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I am a PhD student in Europe and also TA for some bachelor's degree classes for my supervisor. Just by chance, I have found an open Facebook group (normally, the group aims to create an interaction between students and opened by students as well.) in which people in class insult me very harshly about the way I do the tutorial and my personality. (How I look etc.)

How to react or not to react, really? Any suggestions in order to be objective in evaluation of those students? Because, I don't want to introduce any personal judgemental issue for those who insult when I grade midterms.

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    Reflect the case to your supervisor... He would be able to handle the case with asserting the right way of the criticizing for the students... – Roboticist Oct 13 '15 at 15:56
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    First of all, insulting criticism can still be useful. If something said in this group (even in an insulting way) needs to be improved on your side, fix it. We learn more from people criticizing us, than for people praising us. Second, you are a TA and they are students. Even if you were perfect, some students will still hate your guts. So, do not take it that too personally. – Alexandros Oct 13 '15 at 16:06
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    By talking about it in class, you'll just give them even more arguments against you. You become a somehow public person when you become a TA - those are things you'll have to live and deal with. The only useful thing you could do about that group is try to get if there's any real issue they're talking about and you should address - ie, some fault you're making and you think you should correct. It's the same with all critics - take them as an opportunity to improve. If you will take it personal with whoever is insulting you, just avoid reading that group and that's it. – mgarciaisaia Oct 13 '15 at 19:11
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    Your critics are your best advisors. Especially if they criticize you in a public forum where they have something to lose by being discovered. When I was first learning to drive I was overly cautious. This irritated a lot of drivers (I was learning in Brooklyn). I used the drivers who honked as guide that what I was doing was unacceptable. I am more experienced now, so when people honk at me, I generally dismiss it as an indication that they don't take into account all of the factors on the road. Well, as a TA, you are just beginning to learn how to teach. And they are honking at you. – Dmitry Rubanovich Oct 13 '15 at 19:57
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    I ran into this several years back. It hurt me personally and career-wise. But, I looked at what the comments were and used the opportunity to learn. If the comments were BS, I asked myself "why would someone write that and what can I do to make sure they don't write that again?" It helped me to grow. I would have preferred a gentler approach. – michael_timofeev Oct 14 '15 at 11:04

17 Answers 17

78

Sometimes students behave childishly. They've only been adults for a few years, and some of them are still transitioning. In groups in particular, and with the anonymizing effect of the internet, immaturity can be amplified.

The first thing to do, when faced with childish behavior, is increase the maturity of your own. Show them how childish they are by contrast. In this case, the most mature thing to do would probably be to take the valid parts of their criticism on board, and ignore the rest. If you feel you must mention it, reduce your comments to the absolute most reasonable and objective part of what you feel needs to be said: you didn't enjoy reading this about yourself, they should come to you directly (or go to your supervisor) with valid criticism, and they should consider the nature of internet posts for the sake of their own professional career.

Don't put the comments on the projector, don't single people out and don't open up a discussion. Just mention it as briefly as you can, and move on.

If it helps, consider that you are in a position of authority, and this is what happens to people in authority. Any boss or manager in any company will have to deal with the fact that people will have little bitching sessions behind their back, and usually not very mature ones. The higher up you get, the more people will gossip about you. There's no way to escape it: no matter how cool or normal you are, the tiniest idiosyncrasies will be magnified.

It's usually not meant in a bad spirit, just a way to blow off steam about forced circumstances. The problem here is that they did it on the internet, instead of in the coffee room.

51

To add to Johanna's answer, I think the professor should also say something about when the students are looking for jobs before/after graduation. If a potential employer happens to see a prospective employee's negative posts, the employer will think, "What if this person has that kind of attitude here?" -- and pass over the applicant.

(For a similar reason 20 years ago when our company took our product show on the road, I had to tell our CEO to stop lambasting an existing customer in presentations to potential customers. He agreed with me that potential customers might wonder what we would say behind their back, so he stopped mentioning the existing customer. And, probably like the TA, the existing customer didn't deserve the criticism anyway.)

