ethics research students teaching

Facebook, friends and students

This is post is the first of what I hope will be several reflections on the softening boundaries between my social and professional lives, and how they influence each other. When I started teaching in the department about 3 years ago, I decided that I wouldn’t accept friend requests on Facebook from any of our students, nor would I send them any. I had a few reasons for this, including the following beliefs:

  • It’d be an invasion of their privacy
  • They may feel an obligation to accept, even if they didn’t want to
  • I didn’t feel comfortable hearing and seeing what they were doing in their private lives
  • I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to remain objective if I grew closer to the students I shared interests with
  • I was trying to keep my professional and private lives separate

Last year I ran a social networking research project in our department, which had students completing assignments within a private social network that I set up using WordPress and Buddypress. I learned a lot through the experience, including the following:

  • Facilitating engagement around professional issues in a social environment is hard
  • Students use (or don’t use) the tools in the way you expect / want them to
  • Most of them only participated in the network for the duration of the assignment, and didn’t go back when it was completed
  • Students shared personal experiences (with me and with each other) in ways that helped me to see more clearly who they really are

The last point was perhaps the lesson that touched me most. Most of our students have a tendency to see us as “just lecturers” and feel that there’s a huge chasm between us and them. To get around this, I often share some of my personal experiences to show that I also struggle to get through the challenges I’m presented with. I try to highlight the fact that as they find some things difficult to overcome, so do I and that the only real differentiator between us is our levels of experience in the various domains of our lives. This has happened most often with students on one of the rural community placements that I supervise. I often spend hours talking to them about some of the issues they’re experiencing, not only on the placement, but also in their personal lives. This has had a profound impact on some of them, as they’ve come to me after graduating and told me how much those social interactions helped shape who they’ve become.

I’m beginning to think that it’s impossible to keep my personal life out of the classroom and in addition, whether that’s something I should even strive for. The end of last year saw me going through an emotional upheaval that was devastating. I was incapable of thinking clearly, let alone teach (thankfully, classes were over for the year) and it was clear that my personal experiences very much affected my professional behaviour. This got me thinking about what our students bring with them into the classroom that we have no idea of, and which has a profound impact on how they’re able to participate in the class. What I’ve learned through this is that my social and professional personas are not only connected, but deeply integrated and to ignore that is to miss out on really understanding myself and my students.

I’ve also been more active on Facebook recently. Over the past month or so, I’ve been friending last years graduates as they prepare for their year of community service in different parts of the country. Not only do I enjoy keeping in touch with them, I try to provide an additional level of support as they’re trying to find their way in their professional lives. This has been an interest of mine since my Masters research looked at how emerging technology could be used to help support students and new graduates, especially in the more rural placements. This is the second year that I’ve been adding our past students to my Facebook friend list, and I often have opportunities to catch up with how they’re getting on, which is great.

This, together with my social networking project, has had me reflecting on whether or not maintaining the “friend barrier” with students on Facebook is actually a good thing. My understanding of what is “personal” and what is “professional” is that they’re blurring together, and I wonder if exploring different aspects of engaging with students on Facebook might be a positive experience for us all. A simple example would be the many opportunities for modeling behaviour. Instead of having a “No Facebook-friending” policy, wouldn’t it be better to tell them that I’m available on Facebook if they’d like to connect? I could tell them that there’d be no pressure to ask or accept and that they wouldn’t be disadvantaged by choosing not to do it (for example, I won’t be giving exam tips on Facebook). I’d also make it clear that for good or bad, I’d be able to see their social activities (as they’d be able to see mine), which may impact on our classroom interactions.

Our 4th year students spend most of the year off campus on clinical placements, and often feel that they’re isolated from social and professional support. I’m thinking of letting them know that if they send me a friend request, I’ll accept it, having first run through the implications of what it’d mean. If you have any thoughts or suggestions, I’d love to hear from you.