Making public malicious views about academics and universities online is akin to abuse, but it is a growing problem. Lecturer Amy Binns reports
We all know students do it. But ridiculing lecturers by criticising their courses - and even their appearance and personal habits - has entered a new dimension.
The growth of user-generated content websites, such as YouTube and MySpace, has propelled students' private in-jokes into a very public sphere. What may have once amounted to graffiti on the campus toilet for a small local audience has exploded online for all the world to see. And the consequences for academics are certainly not funny.
But it seems that students don't perceive any difference. Many have made a smooth transition between sending a group e-mail to blogging online, unaware of what a potential audience of millions really means.
In recent weeks, Huddersfield University uncovered three unrelated cases of abuse of female media and journalism lecturers on the social networking website, MySpace.
The comments, including some about myself, ranged from complaints about assignments to juvenile remarks about staff's hairy legs, "smelly feet" and speculations about lecturers' sex lives.
The students had so many "MySpace friends", effectively links to other MySpace personal pages, that in some cases graphic insults showed up on the first page of ordinary Google searches on the academics' names.
Alistair Billam, head of media and journalism at Huddersfield, is convinced this is just the tip of the iceberg. He said: "The first time I presumed it was a one-off but it's happened since, and each time it's caused a great deal of anger and distress.
"At the moment, it's the foot soldiers that are taking it on the chin and I don't think it's fed through to the higher levels. But we need a co-ordinated policy at institutional or even national level.
"These throwaway or sexual remarks are open for everyone to see. It has a major impact on the public identity of our colleagues."
Gillian Hogg, head of marketing at Strathclyde University, is well aware of the problem.
The university appeared on YouTube when a publicity-seeking student chose to strip off in a crowded marketing lecture, while his friend filmed the stunt on a mobile phone. The clip has been watched nearly 2,000 times.
Professor Hogg said: "Fortunately, the lecturer was a young guy with a good rapport with the students who was able to laugh it off. If we made a big fuss, it would just draw attention to it. We decided to ignore it, but it's always referred to as the marketing streaker and he was nothing to do with us."
She said she was more concerned about material she didn't know about.
"Every time you step in front of a class you wonder what's going on. I heard of one lecturer who had a whole fan club online she knew nothing about."
Professor Hogg said her three children, all at university, were adamant that students had a right to free speech. She said: "There are so many programmes on television of clips of people making a fool of themselves that I think they just consider it normal."
YouTube pranks seem to be increasing. At several institutions, including St John's College, Cambridge, students have loudly answered "urgent" phone calls, then torn off their clothes to reveal superman outfits and rushed from the room.
Students from Bradford University and the University of Central Lancashire posted videos of their friends falling asleep in lectures, sending a clear message about what they think of the talents of the individual lecturers.
Some incidents are not so easily dismissed. One YouTube video, which has been watched more than 1,400 times, shows a US student leaping from his seat to scream and throw himself at the walls as if having a fit.
The lecturer, showing considerable dignity, walks slowly towards the door but the student runs past her and throws himself against it, screaming all the time. "Retarded, but hilarious," is one of the many comments posted about it online.
Robin Mason, who appears on YouTube dealing with a student answering back in a lecture at Southampton University, said he intended to ignore it. He said: "I'm not going to get hot under the collar about it. It may be easier for me because I'm established, I can imagine for younger colleagues it might be more difficult."
Professor Mason said he thought students would get bored of their new tricks if starved of attention. "I've had people sit through lectures in wigs and fancy dress. If you're a parent, you know there are some behaviours that it helps to just ignore."
But Patrick Nash, chief executive of the College and University Support Network, said that cyberbullying left some staff feeling humiliated. "It's an increasing problem across education. It takes bullying beyond what happens in the classroom. People are being undermined in front of colleagues, family and friends."
Mr Nash said universities should include it in their policies on harassment just as if the abuse had happened in a lecture theatre.
Most websites with user-generated content promise to remove offensive comments or fake profiles, but they are notoriously slow at responding to complaints.
