When I Was Trolled, My Institution Got It Right

Susan M. Shaw recommends some ways that other faculty members and institutions can best respond if it happens to scholars on their campuses.

December 8, 2020
 
 
Natalia Iashnova/istock via getty images

I have engaged in online public scholarship for the past several years. I write about issues of gender, race, sexuality and religion. I’ve received a few angry emails about pieces, but I had never been trolled until a few weeks ago.

I wrote a piece based on a survey that found many white Christians deny climate science. In short, I suggested that the white church is complicit in the systems of racism and global capitalism that underlie climate change and its disproportionate impact on people of color.

Campus Reform and Breitbart picked up on the article and condensed its argument into “Oregon professor says white Christians cause climate change.”

Vile emails and phone messages rolled in for several days, as did messages to my administration -- and even one to the Oregon State Senate.

Shortly after my trolling, I read a piece by another trolled professor. The first paragraphs described my experience. I was horrified, then, when I read the rest of her story. Her institution threw her under the bus. She explains that she felt treated like a public relations problem to be solved rather than a respected colleague to be defended.

As I was going through my hellish experience, I knew I was fortunate that my university was responding with support. A terrible experience was made much more bearable because the faculty members and administrators here got it right in the ways they supported and defended me.

More and more, colleges and universities expect faculty members to engage the public. Online publications create accessible venues for professors to share scholarship about timely topics. Unfortunately, the online world also creates more opportunities for trolls to attack them.

If institutions want faculty members to do public scholarship, they must be willing to defend them when attacks come. A few weeks removed from my own experience, I recognize some ways institutions can act to support faculty members who are being trolled and would like to recommend them to others.

Department support. The visible support of people with whom we work most closely is especially meaningful. In my case, my department colleagues took down ugly comments on our Facebook page before I saw them. One colleague officially reported the incidents and then joined me in a Zoom meeting with public safety. Other colleagues texted and emailed to check on me. Another came and sat in my backyard (at an appropriate social distance) to listen and advise.

Administrative support. Being trolled can make faculty members feel threatened and insecure. They need administrators to stand up for them. My dean explained to one emailer that part of a professor’s job is to spark debate and raise provocative questions. I alerted the university relations and marketing department about the trolling, and the vice president there checked in on me. He told me he’d responded to a few emailers. What I found so supportive about this is that no one in administration got in touch to demand an explanation from me. They just handled the emails.

Administrators should also pay close attention to how gender and race are at work in trolling. While any professor may be trolled, the content of trolling differs significantly across gender and race. White men are attacked for their ideas; the rest of us are attacked for our very being. I was called every misogynistic, homophobic name in the book. As a white woman, I did not face the added and complicating vitriol of racism, and yet, as if to underline the intersections of difference, many of my trolls resorted to attacking people of color as part of their verbal assaults on me.

I understand my trolling as a form of gender violence. It focused very specifically on my gender and sexuality and upended my sense of personal safety. Administrators must take faculty members’ feelings of risk and vulnerability seriously. Trolling can discourage women from speaking out again. Even witnessing another woman being trolled can silence other women. Administrative support is key to ensuring faculty women feel empowered to continue to engage in public scholarship.

Proportional response. Often when faculty members are trolled, institutions overreact and issue public statements. In the aforementioned article, the president sent out a campuswide email and posted a public statement on the college’s website, both of which seemed to locate the problem in the professor rather than the trolls. In my case, people at the university didn’t panic and issue a public statement, thereby giving oxygen to the attack. Rather, administrators addressed attacks individually and let the trolling burn itself out. A rushed public statement plays into trolls’ hands. While a public statement may be necessary in some circumstances, often keeping responses individual limits the scope of publicity for the trolls and hastens the end of the attack.

Diversity offices. Campuses have offices tasked specifically with addressing issues of equity, and such offices should take the lead in supporting trolled faculty. For me, those offices reached out and provided resources and support. They made sure I had the information I needed and connected me with other offices that could help with everything from blocking emailers to notifying the police, if appropriate.

Public safety. Public safety offices can provide incredibly important information, resources and services for faculty members. Our public safety officer took on the responsibility of reading the emails to conduct threat assessment so I wouldn’t have to read them. She made sure I knew options for safety, such as taking my information off the university website and having an officer escort me to my office if I needed to come to the campus.

Tech services. Tech services can help faculty members increase their online security and block emailers. Especially for a faculty member like me who is not particularly tech savvy, having the support of IT specialists can be incredibly helpful to minimize online vulnerabilities.

Colleagues across the campus. Probably what most buoyed me during the trolling was contact from colleagues who emailed to check on me, send me affirmation and offer support. I was amazed at the difference their kind words made in that storm of rage and hatefulness. When a colleague is being trolled, all of us should be vocal in our support.

Rather than throwing faculty members under the bus, colleges and universities need to step up and defend them. While my trolling could have been much worse -- I didn’t get death threats, as many faculty members do -- my university still offered me resources and assured me that it had my back.

If institutions are willing to accept the recognition that public scholars bring them, then they also need to be willing to defend faculty members when the trolls come for them. Good scholarship, as my dean said, will be provocative. Colleges and universities should have the courage to champion faculty when they do their jobs.

Bio

Susan M. Shaw is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at Oregon State University.

Read more by

Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.

 

We have retired comments and introduced Letters to the Editor. Letters may be sent to [email protected].

Read the Letters to the Editor  »

 
Back to Top