EJ Westlake wants to see “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium,” enjoys growing vegetables and is a second cousin to gay porn legend Leo Ford. Westlake is also an assistant professor in the School of Music, Theatre and Dance. All this information is available thanks to Westlake’s Facebook.com profile.
That Westlake, a professor who is at least too old to claim membership to the online generation, has a Facebook profile isn’t unusual. Ever since September 2006, when the previously college-student-only social networking hotspot opened its doors to anyone older than 13, professors and graduate student instructors have been trickling onto Facebook. As the trend spreads, that trickle is becoming a regular stream.
Facebook’s increasing popularity among the older set, though, means students and faculty members are rubbing shoulders through cyber society in a way they never would in real life. The foray of the middle-aged onto Facebook is resulting in heightened familiarity between professor and student that both sides are struggling to negotiate.
Aaron McCollough, a lecturer in the English department, joined because some of his former students created a Facebook group called “Aaron McCollough’s Street Team.” He wanted to see what the deal was, and now, over a year later, he’s submerged in the Facebook scene.
“Usually I just log in, look at the feed, see what the most recent sort of developments are,” he said.
The majority of McCollough’s Facebook friends are fellow poets located around the country. That’s why one of McCollough’s favorite functions is the status bar. He said that it’s like a “really, really brief poetic form.”
“A lot of times people say really interesting things on there,” he said. “It’s like, ‘What can people fit on that syntax?’ “
McCollough updates his own status bar relatively frequently. “Aaron is so bored with the U.S.A.,” one of his statuses read last week.
McCollough interacts – or “goofs around” as he describes it – with other poets on Facebook mainly through the Facebook mail feature.
“Some days will be heavy Facebook days if I get one of those weird things that’s almost like IM-ing, but it’s not IM-ing,” he said, referening to Facebook messages.
McCollough said that his contact with colleagues at the University on Facebook is a bit sparser, but it still exists.
He said sometimes he and other professors and lecturers compete via each other’s Facebook applications, like completing movie quizzes or playing a rousing game of Scrabulous.
Many of McCollough’s other Facebook friends are people at the University – 15 or 20 of them are his current or former students.
“I don’t ‘friend’ students, to me that seems like it might be a little weird – I don’t know why,” he said. “But students have ‘friended’ me. It doesn’t bother me. I always accept.”
After receiving a friend request from a student, McCollough said he skims the profile but usually doesn’t find anything he considers too crazy.
“If I see something on there that I think is stupid, I just think ‘Oh that’s stupid, they might regret that one day,’ ” he said.
McCollough thinks there’s an untapped power to use Facebook as a tool to bridge the gap between professors and students.
“I think that (Facebook) feels safe in a way. Maybe it shouldn’t, but it does,” he said. “People feel a little more comfortable asking questions that they need answered. That’s why I think that it has potential as a mentoring tool.”
He hopes that if students are comfortable using Facebook to interact with their professors, they’ll be more inclined to come to office hours.
McCollough said the main harm in professors and students interacting on Facebook is excessive familiarity, but that if the site is used properly, it shouldn’t be a problem. Professors, he said, shouldn’t join the site if they think they could lose respect from their students.
“If an adult can’t manage to wield the respectable amount of authority over students, then that adult probably shouldn’t be on Facebook,” he said.
LSA junior Geoff Chiles, who is a student in one of McCollough’s Introduction to Poetry classes, said McCollough mentioned he had a Facebook account at the end of class one day, so he looked him up.
Chiles said that his perception of McCollough improved after browsing his Facebook profile. He learned that his professor was “a pretty cultured guy” and had graduated from a prestigious fine arts school, The Univesrity of the South in Tennessee.
“He plays Xbox, I saw. He likes to use his treadmill,” Chiles said.
Chiles, who is a residential adviser in Bursley Residence Hall, said he wasn’t concerned with how McCollough would perceive his own Facebook profile.
“I try to be as professional as I can and keep as many embarrassing pictures or comments to a minimum, so I wasn’t too apprehensive,” Chiles said.
The most recent post on McCollough’s wall is from Chiles. “I was just interviewed by a fellow student who writes for the Daily about student-to-professor Facebook interaction. We’re celebrities now, Aaron.”
