Getting to Know You

This post is going to be slightly off topic from my usual focus, but I think it’s important to consider as we all continue to conduct fundamental tasks online, and also develop relationships in cyberspace. Many of us shop, bank, and get our news online. More and more people are beginning to get an education over their computer. This study conducted in 2010 stated that 1 in 4 college students took at least one course online. And that rate certainly is not going to decrease any time soon.

It’s this education piece that is extra important to me. I have been a university faculty member on and off since 1998, and have been teaching courses in Human Sexuality since 1990 (gasp). Currently, I teach Human Sexuality online at Portland State University. Currently, PSU only offers one program in which students can complete all aspects of the degree online (although several online courses are offered in many departments). I have had students from not only the east coast, but also overseas. I have had students who have taken my course while incarcerated. Pretty amazing, if you think about it.

I recently encountered a serious limitation to online education — one I hadn’t really thought of before. I received an email from a former student asking for a letter of recommendation. Although I am sure this student was enrolled in my class, I have no recollection of her whatsoever. She was literally just a user name among approximately 130 that I managed for 10 short weeks. Sure, I could look up her grade and even reread her papers, but I honestly have no way of knowing whether or not this person would succeed in law school.

In the past, I have had many students who only had me as an instructor for one quarter in a campus-based class ask me for a letter of rec. And sometimes (alright, usually), I oblige, but at least I recognize the student’s face; I have some sense of who that person is, and how she conducted herself in my class; how she treated other students, and how she carries herself as a scholar. She may have even stopped by my office hours, or lingered after class to ask additional questions. I can ask her to have coffee, or come to my office so we can talk more about her aspirations and why she wants to continue her education.

I am realizing I have no sense of connection to any of my past online students. For any of them to ask me for a letter of rec seems utterly ridiculous to me, as none of them have ever written to me to discuss the course above and beyond asking for an extension or complaining about an assignment. In the years to come, this is going to be a bigger and bigger problem. Students are going to continue to take classes online, and colleges are going to continue to provide this option, as it is both desired and more profitable (at least from what I hear and assume, given that universities appear to be eager to increase online offerings).

What needs to be stressed to students by both instructors and the university itself is the importance of cultivating relationships online, since they aren’t going to happen face to face. It’s possible to get to know someone online, of course. I have developed some good professional relationships with people online that I have never (or only once) met in person. I feel I know these people well enough not only through their work, but through their character such that I would jump at the chance to collaborate with them on a project, should the opportunity arise. Students need to be made aware of the importance of getting to know their instructors, and understand that instructors need to know them above and beyond a score on an exam, or how well a thesis was articulated in a paper.

I can’t write a letter of recommendation for you if I don’t know you. And I can’t know you if all I associate with you is a score between 0-100. Online students — reach out to your instructors and share yourselves (as you so often do in other venues). Raise that social capital: Your future depends on it.

Why is it so easy to hurt someone?

A recent poll co-sponsored by the AP and MTV reveals some disturbing, though perhaps not surprising figures. Over half (55%) of the teens and 20-somethings surveyed say they have seen people being mean to each other on social networking sites, and half see discriminatory words (e.g. “slut” or a racial slur) or images on those sites.

Yet 41% of these young women are offended by the word “slut” — 65% are offended if the word is used to describe themselves — 60% of African American youth would be offended if they saw the N-word being used against other people. Put another way, young people commonly engage in, and witness, behavior that hurts and offends their peers.

So what gives? Good old basic psychological theory which includes the disinhibition effect and dissociative anonymity, both described extremely well here by researcher John Suler, explains a lot of this phenomenon. In a nutshell, these theories explain the ease of name-calling online this way: it’s easier to type words than say them out loud because writing is a more indirect form of communication than speaking. It’s especially easier to write words on a computer screen than to say them out loud right in front of another human being. This is because I don’t see the emotional response to the person. I don’t have to defend myself in a physical environment if people disapprove of my actions. In short, I am shielded from the immediate effects of my actions, so it’s easier to perform them.

And then enter the bystander effect.  This is when a bunch of people witness something horrible and/or dangerous (an assault, a burning building, a car accident), yet no one does anything to intervene, figuring that others will do it instead — this is diffusion of responsibility. In short, the larger the audience, the less likely intervention will occur. Given the potentially hundreds, if not thousands of witnesses to name calling on a social networking site, who are also influenced by the disinhibition effect, it’s no wonder cyberbullying runs rampant and no one does anything to stop it!

Cyberbullying is so toxic because it feeds off of human nature, so in order to stop it we have to be more deliberate in our approach and address it head-on. We have to teach people about our inclinations and how to fight them. We need to focus on empathy, understanding, and our circles of influence — we need to think outside of ourselves. Because our instincts are going to lead us to be just another bystander in cyberspace.

Comments of Passion

I love that term — it pretty much captures the reasons for flaming, sexting, and other regretful internet sharing moments. I read this phrase in a post by Margarita Tartakovsky, where she pretty much shares the work of Dr. Tristan Gorrindo.

The overall message: Think before you post something that might not be so smart to have forever captured in cyberspace. What should a person think about is summed up in the acronym “WAIT” — for Wide audience (who and how many might read this?), Affect (what emotions am I feeling right now and am I able to make a rational decision?), Intent (will I be understood properly?), and Today (Can this wait a day?).

While I see the benefits to this brief series of considerations, some don’t seem to fit. The main one being “today.” The answer to the question “Can this wait a day?”, for the most part, will always be “no.” The internet and social networking are so immediate, that waiting a day to post a comment is akin to saying something in an empty room — no one, including the immediate recipient of the comment — will ever see it. While I am all for thinking about the consequences of posting something before actually doing it, perhaps the “T” should really be for “Tomorrow” as in “How will I feel tomorrow after everyone reads my post?”

And I totally agree with Tartakovsky’s statement that adults can benefit from following these steps just as much as youth. In my own Facebook account, I have read posts about drunken vomiting, pubic hair, and baby poop. Wonder how many of those posts I would have read if someone WAITed before they broadcast those news items?