cyber bullying and higher education: student and tutor responsibiliies
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Sticks and stones

Last month, the phenomenon of cyber bullying became headline news when Conservative MP Louise Mensch spoke out against the onslaught of misogynistic abuse to which she had been subjected on the micro-blogging site Twitter. Mensch is a member of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee. The comments, many of them explicit and most of them of highly personal, were prompted by the publication of the Committee’s report of its enquiry into allegations of phone hacking at New International.
Several months earlier, in November last year, viewers of the Channel 4 series Educating Essex witnessed for themselves how pupils at Passmores School in Harlow use Facebook to divide and rule amongst their fellow 11 to 16-year olds. Within minutes of it beginning, an incident of bullying involving two pupils scrapping in a corridor came to the notice of the majority of the school’s pupil population, with a few posts on Facebook doing a far swifter job of drawing attention to the fracas than a public address system could have done. At all schools now, the impact of social media presents significant challenges to teachers in managing bullying. Passmores School, it is worth stating, is an outstanding school, according its most recent Ofsted inspection – the very best the state system has to offer.
Is abuse that happens online any less offensive and destructive than face-to-face verbal assault? Mensch was asking a question of particular significance for her. On that basis, it’s easy to dismiss it. The incidents involving the Select Committee and the secondary school could be said to sit at the extreme edge of the negative impact of social media.
It’s a risky conclusion to draw, though. 10 years ago, a TV would have been the window on the big wide world from the domestic sphere, a passive screen transmitting the choice of a growing number of broadcasters. Now, millions of us can and do interact with anyone, anywhere in the world from an armchair – with close friends, casual acquaintances, current and former colleagues, and strangers we will never meet.
With 82.5 per cent of the UK population regular internet users – higher than the European average of 61 per cent – most of us now have a virtual life running alongside or integrated with our ‘actual’ lives. In the corner of the kitchen or living room sits a laptop, at home with the cooking, chatting and childrearing going on around it. For lots of people, tweeting, blogging, sharing photographs on Facebook and Flickr and films on YouTube have become second nature.
What does this mean for the writers of the 2.8 million email messages sent every second, for the composers of the 250 million tweets posted each day and for the 15 per cent of bloggers who spend 10 or more hours each week blogging? How many of us, if pressed, would be able to describe what moral code informs our treatment of our numerous online encounters?
Technology-enabled forums present specific challenges when it comes to individual behaviour and the common good. In the 15 or so years that online learning and its offshoots – forums, chat rooms – have been used in further and higher education, the emphasis for institutions has been on developing protocols which facilitate interaction between teachers and students and maximise learning outcomes for students. For the most part, participants, whether students or teachers, are left to their own devices. There is an assumption by institutions that the appropriate use agreements which users signed up to when they first enrolled will be observed. Where does the balance lie between tutor moderation and individual responsibility?
This question has arguably greater relevance in a higher education context than in others, as achieving the objective of independent learning lies at the heart of how courses are developed. Like many seemingly simple questions, it leads to others, of increasing complexity. Is it the case that harsh words written down do less damage than words that are spoken? Should students themselves take responsibility for their peers by intervening online if they read an abusive post? Is it reasonable to expect tutors to moderate between students exhibiting what is, when all’s said and done, discourtesy of a kind they wouldn’t in most cases even consider if they were in a lecture theatre?
Turning, finally, to the creative arts, can less than courteous behaviour on the part of tutors and students be avoided by separating the creator from the created? Learning almost certainly takes place when a painting is critiqued, but it’s hard to see what learning outcome could result from an insult thrown in the direction of the painter.
The mechanics of using social media are easy and quick to learn. Far harder to master in the virtual world, where body language and facial expression give no clue to the impact we are having on others, is a code of behaviour that encourages us to treat others as we would be treated ourselves.
‘Sticks and stones may break my bones / But words will never hurt me,’ goes the old children’s rhyme. Oh, but they do. Ask Louise Mensch.

Posted by author: Elizabeth Underwood
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47 thoughts on “Sticks and stones

  • They certainly do. I was with a group of people once who were asked to think about a time when we experienced the greatest pain in our lives and we all admitted (as the speaker expected) to be thinking of a time of emotional/psychological pain not physical pain.
    I think that abuse inflicted online is especially pernicious and subtly just as harmful precisely becuase it may not be perceived to be as damaging. This is because the individual who is being bullied is also affected by the imagination of the intention of the abuser, in other words that there are not the usual limits to the pain and the victim could re-visit the source of the pain and so re-enflict themselves many times. I don’t mean of course that it is worse than bullying in real life but that that it may be perceived as less harmful because that it has a very different quality which may go unrecognised.

