Before the creation of sites like Facebook and Twitter, a professor’s life outside of the classroom remained a mystery for students. Interactions between students and faculty were limited to face-to-face conversations, and emails served as one of the few digital bridges extending discussions beyond office hours. Although their existence is nothing new in the year 2014, social media’s rise has removed a wall of privacy by providing a portal into the personal lives of students and professors alike, nuancing the way in which they must navigate their online association with students.
Last month, a student reported a Facebook comment made by Associate Professor of English Kiese Laymon to the Dean of Faculty. Laymon—who has over 2,000 Facebook friends and nearly 3,000 Twitter followers—is not friends with this particular student on the social media site.
In an emailed statement, Laymon restated the comment, writing, “Some kid…tried to turn something I wrote—‘Them shits move mountains and burn water. All praise is due to white tears’—to the Dean of Faculty.” According to Laymon, no actions were taken against him by the College.
While numerous professors use multiple social media platforms, the College does not have a policy that dictates if professors can or cannot friend or follow students. According to Dean of Faculty Jonathan Chenette, professors have to reach a decision on the matter based on individual preferences.
The College will only get involved if there is a potential violation of existing college policies. Chenette wrote in an emailed statement, “[Professor-student relationships carried out online] can lead to perceptions of favoritism, inappropriate intimacy, harassment, or discrimination that may raise concerns about whether there are violations of College policy… We have processes for investigating and responding to such concerns.”
He continued, noting that parties should be aware of their actions online. “Social media spaces, by blurring boundaries between public and private or professional and personal heighten the challenge of knowing when and how to communicate,” wrote Chenette.
Some professors take caution by not actively friending students, especially current ones, over Facebook; often, they will only accept friend requests from former students.
Chenette wrote, “My own practice is not to respond to Facebook friend or LinkedIn connection requests from current students. After graduation, I am happy to add LinkedIn connections for former students I know well enough to assist them professionally—the same students who might request letters of recommendation.”
Laymon will accept requests from current students, but he does so hoping they will respect his space as he does theirs. He wrote, “I don’t turn down anyone who friends me because that feels kinda mean. So if students friend me, I accept their friend request with the understanding that they’re friending me…What I say on my page is kinda like what I do in my yard. If they’re not down with something, I say, they are grown-ups. They can leave the yard.”
When it comes to other sites like Twitter and Instagram, unless your accounts are private, keeping up with everyone who follows you may prove difficult. Indeed, while professors may not know the exact number of students viewing their online activity, they do not feel it necessary to alter their behavior.
Associate Professor of English Hua Hsu commented in an emailed statement, “The faculty has had conversations about this stuff in the past. Though I think those conversations sometimes presume that students are way more curious about their professors’ lives than is actually true…I’m not overly conscious of how students perceive me via social media. The only time it’s come up was one time when a student asked me how/why some of the bands and magazines he followed on Twitter follow me.”
For some, one’s online presence is a reflection of a larger picture. Assistant Dean of Students and Director of Residential Life Luis Inoa thinks about what he would feel comfortable sharing with his mother, not students, before making any post. He further added that he wishes students would think more about who they are sharing information with online.
If I don’t want [my mother] to read it I will not post it. I do wish students who have friended me remembered that they are sharing with me as well. I wear multiple hats and when it comes to VC I never take any of them off,” the Instagram and Pinterest user wrote in an emailed statement.
Connections formed via social media can also afford students and professors the opportunity for educational enrichment, according to Chenette.
He said, “Social media create new spaces for interaction that can be fruitful for learning and mentoring and exchanging ideas but can also be damaging. We’re still learning how to navigate and interact in such spaces.”
Inoa expressed concerns that while social media widen the barriers between students and professors, they also create some tensions that can be restricting.
He said, “I am fascinated by the ways in which Facebook both enhances and limits community. As it pertains to student/faculty/administrators and Facebook, we just need to remember that following, liking and commenting on a post does not mean that you know, really know someone. Yes it is revealing but it is never a reflection of a whole person.”
For Laymon, social media might not be beneficial to the student-teacher dynamic. In fact, it requires constant thought.
He said, “I think we should be aware of power and the abuse of rhetorical and discursive power as grown ups. I think the Facebook thing actually probably closes a space between teacher and student, and I’m not so sure that closed space is necessarily healthy… I can’t imagine looking at the way my professors talked to their friends when I was in school. I wonder if it would have made the educational experience more dynamic and robust. I’m not sure.”