An experiment in trolling: a teaching moment #FutureEd

By in pedagogy, teaching on January 25, 2014

In #FutureEd there has been much talk about trolling. The exact quote is “no sympathy for the trolls”. Trolling will not be tolerated. When you are working with a group of over 10,000 people, that is understandable. Still, I think there is a place to play with trolling in new spaces of learning. It is afterall a big part of our digital culture. Given that we tend to think through things through our theoretical foundation, I find that I am fascinated by the performance of trolling.

My Classroom Experiment

The second week of class there were three Jade’s (me, and two anonymous students), one of whom loved the D. I blame Robin Thicke for this.

I was teaching media and popular culture. Blurred Lines was constantly on the radio and the feminist backlash against the video had just started. It’s use of hashtags, representation of women, issues with race and sexuality, the bizarre stuff with animals, the nudity, everything made it the perfect place to start the class. We’d be going over all the components. Plus, the part where in the background where the video says “Robin Thicke has a big Dick” really needed to be discussed because… c’mon! So the introduction to the course on the first day was a series of technological fails with a screening of the video and a brief discussion of the video. We would come back to it for the next two weeks.

One of the first assignments the students had to do was keep a media & technology diary chronicling their consumption and engagement with media over a 24 hour period so we could discuss it in class. Rather than having them say things out loud and writing them on the board I created an etherpad document that was projected on the screen behind me. Etherpad is an anonymous collaborative document tool that allows many people to write together in real time. It has a chat bar in the side box too. (I’ve created an active document here in case anyone wants to see what it looks like.). The students were asked to write down the main media they were consuming so we had a working list to talk through. They immediately found the chat box. And realized they could make their names whatever they wanted. And that I wouldn’t be able to tell who was who… and it would all be projected behind me.

The first thing people started doing was making their name “Jade”, “Real Jade”. The Jade’s were like some grand internal monologue as I could talk while Jade was saying things in the chat like. “I don’t really mean that.” or “I hate you all”. At one point the class gasped and started laughing though. Given the conversation from the week before, “the D” was in circulation in the classroom space. The person I started referring to as “Fake Jade” (going by the screen name “Jade”). Posted “I love the D!”. It was… interesting. Which is what I told the class, and I thanked Fake Jade for sharing his or her love of the D. There was only one instance of someone saying something offhanded to a student comment, and I shut it down right away. I told them for the class period it was fine if they wanted to troll me, but they weren’t allowed to do that to each other.

The Classroom Discussion
When we met for class the next time I started with a discussion about what happened in the Etherpad, but I needed to address the issue of loving the D. The first question I asked them was if they thought something like that would have happened if I were male? What would change if they had said that and I were male? or if I were a different type of female? We then had a good conversation about trolling and power dynamics and classroom trolling dynamics. I explained that anytime I’ve opened up an etherpad in a classroom the same thing happens. There is trolling. We turned that into a discussion of why anonymity in digital environments might invite trolling. I think a lot of it has to do with power. The students sit in a classroom where they are supposed to take in everything that person in the front says without questioning it. Worse, a lot of the students think that all I wanted was for them to agree with me. The trolling gave them a chance to start the class with shifting power dynamics. I am okay making myself vulnerable in that way, because after the discuss I tell them they have to be vulnerable too. I know that all of them are coming in with biases, lived experiences, prejudices, and strong beliefs. They are allowed to leave the class with those, but inside of the class my only request is that they consider what is being said, and ask the questions or make the statements they’d be scared to ask or make in other place, because the classroom is the space where they are allowed to be wrong with minimal real life consequences. I then forbid trolling sort of. I tell them the only one who gets to troll the class is me. I didn’t ask and didn’t care who Fake Jade was. He or she provided a great teaching moment.

Post trollpocalypse class dynamics
Any time I’ve opened up the etherpad the classroom dynamics have changed after. Students are more open with each other and with me because I “play” with them in the chat. We have really great conversations after about what happened. I don’t ignore any of the bad stuff. In fact, I focus on it because I find it fascinating on a personal level. Plus, I’m snarky. I get to be snarky about what they are doing. They, in turn, open themselves up and realize I am serious when I say it is fine to ask or say just about anything you want in this class, chances are it is relevant to the topic. You just have to be okay with use dissecting it after. This openness has been invaluable when teaching sections on race, gender, and sexuality. I’m positive I get questions and comments that most people don’t (I’ve talked to lots of people about them and they are usually shocked), but it is because in addition to making the classroom a space of thought experimentation, I assure them that it will be a judgement free zone. By allowing them to have that moment of ultimate power through anonymity and control of the screen immediately behind me, and not holding it against them, they seem to trust me when I tell them that.

This is how I troll

At the end of the semester we started going over some global dynamics of popular media. While lots of places see the US stuff, we tend to not watch the external stuff. YouTube’s first video awards saw Girl’s Generation win best video of the year though, and Big Bang’s T.O.P. was voted one of the sexiest male musicians in the world. Only, I really like d-dragon. So, we watched some Korean pop videos. I told the class about T.O.P.s success, and then played the video above claiming it was T.O.P. when he was younger (really I just wanted to hear the song because I prefer G-dragon). A few people questioned because the title said something else, and half-way through a student said they thought they saw something that said 2013… but I told them they were wrong. And they went with it. When we met next time I told them I’d lied to them about something and they’d get extra credit if they could tell me what the lie was. It took about 5 minutes but they figured it out. And then we had a discussion about all the things they’d told themselves to make it so they could believe I wasn’t lying to them. We used this conversation to have a bigger discussion about access to information (they could have easily confirmed I was wrong by looking it up on a computer or smart phone). We used the moment too, to discuss their built in programming that makes it so they automatically believe the person at the front has to be telling the truth, and how that can be dangerous at times. We then did a recap of class discussions where I knew my personal beliefs were way out in leftfield (we had an animated discussion on marriage proposals. I am against them 110%), and I would never want them to think they had to think like me. It is a reminder that at the end of the day they have to decide what they will incorporate into their lives from their classroom experiences.

How I killed trolling
When I opened up an etherpad in my current class, Intro to New Media, I let them know that it usually makes students troll and we talked about it before we used it because trolling is a part of the social/digital media ecology. There were no trolls that day. Well. There was one, but the student was trying to be a “good troll”. She or he just gave lots of anonymous compliments and used the screen name good troll.

The role of privilege
I am not a code switcher. I’m just Jade. And Jade happened to be raised in upper middle class mostly white suburbs when she wasn’t living in Hawaii, a upper middle class area of Chicago, or Chelsea in NYC. I am non-threatening. I am somewhat ethnically ambiguous in as much as people tend to think I’m mixed with everything and I code as neutral. I have a fairly thick skin and have very strong beliefs on the classroom being a space of suspended reality. This means I can troll freely. I have a good idea of the types of things people will say, and I’m not afraid to give it back. I would never, ever, ever encourage this activity for everyone. In addition to it being a risk for me, it is a risk for the students as well… and all of these things, personal positions, societal perceptions, power dynamics, number of people involved, etc need to be taken into consideration. It could go wrong very easily. I know that I am privileged to be able to use this activity, but it is my social privilege that makes it work.

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