On Campus

Dear Dalhousie students: it's not Facebook's fault you failed

Prof. Pettigrew on digital scapegoats

Jessica Darmanin

When you teach at Cape Breton University, as I do, you get used to a certain amount of (mostly undeserved) sneering from those at other larger or richer or older Nova Scotia universities—which is more or less all of them. So it is always a bit of a guilty pleasure for me to see those same universities embarrassed by their students.

I must confess to feeling a little bit of Freude at the Schaden suffered by Dalhousie University this week when a report emerged that not only were many of Dalhousie’s engineering students failing their courses, but that they had determined the nefarious cause behind the failures.


Yes, according to the CBC, “dozens” of such students are in danger of failing out of the program because, say the students, they have been unable to resist the siren song of social media. At least one student quoted in the story is trying to solve the problem by cancelling his Facebook account.

Fine. But the problem isn’t Facebook.

Why not? Because there will always be, and have always been, distractions. I remembering visiting Cambridge and hearing that authorities in the 19th century didn’t want the railway to run through town because it would present too much of a temptation to students who might seek to abandon their studies.  When I was an undergraduate I had to pull myself away from episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation to get my reading done (and now I still do—thanks for nothing, Netflix). Then, of course, came email, then the internet generally, now social media, and who-knows-what next.

My point is that the problem isn’t the latest technology. It’s the failure to understand that genuine success at university can only come through hard work. Distractions will always be available, and scapegoating Facebook or other social media lets students off the hook by telling them that it is not really their fault.

Don’t get me wrong: I too often spend more time on frivolous web pursuits than I should. But I don’t blame The Onion or The Daily Show for distracting me. If I don’t get my stuff done, that’s on me.

And Dal Engineering students, it’s on you too.

Todd Pettigrew is an associate professor of English at Cape Breton University.