In Defense of Dirty Laundry
By David J. Leonard
January 15, 2014
We lament, vent about, and dissect student interactions all the time. From hallway conversations to conference sessions, from publications to dinner parties, shop talk is commonplace. And it’s generally accepted.
But now, of course, that talk is moving to a new space: Facebook. To some observers, this is a thing to be bemoaned. In a post on The Conversation, Chad Abushanab spells out this view: Facebook, he argues, is not an appropriate place “to air your classroom’s dirty laundry.”
“What makes this approach problematic,” he writes, “is that you are essentially having a conversation about the decisions of a student in your professional care in a public forum without inviting that student to participate.”
Sounds reasonable enough, right? But there are two problems with this line of thinking.
The first is that the technology isn’t the issue; the way we make use of it is. Facebook can be used for good or evil—as a source of power or a source of harm. Irrespective of the technology used, shouldn’t we question the nature of the conversations we have, rather than the tools we use to have them?
Which brings me to the second problem with Abushanab’s denunciation: Why reduce all faculty conversations on Facebook to “airing dirty laundry,” “putting it out there,” and “venting”? Sure, that stuff happens. But there’s more than narcissistic grousing going on here. These social-media spaces exist in response to the very real isolation and individualism that permeates academia. And these online conversations can be helpful, cathartic, and empowering.
To dismiss them as nothing more than cattiness erases the pedagogical importance of discussions around classroom dynamics. Are teaching forums merely spaces for venting? Should we dismiss the deluge of journal articles and books dedicated to real-life classroom scenarios as inappropriate? No, these communities are about self-care, about preservation, and about growth. They are about education and the desire of so many teachers to continue to improve inside and outside the classroom.
Abushanab suggests that it would be more advisable for me to raise student issues with a colleague who may be teaching that same student, rather than chatting with a larger group that has no direct knowledge of the situation. But that presumes that face-to-face conversations and discussions among campus colleagues are possible.
In a world of small and squeezed-together departments, officeless adjuncts, 4-4 loads, “road scholars” teaching on multiple campuses, and growing service and scholarship demands, weekly meetings to discuss classroom dynamics aren’t necessarily possible. The weekly lunch at the faculty club—where professors supposedly gather to process class happenings—seems like something out of the Hollywood imagination, if it ever existed.
Beyond the question of feasibility, there’s another question: Would you actually rather talk about this stuff with your campus colleagues than with your social-media peers?
Within my social-media community I see all sorts of descriptions of student behavior. There are posts about students who miss class, yet come to office hours to ask, “Did I miss anything important?” There’s a status update bemoaning yet another incident of plagiarism. There’s a post lamenting an essay that doesn’t distinguish between the Civil War and the civil-rights movement.
Venting and commiserating aside, though, many more posts seek advice and help: “I have students that are using their computers in class and instead of paying attention, they are on Facebook. What should I do?” This is the type of question for which it may make more sense to seek support and advice from colleagues at campuses across the country, from colleagues who teach at different types of schools and within different disciplines, than from those who share your own classrooms, students, and academic culture.
More importantly, Facebook and other social-media platforms provide a space where academics can discuss issues that might otherwise be dismissed by colleagues. How many faculty of color have turned to Facebook following a conversation with a white colleague that ended with “I think you are reading too much into the fact that students refuse to address you by Dr. or Professor”?
How many female professors have used Twitter to discuss sexual harassment or sexism within the classroom or on their evaluations? Might an audience of friends and social-media peers respond differently than male colleagues on campus, whose privilege and misogyny may preclude them from even hearing these issues? In other words, every faculty member doesn’t have an equal ability to share and process the inequality she or he may encounter inside and outside the classroom.
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