[Click here to read the Straits Times Report (4 June 2012) on this issue.]
A student from a financially-disadvantaged background speaks up for a financial aid issue, and instead becomes the victim of vicious cyberbullying from fellow students, with the bulk of the comments focusing on her writing style. This bewildering case of cyberbullying is related to KRC’s engagement with the USP financial aid issue, which you can read more about in this companion article. The first three paragraphs provide a brief background of the incident, and can also be found in the companion article.
A Brief Background
The University Scholars Program (USP) is an interdisciplinary program for NUS undergraduates. Previously, students in the USP did not have to pay any fees over and above NUS tuition fees to be part of the program, and could enjoy a whole range of subsidised global study trips, exchange programs and conference grants. However, when the USP moved into University Town in August 2011, a two-year compulsory residency component was included into the program. This component adds an additional $11,060 (at least) to the USP students’ fees.
USP professors and students had raised concerns that a weak financial aid scheme coupled with an inflexible compulsory residency critierion, would constitute a barrier to entry into the program for financially needy students, but only using internal, private channels of communication.
In October 2011, KRC raised the same concerns, but on a public platform.
In Will the USP turn into a Middle-Upper Socioeconomic Cluster?, I had featured Keira Chen, a 3rd year History-USP student whose parents earn less than $2000 a month to support their family of five. Her mother is a cleaner at PAP kindergarten and Keira helps to alleviate the financial pressures in her family by giving tuition twice a week. She also holds a part-time job in NUS.
Keira also wrote articles on KRC (here and here) to raise awareness and highlight the difficulties of people with financially disadvantaged backgrounds, and to call for a more robust financial aid scheme. Keira did all this for she believed in the benefits of the University Scholars Program, which had greatly enriched her undergraduate experience.
Unfortunately, there was an unexpected backlash in the USP community soon after the publication of KRC articles on 22 October 2011, particularly in the USP Facebook group** (see bottom of article), where fellow USP students launched personal attacks on Keira, and to a lesser extent, me. This Facebook group is restricted to USP students only, and USP professors do not have any access to it at all. At the time of this backlash, there were about 600-700 members in this group, including alumni – and also including Keira, myself and our friends.
There were many grievances – USP students felt the USP identity was being attacked, and flocked to its defence. Some felt the way in which this issue was belatedly raised was unorthodox and inappropriate –airing dirty laundry in the public, so to speak – and that internal channels were the only appropriate channels. Others felt the tone of the articles were unacceptable.
I believed then, as I do now, that KRC could have conducted itself in a much more sensitive manner – most pertinently with regards to the choice of this photo, which offended many students, and the timing of the publication of Salima’s article. Nevertheless, a significant portion of the backlash comprised of intense, personal attacks on Keira, which were completely unreasonable.
(One of Keira’s articles– linked above as USP@UTown– has since been edited by her due to the backlash. Her original article can be found here at a new web address, its original title was Meritocracy? Money-talk-cracy! I have made it available to readers so that the following comments, however unreasonable, may still be appreciated in its original context.)
I provide here just a fraction of the entire raging episode that many of us found just impossible to fully comprehend at that time. In Section 1, the Facebook comment screen shots are chronologically sequenced. I felt it was necessary to provide a detailed look at an excerpted, localized section of this intense episode that went on for days, in order for non-USP readers (or USP students who had not paid attention to the goings-on of this Facebook group) to appreciate just how personal and vicious the comments were. There were so many comments, and those featured here cover barely the tip of the iceberg.
There’s a saying that if you repeat something often enough, it becomes the truth – I was to discover for this for myself. Some of my friends who were previously supportive of KRC’s articles began to tell me/us to “lie low”, and suggested that perhaps we had been overzealous and that we should not do such things again in future. I was told repeatedly – Why fight a battle on behalf of others if it is going to get you into so much trouble? Group psychology is a scary thing, especially when not just the USP students, but some USP staff were behaving in the same disapproving way.
