Student affairs / student services

Essay on the rhetoric about Yik Yak and college students

Yik Yak accesses posts within a 10-mile radius. From where I live at the southern point of Fayette County, I am in luck. I live eight miles from the center of the University of Kentucky campus. This banal point means that I can continue to follow Yik Yak conversations even when I am away from the physical space of academic life. I can feel close to the students we work with even as I prefer to live away from them.

If I open Yik Yak at my children’s school – which is closer to campus – I am blocked from using the service by the app’s geofencing. Yik Yak, and the content it shares, is not for kids. Yik Yak, a free social media app that allows users to leave anonymous posts, has sparked discussion within the last year regarding its content.

In 2015, a high school student pleaded guilty to posting on Yik Yak a threat to his New Jersey high school. In December 2014, the president of the University of Kentucky sent an email to all faculty and students condemning student Yik Yak responses to a campus die-in protest as “hate filled slurs” and “narrow-mindedness.” A January 2015 Huffington Post story traced a number of Yik Yak incidents in which racist posts followed a variety of campus events across the country at different universities and colleges. Such events sometimes lead to calls for banning Yik Yak. Yik Yak, this narrative argues, is a hate speech forum.

To my knowledge, Yik Yak is not banned anywhere on any college campus in Kentucky. On a given day, I open Yik Yak on my iPhone and am exposed to college conversations. The conversations vary: Sexual exploits. Bathroom antics. Grade anxiety. Moments of getting high. Reflections on Netflix. Loneliness. Support for the basketball team. Comments on classes. So little of what I see is hate-based. When I ask the students in the course I teach about Facebook how many of them are actually on Facebook, no one raises a hand. But many of them do use Yik Yak. In addition to Yik Yak, I am on Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, and Google+. I am not sure how many of my colleagues are on Yik Yak. I know of one colleague who is. He’s the one who introduced me to the app.

Some yaks (posts) I read as I wrote this are:

“Y’all motherfuckers remember mood rings back in the day?”

“I’m a decent looking girl, but I can’t get a guy to text me or like me or shit.”

“Do only girls work at fazolis in palomar.”

Despite the public attention on hate or racist speech, many college student yaks are banal: nostalgia, anxiety, questions about local fast food chains. Like other social media bursts of expression, yaks reflect of the moment thinking. A thought or idea pops into one’s head; the urge to write that feeling down in a public space follows. In that sense, yaks are no different than any other moment of written expression – from the invention of the essay to the popularity of the blog post.

Some other yaks I’ve recently read:

“I love Kentucky sunsets!”

“How old is too old to join a fraternity?”

“Curse you Mad Men marathon, curse you.”

Yik Yak is about proximity. A user of Yik Yak either assumes proximity (those near me will read this) or creates proximity (we are not physically near one another, but you are now close to what I am thinking). The media theorist Marshall McLuhan proclaimed proximity as a central tenet of new media logics. Information brushes against information, he wrote. Out of that proximity, ideas are formed. Italian theorist Michel Maffesoli framed the network need for proximity as a question of secrecy: we are never really sure why items interact or why we create proximity across networks. What’s our motivation? What do we hope to gain?

In the university, we encourage proximity. We ask faculty to develop relationships with students. We ask students to feel a relationship with the university (for retention purposes; so as alumni they will become donors; for networking purposes as each graduating class seeks employment). When we engage with social media, however, proximity sparks fear. Now we are too close. Now we know too much. As soon as we know what others are thinking, we get scared. Or offended. Or outraged.

“Yik Yak Opens Window to College Students’ World,” an Orlando Sentinel headline reads. The student world is a mystery to most faculty. Students are so close to us in the classroom, yet so far away emotionally, intellectually, or otherwise. How do they study? How do they choose their courses? Why do they major in one subject as opposed to another? How do I get them to take my course? How can we get them to answer their email? Why are they failing? How can we help them?

On a given campus like ours, 30,000 people congregate daily. Some come to campus to live and study; others to just study. Thirty thousand people is a small town. And like all small towns where people are in immediate proximity to one another, gossip, hate, fear, prejudice, and insensitivity exist, often for reasons that are not clear. McLuhan’s main point about the global village, the space where media brings information and people into proximity, was that it is not a nice place. The global village, whether enacted on Yik Yak or in a dormitory, can be a pretty difficult place to live in. That difficulty can exist in anonymous posts (aggressive, racist, sexist) or in faculty attitudes toward those with whom they work closely (attitudes expressed publicly in conversation and not in confined platforms like Yik Yak).

Why do we fear, though, talk – albeit digital talk? The hallways on the floor of our campus building are traditionally quiet. There is so little talk. Behind each office door, I assume, a faculty member works, answers email, grades, reads, drinks coffee, daydreams. Some are exasperated with their students. Some are exasperated with their colleagues. Some are exasperated with me, the interim chair of the department.

Our offices, after all, are in proximity to one another. We work closely together. What would a faculty Yik Yak look like on our office floor if all of my colleagues, behind their closed office doors, were typing their thoughts into the platform several times a day? Probably not that much different from what students write.

Faculty typically become outraged at college expression, particularly that which embraces sexuality, alcohol, or disgust with college. Such expression, we are told, is indicative of a morality problem. “How do you solve a problem like Yik Yak?” The Washington Post asked in 2014. “The theoretical appeal of Yik Yak is in two things: total anonymity and close proximity,” the Post’s Caitlin Dewey notes. She follows that observation with the caveat: “People thumbtacking a notice in a public space are still obligated to follow certain social norms.”  

While I have only cited the banal on Yik Yak, I have encountered yaks that supposedly fall outside of social norms as well:

“Is 9:30 too early to get drunk by yourself at home on a Thursday night?”

“Ladies. How old are you and how old a guy would you bang on a date?”

“Poop.”

“What’s your favorite type of porn to get off to?”

“I like to cover myself in Vaseline and slide around on the floor pretending like I’m a slug.”

Yik Yak is admission that there is no private without the public. Social media have always been a space that – because of the sense of proximity – feels private, but is, in fact, public. Whether we are discussing Anthony Weiner’s embarrassing bathroom selfies, Lucas Oil’s Charlotte Lucas’ racist tweet, or Cee Lo Green’s insensitive tweets about rape, we recognize how quickly private thought is made public. Even former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s private phone conversation becomes a public moment as the recorded discussion is duplicated and circulated to news outlets, blogs, and other sites.

College students are hardly the only people thinking the uncomfortable or the offensive. All around us uncomfortable thought exists. Eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds are not the only people who make private thought public on a whim. We all do. My Facebook feed is proof. The majority of my Facebook friends are, after all, academics. They seldom hold back on their thoughts.

I am a Yik Yak lurker. Between meetings, walking to class, or heading to the parking garage, I might open Yik Yak and follow a string of yaks. I don’t upvote or downvote the yaks, but I pay attention to those yaks that earn many votes.

When I lead department meetings as interim chair, I doubt my colleagues are on Yik Yak, but some are posting to Facebook. Some are complaining that the meeting is going on too long. Some are changing their profile pictures. Some are discussing what they will have for lunch. Some are mocking other colleagues at other universities. Those private acts are quickly made public if we are Facebook friends.

At some point, my newsfeed will show me the post. Each post is time-stamped. Because the post is proximate, I will know that the very important point I was making about an upcoming assessment seminar no one will attend likely went unheard. Nobody, though, fears being discovered for posting during a meeting. Among academics, in fact, it is almost expected to complain about department meetings in a public space or a social media platform. Among academics, it is expected that we complain all the time in public spaces. Whether we do so on Yik Yak, Facebook, or Twitter is not important.

Maybe the reason I don’t post to Yik Yak is that I fear the potential, public fallout if I do post a yak: “Professor caught on Yik Yak complaining about colleagues’ eating habits and preference for fast food,” a headline in our local paper might read. We don’t expect faculty, that is, to post to Yik Yak because the discursive norm on Yik Yak is assumed to be abnormal behavior. Facebook, for the adults, is an accepted space for academic complaining. Yik Yak, because of popular discussions that exaggerate its utterances, is not.

If I did post to Yik Yak, I am sure that I would express my distaste regarding faculty preference for Chick-fil-A or that someone keeps dumping coffee in the men’s urinal on my office floor or that I hate Pink Floyd. But for now, I have Facebook for such posts. Facebook is the accepted norm for a discourse of complaint. And on Facebook, the private has always been public.

 

Jeff Rice is professor of writing, rhetoric, and digital studies at the University of Kentucky.

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How we must shape our language to the students we work with (essay)

"I think this a real gut-check moment for you, Nathan."

His eyes immediately drop to his lap in an apparent effort to do just that, and I feel my shoulders sag. I look over at my colleague, whose eyes meet mine and then roll slightly. Damn. Nathan looks up from his gut check and eyes me quizzically. I quickly adjust.

"What I mean is that this is one of those important moments when you decide if you really want to do something that's difficult." In this case, it was giving up his habit of taking over-the-counter medication in excess. I, of course, had my own habit to give up: my tendency to use figurative language to explain a concept or suggestion or quandary in which my students find themselves.

For most of my career, I have worked with students who, for the most part, traveled with me down the road of abstraction (See? There I go again. Damn). I would sit with them and explain how texting an ex-boyfriend was like "touching a hot stove over and over," or how missing class repeatedly meant they were digging themselves a hole that got deeper by the day, or that seeing a counselor would help them box up those bad memories and stack them neatly on a closet shelf where they could be accessed without fear of being crushed. Not always the most elegant language, but it worked for me, and seemed to work for them.

These days, I find myself in the company of very different students. They live together in a residential and academic support program that was created to help high-functioning autistic students, or students with significant executive function challenges, succeed in college. We provide a level of academic and organizational support that is beyond the capacity of most colleges, and in doing so, allow these often very bright students to take, and pass, classes and ultimately get a college degree and a credential necessary for some of the careers to which they aspire.

They can do many things: solve complex math problems, explain chemistry to anyone who will listen, remember dates of significant world historical events in a manner foreign to most college students who only want to memorize what will be on an exam.

What they can't do very well is understand my metaphors. They are, most of them, literal thinkers.

"Don't throw in the towel yet!" I implore Stephen, who is thinking of quitting a club he has joined.

"What towel?" Damn.

"Don't give up yet. Don't quit. Give it a few more meetings and see if you like it better."

"Oh. O.K."

I never realized just how much I resort to visual metaphors until I couldn't use them anymore. I am like a mechanic without a wrench, a hairstylist without a comb, a ... you see, this is my problem. I don't plan these analogies and similes. It just seems to be how my brain works. I come by it naturally, as my mother was the queen of the cliché, the euphemism, the short-phrase-that-put-all-in-perspective.

"Every cloud has a silver lining." "It's always darkest before the dawn." (Yes, teenagers love hearing those responses to heartbreak). My mother knew every aphorism available to English speakers. A well-phrased maxim was her primary child-rearing tool.

Perhaps she would have diversified her portfolio if she'd given birth to an autistic son rather than a daydreaming poet of a daughter. But she didn't, and now, here I am: in a job where I am often unable to use a tool that has served me so well in my work with students, a linguistic Leatherman, one could say, that I am lost without it (I just did it again, but that was pretty subtle).

"Come on, Robert. Don't let him get your goat," I say, trying to mediate between two students unable to be civil to one another.

"My goat?" asked Robert, suddenly sure that his nemesis was stealing yet another object of his.

"Don't let him..." What? Get the better of you? That's kind of abstract.

Rattle your cage? Ruffle your feathers? Get on your nerves? I settle on, "Don't let him make you angry." The conversation then continues.

My almost-daily moments of realizing my dependence on figurative language, proverbs, metaphors and other abstract notions make me very aware of the challenges my students face in the classroom. So much of teaching involves metaphor, which someone once defined as "using something we know to explain something we don't know."

