Brent Foster

Associate Professor of Communications and Interim Director of Undergraduate Studies and General Education at California State University at Fullerton

What They're Saying About You

Full peter lorre crime and punishment

Original Image: Crime and Punishment (1935)

The students were looking at their phones and giggling like you might expect on an elementary-school playground. I asked, "What are you guys laughing about?" And suddenly they adopted a protective stance — that of some personal-space violation as they shielded their screens. "Don't worry Dr. Foster," one student said, "it's just a private Facebook page for us students."

We were in Guatemala at the time, engaged in an "International Journalism" course, and although we had just been in the dusty, Internet-less, volcanic backcountry of Chocola for the past week, we had finally arrived at our scheduled R&R and found a line to the outside world. The freshly washed students laid in hammocks, created their online watercooler, and began their feverish texting. To this day, I have no idea what they were writing. You see, my colleague and I (the two faculty members on the trip) were not invited to join. What I do know is that throughout our time in Guatemala, there were continual updates to this virtual platform and an undercurrent of communication was established that left me in awesome wonder.

I am fortunate to have experienced this new trend in an environment where we were all heavily dependent upon one another. Those who have taught abroad know that you become powerfully close to your students as they are "your family" and you must have each other's backs. I also thought it was a great way for the students to have an outlet to talk about how the class was going, share their feelings and, yes, even "talk" about the professors.

But I also recognized that this new watercooler was fraught with both positive and negative implications for faculty members. Today, a year later, I have collected some anecdotal evidence that leads me to believe faculty members should carefully consider how a private Facebook page might affect your courses and your teaching — in both good and bad ways. How?

It can be a good thing. A student-controlled private Facebook page about your course is just another communication platform that offers students a chance to become friends outside of the classroom. It can provide a space to connect and form study groups. Relationships are known to evolve much quicker in online environments. Research on online dating sites suggests that daters are more willing to ask deeper questions via the web than they might in a face-to-face environment.

That translates to your classroom as students may be more willing to disclose their grades to each other and discuss what you told them about their performance. They might be able to answer each other's questions before having to get you involved.

Likewise, entire cohorts of graduate students are engaging in this practice. That suggests that it is not simply a semester issue, it may be a multi-year narrative. In the end, if students feel more connected to one another as a result of a private Facebook page, there is a greater likelihood of happiness, retention, and graduation.

It should make you more alert to grading inconsistencies. Our students might upload their entire paper to this private page — complete with your comments and grades. So your matrix better be cogent. If more than a few students do this, there had better be clear, unbiased continuity in the way you grade or you can anticipate problems.

Imagine a faculty member writing, "you didn't synthesize enough," without providing a deeper rationale for why this student lost a significant chunk of points on the assignment. A student might take that feedback, post it on the private page and ask, "Did anyone else get this?"

There are numerous ways students might compare your comments and grades. For example, if the women in your class happen to get higher grades on a project than the men, students might jump to the conclusion that you are biased against male students. There may be no validity to that argument, but you may have to defend yourself against the accusations.

It could wind up being used as "evidence" against you. I have served multiple years on our campus board for academic appeals. Case after case is built with statements and offerings of factual evidence. Most of the time, the factual evidence comes in the form of email threads.

Today, a student might print a transcript of the interactions on a private Facebook page and espouse that as evidence in some grade dispute. The narratives might weave a web of unpleasantness that will be difficult for a faculty member to defend against. If multiple students are feeling and expressing frustration about your grading or fairness, then a single student's appeal may feel stronger to an appeals board.

It should make you respond to email promptly. If you are the type of professor who doesn't quickly respond to emails from students, you might find that they will share their experiences about that on the private Facebook page they've created. Likewise, if you don't actually answer the questions your students send in an email, but rather reply, "you're on the right track" that response, too, will no doubt be copied and pasted.

Today, students are hungry for immediate responses to their questions and many do not want to bother with office hours. A lackadaisical, condescending or seemingly inappropriate response may turn into a cyber feeding frenzy. That could poison the environment in your classroom and may ultimately come back to haunt you when it comes time for students to evaluate your teaching at the end of the course.

Embrace it. Just when you thought Facebook was only for people 25 and older, a resurgence is occurring — at least at the level of the college classroom. It is probable that Facebook will be only one of a handful of different cyber watercoolers that your students may choose from to communicate privately about you and your course, but the implications are many and should be considered carefully.

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