Scott Campbell, an assistant professor in the communications department, has a paltry five wall posts, no tagged pictures and only logs on about once a month.
“I’ll occasionally poke around and make observations,” he said.
Campbell later clarified: “When I say I poke around, I don’t mean I poke people,” he said. “Would it be creepy?”
The answer is probably yes.
Campbell said the glimpse into students’ private lives via pictures and profiles doesn’t change his perception of them.
“I haven’t seen actually anything that’s outrageous or entirely inappropriate in terms of my relationship with a student,” he said.
One of the biggest drawbacks of Facebook for professors, Campbell said, is confusion about how to navigate all the site’s features and options.
“I think there’s a lot of ambiguity about what things mean,” he said.
While Campbell doesn’t friend anyone or write on walls, he exchanges messages to keep in touch.
Like McCollough, Campbell said that as professors become more active on Facebook, it could benefit the classroom experience.
“I think it’s a way you can maybe help to erase some of the status differences between professors and students,” he said.
Chiles agrees that the presence of professors and other older adults on Facebook has grown to the point that it no longer engenders a “creepy” factor. Of course, professors using Facebook isn’t weird on its own, the way they use it might be.
JJ Prescott, an assistant professor in the Law School, goes to another extreme. He doesn’t accept friend requests from current students because he’s concerned by the idea of a mutual free-flow of personal information.
“It’s sort of like a student walking up and knocking on my front door,” he said.
Prescott said that even though he likes the students who friend him and “doesn’t want to be a jerk,” he’s hesitant to cross Facebook boundaries.
“In some sense the students (who friend me) have put me a little bit of a tough spot,” he said.
For some adults, Prescott included, confusion surrounding Facebook hinders the functionality of the networking tool.
“I’m concerned in some sense if using Facebook to interact with students is appropriate,” he said. “There’s not a lot of guidance.”
After Prescott was informed that, his profile was in fact unblocked and visible to the entire Michigan community, he noted that it was a testament to how Facebook “unsavvy” he and probably most other professors were. His profile is now blocked.
John Bacon, a lecturer in the American culture department, takes a similar approach to Facebook.
He has a profile because his book publisher told him to make one, but it’s blocked.
Bacon also doesn’t accept any friend requests from current students.
“Bad idea,” he said.
He said that it’s important for professors to be objective with students at all times.
“In the same way that it’s good to have a personal connection with a professor, it is still professor-student,” he said. “It’s not just pals.”
Bacon also said that the access to personal information on both ends of the Facebook spectrum concerns him.
“There are things that are personal to my students that I should not necessarily be privy to. I don’t need to know where they were Saturday night,” he said. “It’s not my business.”
Westlake, however, thinks professors shouldn’t be so reserved in their relationships with students on Facebook.
“Students know if they have a question I’ll get back to them really quickly and that I’m approachable,” she said.
Westlake’s profile showcases more personality than other professors’ profiles. Under her work info category, she described her position as Visiting Assistant Professor at Auburn University as “Token Queer” and the same position at Bowling Green University as “Liberal Scapegoat.” But Westlake said she thinks professors and students should be judged by their performances in the classroom and not by the content of their Facebook profiles.
Westlake said she sometimes writes on students’ walls if she sees something on their status that is funny or if it’s one of their birthdays. Still, she said that student and professor online relationships must maintain a sense of professionalism.
“You have to be mindful of maintaining the same kind of relationship with students as you do in the real world,” she said. “You wouldn’t just call them up, and it seems to follow that you wouldn’t just friend them either.”
Alexandra Bisker, a junior in the School of Music, Theatre and Dance, has taken some of Westlake’s classes and exchanges messages and wall posts with her on Facebook. She said that her perception of professors doesn’t change after seeing their Facebook profiles.
“They’re people. They drink. They smoke. They have lives and lovers,” she said.
But Maggie Horne, an LSA junior, said she’s skeptical of professors bursting onto the Facebook scene.
“If the professor’s intention is to be a resource for the students, I think that that’s good,” she said. “But I think if it’s to talk about their interests or their families or their personal lives, I don’t think that’s necessary or professional.”