Thursday, 23 May 2013

Be my friend?

Got the new album by The National today. It's pleasant enough - doesn't distract me from the dreaded marking – but not a lot more than that. Are they the Indie U2 these days?

Anyway, having got all that about discourse, capitalism and education off my flabby chest yesterday, today's question is: social media and students – yes or no? One of the meetings I attended yesterday discussed the university's proposed guidelines on using social media and pedagogy. For the most part, the guidelines are fine and practical.

However, what wasn't addressed was the wider context. Should a university be herding students into the arms of distant corporations who will wring them dry for marketable data? Is it equitable to make elements of teaching depend on platforms some students don't want to use? Who owns this information, do colleagues and students understand the privacy settings well enough? What if they want out, and what if they say something they shouldn't?

One of my colleagues ran a module which required students to blog about various taboo subjects: one came back a few years later and claimed that he'd lost a potential job because they'd Googled him and found him confessing to a minor crime. We told them not to boast about their nefarious deeds, but everyone makes mistakes. Was it his fault? Or our responsibility to delete such things?

I sometimes use Twitter in class. If the group is shy and silent, I'll give them a hashtag (such as the module code) and ask them to send me questions like that, promising not to follow them or look at their other Tweets. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Although a lot of students aren't on Twitter and it could be seen as exclusive, I tend to feel that such a use is additional – anyone not using the platform can simply speak in the class. But I wouldn't want to make anything dependent on an external platform – I want editorial control and to be sure that privacy settings haven't sneakily changed, or that the organisation hasn't gone bust. These things are ephemeral: the university spent a lot of time and effort on establishing a Second Life campus. Second Life? Perhaps you're too young. It was literally all the rage on Friday December 3rd 2003. Or something. Now it's tumbleweed. Facebook use is already declining…

It's hard for institutions to a) keep up and b) not seem like the creepy old man in the playground. We can't tell which sites 'the kids' are going to be using tomorrow, and if we go all-in to get down with the youth, they might find that intrusive – people are researching concepts of virtual space, and whether individuals consider them 'private' or 'public'. Do you want your teachers or the institution Tweeting you, or 'liking' your pub photos? I know I wouldn't. On the other hand, many students see e-mail as hopelessly passé and appreciate a Tweet when a class is cancelled or an assignment's due.

The fuzzier element is the issue of social capital, weak or strong. Say you follow your lecturer, or your lecturer follows you. There's an element of control with Facebook (apparently: I'm not on it, and I've ensured that the various platforms I do use are furnished only with dummy names and email addresses) but slippage is easy. Either party might be horrified to realise they've just announced that they're not in today because they're hungover rather than 'unwell'. I already get emails at 3 a.m.: do I want queries by Twitter at any time of day and night? Are there professional boundaries that shouldn't be crossed? I asked this via Twitter yesterday and got an interesting range of responses. Some people saw no problem: social media isn't 'real' friendship and can be seen as a more relaxed space. Others run institutional accounts like Bath Spa's English account, which is chatty and relaxed without over-sharing (my department is thinking of starting one, though the boss is rightly keen to avoid it being vacuous and self-promoting). Gloucestershire University also runs a decent, modest English Department blog. Others said that Facebook friendship is reserved for ex-students instead of current ones. One respondent said that she would friend or follow people she's comfortable getting drunk with, which struck me as both funny and quite wise. You get drunk with people who get your sense of humour and make allowances for context, whereas student-teacher relationships automatically come replete with power imbalances. Another Twitter friend put it like this:
Twitter I only follow peeps I am a fan of. On fb I only friend those I can say Fuck in front of. Rules out a lot of lecturers.
Social media = socialising. Some I want to socialise with others I don't and viceversa. Its not the place for officialdom. 
Some more responses from academics (students and teachers), anonymised:
Too messy; tho I don’t use FB as a personal space—too many “work” folks on there— & I don’t twitter follow current UGs
 Our students and the SU really appreciate @EnglishBSU - it's been cited as an exemplar of its kind (ahem!).
wayyyy more helpful than waiting two days for a reply to an email. Definitely useful. 
No. Former students maybe, but not current crop. Alters dynamics of relationship. 
I'm not, for work/life balance reasons. I'm not with current colleagues either. 
I think this is something that develops when lecturing. You need clearer boundaries.
I'll add students post teaching&colleagues that add me. Use it as a work tool not personal. I live in with students so boundaries v important 
I wouldn't want to be, and as a student still don't 'friend' faculty members/academics unless they 'friend' me. 
I'm generally horribly relaxed. Probably far too open. 
Not so long as you have responsibility for marking their work and pastoral care you shouldn't. Once graduated is different. 
I have student Twitter followers; I don't follow them back 
Think there's something about public nature of Twitter that mitigates the social media fail often seen on Facebook. 
current students? Absolutely not. Past students? Maybe. 
Definitely not Facebook. A few follow me on twitter; I do not follow current students but a few former students. 
My supervisor & I bcame Facebook 'friends' after I finished though & I think that was right. 
There are limits, but imposing them requires too much guardedness. Best for me to just keep them separate! 
I’ve found both twitter and blogging to be both helpful and productive.
For me, it's about duty of care - if I have that, I have a responsibility to be professional. 
Being able to unwind and vent in a safe space for *us* matters. 
It's definitely useful, but only with staff who want to be out there. It certainly wouldn't work if it were forced. 
As I have added collegues, FB has become less personal for me. Thankfully I have other spaces. 
I would (and do) add colleagues that I have a friendship with - i.e. are not just colleagues. 
Good question... I think it depends whether they are compelled to have more contact than is purposeful. (Creepy treehouse.) 

(Further reading: and the "Creepy Treehouse" article which I found very useful. But this is a fascinating spread of approaches. We've never had so many opportunities to communicate with/mock/spy on our students and for them to do the same with us. The boundaries are very fuzzy and we're just feeling our way towards a useful working practice.

What do I do? Well, a few students follow me and I follow them back, but the vast majority do so after graduation and I really value the network that's evolved from that. Most are fairly discreet and I never, ever reply to or reference anything I think they might blush at if they realised I'd read it. I also keep my real name off the account and don't use it for professional work: better for me, better for the university. Nor do I share personal information about me, though I do quote terrible essays sometimes, which I'm beginning to feel bad about. Certainly my instincts are changing all the time.

I'd really like your comments on this.

1 comment:

Historian on the Edge said...

When FB came to York I found it entertaining and joined up. Initially I was quite open as it was mostly students on it anyway. Once it spread outside Unis and colleges, and 'grown-ups' and real friends from 'outside' joined up I soon evolved a 'no current students, no current colleagues' rule, simply because I am a bit 'open and honest' or 'full and frank' at times... I used to have a lot of ex-students as FB friends but most move on and - love them though I still do - I had a mass clear-out of those that I never hear from any more. I have used Facebook for class discussion groups, that worked OK. I then tried a Yahoo! group to keep their work/play areas separate and because there are things you can't do on FB - like upload documents. Now the VLE has replaced all that but, maybe as a result, the students seem MUCH less interested in participating in fora outside class. Maybe because it's institutional?