In the fall of 2007 I became a first-time department chair in an interdisciplinary unit of a major research university. That was also when I joined Facebook. At that time I had just a vague understanding of social networking sites, so I asked the students in my Freshman Seminar, “should I join Facebook or MySpace?” They all immediately replied, “Facebook!” In the words of one student, “MySpace is just a bunch of high school kids trying to collect as many friends as possible. Facebook is more professional.” I did not know if by “professional” he meant that Facebook was designed by professionals vs. by the users, or if it targeted those who aspire to be professionals (and those who had already entered those ranks). I gave Facebook a try, however, and was immediately hooked! In the first week I must have taken 20 quizzes, and devoted a couple of hours to compose lists of favorite books, TV shows, and movies. As the semester progressed Facebook became less of a time suck (thankfully, since I had new administrative duties to learn!) but it definitely earned a spot on my browser bookmark bar.
It took longer for me to get into the habit of “friending” others. My first friend request came from a fellow professor. “What the hell is this?” I remember as my initial reaction, along with “is this gonna be a gateway to spam?” A naïve reaction, of course, but hey, I was a newbie! After a day of staring at the request I accepted it and was off and running. While I’ll never collect the thousands of friends undergrads seem to have, my list did grow at a steady clip in the first few years.
As analyzed by others (such as Jeffrey R. Young in “How Not to Lose Face on Facebook, for Professors”), a common dilemma faced by professors is whether or not we should friend students. Like many of my colleagues, my solution is to accept friend requests from students but not to initiate any of these actions. It can be weird to get a friend request from a freshman during the first week of the semester, but I figure that it would be weirder if I decline the invitation, as the student might interpret this as a negative critique of her/him. Of course, I could have a publically stated policy of not being friends with students, but then I would miss out on all of the interesting information they expose me to in their posts. “How Not to Lose Face on Facebook, for Professors” notes that instructors appreciate the richer understanding of students gained from Facebook interactions. Also, as Bryan Alexander notes in “Social Networking in Higher Education,” “If we want our students to engage the world as critical, informed people, then we need to reshape our plans as that world changes,” so I need to fully embrace the new technologies that are ubiquitous in students’ lives.
(An aside about students friending their instructors: for years I prided myself on having close connections with my undergraduate students, but Facebook revealed that my relationship with these students has been altered. In the fall of 2008 I co-taught a class with a graduate student, and learned that I had crossed over to a different place when many students friended her but not me (!). Frak! [I suppose that using references from Battlestar Galactica also has contributed to this new state of affairs.])
An area of Facebook friend relations that is more problematic for me concerns relationships with my faculty and staff. Sometimes I feel like I’m Section One’s Operations. Section One was the organization at the center of the TV spy show La Femme Nikita, which aired on the USA Network from 1997-2001. A remake – Nikita – is current airing on The CW Network, but it is not as compelling as the original. TV.com’s La Femme Nikita page provides a good description of the first series:
Based on the cult motion picture of the same name, La Femme Nikita is a sexy, stylish spy series following a deadly secret agent. Peta Wilson stars as Nikita, a young woman framed for murder and faced with life imprisonment, until an ultimatum arises which involves working for a clandestine anti-terrorism organization known as Section One. Nikita chooses a life of espionage, but soon discovers that she is just the latest pawn in Section’s games…
Operations is the Man In Charge of Section One, using whatever methods are necessary to complete covert missions. Operatives who do not measure up are placed in “abeyance” and sent on missions with a low probability of anyone emerging alive. Or they might be “cancelled” outright. All operatives in the Section are wary of Operations, who makes these life and death determinations…often on a whim, it seems.
While most department chairs are nowhere near as ruthless as Operations (well, I think they’re not), they are called upon to make tough decisions, so becoming too friendly with faculty via the informal joking and sharing of life experiences could interfere with objectivity: “I can’t discipline this person, we’re ‘friends.’” Even more cynically, a chair who is Facebook friends with a faculty member might refrain from action out of fear that the faculty member can retaliate with embarrassing information sourced from the chair’s Facebook profile.
Department chairs can pretty easily protect themselves by limiting the type and/or scope of information they place on their Facebook profiles. The story is different for chair-staff relationships. While theoretically a department chair is the “boss” of faculty, professors can pretty much do what they want, especially if they have tenure. Members of a department’s staff, however, are more clearly understood to report to the chair. The best department chairs, I believe, try to minimize faculty-staff power imbalances whenever possible. For instance, a good chair will frequently solicit input from staff on department operations (and also on Operations if s/he is especially bold!), and implements suggestions whenever possible. When chairs and staff are Facebook friends, this can lead the chair to feel obligated to read and respond to all of the Facebook minutiae that s/he can safely ignore from other friends. I feel that I should glance at Facebook notifications I receive from staff, since they deem these postings as important on some level. Failing to occasionally comment could signal annoyance and lack of appreciation for their efforts.
Once again, the chair can make some type of public (or even private) statement about acceptable terms of Facebook friend activities, but that flies in the face of Facebook’s openness: “If I’m good enough to be your friend, I’m mature enough to be trusted to moderate the messages I send to you.” An explicit statement about acceptable and unacceptable friend activity also threatens to reaffirm power differentials that many chairs try to minimize.
Nikita and Michael – the two top operatives in Section One – had a tortured emotional relationship in which they could never be totally sure of the other’s motives and intentions: Michael trained Nikita and was the team leader who often manipulated her vulnerabilities for the sake of the mission and/or his own personal objectives. If not viewed as quite the all-powerful figure that is Operations, a department chair is often perceived (in both real and imagined ways) as a Michael who unnecessarily filters information, thus the chair’s Facebook posts can be scrutinized for hints of hidden meanings. As a department chair I eventually accepted that the ways in which I interfaced with students, staff, and other professors on Facebook would be different from interactions with other friends.
The same will be true for me as a new collegiate dean who takes office next week. For example, in response to a press release about my appointment one of the faculty members in my new unit sent a congratulatory note to my Facebook account, and my response took much more time and effort than usual:
Hello, and thanks for the note! Sorry that I did not see it earlier, but it was routed to my “Other” box that I don’t check that often. Feel free to send me a friend request; no worries if you would prefer not to do that. I also look forward to meeting you and joining the Parkside team.
I think that it took me an hour to compose that 58-word note, as I did not want to create an impression of being like Operations even before I set forth on campus. (The faculty member did send me a friend request…whew!) As was the case with Facebook interactions as a department chair, I’ll create a comfort zone while using Facebook as a dean. I just hope that college students will still view Facebook as an exciting site once I do.