Don't Poke Me: Professors' Privacy In The Age Of Facebook

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RussellBy Rich Russell
Before seeing the new movie The Social Network this past weekend, I first read the article on co-founder Mark Zuckerberg in The New Yorker. His own Facebook profile is quoted in the piece: “I am trying to make the world a more open place.” But an open world does not necessarily mean a more connected one. I had my two face-to-face classes of College Writing this semester read and discuss a recent report that social networking might be impairing the ability of college students to empathize; of course, my students’ first complaint was that it is not just college students who have lost a secure (human) connection in this constantly connected world. Unlike my students, I remember a world without online social networking. And then I remember Friendster. And I joined Facebook back before moms did: when it was still the semi-elite space of college students. Now it’s a place for everyone. (Although still not my mom. My mom doesn’t even have a cell phone yet, bless her.)
Colleagues on this site have written about Facebook before, but I thought I would offer my brief note on the matter when it comes to the 21st century dilemma of to friend or not to friend one’s students. I do not: not current students anyway. If a student requests to be my “friend” after grades have been entered for the semester (the word friend itself seems odd: are we friends? As Henry James would offer, “We are not enemies”), then I might accept, because my own page is rather tame/boring; mostly I post nothing more than links to articles (often about Facebook; how meta of me). And it is natural to feel responsible for one’s students long after the term expires. It seems a good way to continue that advisory role we must undertake as educators. But while the students are still in my class or have registered for one of my classes again — why Facebook (verb) then?
Inevitably when we discuss social networking in my classes, students will ask, “Are you on Facebook, Professor Russell?” I answer, “Yes, but — do you really want me knowing what you’re doing on the weekends when you should be writing papers for my class?” (Most agree not.) And while it has become selfish to want a life of one’s own these days, I still do want one; does that make me a bad person, a bad professor?
I remember reading D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow as a graduate student; I felt a great swell of empathy for the character Ursula, the schoolteacher. Ursula becomes covetous of her weekend mornings when she sits cross-stitching at home. She cannot go into town, because the students heckle her and throw stones at her on her way home. Is it so much for me to imagine the stones cast against Ursula becoming incessant pokes on Facebook?
The New Yorker article cites Zuckerberg’s affection for The Aeneid; he even quotes in the English the part about Aeneas building an empire without boundaries. But I choose to also remember Robert Frost: “who doesn’t love a wall?” Is it ironic that, in maintaining my mending wall (good fences make good students), I deny current students access to my Facebook wall? But this is what I feel is appropriate; this is what I can handle right now. I leave it to others to negotiate their own privacy settings.
About the Teacher in Pajamas: Rich Russell earned associate degrees in liberal arts and general studies from Atlantic Cape, a bachelor’s in English and creative writing from New York University, a master’s in secondary education from New School University and a master’s in English literature from University College at the University of London. Russell has been an adjunct instructor at Atlantic Cape since 2007 and served as co-advisor of Atlantic Cape’s student-run literary magazine, Rewrites.

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