  • Which is why I find Google+ Hangouts so valuable! You get to hear critiques and see their faces. You have the same people who come week after week and you make friends! But friends who have their own views and opinions and who aren’t afraid of saying negative things about your work and they justify their views as well. They are the best people to surround yourself with when it comes to discussing work.

  • Just wondering – is this hypothetical or prompted by genuine concerns about online student behaviour in the OCA?

  • I remember at one point, there is an option in OCA to pay a small fee to have extra sessions to meet up with your tutor in person. This option was only available for certain degrees (definitely not for photography) back then, but now it seems to have disappeared. I know geographically it is not an option for everyone. However, would it be a good tool for us to iron things out with our tutors in person periodically?
    People do behave differently in person and online. I find a parallel that people behave differently if they know they are being photographed (watched) and if they don’t.

    • You are quite right, Siegfried: at the moment, OCA does offer face-to-face feedback in some cases. It hasn’t disappeared, but it will close to new students on 1 September and, as you indicate, there are caveats: it’s only for fine art and textiles students, and it depends where the student lives and if the tutor has availability. And not all tutors offer it. Now with Skype available for most people, an increasing number of students are telling us that talking about their work with their tutor through technology works just as well for them as being in the same room.

      • Thanks Gareth. I didn’t know we are moving into this direction in Skype. Maybe I should give it a try next time. It is hard to communicate with just email and blog when feedback is scarce. Very often I feel that I am doing a monologue.

  • Cyber-bullying is a really topical issue this week, so you could say it’s not hypothetical for any organisation hosting online forums, including OCA. Nicola Brookes, falsely accused of being a drug dealer and paedophile as part of an online discussion about the TV show ‘The X Factor’, has just won court backing to force Facebook to reveal the identities of the cyber-bullies who targeted her. Yesterday, Frank Zimmerman was given a suspended sentence for a threatening and highly offensive email he sent to Louise Mensch in which he told her she faced a ‘Sophie’s choice’ over her three children. Looking at the posts on from tutors and students, I would say that some contributors are more practised than others at getting their point across without getting personal.

  • Whilst not wishing to diminish to seriousness of the issue in any way I do think we need to separate one aspect of cyber-bullying from its face to face equivalent. We none of us are forced to engage in social networking but we cannot avoid the street, the playground, the office etc. Secondly, if we do engage in social networking we can choose what information we divulge. What I find frightening is the pressure that our children are under from all angles to divulge all on Facebook etc. The pressure is inevitable given that the business model for these organisations is to sell that information and the best way to ensure the info is posted is to whip up peer pressure.
    On the slightly different issue of e-protocol, lack of body language etc, I do find that many people (particularly the more age-challenged amongst us 😉 ) are far too touchy and object to anything that comes across as adverse criticism. In an academic situation it is not always possible let alone desirable to make positive criticism particularly at HE level. Sometimes one has to take a distance-learning version of the post war Slade tutor’s black paintbrush 😀

  • An interesting post. I moderate the OCA Flickr photography forum and am happy to say that in the few years I have been doing this I have rarely had to intervene in an exchange. OCA students and tutors are by and large very well-behaved and trolling is almost unheard of. I have reflected from time to time on why this might be. Of course we are all lovely people ; -). I think in addition the sense of a community and common purpose mean that people on these forums have no inclination towards the worst kind of online behaviour. On the few occasions where I have intervened it is generally because a discussion has become overheated or an unfortunate turn of phrase has caused a reaction rather than intentionally hurtful comments.
    The relative anonymity of internet interaction seems to have the effect of releasing inhibitions for some people. It’s not something I can really understand. I wonder if anyone has done serious research into the psychology of online interactions?
    I do know the principles that guide my online interactions – the main one being ‘do no harm’. As far as possible when giving critical feedback I try to be specific and neutral and not unkind. I try very hard not to personally attack or diminish people whose position I disagree with but rather to stick to the point under discussion. Of course I don’t always succeed, and sometimes speak too quickly or bluntly and live to regret it. But I try. I strongly agree that trying to separate the creator from the creation can help us avoid discourtesy or unkindness.
    With regards to giving feedback generally I think there is a good deal of evidence that harsh or biting comments are almost always counterproductive. People in general are sensitive souls, and negative comments are felt much more keenly by most than positive ones. To give critical feedback in a way that allows people to take it on board requires care and tact. I understand that some of the teaching methods from the 70s – especially the theory of breaking people to make them – have been significantly discredited. They may work for some but tend to do more damage than good. At my work they stopped doing that kind of management course following the suicide of one of the participants.
    I think the rules of successful feedback are pretty much the same whether online or not. Personally I suspect that the written word can be more damaging than the spoken, especially if criticism is given in a public context. The words hang around much longer and the publicness adds to the recipient’s sent of humiliation.
    As artists of course we’ve got to learn to take criticism of our work. It will never be a pleasurable thing for most but good critical feedback does help us grow. As commentators I think it will never be easy to get the balance right between support and critique but the best any of us can do is try.

