digital rhetoric Higher Education Teaching

facebook, professors, and students

It’s a conversation that begins with propriety and manners, moves into legalese and institutional policy, and ends up with moralizing. What should or shouldn’t professors (and other college instructors) say about their students on Facebook (or other social media)? I am less interested in the answers to that question than I am in the ways that our attempts to answer reveal something about what faculty understand the rhetorical space of social media to be. For some reason I’ve seen this conversation in a variety of places of late, including the writing program administrators listserv. There are really three basic positions:

  • abstinence: faculty shouldn’t remark about their students
  • positive-only: faculty should only say nice things about their students
  • in private: faculty who complain should severely limit access to those posts

That last position is really conciliatory (no one really thinks there is such a thing as “private” on facebook) but it recognizes the fourth, unrecommended position: to just fire away on facebook. Clearly there some things one might say that would violate laws (FERPA, slander, and sexual harassment come to mind), but I’m not sure that these matters apply differently online than they would in any public space (except that maybe you are more likely to get caught when you publicize your violation to the whole world and leave a record of it). But this conversation isn’t about those kinds of communications. It’s mostly about venting, which could take the form of calling out an individual student, I suppose, (e.g. “Johnny is really annoying me with his behavior in class”) but tends to be more general and anonymous (e.g. “I hate it when the students in my class don’t read!” or “Not looking forward to grading this giant stack of student papers”). We’ve all felt these frustrations about bosses, colleagues, customers, clients, students, etc. (as well as spouses, kids, parents, friends, coaches, and people). Venting is a common rhetorical function of social media, as it is a common function of communication. However, we generally recognize that there is a time and place for these things.

So here is where we encounter the matter of propriety. We say that it looks bad to vent about your students. Maybe. I would say, like all rhetorical acts, it comes down to skill. As we would say to our students, who is your audience and what is your purpose? There are rarely good answers to these questions with the verbal diarrhea of venting. I imagine there is some psychological motive here; maybe it feels better after you’ve vented, and getting some confirmation from one’s friends also helps. We don’t intend those statements to get back to our students. I’d guess that it rarely happens (unless you’ve friended your students!), so it is unfortunate when it does. However, I’d also have to say that this propensity we have now for taking offense has reached absurd levels. How many reality TV shows are essentially driven by the plot line of someone feigning injury at something that was said out of earshot? There is no doubt that we are still somewhat at sea in terms of figuring out how to make social media part of our social lives. Furthermore social gaffs, which remain common in all forms of communication, are just that much more public online, so they’re harder to smooth over.

However, then we get to matters of moralizing. Here we say that faculty shouldn’t even say nice things about students because the other students might feel bad. Really? Is there a university website that doesn’t profile successful students? I’m wondering about that standard to which we are holding faculty. Actually, I believe this is a matter of viewing the classroom as primarily a confidential space between a teacher and a student. Even though the classroom is clearly a kind of limited public space, we tend to think of the interaction between teachers and students, especially in terms of student writing, as private conversation. I believe this is a product of our modeling writing pedagogy on the one-to-one mentoring relationship. In this view, venting is not only a matter of impropriety but an immoral act that reflects upon one’s character. It becomes an action that should inform hiring decisions. Perhaps, some suggest, there should be a policy by which one could lose one’s job for venting.  Comparisons are made to lawyer and doctor confidentiality.

It’s a strange twist from those that would elsewhere defend academic freedom. We all know that the typical classroom based scholarship that has driven much of rhet/comp does not require IRB approval or informed consent from the students. Why? Because it’s not confidential. If it’s not confidential when you publish it in a journal, then it’s not confidential when you publish it on facebook.

So what happens if we move in the other direction? What happens if student writing becomes public? What if the discussion between teachers and students happened in public? Well, it might look something like this. Scary, huh? I’ve been teaching in public, online spaces for close to a decade. I won’t claim that it is revolutionary. However, if we started to think of classrooms as public conversations, or at least with a public dimension, then perhaps it would alter our rhetorical orientation toward the class when we were inclined to vent. Instead of moving from one private conversations (with students) to another (with Fb friends), we would see to public spaces that overlap. That’s not to say that there wouldn’t continue to be social gaffs, but it might shift this moralistic response.

Personally I don’t vent on social media about my job. It’s not a moral choice or even a rhetorical one. I guess I’ve never really felt the need. If you’re my facebook friend, you’ll see I am not a big sharer. You might find me the same way face-to-face. My own preferences aside, I see our job in this decade as rhetoricians to investigate social media so that we’ll be able to help students develop their own digital literacies. Not that we get to be the “deciders” about what will or will not (or should or should not) happen, but we do need to develop an understanding and a way of teaching related to the digital world. I don’t think this starts with establishing a moral code whereby we try to separate writing from public online spaces.

7 replies on “facebook, professors, and students”

You had me entirely until this:

“We all know that the typical classroom based scholarship that has driven much of rhet/comp does not require IRB approval or informed consent from the students. Why? Because it’s not confidential. If it’s not confidential when you publish it in a journal, then it’s not confidential when you publish it on facebook.”

