For those of you unfamiliar with Middlebury Confessional, it is an independent Web site with no official connection whatsoever to the College. Still, it invites members of our community to share observations and thoughts that they would ordinarily keep to themselves. Although much of the commentary on this forum seems to have been written with good intentions, many posts, written under the guise of anonymity, target specific individuals and groups. These “confessions” are presumably aimed at revealing truths that could bring students together, but in this context they actually have the opposite effect.

Educational communities like ours are built on trust and mutual respect. Thus, I urge all Middlebury students to exercise good judgement and refrain from personal attacks when posting on this forum.

Finally, with regard to the free speech rights implicit in this matter, I should note that the College has no interest in censoring student speech.  However, the College does have an interest in fostering an atmosphere in which all members of the community feel free to participate in the open exchange of ideas so vital to an academic community.  If you have any questions about policies governing “verbal conduct” at the College, please consult the Handbook, especially the passage included below.

Sincerely,

Tim Spears

 

Middlebury College is a community of learners and as such recognizes and affirms that free, honest intellectual inquiry, debate, and constructive dialogue are vital to the academic mission of the College and must be protected even when the views expressed are unpopular or controversial. Middlebury College also recognizes, however, that verbal conduct can be used specifically to intimidate or coerce and to inhibit genuine discourse, free inquiry, and learning. Such abuses are unacceptable. If someone believes that another’s speech or writing is offensive, wrong, or hurtful, he or she is encouraged to express that judgment in the exercise of his or her own freedom of speech or to seek redress when appropriate.  

12 Responses to “Middlebury Confessional: Whose Problem?”

  1. Anonymous says:

    The site is mostly a joke. People and teams and organizations that are named can hardly take any of it seriously. And if there are any points of contention or opinions being expressed, they are no doubt largely known or commonly expressed views. This website is a pretty good representation of our “college community”: largely indifferent, sometimes angry or derogatory, and mostly just having fun with it all.

    Yeah there are social divisions and people talk smack about other people or groups of people, but guess what, that’s called life.

    This is yet another incident of the College taking too much control of our social lives as students. Trying to make us talk nicely on Middlebury Confessional? Might as well censor dining hall conversations where gossip and stereotypes travel faster than Confessional can probably even reload its pages.

    Another example? The College taking action to discourage Rites of Spring. A great off-campus party that donates it’s profits to charity and brings together people of all sorts of social circles for one night of fun. No, the College doesn’t want underage drinking and Health Center visits, but those will happen regardless of where a party is held. Get off the back of such great off-campus parties, let the social scene be run by the people who know it best: the students.

    And yes, MCAB may be student-influenced, but if it has to work within the confines of the College rules and priorities, then the parties are bound to fail. I don’t even need to list the countless events that go on each weekend that absolutely bomb. Especially the ones that are attempts to be cool, attempts to go back to the way the social scene was pre-College intervention, but now with limits.

    We as students appreciate the efforts of the College to foster a fun social scene and a healthy one. But the College should know by now that at this age, kids aren’t fond of being told what to do and what not to do.

    In my opinion, and I believe I speak for many students out there today, if the College is too overbearing in it’s attempt at “fostering community”, all we will do is react as expected: we will shun that community. We will move increasingly off-campus, we will do nothing positive to build a sense of community.

    Let us write what we want on Middlebury Confessional (it’s nothing more than a fad anyway). Let us have our parties. Let us act as responsible young adults. And we will if you give us the chance. But right now there are increasing signs that the College is moving away from that way of thinking.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Talking dirt on Middlebury Confidential is different from talking dirt in regular conversations and communications. When you gossip about someone in real life, you might eventually be held responsible for what you say. And that provides you some motivation to be reasonable and and use some more judgement.

    On Middlebury Confidential, anyone can say anything about you (or your mom for that matter) and walk away without any responsibiilty. This is clearly not acting like ‘Responsible Adults’.

    Middlebury Confidential has the potential to do great harm. It has already caused quite a few students a lot of emotional and psychological stress. It is not without reason that students at other colleges are pressurizing their administrations to take steps against similar websites.

    I feel that your views might change once you become a ‘victim’ of this thing.

  3. Ryan Kellett says:

    Anyone (not just Middkids) can post anonymous comments here for Dean Spears and on MiddBlog. MiddBlog was actually founded on the premise that students would post anonymous tips, frank commentary, and maybe even some gossip.