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    I think that could very easily be a stand alone answer. OP could do it themselves even without mentioning the group, saying something during the along the lines of "As an aside, Facebook is a public place and unprofessional behavior will live forever, future employers are likely to find it and judge you based on your comments online. Consider that before adding anything to Facebook" – Sam Oct 13 '15 at 18:51
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    Well here's a bunch of rep so you can post comments now :) – Nelson Oct 14 '15 at 1:07
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    Yep, this is definitely its I own answer. I don't even agree with Johanna's answer, but you make an excellent point. – Kyle Strand Oct 14 '15 at 14:24
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    @KyleStrand - Except that by making this point he may look rather foolish with both the professor and the rest of the administration. Seems like a lot of risk for almost zero reward. – blankip Oct 15 '15 at 6:14
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I can't disagree more with Johanna's answer - which is currently the most upvoted. It is completely ridiculous and has sparks of fairy-tale revenge.

Let's go over the basics:

  1. These are kids.
  2. I am assuming you are in a country that accepts free speech.
  3. Making fun of someone is not online harassment nor harassment of any level. It is simply making fun of someone. Now if these students emailed you insults that may be harassment, but probably not in the judicial sense... Sense you can easily not read the emails (or Facebook posts).
  4. You are a TA not a professor.
  5. You didn't even tell us what the insults were. There is the distinct possibility that they what they are saying isn't even insulting and is in fact factual. If they say you dress sloppy or don't comb your hair or if you stink this may be true and they don't like listening to an uncouth TA. Also your teaching style might be bad too. I don't think anyone should assume that these are insults unless we know what is said and more about you.

What will happen if you listen to the advice to involve the professor and talk about it in class:

  1. It will be uncomfortable for you. Very.
  2. It will be uncomfortable to the students - a little. Then they may laugh. and there is the possibility that they start talking about their "insults" to you and the professor because the truly care about the issues.
  3. The professor will probably think you are stalking the students. The students will surely feel this way.
  4. The professor will think you can't handle criticism.
  5. The professor will probably think less of you as a TA because he will think that nobody likes you (unless you can find a Facebook page dedicated to complimenting you) and he is seeing all of your issues highlighted.
  6. The administration at your school may get wind of what is going on. Although they in theory could say something to the students or feel sorry for you, you can be assured that they wouldn't seriously think about hiring you.

It is simple. Think about what they said and see if you can improve. If it is just petty stuff ignore. Never bring it up - to anyone. Please.

Note: I want to be clear that I am answering this for a person that found students blowing off steam with criticism. The OP did not provide enough detail to answer otherwise. My advice would generally stay the same on how to handle it with the professor and the students but would vary greatly with how the OP should react within himself. And even then these are still kids and sometimes kids just say shit and when we were kids we were dumbass bigmouths too.

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    OP asked how to deal with online harassment. They had a reason not to reproduce the insults here. I don't think "probably you are not confronted with harassment at all, and also maybe you really stink" answers the question. – henning Oct 14 '15 at 14:52
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    We have no idea, indeed -- except for the statement given by the OP. But prima facie it is implausible and not helpful to assume that the OP's statement is wrong. It would simply lead away from the question. – henning Oct 14 '15 at 19:14
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    @henning: OP was not harassed online, he stumbled upon people talking trash about him, that's all. And - blankip - harassment is not such a broad term. – einpoklum Oct 14 '15 at 21:37
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    "These are kids." -- no, they are (young) adults and should be treated as such. They have been through social contract bootcamp and acceptable behaviour drills, which they consciously violate. I'm not saying that that makes the issue actionable, but trivialising it is an inappropriate response. – Raphael Oct 15 '15 at 10:39
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    @blankip I'm still part of the under-30 crowd, and this is not common behaviour among my peers. The fact that a group of a**holes has ages under 30 does not mean that their age is the main factor in them being such, nor that it is an excuse. – Raphael Oct 15 '15 at 17:35
37

There are two separate issues here: the first is that the students are saying abusive things about you in a Facebook group, and the other is the risk of introducing personal judgement in your grading.

The students' behaviour is inappropriate. I suggest that you bring the group to your professor's attention, and look through the student handbook/Code of Conduct and see what it says about how students should treat teaching staff. This seems like a clear violation. I would recommend two things should happen.

First, you should mention the website in your next recitation, or whenever you see the students next. Don't name anyone, just tell them that you found a Facebook group where students say hurtful things about you as a person. Tell them that you appreciate if they come to you with any constructive feedback, and that any other comments about your personality or appearance, are online harassment, which is illegal (in many jurisdictions).

Second, your professor should follow this up during the next class by having a short talk about appropriate behaviour in a professional environment. This discussion should again be very general, without naming anyone. He just needs to mention that adults give each other constructive feedback in person or over email, and keep negative comments about others' personalities and appearance to themselves. And, of course, that the school strongly disapproves of bullying and harassment over Facebook or other online communities.

If you're worried about the grading on the midterms, you can either ask your professor to grade those specific students' papers, or if you think you can grade them yourself, ask the professor to look over the grading of those specific students afterwards to make sure you're not being unnecessarily harsh.

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    +1, though I'll note that online harassment may not be illegal in the OP's jurisdiction. – jakebeal Oct 13 '15 at 16:38
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    i don't see how what the students are doing is any way "inappropriate" ... maybe rude, but it's well within their rights to talk about someone behind their back. that's just the way the world is. no one has the right to not be offended. they're not harrassing the TA, either—that's a ridiculous notion. it's a facebook group, not a private email directed at the TA. definitely don't bring it up in class. now THAT would be crass. – ell Oct 13 '15 at 20:59
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    @sgroves Really? You think it's appropriate for students to have a Facebook group with negative remarks about the TAs personality and appearance? A university is a workplace, for both the TA and the students. This would be inappropriate and lead to consequences with HR in any other workplace I know of. Standards should not be different in a university. – Johanna Oct 13 '15 at 21:47
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    @Johanna The students are well within their rights to speak negatively of the TA (or professor, or university president, or the US President even...). It is appropriate. You cannot go through life demanding nobody speak ill of you, simply because you cannot control what others think. Instead, you need to examine the criticisms and determine the root cause of them -- perhaps it's something you do and needs correction? In the end, if you decide the criticisms are just for criticism's sake -- ignore it and move on -- you will never make everyone like you. – SnakeDoc Oct 13 '15 at 22:51
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    @Johanna And, frankly, it's not harassment either. For it to be harassment, the behavior needs to be ongoing after you have requested it stop. And just to quell the rebuttal - you can't claim harassment if you go looking for someone who's speaking ill of you (searching facebook groups looking for someone who said something about you)... in fact, that very act could be viewed as stalking of the student! So, in the end, just grow a thick skin and move on. – SnakeDoc Oct 13 '15 at 22:55
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From the way you formulate your question it doesn't seem like your confidence has been shaken much by these insults. If this is true, I would recommend doing nothing at all. Nobody knows you have seen these insults, so you don't lose authority by not reacting to them. For the same reason, I see no problem with grading either, as long as you have the intention of staying objective (both ways!).

I see nothing good coming from a confrontation. They are grown-ups, you can assume they know ridiculing somebody's looks is wrong. Why should reminding them of that change anything?

However, if you can't take it so lightly and it interferes with your ability to teach, you should probably tell your professor (or someone you trust) about it, if only to establish the students' role in this. There is a strong sensibility about cyber-bullying at the moment (here in Germany, and I suspect in most other European countries). Maybe doing nothing is still the best course of action, but at least then you're not alone in this and if some other form of hostility occurs, you are in a better position to act.

13

I've had an unfortunate situation like this where the students accidentally invited me into the Facebook group. They were making fun of one of the instructors who recently had a stroke and was stuttering when he talked during lecture. It was very sad.

How to react or not to react really ?

First of all, do not take their insults seriously or let it affect you. Your job is to assist in teaching not manage their behavior. Unless they are being disruptive to you in class, ignore it. If you are offended by the comments, just forget about it and do your job.

