“Little recourse against faceless commenters”

A loyal EMUTalk.org reader sent me this link the other day, “Little recourse against faceless commenters,” a column by Froma Harrop in “Herald.Net” out of Everett, Washington. It talks about a variety of examples of bullying online and the problems of anonymous identities and the like, but the reason I include it here is because it makes reference to our own local Yik Yak controversy:

Three female professors at Eastern Michigan University were shocked to learn that some young scholars in their lecture hall had been on their cellphones attacking them with lewd public posts, complete with imagery. It was all done anonymously, courtesy of an unusually obnoxious social media app called Yik Yak.

Their lecture topic, post-apocalyptic culture, seemed somehow apt. And to think, this was an honors course.

One complained to her union rep as follows: “I have been defamed, my reputation besmirched. I have been sexually harassed and verbally abused. I am about ready to hire a lawyer.”

It’s not clear what a lawyer could do for her.

She really has only two options: 1. Rip the electronic devices out of the students’ grubby little fingers. Or 2. Choose to not give a fig what anybody says about her anatomy/age/hair color/sweater size.

Having been on that receiving end any number of times, I’d advise 2. The more obscenity and general abuse flourish online the less impact any of it should have. These days, even high schoolers need skin 10 feet thick.

And then the commentary goes on from there.

Say, speaking of different online forums:  remember that the sun that is EMUTalk.org is setting for good some time this summer/early fall, and if you haven’t done so already, now is a good time to join the Facebook group EMUTalk. It has the disadvantage of not being anonymous (well, unless you set up a pseudo-anonymous Facebook account), but it has the advantage of being about as close to an open-ended forum where anyone can post and comment as we’re likely to get. So if you have a Facebook account (and really, who doesn’t?) go and join the group.

A couple of Yiks and/or Yaks

Summer is always the slow season around EMUTalk, and in that sense, there’s not a whole lot different in this last season of the blog. No news is, well, no news. But I did come across a couple of kind of interesting articles on Yik Yak I thought I’d post.

Feminists United plans to announce at a news conference Thursday that it has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education alleging that members were threatened with sexual assault and death and were cyber-stalked after speaking out in campus debates about Greek life and against a lewd chant by the rugby team this year, said attorney Lisa Banks.

Authorities say that Grace Rebecca Mann, a 20-year-old from McLean, Va., who served on United’s board, was slain April 17 by a roommate. Steven Vander Briel was charged with first-degree murder and abduction. Police have not commented on an alleged motive.

Banks and United members said they have no evidence that Mann’s activism or the threats on Yik Yak were related to her slaying. But they said a flood of more than 700 messages — some of which targeted members by name — left them feeling afraid. They said school officials did nothing to stop the threats despite repeated requests throughout the year.

So, what I mean by it being “two stories” is it seems like there is an issue of the women who are in this group being harassed via Yik Yak and one of their members was killed by her roommate for some reason, probably not related to Yik Yak though.

“U-M community bands together after suicidal note on Yik Yak”

From mLive comes “U-M community bands together after suicidal note on Yik Yak,” which is another story that makes it clear that Yik Yak is not just a tool for bullying faculty or posting racist rants. Here’s a quote:

A short post on social media titled “Thank you & Bye” prompted a large response and discussion of mental illness on the University of Michigan campus this weekend.

Community members took to the anonymous, location-based social media app Yik Yak and to University of Michigan Diag on Sunday after someone posted about an apparently planned suicide.

and…

Students such as English senior Hannah Maine, 21, said the gathering and programs such as the Wolverine Support Network are opportunities for better open-dialogue on issues of mental illness.

“People don’t feel comfortable admitting ‘I have depression’ or ‘I have suicidal thoughts’ because of all the stigma, but hopefully these types of things will help take that away,” she said. “You need to talk about it otherwise it’s not going to get better.”

Maine said Yik Yak has been a helpful way for students, such as herself, to address similar struggles and stress anonymously.