  • I think this is always a topical subject. A light hearted sarcastic comment can upset your best friend if they are feeling low that day and don’t see your smiling face and it is all too easy for people to hide behind anonymity to express opinions they wouldn’t dare say face to face. My worry though is the speed and extensive reach of negative information being posted. A 12 year old boy in my neighborhood, (not 100st but only a couple of blocks away) just committed suicide because of bullying. When I check my 11 year old’s google group (which the teacher posts school work on) I am very clear that if I see that he has said ANYTHING that could be perceived as negative about anyone at school that he will go back to using a pencil. Likewise if I catch his friends their parents will be getting a call from me and vice versa. In the old days you could get away with whispering about someone behind their back and they might never know, now a single comment can be round the school in 2 minutes. It is frightening the damage that could be caused and the potential for the spread of incorrect or malicious information. With freedom comes responsibility, kids should be strenuously guided and adults should self monitor and exercise basic respect and decency to others. If they go too far then we (the bystanders) should intervene by speaking out and/or using the courts and law enforcement to stop behavior that is classed as antisocial, criminal, hate crimes, stalking, defamation etc. I am glad that Mench’s troll got time, too bad it was suspended, I hope they took way his internet and gave him a pencil.

  • There seem to be two lots of things being discussed here. Gratuitous bullying is one thing, but, as far as creative writing goes there is a danger that in taking care not to hurt someone’s feelings, tutors and fellow students may in fact, not be serving the writer’s best interests. As a tutor in creative writing (or formerly as a secondary school English teacher) I am always dealing with the person behind the words I have to critique, and usually that person has invested time and emotion in those words. However, in the end a tutor has to deal with the words on the page whatever the emotional or physical state of the original writer. If you are sharing your work, whether it is peer discussion or student to tutor, or tutor to fellow tutor, as the writer you should look for helpful criticism and have broad enough shoulders to receive it, go away and think about it, and then decide whether to act on it or not. As the person who is doing the critiquing, you need to be honest in a constructive way.

  • I have been a subscriber to many forums etc since the early days of the internet. I have witnessed some quite horrendous trolling and personal attacks and have always been glad when these have been moderated out.
    However, I do believe that serious critique and controvertial views are important to be aired. Sometimes people don’t understand the differences between challenging what someone has said versus attacking the person. The former is a quite valid approach and while I may object to a challenge in my view as long as it is not against me personally (and I’m quite tolerant of bad language used in such a context) I like to think I can take it. Just to clarify – consider the 2 statements:
    “You are a stupid moron”
    “That was a stupid moronic thing to say”
    The first being a personal attack, the second being an attack on the statement. I may not like the second statement in relation to something i have said, but in the context of a heated debate would tolerate it. The first I would seriously object to (even if it might be in some way true!)
    But appropriate moderation should be maintained. On one of the Pilot web forums I belong to – there is a fairly “no holds barred” area where provided personal attacks are avoided, pretty much anything goes. But in the Pilot student area on the same site, a much more gently, gently and courteous regime is imposed.
    It does amuse me that I’ve been on one or two photography forums where members are invited to post images for comment and critique and are then highly offended when someone gives a frank and honest personal assessment of the image (without attacking the poster as such)!

  • There is a danger that in responding to the question of cyber-bullying we lump everyone together and make the assumption that because I respond in a particular way everyone has a similar response. My career for over 35 years was often in an atmosphere that was hostile physically but almost always hostile verbally. I adopted the principle that sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt unless I allow them to. Reaction is what the bully, whether cyber or face to face, is looking for – no reaction is usually the best policy. My experience is that they soon get tired of facing indifference. Strong criticism was encouraged in meetings in my work as it was generally held that no one person, no matter how senior, had all the answers and no holds barred discussion was seen as very healthy and indicative of a healthy organisation. The trick of course is to hear the argument but not to become emotionally involved (not always possible admittedly) and above all else to leave the argument in the meeting room.
    Because of my experience I frequently verbally attack anyone who disagrees with me (sometimes taking the opposite view to create discussion) trying to undermine their position. It is a very quick way to test how well they have thought things out and to ensure that they are not taking the popular view to avoid conflict. However I hope I have the humility to recognise when I am wrong and always ensure that anyone I have had a heated discussion with feels that they have had a fair hearing.
    I do not think you can equate cyber bullying with critique by tutors. I don’t always agree with my tutors (I am sure they would agree!) but I have never thought that the comments were over the top or malicious. They are honestly held opinions and I would much prefer them to tell me straight rather than dress it up so as not to hurt my feelings. The latter must be the ultimate sign of disrespect – not only does the tutor think your work is not up to standard (s)he also has a very low opinion of your level of maturity.
    Bullying has a long history amongst the young (think Tom Brown’s Schooldays). It is also often true that the bullied today become the bullies of tomorrow. It is part of the maturation process and the best we can offer the victim is to give them the skills to cope with it and find a forum where it can be discussed without fear of retribution. On a more controversial note the biggest bully at my secondary school was a teacher who verbally lashed pupils and when that did not work he resorted to physical violence. Everyone knew including the headmaster but nothing was done because their was a code of silence – one never sneaked.

  • There is a great book called ‘Difficult Conversations’ on how to tackle tough discussions – and I think feedback to artists (in particular from tutors to students) must rank high on that list. I assume the tutor wants to encourage and develop the student and build their self esteem as an emerging artist, but that they also need to make clear where the opportunities lie – or even point out any killer issues.
    The way it goes is this: there are three parallel conversations going on in every discussion:
    1 – the feelings (on both sides)
    2 – the facts of the situation (which everyone can agree on dispassionately)
    3 – the identities of each person – which they want to protect (and which if attacked – intentionally or otherwise – can cause defensiveness and stop people from listening)
    The way to manage any difficult conversation is to keep these elements separate.
    so for example in feedback on someone’s art: “when I look at these specific colours/ these specific marks/ the way this element sits with that element (facts) it made me feel xxx” (these are MY feelings – and therefore not to be debated – however you can say that you didn’t INTEND to create these feelings).
    In this way the student/ artist can enter into a discussion about how the marks, colours etc might be changed to evoke different feelings/ responses. Its a specific discussion on cause and effect – And a learning cycle can begin because the student is still open.
    ‘Identity’ might or might not be an issue depending on the egos involved. But presumably in the case of the tutor/ student some elements of the key identities to be preserved could be – tutor (‘I am an expert in my field’, and hopefully ‘I want to help you become a better artist’), and the student (‘I want to be a good student and learn quickly’ and maybe ‘I want to feel that my desire to become an artist is legitimate’).
    The important thing is to always give feedback in a way that recognises and preserves the other person’s self-identity.
    So even if tutor thinks the work is below par they could at least say ‘ I can see you have tried to develop in xxx area’, or ‘ I know you want to learn quickly so I’m offering you these ideas – lets talk about how you could apply them to this work’
    even small words of acknowledgement of the identity of the student can set the scene for a much richer and open exchange.
    Its a pretty simple framework for any situation – and just the act of thinking in terms of facts, feelings and identity provides some mental space to form a well balanced, frank and helpful response. It makes us consider what IMPACT our words will have on the recipient.
    How can the framework of ‘facts, feelings and identity’ help us have more open and constructive discussions about our art?

  • I’m glad all of this has come up. I read and participate in a lot of forums and you get to recognise the regular contributers and what to expect, although if we were to meet in person I think we would all be surprised at how different we are to our posts. There are a few devil’s advocates and it can keep things lively and interesting. I do feel, though, that nastiness sometimes arises and assumtions are made. Things get quite heated and that can be good but, when it gets out of hand,one party has to walk away. Who has the last word? The written word does have more power than the spoken, I think. Tutor feedback is a different matter. Constructive criticism- surely that’s what is wanted.