The comment threads grew phenomenally – I remember seeing one FB post with 96 comments. I have included short commentaries after these screenshots to provide context.
In her article, Keira had confessed that she was a “B student” in university and shared details about the time she took to keep up with school work, showing how other students were more efficient than her and could read in 2 hours what she took to read in 3.5 hours. She had used these examples to explain why she could not give tuition more times a week than she already did in order to finance her stay in the residential college – because she needed to devote time to her studies as well. (Additional context: Keira was a Science student in Junior College and she was straight A student for Chemistry, Biology and Mathematics. However, she was now a History major in NUS, and had not taken History for A levels previously – she had taken Geography instead. )
This USP student, however, had used the same pieces of evidence as ammunition to attack her by commenting that “[t]his poor girl isn’t the brightest crayon in the box”.
Another student picked up on this and attacked Keira more bluntly – “okay keira chen we get it. YOU ARE VEH STUPID AND YOU SEEM SO PROUD OF IT”. He then drew an analogy from how she needed to read her notes three times before she could truly appreciate its meaning, to a popular Japanese anime character, Naruto.
A third student responded saying that “that comment would be damn mean but that Naruto part is so win”.
Comments like this one – as well as Facebook “likes” – rewarded these demeaning comments for their humor. It normalized hateful behaviour, despite an awareness that these comments were hurtful to some people.
The student who made the Naruto analogy even expressed shock that Keira was from USP – ostensibly because she was not deemed intelligent enough to belong to the USP community.
The USP student who had earlier commented that Keira was not the “brightest crayon in the box” justified his insults to Keira by arguing that, in fact, Keira was literally asking to be insulted — “ the way she writes about how abominable she is at studying is begging to be parodied… It’s like she’s baiting us. Sorry I took the bait.” According to this line of reasoning, this USP student was only fulfilling Keira’s request to be insulted.
When a female student (name blocked out in reddish brown) commented that some of the earlier criticisms had been “cruel”, the student who had used the bright crayon analogy rebutted, offering his own definition of ‘cruel’ and showing how he had not violated it. As the female student defended other USP students’ attempts to refocus the Facebook group discussion, claiming that they were just “being humane”, this student responded again with his own definition of what “being humane” was — that is, “mollycoddling Keira”, as well as being “terribly condescending” towards her. By this standard, he argues, one should not be “humane” to Keira.
He continued to creatively associate the adjectives that I had used in my interview of her – “guileless and earnest” – with “a poor beggar kid or some lame dog found on a streetcorner in delhi”.
Another USP student pointed out that “[t]he fact that most of the criticism is directed against the style reflects less, in this case, on the readers than the writer. This is the crux: if people want to represent the grievances of struggling USP students, the least they could do is not write so ineffectively.” This student indicated that writing style, not content, is more important when raising serious socioeconomic issues. He was referring to this article.
In this screenshot, a USP student tries to intervene, saying that “distance encourages perspective.”
A second USP student, however, notes that he is “distancing the discussion” from talk of the substantive issues and encourging people to focus on another issue instead : KRC’s journalistic practice.
The first student clearly appreciated this display of wit.
Not all USP students shared the views held by those featured in all the screenshots thus far. This student for example, noted she had “no idea what’s so offensive about this article per se, about the writer herself (keira), or about the message it is sending about USP”.
This suggests vastly differing interpretations and readings of Keira’s original article, which readers can perhaps judge for themselves.
However, this same student also later commented:
This was in response to an earlier comment (which was featured earlier):
For our readers’ convenience, I have embedded a Youtube video of this ‘rasengan’ here.
This comment legitimized what was really a violent act of verbal abuse on Keira – I was bewildered to witness so much hate and antipathy directed at her. It was a truly bewildering situation – a financially-disadvantaged student stands up to speak out on a financial aid issue, and ends up getting criticized for her writing style, with fellow students expressing their wish to blow her face up.
These last 3 screenshots should also convey to the reader just how complex a situation this was – everyone was complicit in some way in perpetuating the acutely hurtful and personal dimensions of what was really a community conversation. There was no uncontroversially “good” person, or an uncontroversially “bad” person. We are all complicit; it is no use assigning blame to particular persons.
