Sunday, June 6, 2010

How Open is Too Open?

Over the weekend I attended a conference for college counselors and academic advisors.  One of the recurring themes of the conference was intrusive advising.  Intrusive advising, as described by several academic advising sources, is proactive, caring contact with students with the goal of inspiring academic motivation and persistence in students, especially "at-risk" students.  For example, one technique of intrusive advising is to attend events where students are participants, even if those events occur "after-hours".  One of the questions that was discussed either in workshops or among counselors was the use of social networking as an intrusive advising technique.  Facebook is commonly used by colleges as a resource for connecting with students, because we all know that, if a student doesn't respond to emails, he or she will see your message on their Facebook page.

Personally, I created my Facebook profile because a student asked me to.  She was able to convince me, after several conversations, that Facebook would be a great way to connect with my students, so I gave in after many years of rejecting the notion of using social networking sites.  I started with one simple rule about Facebook that I still follow to this day:  I would not request any of my students as friends, but if they requested me, I would accept their request.  I even had the conversation with several students that they might not want to request me as a friend if they thought there was something on their Facebook page that they really didn't want me to see.  I frequently used Facebook posts to remind students of deadline dates, post events for my women's leadership group, and even encourage students to study and work hard.

Then something happened.  I had an active Facebook page for about a year when an old high school and college friend posted old pictures and tagged me in them.  She was connected to many of my old high school and college friends and acquaintances.  When we left college, there was no such thing as the internet, much less Facebook.  There was barely email.  I'd lost contact with many people who I'd connected with in high school and college, and Facebook became the easiest way to get back in contact without having to spend hours on the telephone, which was and still is pretty impractical.  Within the span of one month, the number of Facebook connections I'd made tripled.  There was lots of photo-tagging, so my students were privy to pictures of my old college days.  My family started to join Facebook too, so my students were seeing posts by my family members, as well as photos of family events, because photos are so easy to share and upload onto one place - and where better than Facebook, where you can comment on photos?  Soon, former students from my teaching days were requesting me.  Then, people from the church I attend began requesting me.  Of course, nothing I posted or was tagged in was inappropriate or offensive, but a line was crossed.  I was becoming more than just an advisor and counselor to my students.  I was becoming a whole person.  Gaps in their knowledge of who I am were slowly becoming filled. 

As I reconnected with more people on Facebook, it became easier to use it for personal purposes, and not so much for the purpose of providing information to my students.   There is a group page for my women's leadership group where I post events.  When the earthquake struck in Haiti this past January, I created a Facebook page for students on my college campus to discuss ideas on how to help.  My personal page became much more personal.  It was a place where I could share my spiritual beliefs, keep in contact with friends, and be my normally sarcastic self.  I also post some of my writing on Facebook for feedback from those who know me.  I have found that, through Facebook as well as this blog, I have been able to help people open up about some of the same issues I write or post updates about.  I've received private messages from many, many people who've said that even a simple status update has provided them with new perspectives and encouragement.

My last blog post was a laborious outpouring of some of the thoughts and feelings I'd been wrestling with.  When I'd finished the blog post, I felt as if I had given birth to new understanding of myself.  I felt more clarity.  I added the link to my Facebook page as usual.  I received feedback from others who said that they needed to read those words; they had also received clarity.  I felt great. The following morning, I received a private message from a person who considers herself my friend, saying that she felt my pain.  Then she asked, "Why do you feel you have to share this with the Facebook audience?"  Immediately, I felt judged.  I began to question if I had been too open, if I had shared too much.  I began to doubt the positive effect my words might have had on those who had read them.  In addition, I questioned my whole purpose for beginning this blog, which was to write more often with purpose so that I could fulfill my life-long dream of being a writer. What I found interesting in that message was that, under the guise of being concerned about me, the person really wanted to know how I could be so open with what was in my heart. 

Then, on the way home from the conference, I had an interesting conversation with a colleague.  Going back to one of the conference themes of intrusive advising, she discussed a situation where she also thought I had opened up, maybe a little too much, to some of my students.  From my point of view, my years of experience have provided me with the wisdom and good judgment to decide what is "too open".  I explained that I might approach things differently based on those experiences.  After a long discussion, she came to the conclusion that SHE might not be as comfortable sharing so much with her students as I seem to be, and connected that new awareness with feedback she'd received from some students.  It was a "light-bulb" moment for her.  She realized that, rather than be so concerned with my decisions regarding being open, she would benefit greatly from reflecting upon how open she would like to be with her students.  

To be clear, in my opinion, there's nothing inappropriate or vulgar about me or what I share, either on Facebook or this blog.  I never reveal names or specifics about people, and I keep others' confidences.  What students get when they see my Facebook page are glimpses of the real me.  When they become aware that I am a real person with real challenges and real victories, they let down their guards and become more real with themselves, and with me.  It leads to an open counseling relationship where I can be honest with them, and encourage them to be honest with themselves, about their challenges, which could possibly propel them forward into victory. 

I believe I'm able to discern what is ethical, right, and appropriate to share about who I am as a person. I am okay with being open with others, including my students.  Maybe those who aren't as open might need to examine themselves, or just leave me alone.  Am I right or what?


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  4. Facebook can be a great tool if used correctly. When you post these thought provoking and inspirational pieces, it leads to great self reflection and motivation for us readers. I will admit that I was surprised by your level of self disclosure but that was an issue for ME to deal with. I approached the counselor/student relationship as I was taught in the classroom. "Self disclosure on the behalf of the professional is a No No!" However, you are far from a stuffy psychologist!:)

    Now, with that being said there are definite boundaries with self disclosure when it comes to a counselor/student relationship but I do not think you have even come close to approaching those boundaries. Your postings are always anonymous, appropriate in content, language etc. I believe you have a great balance of openness.

    You speak of the realizations you have come to based on your experiences. (who has the right to tell you not to speak your story?) In doing this you have painted a portrait of Patricia the counselor, Patricia the mentor, but more importantly Patricia the human being. You are absolutely right when you say that this has encouraged your students to let their guards down and be real with you. We can only ask of people what we are willing to do ourselves. You actively SHOWED us that it is okay to slowly deconstruct walls we have so intricately built. Your willingness to show us who you are made us feel safe and reassured.

    As for your colleague, everyone is entitled to their opinion. What works for one may not work for another. Hopefully she was able to use this experience to revisit her approach to her relationships with her students. People will only continue to be encouraged by your postings, so keep em coming!
    ♥ Trish (Lil Trish haha)

  5. I think that you have answered your own question. I know that you are a woman of integrity, sincerity and thoughfulness. I think that your Facebook issue is a non-issue! Your colleague may not have the depth of character to maintain a professional relationship with former and current students while still being able to show your genuine self via Facebook posts. Mentorship is not something you do for a predetermined block of time, it is a responsibility to remain as the lighthouse of reason and clarity for those that seek the shore of positive and informed life choices. If you can comfortably and honestly esatblish and maintain boundries then I don't see any issue. Peace.

  6. I think that you are totally right. We need to live in a more open world where people are not scared to be more vulnerable with one another. Granted no one has to or will fully expose themselves 100% to everyone and everybody, but at the same time they don't have to be extremely guarded. I think it is great for students to see staff in a vulnerable light, because they realize that they will not have infinite wisdom when they get older rather they will continually learn with each new day.