Tuesday, February 14, 2012


Ask the Administrator: Friending Students on Facebook

A longtime reader writes:

I've been told by one of my employers that I am not allowed to accept friend requests from students on Facebook or any other social media site save Linkedin.   In my field (probably in most fields)  networking is really important and therefore this is a serious bummer.
I tend to have multiple classes with the same students, so Facebook or no Facebook they're going to get to know me.  Pretending I'm a personality-free teacher bot isn't going to work.  Not sure yet if I'm supposed to unfriend current friends, but if so that's super rude (and potentially time consuming).
I think there's some freedom of speech issues here, but I work at the pleasure of the college so I guess they can tell me to say/do whatever they want outside of school and I can like it or lump it.

This is probably one of those cases in which someone went overboard, and administrators who didn’t quite get the concept overreacted.

I’m just old enough to remember a time before Facebook.  Back then, people used to interact in all kinds of ways, some of them in ways that would give administrators pause.  But there wasn’t a written record most of the time, so with exceptions, there usually wasn’t much proof.  With Facebook and other social networking technologies, there’s a written record.  (Rep. Anthony Weiner discovered that the same principle holds on Twitter.)  

Worse, social network etiquette is still evolving.  People present different selves in different contexts -- necessarily, and sometimes to their credit -- but those styles of presentation can get all jumbled up on Facebook.  Since people can easily spend far more time interacting on a social network than they probably would have in real life, all that jumbling can lead to confusing and dangerous places.

We administrative types have a healthy fear of confusing and dangerous places, since we deal regularly with lawyers.  I could see where a risk-averse administrator might just decide that anything insufficiently buttoned-up (as opposed to, say, LinkedIn) should be avoided altogether.

It’s a mistake, though.  

You’re right that there’s an issue with regulating speech outside the workplace.  There’s also a basic issue with confusing a medium with a message.  Yes, some people have done stupid stuff online.  But they have also done stupid stuff offline.  Email can be used abusively, as can telephones, as can hallway discussions, as can in-class lectures.  At a certain point, savvy administrators have to learn to let go of the idea of control -- absurd when dealing with creative people -- and instead focus on setting a climate of expectations and, when things go wrong, controlling the damage.
A more constructive approach would instead focus on helping faculty and staff understand the implications of various kinds of interactions.  The rule of thumb with email, for example, is to keep in mind that any message you send could be used in court.  The same is true on social networks.  Even when the messages aren’t lurid or illegal, they can be socially awkward.  If you’re trying to maintain a certain authority within the classroom, pictures of you doing awkward and silly things might be counterproductive.  (And yes, the impact of that can vary by age, race, sex, and all the usual variables.)  Once you’ve seen your professor on youtube shirtless, wearing Groucho glasses, and singing the theme to Rawhide, you can’t unsee it.

Not that I would know anything about that.

As to the issue of “at-will” employment, that’s a much larger question.

My advice would be to try to find well-respected faculty at your institution who use social networking in recognizably productive ways, and ask them to educate your dean.  As long as s/he is acting from fear, you won’t get far.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, has anyone found an effective and responsible way to educate administrators and/or other faculty about social networking?  

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

As is my wont, I'll pull out my favorite line that (somehow) DD didn't remark on:

"In my field (probably in most fields) networking is really important and therefore this is a serious bummer."

Seriously? The writer is in a field where current students regularly offer jobs to their professor? Where the Dean or a corporate manager wants letters from your students about how good your next book or your latest invention or your particle physics research proposal is going to be?

I don't buy it.

I do, however, buy the idea that you might have a separate Fb account linked to your college or some other teaching-only e-mail address that you use exclusively for teaching-related dialog with current and past students. Is that what you mean by understanding the implications of various interactions, DD?

The up-side is that you will possibly get a window into what your students were really doing when they were "too sick to come to class". The biggest risk is that you will get all of the high maintenance students in your classes, but that is good for the rest of us so I won't complain.

Oh, and admins will buy into it when it is a feature of "The CMS That Will Not Be Named". Some CMSs already have networking tools built into the system, but if admins have to pay extra for it they will know for sure it is valuable to the college.
I always tell my students that I don't really want to know what they are doing on Saturday night, and they probably don't want to know about me, either. That goes double, if one of us is doing something illegal. Usually that gets a laugh, but it gets the point across. I don't think there's a need to "friend" current students. I don't go out drinking or to the movies with current students, either.
Maybe the writer works in a field where professors are in a position to help students. He or she didn't say it was a bummer for profs. Perhaps they meant a bummer for students. Besides, networking could include things like student chapters of professional organizations, events related to the field (speeches, gallery openings, readings, etc).
I believe that Angel, or other online course delivery systems, would work well for "networking" with students -- why use Facebook?
I wonder what this Dean would have done about one prof I had who held some of his office hours in a bar.

I friended my mother and a friend that's a priest. My Facebook page is squeaky clean - but I don't friend current students or people who could become students. Graduates or people who I will no longer teach are fair game for friending however. I just worry about those authority issues DD mentioned with current students and the perception of favoritism if some people in the class are "friends" with me while others are not.
I have had students request letters of recommendations through Facebook and as an adjunct this is an easier way for them to contact me since I do not have a formal office on campus. And I had a former student offer me a teaching position at a college, so it may be rare, but it can happen.
Here's a sort-of funny twist. Our department has a facebook page and our dept chair requested (read, required) that all of us "friend" it. From there, our current and former students have an easy time finding any of us and sending us individual friend requests.

