Those people who said cruel things in the press and on social media about the British reality TV host Caroline Flack, who killed herself last month, probably thought she was too famous and successful to be hurt by anything they could say. But while it is impossible for outsiders to say what prompted this desperate and sad act, it has been suggested by people who knew her that cyberbullying may have played a part.
Students who criticise their lecturers in course evaluation questionnaires probably have similar delusions about their seniors’ invulnerability. Indeed, it is a view that is not uncommon among academics themselves. This is no doubt why so little is done about it. But academics are not robots any more than celebrities are, and it is high time that, as a sector, we talk about this issue and take individual and collective action to ensure that our learning spaces are safe for all of us.
If you have taught students for any period of time, research indicates that you are likely to have been on the receiving end of incivility and bullying, such as demeaning personal comments, pejorative labelling, sexual remarks, rumours or intimidation. Some of this manifests itself in the anonymous comments on module evaluation questionnaires – which, these days, are usually conducted online.
If this has happened to you, did you report an incident – and, if so, were you taken seriously? Do you feel confident that if you are “cyberbullied” in this way in the future, your managers and the institution will investigate and offer you appropriate support? Are you confident that your career won’t be affected? From speaking to colleagues, I suspect that the answer is no.
“Old school” professors seem to view bullying by students as a rite of passage for academics. It is something, apparently, that everyone has to expect to go through on their way to the professoriate. As one senior academic put it to me: “I’ve got a hard skin. It is just one of those things.”
In this type of climate, any academic who lodges a complaint against a student for bullying risks being viewed as not sufficiently “tough” for the job. That could be particularly problematic for early career researchers or others on short-term contracts.
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This leaves staff feeling doubly vulnerable, having to live with both the impact of the bullying and the absence of any potential redress. From personal experience, I know it can make it even more difficult when, instead of investigating the incident, the institution views the staff member as the problem and offers them “mentoring on handling difficult feedback”.
But what are the consequences of students’ cyberbullying? They are many and some are long-lasting. There can be well-being and mental health implications. Victims may also lose confidence in their skills. Without support, academics’ sense of psychological safety in the workplace may be reduced, leading to risk-avoidance strategies. So instead of adopting a fresh pedagogical approach that has been shown to benefit learning, bullying victims might stick with approaches they see as safe and undemanding of students. Lack of redress can also lead to reduced organisational commitment and trust in academic managers to deliver on their much-touted well-being agendas.
For the cyberbullying student, there can also be a loss. Without any feedback on their conduct, they may well assume that it is quite acceptable in the modern workplace. A pattern of behaviour is potentially set and an opportunity to shape the modus operandi of our future leaders is lost. Cyberbullying can also be a manifestation of mental health and stress issues faced by the student; ignore their behaviour and we collectively ignore potential cries for help.
So what can be done about cyberbullying in course evaluation feedback? It is important that those of us working in higher education, in whatever role, make it clear to students that misusing the anonymity afforded by these systems is likely to lead to serious consequences. These should range from a warning through to their removal from their programme of study, with potential police involvement and longer-term consequences for careers.
I am not calling for a whole raft of new policies to be developed so much as the careful implementation of existing ones. When a student signs up for a programme of study, they sign a document confirming that they will abide by the institution’s regulations relating to appropriate behaviour. The regulations and their associated procedures clearly set out what these behaviours are and how breaches will be investigated and handled. So what is stopping institutions from following their own procedures? Comments welcome!
It will help change the existing culture if we start talking openly about cyberbullying of staff by students. For this to happen, academic and managerial leadership must make it clear, by their deeds as well as their words, that staff and student well-being is their top priority and that there will be zero tolerance of bullying in all its forms.
This is a big ask given the low starting point. But, together, we can enhance both the safety and the conduciveness to learning of the university environment that we all share, staff and students alike.
Stefan Cantore is a senior university teacher in organisation development and change management at the University of Sheffield.