It’s a conversation that begins with propriety and manners, moves into legalese and institutional policy, and ends up with moralizing. What should or shouldn’t professors (and other college instructors) say about their students on Facebook (or other social media)? I am less interested in the answers to that question than I am in the ways that our attempts to answer reveal something about what faculty understand the rhetorical space of social media to be. For some reason I’ve seen this conversation in a variety of places of late, including the writing program administrators listserv. There are really three basic positions:
- abstinence: faculty shouldn’t remark about their students
- positive-only: faculty should only say nice things about their students
- in private: faculty who complain should severely limit access to those posts
That last position is really conciliatory (no one really thinks there is such a thing as “private” on facebook) but it recognizes the fourth, unrecommended position: to just fire away on facebook. Clearly there some things one might say that would violate laws (FERPA, slander, and sexual harassment come to mind), but I’m not sure that these matters apply differently online than they would in any public space (except that maybe you are more likely to get caught when you publicize your violation to the whole world and leave a record of it). But this conversation isn’t about those kinds of communications. It’s mostly about venting, which could take the form of calling out an individual student, I suppose, (e.g. “Johnny is really annoying me with his behavior in class”) but tends to be more general and anonymous (e.g. “I hate it when the students in my class don’t read!” or “Not looking forward to grading this giant stack of student papers”). We’ve all felt these frustrations about bosses, colleagues, customers, clients, students, etc. (as well as spouses, kids, parents, friends, coaches, and people). Venting is a common rhetorical function of social media, as it is a common function of communication. However, we generally recognize that there is a time and place for these things.
So here is where we encounter the matter of propriety. We say that it looks bad to vent about your students. Maybe. I would say, like all rhetorical acts, it comes down to skill. As we would say to our students, who is your audience and what is your purpose? There are rarely good answers to these questions with the verbal diarrhea of venting. I imagine there is some psychological motive here; maybe it feels better after you’ve vented, and getting some confirmation from one’s friends also helps. We don’t intend those statements to get back to our students. I’d guess that it rarely happens (unless you’ve friended your students!), so it is unfortunate when it does. However, I’d also have to say that this propensity we have now for taking offense has reached absurd levels. How many reality TV shows are essentially driven by the plot line of someone feigning injury at something that was said out of earshot? There is no doubt that we are still somewhat at sea in terms of figuring out how to make social media part of our social lives. Furthermore social gaffs, which remain common in all forms of communication, are just that much more public online, so they’re harder to smooth over.
However, then we get to matters of moralizing. Here we say that faculty shouldn’t even say nice things about students because the other students might feel bad. Really? Is there a university website that doesn’t profile successful students? I’m wondering about that standard to which we are holding faculty. Actually, I believe this is a matter of viewing the classroom as primarily a confidential space between a teacher and a student. Even though the classroom is clearly a kind of limited public space, we tend to think of the interaction between teachers and students, especially in terms of student writing, as private conversation. I believe this is a product of our modeling writing pedagogy on the one-to-one mentoring relationship. In this view, venting is not only a matter of impropriety but an immoral act that reflects upon one’s character. It becomes an action that should inform hiring decisions. Perhaps, some suggest, there should be a policy by which one could lose one’s job for venting. Comparisons are made to lawyer and doctor confidentiality.
It’s a strange twist from those that would elsewhere defend academic freedom. We all know that the typical classroom based scholarship that has driven much of rhet/comp does not require IRB approval or informed consent from the students. Why? Because it’s not confidential. If it’s not confidential when you publish it in a journal, then it’s not confidential when you publish it on facebook.
So what happens if we move in the other direction? What happens if student writing becomes public? What if the discussion between teachers and students happened in public? Well, it might look something like this. Scary, huh? I’ve been teaching in public, online spaces for close to a decade. I won’t claim that it is revolutionary. However, if we started to think of classrooms as public conversations, or at least with a public dimension, then perhaps it would alter our rhetorical orientation toward the class when we were inclined to vent. Instead of moving from one private conversations (with students) to another (with Fb friends), we would see to public spaces that overlap. That’s not to say that there wouldn’t continue to be social gaffs, but it might shift this moralistic response.
Personally I don’t vent on social media about my job. It’s not a moral choice or even a rhetorical one. I guess I’ve never really felt the need. If you’re my facebook friend, you’ll see I am not a big sharer. You might find me the same way face-to-face. My own preferences aside, I see our job in this decade as rhetoricians to investigate social media so that we’ll be able to help students develop their own digital literacies. Not that we get to be the “deciders” about what will or will not (or should or should not) happen, but we do need to develop an understanding and a way of teaching related to the digital world. I don’t think this starts with establishing a moral code whereby we try to separate writing from public online spaces.