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Is Facebook the Place to Say It?

The temptation is always there.

As educators, we know from the start that not every day is going to be the best or most productive day of our careers. We know that while we are prone to love our students and take a serious personal interest in their development, each one who comes along is not going to be our favorite. Likewise, we’ve all had that one student who is continually problematic in some way or another. We’re faced with this reality early on, and for a young, idealistic professor, it can be a hard pill to swallow.

Furthermore, as human beings—social creatures who feel the desire to be noticed and to share our victories and to bemoan our faults—we know the impulse to “put it all out there,” to “vent,” to make light of a bad situation in front of our friends and colleagues in order to make it more bearable. But are social-networking sites like Facebook the place to air your classroom’s dirty laundry? As a higher-education professional, I firmly believe that they are not. And I’d like you to take a moment to consider why.

It’s an ethical gray area, for sure. On the one hand, it’s your Facebook account. You’ve carefully managed your privacy settings and know exactly who has access to your thoughts. And when you decide to say something glib about the student who continually turns in inadequate writing assignments, or the one who can’t let go of gender-specific pronouns to describe entire groups, or the one who shows up unapologetically late two out of three days a week, you always omit his or her name. Totally anonymous, it would seem. And therefore, no one gets hurt. Considering your current position, it’s difficult to believe that you’d ever want to hurt a student. However, as is the case with much of our profession and, many times, our respective fields of research, it’s not about the realistic possibility of damage, but rather actions that tread a thin, if theoretical, line of appropriateness.

Sure, your problem student probably isn’t going to find her way to your Facebook page without your direct invitation to do so. And the spirited debates you have with those in your cyber-circle about the actions of a particular student may seem to yield useful observations (not to mention copious numbers of  “Likes”). But what makes this approach problematic is that you are essentially having a conversation about the decisions of a student in your professional care in a public forum without inviting that student to participate. The student—the one who most needs to be involved—isn’t even aware that she is being discussed online by perhaps dozens of other people.

We’ve all come home angry, having spent our commutes thinking about the pitch-perfect post—one that straddles the line between humored and offended—to namelessly expose the student who made the day’s most grievous error. And, since that student will probably never see it, you ask yourself why not? I ask you instead to consider this: If that student knew what you’d written, would she be happy? And how would it affect your credibility as an educator in charge of helping that student develop? If the answers are “no” and “adversely,” then take a beat and reconsider sharing.

We need to foster an environment of inclusivity. And while social networking gives the impression of being just that, we have to keep in mind whether we are including the right people—the people who will most benefit—in our conversations. No matter how much personal progress you feel you’re making when discussing a student’s shortcoming online, the fact is you are deliberately excluding the student—forcing his educational needs into the corner while your particular pedagogical gripes are addressed and spotlighted. Don’t get me wrong—as educators we have a commitment to personal-professional and intellectual growth. But in the case of the off-the-cuff Facebook rant, we are using nameless students as vehicles for our conversations, which are, for the most part, very public and prone to indiscretion.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m guilty of this on at least one occasion. I’ve felt the pangs of frustration and wanted nothing more than to tell my friends about something awful that happened in class. I don’t know why I did it, exactly. Maybe because I wanted someone to agree with me. Maybe because I wanted the attention after a day of feeling practically useless in my field. These things are acceptable human reactions, and I don’t fault myself for feeling them. But you should absolutely keep in mind that there is a time and a place for this sort of venting, and any kind of social network is not it.

Instead, consider alternate venues and approaches. Perhaps you have a mentor in your department with whom you can talk about your problem students in confidence. Or maybe you can start arranging a weekly meeting of fellow professors where you can talk these things through. Not just malicious complaining, mind you, but a forum where others might be able to offer possible solutions or approaches you’ve overlooked because of frustration. That—the overlooking—is especially easy to do when you feel at your wit’s end with a student. I think what’s important to note about these two (of many) alternatives to Facebooking your woes is that they are confidential and private. They not only respect the privacy of the student, but also protect you as a professional in a minefield of ethical questions.

I know the urge to let it all out online can be strong—it only takes a click—but I encourage you, next time your cursor is hovering over the Post button, to take a moment and consider how productive that click is really going to be. Consider whether this is a conversation that should be had behind closed doors, and better yet, with the student himself.

Chad Abushanab is a lecturer in the English department at Vanderbilt University.

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