As Minna noted on this blog last week, the perils of law professors establishing a presence on Facebook - and "befriending" their students there - have recently been raised by contributers to both the Chronicle of Higher Education and PrawfsBlawg. The majority of the students that I am currently supervising have been on my friends list since their first few months in our year-long clinic, and for my part, I have resolved that, after this academic year, I will only accept students' friend requests after they have graduated from law school and are technically alumni.
I would be interested to hear your comments on whether you agree with this resolution. In particular, do you think there are benefits to clinical pedagogy from using Facebook, or Twitter, or one of the other electronic social-networking tools that exist and are widely utilized outside of our law school walls? With some tweaking of the security settings to deal with the issues raised in this post, a site like Facebook might provide a vibrant alternative forum for collaboration and reflection, particularly for those students for whom written reflection will always be a more welcome medium than the verbal form that we have traditionally favored. My solution for such students has been to utilize individual reflection journals, but are there potential benefits to a real-time, networked "group journal" that would outweigh the potential pitfalls of such a teaching vehicle?
I had no problem with the prospect of disclosing a certain subset of personal information about me to my students through Facebook. Were the students similarly unconcerned with the information about themselves that they were now allowing me to access, which in most cases was of a more intimate nature than what they were receiving from me? Even though there was no element of coercion in this situation, I wondered whether my ready acceptance of these students into this relationship was an example of what the late Kathleen Sullivan called "the hidden ways teachers can coerce disclosure from students," in her seminal article, "Self-Disclosure, Separation, and Students: Intimacy in the Clinical Relationship" (subscription required).
After one of my students learned that I was on Facebook and promptly sent me a friend request, I thought nothing of accepting it, and the ones that followed. The only instances in which I had previously declined friend requests were when they came from individuals about whom I had either no specific memory beyond that they co-existed with me at a particular place and time, or only negative memories (such as, for example, my fifth-grade bully, who clearly had moved on even if I had not). As a result of this not-too-rigorous gatekeeping, my friends list included not only friends but a host of in-laws, some of whom have not yet reached the age of majority, as well as a few of my colleagues, and so I was generally circumspect with regards to the tone and content of what I posted on my Facebook profile. I was not, therefore, too concerned that I would undercut my teaching authority by granting my students the ability to read my "25 Random Things" list, or my extemporaneous musings on the joys and sorrows of being a Duke basketball fan.
However, personal disclosure is a two-way street, and inextricably part of the clinical supervision model, which "forces students and teacher into close, often intense interaction under stressful conditions," as Professor Sullivan described it. Her article was written a decade before the launch of Facebook, but her admission that, "as a young clinical teacher, I think I was often guilty of overidentification with my students (i.e., too much intimacy)," spoke directly to the concerns I began to develop in the months after accepting my students onto my friends list.
For those of you not educated in the ways of Facebook (and if you are interested in learning, Minna has already provided a useful link for this purpose), one of the consequences of accepting someone as your friend on that site is that you are thereafter privy to a constant stream of personal disclosures from that individual that may range from the picayune (I am happy because we bought a new car!) to the profound (I am sad because my loved one has a severe illness). You are also permitted access to the entirety of their profiles, and in many cases to portions of their friends' as well. All of this is limited only by the extent of their use of the site and their individualized security settings.
Although I am not the type of Facebook user who wanders through the profiles of my friends, I early on decided that I would not go to my students' profiles, or directly communicate with them on the site. They, on the other hand, had no problem commenting on my status updates, or on the article links I routinely posted to my profile, either via the "comments" function on the site, or in person to me. I made a lame attempt to establish a firewall by resolving not to cite to or utilize information I gleaned about their lives from Facebook in our personal interactions. The lameness of establishing such an artifical barrier was illustrated to me after I asked one student, without thinking, what car she had bought, after seeing that she had done so in her most recent status update. After this, I gave up on my firewall, and did not hesitate to continue a conversation about Slumdog Millionaire with one student that began after he commented on my posting of what I thought was an unfair criticism of the movie on my profile.
Through all of this, I felt vaguely uneasy about being granted more of a window into the students' selves than is normally accorded through case supervision and seminar discussions, even given the heightened emotions that naturally flowed from the extreme circumstances of our cases, and the many hours of time we spent together, flying around the country for depositions, or driving two hours each way to meet with our fully-shackled clients behind a pane of glass, in a sealed and monitored room.
I reached a decisional point with one of these students when she dropped out of the clinic at the mid-year mark for personal reasons. I had not been privy to the circumstances in her life that had led her to this point, but after her departure I continued to see her status updates and the pictures that would be posted of her by others. All of this information now came to me in a new light. I no longer felt I had any "right" (if that is the appropriate word) to be privy to this information, and I removed her from my friends list, an act that Facebook in its infinite wisdom does not notify anyone else of when it is done. Nevertheless, it is possible to discern that such an event has occurred, as another student in the clinic - who was also friends with this departed student - quickly did. I struggled with whether the student would, upon learning that I had "defriended" her, take this as an act of rejection or disapproval from me. I would never have been put in the position of determining whether or not to communicate such a misleading message, had I not accepted any of my students' friend requests to begin with. Was there a better way?
Civil Rights Clinical Fellow
of Denver Sturm College of Law