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Career Advice

Two-faced Facebook

The public and private sides of social networking.


It used to be that students were left to speculate about the private lives of their professors. Not anymore. As faculty members increasingly becoming more active on social networking sites like Facebook, students may find themselves privy to all sorts of intriguing information – from the political groups to which their professors belong, to details about arguments with their children.

Professors’ reasons for joining Facebook vary widely. Some simply use it to create social meeting places for their courses and view it as a way to increase student participation. “Social media can be a worthy endeavour for faculty to pick up because it connects with students in their space,” says Christopher Schneider, a sociology professor at University of British Columbia. He studies how social media affects our interactions with those around us.

Certainly, students are frequent users of Facebook; a 2009 survey at Nipissing University found that 92 percent of students were on social networking sites. However, creating Facebook pages for courses is not without caveats. Recently, Canada’s privacy commissioner voiced serious concerns with Facebook, which, among other things, permits third parties who design games and other applications to store users’ data indefinitely. Privacy issues have led universities such as Simon Fraser to stipulate that course-related participation in social networking be entirely optional.

In other cases, faculty members create personal profiles to share photos and stay in touch with friends and family. But as some are learning, what they post on their personal pages doesn’t necessarily stay there. Earlier this year a professor at a northeastern Pennsylvania university was suspended after venting about her students and joking about hiring a hit man. Although this professor did not have students as contacts on Facebook, the default setting allowed friends of contacts to read her updates. One such person reported her to university officials.

Facebook users can increase privacy by adjusting their account settings. However, whether your information or status updates remain private really depends on the discretion of your Facebook friends. To compound problems, Facebook frequently makes changes to default privacy settings. Users must constantly remain vigilant.

One of the most contentious issues involving faculty on Facebook is whether it is appropriate for a professor to become “friends” with a student. What constitutes an appropriate student-faculty relationship has always been a murky area in academia, and critics point out that social networking sites provide more opportunity for exploitive behaviour. “With Facebook, this is students’ digital space, and professors invading that space can be inappropriate and exploit the power dynamic,” says Dr. Schneider.

Many students who participated in a 2006 study called Crossing Boundaries, conducted by Anne Hewitt and Andrea Forte at Georgia Institute of Technology, reported concerns with professors using Facebook. Some felt that student-faculty relationships should not be sociable or familiar, while others conveyed a sense of anxiety about interacting with faculty on the website.

But what about when students send friend requests to their professors? Dr. Schneider offers a rule of thumb for deciding whether to accept such a request, “You should ask yourself, I think, would I be willing to invite this student into my home with my family for dinner?”

On the other hand, some faculty members don’t use their Facebook profiles in a personal manner, but rather as a public forum. “Is my use of Facebook necessarily any more informal than my interaction in the classroom or is it merely an extension of the classroom into a mediated context?” asks Michael Strangelove, who teaches communications at the University of Ottawa.

So, views about what constitutes appropriate uses of Facebook by faculty vary. As a contributor to the Facebook group “Faculty Ethics on Facebook” writes, “Academic freedom should apply digitally as it does physically. It is arrogant to make ‘guidelines’ and believe they should or could be universally applied for faculty at higher educational institutions.”

Although a number of universities such as Brock, Queen’s and Simon Fraser have developed social networking guidelines, the guidelines are just that. They may caution, like Simon Fraser’s, that educators “exercise appropriate discretion when communicating online, knowing that your behaviour may be used as a model by students.” But, as in other academic arenas, it’s ultimately a matter of professional judgment and choice.

A good resource for those looking to create a Facebook page for a course:

Carla Gunn is a writer and author of the novel
Amphibian. She is also teaches psychology part-time in Fredericton, New Brunswick.

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