Daniel R. Porterfield, president of Franklin & Marshall College, uses Facebook to connect with his students at F&M, just as he did at his previous institution, Georgetown, and is a strong proponent of the educational value of social media. In fact, his social media use distinguished him on his first days on campus at F&M: the campus newspaper and the local newspaper, Lancaster Online, both highlighted this aspect of the college’s new president.
When I conducted this interview, Porterfield was driving back to campus to teach a class; he was attending a conference with other college presidents on “The Future of the Liberal Arts College in America and Its Leadership Role in Education Around the World.” “In the beginning of the semester, I told www.mstoner.comthem that there were no excused absences,” he said of his students, and he couldn’t violate his own rule. After class, he turned around and drove right back to the conference….
What prompted you to begin using social media?
I was teaching in Georgetown at 2004 when Facebook came to town. I remember that semester vividly–I was teaching a human rights class, and I knew the students well. I was struck by how many created their online personae and struck by how Facebook swept across the campus, with hundreds of students an hour signing up. I remember feeling awed by the speed of that wave.
Over the course of the next five to six years, I didn’t give it much thought. In my role as an educator and a leader at Georgetown, I viewed it as a student space–as “their” space–even though different students invited me to join. Sometime in the summer of 2010, I saw that the 500 millionth person joined Facebook. So I thought, “Shouldn’t I get on it, learn about it, and see what it was about?” Once I did, I was encouraged by my students, who Friended me and said “We’re glad you’re finally taking the plunge.”
At that point, I saw that I could do some good as an educator: I could put out content, ideas, article links or photos that could benefit our community. I could learn how students were using social media and be a mentor to them, helping them to understand better or worse practices as I learned myself. And I could keep up with alums, many of whom were very active in education or various social movements. So I could use this platform as another way to mentor my “friends.” That is what I am doing now at F&M. I’m using social media to engage with our students during their time on campus and after we have launched them into the world.
As far as Twitter is concerned, I first used it at a goodbye party when I was leaving Georgetown to come to F&M. I sent my first tweet from the podium–and everyone laughed with me! Now at F&M, I find Twitter to have a similar value as Facebook, since it helps me stay in touch with students and alums and learn from them. Same with Instagram. I haven’t figured out Pinterest yet and may not have time!
But Twitter is different from Facebook: Twitter is like a play. You don’t get to choose who comes to see a play, and the full audience is there. That’s part of the power of drama — multiple types of spectators. When I tweet, I try to envision that my students or young graduates are the primary audience, and I hope that something I’m tweeting is reaching them. But others are watching too — faculty, reporters, my own children. Maybe they’ll enjoy watching me direct messages to the students and alums, like spectators observing what I’m saying as an educator and assessing whether the uses I’m experimenting with are worth it or not.
Perhaps I’ll develop a sense of other primary audiences as I use it more, but my primary focus has always been the students and their holistic development. The students and young alumni who follow me on Twitter seem to like seeing their president advocate for the college and promote in my own voice what’s happening on campus. Sometimes I try to send messages to students that might inspire them to keep at it, or to read an interesting article. I think tweeting about public safety issues or the insights of a lecture can enhance our actual community. I’m trying to use social media to enhance “real” life– and to show respect for our academic and educational experiences. For my part, I want to stay present to the community I’m a part of day-to-day, and to the extended community of recent graduates, so following their tweets helps me do that.
The reality is that social media is here to stay, and it can be used by students and all of us for good or for ill depending on the uses to which it’s put. I like to model good uses and enjoy the good uses of others. I don’t spend tons of time doing it because there’s so much else to do that matters more. I’m also very open to feedback that I can be using social media in still more effective educational ways, and to being aware that some people suffer from social media obsession so I ought not unintentionally project that as well. I think there’s so much changing about early young adult development that today’s college students are experiencing, that it’s good for older people to engage in the media that our students are using, as long as we’re always aware of our role as educators. Some degree of participation enables me to challenge students to critique technology culture: I have more credibility and a lot more to say about it when I have experienced it. Over time, I want students to use it well, to use it ethically, and to develop themselves in non-cyber space, of course.
Do you have thoughts about the strengths and weaknesses of the channels you use?
Each social channel or “genre” has its own conventions and strengths.
Blogging has been hard: I haven’t figured out if I can develop a distinctive voice that will allow me to use the medium effectively an educator and an advocate for Franklin & Marshall and my students. I’m hoping that my writing a blog will help me see more clearly, and thus express, the meaning that we all make on campus together and also add a more intimate educator’s perspective to the national dialogue on issues affecting our students and alums.
Blogging feels less dialogic — whereas Facebook allows one to validate students’ hard work and effort by “liking” what they post. When they feel liked and respected by someone they respect, that may encourage them to take the risk of growth.
For me, Facebook and Twitter are valuable because they connect me with people who like those avenues for connection — not everyone does – -and I want to be available and accessible in every appropriate way to my students and colleagues. Being accessible helps to create a comfort with one another that can be a precursor to trust and to growth.
How do you feel about reading awkward content that your student friends post?
I think there’s less of that today than there was in the early days. Students are just more aware about their posts and they know that their audiences are more heterogeneous than five years ago. More students are learning at earlier ages about what to share. In the past year, I haven’t found that many instances in which I’ve had to remark about a post, or ignore it. I have seen a few students make comments in jest that I suspected could be offensive to some people. In these cases, I’ve talked to them offline about what I saw, and they were quite appreciative.
When you’re engaging in social media with students, you have to remember there’s irony involved in what’s posted. If you read it regularly, you start to catch the intonations that differentiate a post that could be interpreted as a plea for help from an ironic comment. That said, I must confess that I don’t do much Facebook surfing, and the algorithm of the Facebook newsfeed really limits how much any of us sees of the posts of others we don’t directly engage with often.
You are focusing a lot on using social media to engage with students right now. As your role shifts and becomes more external, how do you imagine your use of social channels (and your approach to them) changing?
Looking forward, I can imagine using Twitter and perhaps other emerging social media to take part in the public dialogue about key issues in higher education, such as the value and meaning of liberal arts education; the need for a pro-youth policy agenda; K-12 education equity and reform; the importance of financial aid; and the value of supporting holistic student learning. I always want to be an advocate for my students, F&M, and liberal arts education. Also, I’m hoping that my blog can become an enjoyable read for people who believe in this generation of young people and the power of education, but I need to get better before I start setting goals like that….
*[Note: this is one of a series of interviews with college and university CEOs about how they use social media in their role as institutional leaders. I conducted this research for an article that will appear in the November-December issue of CASE Currents.]