Should you be friends

Micheal Zimmer reports that a Milwaukee-area school district has enacted a policy banning communication between school staff and students on social networking Web sites and instant messaging services.

According to this report, the school board seems to be concerned over the fact they can’t provide “adequate oversight” for these communication methods. Since communication between school staff and students are generally considered to be public records and are subject to public inspection, the district apparently wants faculty to only use district-sponsored applications/devices, which presumably provide better archiving and auditing of communciations.

Micheal raises the interesting question of whether faculty and students should be “friends” on social networks and wonders how this friendship affects the traditional teacher-student relationship?

This is a very interesting area since it brings into question the concept of “friendship” both in the on and offline varieties (but the focus here is online). It is also interesting to see how social networking affects the areas or zones of offline friendship. Previously your workfriends, golf buddies, neighbors, ex-university friends did not need to be in the same circles. They were all your friends but they were not necessarily friends with each other. With social networking “all” your friends can see each other. Indeed one may ask if parents should be “friends” with their children on social networking sites.

Add the teacher/student relationship into the mix and this gets interesting. Micheal asks: “Should teachers have access to personal details, photos, news feeds, etc that come with “friending” on Facebook? Should a student have access to a teacher’s profile?” It is easy to see that there are a large number of situations where it is better for these groups not to mix.

But then again the format of social networking is flawed since it is two-dimensional: we are friends or we are not. There is no casual acquaintance, no higher or lower orders of friendships. Cory Doctorow wrote a theory of why Facebook would eventually fail

You’d think that Facebook would be the perfect tool for handling all this. It’s not. For every long-lost chum who reaches out to me on Facebook, there’s a guy who beat me up on a weekly basis through the whole seventh grade but now wants to be my buddy; or the crazy person who was fun in college but is now kind of sad; or the creepy ex-co-worker who I’d cross the street to avoid but who now wants to know, “Am I your friend?” yes or no, this instant, please.

So when it comes to teachers/students the problem is what to do when a student asks to be a friend? When it is the teacher who asks it seems just creepy – but what about when the student asks? Maybe a Milwaukee policy isn’t such a bad idea. That social networks in general are not uncontroversial is well known.

Some education related scandals:  In 2006 a scandal emerged when a university professor posted a topless image of herself on Flickr & an art teacher was forced to resign for topless art photos of herself on flickr. In 2007 the president of Salisbury University removed her profile on the Facebook social networking site after news reporters asked her about apparently unprofessional pictures on her site. This year a member of York University’s Council has been accused of racism after posting a picture on his Facebook profile.

Disclaimer: I have been trying to figure out the point of Facebook since I joined in 2007 (yeah, I was a late entry) in the begining I felt more popular when I added friends. Then it became strange. I currently have more friends “online” than I do offline. In addition to this I am unsure who some of my friends are. On the other hand I have several students and ex-students among them and I have never felt threatened by there access to my information. This could of course be due to the fact that as a blogger and a user of flickr/facebook/twitter user I have already but my life online.

The weird thing of a public thesis defense

The public thesis defense is a strange thing. The author is defined as a PhD student (with a focus on the idea of the student) is in fact the expert on the topic being discussed. It is he or she who has the best grasp of the data and all the reasons why the finished book looks the way it does.

Surrounding the author (for the student is also an author) is the supervisor or supervisors. This wise man or woman (sometimes more than one) has acted as a sounding board and guided the student in the production of the work. It is also the supervisor who eventually decides when the work is ready to be defended.

This is followed by a group of four academics that will act as the opponent and the examination committee. Beyond this group of five or six people the rest of the audience have not read the work in its entirety.

This is not to say that they never have had the opportunity. The thesis in Sweden goes through an arcane rite of nailing (spikning) where the author often still physically nails his thesis in a publically available place at least three weeks before the defense.

But in general the audience – a group of colleagues paying respect, family bursting with pride, friends genuinely happy but often confused by the act, young PhD students eager to learn and the occasional odd man from the street interested in the topic – have not seen the text and a vague idea of the topic.

The audience follows the affair from the outside. The chairman introduces and often explains the importance of the act: it is an initiation an introduction and an acceptance. The student is given then opportunity to correct any minor flaws he or she may have discovered in the weeks leading up to the defense (mainly typos).

The central role of the defense is held by the opponent who begins by describing the work at hand and then leads the following discussion by asking probing questions and discusses the reasoning and arguments behind the book. This is not done to “catch out” the student but rather to understand the book that is being examined. It is through this discussion that the examination committee has the opportunity will have a chance to see the character and ability of the student.

Once the opponent is done the chairman opens the floor to questions from the audience and here rumors and horror stories flow among PhD students of spiteful old academics showing up after having read the public copy and ask impossible questions in order to demolish the student.

When this public phase is closed the examination committee, the chairman, the opponent, the supervisor move to the closed part of the examination process. All of them have the right to speak but only the three-member examination committee has the ability to vote and a majority is needed to pass. This may seem easy but since the closed group all form part of a social network they can in reality not decide as freely as it may seem. Here past, present and future alliances and antagonism may form and shape the discussion at hand.
If the open process takes around two hours the closed process takes anything between one to over six hours (the latter is very uncommon but I know of two occasions).

The public defense swings between the vital to the laughable but it is always an event that is key in the maturing of any academic.  Whiskey and wine are stored in a barrel in an evenly acclimatized subterranean hole to emerge the better for it. The process may not be exciting to watch but the result is worth waiting for.