In the six years of teaching at my university, I’ve gotten to know my students on a variety of levels—the rather impersonal environment of the classroom, the closeness of international travel, and now, in a completely unexpected way, as future colleagues, as a mentor and, yes, as friends.
Much has been written about the usefulness—or not—of applications like Facebook or Twitter. Often derided as a waste of time or invasion of privacy by some of my colleagues, I have found that Facebook, particularly, allows me to maintain relationships with students and former students on all these levels. As a public forum, I can post interesting articles related to my research or class discussions. Pictures from travels abroad with students keep us in touch while also attracting possible applicants to my programs. And in my more “private” settings, former students are new friends; I keep up with the new developments in their lives and careers.
Too many of my colleagues, however, are afraid of Facebook. They are worried about their own privacy or possible repercussions from their employers. My advice: Facebook is public on so many levels, so evaluate what you want to share, and of course, untag any embarrassing photo. Keep your distance where appropriate. Never friend a student—let them “friend request” you and then keep them on a limited profile. This is all common sense, of course.
Despite these cautions, however, there are those who simply do not understand the intrinsic value of these public friendships. I once attempted to share my positive experiences with Facebook with a group of colleagues who were also leading international trips. I noted that Facebook groups helped me pass on vital information, and Facebook statuses from my students were sometimes good indicators of student activities when I wasn’t around, or alerted me to possible homesickness or other emotional issues. An older colleague—who, ironically, studied social networking—publicly berated me for “stalking” students. He also asked why any of “us”—meaning faculty—would want to have any kind of personal relationship with students.
Needless to say, I was embarrassed and appalled by his reaction. Why, I asked myself, would we not avail ourselves of the friendship of some of the wonderfully talented young people we meet? While I had always imagined the satisfaction of being the “Tuesdays with Morrie” kind of professor, I didn’t expect that I would meet young people who would become some of my dearest friends after their graduations. Over the years, however, I have been fortunate to work abroad with competent, talented and smart assistants, and now they number among my closest friends. We have shared some of the most difficult and most wonderful moments of our lives together—breakups, divorce, new love, engagements, new jobs, and new adventures. I have given them advice on careers, on life, on being a young professional woman…and they have given me advice on fashion, on self-confidence and even on my work and research.
Despite the difference in our ages, these young friends of mine make life richer. Often times in our efforts to establish ourselves as authority figures in the classroom and in the academy, we forget that we are making all sorts of impressions on our students that we may underestimate. But they make impressions on us, too. They can be potential friends and allies. They can hold up a mirror to our self-importance and the self-insulating nature of academia. And they can connect us to the world of young, exciting, bold ideas to keep our work fresh and relevant.
Denise Horn is an Assistant Professor of International Affairs at Northeastern University and a founding member of the editorial collective at University of Venus .