“Yik Yak catches flack form Mich. universities”

From The Detroit News comes “Yik Yak catches flack form Mich. universities,” which, as the headline suggests, is more about, well, Yik Yak and flack.  It more or less rehashes the same arguments about Yik Yak that have already been trotted out, though I will highlight two passages I thought were kind of interesting. First there’s this:

Laura Krench, a junior at Eastern Michigan University, is a huge fan of Yik Yak. She downloaded the app onto her phone about a month ago and checks it about every 20 minutes throughout the day.

Recently, she commented on a yak from someone who posted that they had stopped cutting themselves for almost six months but had cut themselves three days in a row.

“If you feel like cutting, write about it, cry about it,” Krench wrote. “Find an alternative because hurting yourself is not the solution. I’ve been there and I believe in you. You can quit again, you truly can.”

I have to say that I’ve seen a lot of Yaks along these lines– maybe not quite this extreme, but Yaks that anonymously express some kind of loneliness, depression, etc. There are obvious problems with the anonymity of Yik Yak, but I’d suggest that a) Yik Yak becomes a safe space to express these kinds of thoughts, and b) Yik Yak is used a lot more for this kind of thing than it is for harassing professors.

The other passage I wanted to highlight from the end of the piece takes a bit of set-up. In the opening paragraphs, the reporter– Kim Kozlowski–  makes reference to Plato’s (aka Socrates’) low opinion of anonymity generally. I don’t know the dialog specifically where Plato talks about this, but given the high value Plato/Socrates places on the exchange between Socrates and others as a means of arriving at “Truth,” this makes a certain amount of sense. Then Kozolowski quotes EMU Professor Margaret Crouch about how the infamous Yik Yak incident made it impossible for her to teach because “they (the students, that is) did not respect us.” That leads to these concluding paragraphs:

Crouch said students need to be held accountable for violating the student code of conduct, especially in a world that continues to be changed by technology. Already the Internet has created distance between people who use it more often to communicate than face to face, and sometimes to hide as trolls on blogs.

Social media apps that allow anonymity change things even more, leaving no social sanctions — exactly what Plato was talking about centuries ago, Crouch said.

“The kind of behavior we think of as ethical or even just decent is kept in place by social sanction — by other people,” Crouch said. “There will be people who will do bad things if they don’t have the social coercion to behave. … So the idea that people will behave badly if they have anonymity has been around a long time. It’s not anything new.”

A couple of quick thoughts. First, without going too far into the weeds with this, what Crouch is talking about in terms of communication technologies like the Internet is more or less what my dissertation was about. What I argued way back then was that these technologies create what I described as “immediate” rhetorical situations, where the term “immediacy” has both positive and negative connotations. On the one hand, the quickness and juxtaposition of “immediacy” can be confusing and chaotic because of a lack of perspective, reflection, etc. On the other hand, immediacy also breaks down barriers, and it can foster connectedness and intimacy between communicators over a great distance. Or to be more direct about it, while the internet and anonymous communication is not universally good, it’s obviously not universally bad either.

Second, I’m not so sure about the “social coercion” to make students “behave” squares with students “respecting” their teachers. I’m not sure the two are related, and I’m quite sure that “coercion” is a bad way to get “respect.” We’ve all been in situations as students or other kinds of listeners where we “behaved” but where we also had zero respect for the teachers/speaker. So I guess I’m questioning the point where “respect” broke down, and I also am of the opinion that “coercion” is not a great approach to teaching.

And third, as Crouch says, this is nothing new, which is again why I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to ban Yik Yak.

Dueling Yik Yak emails

Yesterday, faculty and lots of other people received not one but two emails about the ongoing Yik Yak mess. I include both below; the first was from Provost Kim Schatzel  in the afternoon. She basically outlines the administration’s response to all this and what they are planning to do about it. Among other things, it includes workshops about workplace bullying, discussions about faculty classroom rights and responsibilities, and policy reviews of classroom management policies.