I don’t know about that because at EMU, if you’re doing some kind of classroom observation-based scholarship and you’re going to be using student work, you need IRB approval/informed consent. The NCTE is pretty clear about this, too: if you use student work in scholarship– textbooks, journals, conference, presentations, and I suppose facebook– you need permission.

Mind you, that doesn’t take away from the basic point about venting about students at facebook or anywhere else. My own position on this is I never complain about specific student’s writing or classwork– I’m not interested in sharing particularly amusing student-written sentences, for example– just because I don’t think it’s professional and that’s not what I use social media for generally. And I think it’s silly for teachers to complain about the work because that’s what we signed up for when we got into this line of work. It’d be like someone at Starbucks about complaining about how many lattes they have to make.

I of course have shared frustrations about the work overall in the spirit of venting (which I hope are well-done), and I also will share things that students say specifically about me in things like teaching evaluations. I kind of feel like if a student is going to make some kind of complaint about me in an evaluation or whatever, that then I have a little more moral/ethical leeway to respond if I want.


Thanks Steve. I wonder what “using student work” means in your university’s policy. Does it mean direct quotation? If you describe in general the kind of work that students do, is that using student work? How about describing the behaviors and activities of your classroom? Do you think that every CCCC presentation that talks about classroom activities and their relative success, based upon one’s experience in the classroom, should go through an IRB process and get signed informed consent from the students?

By extension, do we think that every time someone gets on the WPA list and talks about what is happening in their class (good or bad) that this is an ethical violation? It would be if we were lawyers and we were talking about our cases, right?

With all respect to the litigious nature of society, I think we are going in the wrong direction here. What expectation of privacy could there be, should there be, in a college classroom? I would say none. No more than at Starbucks or in a public park. If you ask students to perform activities outside of the boundaries of the syllabus and curriculum for the purposes of research, that would be a different matter, but to me that’s not classroom-based.

Perhaps I am in the minority, but I thinks we should view student writing as a public activity. In my view, our tendency to view these as private communications is seriously misguided and unproductive. We require students to share their work in workshops. I suppose agreeing to the syllabus is informed consent, but in a required course like FYC it’s not as though students have much choice (if one really believes student writing is private). Clearly student writing is intellectual property to which students have certain rights. That’s a different set of legal requirements. However in the contract of paper for grade/credit, universities can require students to submit papers for plagiarism detection and use student writing for institutional assessment. In other words, students give up certain rights, and expectations of privacy, in this exchange.

That said, in the current culture of FYC, it makes sense that you would ask a student permission to quote from their paper (even if you are not identifying the student). Not because of confidentiality but rather because of the limited contractual situation in which you receive the paper. However, I don’t believe this is the case with classroom activity.


My understanding of IRB rules– which are of course tied to federal law, too– are that in order to quote student work in institutionally sanctioned scholarly work– papers, books, presentations, whatever– you as a researcher need to have official IRB-like permission form the student. I don’t think that means doing scholarship (a presentation, etc.) where you are talking about your own impressions of a teaching experience count here; that is, if you are giving a presentation and you say “I tried to use blogs in my teaching and I think it went okay,” I think that’s fine. But if you do a presentation and say “I used blogs in my teaching and let me quote from you some of the things my students wrote, let me quote from you an interview I conducted with my students after the class, and let me share with you the results of a survey my students took,” then all of those things, technically at least, need an IRB.

These are also in line with the “CCCC Guidelines for Ethical Conduct of Research in Composition Studies,” which is at For example, here’s a passage about quoting, paraphrasing, and reporting statements:

“In their publications, presentations, and other research reports, composition specialists quote, paraphrase, or otherwise report unpublished written statements only with the author’s written permission. They quote, paraphrase or otherwise report spoken statements only with written permission or when the speaker uttered the words in a public forum. Composition specialists always obtain written permission to use a spoken statement they believe was made in confidence with the expectation that it would remain private.

“When quoting, paraphrasing, or reporting unpublished writing and when reporting (with permission) oral statements made in private, composition specialists respect the writer’s or speaker’s wishes about whether or not to include the writer’s or speaker’s name or identifying information. When the writers or speakers are minors, composition specialists obtain written permission from the parents or legal guardians and also the assent of the minors. When composition specialists have used a consent process approved by an IRB or similar committee, they have obtained the necessary permission.”

So to me, the rules and professional guidelines draw a pretty firm line at directly quoting students and others. That’s different from your own observations. And we could of course debate whether or not this should be the case, etc., etc.


The blog example is interesting. If the blog was publicly accessible, do you think that makes a difference? No doubt interviews and surveys are a different matter as they would be outside of the standard curriculum for a course.

On the other hand, I would consider the classroom a public forum. I’m guessing that is the case with the NCTE statement as well.

I also find the concept of “unpublished writing” curious. The resolution you cite is from 2003, so this is one of those increasingly grey areas. What does publication mean? Is a blog a form of publication? If it is “private,” how many people need access to it before it becomes published? What about a Facebook status update?

