Lecturers get it on the net

There was a time when a gripe about a university lecturer went no further than a grumble over a pint in the union.

Now social networking sites such as Facebook, Bebo and Myspace have created a forum akin to public stocks for professors who, as their students would see it, do not cut the mustard.

What greater way to tear down the ivory towers of academia than via the great leveller of the internet? Students view these sites as their domain, more so than a general public forum.

For the lecturers though, there is no moderator of taste and decency, allowing the worst excesses of human nature to come to the fore. As a result forums and websites, sometimes unwittingly but often knowingly, encourage bullying and mobbing, and often descend into defamatory language.

Comments about United Kingdom lecturers on social networking sites include: “I want to kick [name removed] until he is dead cos he is a crap lecturer.” And even: “[name removed] is a terrible, fat, stupid lecturer. He thinks he is great but Marxism is as last century as his smelly dirty donkey jacket.” Alternative media expert Chris Atton, reader at the school of creative industries at Napier University, Scotland, said: “Social networking sites such as Bebo and Facebook are like e-zines in that they publish about one’s own obsession and daily life. It is no surprise, since they discuss their daily life that they also discuss their university life including lecturers.

“In doing this, there is nothing new it is just that before this these discussions took place in cafés and bars. The difference now is that they are published, and their most robust critiques of their universities and teaching staff are published in the public domain.

“Students might argue that social networking sites are about freedom of expression, but they need to be aware of how the publishing of their opinions impacts on things.” The major change in higher education over the past 20 years has been the introduction of fees. As a result, students are no longer accepting of the educational wares on offer. The dynamics of consumerism have entered the world of academia.

Universities are keen to use social networking sites as a means of marketing their university and connecting with students, but many academics think this may be playing with fire.

“Of course the state, universities and commercial organisations are using social networking sites to access young people and social networking sites are run by commercial companies and are a commercial space, which has been colonised by students,” said Atton. “They should understand it cuts both ways and should see the small print that the outside world observes what they’re doing.

“It is important that students contribute to their education but when you bring in the emotive, which you often see on social networking sites, you move away from the rational enlightenment idea of free speech. The member of staff also has no real right of reply, since if they did contribute to the site then it could result in angry exchanges.” Staff at one English university last month had to intervene and moderate a Facebook site after students used defamatory language against one of their tutors, in a pattern that is being repeated across the UK.

Previously, comments about staff had been at best complimentary and at worst non-committal. But the informal atmosphere of the site lulled the students into believing they could say what they wanted without fear of the consequences.

Atton adds: “Is it censorship? Yes, a form of it, but the question is, is it justifiable censorship? That depends on the penalty for the student — if they have to withdraw from the programme then it is perhaps too heavy a penalty. But I would also like to recognise the position of universities — they have a duty of care over their staff. But if the comments against the lecturer are personal, then it is collapsing the separation of the public with the private.

“This could be cyber-bullying or harassment of their staff. I would expect a university to stand up for their staff. For the university it is also about reputation management.” The UK lecturers’ union is concerned about the trend. The union general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: “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.

Universities need to ensure that they seek consultation with the unions regarding any policies they wish to produce in this area.”

Do universities need to formalise a policy on this trend? At the moment it is being dealt with on an informal basis. But a formal approach is required. “Universities need to understand the phenomenon,” says Atton. “Is this taking place because there are not procedures or facilities for these conversations to take place between staff and students? Are the procedures perceived as lip service?” Atton says that before any university enacts a draconian policy, it has to be pragmatic. A legal hammer to crack a nut might end up in even worse publicity. —

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