Talking Back to the EMU-AAUP About Yik-Yak

Let me begin with three preambles/preemptions. First, I want to apologize to the colleagues I have who are offended by my disagreement with them and the  EMU-AAUP about their call for censoring Yik-Yak. I am sure folks will disagree with me, especially the three women faculty who felt they were sexually harassed and defamed in an honors class this past fall. I’m not sure I’m going to be able to convince you to change your minds about all this, but maybe I can persuade at least a bit.

Second, in answer to the question many readers might have, “why do you care?” Well, my teaching and scholarship has centered on internet technologies like this for over 20 years, and there have been times where I’ve caught a fair amount of shit about it. Just a couple of examples: back when I was a graduate teaching assistant and back in the days when it was weird for students to have email, a fellow grad student and I went through a lot of hoops to set up a mailing list discussion between our sections of first year writing. My “boss” at the time called me and my fellow GA into her office to more or less yell at us for doing something so crazy. I’ve had to fight with IT people to let my students make web pages. I’ve had to explain the relevance and usefulness to various folks about having students create blogs, post to Twitter, etc. It is very easy to see how I could use Yik-Yak in some of the classes I’ll be teaching next year.

So my “talking back” to the the union isn’t just a rant. This is me defending my teaching and my scholarship. This is important to me. And since I’m a tenured full professor, I feel I have an obligation to speak out about this.

Third, I’m going to post this on both EMUTalk.org and stevendkrause.com, for what it’s worth.

Okay, my talking back after the break:

 

Late in the day Thursday, I (along with all other faculty at EMU) received an email from EMU-AAUP president Susan Moeller with the subject line “[Emu-aaup] Please READ – Serious Issues with Student Classroom Behavior/YIK YAK.” I wrote a quick response to this that I sent to Susan and to the mailing list, but let me go paragraph by paragraph in this post:

We would like to let you know about a serious issue that faculty are having with the EMU administration.  Serious student misconduct occurred in an honors class this past Fall term.  Students used an application called YIK YAK to sexually harass and defame three women faculty members.  The YIK YAK application is a way for students to anonymously cyber-bully people within a 1.5 – mile radius.

I’m not going to go into any of the details about this honors class Moeller mentions, but a) I heard some rumors about the problems in this class already (and btw, it would be a fine subject for an investigative report by The Echo) and b) I think the language of “sexual harassment” and “defaming” needs to be teased out her a bit, which I’ll get to in a second.

Beyond that, Moeller’s characterization of Yik-Yak is just flat-out wrong. Describing Yik-Yak as a way of “anonymously cyber-bullying” people is sort of like saying that an automobile is a way to kill people. Sure, you can use it for that, but is that the point? The answer is no for both.

Here’s how wikipedia describes Yik Yak:

Yik Yak is an anonymous social media app. It is available for iOS and Android and it allows people to anonymously create and view “Yaks” within a 10 mile radius. It differs from other anonymous sharing apps such as PostSecret and Whisper in that it is intended for sharing primarily with those in close proximity to the user, potentially making it more intimate and relevant for people reading the posts. All users have the ability to contribute to the stream by writing, responding, and liking or disliking yaks.

So again, Moeller’s characterization of Yik Yak is (IMO) quite wrong, quite uninformed, and the way someone who has never used Yik Yak before might describe it. Don’t believe me? Well, if you have a smart phone, sign up to Yik Yak and see for yourself.

To continue with her email:

We asked EMU to find out the names of the students posting the harassing comments on YIK YAK as this a violation of the acceptable use policy and the sexual harassment policy at EMU.  EMU has refused to determine which students are responsible for the sexual harassment.

When the faculty became aware of the students’ use of YIK YAK they contacted many EMU administrators only to be stonewalled.  When the faculty asked to meet with the Provost to discuss the issues, she refused.  We wanted to have a conversation with the EMU administration on a possible social media policy and the use of social media in the classroom.

The union filed a grievance asking the EMU administration to address the problems caused for faculty members by threatening and harassing student conduct related to anonymous social platforms like Yik Yak and EMU denied the grievance saying there was nothing they could do, as the comments are anonymous.

Let’s talk about “harassment” a bit, sexual or otherwise. I am no lawyer (and thus don’t know the legal definition of harassment), and I do not want to question the specifics of someone else’s sense of being harassed. However, this situation raises a series of questions for me. Harassment– particularly sexual harassment– involves a power relationship. It is clearly possible for a professor to sexually harass a student– heck, that’s one of the clear ways that a tenured professor can get fired. Is it possible for a student to sexually harass a professor? And can that happen anonymously?  Honestly, I don’t think so because professors have all the power.

Second, there’s a difference between something rude and insulting in the realm of free speech and speech that is both a threat and harassment. Calling someone a “bitch” or a “bastard” or whatever might be rude or insulting, but it’s clearly free speech. Saying “I want to hurt/rape/kill her or him” is a threat, and that’s different. Based on what I’ve heard about this particular course, it is not at all clear to me that what happened went beyond the rude and insulting.

And by the way, if someone uses Yik Yak to really seriously make a threat, the Yik Yak corporate people have been very quick to react and give that information to the authorities. Someone at MSU made a bomb threat via Yik Yak last fall, and the Yik Yak folks gave the cops the name and number of that person almost immediately. So again, if faculty (or anyone else) feels truly threatened, report it. If they just feel insulted, well, get over it.

As far as the grievance stuff goes: if EMU were to actually ban Yik Yak from campus, I’d probably file a grievance for all kinds of reasons. What would the union do with that?

Back to Moeller’s email:

The EMU administration wants to frame this as an issue of free speech but that is not the issue.  We see it as an issue of classroom safety.  We are in favor of free speech, but we are against using YIK YAK and other social media for sexual harassment and threatening faculty in the classroom.

Look, this paragraph flat-out doesn’t make sense. An anonymous social media app is an issue of classroom safety? Really. Really? How can you be in favor of free speech but then argue that the EMU administration ought to close a tool for free speech?

We are letting you know about this issue because cyber-bullying can pose a serious threat to faculty members’ work environment and ability to conduct their classes.    We need your support to get the EMU administration to take this issue seriously.

As the resolution to an arbitration last year, the EMU-AAUP negotiated a new classroom management policy.  You can see the policy at:

http://www.emich.edu/ahr/documents.html

Good luck understanding that flow chart/policy. But what I am missing here is how an anonymous discussion forum that takes place not in the classroom but in an application not at all associated with EMU fits into all of this. If no one had shown these faculty folks the “yaks” on Yik-Yak in the first place, we wouldn’t be having this conversation at all. So, how can this constitute a threat to “classroom safety” and/or “classroom management?”

And to wrap up the last part of Moeller’s email:

In addition the Clemson University administration is considering banning YIK YAK from its campus.  See the article at:

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/news/education/2015/01/08/clemson-considers-yik-yak-anonymous-app-ban/21463007/

If in general you ever feel unsafe of threatened by a student, you should immediately call the campus police at 734-487-1222.  Also the EMU administrators need to follow the new classroom management policy.

Let me know if you have any ideas on how to get the EMU administration to listen to our concerns.

That article about banning Yik Yak at Clemson is not exactly persuasive because it’s basically a small group of students who think that Yik Yak ought to be blocked from campus. It’s clearly a different circumstance than what’s going on at EMU.

Anyway, the bottom line is banning Yik Yak at EMU is (IMO) short-sighted and just not very smart. I expect more from the union leadership. After all, all it would take to investigate this a Google search and signing up for an account. My hope is the EMU-AAUP is a bit more savvy when it comes to the actual issues of contract negotiations.

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