Saturday, October 24, 2015

Yik Yak Postings or Official Student Comments?

Recently, an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education was passed on to me dealing with a complaint submitted to a federal agency that a university (not UCLA) wasn't blocking the social medium Yik Yak despite offensive anti-feminine comments and threats anonymously posted there.* Yours truly is not up-to-speed on all social media. So he looked at Yik Yak. Yik Yak is basically a smartphone app. If you go to its website and put in your smartphone number, it sends you the app to download. If I understand it correctly, you then see what is being posted (anonymously) in your local area. It is aimed at college students but anyone can download the app and post.

The university president responded to the complaint by pointing to first amendment concerns and the technical issue that if Yik Yak were blocked from campus servers, it would still be accessible to students through their regular phone data plans. That is, you can access websites on your smartphone without linking to the campus wireless system.**

Anyway, I looked at Yik Yak postings and didn't find any aimed at individual faculty members, at particular students, or at anyone else who could be specifically identified. (That doesn't mean it doesn't happen, of course.) There are pop-ups if you want to post something warning you against bullying, etc. Many of the postings are off-color remarks and my guess is that posters tilt heavily male, based on what I saw. Most suggest that the posters have way too much time on their hands; that's the main lesson I drew. Aren't midterm exams coming up?

What is surprising about the focus on Yik Yak is that it centers on what a university really can't control, however lamentable that fact may be. Yik Yak and other websites aimed at college students are not part of the official systems universities have in place.

In contrast, there are official systems that influence campus personnel decisions, notably the end-of-class student teacher surveys. The comments in such surveys are anonymous (like those on Yik Yak) and as far as I know are just incorporated into faculty dossiers as written. (Admittedly, I don't know what would happen if a comment made a specific threat; I presume someone would do something.)

I saw many departments' student comments as a member and chair of CAP. They were not obscene, unlike some of those on Yik Yak. But there have been complaints that women faculty are rated differently than men by students.*** In addition, as noted, the comments for both males and females are simply incorporated into dossiers as written. There is no vetting for validity. I can recall one case that was raised at a faculty meeting in which a libelous comment - untrue - suggested a faculty member was high on drugs. But it was just put into the dossier along with all the others and was thus part of the official record.

Of course, what students say online about other students - an element in "campus climate" - is not reflected in class teaching surveys. But such teaching surveys a) are used in decisions on faculty advancement, and b) are something the university can directly control, unlike what gets posted on external websites.

It might be better to work on what can be fixed.

No comments: