As part of her “History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education” MOOC, Dr. Cathy N. Davidson has taken the position that there will be “No sympathy for the trolls;” a position that I apply to the face-to-face classroom as well.
As a Michigander, I am considered a troll because I live below the Mackinaw Bridge. In fishing, trolling involves quietly moving your boat across the lake. A decade ago, trolls were individuals who lurked in on-line discussions without participating. Those of us who are Michigan trolls, individuals who enjoy certain types of fishing, or participants who lurk around the corners of discussions are not the types of trolls with whom Dr. Davidson and others are concerned because our activities are not negatively disruptive.
The trolls who are not welcome in the “History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education” and their traditional classroom equivalents are individuals who promote “discord in our community by intentionally upsetting others through inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic expression.” In the traditional class, I would add that trolls are those who participate in activities that negatively disrupt the learning environment for their peers whether or not those activities are inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic.
One critic of Dr. Davidson’s approach has argued: “Any community that is based on ‘troll enforcement’ has the wrong foundation in more than one way. It makes excellent sense to cast a critique in a positive, and hopefully useful, fashion, but it is ultimately destructive to rely on ‘enforcement’ by anything but good sense. ‘No sympathy for trolls,’ sounds more like a dictator, or a housemaster, or the Abbot of a monastery than a leader of innovation, even if it's ironic.”
Unfortunately, due to the nature of trolls, we cannot rely on good sense to police their activities. By definition, trolls do not practice good sense which is why they are negatively disruptive. Declaring “No sympathy for the trolls” is consistent with being an advocate of innovation because having no sympathy for trolls provides a safe environment for the positive disruptions and vigorous discussions that lead to innovative learning.
In the traditional classroom, I never tolerated overtly abusive comments, but I would often ignore other behavior I found to be disrespectful and distracting: inappropriate cell phone use, arriving late to class, packing up before the end of class, and so forth. However, I now take a “No sympathy for the trolls” approach in my face-to-face classes.
The problem, I realized, is that the issue is not about whether certain behaviors are distracting and disrespectful to me. The problem was the distraction trollish behaviors caused to the other students in the class. Each time a student entered the classroom late, the classroom environment was disrupted. Each time two students whispered through a video or during a presentation, the classroom environment was disrupted. When a student was on the cell phone, the classroom environment was disrupted. I realized that when I didn’t feed the trolls by ignoring their negatively disruptive behavior, they devoured the educational opportunities of their colleagues.
In Dr. Davidson’s “No sympathy for the trolls” position, there is an important caveat; trolls are given an opportunity to reform. Individuals who upset others through inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic expression are given one opportunity to revise their posted comments. Only if they refuse to revise or continue their disruptive behavior are they banned from the MOOC.
A similar caveat exists in my traditional classroom. For example, we discuss appropriate and inappropriate use of cell phones. Then, when I first see a cell phone being used inappropriately, I comment—without doing anything to identify the troll—that cell phones make me psychotic. It is only after the expectations are set and warnings are given that I ask a student to leave the classroom for being disruptive.
Like Dr. Davidson, I have had my critics. Once, a student sent me an e-mail that informed me “that I do not feel like it was 100% necessary for you to humiliate me and kick me out of class and potentially take points away from my grade…. Had you talked to me in a polite manner and not been so narrow minded and judgmental, you would have known this [the reason for texting]. Instead you made me out to be a careless student passing class time on their phone when this was NOT the case.” But that was exactly the case. The individual was being a careless student passing class time on the phone instead of participating in a team activity. But, more importantly, the student was negatively disrupting the learning environment for other students.
On-line and face-to-face trolls make it their purpose to be negatively disruptive in ways that hamper the educational environment of other students. However, it is possible that some responsible individuals might not understand the negatively disruptive behavior of their activities. This is why the caveat of giving them the opportunity to reform is so important. But, ultimately, it is our responsibility as faculty members to have “No sympathy for the trolls” because giving sympathy to the trolls disregards the educational aspirations of responsible students.
Photo Credit: Andreas Bloch (1860-1917)
This blog entry has been cross posted at Etena Sacca-vajjena.