Then last night, EMU-AAUP President Susan Moeller sent an email which was a forwarded letter/email from MSU’s Hilda Lindemann. Lindemann is the chair of the American Philosophical Association’s Committee on the Status on Women. That letter/email (are you following all this?) expresses support for Margaret Crouch because she was the one featured in the New York Times piece and because she’s a philosophy professor. (I’m assuming that the APA also supports Crouch’s co-professors, even though they aren’t philosophers and aren’t mentioned in the APA letter.) The APA group urges EMU to do something about it.

For me, I guess this begs two questions: first, do the actions/initiatives described in Schatzel’s email adequately address the demands being made by the APA?

Second, what are the other issues on the table in contract negotiations this year?

Don’t get me wrong– as I’ve said several times before, these issues are important, particularly as they spill over from the anonymous and digital world to the non-anonymous and physical classroom world. It’s just that this seems to be the only issue I’ve heard about from the EMU-AAUP for a while now. So for example, are there issues about things like health insurance, salaries, teaching load (and so forth) on the table, or is it all about classroom conduct?

The emails after the break.

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“Colleges Should Stop Worrying About Yik Yak and Start Respecting Their Students”

An alert EMUTalk.org reader sent me this the New Republic web site, “Colleges Should Stop Worrying About Yik Yak and Start Respecting Their Students.”  It’s a very smart piece by David Sessions (who is a PhD student at Boston College), and if you only read two articles about all of this Yikking and Yakking, I’d say read this one and the New York Times article I posted the other day.

I take away three things from this piece. First, if you’re concerned about Yik Yak one way or the other and you have smart phone, install it and see for yourself. My take on the conversation is similar to Sessions: most of it (he says 70%, I’d say more like 90%) is some version of “I’m alone in my dorm and wish I had someone to talk to and possibly touch,” and (I would add) “I’m so high and/or I would like to be high.” Not exactly debates over the Platonic ideal, but not particularly surprising, either.

Second, the “brute reality” is the only way Yik Yak is going away is if the government intervenes (and no one wants that), and cyberbullying/abuse happened before Yik Yak and will happen after Yik Yak. The real project we should be engaging in is figuring out how to live in this reality rather than figuring out to make it go away.

And third, this last paragraph in Sessions’ piece:

College students are neither inherently predatory nor inherently vulnerable, and the proper response to technological challenges is not suspicion, fear, and punishment. With Yik Yak, like everything else, it’s hard to expect students to respect their classmates and professors, and to stand up when they feel wronged, if the university already presumes they’re incapable of doing so.

Exactly.

“Social-Media Skirmishes” (for faculty, that is)

Interesting little article in the Chronicle of Higher Education today: “Social-Media Skirmishes,” which is about faculty engaging/interacting in/on social media broadly speaking– Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc.  The article raises some of the usual suspects here– Steven Salaita and the anti-Israel tweets that got him unhired, along with a few others. I like that they included this passage, too:

Cases like Mr. Salaita’s get most of the attention, but they’re the exception. Most faculty members active on social media are not creating public-relations dramas. In fact, they’re doing their employers and themselves a service, says Tarleton Gillespie, an associate professor of communication and information science at Cornell University. He’s at work on a book about how social-media platforms like Twitter and Facebook handle speech-related issues such as threats and online abuse.

Given the newness of social media, Mr. Gillespie says, it’s too easy to focus on what can go wrong rather than what’s already going right. Scholars are using social media to connect with colleagues and take part in conversations beyond their campuses, which can boost their institutions’ profiles, too. “Lots of academics are doing this really well,” he says.

Though one thing I don’t like much about this article is the audience here is squarely higher education administrators, the types charged with policing these kinds of activities. There’s even a sidebar that offers “points” (tips?) for what a “college” should do about social media.

Speaking of banning laptops….

