At the end of class the other day, a student who had some questions before an imminent midterm asked me when I would be available the next day for office hours. Now, I commute an hour each way to campus, and I had planned on good library time the next day.

I suggested a solution: “Why don’t you IM me if you have questions? I’ll be on-line most of the day?”

I have to say, the student’s response took me a little aback: “Why would I IM my professor? That’s just weird.”

My perspective came from thinking of IM-technology as a tool to enhance, enrich, and expand communication, one which is suitable for a variety of contexts, both personal and professional. While I certainly do use IM in a personal context, I am straining at the bit to think of viable ways in which to harness the “back-channel” potential of it in the classroom. And, while some meetings are best done face-to-face, during the busiest times of the year when every second seems to count, I must confess, I could be persuaded to hold a number of meetings electronically.

It occurred to me, though, that this student’s objections to holding conference via instant message conveyed an undercurrent of imputation–an imputation, in fact, of violation. I had unwittingly wandered into a DMZ between public and private domains. Although I, myself, never troll through Facebook, I have heard similar anecdotes about students expressing feelings of violation when their professors and administrators look them up or simply have a presence of their own on Facebook. I wonder how they will feel when future employers who have fewer qualms than I do about trodding into “private” public territory read about their undergraduate escapades? (Dean Dad has a great post about this! And Techist is using Facebook in very interesting ways…)

No doubt, there is a generational gap at work here, one in which notional boundaries between “public” and “private” are contestable. While I want to remain sensitive to students’ desire for privacy, it also seems to me to be the case that the academy can do more to embrace these tools and to help define the parameters of etiquette.

Readers, how do you tactfully negotiate the “public” and “private”?