As for me, I don't really want to mix my work and personal life quite that much and objected to the edict that we should all connect ourselves to the official department FB page. Students and colleagues (and bosses) are more than welcome to contact me - via my work email, my work phone, my work office hours, my work snail mail, my work CMS presence, etc.
Do most students really want to be "friends" with their teachers? My experience was that, when I pushed them, what they really wanted was 24 hour a day instant access. I referred them back to the course management system - which usually had the information they needed but found it easier to email than to look at what they already had available to them.

FB has been an excellent tool for keeping in touch with former students but only when they friend the professor/teacher first.

As DD points out, there are untold liability issues once someone else can say "you knew" something about a student and/or what that student was doing even if you aren't regularly trolling their FB pages every few hours for updates.

It's also important to remember that many of our students don't realize how public their FB life really is - they think only their "friends" see what they are doing and don't realize that future employers can and do investigate their "private" lives.

Most importantly, as others have pointed out, there are other positive ways to interact with students - ie group sites, etc., as well as non-FB social media and real-life, in-person ways.

More than one colleague who has friended students has discovered more viruses and even had their account hacked given that students engage in the more risky behaviors - even online. ;-)

Good luck - I'm not sure anyone knows the answer right now.
Since I read about litigation and application letters/refusals on this blog, I wonder whether there is a particular North-American fear that prevents a 'use your discretationary power' approach or, even more unthinkable in the USA, use common sense from emerging in this area. I wouldn't be surprised if a student sues a college/professor after s/he read on his/her facebook something like 'I have a terrible migraine, but luckily my [name of medicattion] kicked in' and received a bad mark later that day/the morning after. The student may suggest that the professor was incapacitated while marking his/her assignment and I would even be less surprised if you would be able to find a lawyer in the US to pursue this case. The debate focusses too much on 'party pictures' and silly YouTube videos. I could imagine similar scenarios on certain religious/political issues in certain States, say a professor sharing an article from anything from gay marriage/rights to abortion or basic comments about political parties, policies or politicians. Again, I wouldn't be surprised if disgruntled students share these things with the admin and next thing you know you are asked in your tenure review why you hold certain beliefs etc. In a 'normal world' using your brain/gut instinct may be enough, but in a spiteful, litigatious, politicised higher education environment I would think at least twice before befriending a student.
"Do most students really want to be "friends" with their teachers? My experience was that, when I pushed them, what they really wanted was 24 hour a day instant access."

My experience is similar to Kelly's.

"In my field (probably in most fields) networking is really important and therefore this is a serious bummer."

To go back to this point, my wife just finished her BFA in Media Arts, and she was basically required to "friend" her profs and follow them on Twitter. The idea was that being in that field requires being connected to stay ahead of the game. But all her profs added students to a specific profile that wouldn't allow them to see everything. Further, they encouraged students to do the same, so as not to embarrass themselves to their profs, future employers, and colleagues.

Personally, I don't add current students, and those I do add stay on a limited profile until they leave my university.
Like Anon at 6:33am, I kind of have not choice but to connect my work and Facebook lives. I'm in admissions, and it is well noticed if you are not helping to plump the departmental Facebook page.

It's never been handed down as a directive, though, so I resisted mixing work and Facebook at all for a long time. More than a year.

But it got to the point where I was noticable for my absence, and I joined the bandwagon. I do not have any students or potential students listed as friends but I think just about all of my co-workers do, up to and including the dean.

On the faculty side, my husband never never never friended students when he was in a teaching role. It seemed a little harsh to me at the time, but he was very firm about it.

Facebook has the functionality now to separate people into lists, and I suspect this is how most of my co-workers handle it. I rarely read anything about their personal lives, but find it hard to believe (especially for the 23 year olds among them) that they aren't posting more often. I just can't see it. And I'm totally fine with that.

Facebook can be a flaky site, technology-wise, so I don't really trust their lists. Thus, since I've started adding co-workers, I've endeavored to keep everything I post on Facebook as neutral as though it were entirely public information. This makes it easy. I'll add anyone, because the information I share is not at all private - at this point if students did start adding me, I'd accept, as long as I actually know who they are. But the flip side is that I rarely say anything of substance. It is a little sad when I know that FB is the only real contact I have with friends in far away places; they are getting "sanitized me" and not "real me," and that weakens the connection.

But I think this is the only real option we have. As time marches on, I think it's going to be less and less realistic that you can "hide" from your co-workers or bosses or students online.
I started teachin (as a TA) at an age (22) at which I needed to create some social distance between myself and my students. Otherwise, I don't think I could have done my job very well. Today (3 months from retirement), I still find having some social distance to be very useful. I have never tried to be "friends" with my student, and have never felt the need to share much about my personal life with them.

So I don't Facebook, and while I have a Linked-In account, I don't think I have looked at it in over 6 months.

I figure (like a number of the other commenters) that my students have enough ways to get in touch with me. Social networking is superfluous.

Note that this is about what works for me, not what works for anyone else.
I would be worried about being required to use Facebook, because the company seems to have very little regard for the privacy of its users. There's also the whole 'respond instantly' thing (which is even worse for Twitter) — I already spend 50-60 hours a week teaching (& prepping & marking), and I don't want it expected that I'll spend some of my precious private time updating my profile, or checking my wall to see if a 'friend' has posted something questionable, and so on.
I am flabbergasted that an institution would require its employees to "friend" its Facebook page (which means, of course, that employees are forced to join Facebook whether they want to or not). What a nutbag operation.

While I have a Facebook account, I don't accept friend requests from current students. If they want to keep in touch after graduating, I'm perfectly happy to accept their requests at that time.
It would never occur to me to "friend" a student, since that's an insane risk. Every interaction is written in pen and is available for anyone who wanted to to misinterpret.

I'm not sure what pedagogical goal is being pursued, either. There are good reasons why I don't spend a huge amount of time with my students out of the classroom in general; presumably they get a little tired of me.
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