1 New Notification: Your Professor is on Facebook

Will Faculty Presence Online Enhance Student-Professor Connections or Poke at Boundaries of Propriety?


Facebook is not just for students anymore. Many FCLC professors are using the social networking site to establish dialogue with current and former students outside of the classroom. (Photo Illustration by Craig Calefate/The Observer)

Published: March 12, 2009

It starts off like any other Facebook experience. You click the red notifications box that reminds you that you’re special and then browse through the messages in your inbox. You check if there are any free gifts and ponder which of your friends would be the perfect recipient. Then, rapidly running out of procrastination tools, you click “People You May Know” out of morbid curiosity—just to see what some of the freaks you went to high school with look like now. But today, you’re shocked to see, among the oddities of your past, a thumbnail pic of your biology professor who wears suspenders and spits when he talks. Wait… He’s on Facebook?

Just two years ago, such a situation would seem absurd. However, more and more professors are entering the Facebook universe. A simple search for “Fordham Faculty” currently retrieves over 85 accounts. Why have professors decided to join a networking site that once belonged to a younger generation? When asked, professors offered a myriad of responses, from professional and personal reasons to sheer curiosity.

“Facebook may have been created and marketed to college students, but because of its straightforward navigation and solid security approaches, Facebook is very ‘user-friendly’ for all generations,” said Monique Fortune, professor of communication and media studies at Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC).

Brian Frances, associate professor of philosophy at FCLC, created his account for professional reasons, so his students would have access to personal information about him if they wanted it.

“I know other professors who did it for similar reasons,” Frances said.

Christopher Toulouse, assistant professor of political science at FCLC, first set up an account in February 2008 for a course he teaches called The Politics of Cyberspace.

“I’ve used it as a portal for the Fordham community, so most of my Facebook friends are either undergrads or recently graduated,” Toulouse said. “About half a dozen people per class either friend me or I friend them, and it’s usually because we got to know one another through conversation after class first.”

“The first time I went on Facebook, a current student e-mailed me saying, ‘This is a little weird,’ said Michael Tueth, associate chair of the communication and media studies department at FCLC. “I had no idea that Facebook users consider themselves their [own] generation and that to have older people on Facebook is awkward. But a lot of the faculty are on Facebook, so it’s not that unusual.”

Students largely support professors having a presence on Facebook, even if it was initially surprising or awkward.

“I think it’s a bit jarring to our generation to watch our parents and teachers get Facebook accounts… As long as we can regulate our own privacy settings, I think it’s harmless and kind of cute that our parents and professors want Facebooks too,” said Patrice Kugler, FCLC ’11.

“I personally view it as the teacher being with the times. I probably check my Facebook at least twice as often as my e-mail. And I know I’m not alone,” said Alex Rabinovich, FCLC ’09.

“I’d probably count that professor as smart to know that his or her students are probably checking their Facebook pages more often than their e-mail,” Kugler said.

While Facebook may be an effective vehicle for student-professor communication, some feel that communication in such an informal environment pushes the boundaries of propriety.

“If [professors] were only using it to invite students to events or send them a reminder for a due date, it would be helpful,” said Ireland Carter, FCLC ’12. “If they were commenting on everyone’s wall and asking me to take quizzes about my love life, I would probably hold them in lower esteem.”

Anne Fernald, associate professor of English at FCLC, is curious about setting up closed groups for class or open groups for English majors, “but I hesitate because I don’t want to put students in the position of being inappropriately informal by accident,” she said.

Others such as Fortune believe that Facebook can enhance the student-professor relationship.

“If I am able to grasp and comprehend my students’ interests—it enriches my learning and teaching process,” Fortune said. “I enjoy peeking in on everyone’s page and learning more about my students’ and peers’ hobbies and interests.”

Professors have different protocols about how to respond to students that “friend” them. It turns out that most are open to accepting friend requests, but they don’t make the first move.

“My general policy if students reach out is to say ‘yes,’ said Gwyneth Jackaway, professor of communication and media studies at FCLC. “They’re reaching out for some reason—to establish a link. Sometimes I’m honored if I get a message from someone saying they were thinking of the class. But I don’t socialize with my students. I have a strict rule about that.”

“I accept if I already have a fairly close relationship with the student. Otherwise, I don’t,” Frances said.

Heather Gautney, associate professor of sociology at FCLC, has only had one student “friend” her, one with whom she is doing an independent study.

“I thought about it, and it’s fine. I just have to be selective. I’m just more careful about what I put online,” Gautney said.

“I probably wouldn’t be [a professor’s] ‘friend’ unless I had already finished their class and knew I would not be having them as a professor again,” Carter said. “I would just feel a little awkward if they knew so much about my personal life while I was still their student.”

Other students are more open to personal communication with their professors. Rabinovich said he would “love” to be able to Facebook chat his professors. However, at the same time, he recognizes that students would have to be more careful about what they post.

“Sometimes I think plenty of students rant and say things about their classes and professors that they would never want a faculty member to see on Facebook,” Rabinovich said.

Professors are similarly aware of the boundaries.

“If you wouldn’t say it in class to your students, then don’t say it to them on your Facebook page,” Frances said.

“It’s important [for faculty] to remember that we shouldn’t post anything on Facebook that we would be embarrassed for someone in authority to read,” Fernald said.

Stuart Sherman, professor of English at FCLC, noted the difference between the consequences of posting inappropriate content for students and faculty.

“With students, the warning is about the future, about someone looking at your page 10 years from now. But the professor in this tiny [Facebook] world is already a visible figure. It does matter [what professors post],” Sherman said.

Sherman, like most professors interviewed, still prefers other methods for communication with current students.

“I like e-mail and Blackboard, which are less formal [than the classroom], but on Blackboard you don’t see into other people’s lives,” Sherman said.