Townhouse Notes: Is the Joy of Teaching Fake News?
There’s surely a social science dissertation in how discussions of teaching were affected by social media after its explosive growth in the first decade of the 21st century. In the academic social media landscape of 2019, teaching seems like something historians are delighted to do, aside from its attendant administrative headaches: grading, wrestling with learning management systems, and the like. Although recent articles in higher education publications have addressed teaching burnout, there does seem to be pressure to be positive about teaching on social media, especially regarding students, because when messages of frustration do appear, they can feel desperate.
Sometimes there’s a zero-sum game at work: you might feel comfortable posting negative thoughts about teaching only when personal circumstances are bad enough to outweigh a standard level of dissatisfaction. But these circumstances ought to be virtuous and due to forces beyond your control: taking care of a sick parent serves a higher purpose and increases stress; finding your students emotionally stifling is, well, maybe your fault.
Added to that is the fact that teachers are under surveillance on social media. Unless a user modifies their Twitter settings, tweets are public. Facebook can seem a bit more intimate, but is it reasonable to expect a new faculty member to decline a friend request from a department chair? So there’s an additional incentive to post only positive thoughts or images of students beaming as they unveil their group projects: folks with power will monitor your attitude toward your job and evidence that you succeed in the classroom. In marketing, this is called content curation. And now that scholars are supposed to develop personal brands, staying on-message on social media is imperative.
If this amounts to self-censorship, it’s probably a necessary corrective to earlier tendencies to ridicule students on social media (and, a few years earlier, on academic blogs). That was never OK. Some academic blogs of the late 1990s and early 2000s trafficked in snark, such as Rate Your Students (2005–10), a sensibility that ultimately permitted toxicity to suffuse the blogosphere. I would venture that this ambience was transferred to social media once academics discovered Facebook, which allowed users to post photos more seamlessly. The practice of uploading images of bluebook blunders with angry annotations became common. It was never clear whether this was a violation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, but it always showed a lack of respect for students. It could also be destructive, because students could sometimes identify themselves in your posts, no matter how you scrubbed the details.
But do the cumulative effects of self-curation inhibit honesty about professional problems related to teaching? For the past few years, we’ve been hearing from psychologists about the negative impact on self-esteem that social media use can pose. When everyone curates their feeds and timelines to be positive about their jobs, that can make expressing dissatisfaction taboo, probably outside of cyberspace, too.
Teaching is highly stressful, and a few people have told me they don’t feel safe sharing their frustration and anxiety about this part of their jobs—not with colleagues, and certainly not on social media, where missionary zeal about teaching can feel ubiquitous. I hope this is not always the situation teachers face. I admit that I have no way of being certain about whether this feeling that talking about teaching dissatisfaction is silently forbidden has increased recently. I leave that to the writer of that future dissertation.
Allison Miller is editor of Perspectives.
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