    • Olivia – you are right – constructive help is what is wanted.
      We are all on a journey to improve our art – and we need the coaching, insight and support of our tutors to make the transformation from student to master.
      I like the idea of constructive ‘critique’.
      Not sure why but to me the word ‘critique’ implies a desire to be helpful (maybe it helps that the word itself ends with a smile on the lips!!). Whereas ‘criticism’ can imply the idea of pointing out all the flaws. Often the language of the critic is brutal (and maybe even egotistical).
      Critique though has a language of insight – which in itself is very helpful.
      Here’s to insightful and helpful critique!

      • The difficulty arises when the work is truly awful. The best and kindest in the long run, tutorial response is to say so. There is no point in sugaring the pill and giving false expectation that will continue to be unfulfilled. There are times when the most constructive criticism can be to throw it away and start again. One thing that students need to be aware of is that the outside world is often lacking in feeling and/or tact and all artists have draws full of rejection slips, If we don’t learn to deal with adverse, sometimes harsh, criticism whilst ‘at college’ we are going to have a very hard time of it later.

  • i have to say that personally I find the kind of criticism I get from tutors often demotivating.. Perhaps because I myself am a trained teacher of adults!
    I try to red between the lines but since my tutor said my work was ‘childish’ i have found it very hard to get going with the next assignment.
    It i sn’t that I want praise, only encouragement. As an adult learner, there is is a lot at stake – the time commitment, the money – as an OAP, I have to be sure that I’m worth using up the family resources to indulge myself in doing an art degree.
    i have the feeling that tutors do not get much training, which is disappointing.

    • Linda, thanks for bring out another perspective. I never thought of getting bully by the tutor. I thought this post is only aiming at us, the students. I guess we all need some learning on this topic. But how should we go about educating each other and ourselves?
      One would expect we all should know how to behave that because (most of) us are adult by now, but really? I never have a blog before signing up for OCA, never disucss issue on a forum (I prefer meeting an actual person). Thinking about it, many of us can still be infants online! When I was young, my parents and teachers will punish me if I act nasty to other children. Who is there is point out when we act nasty to other online?

  • I would like to add something important to that. As tutors/teachers we are in a position of power which we may not always realise. Abusing that power by intimidation or bullying is all too easy, without meaning or wanting to, unless one is self-aware & has constant supervision.
    We all need to be vigilant that by an ill-considered phrase or a careless word we aren’t abusing the privilege and power invested in us as educators, & crushing the spirit & confidence of our pupils, who may be, as adult learners, very vulnerable.

  • I fear that the creeping usage of school based terminology into the higher education sector distorts the methodology over time and particularly in the case of mature and distance students there is a distorted expectation. The ‘Teaching and Learning’ rhetoric implies an active agent and a passive agent, a ‘teacher’ who delivers and a ‘pupil’ or ‘learner’ who receives.
    This is no place for a detailed, closely argued philosophical treatise on the relationship of education policy to the rise of authoritarian ideologies such as neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism. However, it needs to be understood that the relationship at HE level is not the same as that at all.
    The better, and traditional (you won’t hear me arguing for a return to tradition very often!) usages of student (active) and tutor (reactive) is much more productive. There is much less of a power relationship implied, but there should be a recognition on the part of the student that there is a knowledge gap (hopefully reducing over time) and a responsibility on them to discover (study), and that this extends to the tutor’s meaning. If my work has been described as, to use the example above, ‘childish’ then this must imply something that I need to discover, perhaps with further enquiry of my tutor, for myself, not an insult to be grieved over. In fact if Paul Klee had been my tutor it might have been high praise indeed.

    • While agreeing that student and tutor are the appropriate terms in this context, I think that Linda’s points are very relevant. I don’t think anyone is suggesting that people shouldn’t be given honest feedback, that gives them a good sense of where their work is and what they need to do or consider in order to progress. The point is that some language – relatively imprecise labels such as ‘childish’ when used in a negative sense, can be hurtful without giving the person much help in terms of working out what the actual issue is.
      As adults we must of course do our best to learn from and accept feedback. But human psychology being what it is, comments that feel like attacks produce defensive reactions and may result in the person rejecting valid feedback, when a more thoughtfully worded response would have helped them progress more effectively. It is all very well to say that people shouldn’t be like this: I’d like the weather to be better than it is just now and for human beings all to be compassionate and caring individuals. But the reality is different, and if we want to be effective in most tasks it makes sense to cut our cloth to the situation we find ourselves in, rather than suggesting that the world should change to fit us.

      • Why is it that the tutors should change or at least be aware of this but the students not? Additionally, as I have said elsewhere, this is not adult education and the demographics of the student body of any institution is a changing thing but adults who take on a course of education need to realise that in that context they are beginners and have as long a journey to go as their younger colleagues.

        • I wasn’t meaning to suggest that students don’t need to work at this Peter, though on reflection I can see how my last example might suggest this. I fully accept that as adults who want to learn and develop we need to work to make sense of any feedback we receive and use it as constructively as possible.
          That said, I think in making this comparison we are lumping together two thing that are not identical: at the risk of over-simplifying, I can’t easily control how I feel about things but I can to a greater or lesser extent control what I do in response to those feelings. Some words, turns of phrase and ways of speaking are much more likely to provoke negative and defensive emotional reactions than others. That being the case, surely best practice when giving feedback would involve trying to provide it in a way that makes it most likely to be acceptable and useful for the recipient. Relatively unemotional and precise language makes difficult feedback easier to take on board for most people.
          I don’t think anything I have said is age-specific. I would apply the same principles when giving feedback to an 18-year old.

  • Good point, Seigfried. who is there to point out when we act nasty to one another?
    Cultivating self awareness, thinking before we comment, checking with ourselves to see if this is ‘our stuff’ or the recipient’s – all these help us to develop our sense of objectivity.
    I suppose we need to integrate our own ‘teacher’ inside of us to tell us when we are being unfair, unkind, prejudiced. Above all, to ask ourselves what are our motives in making the comment – is it in the true spirit of the pursuit of learning? Or to look smart or clever or put someone down. We need to cultivate the habit of ‘reflection after action’ which soon becomes ‘reflection in action’ especially online, where everything happens quickly & becomes the written word. The right heart will seldom go wrong.

  • Yes indeed Peter, & the reason ‘school based terminology’ is creeping into HE is that the teaching of adult learners isn’t recognised as a separate skill from teaching children/young people. Far from it – many teachers in HE have had no training in either aspect of teaching & are there only because they are proficient in their field.
    Thus they sometimes import ‘school based’ aspects of their own experience of education, their school days, which may have been some time ago. Educational attitudes & methods have moved on, but they aren’t aware of it. The comment made to me was “don’t use that technique, it’s childish” which is simply a personal value judgement. There was no suggestion that my work was “truly awful’ or should be thrown away, in fact the comments were at odds with the mark.
    To be useful, criticism needs to be fair & objective, otherwise it misses the point. A teacher is someone who wants to show me how to do better, not someone who wants to show me that they are better than me.

  • But the point is we are NOT teachers and the ‘learners’ are NOT pupils nor is this adult education.
    Colleagues who have undergone any form of teacher training (PGCE etc) tell me that it may have some use at levels 3 and below but it has been of little help at levels 4 and above where the relationship is so different.
    I fear that the reason the terminology is creeping in is rather different than you suggest. Much of it comes from the establishment’s realisation that delivering HE within FE establishments, with their lower levels of funding and salaries, is highly economic and the management of these establishments are totally geared towards levels 3 and below, even demanding teaching qualifications of all their ‘teaching’ staff and the career path of educational managers is increasingly one of box ticking and jargon manufacture and often has nothing to do with any experience of education as such.
    As to your own experience, I would firstly suggest that to build a thesis on a particular instance is dangerous and, more pertinently, I would ask if you did what a student should do, which is to ask “Why? What makes it childish and why is that a bad thing?” A tutorial relationship is a dialogue in which the student is an active, if not necessarily equal, participant.
    My experience suggests that some, if not many, students beyond their first flush of youth tend to be, to (mis)quote Joni Mitchel “old and cold and settled in their ways” and take anything that is not entirely approving as a personal insult and this experience along with repeated instances of the same crass mistakes leads to frustration and a certain curtness in tutorial response. It is rare that any critique can be truly ‘fair and objective’ when it relies on personal, albeit informed, judgement; at least in the eyes of the criticised. One tries to be helpful and to lead the student towards improvement but this is never achieved by simply treading carefully or, worse, stroking egos. What can seem firm and fair to the tutor can be taken as a withering insult especially when it questions long held beliefs but pussy-footing around is counter-productive.
    I realise that this may well come across as the ire of a crusty old don….but then maybe I am 🙂

