Confrontational students raise the stakes in online abuse

Academics are pragmatic about abuse but believe web bullying is on the rise. Tariq Tahir reports.

January 17, 2008

The name of the student group on the social networking site Facebook leaves little doubt about what some University of Bradford undergraduates think of one of their lecturers: "Annie Smith is Shit".

The group says that it is "dedicated to the uber-crapness" of the academic, before listing a series of grievances about her along with a number of abusive comments.

Her lectures, according to the group's anonymous founder, are "so long you pray for a quick death or, failing that, just don't go to her lectures".

Dr Smith, a lecturer in biology, is philosophical about the attacks. She told Times Higher Education: "It would be more constructive if the students had said 'you should maybe break up your lectures' or 'we want more past exam questions'.

"I continually appraise the way I teach, and I am always trying to make my lectures more interesting."

The group is one of the growing number found on Facebook and similar networking websites that aim abuse at academics or question their competence and fairness.

Their growth is, Dr Smith said, a sign of a more confrontational approach among students.

"Lecturers are finding that there is a big change in the way that students behave. They are becoming more aggressive and confrontational. I'm not surprised that they are using means such as Facebook to say unpleasant things about people.

"I've had my teaching assessed, and I've always scored well. If I didn't think I was any good then I wouldn't do any lecturing, which is actually something I do on the side. I'm mainly a researcher.

"This student probably assumed that I would never read the comments. I'm not worried about my reputation but about the reputation of the course and the impact that comments such as these could have on recruitment."

Another UK academic, who asked for his name and the name of his institution to be withheld, was called a "dull cunt" and a "shit bastard" on another student group's message board.

He told Times Higher Education: "I always strive to ensure that information is delivered in a way that is interesting, interactive and accessible in all lectures that I give.

"However, students are individuals and therefore have their own individual views. If any student is unhappy with the style or standard of lectures, there are avenues available to them within the university where they can share their concerns and/or comments."

Deborah Lee of Nottingham Trent University undertook the first national student conduct survey last year. She has also written about the changing nature of the relationship between students and staff in higher education.

"What most academics would prefer is that students come forward if there is a problem. It is a matter of courtesy. To make these sorts of comments on Facebook is cowardly," Dr Lee said.

"I think that students need to be advised that if they make such comments on Facebook, then they could face some sort of sanction."

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: "Online gossip might seem harmless. However, it can lead to serious online and offline bullying. If students have real concerns about their lecturers, they would be better off going through the proper channels rather than posting on a website.

"We believe that all staff and students have the right to work free from intimidation, online or otherwise," Ms Hunt said.

The operator of the Facebook group about Dr Smith, Marcia Adourian, told Times Higher Education that she had taken up the role from another student, but that she was not responsible for setting up the group.

Ms Adourian said: "We were really annoyed with the homework and the exams we had and, yes, maybe it was a mistake writing all those nasty things about her.

"But I will not lie when saying that at that point we all felt it was the 'cool' thing to do and a way of expressing our feelings - we had just discovered Facebook and we were all hooked on it 24/7."

The University of Bradford said that it was taking the matter "very seriously" and would carry out an investigation.


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