To be clear, I am not suggesting any violation of the primary clause of this resolution: “protecting the rights, privacy, dignity, and well-being of the persons who are involved.” In short, should we act ethically? Yes. Are there professional ethics that pertain to our roles as researchers that are specific and extend beyond normative cultural ethical expectations? Yes. I can think of only one instance in my own work that quoted from student compositions, and I did that with permission. (I wouldn’t want to give the misperception that I am going around violating professional ethics just because I have a theoretical disagreement with one of the concepts informing them.)

The fundamental point of research ethics, at least for humanists, is for there to be an objective assessment of the risks involved and for the participants to be informed of those risks before they consent. Philosophically, there are always risks to any act of communication. And our ability to measure those risks is always limited as we can never fully predict how others will interpret and respond to our communications. That paper you wrote as an undergrad could come back and bite you in the ass 20 years later when you run for public office.

Maybe every writing assignment should come with a warning in big bold letters: “WARNING, anything you write may someday be read by people you did NOT expect to read it who may have some unpredictable response.” That’s not a caveat emptor. That’s not license for a researcher to act unethically. The same warning applies to the researcher, as it applies to us right here.

I’m not saying we should change the way we view privacy in terms of student writing so that we can do our research in a different way. I’m saying that we should change our understanding of writing and privacy because it is a misconception that contradicts with our goal of helping students become communicators in professional and public contexts.


The blog example is an interesting one, and I guess what I would say is that whenever your researching a group of human subjects and they are potentially in a vulnerable position, researchers should ask for permission and should give the subject an opportunity to decline. In that sense, it doesn’t matter if the writing is public, “public,” or private. Students would fall into that category. Better “safe” than “sorry, I guess.

With this MOOC book I’m working on, we have run into some sticky problems with these gray area issues for sure. There are some chapters in the collection that are quoting from participants in these MOOCs. Well, are they “students” in the the way meant by the IRB and NCTE guidelines? Further, these folks are anonymous to the point that not even the instructors/faculty know who these folks are. Fortunately, one of the “legal” things about signing on to a Coursera class is you allow that site and others to use your writing. So while we did need some permissions from the MOOC vendors, we think we’re in the clear with other permissions.

And just to be clear here: what I’m describing is something that is more legalistic and institutional than merely ethical or “the right thing to do.” The problem with IRB is it is now mostly about protecting the institution rather than the subject and the same rules apply to researchers using human subjects in writing studies and to researchers using human subjects to withstand their resistance to electrical shock. That’s dumb, of course; but until the interpretation of the law changes (which it might, btw), it is what it is.

Another wrinkle I’m concerned about as far as my own research goes: if I were to quote your blog in an essay I’m writing, I don’t think I owe you anything– I don’t need to ask for permission, I don’t need to tell you about it, etc. If I do some kind of content analysis of your blog to track key words over the last two or three years, do I need permission? Probably not in terms of the law, but a lot of people would argue that the ethical thing for me to do would be to ask.

Another example: if I interview you to get your thoughts and feelings about academic blogging or MOOCs or something, I don’t think I need you to sign a consent form. On the other hand, if I am studying you and your use of blogging or your practices within a MOOC– that is, you are the subject of a case study I’m doing– then I think I clearly need some kind of consent.


Obviously I am not a lawyer, but I would suspect that anything that is made public online is fair game. Your protections are in terms of copyright law. Your example about content analysis applies here. In the case of this blog, which has a Creative Commons license, I’ve given you permission to do what you suggest, as long as it is for noncommericlal purposes. I’m not sure if the kind of nonexpressive transformations that would be required to do big data analysis of a blog would be otherwise protected by copyright law. I believe that’s one of the things being hashed out in the courts right now.

However, you don’t need my permission to study me any more than I need permission to study Bruno Latour’s published works.

As for spaces like Facebook or Coursera, it probably depends on the TOS, but again that’s about intellectual property, not about informed consent. It’s about who owns the data. In theory you could write a dissertation about my blogging practices (god help you if you did) and I don’t see how I should be able to stop you.


See, I don’t think this is quite right. Copyright is all about permissions to a text (or artwork or music or whatever), while IRB is all about permissions to a human subject. That’s where it gets sticky.

I had a student last year who did a really good MA project where she analyzed the blogs/postings from women about their experiences giving birth. It had to do with technology and expressions of control in their writing/discourse. Originally, what she had wanted to do was to interview some pregnant women and get some “before/after” kind of narratives, but it is really REALLY hard to get the permissions to study pregnant women. But what she did instead was study the more or less anonymous texts that these women freely published on the web, so we both felt that she didn’t need those permissions. And it made for a better project anyway, certainly one that was more in the wheelhouse of our MA program.

Anyway, what I’m getting at is I certainly don’t need your permission to study your texts: your blog, your book, etc. If I were to interview you for something and quote you as an expert, I probably don’t need any sort of formal IRB. But if I was doing research associated with my institution and if you were a human subject in that study, then I would need to have those IRB permissions. I’m not talking about just reading what you wrote though or even just asking questions; I’m talking about stuff like following you around, ethnographically observing you, maybe getting you to do a specific writing task to see how you react, etc.

Don’t worry, btw. I’ve got other projects. 🙂


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