Data gleaned from various studies suggest that 80-90% of undergraduate students in the United States have Facebook accounts. A similarly large percentage of graduate students have Facebook accounts as well. For the unfamiliar, Facebook is a social networking website that allows users to create a profile, post pictures, publicly send messages to friends, and more. It is similar to the networking site MySpace. Facebook originally required users to be college or university students and register with a .edu email address, but has recently expanded to allow users to affiliate with a high school or geographic area instead, opening itself up to a flood of new users. In an era of continually evolving technology, websites such as Facebook and MySpace allow users to connect with friends past and present in new and dynamically changing ways.
Through Facebook's notes, a college or graduate student miles away from friends and family, can easily keep in touch. A busy week can be jotted down in minutes and shared with friends; an exciting trip can be photo-journaled and shared round the world in seconds. Through a few clicks, a student can view profiles of their friends and keep up with what they are doing. Current technology allows us to share our lives more quickly across longer distances than ever before.
While social networking websites like MySpace and Facebook allow friends to connect more quickly, many students assume that their profile is of no interest except to other students or to school alumni. There are downsides, however, to participating in such sites and graduate students, as professionals in training, should be aware of the problems before using them. Most obvious, of course, is the issue of public safety. Making yourself available to the world of the Internet exposes you to various people with whom you might not ordinarily choose to associate.
Beyond safety, these new social networking technologies also have some distinct effects on the relationship of students and teachers. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that there is a risk of professors using Facebook to “check in” on students’ excuses for missing class. By anonymously viewing a students’ profile, an instructor could read postings that conflict with the excuse a student presented in class. Many professors agree that using Facebook to “police” their students is unreasonable, and admit that they don’t have the time or desire to track their students in this way. However, the tables can be turned. Not only can faculty and TAs use Facebook to learn about their students; if you create a Facebook account, your students may also use your profile to find out more about you. This has big implications for you as a TA and in the future when you are applying for jobs.
As a TA, you may want your students to realize that you are a real person with interests and depth so that they can relate to you in the classroom. A Facebook account that expresses your academic interests and encourages students to ask questions can be an easy way to communicate with your class. If you have the chance to go on a field trip with students, for example, Facebook can be an easy way for you and your class to pool pictures and thoughts from the educational experience.
However, are you giving students too much information? As a TA you are in a position of authority and leadership; you are their instructor and a Rutgers employee. In the classroom, you need to be aware of the important boundaries between you and your students. Similarly, there must be boundaries on the world wide web between you and your students. Just as students may be wary of faculty seeing pictures of their underage drinking or evidence of social activities in lieu of actually being sick, you should be wary of blurring the line of academic professionalism with your students. If you choose to use Facebook, just as in the classroom, there is a responsibility to "keep it professional."
Facebook accounts for graduate students have bigger implications than relationships with current students. Employers WILL access Facebook to learn more about you. When writing your profile, consider: Do I want my students to see this? Would I want a future employer to see this? Would I be comfortable if this picture or comment came up in a job interview? If the answer to any of these questions is no, then it would be wise to not include the information.
It may seem with all the potential red tape that it is best to not use MySpace or Facebook altogether. Certainly, if you do not have a profile already, this is the safest way to go. But, for TAs who have Facebook or MySpace accounts, which have proven valuable to keep in touch with family and friends, how can you play it safe and keep your Facebook professional?
If there is material in your profile that you are not 100% happy sharing with ALL your students and potential employers, either delete it, or make it private. Facebook has a number of privacy settings. You can make selected parts of your profile only viewable to people within your university network, or only to your friends. Take full advantage of these settings and use them wisely. It is better to err on the side of being too private than not being private enough.
When you log on to MySpace or Facebook, use it judiciously. Just as you would not want to be stalked by employers, or professors, show your students the same respect and treat them as adults. If a student misses class, do not use Facebook or MySpace to check for an alibi. Now that Rutgers allows you to view student ID photos with your roster to learn names, learning students’ faces through Facebook should not be necessary. Do not search for your students and request for them to be your online friends; allow them to initiate online dialogue if they want to chat about class.
The use of Facebook and MySpace are here to stay. While you may choose to participate or not participate, you should be aware of these websites and the role they play in current undergraduate culture. Further, you should be aware of the implications that they have for you as a TA. If you log on, do so wisely.