I noticed a short article in the Times Higher last week about a small survey that concluded that more than half academics count students among their Facebook friends. It’s actually a very small survey – of 308 academics, all based in America – of whom 54.4% admitted being “friends” with students.
For those of you who don’t use Facebook, a “Facebook friend” isn’t necessarily an actual real-life friend, it’s just someone else on Facebook with whom you agree to share information, photographs, music and other stuff. Different people have different policies with regard to whether to accept or decline a friend request (or indeed initiate one). I only ever accept requests from people I know in another context, for example, which restricts the number of people who get to see my Facebook scribblings. Others are less selective and have many many more Facebook friends.
One of the things about Facebook is that people do sometimes share quite personal things, and sometimes things that might be quite compromising in a work context, e.g. pictures of themselves ina state of inebriation. I suppose that’s why it’s a rather contentious whether a member of academic staff in a University should or not be “friends” with their undergraduate students. I know many of my friends and colleagues in academia flatly refuse to befriend undergraduate students (in the Facebook sense) and indeed this is the advice given by some institutions to staff. Most wouldn’t have a problem with having social media interactions with their graduate students, though. The nature of the relationship between a PhD student and supervisor is very different from that between an undergraduate and a lecturer.
There is a point on social media where professionalism might be compromised just as there is in other social interactions. The trouble is knowing precisely where that boundary lies, which is easy to misjudge. I’ve never felt that it was in any way improper to be friendly to students. Indeed I think that could well improve the students’ experience of education. If the relationship with staff is too distant students may not feel comfortable asking for help with their work, or advice about wider things. Why should being “professional” mean not treating students as human beings?
One can take friendliness too far, however. There have to be some boundaries, and intrusive or demanding behaviour that makes students uncomfortable should be avoided.
I’ve thought about this quite a lot since I joined Facebook, which was in 2007. What I decided to do is simple. If a student initiates a friend request, I usually accept it (as long as I actually know who it is). Not many make such requests, but some do. More often, in fact, students send friend requests after they’ve graduated, when they perhaps feel liberated from the student-teacher relationship. On the other hand, I never initiate friend requests with students, for fear that they might feel pressured to accept it. It’s much the same as with other interactions. For example, I rarely visit the extensive Student Spaces in the School without being invited there for a specific reason. If I did I’d just feel I was intruding. Many universities don’t bother to provide study space for their undergraduates, so this is probably only relevant here in Sussex.
Anyway, that’s my response. I know it’s a sort of compromise, but there you are. I am however interested in how other academics approach this issue. Plus, I haven’t done a poll for a while. So here we go: