He is never without his camera. Whether it’s Capture the Flag in the Ezra Stiles courtyard, Class Day, or students chatting in the Buttery, Stiles College Master Stephen Pitti takes pride in documenting Stilesian life. Jumbled amongst the pictures of family, his wife and his children on his Facebook profile, are the smiling faces of his students. It is as if the members of Ezra Stiles College have become a part of his extended family.
For Pitti, Facebook is not only a convenient way to share photos with students and their families, but also a way to casually keep tabs on the goings-on of the Stiles community.
“I can see who’s sick, who’s having a rough day. I try to take the temperature of the community, in a general way,” Pitti said. “I think of it as a broad temperature more than anything specific — what the stress level is like in college, what people are excited about or interested in.”
Yet, the presence of masters, professors and even our parents on Facebook is still uncomfortable, especially to younger, first-generation Facebook users. Issues of authority and privacy run rampant. Where do you draw the line between respectful distance and TMI?
It was not long ago that social media sites like Facebook were almost exclusively utilized by young people. It was a safe place for students to express themselves separate from the scrutiny of parents and teachers. But things have drastically changed. Facebook is no longer just a forum for the young. It has expanded its membership and allows companies and organizations to form networks, introducing older generations to the once youth-dominated site.
And with new features added every couple of months (think larger photos and Spotify updates in your News Feed), our already public profiles have become even more accessible. They have become virtual first impressions. Now, we must constantly ask ourselves — before we post those pictures from last night or make suggestive comments — how much we want to let others see, especially when the authoritative figures in our lives are increasingly tuned in.
“Facebook has become an inevitable ‘next step’ beyond just knowing someone,” Pedro Javier ’14 said. “Having access to a person’s life the way we are able to do so on Facebook tacitly expresses a certain degree of trust. It’s a way to further connect with a person.”
Trust is certainly a factor when deciding whom to add as a friend or what friend requests to accept. If a student does decide to befriend a professor on Facebook, they are giving him or her access to a circle usually reserved for our friends and those within our age group.
Along with trust is the issue of hindering the student-teacher dynamic. In the classroom, we assume very professional roles when interacting with our instructors. This has to do, in part, with the amount of power they have over our academic futures. Being friends with that same professor on Facebook often blurs the line between classroom formality and chatroom openness.
“I friended [a] professor, but only after she wasn’t my professor anymore,” Javier said. Even though I assumed a friendly dynamic with her after classes, I just felt I wanted to wait until she wasn’t technically my ‘superior.’”
But some professors bring the classroom into the world of social networking.
Michael Farina, a senior lector in the Italian Department, uses Facebook as a learning tool to help students feel comfortable speaking and writing in Italian. He creates groups on Facebook where students from each of his sections can converse with each other in Italian. Some of his assignments include leaving comments on a student’s pictures while using certain verbs or grammatical techniques.
“In learning a language, community is very, very important as are ‘affective factors’ in secondary language acquisition,” Farina said. “You want to have students very at ease with you and also very at ease with one another. And Facebook allows that.”
But sometimes the combination of instant access and informality can contribute to misunderstandings in student-teacher relationships.
According to one student, who wished to remain anonymous, a male professor used Facebook as a means to get closer to her. She said the professor would show up at the same events, publicized on Facebook, that she attended and constantly left comments on her pictures. He even mentioned that he spent more time on Facebook once he became friends with her. She eventually had to tell him to back off, something she said was not prepared to do.
“Facebook made it so that he could be constantly involved in my life without my even talking to him or saying things to him myself,” the student said. “He knew what I was doing.”
And then there is the issue of whether authority in the classroom translates to authority online. If a student posts something that is offensive or threatening to another student and it shows up on a professor’s News Feed, do they have the right to confront that student?
According to Yale Executive Committee Secretary Dean Pamela George, there has only been one case in which a professor confronted a student about a comment on another social media site, Twitter. Issues stemming from Facebook posts have never been serious enough to reach the committee, she said.
For School of Art professor Anna Betbeze, who is also active on Facebook, it is more an issue of discretion.
“While students are in school, there needs to be that separation,” she said. “I don’t want that accountability.”
So what have we learned? Being friends with your professor on Facebook is not the worst thing in the world, but please, just be smart about it. But you knew that already, didn’t you?