The Pedagogy of Trolls

As I recently wrote for The Chronicle of Higher Education, there are both risks and rewards facing faculty on social media, including dealing with pranksters and trolls. But what happens when the trolls are our fellow academics? And are there any situations in which trolling might have pedagogical value?

It may be tempting to label all of your professional rivals and ideological opponents online as “trolls.” But a true troll is more than just someone who disagrees with you or annoys you. A troll is someone who makes a game out of trying to elicit emotional reactions from others. Rachael Barney channeled Aristotle in an article for the Journal of the American Philosophical Association and described the troll as

one who speaks to a community and as being part of the community; only he* is not part of it, but opposed. And the community has some good in common, and this the troll must know, and what things promote and destroy it: for he seeks to destroy…. And he destroys the thread by disputing what is known to be true, or abusing what is recognized as admirable; or he creates fear about a small problem, as if it were large, or treats a necessary matter as small; or he speaks abuse while claiming to be a friend. And in general the troll says what is false but sounds like the truth—or rather he does not quite say it, but rather something very close to it.

In other words, the troll uses their intimate familiarity with the discourse patterns of a community to turn it inside out and to sow discord and chaos.

Sometimes this happens within groups of academic peers. I am sure that we have all received a particularly nasty set of comments on a prospective publication or fielded a “question” (read: rant) after a conference talk and felt that our interlocutor was “disputing what is known to be true or abusing what is admirable or creating fear about a small problem as if it were large.” And Rachel Toor reminds us that “Academics are not the only anonymous online bile-spewers, but they may be the most multisyllabically, source-referencingly verbose.”  A quick look through the comments section on a particularly controversial article about academia will demonstrate as much. These trolls may be annoying, but they are hardly a danger to the profession as a whole.

However, when academic trolls make the public at large their target, trust in the institutions of higher education is eroded. For example, certain academics make a sport out of trolling the public on social media (Dr. Richard Dawkins comes immediately to mind), thereby cementing the stereotype of the hoity-toity ivory tower smarty pants in the minds of many spectators. And practices like p-hacking and data dredging to generate publicity for scientific studies (aka: saying something false that sounds like the truth) ultimately undermines the public’s confidence in the scientific method.

And yet, perhaps there is a place for trolling in the ivory tower. After all, as Rachael Barney points out, “some say that Socrates was a troll.” Though Barney ultimately rejects this label for the father of philosophy, I believe it is a notion worth considering. His pedagogy was that of the playful trickster, and he was willing to “say what is false but sounds like truth” if only to evoke a response in his students, one that could then, in turn, be used in service of real learning and discover. And, depending on one’s point of view, he could be said to have created strife within his community as the “gadfly of the Athenian
people,” and thus he was punished with the ultimate IP ban: a death sentence.

David - The Death of Socrates.jpg

Whitney Phillips, the author of This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship Between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture, contends that trolling can be an “effective rhetorical strategy.”

It can be really helpful pedagogically, the kind of poking and prodding until you end up having a more significant conversation than one that might have occurred otherwise. To get someone upset and caring about a subject so you can have a more meaningful dialogue.

On the other hand, she notes that “the antagonism that is embedded in it and the fact that trolling rhetoric is often precluded on the lack of consent really concerns me.”

So how can academics be sure that their trolling serves the forces of good and not evil? The key is that question of consent. If trolling is a rhetorical and emotional game we play in the classroom, then students need to be in on it from the start. For example, we might spend time in class sketching out this history of provocation as a pedagogical method and then clearly mark the times and places when that method is being employed. That way students can feel reassured that our trolling rhetoric does not extend past those boundaries and into, say, our comments on their assessments.

Furthermore, classroom troll tactics can never be about shaming individual students. It must be clear from the start that the instructor has students’ best interests at heart, that even though the classroom environment sometimes becomes raucous and emotionally charged, it ultimately remains a safe space to experiment, to fail, and to try again without fear of stigma. If the game shifts into one in which those who don’t toe the intellectual line become the butt of a joke, then real learning can’t happen. Everyone will simply race to make sure they wind up on the “right team” lest they end up the odd man out without doing the thinking and reacting and self-searching that made Socrates’s trolling methods so

What do you think? Have you ever had an experience with a trollish colleague? Do you ever play the role of the troll in your classroom? Let me know in the comments below or tell me all about it on Twitter @MeganCondis.

* Note, although I have argued elsewhere that trolling is, at root, a performance of a particular style of masculinity enacted via text, it is something that is done by both men and women.

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