pile of colorful rag dolls
26
May
2015

The Pedagogy of Trolls

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Written by
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Reviewed by Adam Heidebrink-Bruno and Alex Fink and Sean Michael Morris
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been here before” by Fio; CC BY-NC 2.0

Andrew Shaw’s “The College Experience: A Modern-Day Paddy West?” demonstrates the value of asking undergraduates to prepare and publish assignments. As an historian of the early modern world, Shaw was able to make a meaningful contribution to an on-going discussion of #FutureEd that was taking place on the HASTAC website as well as other venues. Reflecting on her experiences of engaging in a global discussion, undergraduate Suzanne Hakim comments that never in her academic career has she “been able to connect and share thoughts and opinions with my peers and multiple professors on an intellectual level.” The experience of publishing was refreshing because she was treated with respect as a colleague with independent thoughts.

Asking students to participate in scholarly dialogues gives them the ability to participate in scholarly conversation, to manage different viewpoints and different ways to express them, and to participate in thorough and respectful debate about important issues.

While the benefits undergraduates receive by publishing meaningful assignments is undeniable, there is a dark side to asking students to publicly share their work; something Leslie Nirro learned after publishing “Breaking Down Barriers Between the Humanities and Sciences” in The Chronicle of Higher Education. After reading her analysis, labronx — an individual who hides behind his anonymity — commented “Oh good God, what an idiot!” He later referred to “this author’s stupidity” without really engaging in the arguments she presented because his goal is “to get people (and myself) comfortable with bashing feminism.”

Nirro had been attacked by a troll.

Learning to deal with trolls, controversy, and criticism is educationally important. But the time to begin teaching students these lessons is prior to publication; not after they have been attacked.

After having students read blog postings, comments, and articles on which they might comment, I have them write a publishable response but request that they not publish it. The publishable comments are then vetted in class and the students receive additional coaching from me. Only after students have had the ability to practice and gain confidence in their abilities, do I ask that they publish.

In addition to reading quality posts and comments, we also read and study the trolls. In fact, one semester, my students had a favorite borderline troll whom we followed on a regular basis. We referred to him as “our friend [name redacted].” There is little to be learned from someone who would call an undergraduate an idiot. But borderline trolls are worth reading. By following his frequent comments, my students are able to learn skills from our friend that he himself has not learned.

One day, while reading a diatribe our friend had published against someone who had made a typographical error, one of my students asked, “Did anyone else notice that our friend wrote ‘you’re’ instead of ‘your’ in his first sentence?” The class laughed and two important lessons were learned — proofreading is important and arrogance should be avoided.

In another case, we read our friend’s criticism in which he argued that a documentary concerning an event that took place in the twentieth century should be screened in an ancient world history class. Students rightly asked, “How is this film relevant to the ancient world?” During our discussion of his comment, we were able to acknowledge that his point about choosing a provocative film was a good one, but that if they don’t want to appear foolish, careful reading is important before commenting. We also discussed ways in which our friend could have promoted discussion instead of adopting an offensive tone.

Sometimes, our friend surprised us with a particularly insightful comment. In those cases, we considered the elements of the comment that made it better than what he usually posts. Because our friend does not hide behind anonymity, we have been able to check out his background (which is part of his profile) as a way to consider author bias, author intent, and other issues that are factors in determining credibility for any author.

But even when we cannot determine the identity of an anonymous troll, there is still value in reading his/her comments. For example, in a response to arguing against a position I took in a comment to my “On Compassion and Public Shaming,” one of my critics writing against my position actually provided evidence to support my position that writing under a pseudonym is no guarantee that an author cannot be identified.

Comments are particularly valuable texts for writing instruction because they are so brief. Style, tone, thesis, and so forth are condensed and easy to understand and discuss. A short comment written by a troll illustrates points about bad writing or faulty logic in ways that are easily accessible to our students. Furthermore, because they are real examples, they take on an added importance than do made up examples that might appear in a textbook.

When students write their own comments they are not only participating in a dialogue, but they are forced to learn to write succinctly. For example, in just 228 words, Mark Zywoil not only addresses the thesis in Timothy Foster’s “Technology Blues,” but also explains the Open Entry/Open Exit classes offered by Schoolcraft College.

My essay, “On Compassion and Public Shaming,” was published as part of a larger dialogue that was taking place across several venues in which comments were posted that promoted dialogue as well as comments that clearly fell into the trolling category. By studying the larger dialogue, students are able to identify ways to study what makes certain approaches more effective than others as well as to speculate on the motivations of authors who are promoting dialogue and those who are trying to undermine the discussion.

Even when an essay is not controversial, such as Anna Ashley’s “Concerning Critical Pedagogy,” students benefit from the understanding that they are participating in a wider dialogue. Responding on HASTAC to a discussion that began on Hybrid Pedagogy and which took place across a variety of venues such as Inside Higher Ed, Ashley needed to have a more sophisticated understanding of the material about which she was writing than were she only writing to her professor.

The pedagogy of the trolls is more than learning how to help students deal with personal attacks. It is an empowering pedagogy that allows them to realize that they have something meaningful to contribute; that their assignments are meaningful because what they have to say is meaningful. For many, the public writing is the most meaningful part of the course. But, more importantly, it gives them a confidence that they cannot gain by simply turning in assignments for their professor to read and return.

An example of increased student confidence that results from the pedagogy of the trolls and an emphasis on public writing was exemplified when I received an e-mail from my Hybrid Pedagogy editors concerning the almost last draft of this essay. They wrote that the ending of the article needed a bit more punch. They suggested “maybe hit home the bigger point you are making.”

There were several students in my office at the time the e-mail arrived and I shared the contents with them. The students asked to see my conclusion and I printed the article out for them. They then wanted to re-read the e-mail from my editors and I printed that out as well. After some discussion, it was time for us to head to our various classes. As they were leaving my office, my students informed me that they would see to it that the last paragraph was fixed.

Because of the pedagogy of the trolls, these ungraduates had the confidence to inform their professor that they would fix his writing. It is a confidence that they will take with them to other classes as well as other aspects of their lives. Such confidence makes for a strong conclusion to the semester — and to this article.

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8 Responses

  1. Sarah Honeychurch

    Hi Steven

    I loved reading your article and was really sorry to see that your website was hacked recently – I hope you manage to sort that out. I hadn’t thought, until you pointed it out, about the importance of learning how to comment online. I love how you have done that and given your students so much confidence. Thanks for writing this piece.

    1. Steven L. Berg

      Sarah:

      When recovering from the hacker, my priority was getting the student writing published at the websites listed below back on-line. I gave my own work a low priority. In doing so, I forgot that this article had a link to a piece in my blog. I will get that essay and the comment I mentioned on-line and will work with the editors of Hybrid Pedagogy to change the link. However, because I am traveling for the rest of the week, I might not be able to get it posted until the weekend.

      Steve Berg

      P.S. This shameless plug is because we are always looking for collaborators and these mostly student written websites.

      College History
      http://collegehistory.info/

      Scholarly Voices
      http://scholarlyvoices.org/

      Film Studies
      http://filmstudies.info/

      *Unflattening* Portal
      http://scholarlyvoices.org/unflattening/

  2. Steven, this is such a great idea. Any time you can get laughter in a writing class, it’s a win–students are having fun, and they are more likely to remember the concept. I’d begun doing this in my composition class, but the idea of following one particular writer is a terrific one. Thanks for the article.

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