Creepy Tree House Take II

Two stories from the Chronicle have me fearing that academics have taken their desire to be a part of the social network of the internet beyond the pale. I am hoping that my academic readers will forgive the rigidity of my prose and actually weigh in on what they think about these issues.

Peer Review vs. Blog Review

IWP-peer reviewRecently, an academic put his manuscript for an article up on a blog and also submitted it for peer review. He allowed blog comment makers to respond to any and all aspects of the piece and then compared them to the feedback he got from regular reviewers. He concluded that blog comment makers are more thorough, more critical, and provide more feedback. From that, he declared that blog review was a better option than peer review.


My experience as a blogger for 3+ years now is that while many of the regulars and the lurkers who de-lurk give great comment, the endless stream of abusive, sexist, racist, homophobic, and transphobic comments that dot most feminist and queer blogs would make this kind of review useless. Think about the hours you’d have to spend editing out comments that talk about the male member alone.

As an editor on two academic journals myself, I’ll admit that for small journals there may be times when the reviewers have only general knowledge of your highly specialized research and when some reviewers will simply be too swamped to provide the kind of indepth comments trolls love to give. This is a problem in many ways but not one that has often peer_reviewprevented well written and researched material from reaching the light of day.  Many of the pieces we turn down are turned down b/c of fit, ie the material doesn’t fit within the focus of the journal or the author has slapped on a paragraph at the beginning and end to make a previously written paper appear relevant to the focus when the paper itself is not.  The rest of our rejections are ultimately about a process in which authors stubbornly refuse to address the few things we would like expanded or re-worked, or worse, we ask for one basic change and they give us an entirely new paper with new issues.  Our review process ensures that at least two of the reviewers are in the person’s field and we have an extensive reader list to get people in specialized fields to review material if our main editors are unfamiliar.  So I am unclear as to how anyone can compare the review of one’s peers to review from a pool of participants that may not have graduated from middle school or high school yet, may be one’s undergrad students, and/or may have foregone college to spend more time building up the Aryan Brotherhood in their area.

Phantom Students

zorro-sheilaAnother Chronicle article today reveals that in at least 3 states, Indiana, CT, & ?, online courses include “phantom students,” fake profiles of non-existent enrollees that allow the instructors for the course to participate in student discussion and monitor student only areas of the online course.

The universities involved justify this deception by arguing that it allows professors to jump start online discussions and/or steer them toward key points in the material when students are silent or otherwise off on tangents. The deception is so thorough that one such phantom student was even asked out by one of the other class participants based on his comments online.

Imagine for a moment how students will feel to find out that they have been interacting in a space peopled by their professors. Now imagine how violated and stupid that student who asked her professor out, or other students who felt similarly, would feel when the deception was revealed to them.  Credibility and trust are key factors in any group dynamic and especially between a group leader and the rest of the group. In academia, having credibility with one’s students, particularly if you are teaching from or about the margins, means the difference between a successful learning ALIENCD81Digipak.aienvironment and an intellectual dead zone.

Not only do these phantom students represent blatant disregard for truth in the classroom and amongst the class, but they also replicate basic pedagogical strategies that do not require deception. We’ve all taught courses in which students do not connect with the material on a given day or where the majority have checked out for the day. We have also all developed honest and upfront ways of dealing with these moments that include offering basic discussion questions before or during class, encouraging or shaping comments and questions to jump start discussion, assigning people to be in charge of discussion, giving points for participation, even the dreaded pop quiz or calling on someone directly, just to name a few. Many, if not most, of these strategies also work online.

So what makes duplicity more seductive to instructors than tried and true pedagogy? Is it really about motivating students or is it the kind of voyuerism that the internet provides?

Just b/c you can be anybody you want to be on the internet doesn’t mean you can or should be in an online classroom. What do others think?



  • interdisciplinary writing review/Katy Sauber
  • Yang, James. Paradigm Magazine. Spring 2008
  • The Phantom of the OR/ Jane Gun Shih Ying
  • Baker & Hecker. Fantasma Parastasie. CD cover. 2008

2 thoughts on “Creepy Tree House Take II

  1. I agree with both of your takes on these stories. Perhaps in some fields and among some types of people, “peer” review around blog comments will be helpful. (Although, how you’d ascertain the expertise of anonymous commenters, I don’t know!) I don’t understand why in the second case the faculty member can’t “jump start” a conversation among the students–I mean, if the students know that on-line discussions are required, why can’t the faculty be involved? It just doesn’t make sense to introduce deception into faculty-student relationships.

    • It just doesn’t make sense to introduce deception into faculty-student relationships.

      I mentioned your comment about “some disciplines” benefiting from blog review, & they put forward the “hard sciences” as potentially weeding out certain readers/commenters from the beginning. I know I wouldn’t comment about an article on nanotech, except maybe its psycho-social cultural implications, but I’m still not sure some of my favorite trolls would let that stop them. Anyway, good to have a different angle.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s