The challenges and pitfalls of pursuing a career in higher education have never been more apparent. As a recent article featured in Al Jazeera English reveals, the economic prospects for PhDs, especially in the humanities and social sciences, are becoming increasingly grim. The author, Sarah Kendzior, a recent PhD in anthropology, succinctly encapsulates the dilemma of trying to succeed in academia within the confines of the neoliberal reality of adjunct instruction.
As an adjunct, I know all too well the challenges that Kendzior describes in detail. So as a new semester looms on the horizon, I am reminded of the other unique difficulties I face in the classroom. Yes, all of us adjuncts are vulnerable economically, but not all of us experience the same challenges. As a young, female instructor, there are certain aspects of my job that I never could have anticipated would be so problematic.
I recall all too well the warnings from my professors in undergrad about the potential scarlet letter a social networking foible could leave you marked with for the rest of your career. Facebook emerged right around the time I began college, and my generation was in the earliest stages of negotiating the urge to share our lives with hundreds of our “friends,” and preserving whatever aspects of privacy we wanted to maintain. Employers were more than happy to use one’s activity on social networks as a basis for exclusion. This was taken a step further earlier this year, when it was revealed that some employers are now demanding that job applicants fork over their Facebook passwords. Fortunately, this was met with considerable backlash. (Just when I thought the corporate world could not shock me anymore!) With the recession grinding on, it seems that social networking is now just another contributing factor to the increasingly precarious nature of employment.
Understanding this reality, I took every precaution in maintaining my privacy on social networks, especially Facebook. However, when I began teaching, I realized that these privacy settings did not just serve to protect my privacy from potential employers, but also from my students themselves. There were many things I worried about in terms of my gender in the classroom: Would my students respect me as an instructor, especially considering my age? Would they dismiss any discussion of gender and sexism from me just because I am a woman? Would they just generally give me a harder time as compared to my male counterparts? Although I could speak at length about all of these points, the most surprising aspect was that I did not consider the uncomfortable possibility of students seeking me out in the social networking world.
As a female instructor, I feel particularly vulnerable in this regard. Like many Facebook users, I have my relationship status, photos from trips, and my political views on my profile. I have no problem with students, male or female, who were actively and conscientiously engaged in my course, “friending” me after I am no longer their instructor. The latter part is key–I would never accept a friend request from a current student. However, it does not mean that I do not experience some hesitation about letting former students into my social networking world, no matter how discreet or private my page is. This especially goes for male students. I am put into the position of asking myself: “Would they be trying to friend me on Facebook if I were a middle-aged man?” This is unfortunate, especially given that the few friend requests I have received were all from respectful, thoughtful students, who I had no suspicions about on a personal level. It has nothing to do with any male student’s individual character, but the very nature of male privilege in our society, and how female instructors must protect themselves from potential harassment.
I have been lucky up to this point—no male students have ever harassed me. Although there were several times when male students made me uncomfortable in the classroom itself, there is not enough room here to rehash those incidents. I know that in a world where trolling – and sexist trolling in particular - is becoming more and more common, I cannot be overly cautious in combating sexism in the digital world. And yes, I am sure male professors also have to consider what to do if one of their former students tries to connect with them on a social networking site. But because of their male privilege, they likely do not have to fear being harassed (assuming they are heteronormative). I also wonder about this: Would male instructors feel uncomfortable at the thought of a student of the opposite sex even looking at their personal information, especially their photos, as female instructors do? The thought of former male students looking through my photos is sort of disquieting.
So as another semester approaches, this digital predicament again crosses my mind. With all the other challenges facing adjunct instructors, this is just another way in which female adjuncts in particular have to navigate the increasingly inhospitable world of academia. This is not to say that these issues fade away or become less relevant for female instructors that are full-time—they certainly do not. However, with adjuncts being more economically marginalized and having less professional clout with which to defend themselves, these issues further compound their vulnerabilities.
There is no manual or guide yet for how to handle student-instructor social networking. I am not even suggesting that I have a clear strategy for how to deal with it, short of maybe deleting Facebook all together. That certainly is an option, but one in which is becoming increasingly atypical. Many departments now have official Facebook pages that faculty members are expected to join, and presumably, through which students could contact them. Hopefully, starting this conversation will get us closer to a consensus that it needs to be addressed, especially for the protection of female instructors.