The Consequences of This Backlash
During the period when KRC had raised the issue of financial aid, both Keira and I were staying at Cinnamon College. Many of those who posted vicious comments on official USP Facebook group were also residents in Cinnamon College – we knew some, but not all, by face, and they were our neighbours. This is not a case of cyberbullying by anonymous trolls on the internet, but by your peers who are living in close proximity with you, whom you encounter along corridors, in lifts, in the dining area, in your living areas – this is, after all, a residential college. Our whole learning and living environment suddenly turned hostile; Keira was very affected as she bore the brunt of the personal attacks and I was very worried for her. (The comments featured above are only a very small sample of what went on; I had wanted to include more comments, but even now, they remain painful to Keira who had requested that I leave them out.)
I have no idea how Keira dealt with it all. Only a very small fraction, comparatively, of the comments were aimed at me, and this whole period was for me already a period of utter psychological and emotional confusion. I didn’t know how to engage these comments, for they were so flamboyantly unreasonable that I felt that I shouldn’t dignify them with a reply. So I chose, for the most part, to ignore them. Yet, friends kept telling me that I had to post some sort of response on the official USP Facebook group – which I did, ultimately. I also did not know what to think about those acquaintances/former classmates who participated in the vicious comment threads, laughing at the vicious insults, “liking” them, but who continued to be cordial towards me. Or those who did absolutely nothing, but then betrayed intimate knowledge of the comments on some other occasion.
As the comments got worse and worse and Keira began showing more signs of distress, I had sent an email to the USP directors on 23rd October, seeking counselling help for Keira. Unfortunately, I was told that the professor whose domain such requests fell under was overseas and could not see Keira until four days later. None of the other USP directors responded to the call for help, or offered to step in to talk to Keira in the meantime.
In addition, even though I had not asked, the USP Director stated “As for the comments – I agree that some of them are too personal, and I don’t like them. But they’re being made in a private student space, and we cannot intervene unless there’s something illegal or in breach of a rule, I’m afraid.”
During the examinations in end November/early December 2011, I was called in for counselling with Prof Teo. I expressed the disappointment that both Keira and I felt from the USP leadership, none of whom had come forward to talk to Keira – both the Vice-Provost, Prof Tan Tai Yong and the Provost, Prof Tan Eng Chye had stepped in at that time, but this was ultimately an USP issue and she was a legitimate member of the USP community.
Despite my verbal message then, nobody of the USP leadership has, till now (May 2012) spoken to Keira about the incident, or offered any psychological comfort.
Apart from the largely online negative reactions from USP students, it was demoralizing too to find out that USP staff also engaged, however unintentionally, in perpetuating negative stereotypes about us. A USP friend who was getting briefed by a USP staff before meeting an ambassador was told to be on his best behaviour because USP had recently suffered a bout of bad publicity, thanks to “Koh Choon Hwee”. A USP director also told me personally that while the issue KRC had raised was valid, I had been manipulated by Keira and had chosen the wrong poster girl to front the issue as Keira was not a popular or well-liked student. I was deeply saddened by such reactions.
I would like to preface my concluding thoughts by first saying that some of these uncomfortable comments were made, really, by kind, genuine staff members who were just trying to rationalize the whole backlash for themselves, trying to offer me some comfort (by showing how I wasn’t at fault but Keira was) and who were also responding to immense work pressures of their own. They are dedicated staff members who have painstakingly built up a wonderful academic program over the past decade, a program many, including myself, have benefited from.
At least this is how I rationalize their actions to myself. I sincerely think that they were caught off-guard and did not know how to deal; further, the administration has put much faith in the USP students because there is this deep-seated belief that the USP students are intelligent enough and don’t need supervision. I sincerely think that their reactions have to be understood in a larger social context that is transforming the way Singapore and Singaporeans treat and view education.
