Should you friend your prof?

Prof. Pettigrew’s unofficial rules for social networking

Considering how ubiquitous social media sites are, it’s surprising that few universities in Canada seem to have policies providing guidance for how faculty members, or students for that matter, should use them in the university setting.

Some universities do have guidelines, like these at Brock, but they seem to be mainly interested in protecting the university’s brand and keeping the school out of lawsuits. Those kinds of guidelines don’t hurt, but they don’t help professors know what’s acceptable and appropriate.

I know some professors where I work wish there was a policy—my student is trying to friend me, what do I do? And my own observation reveals a wide range of attitudes as to what’s okay and what’s not. Some treat their student friends on Facebook just like everyone else; others never connect with their students and regard those who do with scorn.

What follows then is my effort to provide an unofficial set of university guidelines for both profs and students who are considering friending, following, and subscribing, (FFS, for short).

For profs

No minors.  Most university students are legally adults but one does encounter a fair number of 17-year-old first-years, and other university activities sometimes bring one into contact with high school students. Don’t FFS anyone under 18. I’m sure you’re perfectly well-intentioned, but you never want to be in the position of having someone pointing to your list of friends and asking why there are so many fifteen-year-olds there.

Avoid initiating friend requests with students. The student may think it’s creepy, or misunderstand your intention, or feel obligated to accept your request. Best to avoid all three.

If students FFS you, put them all on a limited list and set your default settings so that students don’t automatically see what you post. Only post to everyone if you’re sure it’s innocuous. Your students don’t need to know how much you drank or when your kids are ill.

If you post controversial statements about political issues, make sure that those posts are not visible to students and that you don’t mention your university position in those contexts.

For students

Only FFS  profs you know well and are comfortable enough to have mildly personal conversations with in person. Don’t just friend them because you see them on Facebook. You may not like what you find out about them and you may forget how much you’re revealing about yourself.

If you do friend your profs, put them on your own limited list. Pictures of you smoking a joint and raising the peace sign for the camera may be infinitely amusing to your actual friends, but they won’t help when you want your professor to write you a letter of recommendation for law school.

I know some would say, forget all of these rules and just avoid internet contact between professors and students altogether. I disagree. Making connections among students and profs reminds profs that students are real people and vice versa. Moreover, the students eventually graduate, and it’s nice to stay in touch with alumni as they make their way in the world, or at least see what they’re up to these days. I often get messages from former students on Facebook saying, “saw this and thought of you.” It’s nice.

Besides, real-world social networking—receptions, parties, lunches—has always been part of the faculty-student dynamic, but there have long been well-understood lines of what’s appropriate there. The trick now is creating those same understandings in the new world of social media.

Todd Pettigrew (PhD) is an Associate Professor of English at Cape Breton University.