When Students Bully Teachers

Last year, St Andrews was rocked by an online bullying scandal where students “joked” about doing somewhat unsavoury things to their roommate, to put it mildly. What was arguably most shocking was the idea that this bullying occurred here, in a place where we want to feel safe, and even advertises its particular “sense of belonging” to the outside world. It showed us that we cannot be complacent when it comes to bullying and that, despite outward appearances of a safe and amicable community, St Andrews is in no way immune to such cases.

Although it is always saddening to hear examples of students bullying each other, there is another growing and equally worrying phenomenon in higher education: students bullying academics. But how can a student bully a teacher? It’s easy enough to leave vicious comments on a group chat, but surely it’s more difficult to harass the professor behind the lectern. Surely, it would be foolish, nay impossible, to intimidate the person in charge of your grade. Unfortunately, however, these cases are becoming more and common.

Photo: Lisa Pettifer

Many of us will be familiar with the infamous “shrieking girl” of Yale University, or the case of the university staff intimidated, harassed and taken hostage in the protests at Evergreen College.  But these concerns are not limited to just the other side of the Atlantic. A senior academic I spoke to at a prominent British university expressed a real concern that even raising certain arguments or discussions could risk them losing their job.

“I’m scared to talk about anything even remotely controversial,” he said. “My seminars are so boring now because there are entire issues which we just can’t critically discuss. They can come after you on the smallest thing.”

Indeed, there is evidence that a minority of students here in the UK are willing to go to extreme lengths to destroy the careers and reputations of academics they believe have wronged them. On a thread on the popular student forum The Student Room, entitled “My teacher insulted me in front of everyone”, one student asks anonymously what they should do after being allegedly insulted by their teacher. One particularly pleasant individual tells the student to “crush him” and to lie about the heavy emphasis on the effect it has had on their mental health. Another then chirps up, advising the student to say they are now “depressed and emotionally broken” in order for the university to take the case more seriously.

As if that’s not enough, the person who started the thread then brags of their tremendous achievement of managing to get “two teachers fired before.” One wonders whether these other teachers had been similarly “insulting” before their careers were brutally cut short.

Photo: CNN

This thread dates from 2015 but highlights a truly ugly side of student-teacher relations which persists to this day. Perhaps the most unnerving aspect of this discussion is the shameless abuse of university policies surrounding mental health. Not only is dishonesty about depression unethical, but it also compromises the position that students suffering real mental health issues face at university. It seems that in trying to ‘crush’ academics, students may also be steamrolling already vulnerable students in the process.

In my time in St Andrews I, like many of us, have been fortunate enough to build several strong and mutually respectful relationships with academics. They have been able to explain previously incomprehensible concepts, facilitate lively debates and help hoist my grades above the dreaded single-digits we all fear. But it would be a mistake to think that there are students amongst us who would not abuse these relationships and exploit the very system designed to protect them. As last year’s scandal demonstrates, St Andrews is far from exempt from the type of bullying that pervades higher education. But it is within our power and our interests, students and academics alike, to oppose it.

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