In the rich scholarship of metaphor and meaning, this is more clearly articulated as two domains. One is the "source" domain, from which we draw the metaphorical expression: "Love is a battlefield"; "Life is a carnival." The source domain is our extant knowledge of a battlefield or a carnival, of things that are concrete, physical. The other domain is the "target" domain, where the metaphor takes us (to an understanding, in these cases, of love and life), to abstract and figurative concepts.

A teacher travels between these domains constantly, and the best teachers take their students there in style. Every academic subject -- literature, physics, computer science -- relies on metaphors for explanation of complex notions. And sometimes these notions become the source domain themselves.  We refer to an organization’s core value as “being in its DNA," or a deeply held belief as being part of someone's "genetic code."

In their book Metaphors We Live By, authors George Lakoff and Mark Johnson write of the "conceptual metaphor" and its importance in cognition. Metaphors influence not just how we think, but how we feel and act. If, for example, a group of employees is placed into two "teams" and asked to "swing for the fences" toward a goal, they may find themselves in a competitive mindset.

If instead, they are asked to work in groups to build a "house," with different "subcontractors" working toward a common goal, they may approach their work in a more collaborative fashion. A simple comment like, "Hey, we're all in the same boat here" works to inspire a group of people because they instantly, with no effort, flash to the image of themselves in a boat with their co-workers and then quickly grasp what the boss is saying:  we're in this work together. Metaphors, and our individual and collective ability to grasp them, hold great persuasive power in our learning and working environments.

So when I imagine my students in a typical classroom, with a talented professor zooming between and among metaphors, I see looks on their faces similar to the ones I've seen when I've said things like, "This is a gut-check moment," or "Give it a whirl": bewilderment followed by defeat.

When everyone in the classroom seems to get what the professor has said except you, it is hard not to be discouraged.  Coupled with the cognitive processing speed deficits that are not uncommon among high-functioning autistic students, one can see why their attrition rate is higher than their native intelligence and innate perseverance would predict.  I know I'd get frustrated if I were them.  It's very likely I would throw in the towel, or raise a white flag, even.

I find that I do recognize that bewildered expression more quickly these days, and so catch myself almost as soon as the maxim, proverb, aphorism or metaphor is out of my mouth, or I at least announce, “I’m going to make a comparison between two things” (explaining a rule or predicting an action is often very helpful to students on the autism spectrum).

I have come to recognize, too, that some of my students do not have this particular deficit, and that some of them are so quick to use a metaphor to describe something that I need a moment to catch up myself.  One afternoon, I watched as some students tossed a brand-new rugby ball belonging to one of them, Shane, in the front yard of the house we occupy. An errant toss landed the ball in the street where a truck quickly crushed it. Shane was good-naturedly bummed about his lost ball; when another staff member came outside moments later, he said to her, "Abbie, my firstborn committed suicide."

She looked alarmed, then followed his pointing finger to the street where she saw the flattened carcass of the ball on pavement. "It was my first rugby ball, and now it's gone," he said, in mock despair. "Shane," I observed, "to be accurate, it was actually more of an assisted suicide." He looked at me and for a moment, I thought I had gone one step too far with the metaphor.

"Yeah," he replied, laughing. "But that’s O.K., since that's now legal in Vermont."

As more and more students on the autism spectrum arrive in our classrooms, as accommodations allow more students with nonverbal learning disabilities to succeed enough to land on a college campus, our attention to our own language habits must increase.  A few years ago, I might have responded to that request with some resistance. This is how I talk. This is who I am.

But now, spending my days in the company of students who have to work incredibly hard to succeed in a traditional academic setting, even with the appropriate accommodations, I know the onus is on me to add another tool to my toolbox. Exercise some new muscles. Step up my game.

Or maybe just ... improve.

Lee Burdette Williams is director of student life and collegiate partnerships at Mansfield Hall, in Burlington, Vt.

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