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Faculty in the Facebook Generation

by Nichola Gutgold - April 10, 2008

When we were undergraduates the personal lives of our professors were the stuff of mysterious wonder. Now, more and more professors just like us are creating Facebook pages that reveal a side of ourselves--our taste in music, hobbies, and favorite books--in an effort to connect with a generation of students who were not alive before the Internet came into use. Here is one faculty member's account of using Facebook and some suggested rules for effective online engagement in this instant-messaging world.

Like most professors, on the first day of class, every semester, I welcome students to my course and distribute the syllabus that lists several ways for students to reach me. The ways to reach me are numerous: in my office during office hours, email, and even at my home phone. Most students know I live within walking distance of the campus and many students have been to my home. Literally, if students want to reach me, they know where I live. This is nothing new for me; I have always prided myself on being a professor who avails myself to students. So why on Earth would I create a Facebook page—risking my professional gravitas and adding another thing on my list to check—so that students could have yet another way to connect with me?

As a faculty member, I have received a letter from Penn State President Graham Spanier urging me to do what I can to help retain our student population at Penn State. In a presentation Dr. Spanier made at a University-wide retention conference in 2006 he said: “Early and continuous intervention can play a critical role in helping our students persist. Identifying as early as possible those students who may be at-risk academically and socially is essential.”  He urged:  “Studies have shown that the frequency and quality of contact with faculty and staff helps determine student persistence. We must all work together in a comprehensive fashion to provide the academic, social and personal support that our students want and need.” It strikes me that connection with students could equal retention, and retention is something every institution values.  Facebook provides me with another way—a very student-friendly way—to keep in touch with my students and advisees.    

My area of research is female political rhetoric, so when I was searching online for information about Hillary Clinton, I found that she had a Facebook page, too. And that’s how I introduced the topic of female political rhetoric to my introductory speech class the day after I stumbled upon Clinton’s Facebook site. I said, “Hillary has a Facebook page, Barack has a Facebook page, and so do I.” Before I got home more than a dozen students had “friended” me. I was a little wary at first, especially since I think I keep a fairly professional stance away from my students, and I’m aware that I’m old enough now to be their mother.

In speech communication, we call this effort on the part of a communicator to adapt to the communication preferences of the audience, “audience adaptation.” It is nothing new to politics.  In the 1980s Ronald Reagan, in response to voters who thought he was too old to be president donned a cowboy hat and rode his horse for the cameras to prove his vigor. In 1991, a little known Arkansas governor, Bill Clinton, played his saxophone on the Arsenio Hall television show, and many young viewers thought, “he is cool enough to be my president.” And in 1996 Elizabeth Dole, wife of Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole, donned a leather “biker chick” outfit and appeared on The Tonight Show to get the “Bikers for Bob” vote. Facebook may just be another way for those of us who wish to reach somebody can make the extra communicative effort.  


Reporter John Schwartz in a New York Times article notes, “It’s no secret that Facebook, which started as a networking playground for college kids, is graying and that the percentage of active members who are over 25 years old has risen to some 40 percent of the overall population.”  

While using Facebook gives me another thing to check or do, there are moments when I know I’ve been effective communicating with my students because I’m using Facebook. As the Honors Program Coordinator at Penn State Lehigh Valley, I have made a Facebook group, and communicating with members via Facebook is simple and effective. Another good use of Facebook includes communicating with advisees to be sure that they are keeping up with coursework or scheduling the right classes. I Facebooked one at-risk advisee who repeatedly ignored his university email account, and within five minutes came a thoughtful, well-written response about what he is doing to be more successful in the course. So if Facebook connects me to students who may otherwise be unapproachable, it is, indeed, a valuable tool. Pew Research has found that college age computer users are abandoning email in favor of social networking sites, with Facebook in the lead.

Tips for Faculty on Facebook

1. Faculty should introduce their Facebook site on their class syllabus and as a first day of class “housekeeping” need, encouraging students to “friend” you. Make it clear that while the Facebook term is “friending” you are still their professor, and it means less friendship and more of a connection to you that is “user friendly.”

2. Use the attachment feature to share articles and other items of interest to the coursework or your advocacy cause.

3. Ratchet up your privacy settings. You can do this with the feature “privacy settings.” No one needs to know when you are online and personally, I don’t want to know everything about my Facebook friends. Information such as who sees your newsfeeds and who has access to your profile are available for your decision-making.

4. Post a professional photo. (Maybe this will encourage students to post photos with a bit of caution). Many employers are searching online social networking sites to check on the character of potential employees. Having “grown ups” on Facebook may encourage more appropriate use.

5. Resist using a lot of text abbreviations in your posts to encourage good writing in student correspondence.

6. Add applications selectively. Right now, there are over 2000 applications or “apps” you can add to your Facebook profile. If Facebook is a professional tool for you, there may not be a need for many applications.    

7. Summer may be the perfect time to take a break from Facebook in order to prevent “Facebook fatigue.” Just remember to post an update that reminds students you won’t be around for a while and that if they need to reach you, they should phone or use your email address.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 10, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15203, Date Accessed: 1/28/2022 11:09:45 AM

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About the Author
  • Nichola Gutgold
    Penn State University - Lehigh Valley Campus
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    NICHOLA GUTGOLD is an associate professor at Penn State University, Lehigh Valley Campus.
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