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Monday, February 02, 2009

Would Phil Areeda have been my facebook friend?

I've been hanging out for the past five years over at Mirror of Justice, where emotions run high in rollicking discussions of all things Catholic, legal, and theoretical, and for a much shorter period of time at Legal Ethics Forum, where emotions run significantly lower in discussions of all things Model Rulesish.  It's nice to hang my shingle out here for a while where, as I understand it, the field of inquiry is wide open.

Ideally, I should have had the foresight to prepare a whole pipeline of witty, insightful posts for my time here.  I haven't.  I've been preoccupied by my venture last week into the world of Facebook.  As a friend of mine remarked, FB simultaneously elevates and trivializes our relationships.  Gone forever are the days when we could sing along wistfully with our beloved Wilburys, "Maybe someday down the road aways, you'll think of me and wonder where I am these days."  Odds are, they know where you are these days, and they know what you had for breakfast.  Curiosity is satisfied, but the mystery of it all is bludgeoned to death in the process.  FB angst is old news to most of you, and I'm sure that there is an entire section of the MLA convention devoted to navel-gazing scholarship on the FB experience.  But bear with me, for I do have a PrawsBlawgable question about all this after the jump. 

What does FB mean for the professor-student relationship?  I'm not talking about whether the law school should use FB as a professional networking venture; I'm talking about what students know about you and what you know about your students.  I still base my image of the law school professor on Phil Areeda, who I'm certain would have had me arrested if I had dropped by his office to chat about the weekend.  Even when I started teaching at St. John's, a senior colleague (whose attitude did not, I learned, reflect the prevailing sentiment of the faculty) warned me that, given my age, students would try to become friends with me, and that I should run screaming if any approached me outside class. 

And now what have I become?  Going out with students for a beer, fielding a flag football team, and playing basketball with students has always made me an enthusiast for the friendship that dare not speak its name, but now I've taken it to another level -- I'm FB friends with my students.  I'm all up in their business, and they're in mine.  Is it wrong?  Is it a concern?  Do any other faculty FBers deny student friend requests?  Do you keep them on a separate friend list with more limited access to your page?  At least for me, the notion of keeping a mysterious distance between students and myself was a non-starter, but have I (or my students) lost something in the process?  WWPAD?  (What would Phil Areeda do?)

Posted by Rob Vischer on February 2, 2009 at 11:03 AM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink

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I find this hierarchy of distance alien. I'm facebook-friends with some of my students, but playing football or basketball with them would be much stranger. (Perhaps this says only that I'm a bithead rather than a jock.)

Posted by: James Grimmelmann | Feb 2, 2009 11:18:30 AM

Rob --

Ahhhh. You stole my post. I was going to write about FB and student interaction.

In short, here's my rule: I will add students on LinkedIn, which is really a networking tool, but I won't on FB, which is for looking at pictures of peoples' cats.

Posted by: Sam Kamin | Feb 2, 2009 11:18:34 AM

Sam: But if a student wants to see pictures of a prof's cats, is there a downside to letting them? Other than our general sense of privacy that would apply to folks we don't know well, is there something about the faculty-student relationship in particular that makes access to our cat pictures more problematic? That's what I'm trying to pin down.

Posted by: Rob Vischer | Feb 2, 2009 11:43:16 AM

Up until the moment when I'm on the basketball court with my students, I could be LeBron James. I put on the appearance of being the LeBron James of [insert law class], so maybe they imagine (I suppose to myself) that this competence somehow translates to other spheres of life. But once they see that I'm just another short 36 year old with bad knees, a fear of taking it inside, a penchant for throwing up 3-point bricks way beyond the the three point line, and the unfortunate habit of calling fouls on each and every possession (whether I touched the ball or not), the mystique of infallibility wears off and perhaps cannot be cabined to the court. I am no longer the LeBron James of [insert law class]. I am now irreparably diminished.

(My first scrimmage with some of my students is looming...)

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Feb 2, 2009 12:17:46 PM

Rob,

I think it's up to you. As I see it, there are benefits to approaching your students as potential or real friends. They're usually cool people, and it makes the workday more fun. On the other hand, there are drawbacks to it, too. The nature of your job is that you have to do things that aren't very friendly, such as call on students, grade students, etc., and you can't play favorites when you do that. If you can be FB or other friends with students without creating an impression (or a reality) of playing favorites, and in a way that doesn't interfere with the professional relationship that is your job, then feel free to do it: Others would rather not go down that path and prefer to keep things more professional.