It's important to remember that a lot of college students are like this and social media only makes it worse. College is not that different from high school/secondary school where your image and social standing is extremely important. Many people feel a sense of inflated self-worth by putting others down. Additionally, I have found many students are frustrated with the work in the class and often use social media to vent their feelings. If they are upset with their performance on the exam, the easiest way to feel better is to put someone else down. Sometimes the TA is the most convenient to blame because they do not have the same authority as the professor. It is unprofessional and wrong for their comments to venture into the territory of insults but it is going to happen whether or not you interfere. And in some cases interfering can just make the situation worse. Even if you get them to shut it down or stop, they could easily just make another private group and continue doing it anyways.

However, since the group is public and intended to help students interact it may be wise to interfere just to make that page open for those who actually want to learn and study in groups. Sometimes the students respect the professors more than the TA so this might be something you would want to ask your supervisor to get involved with.

Any suggestions in order to be objectif for evaluation of those students ? Because, I don't want to introduce any personal judgemental issue for those who insult when I grade midterms.

Once again, it's your job to be an objective grader. They aren't being graded on how they respect you but how well they know the material. If you want to be objective then hide the names when you grade or find a way to randomize the grading order.

Lastly, remember that the vocal minority often makes the most noise. The kind, respectful, and studious students are sometimes the quiet ones. Don't let the comments of a few rowdy ringleaders affect your ability to be a fantastic teacher.

6

In addition to the excellent suggestion already made to anonymize the exams you'll be grading:

If you are concerned that this might affect your personal or professional future, because they have used your full name, then the department should contact the moderator of the group. Either the group needs to be made private or your name needs to be removed.

Otherwise -- ignore it. Do not read it. People are so much ruder and more disrespectful online than in person. Just as you don't need to go poking your nose into your students' bathroom habits, you really don't need to be reading what they write to each other when they're letting off steam about school frustrations.

Now, if your students have limited opportunities to be active partners in their own education, that is something that needs to be remedied. (Example: course and instruction evaluations.)

5

Here's a suggestion about evaluation: Try to institute some mechanism in which you're not aware of who you're evaluating. With written exams this is usually pretty easy, just have people write their IDs rather than their names; and while you could theoretically figure the IDs out, that would require you actively want to discriminate. A stronger alternative would be a distribution of random tokens, with someone else holding the token-to-ID mapping so that when you grade you can't cheat and check who it was.

Of course, if there's an element of personal impression in your grading of people at the end of the semester - and this sometimes happen and is relevant - it's obviously more of a problem.

4

Just ignore it.

When you put energy into your tutorials, most students are going to recognize your effort and passion and the gift that that represents, and they will respect you for it.

If the criticism really affects you, try to remember that people often put others down because they feel small themselves. I don't think it's a good idea to engage with them about this issue or even to let them know that their comments have affected you enough to go to the professor. They might get the feeling of power they're looking for, which might make things worse for you going forward.

Ideally, you should be able to grade the midterms neutrally. If you can't do that, explain to the professor why you can't be neutral and ask her what she wants you to do.

Focus on your research, on your tutorials, and on the people and things that matter to you in your life.

3

I'm not sure what country you are in but my impression would be that it is not illegal, and probably not even against a student conduct code. That said it is rude and un-professional, but in life people are both of those things, especially undergrads.

I would take one of three approaches.

  1. Ignore it.

  2. Read what they are saying, ignore most of it but try to learn from it. (e.x. If they are saying " really smells" maybe consider taking a shower more often, or " is incompetent" realise that they probably mean something else like " is poorly prepared")

  3. Troll the shit out of them, it's a public group join it, I'm not a very creative when it comes to trolling but I'm sure some fun could be had.

