My friend was ecstatic when he thought he found his professor’s profile on Snapchat. We’d soon learn that the discovery was too good to be true; the account was not the professor’s, who quickly disappointed inquisitive students in a Piazza post. The greater irony is that as students, our communication with professors outside the classroom is indeed limited to Piazza, aside from email and now Zoom. However, as younger generations increasingly link themselves to the social media phenomenon, it begs the question how much longer this “distance” between professors and students will remain.
I have experienced the effects of social media on the instructor-student dynamic since high school. There, club members joked with my debate coach about being added as Snapchat friends after graduation. Evidently, this running joke from high school seems to have found its way into college, too. Even so, the barrier between the personal lives of professors and students is greater now than it was in high school. Google search your Cornell professors and you will likely find their University web page, and maybe some of their research. Consequently, we students view most of our academic superiors either through their lecture presence or their internet-published accomplishments — often in the field that they teach. A social barrier thus exists between student and professor. On the one hand, it produces a sense of respect for professors who we consequently associate with their mastery of our fields of interest. By the same token, the barrier has also mystified the person behind the title of professor.
As younger generations rise to these same positions of influence, the script is beginning to change. Already, my friends have taken courses — generally with younger professors — where the instructor explicitly and repeatedly asks to be addressed by their first name. Other professors address students with “Mr.” and “Ms.” — essentially elevating the students to their level. But, deconstructing the social barrier between student and instructor will occur in more ways than this. It’s only natural that today’s digitally connected student body will turn into tomorrow’s digitally connected cohort of instructors. Time will tell to what extent the rise of social media will bleed into the professor’s end of the classroom.
For the time being, we’re left to enjoy the occasional story of a classmate finding their TA on Tinder. And though the lower age gap between student and TA makes such discoveries less shocking than if they involved a professor, we appear to not be far from that reality. Today’s generation of students is in the midst of leaving behind a sizable digital footprint. At a time when we can each be traced back to anything from casual podcast conversations to Reddit threads, it’s almost inevitable that students will peer into the past personal lives of future professors. For one, today’s social media presence will pay off in making our generation’s professionals more relatable to the next generation’s students. Listening to a professor’s podcast from their college days, for example, immediately gives them a causal dimension beyond their formal lecture presence.
But, the implications extend beyond what future students will be able to see about their professors’ pasts. Potentially more impactful is each party being active on these platforms at the same time. Professors joining their students as fellow social media users and vice versa means that each party will always be a click away from learning personal elements about the other that they otherwise wouldn’t have known. Naturally, this possibility raises potential for the deterioration of classroom ethics. I recall a friend telling me that it’s not uncommon for him to connect with his professors on LinkedIn after taking their classes. Fast-forwarding to a world where future students can connect with their instructors using less formal social media sites like Instagram and Snapchat, it begs the question of whether the current “distance” between professor and student is what in part holds together the integrity of our education. Social media like Instagram and Snapchat offer a less professional atmosphere than does LinkedIn or even Facebook, meaning that the chance for future students and professors connecting outside the classroom in non-professional contexts becomes evermore likely.
This concern transcends the “pause before you post” trope when navigating the internet. It warns us to maintain a healthy distance from the personal lives of our colleagues, whether they are our superiors or otherwise. Yet, it also paves alternate routes to learn about the person behind the professional. Today, obtaining the cell-phone number of a professor, as an example, is an obvious sign of a tightly-knit relationship with them. That threshold is naturally going to increase as both parties begin to use increasingly intimate methods of communication through social media. Although we’re still far from Snapchatting a professor about a problem set, we still must be careful. We cannot let the spread of social media outpace our self-restraint in interacting with the digital presence of future generations.
Roei Dery is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Dery Bar runs every other Monday this semester.