As clichéd as it may sound, we have to reintroduce, or at least placed renewed emphasis on, the aspect of affective education and values inculcation. A residential college should not be purely about academic achievements, and I have learned from my semester-long stay at Tembusu College that it doesn’t have to be. My limited encounters with Professor Connor Graham encapsulated for me what a wholesome and holistic residential college experience should be like, and he has unconsciously provided me with guidance on so many occasions, mostly through example and his own actions. [Note: The Master of Tembusu College, Professor Clancey, is also a Facebook member of the “Unofficial Tembusu College Group” on Facebook and sometimes participates in students’ discussions, like the recent debate on the short film Kony 2012. There are about 600+ members in this group.]
Yet, professors like Prof Graham who are genuinely invested in their students and their holistic development are a rarity. As education becomes increasingly commodified, student performance becomes the standard by which an educational program is measured by. These academic programs behave like mini-corporations, engaging in aggressive publicity campaigns, vying with other programs for a “better” crop of incoming students. Students are seen less as humans but as products, to be showcased on pamphlets alongside a list of their achievements. They are to be featured in newspapers, serving as advertisement for a particular academic program.
A lot of energies are spent in building up not only a brand name, a community, but also a strong identity – all as a way to better position and ‘sell’ one’s academic program. However, the fostering of a strong identity has its drawbacks too, when students unthinkingly internalize the exclusivity of that identity and become intolerant to those who question its boundaries – as we saw in this case.
Nevertheless, we have to view this case and the actions of the USP administration (or even the Yale-NUS College or the SUTD, as a fellow KRC writer pointed out) in the larger societal context — after all, they are only responding to what our society values, and so far our society seems to value only measurable achievements. This USP backlash is, I sincerely feel, indicative of a larger malaise that afflicts our society and one that has to be taken seriously by educators and policy makers.
So much of this country’s resources are being invested in nurturing the brightest, most intelligent and high-achieving students. Academic programs like the USP is catered precisely for this demography. Yet, as the cost of living in Singapore increases, accessibility to such educational resources comes inevitably with a price tag. At such a juncture then, can we count on those who have benefitted most from the system to speak up for those who are struggling within the system? Can we count on those who are running the system, who were promoted to positions of administrative leadership, to make hard decisions?
In rapidly building the strong foundations and hardware for our education industry, have we, as a society, forgotten crucial aspects about character-building and values inculcation?
I would like to remind readers here, however, that it was only a minority of USP students who had engaged in making vicious comments, and there remain wonderful aspects of the USP, from which I have immensely benefited. I have since left the program, but I have and will continue to give back to the community.
I have confidence that the USP will be able to reinvent itself to remain relevant in tertiary education. I know that they are beginning to look into these areas that I have raised in this article, as a USP professor had requested to have lunch earlier this month with me, in order to seek my perspective on what should be done regarding the USP Facebook group and the USP house system. I believe that the USP can aspire to greater heights and that the residential colleges will become a truly safe space for learning and living.
*I would like to thank those few who had spoken up on behalf of Keira, or who had tried in their own ways to calm the furore on the USP Facebook group. There were some whom I knew personally, but many others whom I don’t.
A note to the USP staff – I understand that much goodwill may not be left after the publication of these articles, and you may not be able to understand how I can simultaneously hold all the views expressed in these articles and yet still respect the work that you do/ have done over the past decade. As I had written in a testimonial for one of the USP directors, at his/her request, “We have had our disagreements, and will most probably continue to have them – yet it is a testimony to [his/her] maturity and magnanimity that despite my various hot-headed replies, angsty reactions and fiery ripostes, [he/she] has persevered in maintaining open lines of communication between us.”
I dare not ask for your magnanimity again, at least not towards my lone self. What I do ask for is that you take this feedback seriously — I have said all this and more in private, through what they call “appropriate internal channels”. Nothing was done.
I hope that one day we can muse at all this over tea or something, but till then let the struggles of daos and dharmas play themselves out.