Adam Tudor, a partner at media law firm Carter-Ruck, said he had managed to have a video removed from MySpace within two weeks, but this was quicker than normal.
He said that the websites "are quicker if lawyers are involved but they often treat ordinary members of the public with thinly-disguised contempt".
Libel cases against internet service providers, which host the content, have been successful, but success in a British court may prove a hollow victory.
Mr Tudor said: "It may be difficult to enforce if the website is hosted abroad. Many of these sites, including MySpace and YouTube, are hosted in the US where freedom of speech is king."
Huddersfield dealt with its problem by requiring students who posted abusive comments to delete their MySpace pages or face disciplinary action on grounds of harassment and bringing the university into disrepute.
For the University and College Union, it is essential that institutions take tough and swift action against the students.
Sally Hunt, UCU joint general secretary, said: "Bullying is unacceptable, whether done face to face or via a computer. Universities must do more to ensure staff and students are able to work in a tolerant and intimidation-free environment, and the growth of the web means employers and unions need to revisit existing dignity-at-work procedures to ensure they cover all aspects of bullying."
Amy Binns is a print journalism lecturer at Huddersfield University and a freelance writer.
BAD JOKE OR WORST NIGHTMARE?
The first time lecturer Karen Peterson (not her real name) realised she had an online presence she hadn't bargained for was when she typed her own name into the social networking website MySpace.
Right at the top was the following appraisal of her teaching methods on a student's webpage: "Im so board (sic) im stuck in the most boring, pointless class with waste of space bitch Karen Peterson."
Ms Peterson, who works at a northern university, said: "I told myself it was just the kind of throwaway comment students make all the time, but I was still very upset."
She decided to deal with it by having a quiet word with the student concerned.
"I didn't tell her to take the comment down - after all, I lecture about freedom of speech on the net - but I did tell her she shouldn't blog in class or identify individuals.
"She actually blushed. I thought that was the end of it."
A week later, Ms Peterson was in a meeting with her head of department and head of school when the subject came up. The head of school had never used MySpace, so the department head logged on and typed in Ms Peterson's name.
The result was a string of explicit obscenities.
"Just woke up from a fantastic Karen Peterson dream with a massive hardon lol (laugh out loud)," read one of the more printable comments.
Another said: "You must be mental if you want to make her your bitch."
The comments were part of a conversation across several different sites belonging to students, male and female, in the same group.
Ms Peterson said: "I don't know who was the most embarrassed. My bosses were very kind, but I was just flooded with rage."
The university offered to discipline the students, but Ms Peterson is undecided as she is not sure the students meant her to see it. "I feel as if I've been reading their private e-mails, in which case I can hardly complain about what I find there," she said.
"I'm unwilling to destroy my relationship with the whole group because of a bad joke they've probably already forgotten.
"At the same time, this is a public space and I hate this material being out there.
"I just don't know what to do. In the meantime, I'm having to teach them while I can hardly look them in the face."
A YouTube video, headed "Mike's Itch", shows a named and clearly identifiable Essex University lecturer repeatedly scratching his crotch during a lecture. The video is captioned: "Some sheddy lecturer from Essex Uni Scratches him self during a lecture - me and my mate made this and nearly got expelled for it, seems to me like they should have been apologising to us for such rubbish lecturers"
* Henry Bennet-Clark of Oxford University was victim of a fake personal profile on the networking site, Facebook. It claimed that he had been a member of the Hitler Youth move-ment
* A video of Robin Mason, of Southampton University, appears on YouTube showing a student, who was criticised for arriving late, turning on his heel and leaving the lecture. It describes Professor Mason as being "pwned"
- a slang termJand deliberate corruption of the word "owned"- which means defeated, with an element of gloating
* Some 2,140 people have viewed the YouTube video entitled "Strathclyde Uni marketing lecture streaker", which features a student stripping during a lecture
* Two videos of students who fell asleep in lectures at the University of Central Lancashire are featured on YouTube. Each video has been viewed several hundred times.