Thursday, March 20, 2008

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Walking the accessibility tightrope

The New York Times' Stephanie Rosenbloom writes about the trend of professors revealing more of their souls online:

It is not necessary for a student studying multivariable calculus, medieval literature or Roman archaeology to know that the professor behind the podium shoots pool, has donned a bunny costume or can’t get enough of Chaka Khan.

Yet professors of all ranks and disciplines are revealing such information on public, national platforms: blogs, Web pages, social networking sites, even campus television....

These days, the clues are usually digital and are broad invitations to get to know the person behind the Ph.D. It is not uncommon for professors’ Web pages to include lists of the books they would take to a deserted island, links to their favorite songs from bygone eras, blog posts about their children, entries “written” by their dogs and vacation photographs.

While many professors have rushed to meet the age of social networking, there are some who think it is symptomatic of an unfortunate trend, that a professor’s job today is not just to impart knowledge, but to be an entertainer.

Of course, those of us in the blog trenches have been aware of this problem for some time. I wrote the following in my guide to poli sci blogging for APSA:
Another potential problem is how students view a professor’s blog. If an academic blogger achieves any kind of public success, then that academic’s students are likely to peruse his or her blog. This is not automatically a bad thing, but academic bloggers often display more personal idiosyncrasies on their web page than they would ordinarily reveal in a classroom setting. This can be problematic because students often overinterpret their interactions with professors. They might believe they have a more informal relationship with the professor—or view a blog post as signaling a message when none is intended.
This is a tricky tightrope to walk, and after five plus years of this blog, I'm still not entirely sure I have the hang of it.

For example, it's clear that some professors create MySpace or Facebook pages to make themselves more accessible to students. As I got sucked into the Facebook vortex, however, my instinct was to go in the opposite direction. I neither accept nor proffer friend requests from current students.

I do this because, well, I'm not their friend -- and letting them think otherwise is deeply problematic. I'm their teacher, their sometimes advisor, and their occasionally harsh taskmaster. Friendship comes only after the grading portion of the relationship is over -- and only then if I'm in a good mood.

I seem to be in the minority in adopting this position, however.

UPDATE: Well, I'm not a minority of one -- Amy Zegart adopts a similar position:

Call me old school, but being a real person is overrated....

I want to make students uncomfortable-- challenging them to question their own ideas, take opposing views seriously, and grapple with difficult assignments and questions. I want to get them out of the echo chambers so many of us inhabit and learn that smart, good people can disagree. I want them to know that in the real world, effort is not the same thing as achievement, and that striving for excellence means that even an A paper can get better. Learning is hard. It is also endlessly rewarding.

College students don’t need professors to be their friends. They need professors to be professors.

posted by Dan on 03.20.08 at 08:52 AM


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