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    Gotta be careful trolling as you don't want to break the law yourself. I could see myself responding "Yeah, so I don't look that great. Trade you fashion lessons for tutoring, because after that last 25% on your test, you are going to need it." – mikeazo Oct 13 '15 at 18:30
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    I downvoted this question because "trolling back" is, first, likely to escalate the situation. Second, not taking things personal and distancing themselves from the harassers is more likely to make the OP feel better than lowering themselves to the same level. Third, I find trolling immature and unprofessional, no matter who "started it". It sets a bad example. – henning Oct 13 '15 at 18:46
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    @henning I guess it depends on your definition of trolling I beleive that trolling can be done in a way that both teaches a lesson, provides humor and is reasonably professional. – Sam Oct 13 '15 at 18:52
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    "un-professional" Students aren't professionals. They're students. – David Richerby Oct 13 '15 at 23:24
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    By "troll them", the first thing I thought of was to post something agreeing with them, and talk in the 3rd person about yourself. Maybe share something extra that they would find amusing. - and suggest that you're going to bring these points to him(yourself) tomorrow so he(you) can act on this great feedback. This would probably scare the crap out of some of the loudest, but be amusing to the others - though I admit it isn't really "trolling" – DoubleDouble Oct 15 '15 at 22:14
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Being specific, in France, free speech stops where dignity starts. Public insult (and, an open facebook group is a public place) can be punished by a 12000 € fine.

Insult seems to be defined as (translation attempt) : any offensive speech, deliberately meant to hurt, by affecting honor and dignity.

Moreover, its position as teacher may worsen the legal classification.

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    I think that suing the students over this would probably be one of the worst options possible. (Another point: 12 000€ is the maximum fine, it's entirely possible to be condemned to a mere symbolic 1€ fine and maybe a written apology...) – user9646 Oct 14 '15 at 13:14
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    So you've "taught" them something (debatable). What is your reputation after that? – user9646 Oct 14 '15 at 13:28
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    @NajibIdrissi Your reputation is that of someone who doesn't let himself being trampled over. – fkraiem Oct 14 '15 at 13:32
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    @fkraiem Um, I'm not sure. I think your reputation would be that of someone who sues other people for insulting him/her. I'm relatively sure that after that, you can expect anonymous insult letters in the mail, and that students will continue to insult you behind your back, without leaving a paper trail but certainly more fiercely. I have no doubt that they will find ways to mess with you and for which you cannot retaliate. I am also not sure the university would be happy to be known as a university where instructors sue students for something that, after all, is relatively petty. – user9646 Oct 14 '15 at 13:35
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    Hurtful speech is illegal in France even if it's factually accurate? I am so very glad not to live there.... – Kyle Strand Oct 14 '15 at 16:25
2

I would ignore it. Many times people say negative things about others which are true, but not the whole truth. This is a form of self-expression (as opposed to the Platonic form of the good). Gripping about those in positions over you is the way its always been and the way it always will be. The alternative is to have an unhealthily close relationship to all of your students.

  • Also one can consider the identification of opposites. If they were nice to you, that would be a patronization and thus a disrespect. – gfjhjgfhj Oct 17 '15 at 15:05
1

Why don't you confront (in private) one or more of the more vocal students on the group, after making the professor aware of the situation, and suggest that:

  • They make the group private: you do not intend to restrict their ability to express themselves, but that if they wish to do so in such a pejorative manner, then it won't reflect well on either you or them to do so publicly
  • You welcome criticism, but prefer it is delivered more constructively: if they really do take issue with some aspects of your teaching, then you are much more likely to improve, and thereby improve their educational experience, if the criticism is directed to you rather than the Internet at large. Probably, it is worth organizing an informal mid-way TA evaluation (rather than just the typical end-of-term TA evaluation)---then you will see how authentic the complaints are?

In this way, you set a mature example (as suggested by Peter), you make the students aware of the inappropriateness of their behaviour in a non-condescending/non-righteous fashion (as achieved by escalating the situation, suggested by Johanna), and you potentially resolve (or at least cloak from your daily awareness) the underlying phenomenon.

