Never underestimate your students

As I’ve mentioned, I have my upper division classes write openly on the web about the subject of the course. It’s good practice for being comfortable with discussing the world of ideas outside this little sheltered realm of academia, but I’ve always had one reservation: the internet is a cruel place, and I feel a bit protective of my students, so I send them off with lots of warnings and reassurances that I will defend their open expression of ideas and they don’t have to worry about differences of opinion affecting their grades. I’ve had students with whom I greatly disagree get online and make arguments I think are horribly wrong…but it’s all OK, because the purpose of this exercise is to generate discussion and debate.

So I put them to work urging them to be brave and bold and don’t worry about what other people say. And I’ve been all wrong. I didn’t have to worry about them…I had to worry about you.

Yesterday, I’d reviewed their blogs and the comments people had left there, and noticed they were getting a lot of not-at-all-helpful advice, fussing over style and telling them how to write their entries, and in class I started by telling them to ignore all that, I wanted them to find their own voices, when the class chuckled and pointed at the white board. A chill went down my spine.


The students had gotten annoyed at the condescending tone of a few of the comments, and had decided to deal with it. On the whiteboard was written the complete personal data of one person who had irritated them: they’d traced back his posting info and had gotten his real name, home address, employment history, phone number, etc., and were sharing that information. Before I interrupted them by starting the class, they were debating whether to teach him a lesson themselves or just to post all of that to 4chan.

Whoa. They’ve already got their own cyberpistols.

Don’t panic, I held them off and suggested they do nothing now, and that maybe there are less drastic ways to deal with obnoxious commenters, but still, it was a bit of a reversal and I learned something that you should all learn, too. These are adults in the 21st century, and they know how to take care of themselves on the internet — so don’t get all patronizing with them, and learn to talk with them as equals. Or else.

I feel like I’ve been taking the leashes off a fierce pack of wolves. I’m so proud.