Teachers and social networks

Teachers are social creatures, right? Well, here‘s a disturbing story from just down the road in Apex, North Carolina. A teacher has been suspended after a parent complained to the school board about a comment she posted on her Facebook page.

I don’t think we know all the facts about the situation at the school, but this incident does highlight the importance of maintaining professional distance online. My policy is not to accept “friend” invitations from any current or former students, and if I taught in the school system, I would extend that to parents. I’m sure that can be hard if the parents are also your friends in the community, but personally, I need to draw a line between my”public” persona as a teacher/faculty member and my private opinions.

For the teacher to sound off to her friends about a situation that sounds very difficult is one thing; to do so in virtual earshot of her kids’ parents is another entirely. And information can spread on Facebook, especially in a smallish town like Apex.

Time to take the pruning shears to the friends list?

Exaggerations, hedgings, and boosting

I recently read James Watson’s latest memoir, Avoid Boring People (he of Watson & Crick DNA fame), and one of his “remembered lessons” is this:

Exaggerations do not void basic truths

Books, like plays or movies, succeed best when they exaggerate the truth. In communicating scientific fact to the nonspecialist, there is a huge difference between simplifying for effect and misleading. The issues that scientists must explain to society … require far too many years of training for most people to take hold of them in all their nuances. Sciences will necessarily exaggerate but are ethically obliged to society to exaggerate responsibly. In writing my textbooks I realized that emphasizing exceptions to simple truths was counterproductive and that use of qualifying terms such as probably or possibly was not the way to get ideas across initially.

James D. Watson, Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science. Knopf, 2007, p.170

This is curious for many reasons: scientific writing demonstrates a balance between boosting (Watson’s “exaggerations”) and hedging (“qualifying terms” and other linguistic features). In most cases, scientists err on the side of caution and hedge their claims. Boosters are indeed used, but they are seen more in shorter correspondence and, I think, abstracts, including conference abstracts. Perhaps Watson is talking about science writing for general audiences, or at least for teaching purposes, because his most famous writing does not seem to follow his own advice! Continue reading “Exaggerations, hedgings, and boosting”