Back in November 2014, the “Shit Academics Say” FB page posted
To be or not to be that academic who accepts student friend requests on Facebook.
A lot of academics wrote “not to be,” often in much stronger language. A lot wrote yes with contingencies: former students, alums, select students are okay; current students, not so much. I fall in the camp of accepting friend requests from students, but not initiating them.
I began spending time on Facebook in the early days, spring of 2006, and I did so with student encouragement. It all began during a class break in a Business & Technical Writing course, which met in a computer lab. The students told me about their own experiences with Facebook, and they introduced me to the Facebook wall and private messaging and “poking” (which was not considered a dirty or flirty thing in our class!). Over the next year or two, students formed groups that I joined which have since disappeared. I believe one of them might’ve been “English majors are funnier, smarter, and better-looking than other majors.” In those early days, if I hadn’t accepted student friend requests, I wouldn’t have had any FB friends at all; hardly anyone besides students used the site.
Obviously, things changed. But even though Facebook is now a place to connect with family / friends / colleagues / and more, I still accept friend requests from students. While I think it’s typical for different professors to have different boundaries with their students and I am not interested in a one-size-fits-all policy, here are some reasons why I’ve been happy with my policy to accept Facebook friend requests from students. In case you’re wondering!
1. It helps me remember that anything posted on social media is potentially visible to anyone in the world, no matter what my privacy settings are.
Occasionally in my 8(!) years on FB, I’ve posted slightly inappropriate things. Especially in the year that my New Year’s resolution was to aim for mediocrity and prioritize happy hour. But mostly I try to present myself on FB with an awareness of all the potential audiences, and that means that I try to avoid being a jerk, at the very least.
2. Students see that I’m more than my role as a professor, and I see students more fully.
3. Students send me fun and interesting things that connect to our class content.
Sometimes it’s a blog post about a feminist issue. Sometimes it’s a book review or a film review. Sometimes it’s a cultural analysis. Sometimes it’s a grammar post.
Thank you, Students! That makes my day!
4. Students see the kinds of things that I post that connect to our class content.
Sometimes when I teach American Short Fiction, I post a quote from the work that I just love.
Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!
Or I may be teaching a writing class and I’m excited about the way revision is explained in a text we’re reading or the way procrastination is presented as a normal part of the writing process. So I quote!
And the students in my classes see that I’m not reading just to read; I’m reading in order to take stuff out and make it a part of who I am and what I do. The students may be more likely to read for themselves if they see me reading that way.
5. Students see that I love my work.
The truth is, I do not always love my work. But I vent privately, not publicly. Clearly, those professors who vent about students online should not be FB friends with students.
When I do share about my work, I share about my love for my colleagues or students. I’m lucky enough to have lots of awesome moments in the classroom and beyond. We also do a lot of goofy jokester kinds of things in my workplace, and it’s good to share that kind of thing online.
I also write about my own joys and difficulties with research and writing. I share this sort of thing in classes as well, but it makes a difference for students to see that I’m sharing it with a wider public on FB.
6. Sometimes students message me quick questions about an assignment.
I know that some professors might not like this, but in my experience, these have never been inappropriate or lazy questions. It’s more the kind of thing that a student might ask when passing by me on campus that clarifies in a way that helps the student out and takes little time or effort on my part.
7. I’ve been able to stay in better touch with alumni.
I see alumni getting new jobs, accomplishing things, blogging, etc. Yay, alumni! I can even invite these alums back to campus for Career Day with current students. Or I can ask them about internship possibilities for current students. I know LinkedIn serves this purpose as well. But I do not really enjoy that site for some reason; I don’t browse there the way I browse my FB newsfeed.
Recently, I hooked up a student who who is thinking about teaching English in Japan with 2 students who are doing that exact thing right now. I messaged all 3 so they could communicate with each other. I actually need to ask the 2 students in Japan if I can take their answers to create a blog post for the English Department blog. That’s how great their info was.
8. I get to see lots of baby pictures and wedding pics. I always “like” these because I enjoy a newsfeed that’s full of babies and celebrations. Alums are just more likely to be at this stage of life than the other folks I’m connected with on FB.
9. I blog and have a YouTube channel, so students check out the way I’m using social media. I get to be a role model without forcing students to read/view my work.
And I have some students doing cool stuff with new media who end up being role models for me!
10. I can invite students to events once they’re my FB friends, whether it’s a local poetry reading, an on-campus event, an English Club social.
I’m sure there are more good things! But I’ll just stop and sum it all up. Facebook is one way of creating communities and connections. I’m glad to have students who are interested to be part of my community, seeing that I have siblings, reading about my crazy days, knowing that I love the ocean, and recognizing that who I am in the classroom is part of a bigger picture. And I’m also glad to be part of their communities, seeing students’ unbelievable struggles and celebrating their impressive accomplishments.
I know there are probably a lot of pitfalls that could happen when my students are also my Facebook friends. But on a regular basis, I experience the positive effects instead of the pitfalls.