    • Peter, It is difficult for me not to treat you as a ‘teacher’ and myself as a student. When I fist sign up for TAoP, I got a course material with assignment and exercises. The idea I have is I am dictated by my teacher to do this set of exercise, then the teacher comes and tells me if I am right or wrong.
      This is very difficult from, say, the day when I was in grad school doing my thesis. Back then no one can reassure me if my research will go anywhere (I wished someone can tell me). I knew that from the beginning that there is no one can tell if I am on the right track. I did lion share of work and my advisor was throwing in ideas. If this is the kind of relationship you are expecting, I don’t get it impression from OCA. No one ever asked what exactly I want nor we continuously discuss how can we work together to find a way to get there.
      Back to the original topic. I don’t think any of us are malicious and intent to bully. But I think we can only build a working relationship (see, I don’t say so that you can teach me) by being mindful what we may say to each other, both student and tutor. We are on the other side of the terminal and we misunderstood each other, and it is easy to misunderstand each other’s intent. Even as simple topic such as a tutor-student working relationship, I think you and I have a different take on this.

      • “This is very difficult from, say, the day when I was in grad school”
        It should be,
        This is very different from, say, the day when I was in grad school
        Sorry, always full of typo. I should read what I wrote one more time before hitting the reply button.

      • “[…]The idea I have is I am dictated by my teacher to do this set of exercise, then the teacher comes and tells me if I am right or wrong. […]”
        Oh dear. I see how you might think this but it really isn’t like that at all. The assignments, as in all the HE Art courses that I have been involved with in the UK, are briefs for you to interpret and for the tutor to comment on and then for you to amend as you see fit based on those comments. You should see them as an invitation to creativity not a task with a right or wrong answer. But we stray from the original post rather a lot I think!

  • I’m not sure I understand you, Peter – crusty old don or not! Since when hasn’t a university degree involved adult education? Sadly my last post got rejected by the spam detector & I can’t remember what I said – I’m getting a little old & crusty myself, obviously
    By the way, I wouldn’t expect a PGCE to be relevant training for working with adult learners.
    Perhaps there are some students ‘beyond their first flush of youth’ out there who would like to reply to Peter’s comments about them, while I go & mark some exam papers?

    • I think we might be at cross purposes here. By Adult Education I, like those who provide Adult Education on general, mean evening classes, and the like. HE students may well be adults within the definition of the act but it is a different thing.

  • At this stage I would just like to make something very clear.
    None of my comments about the general relationship between tutors and students in an HE situation should be taken as any sort of excuse for bullying.
    All I am trying to do is to make the distinction between bullying, which is always despicable, and robust critique, even if this is perforce repeated. Robust critique, from both tutors and other students is what HE art student should expect and require.
    Someone said, in a similar context recently, “Shrinking violets need not apply!” 🙂

  • For me, the online etiquette / ethics debate which Elizabeth is writing about is a separate one from how tutors feed back to students. Comments made to and about individuals in public spaces should be very different in nature than those made as part of a more private and ongoing dialogue for learning and teaching purposes. I got the impression that Elizabeth was talking about more public spaces like on blogs and Twitter – although of course I do agree that tutorial discussions do also need to be executed with care and with all due respect for each student’s sense of dignity. I don’t think that public spaces though, are ones where ‘instructive’ remarks should be made – and I don’t think I have ever seen a tutor make that error of judgement on the OCA blog.

  • It’s a very important point that youre making Peter.
    Whilst i have always had the attitude that i am responsible for my own learning, i had no idea that the relationship between teacher-pupil & tutor-student was different. I have always seen it as Siegfried described, but now the penny has dropped that they are more like an *equal* but simply one who has very much more knowledge and experience than you, rather than ‘the boss’.
    i wish i had known that before!
    This week, for the first time (final assignment), i want to question tutor feedback (about a recommended change) – to say something similar to what you suggested as a response to the ‘childish’ comment, (not because it upset me or anything but because i dont really agree and want to question why she thinks i should do it), and i have been *really* worried about it.
    That has a lot to do with my formative experience of authority figures for sure, but also because i didnt know it was acceptable. And i really wish i had known about that difference because it has affected both my experience of the course and my work.
    I really think there should be something in the student handbook covering this issue. something setting out
    the differences between school/college and HE. All of them. Even the ones that seem obvious.
    Because although it might be obvious to many people, and irrelevant for others (whose experiences have encouraged them to challenge/question authortiy freely), for those of us with the opposite experience it’s invaluable information.
    LOL The section in the logbook could also include something for those who despite the tutors experience/knowledge think it’s ok to simply ignore them. (dont understand people like that but… lol… i know they exist!)
    You might be a ‘crusty old Don’ Peter but i am very glad you’re here!
    This information will change my experience of my next course radically for the better i’m sure, i really do wish i’d known sooner.

