The Heart of the Matter: Social Media and the Teacher/Student Relationship
Lou Spaventa, US
Lou Spaventa teaches and trains in California, the USA. He is a regular contributor to HLT - The Heart of the Matter series. E-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org
“It ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe. It don’t matter anyhow.”
Bob Dylan “Don’t Think Twice”
On a recent New York Times cover page in the Styles section, there is a drawing of a crowd of twenty somethings at a bar. They are ostensibly engaged in relationships, but all the relationships are mediated by text messaging on their smart phones. The title under the half page drawing is “The End of Courtship.” One woman interviewed said, “Dating culture has evolved to a cycle of text messages” (NY Times, Sunday Style, January 13, 2012).
During the holidays my wife and I were invited to dinner at a young relation’s home. There were our three adult children and their partners, a single woman, and my wife and I. We two sat down on a sofa, and chatted a bit with our younger daughter. At a table near us, our other children and their partners were gathered around a single smart phone watching a video as one of them narrated it. It seemed to be easier for them to relate mediated by the video on the phone. During the dinner, when one of those lulls occur that are natural to any conversation, individuals compulsively checked their phones for messages and Facebook updates.
I am not a Luddite, yet anyway, but I have strong feelings about how technology is changing the nature of human interaction, and particularly changing the nature of significant human relationships. Here is an example closer to home – the teacher/student nexus.
On the website entitled “Rate My Professor,” students rate their instructors in terms of easiness, helpfulness, clarity, rater interest and hotness (Hotness is physical attractiveness). A student is free to write whatever is in his or her head at the moment; all the entries are anonymous, except, of course, for the instructor being evaluated. A look at my own ratings is humbling. I come out okay I suppose, a 4 out of 5, but I read many comments that are obvious misunderstandings of my pedagogical approach, my interactive style, and my commitment to students. I believe most of these comments were written after a student received a final grade; perhaps not a good time for a young, impulsive individual to rate his or her professor. What is a problem is that these ratings remain in place as descriptors of me as an instructor. I cannot reply to them and would come off as defensive if I did reply to the negative comments. Incoming students who use this website to make choices about their instructors are likely to find that the individual they chose based on the comments and ratings of others is quite different from the individual who interacts with them in the classroom. Relationships are dynamic, especially the teacher/student relationship, and cannot be neatly summed up by a set of ratings and comments. The way I will interact with students this coming spring semester will be different from the way I interacted with students this past semester. The course content will be different. The organization of that content will differ as well.
Here is an example in which the tables are turned: the student may suffer from the instructor’s use of social media. Let us suppose an instructor is a daily Facebook poster and is a generally warm, pleasant individual in face-to -face contact. She teaches classes of students with a good mix of U.S. students and international students. Her reputation is generally quite positive among her students. One day a young international student in a final evaluation writes that this instructor never really reads her papers. In fact, the student wrote part of a paper in her native language to test her hypothesis that the instructor does not read her papers. The instructor gives the student a good grade on the paper and makes no mention of the fact that the student has written part of the paper in her native language. When the instructor reads the final evaluation, she feels betrayed by the student. She immediately posts on Facebook, criticizing the student and indicating that she feels shocked and betrayed by the student’s evaluation of her. Because she is a popular instructor and a daily Facebook poster, she elicits much sympathetic response from her Facebook “friends.” The international student is chastened and feels as if she has done something that will reflect badly on herself, her fellow country nationals, and the program which brought her to the school.
My examples are intended to illustrate that social media, while allowing almost 24/7 contact among individuals, are changing, and not for the better, the nature of relationships, and in particular, the student/teacher relationship. In our college, most instructors have had to construct a “cell phone policy,” indicating what they want students to do with their cell phones. Some instructors go so far as to have students put their cell phones in a basket before they take their seats in class. Others begin each class by ostentatiously shutting down their cell phones, so that students will do likewise. Most instructors write their cell phone policy into their syllabi. Why is this so necessary? It is because students are now compulsive text messengers. Every once in a while I will espy a young woman working her two thumbs on her cell phone. This brings me to an awkward point. If I am in the middle of something I consider important for students to do or to know, how do I convey to the young woman that: A. she should stop texting, and B. she should pay attention to what is going on at the moment? Texting in class is a rude behavior in my terms, but it is not in terms of normal student activity. Outside the classroom, I see students in conversation, texting as they speak to one another.
Philosophically, social media are tools that reinforce stereotypes, hold up for praise the obvious and non-threatening, and render for criticism the unusual and unorthodox. I am aware that there are counterexamples to the previous claim; however, I have looked at enough websites and text messages to believe that the majority of interaction is both unnecessary and conforming. Social media take the possibility of unmediated interaction away from teacher and student. It’s as if everything has been decided beforehand, a self-fulfilling prophecy. If students rate your classes as easy, they expect them to be so always. It wouldn’t occur to them that perhaps the student rating the class thought easy was taking an open book test as opposed to a memory-based text. Or perhaps a student had already read a book you assigned and thus found it easy to negotiate discussion and examination. Or even that a student had been misplaced by an assessment battery. On the other hand, if your class proved not to be as easy as previously reported, then you would come in for criticism for this inconsistency. Relationships, and particularly student/teacher relationships, are defined in their becoming, not in their static nature. Things change always. People change. We should expect no less and any media that pushes in the direction of stasis does a disservice to education in its truest sense - the bringing forth of change in both instructor and student. When I am asked why I teach, my answer is always because of the students, and by that I mean that each class is a new experience with relationships to be constructed over time. When I am successful in building relationships, students are successful as well. This task is hard enough to accomplish without the burden of prejudgment.
One thought I have entertained often is to teach a course in which no one has more than a pencil and a notebook. No text. No media. A fantasy on my part. However, if given a choice between too little and too much, I will always choose too little. The mind and the spirit must hunger for education to happen. Social media appease that hunger much as junk food sates one’s appetite for nourishment. And I am the lone Dutchman with a finger in the dike while the sea swells over my head.
Please check the Using Mobile Technology course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the ICT - Using Technology in the Classroom – Level 1 course at Pilgrims website.