    What’s the difference? A blog and the “confessional” styles are different. MiddConfess is a lot more rapid and was built on the foundation of anonymity. MiddBlog, despite it’s original purpose, has evolved into a space where anonymity is accepted but self-representation is the norm. That is why I support building up a Middlebury blogging community.

    Middlebury and the repressed student community needs MiddConfess too but, as Prof. Mittell points out, “90% of its content is crap.” That is what will naturally kill MiddConfess. There might be some base level of interest at all times but I think Dean Spears has less and less to worry about. Middkids already know or will quickly learn how to balance the online commentary (even if there are a handful hurtful comments) or just flee from the site. Hurtful comments will never stop completely (just like out there in the real world) but balancing those comments is important.

  4. Tim Spears says:

    Ryan,

    I think your concluding remarks, that students will learn to balance the online commentary on this site or just ignore it, may be too optimistic. As poster #2 points out, several students have already experienced real distress from remarks posted about them on Middlebury Confessional. I know this to be the case because I’ve read the emails that they’ve sent to me and my colleagues; they are upset, and they want something to be done. As one student put it, our community would not tolerate nasty, anonymous comments written on students’ whiteboards or on the walls of residence halls. Why is this different?

    The answer to that last question is, as you suggest, related to the conventions of internet posting. Anonymity is the norm in many online forums, but here anonymity–when combined with ad hominem attacks–is poisonous.

    Perhaps Middlebury does “need” an anonymous, confessional forum, but without an active moderator, the one we now have is obviously very problematic. Apparently, objectionable comments eventually do get deleted by the site administrator (when someone complains), but that is after many people have seen them and the damage has been done. And that is a real cause for concern–for all of us.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I brought the site here so I could trash people.

  6. Anonymous says:

    To Anonymous @ 11:47 a.m.:

    To what end? Are you just sick, needing to “trash people” so you could feel you amount to something? What is the value added to this academic community?

  7. Anonymous says:

    I completely disagree with comment #1 that the site is “a pretty good representation of our college community.” The site is clearly being used by a minority who are using its anonymity as a shield while they make ugly personal attacks and offensive remarks that they would otherwise never get away with in person. And if you care to look closely (which admittedly takes a lot of endurance and restraint) there have been at least as many responses criticizing these posts as there have been crappy posts themselves. I sincerely hope that anyone visiting the site knows not to take it as a real reflection of the larger student body or of the Middlebury community as a whole.

    In terms of the site’s merits, it has had some genuinely positive threads, and has also shown that even provocative or offensive comments can sometimes start thoughtful and interesting exchanges. However, for me, the negatives outweigh the positives. The site brings too much drama for such a small school and has been truly hurtful to some individuals; as a side note, a great deal of the content honestly makes me embarrassed to be a Midd student. If moderation were faster I would argue for keeping it, but, as has been pointed out, the moderation’s so slow that it’s largely ineffectual. It appears that a fair number of students want the site shut down and have actively been discussing ways to get rid of it (i.e. spamming it or doing a petition) though they’re obviously as powerless as the administration to do anything real.

  8. Ryan Kellett says:

    Anonymous 10:48PM writes, “And if you care to look closely (which admittedly takes a lot of endurance and restraint) there have been at least as many responses criticizing these posts as there have been crappy posts themselves.”

    Yes, that’s natural moderation at its best. Certainly some personal attacks are over the top (especially anything physical), but I genuinely think that people need to be able to take some level of criticism. I started blogging and got my butt kicked by online anonymous comments calling me everything from “pretentious, elitist” to “lacking intellectual capacity.” It hurt me bad to get trashed. I was upset. But I worked through it because I had balance: people who refuted what other people said. That’s how you build a strong online community: the majority have to come to the rescue of folks being attacked, just as the above comment mentions.

    People get trashed left and right in the real world, online and off, anonymously and not. And just because we exist in the Middlebury bubble does not mean we should try to ignore/escape that.

    I am concerned that students are going to leave Middlebury and not have the bubble anymore, not have a moderator for their life. What are we going to do then? And I’m not just talking about people on the receiving end of comments…

  9. Sarah F. says:

    Ryan,

    There’s a big, big difference between anonymous commenters on your blog kicking your butt and anonymous commenters on MiddConfess spreading nasty rumors about individuals. As a fellow blogger, I know all about anonymous and not-so-anonymous people attacking me for what I say, but you and I are putting ourselves out there. I don’t like it, but it goes with the territory and life goes on.

  10. anonymous says:

    It proves the state of duplicity that some of the students on this campus operate in. Either it is that or a clear state of apathy, mean-spiritedness and bored from “too much” and “not enough” coming home to roost.

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