(Professor Martin Henz’s identity was only included in this appended section on 6 June 2012. It was assumed prior to this that he was representing the USP leadership in repeatedly requesting for edits to be made in my articles, but I now think it is better to distinguish the two.)
**”the USP Facebook group”
28 May 2012, 10.26pm.
A USP professor, Professor Martin Henz, had requested that I not call the USP Facebook group, “the USP Facebook group” on the articles, giving the following reason:
You refer to this group as “the USP Facebook group”. This is far from reality. As you point out yourself later, “[t]his Facebook group is restricted to USP students only, and USP professors do not have any access to it at all. How can it be “the USP Facebook group” if the leadership of USP does not even have access to it? The name “USP” does not even appear in the name of the group. It may have been initiated by USP students, but the connection to USP or even the University Scholars Club, USP’s student organization, is tenuous at best.
This Facebook group is indeed open only to USP students, and not USP professors — I do not know what else I can call it. Hence, I decided to stick with this appellation but then append this USP professor’s explanation to this article, so that readers can decide for themselves.
31 May 2012, 12.12 am.
Professor Henz requested again that I edit my articles:
You are saying in your email: “I had raised this issue previously through internal channels, I do not think that the leadership can protect themselves by claiming that what happens in this Facebook group – however you call it – is not their responsibility.”
I disagree with you on this. Some students (among them USP students) decide to create a closed Facebook group. The staff do not have access to the group’s discussions, and as a result most staff do not even know of its existence. How can this group be our responsibility? Do you suggest that we cannot allow private online communication between our students when no academic staff members have access to the communication? Or do you suggest that academic staff members must enforce to be included in any online communication channel between our students? These two options would allow us to take responsibility for such a Facebook group. Can you think of any other way to take responsibility for the group?
I appreciate that you let your readers decide on the term “the USP Facebook group”. However, another factual error snuck in, and I had overlooked this in my previous email to you, as well. You say, “This Facebook group is indeed open only to USP students, and not USP professors — I do not know what else I can call it.” It is not true that this Facebook group is open only to USP students. Your statement can be misinterpreted to mean that membership in the group is restricted to USP students. As you point out, there are alumni in the group. In the case of yourself, you may not want to call yourself an alumna of USP, and I obviously don’t know if you are still in “The Club!”. More importantly, I happen to know that there are non-USP residents of Cinnamon college who are members of the “The Club!”.
Here is a suggestion: some Facebook groups come with “About” info that describes the purpose and audience of the group. Take a look at the “About” section of “The Club!”, if it has such a section, and see if the group understands itself as “the USP Facebook group”. If it does, well, then you can mention that in the article.
He suggested that the “USP Facebook group” may be otherwise termed as:
“a large Facebook group whose majority consists of USP students”
“a large Facebook group with a dominant USP student participation”
or (on a lighter note)
“a large Facebook group where many USP students find an outlet that bypasses adult supervision”.
I listened to his advice and sought to determine whether this group “understands itself as “the USP Facebook group”.” The below diagram is a screen capture from the “About” page of The Club!:
1 June 2012, 12.47pm appended
My email response to Prof Henz (dated 30 May 2012):
I am happy that you raised these questions in your email, as I had mentioned previously to you that I thought the nature of students’ online interactions was something the USP leadership ought to look into. The laws and norms regarding online behaviour are far from set. Our nation is debating if we need a cyberethics committee. MOE is initiating cyberwellness programs in our government schools. Our residential college programs are also new, and I have mentioned to the Office of the Provost that we need to take seriously the living and learning environments of our students.
A residential college is not simply about academics, but also about affective education, about nurturing whole persons. I believe that the USP students do obtain the email list of all USP students from the USP administration, and while there may be staff that do not know of its existence, the leadership certainly does know of its existence. In addition, the description of The Club! is as follows:
*”Ok, fine, “University Scholars’ Club” (but that sounds stuffy!)*
*I just thought this place should exist, because the old group/fan page is quite.. unhappening (which is not really its fault, just layout, etc). So this will sort of be like a newsfeed/bullet**in board, but just for USC people!*
*Very useful for feedback, updates, event invitations, interesting links and ideas, etc etc (I hope)*
*Let’s just see how it goes..”*
Also, it’s not a one or the other situation. There are not only two possible means of taking responsibility for the Facebook group.
