Academic Trolls

Some of the most pointed and obnoxious comments come from scholars.

Don’t read the comments: this is one of the most repeated mantras in all of social media. And as anyone who has published online knows, it’s wise to adhere to this warning.

For inevitably, some commenters — especially under the guise of anonymity — will perch themselves momentarily atop your work and often, for little reason, proceed to berate, lash out at, diminish, bully, and/or victimize both your work and you.

As a result, it’s understandable why some Salon contributors vowed never again to read the comments below their columns and why Popular Science shut down its comments sections altogether (apparently trolls are bad for science). It’s also clear why WWJD-inspired “Don’t Read the Comments” bracelets exist and why some Twitter accounts like @AvoidComments were created.

More unexplainable, however, is that some of the most pointed and obnoxious comments I’ve encountered online come from educators and academics. It seems as though several scholars have forgotten some of the rules of rhetoric.

Image: Words: An actual academic commenter/troll.

Trolls in the Ivory Tower

Trolling hasn’t gone unnoticed in academia. Scholars have published articles on concern trolls, the pleasure of hating, naming names, and screamers. But oddly, none of these posts provides direct examples of academic trolling.

My essay aims to change that. Below, I offers several examples of academic trolls—mostly from anonymous users, as written on the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed:

  1. You probably feel superior to a Nobel prize winner who happens to have a darker skin than your ignorant self.
  2. Don’t be an idiot. You are already a feminist. There is no need for redundancy in your life. If she claimes [sic] a man raped her, she must prove it. That is the law. […] Meanwhile, please continune roaring so good men can learn how to deal with feminists.
  3. It’s not my job to do your homework for you. You’re presumably an adult; act like one.
  4. I have encountered [sic] many of your ilk. You had no chance — ever — of earning a real degree at a legitimate institution, so you took the “sleazy underground route” and purchased a counterfeit credential. […] Why don’t you cut out all this baloney and just answer my questions.
  5. Don’t worry, you wouldn’t be able to comprehend [this] through your filter of male privilege.
  6. I am woman, hear me roar. Blah blah blah. […] Everything you have said about me is completely wrong. But please continue making assumptinos. It only makes you look hysterical. I just love it when I get down votes or when feminists presume about me.
  7. Yes, I am an academic: but how about you? How about identifying yourself if you want to play the credentials game? Otherwise you seem like the fool.
  8. That you are using a mindless book/pop film series as your analogy says all one needs to know about your difficulties.
  9. Gee Max, is that blowhard response the best you can do? Since you remain anonymous we can’t really judge the amount of work you do. Please do post your c.v. so we can all find out just how productive you are, and feel bad we can’t match it.
  10. As a writing instructor, Ms. Toor is not modeling good writing in this little snit the Chronicle has decided to publish.
  11. Twit, as you hypocrictically claim not to be judging others, ask yourself if you are one of those referred to in Proverbs 16:18. […] I really hope none of your kids are gay. A parent like you would be more punishment than any child deserves. Just judging from your comments.
  12. You are smug [sic], self-satisfied tool. (This one is a response to my publication.)

If one reads the full threads from which I’ve pulled these excerpts, some of the responses are arguably warranted. But honestly, are they necessary in that tone? In public? On an academic site?

No, of course the comments should be way more civil — and, as good scholars damn well know, they should ultimately follow rules of Aristotelian rhetoric.

Getting Back to the Basics (of Rhetoric)

The 2,000-year-old discipline of rhetoric has been equated with “quackery” (thanks, Plato!) and more recently, political spin and coercion (thanks, Fox News!). But for the majority of academics, rhetoric is more than trickery. It is an art form, or as Aristotle puts it, “a faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.” This is true, especially where a public audience is concerned, Aristotle believed.

A refresher, there are three technical means of persuasion according to Aristotelian rhetoric, or three ways to persuade an audience that your ideas are valid or perhaps more valid than theirs.

Image: LinkedIn.

Ethos (ethics) persuades the reader by showing the source’s credibility.

For our purposes, the commenter ought to present herself as an authority, as likable, and worthy of respect. To do this effectively, tone is obviously important — as is, I would argue, using one’s real identity.

For example, if “dank48" and “labronx” used their real names in The Chronicle of Higher Education, I doubt they would denigrate their colleague’s parenting as being “more punishment than any child deserves” or dismiss their fellow scholar with “I am woman, hear me roar. Blah blah blah.” Neither of these “academics” comes across as reliable, likable, or worthy of any sort of respect.

Logos (logic) persuades the reader via reasoning.

The commenter should provide sound examples to support his point: facts, statistics, relevant primary and/or secondary sources. If a commenter can’t do this, then he should refrain from commenting.

See the Chronicle’s “footballlovr” as a example of what not to do. S/he belittles an author for “using a mindless book/pop film series as an analogy” and then exits the thread altogether, providing no explanation why the author’s job market/Hunger Games metaphor is unsuccessful. Such a display exhibits neither ethos nor logos, only trollish and uncivil behavior.

Pathos (emotion) persuades the reader by appealing to his/her emotions.

As Aristotle sees it, along with appealing to one’s audience via ethos and pathos, one should try to identify with the writer’s point of view, even if she doesn’t agree. And then, via personal narrative, vivid language, and sensory details, the commenter should attempt to persuade the audience why her point is (perhaps even more) viable.

I’ll use the comment from my Chronicle post as an example here. After identifying me as a “smug [sic], self-satisfied tool,” the commenter called “In the Academic Trenches” relays a personal narrative about the reality of her/his adjunct work, e.g., teaching 7–9 classes/term, assigning the minimum amount of writing to stay afloat, keeping at it because s/he’s “utterly unqualified for anything else.”

Some of these are valid points, and were this anecdote not bookended by name-calling and false claims about having nowhere else to turn (sir or ma’am, PhDs are qualified for so much more than teaching), I might have been persuaded to respond.

A recent study finds that Internet trolls correlate positively with sadism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. Yikes. Scholars, we don’t want our online legacy associated with such cruelty, do we?

No, not when we’ve been taught, and in turn teach our students, how to think critically and write argumentatively. Nah, there’s no place for such mindless discourse in academia.