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Um, Why Are These Professors Creeping on My Facebook Page?

The ethics of student-teacher “intimacy”—on campus and on social media.
(Photo: Joseph McKinley/Flickr)

(Photo: Joseph McKinley/Flickr)

It is a daily marvel to consider how deeply digital self-expression has changed the social complexion of American colleges. We need not consider elementary and secondary education—it is easy to see that my own early education was much more similar to that of my parents than to that of the undergraduate students whom I now teach. For the moment, I'd like to note how relationships between professors and students are changing in ways we would not have conceived a decade back. Specifically, I'm thinking of an alarming tendency among male professors and administrators to remark on the charm and appearance of their former female charges.

Let us begin with some examples:

you both look as lovely as ever. can't believe it's been six years!

damn you are all grown up

omg congrats, and that is an unforgettable dress

remember when you first came to my office — now look you're ready for Hollywood!

Mildly altered for present purposes, all of these sentences have crept onto the Facebook walls of various female friends over the past few months alone. By the standards of online cat-calling, this isn't so bad, but a.) I haven't shown you the direct messages, and b.) these professors and administrators often remain figures of authority, most crucially when a former student (perhaps one who is “all grown up”) needs a letter for graduate school, or a character reference for a job. You can't just flip off the executive assistant from your undergraduate English department when you might need him to mine the files for your transcripts.

The question of personal boundaries on American campuses has been tangled since before coeducation began. The clearest and most carefully protected boundary is that between the school and whatever isn't the school—the outer battlements of the Ivory Tower. By guarding these battlements too closely, some 50-odd universities have come under the eye of the Justice Department this year for shameful inertia amid serious accusations of sexual assault. In response, several of these schools have trumpeted “ambitious” new policies for reporting harassment, policies that nonetheless funnel abused students through the university's medical and adjudicatory mechanisms, rather than, say, those of the police.

With all of this focus on the cultural boundaries of the college, we are foolish to ignore the shifting lines of interpersonal boundaries online. It's not an easy thing to get right. My own students send occasional friend requests, and a greater portion follow me on Twitter, where my account is public. Between diplomatic concerns (“I can't say no outright”) and privacy concerns (“I don't feel OK showing them beach photos”), I've determined the simplest route is not to accept any Facebook requests until a course is over, after which I will likely click “OK” and promptly relegate the student to “limited profile.” (On Twitter, my jokes are no more blue than my journalism, and I stand by all of them.) So far, these elegant rules have spared me uncomfortable encounters, both online and IRL. When a former girlfriend was teaching seventh-grade English, her kids were eager to make my e-cquaintance. I applied the same policy with similarly gratifying results.

But the simplicity of this plan does not appeal to everyone., which promulgates “effective teaching strategies for the college classroom—both face-to-face and online,” recommends the aggressive use of Facebook in university courses. Behold Kirk Wakefield, professor of marketing at Baylor University and author of the following dogmatical nonsense:

First, [Facebook is] where students are. With the help of the students in our upper level marketing courses, we recently surveyed over 500 students regarding their social media use. Over two-thirds (69.8%) are on Facebook every day. In case you’re wondering, 63% also have Twitter accounts and half (49.8%) check them daily. As teachers, our job is to communicate with students. Sure, we can communicate with them in other ways. But, if you want to speak to your audience in the way they prefer and in the way they communicate with each other, you’ll connect through social media.

Second, anyone who studies marketing knows that social influence is a primary factor in consumer decision making. If you want to influence others in any meaningful way, you must provide value within their social circles. Granted, the kind of value faculty may offer students via social media is questionable. Even if we think we are cool, odds are pretty high we are not. But, students don’t expect us to be cool. They know we are their instructors, not their peers. That means their expectations are pretty low. That said, what makes a good friend is often just being there. If you’re not there and not aware of what’s going on in their lives, you will have a harder time relating to them.

Can anyone tell me what any of this has to do with education? Our job is not to address students in “the way they prefer”; that's how they communicate with their peers, not with the guy who gives them marketing lectures at 8 a.m. Is our job really to “add value” to a social media corporation that profits from the free content we and our students provide? Or is it rather our duty to make students question their values, to raise their social expectations rather than jumping an already low bar, to challenge students and occasionally deny them what they want rather than seeking to be no more than a “good friend”?

It is both predictable and depressing to see a marketing professor treat his students as prospective clients. I suspect teachers would do more teaching if so many didn't feel the need (or indulge the desire) to optimize themselves via Web content, to perform “friendship” when what the moment demands is instruction.

