According to a new article in Scientific American, people lose civility when they don't talk to each other eye to eye. In fact, the popular magazine with impeccable credentials is going one step further by eliminating the Comments section form its online publication.
Who among us has not engaged in a simple act of sharing ideas with someone we don't know and possibly don't agree with...Online.
We call them trolls, but these angry responders who feel empowered with their anonymity, are everywhere. For many, this is a new phenomena. Not so. There have been few but definitely other opportunities for the exchange of ideas without revealing one's identity.
About 15 years ago, in our pre internet savvy world I chanced to come upon an idea that would allow students in a classroom to exchange ideas with an anonymous identity and hopefully extend an exchange that moved far beyond the confines of a classroom. I heard about something called anonymous team journals from a friend and colleague in the Bay Area Writing Project. She had been teaching a Native American studies class at UC Berkeley and noticed that her students who were Native American, as opposed to those who were not, rarely participated in discussions.
Simply put, the class was divided into teams and invited to write entries in journals (spiral notebooks) that might comment on topics that came up in class or personal experiences. In fact they were required to do so. The Indian students felt that many class discussions were akin to "game shows" where people often spoke in a glib or entertaining manner rather than from the heart.
Now we know that some students are extroverts who love to share ideas with anyone who will listen. Those students often silence others by accident or design.
Needless to say, I decided to give this a try with high school juniors.
The journals themselves were fascinating artifacts in themselves. I assigned each team member a day for them to write a new entry or respond to a previous entry. Of course I wanted my students to discuss big ideas or the literature we read, and often they did. But trolls emerged, especially near prom time. I wondered if this would happen and was a bit naive at first because many of these kids were "Honors" students who were supposedly emotionally mature. Not all. It only takes one inappropriate or smarmy remark to bring down an entire discussion. Much like what we see in online publications today.
It's the anonymity stupid!
Yes it was, but I think there is much more here and Scientific American is beginning to shed some light on what happens when we don't talk to people directly. I see this as a developing challenge not only for educators but human beings.