Online academic bullying

I’ve been ruminating about this post for a few weeks now, and I think I’ve finally thought of a way to couch my argument. I figured an analogy would help, so let me start with that.

My brother-in-law is a Foodie (with a capital F). He uses the “best” ingredients, and cooks with the best tools. It’s all very intimidating to watch. But delicious to eat! We love visiting those guys because we know we’ll be stuffed with great food, often food we’ve never even heard of before. But here’s the thing: he’s not a food snob. You know what I mean, the people who put their nose up when they hear where or what you’re eating, or scoff at your tools. He really isn’t like that. In fact, I was realizing that he might be the only Foodie I know who doesn’t make me crabby.

When he’s visiting us, he’s so much fun to have in the kitchen. He’s always so excited to taste whatever we’re making. He can’t help himself, he loves food! Sometimes we’ll try somewhat experimental things when he’s around, and he’s never intimidating. He jumps in and gets excited to use our quaint single-door oven. Our 3/4 size fridge seems to hold all kinds of fascinating things for him to help with. And he’s so much fun to serve! He loves everything about it, and makes sure you know how much he appreciates it.

Here’s what he doesn’t do: He doesn’t scoff at our tools. He doesn’t raise an eyebrow at our generic ingredients. And he doesn’t show us better ways to do something unless we ask.

Now, don’t get me wrong. We suck in the kitchen compared to him. He could definitely show us some things that would dramatically improve our results. And I’m sure he’d be really patient with us if we asked for more help than we do. It’s just that he doesn’t force it. And, most especially, he genuinely enjoys our inferior cooking.

So what’s the analogy, you ask? Well, trade cooking for teaching. Now let’s look at the roles:

My wife and I (the sucky cooks) are the new struggling teacher throwing some stuff out there into the intertubes, sometimes bragging about something they’ve done, sometimes asking for help, sometimes just looking for a nod of support.

Who’s my brother-in-law? Well, I’d like to propose more of us take on this role. I need to do it. You need to do it.  We all need to show nearly unconditional support for any teacher who is reaching out using blogs, twitter, or whatever. Some are there to brag, some to ask questions, and some seeking support. They want need us to jump in their kitchen with them and taste their cooking with smiles on our faces.

Who are the food snobs? Well . . . me. And maybe you. I’ll speak for myself first and then poke a few of you after that.

I’m a food snob (or academic bully) when I talk to people about homework. Here’s me: “hey, they can get all that info on Cramster, so you suck because you give credit for it.” Ring any bells? If so, I’m sorry. I just can’t help myself! I realized that cheating was rampant so I:

  • embraced the flipped class so that I’d have time for in-class assessment
  • embraced standards-based grading so that my students would be forced to retain information
  • scheduled a bajillion oral exams to hold my students accountable
  • converted to 100% screencasting for my students so that I could assess their voice

That’s a lot, really several years work of my life. But it’s too much for someone who wants to talk about how homework could be more effective for them! I give them that spiel and they either think I’m crazy or they tune me out.

What could I do instead? I’ve really been thinking about this. Here’s what they say (some colleagues of mine in my own department): “They only learn it if they really put the time in on this on their own. If they put the time in, they can really master this stuff. I know they might cheat, but I really impress upon them how important it is for their learning. If they do it honestly, and with an eye toward learning, of course I’ll give them some points for it!” Then there’s me: “nope, you’re wrong. Any points for homework is unethical!” See how that isn’t overly useful? Instead, I want to try something like “What are some success stories? How can you leverage those to improve the experience for everyone? How can I get the buy in that you seem to get? What do you do with cheaters?” I really want to reengage with my colleagues, instead of being the extremist finger-pointer.

Other examples? Well here’s a few made up situations that should ring some bells for you:

  • “I’m not sure the best way to have my students distinguish when to use conservation of energy or conservation of momentum.”
    • “You should do the modeling curriculum. That way students develop their own models and you won’t have this problem.”
  • “I made this excel spreadsheet that shows how a parachutist falls. I give it to my students and they can see the plots and how easy it was to do.”
    • “You should use vPython to do this, because students learn much more if they code it up themselves.”
  • “My students did great on the AP exam this year!”
    • “It would be really cool if you could have your students do projects instead. In the Global Physics Department we talk all the time about how students who do that seem to do better in college physics courses than students who get good AP scores.”
  • “I made a video to help some students who couldn’t make it to class today.”
    • “Video doesn’t work. It’s just like lecture, and that’s evil incarnate. You should check out the video that Veritasium made to learn about that.”
  • “My students used python to model this cool slingshot trajectory.”
    • “Mathematica is a much better programming environment for that.”

I could see some much better ways to interact with those people in each case, but I’m afraid my own efforts are more like the food snobs, and I want to apologize to you all here for that. My experience with NaBloCoMo really helped me see how much fun it can be to just give some nods of support to people and I want to try to do more of that.

Your thoughts? Here’s some starters for you:

  1. Thanks for this. You’ve wronged me in the past when I talked about _____ and I accept your apology.
  2. This sucks. Anyone who doesn’t teach with _____ pedagogy really does suck and needs to be told so.
  3. This is great. I’ve been looking for some support for _____ but I’ve been afraid to put it out there.
  4. This sucks. It’s obvious that vPython is better than Mathematica.
  5. This is great. Where does your brother-in-law live?

About Andy Rundquist

Professor of physics at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN
This entry was posted in glodal physics department, teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Online academic bullying

  1. Joss Ives says:

    Hi Andy. Thank you for a really thoughtful post. It caused me to reflect on two other places where I usually do a better job of being the supportive foodie (or Foodie) than I do with regards to teaching: being a parent and scientific skepticism. As a parent I try to make being supportive be priority number one. Of course I’m not always successful and my kids get their share of a bossy know-it-all dad, but I’m always going in with the intention of being supportive. And with scientific skepticism, it’s common knowledge that you aren’t going to change somebody’s attitude by puking facts on them or being confrontational, and this strikes me as very similar to helping people that are feeling their way around improving their own educational practices. Anything more aggressive than a nudge will often backfire.

    The flip side of the coin is that, within the circle of my blogging friends and peers, I see their comments on my posts as being similar to feedback they would give me on a draft of a paper. As long as the feedback is constructive, I don’t mind at all how harsh it is. But not every edu-blogger sees it that way, nor should they.

    I’m rambling.

    Great post Andy.

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      Great analogy ideas, Joss! The scientific skepticism is a really cool one because so many (including me, I think) would say there’s a “right” answer. But getting people to stay in the conversation is a different goal than being right, I suppose.

      I also like what you’re saying about a peer group pushing you on your own stuff. That’s much better than an echo chamber, don’t you think?

      • Joss Ives says:

        In my 4.5 years at University of the Fraser Valley, having people engage in the conversation was my main goal. Colleagues who would teach right after me would ask how I was using the whiteboards in class and how I liked them. Sessionals (aka adjuncts) that would teach after me would ask me questions about the clickers or LoggerPro equipment as I was packing them up. I was surprised at how little change I ultimately saw, but there were certainly some small successes.

        And I completely agree that being pushed is way better than the echo chamber, although sometimes what you’re looking for is everybody to be roughly on the same page and to get some brainstorming done instead of challenging every idea.

  2. Rhett Allain says:

    I love preemptive comments at the end of a post. I will take number 1 with python to fill in the blank.

    I really like the idea of commenting on other blogs. This is something that I would like to try soon.

    As far as interacting with real life colleagues (instead of internet ones who might just be robots), I try to just give examples of other ways to do things. Yes, I’m not a fan of graded homework – but there was a time when I did indeed grade homework. Perhaps grading homework is just part of the natural progression of really figuring things out. Graded homework is like the training wheels of being a learning facilitator.

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      I got the comment starter idea from you, Rhett, so thanks! I like the training wheels analogy, but I do wonder how the “trainer” feels about that imagery.

  3. Andy I appreciate this post very much. I’m a physics teacher, a sometimes awful teacher, who grades homework, doesn’t use SBG or modeling instruction, and has never used Python or Mathematica. I’ve read a bunch of you guys’ blogs for about two years and I so desperately want to try all of these things because I realize I could do so many things so much better. I have just recently decided to start my own blog while I’m trying to figure out how to implement these things and have made only one introductory post. I really want to be able to just blog about what’s going on in my classroom, but I’m so afraid at the same time. This post has helped me feel more confident to share and express myself; thank you for your willingness to share your perceived shortcomings, and thank you for reminding us to be better people in all phases of life, including online.

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Bradley! This comment put a huge smile on my face, since it’s exactly what NaBloCoMo got me thinking about. I’ve added your blog to my list, that’s for sure.

  4. Stephen Arnott says:


    Gives us much food for thought about how we teach legal research and writing. In the meantime, what’s for dinner?

  5. I want to thank you for writing this post with such humility and from such an “I” place. Like bradleyhardin, I want to be able to blog about what goes on in my classroom but it’s scary.

    As long as I’ve been around online teacher spaces, I’ve never felt as intimidated as by the physics peeps. I don’t model or use SBG, and I have some of the misconceptions y’all boggle over kids having. You offer up excellent examples in your post but the one that resonated most with me is

    “I’m not sure the best way to have my students distinguish when to use conservation of energy or conservation of momentum.”

    “You should do the modeling curriculum. That way students develop their own models and you won’t have this problem.”

    Regarding Rhett’s comment and your reply, the idea of grading homework as a stepping stone to bigger and better things (for example) is off the mark. The implication to the trainee, then, is “I see you’re doing it wrong but I’ll be patient till you’re ready to do things the right (my) way.” I’d rather read Rhett’s well-reasoned argument for not grading homework than be told not to grade it on Twitter. I guess it all goes back to my mother’s favorite saying, “it’s not what you say but how you say it.”

    Also, team NaBloCoMo all the way. The comment you left on my blog made my day and gave me real food for thought.

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      yeah, I think you’re right about the trainee view of things. That does suck, and I need to think about it some more.

      Do you think your experience with the physics tweeps (vs others) is because of an echo chamber effect? How do other communities pull it off better?

  6. Mark Hammond says:

    Thanks for the provocative, instructional and entertaining post! I recognize myself in some of your examples (except, having just mass-created a bunch of fake data sets in Mathematica and exported them to csv files to be used in a Python project I’m working on with my niece, I think everyone who doesn’t use both Mathematica and Python sucks). Seriously, though, I would love to point out to Meagan and Bradley that all the sophisticated stuff I use now (modeling instruction, SBG, teaching computational modeling, student screencasts, carefully planned and deployed videos, student-centered model creation, and the completely new mind-meld method of teaching when all else fails) took me a DECADE to pull together (with a lot of help, encouragement and even prodding by others). And all of this is not, at all, the only way to teach physics really, really well!

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      Thanks, Mark. What I’m struggling with today is how to get the two groups on opposite sides of that decade of work to help each other the most. I wonder if it might be cool to put together some history posts. Maybe I could interview people like you to talk about your long (sometimes slow) transformations.

  7. bretbenesh says:

    Hi Andy,

    This is an awesome post. I definitely have some of these bad tendencies (I think that I am always right in pretty much any situation, although “taste in music” and “taste in TV” are the places where I am the most snobbish), although I think that I do a pretty good job with not being too bad in the mathblogosphere.

    But your post also makes me think that “not being a bully” isn’t good enough; I should strive to be someone who actively encourages bloggers (your NaBloComMo is a good start here). I feel like I belong to a very stable online community, and I am grateful for it. But I need to give back a bit, too. Indeed, when I first started up being active on Twitter, etc (before I even knew you, Andy), I had two experiences:

    1. I tried to join in on an existing community, and I was not welcomed at all. They weren’t bullies, but they just ignored my comments. This made me feel pretty bad—kind of like I was the uncool kid in junior high—and I may have given up on the mathblogosphere except that. . .
    2. A couple of people (Jason Buell and Mark Hendry Olson were definitely two of them) went out of their way to support me, and that really helped me feel like this whole internet thing is all worthwhile.

    So—thank you, Andy—for reminding me that I need to actively support other educators out there.

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      Thanks, Bret. I’ve really appreciated being able to bounce ideas off you, both online and in person (Bret teaches at the second most awesome school in MN 😉

      That’s so interesting to hear about your initial experiences. I’ve really liked what the MTBoS is doing lately, trying to get new bloggers to start up AND be supported. I want to take some pages out of their playbook, that’s for sure.

  8. Melissa says:

    I love this post, Andy. The focus on sharing enthusiasm and creating conversation is so important, particularly in academic contexts where we all have strong opinions and different levels of experience. The other thing that I’ve found in difficult discussions about teaching approaches is that the conversation can quickly become about the instructors, and the focus on the students can get lost. Students can benefit from seeing instructors with differing approaches/philosophies.

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      Thanks, Melissa. I love the point about focusing on students, though sometimes it’s hard to know when to get their input about things. When one side is saying “but the kids love it” and the other is saying “but I know they’re not learning anything” that’s a tough conversation.

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