Yet some professors insist on friending their students, even mandating Facebook friendship in the course syllabus. “I don’t browse their profiles,” says one instructor at Illinois State University, but he does use Facebook for a variety of course tasks: responding to drafts, uploading final assignments, rounding out the day's class discussion by turning the teacher's Facebook page into a sort of evening salon, a forum for leftover table-talk. All well and good, but can't Blackboard or Sakai or any of the many other curricular platforms serve the same purpose? Or are we terrified that students will scoff at a clunky user interface? Why, in short, would anyone drag a class onto Facebook? It's like holding a post-seminar “symposium” in a wine bar—at best a brief bit of novelty that will fade as quickly as the most recent trending item or that last glass of Merlot.

Of course, the contemporary problem of boundaries between teacher and student is not always limited to or dictated by the Web. Some professors even champion an “Eros of pedagogy” in the classroom. Take our friend William Deresiewicz, who published an essay in the American Scholaron this very subject (2007)—IRL flirtation between teacher and student:

The relationship between professors and students can indeed be intensely intimate, as our culture nervously suspects, but its intimacy, when it occurs, is an intimacy of the mind. I would even go so far as to say that in many cases it is an intimacy of the soul. And so the professor-student relationship, at its best, raises two problems for the American imagination: it begins in the intellect, that suspect faculty, and it involves a form of love that is neither erotic nor familial, the only two forms our culture understands. Eros in the true sense is at the heart of the pedagogical relationship, but the professor isn’t the one who falls in love.

After which comes the psychoanalytic dodge:

Love is a flame, and the good teacher raises in students a burning desire for his or her approval and attention, his or her voice and presence, that is erotic in its urgency and intensity. The professor ignites these feelings just by standing in front of a classroom talking about Shakespeare or anthropology or physics, but the fruits of the mind are that sweet, and intellect has the power to call forth new forces in the soul. Students will sometimes mistake this earthquake for sexual attraction, and the foolish or inexperienced or cynical instructor will exploit that confusion for his or her own gratification. But the great majority of professors understand that the art of teaching consists not only of arousing desire but of redirecting it toward its proper object, from the teacher to the thing taught.

See the smooth Freudian transference?

This is the kind of sex professors are having with their students behind closed doors: brain sex.... What attracts professors to students, then, is not their bodies but their souls. In our sex-stupefied, anti-intellectual culture, the eros of souls has become the love that dares not speak its name.

There are very good reasons why “the Eros of pedagogy” dares not speak its name. First, it's sort of a mouthful. Second, it's a fuzzy-headed arrangement premised on a cult of personality that the very best professors work hard to dispel. It is condescension in the extreme to suggest that starry-eyed undergraduates must first become infatuated with a teacher before they are ready to learn. Further, this ennobling of psychosexual tension between professor and student merely eases the transition to lechery, whether virtual or real. (For evidence that such lechery abides, see this non-peer-reviewed study from Mallory Ortberg, who collected oodles of testimonials from women about the narcissistic or creepy behavior of their male professors, both online and in person.)

As Facebook and Twitter usurp more traditional platforms for instruction, the instances of e-creepiness seem to redouble. We already have the chili pepper on, which allows students to indicate whether a given professor is “hot,” or not. Professors and administrators should really resist the urge to leave similar indications, in prose form, on the walls of former students.

But how to maintain our self-restraint? Here is a handy checklist, a 101 of Things to Do and Not to Do on Facebook:

  • Do: Congratulate former students/mentees on attaining a new degree or getting a new job.
  • Don't: Congratulate former students on “looking like a Greek goddess,” or on their clothes, unless someone is wearing a wedding dress, in which case you should also probably not comment.
  • Don't: Comment on photographs taken in bars or taverns.
  • Don’t: Implicate colleagues in some kind of lascivious collective memory (“Master Smith couldn't take his eyes off you!”).
  • Don’t: Use Facebook to contact a student after 11 p.m. This behavior is deeply weird and suggests tipsiness. This rule is doubly important after the department Christmas party.
  • Don’t: Use Facebook for any communal task that can be accomplished with comparable ease on the school's own digital platform.
  • Please, please do not use emoticons or emoji.
  • UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES should you publicly compare current students unfavorably with former prodigies, in either physical appeal or intellectual prowess.

And the most important non-Internet rule:

  • During office hours, keep your door open at all times, no matter the gender of the student or whether her sundress is “really something.”

Is this affirmation of principles a witless exercise in political correctness? The experiences of my students, colleagues, and friends suggest it is not. If you disagree, or if I have neglected important concerns, let me know via Twitter. In turn, I promise to respond with respect and dignity, addressing your ideas—not your dress.

The Classroom is a regular series on the issues facing both students and teachers of higher education.