Does Facebook promote bad rhetorical skills?

I had an interesting conversation last night regarding using Facebook to communicate with students. There are lots of interesting aspects of this question, many of them of a practical type (how can I keep my students from seeing pictures of me getting drunk?) with practical answers (learn to use privacy settings). My sense is that if you could survey professors who are uneasy with the idea of Facebooking with their students, this would be the most prevalent cause for concern.

Much more interesting to me, though, is a different kind of worry, this one tied to the educational goals of the academy. The communication that happens in Facebook, the argument goes, is brief (think status updates), unnuanced, unsensitive to audience, overly informal. The communicative style that we want to teach our students, on the other hand, is nuanced and professional, both because this kind of communication is intrinsically better (whatever that might mean) and because it’s the kind of communication that they will have to be fluent in in order to flourish in the real world.

The motivation here seems right: we want to teach our students to be communicators who are sensitive to voice and audience and thus more likely to be successful. That said, there’s nothing inherent to Facebook that precludes this kind of conduct. I might even argue that the fact that students typically use the medium in non-academic ways makes it even more valuable as a teaching tool. In the “real world”, the division between professional and non-professional communication does not fall neatly along the lines that delineate media; telephone calls, emails, and face-to-face interactions are all used both for talking shop and for informal purposes. What students need to learn is not that certain media are appropriate for certain kinds of exchanges, but rather how to adapt to different kinds of exchanges regardless of the medium. Using Facebook to communicate with students is a potentially fertile ground for these lessons.

The distinction between “professional” and “non-professional” exchanges is bunk anyway. Even the idea that there is a continuum from totally formal communication to totally informal communication oversimplifies the matter. Relationships differ along all sorts of various dimensions, and to paint a caricature of this to students is both dishonest and self-defeating.

This isn’t to say that spaces like Facebook don’t provide any new rhetorical challenges. It’s hard to find a non-web-2.0 analog for status updates: brief, frequent messages that are sent to an entire network of individuals with whom you have different kinds of relationships. But this too is a teaching opportunity. Students should understand the quasi-public nature of these messages, and the technological means of making them less public if they wish.

It’s an open question whether it’s a good idea for any given professor to use this medium to communicate with students. But to rule it out across the board doesn’t seem right either, at least not for the reasons I talk about here.

3 thoughts on “Does Facebook promote bad rhetorical skills?

  1. Joe

    Oh, it definitely should not be ruled out–but there’s another issue which is worth considering. Every time I’ve discussed this question with students, they give the same answer (a couple of times they’ve actually come back to me after thinking it over for a few days, and then given this answer).

    “We don’t want you on facebook. That’s *our* space. If professors start using it, we’re going to find somewhere else.”

  2. Kalynne Pudner

    Our student newspaper did a story on profs using facebook (there are several dozen, plus staff, with various degrees of activity). The reporter interviewed me (my website link here goes to Part I of that three-part intereview), because I seem to be the one with the largest student base. It is a different style of communication, giving rise to a relationship of a different “flavor.” Some of my students feel as Joe’s do, but more seem to think it’s novel and fun. I can’t help noticing, however, that I get a rush of friends requests from students every semester AFTER final grades have been posted.

  3. Boone Post author

    Kalynne, you said something in the third section of the (very enjoyable) interview you linked to that responds directly to Joe’s concern. Some students don’t want professors in their space; others think it’s cool to friend their professors. Using Facebook the way you do, namely in such a way that it’s not required for the class, lets both kinds of students have their way. So, unless every student in class is cool with it, low-stakes integration is the way to go.

    This makes me think about how it’s hard as an instructor to find the right attitude toward FB. It’s easy to be too eager about it, because you want to be the cool professor (though of course this is not a problem for me because I’m so naturally cool that I don’t need to try). On the other hand, some profs take pleasure in being as uncool and curmudgeonly as possible. But that’s probably a way worse mistake, since it rules out all sorts of possible avenues of communication with students. Kalynne, the attitude you describe in that interview strikes me as a pretty good middle ground.


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