Profs now friendly on Facebook

Joel Silverman has 138 friends at Yale but only 19 wall posts. Daniel Tauss smiles playfully behind a life-size cartoon pineapple in his profile picture. The “Superpoke” function on Bill Summers’ profile says he has bought a drink for a student. Scroll down and a prompt asks, “What do you want to do to Bill?” and gives options of “bite, caress, chest bump, defenestrate, do, give flowers to, grope, high five, hug, hustle” — the list goes on.

Only on Facebook can Yale students approach professors in such a cavalier way. But as more deans such as Silverman and Tauss and professors such as Summers are setting up profiles on the popular social network, some students are growing wary of sharing their private lives with Yale academia.

Many students interviewed said they are initially surprised to be “friended” by professors at Yale. There seems to be an implicit “creepiness” to the act, they said. Before clicking the “accept” button, some students ask themselves, “Will I be stalked?” Others feel uncomfortable sharing what they see as inane and potentially inappropriate information with their superiors.

“It’s a little weird,” said Gregory Chase ’10, “I don’t want them to see my profile and pictures.”

William Summers, a professor of history and biology who prefers to be known as “Bill,” said he respects students’ unwillingness to disclose their personal information to professors. He said he understands that students are concerned about privacy in cyberspace and the impact that their Facebook profiles can have in the professional world.

“A lot of students talk about purging pictures after they graduate,” he said. “They now realize that job interviewers, police, future employers — almost everyone uses it.”

But most professors said they have better things to do than stalk students online. Summers said he frankly does not have the time to browse through student profiles, though he admitted to being naturally curious about his 21-year-old daughter’s Facebook account. Branford College Dean Daniel Tauss said although he is a member, he does not use Facebook to match students’ names with faces. Instead, Tauss said, he uses Yale’s other resources, such as the Old Campus College Facebook, to access the University’s official pictures of students.

James Pollack ’09 said students often overthink and dramatize the intentions of professors who sign up for the University’s network on Facebook.

“I can see how it might be creepy to have your parents look at your profile,” said Pollack, who corresponds with Summers via Facebook. “But I don’t think it’s a big deal for professors. They have no incentive to be stalking you.”

Most professors interviewed said they primarily use Facebook as an online forum for communication with students. Like other methods of communication, Tauss said, Facebook is a way to stay in contact with “old friends.”

Summers agreed that Facebook is a great social bridge between professors and students who have graduated or are studying abroad, as well as those who are still on campus. He said he also uses the resource to keep in touch with his former colleagues and other faculty members.

Pollack, who took Summers’ Epidemics in Global Perspectives seminar as a freshman, touches base with Summers through wall posts because he said it is more convenient to post a message on a virtual “wall” than to type up a formal e-mail. Facebook is an appealing choice when compared to the intimidating prospect of one-on-one office hours, he said.

“It’s an easy, noncommittal way to drop a little note and say hi, what’s up,” Pollack said.

But other Facebooking professors fear that the ease of Facebook could reduce the possibility of face-to-face interaction. Tauss said he sees how Facebook can be used as an excuse for failing to build new relationships.

“People who spend hours browsing on a computer are really missing out on getting to know the people around them in a real way,” Tauss said.

Friend requests, as it turns out, work both ways. Some students actively friend professors on Facebook to pave the way to a long-term academic relationship.

Other students said Facebook gives them insight into professors’ lives outside the classroom. Chase said he would only search for professors on Facebook to “get a feel for” their personalities, something that he said is rarely conveyed on the first day of class or in a large lecture class.

But despite Facebook’s invasive mini-feed and omnipresent tagging opportunities, professors’ profiles — usually open to the entire Yale network — rarely expose juicy information.

Summers said his most scandalous Facebook-related episode occurred when his daughter posted a message on his wall exposing his age to the online community. Later, Summers received a cake with the age inscribed.

Professors, like their students, screen the information they post online based on what they feel comfortable disclosing. Tauss said he should be embarrassed with his film and television interests — including Battlestar Galactica, Office Space and Clerks — but he is not particularly bothered. On the other hand, Akhil Amar, professor of the popular undergraduate course Constitutional Law, does not have a picture or any wall posts on his profile. According to Amar’s mini-feed, he has had “no recent activity.”

Summers said he sees any tool that breaks the barrier between professor and student as positive because it enhances the teaching and learning process.

And, if it means using technology that students are comfortable with, why not take advantage?

“I’m not aware of the malicious end of Facebook,” Summers said.

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