Negotiating Student-Instructor Relationships on Facebook

Facebook's wordmark floating in front of a blue background with plants


Michael Roberts

Image Credit: 

"facebook" by pshab on flickr

All young instructors know it: that dreaded moment when a student, former or current, adds you as a "friend" on Facebook. We encourage students to call us by our first names, and cultivate a sense of informal comfort in the classroom. As young people closer in age to our students than our advisors, we also realize that Facebook has become a near-universal social networking outlet, filled not only with friends but cousins, colleagues, and (gulp) parents. But besides the obvious privacy issues, the friend request from the student brings up another social negotiation: is it appropriate, or desirable, to become friends with a former student, in any sense of the word?

I don't know if, as Chris Ortiz y Prentice suggests, “you could describe the entire social apparatus of modern-day public schools... as the protection of the adults from the students' sexualities, and vice versa,” but a certain amount of anxiety lingers regarding student-teacher interaction, even at the college level. Even as we encourage an egalitarian camaraderie among our students, we work to maintain a clear distinction between instructor and student. We dress the part, we present strict-sounding policy statements, and we speak with authority even we discussion ventures into unsure territory. Unfortunately, it is all the more important for women and young instructors to maintain this authority. If students see the instructor as a friend, mother, or object of lust, the educational relationship could become confused or compromised, which could create problems for both teacher and student. Most instructors I know are therefore (sometimes painfully aware) of the negotiations involved in creating a classroom ethos. Be informal but professional; encourage participation but not over-sharing; be available to discuss coursework but not ex-girlfriends; be friendly but not a friend.

In terms of negotiating social relationships, though, Facebook is the Wild West. The near-universality of the website also brings with it serious confusion as to its role in the social lives of its users. Some people use Facebook as a professional networking tool, while others use it as a venue to publish their most intimate thoughts and feelings. So what does it mean when a student friends an instructor on Facebook? Is she trying to make a professional contact similar to networking sites like LinkedIn? Is he curious about the instructor's private life, and wanting to start and informal friendship? Is the “friending” the beginning of a flirtation or romantic courtship? It could mean any of these, and additional, more complicated possibilities abound. “Friending” on Facebook is an interesting topic of cultural semantics; the relative novelty of the interface means that the significance of the act is still in flux in our culture, and has diversely rich meanings for different user communities. While interesting, though, this cultural confusion is dangerous for student-teacher relationships, and most of my colleagues wisely avoid Facebook friendships with students.

This social networking issue gained particular relevance for me last year, though, when I taught Rhetoric 309K: The Rhetoric of Facebook. In the class we studied some of the social issues I describe above, as well as issues of privacy, accessibility, and marketability that arise on the website. Not only did the class use Facebook as its object of study; we also used Facebook as the medium through which much of the class was conducted. Each student created a new class-only Facebook profile, and friended class profile as well as each other. They had to update their profiles week by week, updating research, posting screen shots and analysis, and commenting on their classmates' progress. In general this ad-hoc Facebook network worked so much better than my previous forays into class blogging or discussion boards; the students were already fluent with the technologies of writing, sharing, and commenting, and could focus more on the content of the class, which happened to be rhetorical analysis of those very technologies.

The Facebook networking of our class had unintended social consequences, however. The students had to write at least one Facebook post a week, but were free to share more if they chose to. Some students did, and their posts were not always related to the coursework. Some would invite the class to their a capella concerts or basketball games; others would post their articles in The Daily Texan. When a student had a birthday, many of her classmates wrote on her Facebook wall wishing her a good one. A few students even posted funny videos that were borderline inappropriate for a college classroom. In short, some students used Facebook like their audience was their friend group.

The student interactions with me also became more and more informal. Since I distributed assignment updates on Facebook, most of my students contacted me via Facebook message instead of email. These messages were, predictably, often less than formal, and occasionally used the misspellings and abbreviations common to text messages. In fact, many of them were probably sent from smart phones. Embracing the technology, I held office hours on Facebook chat from my usual office in Parlin. I had record numbers of students ask questions on the chat program, but the interactions also veered into the personal, funny, or inappropriate in ways that had never happened in face-to-face conversations. In short, I was delighted at how comfortable my students with communicating with me in this novel format, but also a little concerned about maintaining the distance and authority required to conduct the class.

I addressed these issues by bringing them to the forefront of our in-class discussion. Both semesters, in the second unit on rhetorical analysis, I discussed both my classroom ethos and their interactions with me and each other. I chuckled at a few anonymous students' misspelled messages, but then moved on to how the technologies might affect their self-presentation even in the classroom. These conversations were very productive, and did not shut down student participation. By the end of the year, most of my students had a pretty sophisticated understanding of what the social and rhetorical stakes of Facebook actions are, including posting, liking, and, of course, friending.

That said, I still do not accept friend requests from students, current, or former. In my class on Facebook, we had the time to discuss the nuanced social jockeying that accompanies the Facebook friendship. In my previous and subsequent teaching experience, I have had neither the time nor the inclination to discuss the implications of social networking. And frankly, some things are better left private.


Creative Commons License
All materials posted to this site are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. We invite you to use and remix these materials, but please give credit where credit is due. In addition, we encourage you to comment on your experiments with and adaptations of these plans so that others may benefit from your experiences.


User login