Is it appropriate for faculty members to interact with students on social media? This is a question that students and professors cannot seem to agree on.
An article that was posted on The Fairfield Mirror’s Facebook page on March 3 called “College Democrats Host ‘Let’s Talk Sex’” elicited a controversial response from alumni, faculty and students. Remarks between commenters tallied up to almost 100 comments and more than 50 reactions. This spurred conversation as to what social media interaction is appropriate and what is not for faculty members.
Senior Ben Bayers met with Fr. Michael P. Doody, S.J. to speak about the latter’s comments on the Facebook page.
“I chose to speak to Fr. Doody because I thought that the way he used his position of power within the University’s sphere, to attack and put down the opinions of others, was inappropriate and unprofessional,” said Bayers. “I believed that it created an unsafe space for students on campus, and that in general, it was immature as a professional on campus to personally respond to each comment.”
However, Bayers believes that most of the Fairfield faculty acts appropriately on social media.
“In general, the Fairfield University faculty and staff are quite responsible and professional with their social media usage,” he said. “There have been very few cases of unprofessional online interactions.”
Fr. Doody declined to comment on the subject.
Assistant Professor of English Sonya Huber also feels that most professors use social media responsibly.
“I have not heard of or seen any inappropriate faculty use of social media,” said Huber. “I have seen a lot of great use of social media by faculty: people encouraging their students’ accomplishments and publications, sharing photos of class trips, and so on.”
Assistant Director of Core Writing and Professor of English Elizabeth Hilts agreed, saying, “Those with whom I am connected use social media wisely and appropriately. I love seeing posts by Fairfield faculty members that celebrate student accomplishments because I think that good news should be shared far and wide.”
Huber typically avoids using social media to connect with current students.
“I try very hard to not accept friend requests until after students have graduated from undergrad,” she commented. “If I have made an error and accepted a current student, I review my list on Facebook periodically and remove those people.”
Huber explained that she doesn’t connect with current students because her persona on social media is honest and informal. Huber feels that if students friend her on Facebook and see her joking around with friends, they will take her less seriously.
“I need to consider classroom authority carefully as a female professor, because many students already take me less seriously due to my gender,” she said.
Hilts, however, does not have a problem with friending undergraduate students as long as they no longer have her as a professor.
“I’m actually Facebook friends with a number of former students, including some who are still undergrads at Fairfield and at other schools where I’ve taught,” said Hilts. “The interactions I have with former students are wonderful because social media allows us to maintain contact in an informal way. That is kind of the ideal, I think, to move beyond the teacher-student dynamic into a more equal footing.”
Professor of Visual & Performing Arts Jo Yarrington, unlike Huber and Hilts, friends current students who take her classes on social media. According to Yarrington, she contacts students on a general distribution list and does not individually interact with students. She uses this form of contact to “relay professional information about a school event.”
Yarrington also connects with past students.
She uses social media to “congratulate them on life events – new job, important promotion, marriage, the birth of a child.”
According to Yarrington, online conversations between faculty and students that are not about campus/professional events or career opportunities are not appropriate.
Junior Caroline McDermott said, “I think if you’re a student in a professor’s class you maybe should not connect on social media.”
However, Theresa Bravo ‘19, disagreed.
“I think that part of what’s great about Fairfield is that it’s so small that you can get that closeness with the professors,” Bravo said. “So I think it’s a cool thing that you are able to do and have that relationship with your professor.”
Administration takes a similar view and does not attempt to restrict faculty members in their social media use.
“Faculty members have deep expertise in their respective areas of study, and we encourage the use of social media to extend the reach of their thought leadership,” said Vice President of Marketing & Communications Jennifer Anderson ’97.
According to Huber, many of her former students that she friends on social media are in their 30s with children.
Hilts does not believe that it is appropriate to friend current students who are in her classes on social media.
“I don’t think students want to know too much about what’s going on in my personal life, which is part of what I post about on social media,” she said. “Based on posts by the younger members of my family, and I have to admit I’m stunned they connect with me on social media, it’s probably best that I don’t see what my current students share on social media.”
“They read my writing, I read theirs, I am available for career advice, and I get a chance to be proud of their accomplishments,” said Huber of her matriculated past students. “Through social media I have sent information about employment opportunities and publication opportunities. I would describe each of these relationships in a different way. With some, we are friends who talk politics. Others come to me for advice about writing and publication.”
About the topic of professors friending students, Matt Eldridge ‘18 said, “I don’t see anything wrong with it. I’ve connected with professors on LinkedIn. I think it could get inappropriate, but I think people tend to keep that relationship professional.”