Thursday, December 6, 2007

Friending Can Be Fraughtful

For Professors, 'Friending' Can Be Fraught

The old guy in the corner at a college party can come off as creepy. The same goes for a faculty member on Facebook, the online hangout first populated by students.

"Facebook was created as a place for students, not for professors," says Steve Moskowitz, a sophomore at the State University of New York College at Oneonta. Students should be able to express themselves freely there, he says, without worrying what some professor will think.

One way to do that is by joining groups. Their names, often clever, mark identities like bumper stickers. Mr. Moskowitz formed the group "Gee, I don't think I want my professors on Facebook anymore." Its icon is a lecturer crossed out with a big red X.


But like it or not, professors are logging on. The number of Facebook users is doubling every six months, and adults, including professors, are the fastest-growing group among them. Some want to track down students who no longer respond to e-mail. Many are curious to see for themselves the addictive gabfest. As they sign on, they are negotiating the famously fraught teacher-student relationship in new ways.


Ian Bogost, an assistant professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, sent "friend" requests to several of his students, but then second-guessed himself. Would they feel obligated to accept? Would they think he expected something from them, maybe more participation in class? It seemed unfair, says Mr. Bogost, who teaches in the School of Literature, Communication, and Culture. "I've definitely kind of backed off the undergrads," he says, "certainly in their earlier years.


Most faculty members on Facebook keep their profiles professional — nothing racier than would be posted, say, on an office door. The consensus on friending seems to be: Accept students' requests but don't initiate any.

That's one of the guidelines for "Faculty Ethics on Facebook," a [Facebook] group started by Mark A. Clague, an assistant professor of musicology at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. "Since there's an uneven power dynamic, giving the power to the students to control the relationship" is good policy, he says.

Several dozen professors have joined the group, which also urges members not to troll students' profiles, friends or not. Even though students have become savvier about what they post — and how they adjust their privacy settings — faculty members still might discover things they wish they hadn't.


For all its pitfalls, Facebook can prompt meaningful exchanges. Some professors look up students who e-mail them with questions or are scheduled to come to office hours. What the professors learn, they say, makes them better advisers. Comments that students have posted — concern over a bad class presentation, for example — can provoke a thoughtful conversation.


Cindy Lee, a senior at Simmons College, once "poked" a professor — Facebook-speak for a friendly nudge. He poked back. That virtual informality, she says, gave her a mentor she wouldn't have felt comfortable approaching otherwise.

Modern times have dealt the teacher-student relationship many challenges: sexual harassment, political correctness. "It's harder to have an earnest, and still professional, but personalized relationship with students," says Mr. Bogost.

A modern tool may complicate that relationship further. Or, with its quirky brand of humanity, help recover it.

Section: Short SubjectsVolume 54, Issue 15, Page A1



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