Since the whole role of laptops and cell phones in class has been a part of the discussion lately, I thought I’d post this.  From CHE (though this was published last week) comes “Students Are Welcome to Shop Online During My Lectures” by David von Schlichten. He begins the article by explaining that he started to draft this piece while he was in a meeting; a bit later, there’s this:

Frankly, students’ being on their computers or texting does not faze me. This may be because, before I was a professor, I was a parish pastor for 17 years. Sunday after Sunday, I preached while people nodded off or babies screamed (and screamed, and screamed). Who knows how many parishioners were actually paying attention and how many were texting, making grocery lists, or passing notes? I could not monitor all that. I did my best to prepare engaging, relevant sermons. If people chose not to pay attention, I could not help that.

I have the same attitude in the classroom. I am an excellent lecturer. If students opt not to pay attention during my lectures, I am disappointed but not angry. I do my part; it is up to them to do theirs. From what I have heard from my colleagues, the policing of students is more aggravating than worthwhile, and with 173 students in five classes, I simply do not have the time and energy to be disciplining students for not giving me their undivided attention. Besides, just as I was able to start this essay during a meeting and am able to work at home while the TV is on (although it is hard to multitask during The Good Wife), at least some students can probably pay attention to me while doing something else (one student used to knit during class.).

 

“Yik Yak Rhetorics” and “Don’t Ban Yik Yak”

Speaking of Yik Yak: not one but two recent articles in Inside Higher Ed. The first comes from someone who I know professionally, Jeff Rice, and his piece “Yik Yak Rhetorics.” Jeff is an interesting writer and thinker, so I encourage you to read through the whole thing. But one observation and two quotes I’ll share from my reading: first, my experience with Yik Yak very much squares with his in that I find it banal and stupid. I can’t recall ever reading a Yak that I’d describe as a “threat.”

As for the quotes; there’s this:

Yik Yak is about proximity. A user of Yik Yak either assumes proximity (those near me will read this) or creates proximity (we are not physically near one another, but you are now close to what I am thinking). The media theorist Marshall McLuhan proclaimed proximity as a central tenet of new media logics. Information brushes against information, he wrote. Out of that proximity, ideas are formed. Italian theorist Michel Maffesoli framed the network need for proximity as a question of secrecy: we are never really sure why items interact or why we create proximity across networks. What’s our motivation? What do we hope to gain?

In the university, we encourage proximity. We ask faculty to develop relationships with students. We ask students to feel a relationship with the university (for retention purposes; so as alumni they will become donors; for networking purposes as each graduating class seeks employment). When we engage with social media, however, proximity sparks fear. Now we are too close. Now we know too much. As soon as we know what others are thinking, we get scared. Or offended. Or outraged.

And also this:

Yik Yak is admission that there is no private without the public. Social media have always been a space that – because of the sense of proximity – feels private, but is, in fact, public. Whether we are discussing Anthony Weiner’s embarrassing bathroom selfies, Lucas Oil’s Charlotte Lucas’ racist tweet, or Cee Lo Green’s insensitive tweets about rape, we recognize how quickly private thought is made public. Even former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s private phone conversation becomes a public moment as the recorded discussion is duplicated and circulated to news outlets, blogs, and other sites.

College students are hardly the only people thinking the uncomfortable or the offensive. All around us uncomfortable thought exists. Eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds are not the only people who make private thought public on a whim. We all do. My Facebook feed is proof. The majority of my Facebook friends are, after all, academics. They seldom hold back on their thoughts.

Very true.

The other piece, “Don’t Ban Yik Yak,” is from Eric Stoller, who (among other things) is the “Student Affairs and Technology” blogger at IHE. Here’s a short passage:

Yik Yak may at times be a hot mess. However, like every single communication tool in the history of humankind, Yik Yak is what we make of it. Yaks represent us. Posts on the anonymous geolocation mobile-based app run the gamut of good, bad, and ugly.

When higher education administrators (usually in partnership with campus IT pros) “ban” Yik Yak by blocking wireless access to the app on campus networks, they are sending two distinct messages: We do not fully understand how connectivity works and we do not understand how Yik Yak works. Too harsh? Perhaps.