  • As far as the OP is concerned…
    I agree with Nicks comments above about comments about the work/argument vs comments about the *person*.
    But this kind of communication is full of potential for misunderstanding. Where people can feel/interpret things as attack when they’re not necessarily meant that way, and people can also think they have offended when they haven’t.
    I dont think we should jump to conclusions about what is bullying/trolling etc though until we clarify. I mean arguing/having conflict isn’t necessarily bullying and like Peter says saying “negative” things shouldn’t necessarily be avoided, authenticity is needed and valuable to us all in every interaction, even more so in a learning environment, despite it being sometimes hard to hear.
    But unfortunately bullying/trolling behaviour is everywhere, you get it irl, you get it on *every* forum… to some extent…. because there are _people_ on every forum, and some people just enjoy manipulating others. I’m not a heavy OCA forum user but i’ve rarely seen anything like it there.
    I do think however that it’s ‘easier’ to get away with troll/bully/manipulative behaviour under the auspices of ‘honest crit’ or debate, whether IRL or on sites which have crit/debate as a key part of the environment, because the troll/bully then has that to hide behind when the person they’ve insulted objects, and they can make it look like the person they’ve insulted/trolled is just oversensitive/cant take debate or crit or whatever. And one of the worst things about bullies, cyber and otherwise, is that they are so very manipulative and when challenged will make themselves look like the victims.
    – They cant take it when you challenge their behaviour so they start to play the victim, which is the hallmark feature of a bully imo and the worst thing about them.
    Eg to use yr example Nick – person A says “you are a stupid moron”
    person B says “I’m not happy you’ve called me a stupid moron”, or, lol, alternatively, “no I’m not you _ _ _ _something worse ”
    person A then replies “oh dear (), I was only being honest, why are you offended/angry? aren’t I allowed to be honest? I dont want to participate if I’m not allowed to be honest and you’re going to be all touchy.”
    But what complicates the issue is that for some people being called a stupid moron would be fine, and they’d be quite un-phased to be called it themselves. And THAT imho is the problem, because the boundaries are not agreed on to begin with. And that’s why people get upset because people have different levels of tolerance/boundaries for respect etc and if there isn’t a mutually agreed ‘policy’ (like the one Nick suggested) then you are always going to have conflict/tears.
    But problems are not *Bullying*.
    But bringing it back specifically to the OP regarding our responsibilities etc …
    IMO one key hallmark of bullying (other than the obvious vicious personal attacks/intimidation) is when, instead of 2 people disagreeing/falling out/not liking each other etc, one person starts involving *others* and trying to get people on their ‘side’ to dislike/attack/belittle the other person too. That’s what usually makes school bullying such a traumatic experience – not conflict or one person being nasty but the group.
    And the salient point for us I think, is that it IS our responsibility as forum/network users, to recognise when someone could be attempting (either consciously or otherwise) to draw us into their conflict/issue with another person. Because the experience of being ganged up on on a thread is very unpleasant, and (particularly in forums), we have no way of knowing how vulnerable people are. Not everyone is emotionally robust, often through no fault of their own, – not through immaturity, but they may be mentally ill or traumatised, and while of course we cant pussy foot around people, taking sides against someone, or creating/taking part in a scenario where they are being “talked about” could be unwittingly causing them considerable distress.

  • lol sorry, when person A says ‘oh dear’ there is supposed to be a ‘poor me’ in those empty brackets. (typed it in WORD)

  • This discussion reminds me of the saying that Intent does not alway equal Impact and that we tend to judge ourselves by our intent and judge others by the impact they have on us. No wonder misunderstandings happen

  • I once referred to a fellow artist’s work as her ‘big brown painting’. It came out some time later that she felt offended by this, but couldn’t tell me at the time, and lost confidence in the piece. Had she mentioned it right away I would have told her I was merely differentiating it fom her other paintings and that I didn’t have a problem with brown. It seems, however, that she did.

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