P.S. I believe I brought a small refrigerator from you in 1994 for around $50. It still works.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Feb 2, 2009 1:43:19 PM

Welcome to Prawfs, Rob! I do FB, for what it's worth, and appreciate (among other things) the extent to which it makes it easier to keep up with former students. If they are put off by having to hear about my ski trips, or Duke Basketball, they can (as we learned in the NYT recently) unfriend me, right?

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Feb 2, 2009 2:35:16 PM

Marc: if I wanted to keep the LeBron myth alive in my students' heads as applied to any human endeavor, I would have to sit very still in my office and never speak.

Rick: I did not realize that "unfriending" was possible. The innocence is gone, and another layer of anxiety has been added -- just as partners at my firm had to justify their shares every year, I have to keep earning my friends.

Orin: Ah, the memories . . . you certainly fared better than I did in the hand-me-down home furnishings department; if we had Facebook back in the day, perhaps I would have had enough background information about a certain graduating 3L to scare me off from buying his couch for $25, a biohazard in its own right.

Posted by: Rob Vischer | Feb 2, 2009 6:08:13 PM

From a student, I gotta say it's pretty weird. Elderly profs look like they're trying to be "hip" and "with it" when they're on FB. Also, what about playing favorites? Because the prof I know on FB only seems to be friends with some of his past students, which kind of irks me. (I admit, I'm not one of them.) But his policy of not being 'friends' with current students is commendable, at the very least.

I say leave the students off your friend list until they've graduated and become colleagues.

Posted by: A Mediocre Student | Feb 3, 2009 10:57:56 PM

I use FB as a tool to remain in contact with students who go on to a practice life that is too hectic to come back and walk the halls of their old stompin ground. I learned about Bar results before most other professors in the building. I know specific student results before the Dean of the institution. For a generation of students who communicate with FB, messengers, email, etc., as a business/consumer relations matter, professors should consider developing a comfort level with FB. I have noticed that the Babyboomer generation of professors encourage a more detached approach to student/professorial relations, but I am not sure that their approach is realistic considering the consumer driven attitude that is growing in legal education. Thoughts?

Posted by: LaTisha Faulks | Feb 4, 2009 1:09:45 AM

I was invited to FB a year ago by a former undergraduate research student now with her PhD, and all of the comments about keeping up with alums through FB I have found to be true. When I set my profile up, I decided that I was not going to post anything I would not want my dean (now a FB friend) or the president of the university to see. I had always tried to be approachable but professional before FB with students. Since then,I have accepted friend requests from students, but have not initiated. I have to admit, I have seen pictures/comments that made me question why a student would ever have asked me to be their friend without some serious editing. Whose bears responsibility in that case? Friend request comes in, glance at profile, shake head and wonder. I have also seen comments by faculty that seem less than professional. Now that the novelty has worn off, I really can't figure out the widespread attraction. I would rather sit down and chat with a student in my office to find out about their aspirations and goals in life and how I can help them to meet them.

Posted by: Brian Augustine | Feb 4, 2009 8:53:08 AM

I accept their FB friend requests after the course is over. This is mostly to avoid any appearance of impropriety, even though my school uses anonymous grading anyway.

Posted by: Ariella | Feb 4, 2009 11:45:20 AM

I'm now friends w some former student/research assistants who have become real friends in real life. So why not on FB?
If students want to friend me on FB, they'll learn that when i am off duty, I spend time talking about Dylan, jazz, sports and fishing. If they know me well enough to ask me to be their FB friend, they know that already. I see this as basically no-harm-no-foul.
I've been "on line" in one way or other since 1993, and have to say that the fact that I have been comfortable with chat rooms and social networking in a variety of ways has been a great help to me as a teacher over the years.
Also, of course, I do have a horse-in-the-race. We offer nine (about to go to 12) online courses through our online mental disability law program and have just launched an online Masters. it would be kinda silly for me to shy away from FB, given all that...
Michael

Posted by: Michael Perlin | Feb 5, 2009 10:36:48 AM

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