The impact of Facebook on the college classroom goes far beyond technological innovations and the ability to build relationships. It has led young people to publicly announce intimate personal details without thought of the consequences. And that style of communication has led to some very uncomfortable encounters between students and their professors.
The first time it happened to me, the student's words came so quickly that I didn't have time to think about my reaction. A young woman approached me in the hall with a smile on her face, and said, "I won't be in class next week because I have to terminate a pregnancy."
I was dumbfounded. How could someone share something so private in a public setting with a professor she barely knew? She had been in my class for only six weeks, and we hadn't really established much of a relationship, so I had no idea how to respond. Was she looking for help? Or should I simply treat it like any other notification of an absence?
That incident was one of what has become a series of encounters with students who are so used to social media that they now openly share what was formerly considered private. Posting and tweeting intimate life details are now so normal for them that they think nothing of cavalierly giving too much information to surprised professors.
Lest any reader doubt the stories I'm about to tell, let me assure you they all happened as I describe over the past few years. The only facts I've changed are the names of the students involved.
Allison walked into my classroom apologizing for missing two weeks of classes by saying she had been in rehab for alcoholism. Stan's excuse, stated in front of the class, was that drugs he was taking for a psychological disorder had caused him to oversleep. Greg said he didn't have his assignment done because he had to go to court after being arrested for punching a guy in a bar fight. Carly texted me that she couldn't make it to class that day because she was in the hospital after having a miscarriage.
A new advisee, Amy, was in tears as she asked if she could shut my office door. It was her first semester, and she had always had a bright smile on her face in the classroom. But in my office, she told me her grades were suffering because she was having an affair with a local married TV reporter.
Such intimate details used to be considered too embarrassing to share. But with Facebook and Twitter, young people think nothing of confiding in strangers. Often the less the students know the person they are communicating with the more willing they are to spill. And they do it bluntly, now that they are used to summarizing life in 140 characters.
Oversharing creates more than a few mixed feelings in the hearts of academics. We know that asking students an innocent question, making a supportive comment, or giving a comforting hug could all be easily misconstrued. It's difficult to know how to react, especially when students announce sensitive circumstances in the classroom.
Bill told a room full of students that he was tired every Wednesday morning because he was gambling every Tuesday night and was probably an addict. Becky choked back tears trying to answer a simple textbook question and then apologized, saying her boyfriend had just broken off their engagement a few hours earlier. Normally chipper Elliot told the class he was depressed because of struggles with his live-in boyfriend. One of my student-radio DJ's got on the air and announced that over vacation he had received psychiatric treatment for his bipolar disorder, detailing how he needed help after attacking a female shopper at a store where he was the assistant manager!
Even personal hygiene has become classroom fodder. Kurt announced at the start of one period that he might miss the next meeting because he was seeing a doctor about a blocked bowel. Jacob and Carol were platonic roommates but complained in my class about each other's gross bathroom habits.
It has become normal to hear students proclaim that they have no interest in ever having children, but one senior added that he planned to get a vasectomy as a graduation gift. I even had a student confess that he paid a prostitute to help him get his mind off being stressed about midterm assignments.
Most surprising are the athletes who publicly brag about breaking rules that could cause them to lose eligibility for their scholarships. An underage football player complained as I handed him a test that he had been up all night getting drunk with teammates. A runner said that he was unable to complete an assignment after winning a meet and spending the night drinking in celebration.
The most baffling aspect for a faculty member to adjust to is that the same young people who now tell you everything have conversely become much more sensitive about what you say to them. An instructor may make an innocent comment, often in response to what is perceived to be open communication, only to have the student take offense.
A young woman who spent her entire final semester telling my class about her forthcoming marriage suddenly froze when I asked her one day how the wedding plans were going. I didn't know that her fiancé had recently called it off, and she burst into tears in front of the class. She had changed her status on Facebook and posted numerous public messages about it.
In another course, during the first-day icebreakers, students randomly picked out questions from a bowl about things like their hometowns or favorite restaurants. One student, whom I knew from his constant talking in other courses, refused to answer when his turn came and he was asked how many kids he wanted. He said that question was "too personal." Normally gregarious students may turn silent when asked about things that used to be considered innocuous, like family background or colleges they previously attended.
One guy who openly talked nonstop about his 2-year-old boy got upset one day before class when I asked how the child was. He gave me a serious look and said, "Don't ever mention my son again." I was stunned and apologized to the student afterward, at which time he revealed he was in a new custody battle with the boy's mother after she moved out of town.
I've learned that while Twitter-addicted young adults usually have no problem sharing too much information with strangers, it has to be at their own initiative. They think nothing of sending out personal messages that would make many of us blush but then turn around to perceive seemingly innocuous questions or comments from faculty members as "judgmental" or "disrespectful."
In this Facebook age, young people expect everyone to be a "friend" who is willing to accept whatever they "post." As a natural reactor who likes to respond to what students say, I have learned it is important to hold my tongue and show no expression during their startling revelations. I may want to drop my jaw and scream "Why are you telling this to strangers?," but I must remain neutral and act like whatever they say is totally normal.
That's how I responded after a student submitted a video assignment on his flash drive because he had difficulties getting it to me online. He just handed me the drive to use for grading his project, but when I later inserted it into my laptop there were no titles on the numbered files. So I clicked on the first file.
The dark, grainy footage showed the head of a girl performing fellatio on my student in the front seat of a car. That obviously wasn't the class project.
I opened a second file, and they were both naked. I eventually located the correct video to grade but was amazed that he gave me a drive with such intimate material. When I handed the flash drive back to him at the start of the next class period, I didn't make a comment and kept my facial expression neutral. I had learned that no matter what students share in this Facebook era, sometimes it's wisest not to comment on their status.
Stephen Winzenburg is a professor of communication at Grand View University in Des Moines and author of The Communication Job Search Handbook and TV Programming Perspectives.