Catherine Cai’s first semester at the University of Southern California, like most first semesters, was full of new friends – the most unexpected of whom might have been her writing TA.
Cai and a dozen other students in Naomi Greenwald’s Writing Seminar I class didn’t bond immediately. But after fifteen weeks of two-hour seminars and one-on-one tutorials, she said students realized their teacher had become a valued confidante.
“My classmates and I all had a casual relationship with Naomi,” Cai said. “Towards the end of the semester, we interacted with her at both the peer and teacher level, if that makes any sense – I think what really helped make her seem like a peer was that during downtime in classes, she talked about her music career, and there were plenty of jokes about Naomi Greenwald being a rock star by night that were thrown around.”
Greenwald, who is finishing her PhD in Comparative Literature this spring, really does moonlight as a singer-songwriter in Los Angeles. And in sharing her career with her students, Cai said she opened a door to personal relationships.
“We asked to be her Facebook friend some time towards the end of the semester,” Cai said. However, “she didn’t agree to do it until after the semester was over and she no longer had an instructor-student relationship with us.”
Online friendships between students and their former instructors are getting more and more common. Some even start much earlier than college.
Sue Whitman teaches U.S. Government to high school seniors in Tallmadge, Ohio. She’s been befriending former students for several years and has watched one student travel the world with the military, one go on tour with O.A.R., one find a job in Washington, D.C. and dozens start relationships, careers and families.
Basically, Whitman said, she adds students because she cares about them.
“It’s personal enough and I can keep in touch with so many of my kids at my own convenience,” she said. “I think about former students all the time. For example, when I meet Martin Sheen” — the week devoted to presidential campaigns in Whitman’s Government classes features at least one episode of The West Wing per day, in which Sheen plays U.S. President Jed Bartlet — “I couldn’t wait to get home to post pics because I knew so many kids would see that and comment!”
54 people liked that photo. But as popular as Whitman is among graduates, she recognizes that social media is still largely uncharted territory in schools.
“The choice to only accept friends after graduation is my own choice. As far as I know, there are no restrictions on us” regarding social media, Whitman said. “However, I just feel safer knowing there can be no questions about my objectivity since grades are no longer being assigned and their graduation ends my obligation to them or their parents.”
A story in USA TODAY last week reported that 41 K-12 school districts nationwide have approved social media policies. That means thousands of districts haven’t regulated web-based friendships yet.
And the awkwardness doesn’t end in college, said Paul Renolis, a first-year Master’s student in the University of Southern California’s Postsecondary Administration and Student Affairs program.
Universities haven’t just waited to implement social media rules – they probably never will.
“Most colleges and universities have Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and even a few Pinterest boards, but they don’t govern teacher-student relationships. We’re adults here,” Renolis said. “My rule is, as soon as you’re not my student or not my employee, yeah, we can engage on Facebook. That’s fine. I know some colleagues just don’t care… And that depends on the relationship they have with their student.”
Renolis said that whatever his real-life relationships with employees and students are like, his legal concerns outweigh personal ones.
“You don’t want to be caught in the awkward situation where you see something and you might have to do something about it,” Renolis said. “If you didn’t see it, what you don’t see won’t hurt you.”
In every situation, teachers and their adult students agree that it’s okay to stay in touch via social media after grades close. Whitman doesn’t always have conversations with her former students, but she wants them to know she continues to care.
“I ‘like’ things a lot also since it’s a quick way to let them know I’m aware of things,” Whitman said. “I have seen kids graduate, head off to war, lose parents, get married, have babies, prayed with some, laughed with others… I get very excited when I see them being successful human beings.”
Cai hasn’t talked to Greenwald in “a while,” but her teacher is defending her dissertation now.
And when she’s done, Cai said, they might have lunch – and despite Facebook’s flaws, stay in touch afterward, too.
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