And now it would appear that the recent Yik Yak controversy has made its way to the Chronicle of Higher Education with this article, “A New Faculty Challenge: Fending Off Abuse on Yik Yak.” And once again, I think this is something that some enterprising young person at The Eastern Echo ought to write about. There is definitely a story in the student angle on this whole thing.
The bad news is it’s behind the CHE firewall; the good news is, thanks to the kindness of friends online, I have been able to snag a copy of it. I don’t think it’d be right for me to just post the whole thing here, but let me share some quotes and comments.
First off, the setting (which I kind of knew before, but I think that’s key here): this was a mandatory interdisciplinary studies lecture hall class of 230 first year students, and it met at 9 am on Fridays. The article says that students “resented” having to be there and were “unhappy” about what had been going on before the Yik Yak incident. If I were a first year student and I was told I had to show up to a lecture hall class on a Friday morning, I’d feel the same way.
So during one of these sessions and after the class had been going along for a while, the Yik Yak conversation got a little crazy. And then this:
After the class ended, one of its 13 fellows—junior and senior honors students who were helping teach—pulled a professor aside and showed her a screen-captured record of what she and her colleagues had just gone through. Students had written more than 100 demeaning Yik Yak posts about them, including sexual remarks, references to them using “bitch” and a vulgar term for female anatomy, and insults about their appearance and teaching. Even some of the fellows appeared to have joined the attack.
In an email to administrators later that day, one of the three, Margaret A. Crouch, a professor of philosophy, said, “I will quit before I put up with this again.”
Of course, the question that remains for me is if that class fellow student hadn’t pulled a professor aside to show the screenshot of the offending conversation, would this have happened? If a Yak falls in the woods and no one is around, does it make a sound?
I don’t meant to be flip about it, but I do think it’s tricky and this whole situation exemplifies the futility of stopping this kind of inappropriate speech and thought completely. Just to state the obvious: I think it’s wrong for students to refer to/think of their teachers as bitches, vulgar terms for the female anatomy, and to insult their appearance. That’s a given, and I think that when that happens directly– as in the student going face to face up to his GA/part-timer/lecturer/professor and saying “I think you’re an ugly bitch”– that student ought to be punished. I can understand the position of “I will quit” if that sort of face to face confrontation is not addressed.
But what happens when that sort of thing is written anonymously on a student evaluation and delivered to the teacher after the course? Should the administration try to find and discipline that student? What if this is something a student just says to one of his friends and then the friend reports this abusive language to the teacher; should the teacher punish that student? What if the student calls his teacher a bitch with a text/a tweet/a Facebook post/an email/a handwritten note? Are we going to ban those mediums?
What I’m getting at here of course is that obviously it’s a problem when students call their teachers vulgar names, but I think there are some equally obvious limits about completely eliminating the possibility students will write or think vulgar things about their teachers. Banning Yik Yak certainly wouldn’t solve this problem.
(Two quick tangents here. First, I know both Margaret Crouch and Elisabeth Däumer and I feel bad that they’ve been embroiled in all of this. No one deserves to be abused by students or anyone else like this, and I’m sorry that this happened to them. I don’t think the solution is banning Yik Yak obviously, but don’t interpret my “defense” of Yik Yak as defending the right for students to be assholes. Second, I’m using the term “teacher” rather than “professor” because I think it’s more inclusive than “professor.” Professors are, by definition, more empowered at the institution, and quite frankly, I think the non-professor teachers are much more vulnerable to abuse like this. But that’s perhaps a conversation for another time.)
But again, I think this article makes it clear that it wasn’t just Yik Yak:
The professors characterized the online abuse as part of a hostile work environment. In a confidential report on the Yik Yak incident issued last month, Sharon L. Abraham, the university’s director of diversity and affirmative action, said the professors had “described a classroom environment where students talked during lecture, responded aggressively to requests to stop inappropriate behavior, and were generally disrespectful.” It said the professors had “felt threatened when dealing with students in the class who were physically large and male.”
Some Yik Yak posts about the professors suggested racial and cultural divides.
After one of the professors described a topic as too complicated to get into, one student wrote, “Are you calling me stupid? I’m an honors student bitch!”
Another Yik Yak post said, “She keeps talking about Detroit. Bitch, yo white ass probably ain’t never been in Detroit.”
[Professor Elisabeth] Däumer recalls reading the Yik Yak posts directed at her and asking herself, “Just who the hell did they think they are?”
Ms. Crouch says the Yik Yak posts “wrecked the class” and “made it impossible for us to appear in front of the 220 students again.” The instructors did not confront their students about the remarks, she says, because “we did not really feel we had any authority anymore.”
I hate to say this, but this passage suggests to me this class had kind of “gone off the rails” well before this Yik Yak incident. In reality, it doesn’t seem like Yik Yak wrecked the class so much as Yik Yak was the last incident in a previously wrecked class.
And by the way, if a teacher of any sort feels threatened by a student, then that teacher should immediately contact their department head and campus security. I don’t think it’s fair to say that someone is a threat only because they are “physically large and male,” but I also think that if the teacher thinks there is a problem, that teacher should get that problem solved and solved in a hurry.
There’s this about yours truly and EMUTalk:
Steven D. Krause, a professor of English, subsequently argued on his blog,EMUtalk.org, that Yik Yak represents a potential teaching tool and banning it would be “shortsighted.” He questioned whether the students’ comments were anything but protected free speech, and argued that the union should focus its energy elsewhere in contract talks.
Well, sort of. I think students have the right to free speech, I think that Yik Yak does have some potential applications in the classes I teach (particularly as a “discursive site” to discuss with students), I don’t think Yik Yak should be banned, and I do think the union has much bigger fish to fry in contract negotiations. But I don’t condone the student comments. I suppose students might have the “right” to call their professor a bitch in the broadest sense of free speech, but that isn’t something I support.
The article goes on to cover ground we’ve already talked about here, how while Yik Yak has given up the name of people involved in specific crimes, they haven’t given up the names of people who post harassing things, etc. One other thing I think is interesting: “The only student so far punished in connection with the Yik Yak incident is one who stepped forward and confessed.”
Here’s how the piece ends:
For her part, [EMU-AAUP President Susan] Moeller, the faculty union’s president, said in her email the three professors had been “stonewalled” by an administration that “has refused to determine which students are responsible for the sexual harassment.”
Ms. Crouch says pushing for new contractual protections against harassment is her only available recourse. “If anything happens,” she says, “it is going to be because we make it happen.”
I guess this leaves me wondering what exactly is the “it” we are going to make happen here?