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.