Are Law Professors Allowed to Have On-Line Friends?
There have been some great posts on social networking and in particular, Facebook (see here, here, here, and here for just a few examples). There have even been posts on whether academics should use Facebook, like this one.
I don’t want to wander into that discussion…instead I want to talk about a different type of on-line community — the non-law related, subject area discussion forum — and the potential negative effects it has for law professors.
Consider a true story – the names and many details have been changed to protect the guilty (and no, it’s NOT about me)…
Jill is a visiting assistant professor at No-Name Law School, hoping to land a tenure track job somewhere. In addition to reading fascinating cases and writing fancy legal papers, she has other non-law related hobbies…like knitting. Because she is passionate about knitting, she has mentioned it to her class. She also belongs to a website devoted to knitting – the members get to know each other through posting in various threads, some devoted to knitting patterns, others to knitting skills, and finally, some threads devoted to non-knitting chit chat. Jill has been an active member of the board, and has even met some of her fellow knitters IRL. One day, on the board, Jill posts in a daily chitchat thread that she is having a miserable day because one of her students (unnamed) turned in an assignment of questionable quality.
The next day, Jill is called into her dean’s office and told to discontinue posting on the knitting board because one of her students complained. The Dean said that it was inappropriate for her to mention that any student of hers was doing poorly in an online forum and that she had acted unprofessionally.
Obviously, one of the coolest things about the Internet is the ability to find other people who enjoy your same interests and hobbies. Another cool thing about the Internet is the ability to maintain at least a modicum of anonymity. But what happens if you want to be friends (in the traditional sense – not in the Facebook sense) with these people you meet? Can you not share the circumstances of your day, something I consider a quintessential “friend” activity, with these people on-line? Bottom line – are law professors allowed to have on-line friends? (This puts aside the debate, of course, that you can have on-line friends at all, but stay with me.)
The way I see it, the answer is probably no. Let’s go back to Jill – Jill has gotten to know a bit about some her fellow knitters, either via on-line communication or by meeting in real life. The main point of her communication with them, however, remains the knitting forum. But Jill considers them her friends and wants to engage in friend-like behavior with them. What can Jill do?
1) Jill could stay off the online site or use it simply to retrieve knitting patterns. No friends.
2) Jill could participate in the discussion boards in a very limited sense – generally relating no personal information at all. No friends.
3) Jill could be careful not to mention her knitting hobby to her students, in the hopes that no student would ever find her there. She might be able to make friends, but she could still be discovered.
4) Jill could do what she did – she talked about her day in a way that did not implicate the student (or even the school) in any way…but one of her students, knowing that Jill belonged to the site, had been following her posts there.
Jill’s options seem pretty limited. If she sticks to options 1 or 2, she won’t make any on-line friends. You might think that option 4 seems a bit stalker-ish of the student, but we all know that students (as well as other folks) seek out information (including non-law related data) about their professors online.
Option 3 is not safe, but may be the best option for Jill. However, do we really need to keep our interests secret from our students so they don’t bump into us on-line? One thing that I think helps make professors appear (at least marginally) human is that we (occasionally) do something that isn’t law related. We have hobbies, interests, and other such – just like regular folks.
And even if we don’t disclose these interests out loud, for whatever reason, students have incredible research and deductive powers. For example – students may figure from the fact that I donate a wine & cheese event for the PAD auction each year that I am an oenophile. Some students may then be led to look for me on various wine sites. If I belong to one of these sites, I will have to remain completely anonymous (and friendless) or I will have to risk the same issues that Jill faced. Maybe it’s just easier to not have on-line friends?