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Stop Feeding the Trolls!

Advice for teaching your students proper online communication

September 14, 2015

Heather VanMouwerik is a doctoral candidate in Russian History at the University of California, Riverside. Follow her @hvanmouwerik or check out her website.




I was a deer in the headlights the first time a student attacked me with words online. A few weeks into my first digital course, a student, convinced that his thesis was both present (it wasn’t) and effective (nope), became very angry with me over his poor assignment grade. He decided to express this in an expletive-filled rant during my digital office hours. I was so shocked by the venom of his words, despite my five years as a teacher and nearly the same as a manager, I helplessly sat there thinking, “Wait, what’s going on here?”


Normally when a student approaches me after class or comes to office hours, I can tell whether or not he or she is going to be aggressive or try to physically intimidate me. By reading their body language I can adjust my own—deflecting aggression, for example, with desk placement and posture—and by rephrasing their words I can shift the conversation in a positive direction. However, none of these strategies work in an online space.


Trolling, which is deliberate and angry online communication meant to shame, humiliate, and scare the recipient, has been in the news recently. From attacks against women in gaming and fat-shaming, to recent legal debates around the world, its pervasive nature intrudes into everyday digital life, including the university classroom.


Thankfully, I have never experienced trolling to the extent of many others. Yet even the more benign forms of angry and aggressive troll-like behavior, such as vitriolic emails, can disrupt the collegial environment. The case I mentioned above was via video conferencing, but I have dealt with inappropriate student communication on almost all digital platforms—discussion forums, social media, and peer-grading assignments. The need to stop this inflammatory behavior takes on increasing urgency as I incorporate more digital peer-to-peer communication in my course design.


In this effort, I have adopted a new-to-me mantra: Stop Feeding the Trolls!


Feeding trolls is online slang for the practice of responding to trolls with anger and hurt feelings, giving them the attention that they crave, escalating the exchange, and making you angrier in return. I make it my goal to not give these students what they want. But that, even for a seasoned instructor, is easier said than done.


My approach relies on having a clear plan and addressing the inappropriate behavior at the first signs of trouble. Below are the steps that I have taken to starve the trolls:


  1. Educate yourself: I am lucky enough to be supported by a fantastic student conduct office where I work. It takes an active role in identifying, correcting, and punishing inappropriate student conduct of all sorts. Before you take on an online or hybrid course, please look at what support your campus offers. It is helpful to know if there are any pre-existing standards or resources you can use to define and instruct students on proper digital communication. Although most of my advice focuses on correcting or addressing the troll-like behavior, if it continues or escalates, then you should not hesitate to report it to the proper campus authorities. This is especially true if the inappropriate conduct is addressed to other students in the class.

  2. Code of Digital Conduct: Most syllabuses these days include a paragraph or two on classroom conduct but very few include a similar statement on digital conduct. Big or small, a statement about proper online communication sets the tone for the rest of your course. I tend to treat these statements on a sliding scale—the more digital the course is, the more detailed it becomes. For example, this summer I am teaching an early modern world history class, which does not require much digital competency besides submitting assignments through the course’s blackboard. All I did was attach a sentence to the section on academic honesty, which read: “These rules apply equally to digital and written assignments.” However, if this class was going to be an online course, then I would spend a paragraph or two outlining the behavior I expect from students in depth, addressing each type of digital communication individually with clear guidelines.

  3. Forceful Replying Strategies: I approach a student whose behavior I deem troll-like as if it was an accident (at least the first time). Because students communicate online frequently without feedback, I assume that no one has ever told them how this sort of bullying or lack of respect is received. So I tell them forcefully and clearly. Normally this takes the form of an email where I address the following issues: what aspect of the communication or post was unacceptable, why it was unacceptable, and how they could communicate the same issue/concern in a more respectful (and productive) manner. The most important thing is that I require them to reply to me and to rephrase their comment or email, proving that they understand.

  4. In-Class Practice Writing: If the course relies on digital communication—emails, online discussion sections, and/or forum posts—then the assignment for the first week is to communicate something that way. These can be silly—What is your favorite movie about a historical event?—or productive—What are your reactions to the reading? Honestly, whatever works best in your course plan. This gets the students used to the digital medium, helps them practice sharing, and clues you in to any potential issues that might arise.

  5. Model Appropriate Communication: I know I am starting to sound like a broken record, but you need to be the digital citizen you want your students to be. Every time I write an email or post to the class forums, I take the time to properly address my audience, proofread, and make sure that my tone conveys respect.


In ideal situations these steps stop most troll-like behavior before it begins. That is the goal, at least. However, even these plans and strategies can fail, which is why a clear procedure should be in place—for the student as well as for you.


Proper online communication is a fundamental skill for digital citizenship. After graduation our students continue to use these skills, relying on email to communicate with their coworkers and social media to connect with friends. By addressing tone, I hope that they begin to understand how important conveying respect and civility is in their online lives, no matter the context.


Have you ever had to deal with troll-like behavior in class? What strategies have worked for you?


[Image by Flickr user Calvin Hodgson and used under used under Creative Commons Licensing.]


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