Crossing the (Digital) Line

As technologies and generations change, professors must consider new ways of building bridges with their students, Julie Frechette writes.


May 16, 2008

Like most faculty members, when I obtained my teaching position, I was asked to type a few sentences about my scholarly interests for the requisite college Web page. Semester after semester, I promised myself that I would revise my description so that it wasn’t laden with academic prose and one-dimensional representations.

Eight years later, I decided it was time to step into the 21st century and revive my Web presence. This time, in addition to a narrative about my academic work, I featured interesting trivia about myself that included my favorite movies, TV shows, books, songs, food, travels, hobbies, family photos, blogs, podcasts, and even my birthday (year excluded). I’ll admit that I was partially motivated to enhance my sense of cyber-caché with my students, particularly since I teach about the Internet and new communication technologies. But my primary aim was to make myself more accessible to a new generation of students whose understanding of self and social space has changed radically with the proliferation of new digital technologies.

In “The Professor as Open Book,” the New York Times writer Stephanie Rosenbloom recently took up the issue of whether social networking sites help strengthen teacher-student relationships, or merely serve to “celebritize” faculty. While personal self-disclosure in the face-to-face classroom has been the subject of many pedagogical studies within academia, self-disclosure in a brave new cyber-world is a new, complex phenomenon. To be fair, concerns over electronic faculty profiles are not unfounded, particularly since unflattering faculty reviews are regularly circulated on the Web site “” Even when faculty are given the opportunity to defend themselves from poor student ratings, such as on MTVu’s hit reality-TV series “Professors Strike Back,” the merits of good teaching are often reduced to nothing more than whether or not the professor is entertaining in class. So much for enhanced global interconnectivity between teachers and students in the digital age.

Notwithstanding, other faculty proffer from the educational opportunities that emerge through global online simulation platforms, such as ‘Second Life,’ a three-dimensional world where teachers and students use avatars to create their entire virtual experience in a digital dimension.

For me, the issue over blogging, social networking and ‘Second Life’ has less to do with how you represent yourself in cyberspace, and more about how you regard your relationship with your students both within and outside the classroom. More often than not, the elephant in the classroom is the general malaise academics have with self-disclosure … be it face-to-face, or on Facebook.

There are benefits and drawbacks that accompany the fine act of balancing privacy and self-disclosure in the classroom. On the positive side, some of the most memorable and effective teachers have been those that make the connection between the personal and the political through self-disclose and sharing stories as a means to communicate with students. Critical pedagogues, feminist scholars, and progressive educators alike have rightfully argued that the time for a new paradigm of learning is long overdue. The new millennium may be the right time to reexamine our philosophical hesitancies to cross the digital line and engage in pedagogical experimentation online. For instance, online social networking and 3D simulations between faculty and students may help colleges and universities foster a stronger sense of community in the class, regardless of the physical limitations imposed by class size, or the interpersonal limitations contingent upon traditional markers of experience and identity through race, class, gender, etc.

On the negative side, as professors, we are often in the power position of soliciting self-disclosure and information from our students while we remain reserved about reciprocating. The imbalance comes in the varied forms in which students are graded and evaluated on assignments that draw upon their experiences and identities, such as journals, papers, speeches, presentations, and regular class discussions. Much like the “American Idol” singing critic Simon Cowell, the professor is placed in the power seat to judge the merits of such disclosures.

This power imbalance begs the question, how can faculty reveal more about themselves without compromising professional roles and responsibilities? Without giving up claims to authority and knowledge, are there ways that faculty can use new interfaces to reach out and encourage student interest and interpersonal dialog within and outside the class? While professors need to do more than adjust their ‘Facebook’ profiles and ‘Second Life’ avatars to make pedagogical inroads, embracing new technological means of expressing oneself and communicating online may be a means to fostering creative and imaginative identities and social discourses that reflect a more diverse set of values, characteristics, principles, and goals.

As the adage goes, learning should not take place in an academic vacuum; rather it should be shared with the outside world. Online social networks, blogs, and 3D simulations may be a useful way to accomplish this task. Moreover, the issue over how much to disclose to students comes at a time when individuals are increasingly choosing to acknowledge their situated selves more directly and overtly in their roles, work, and occupations. Academics and professionals in anthropology, sociology, cultural studies, journalism, and the sciences have identified the need for more self-reflection and self-disclosure on the part of the individual as researcher, interviewer and/or ethnographer. Avatars, user-profiles, and online social networking may be a natural extension of such ontological shifts.

To be clear, online social networking, blogging and simulated experiences must adhere to the same moral-ethical standards that come with all shared interactions between faculty, students and the public at large. Trust, integrity and privacy are among the most essential covenants between students and faculty, and both groups have a responsibility to represent themselves with integrity and accuracy, regardless of the medium / space in which they do so. So what communicative choices should the millennial teacher make when it comes to social networking, blogging, 3D simulations and Web pages? Will one-dimensional Internet descriptions about our scholarship be enough to help students see themselves as future teachers and leaders in the disciplines and fields they are learning in? Can professors enhance their interpersonal communication with their students through new technological means in meaningful ways?

As with other digital developments, faculty continue to grapple with these questions as pedagogical paradigms for effective learning are rapidly changing. Fortunately, clichés of the professor as preoccupied with research over teaching, the political over the personal, literature over television, print over digital media, high art over popular culture, and conferencing over social networking have increasingly been challenged through profound socio-cultural changes, many of which have undoubtedly been promulgated by new technologies and a new generation of learners. If social networking, 3D simulations, blogs and Web pages are means to enhancing the student-teacher relationship, then perhaps we should be less hesitant about using them as we strive to find powerful and creative means to improve the learning experience.


Julie Frechette is an associate professor of communication and the director of the Center for Community Media at Worcester State College. She is the author of the book, Developing Media Literacy in Cyberspace: Pedagogy and Critical Learning for the Twenty-First-Century Classroom (Praeger Publishing, 2002).


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