The three Eastern Michigan University professors had no idea that they were under attack by the Honors College students seated before them.
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. Since its release, in November 2013, the Yik Yak app has been causing havoc on campuses as a result of students’ posting threats of harm, racial slurs, and slanderous gossip.
After the class ended, one of its 13 fellows—junior and senior honors students who were helping teach—pulled a professor aside and showed her a screen-captured record of what she and her colleagues had just gone through. 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. Even some of the fellows appeared to have joined the attack.
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.”
Eastern Michigan is hardly alone in grappling with how to tame abusive behavior on Yik Yak, which has designated bulletin boards for more than 100 campuses. But the episode at Eastern Michigan is significant because it highlights the potential for anonymous online comments to sour relationships among students, faculty members, and administrators. Instructors who once felt in charge of their classrooms can suddenly find themselves at students’ mercy.
Sites such as Yik Yak and other forums for anonymous online comments give speech “scope and amplification” it did not have before, which “changes the quality of the community,” says Tracy Mitrano, director of Internet culture, policy, and law at Cornell University. Although offensive speech posted to Yik Yak generally disappears from the site within a few hours, on other sites, Ms. Mitrano says, often “it remains there, and the individuals don’t have any power to remove it, and it hurts.” . . .
Susan Moeller, president of Eastern Michigan’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, this month urged faculty members in an email “to get the EMU administration to take this issue seriously.” She called cyberbullying “an issue of classroom safety” and said it “can pose a serious threat to faculty members’ work environment and ability to conduct their classes.”
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. Their students’ hostility appeared fueled, they say, by unhappiness over being required to devote nearly three hours every Friday morning to an experimental honors course, “Interdisciplinary Exploration of Global Issues: The Environment: Space/Place, Purity/Danger, Hope/Activism.”
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.”
Some Yik Yak posts about the professors suggested racial and cultural divides.
After one of the professors described a topic as too complicated to get into, one student wrote, “Are you calling me stupid? I’m an honors student bitch!”
Another Yik Yak post said, “She keeps talking about Detroit. Bitch, yo white ass probably ain’t never been in Detroit.”
Ms. Däumer recalls reading the Yik Yak posts directed at her and asking herself, “Just who the hell did they think they are?”
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.”