You ask: How can this group be our responsibility? Do you suggest that we cannot allow private online communication between our students when no academic staff members have access to the communication?
I answer: Of course private online communication between students should be allowed, but what do we mean by “private”? Is a chat between two students considered “private”? Yes, seems uncontroversial.
Is a chat between 5 people on an online forum for a group project “private”? Yes, most probably, seems uncontroversial to me as well.
What about a chat between 7 or 8 people, on a platform which has 770+ people, and what happens when those 8 people start insulting one particular student? Are those 700+ other people “watching” from the side? Some may not even check the page, but some do, and some also participate in the creation of an environment by “liking” comments, by “laughing”, by noting that what was being said is “mean”, but that it was also really funny. And these students behave as if that student they are insulting is “not present”, but if she is part of the group, she has access to all that information. How can we construe “presence” in an online context? People are building their academic careers trying to lay down the laws of the anarchic online landscape right now, and till the laws and rules settle on that, educators DO have an obligation in trying to provide a safe learning and living space for our students.
These are issues that I hope you will ask and consider, as this is not as simple a situation as a matter of a platform being public-or-private.
You ask: Or do you suggest that academic staff members must enforce to be included in any online communication channel between our students?
I answer: Of course academic staff member(s) would be unable to be included in just *any* online communication, certainly not “personal” one-on-one Gchats. How would that be possible, how would you be able to track them all?
But here again you see the difference between a one-on-one Gchat situation, and a situation involving a Facebook group of 770+ students.
So it’s not about being included in *any* online communication channel, but perhaps, in the ‘main’ communication channel that most of USP social life centres around, and for many of our USP students, the USP Facebook group (or however you want to call it) is that main “portal”. A 2nd-year USP student told me that it used to be the Chatterbox, where students could meet other students in person and talk about issues, but since an equivalent/similar geographical space could not be found in UTown, most of that interaction has been transplanted online. When your USP students were upset about the new USC website, they also fought about it on that “main” portal.
I’ve provided my thoughts on this issue, and taken the time to address your points.
I hope you will consider them seriously.
6 June 2012, 9.07 pm appended:
Prof Henz’s email reply dated 30 May 2012:
Dear Choon Hwee:
Thanks a lot for again letting your readers decide, and for adding my
comments verbatim. I also appreciate that you followed through and
gave your readers the full picture by quoting the “About” section
Have I set up a false dilemma (false dichotomy) in my email? If you
allow your reader to zoom out of the scenario that I set up, and
instead address much wider issues, your could argue that I have. This
technique allows you to deconstruct almost any coherent argument.
Don’t get me wrong: The technique often leads to very useful insights,
and has been elevated to an art form by Derrida, and hopefully this is
the case here, too.
Undeniably, there are wider issues to be discussed, and you have
contributed to this discussion, albeit as a side-effect. Just to let
you know: There are ongoing initiatives in USP (internal and external)
to make use of Facebook. Both of these have been in planning for a few
weeks and I hope will be launched in a month or two. In fact, I am
personally a bit annoyed to see this cyberbullying “explosion”
interfering with our plans. But such is life.
As it comes to the other student editors of KRC, no worries, I know a
hawk from a handsaw.
Have a good trip,
Note: I hope this email exchange will help readers to understand why I had taken the drastic decision to raise these issues publicly. Trying to raise such issues internally, even now, is a challenge given the kind of mental blinkers afflicting the administrators. It is not true that Residential College-Facebook groups necessarily have to be “private” — the Tembusu Master is a member of the Tembusu’s “Unofficial” Facebook page, for example. Given the kind of attacks that transpire in the USP Facebook group, I hope there will finally be some impetus to reevaluate the USP leadership’s assumptions regarding students’ online interactions.