Yik Yak Yuck

Margaret Crouch, a philosophy professor at Eastern Michigan University, was team-teaching a large group of students with two other professors, while, unbeknownst to the three, many of the students were using the class time to post hostile and vulgar remarks about them via Yik Yak. (If you don’t know Yik Yak, think of it as a local anonymous twitter feed in which old posts disappear.) The Chronicle of Higher Education reports:

The three women knew that many of the nearly 230 freshmen in the auditorium resented having to show up at 9 a.m. every Friday for a mandatory interdisciplinary-studies class. But whatever unhappy students previously had said directly to them seemed mild in comparison to the verbal abuse being hurled at them silently as they taught one Friday morning last fall.

Students typed the words into their smartphones, and the messages appeared on their classmates’ screens via Yik Yak, a smartphone application that lets people anonymously post brief remarks on virtual bulletin boards…

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…

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.” 

The article in the Chronicle is here (currently behind a paywall). It sounds like it was an awful situation.

Ms. Crouch and another target of the online attack, Elisabeth Däumer, a professor of English, say they see the Yik Yak incident as part of a broader deterioration of students’ discipline and respect for female instructors…

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.”…

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.”…

The professors focused their energy on urging the administration to try to identify the students who had written the offensive posts and to punish them for violating the code of student conduct.

Meanwhile, another Eastern Michigan professor, Steven Krause, argues against banning Yik Yak here. Among other things, he says:

Describing Yik-Yak as a way of “anonymously cyber-bullying” people is sort of like saying that an automobile is a way to kill people. Sure, you can use it for that, but is that the point? The answer is no for both.

Yik Yak knows that its users can create quite a bit of trouble. Some schools have tried to ban the app from their location, but that is difficult. Yik Yak does contract with a company that is supposed to screen out some offensive posts, but it is not clear how effective it is. Andrew Cullison (DePauw) was interviewed for a story in Yik Yak in Atlanta Magazine.  On this point:

Yik Yak’s self-policing measures could be seen as half-hearted, and serve only to make the app more enticing to high schoolers. After all, teenagers love forbidden fruit. It’s as though the company is trying to have it both ways: monitoring and controlling some of its content while letting the rest run free, says Cullison, the ethics researcher. “If they’re really trying to become a respectable news organization of sorts, they’re making a promise to consumers,” he says. “But it’s going to get harder to pick and choose when to take steps to block people and control content. They can’t stick their heads in the sand.” 

I teach a lecture hall full of 180 students this afternoon. They’re supposed to have their phones put away while there, but rates of compliance are hard to assess. I’ve downloaded the app. Perhaps I’ll leave it open during class, just to see.

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