  • 1
    maturity is overrated, especially in academia. I like school because I like the strange. – gfjhjgfhj Oct 17 '15 at 17:29
1

Any time you are being criticized, you have several options, including:

  • ignore it
  • deny it
  • evaluate it

The mature thing to do would be the third option. Why do students say these things? It is often said that "perception is reality" - that is, if these students say certain things about you, that reflects their impression / opinion of you at that moment in time.

Instead of getting angry or defensive, ask yourself: "what is it about me that makes them say these things? Do they have a point? If they do, am I willing to make a change?"

And then you can choose to do something about it - quite possibly in a way that demonstrates "I am going to make a change" to your students. For example, if the comment is about your worn-out (but comfortable) jacket, you might one day appear in a different jacket, and say "I heard that some people don't think my jacket is suitable for a TA; so I am putting it up for auction and donating the proceeds to charity X." With a bit of luck, the culprits will realize that you saw their comments, and maybe somebody will donate a small amount for the jacket. Situation defused, everybody wins.

Obviously what approach you might take depends on the kind of insult levied - but whatever it is, consider that they might have a point. The mature thing to do is to think it over.

"Listening is the art of hearing what somebody says, and
being willing to be changed by what you hear"

1

I agree with most comments here - just ignore it / laugh it off.

Or at least convince yourself and others that you are.

Once that is done, see if it does have any merit. Is it what could have been a constructive comment, disguised after having rolled in mud? If it read "his / her last lecture was so boring that my table slept off" - just laugh it off but see if you could make it more interesting next time. Or just ask the class for their suggestions (smilingly and not angrily), saying that you read that comment on fb.

It is interesting how good some inputs from students can be.

Or if the student just said it out of spite - well, ignore it and dont see their fb posts. Everyone has a right to express themselves on fb - do what politicians and media people do.

Lest it sound by now that I am preaching, trust me - I have also been there and felt that, and it can feel very bad. However....

Welcome to academics (at least the teaching part of it) - it does not pay much, but you do get the limelight / stage for a good hour or three every day :) - and while some students may like you, some don't (there may not even be a reason to it!) and the latter often do hurt by their astringent comments, written on fb with the bravado that accompanies all of us when we are young.

Remember - as a teacher (though we all are human) we are supposed to show that we are more mature than our students and hence are able to shrug these sort of comments off (no matter how badly they might sting inside)

Sometimes, it can even help to just vent it to the class - tell them you read blah blah and you did not like the comment. the student may not stop his / her action (they may even write more often as they now know that you are affected by it), but you sure will feel better (which is important). When they write next time, do any of the other above suggestions.

1

If the question is "what to do in reaction to something on social media", the best first-order approximation is "nothing".

Maybe it's the best second-order approx, too, because one might want to not make any decisions based on students' social-media activities.

Even to higher order: the students who'll do this have self-selected, so it's a highly biased sample of student attitude.

Etc.

And, of course, even if one accidentally discovers such stuff, one must attempt to ignore it in evaluating students' work. Easier said than done, obviously. But, also, obviously, kids do foolish things, to not imagine that "grown-ups" would ever be listening, would behave better if they did imagine that, and so on. Being a good teacher cannot possibly take all that into account.

I think the only feasible route for a conscientious teacher is to consider the immediate environment, while, yes, considering the palpable fact that kids/students exist in a broader environment, but that the latter is not within the teacher's power.

So, don't be crazily unrealistic, but, still, require something...

0
  1. Read what they are saying about you (if you have the time),
  2. See if there is anything useful to add to your things I want to improve about myself pile, and
  3. Discard the rest.
  4. Be happy you got genuine feedback (if there is anything useful there) and move on.

  • If they become aware that you know the group exists they'll just "move operations" somewhere else (possibly a private group). At least this way you have an idea of what others are saying/thinking about you.

  • Remember they're young and it's possible they're just venting their frustration about classes/life.

  • Alex Measday said the students could be affected by this when searching for jobs after graduation. Following from this, it's also possible it could affect you negatively. Say someone is searching for your name and finds the group. They might decide decide to stay away from you because of what they read. "They" could be a prospective employer. In this case you might want to do something about it: maybe use the reporting mechanism of the social network; still no need to let anyone know you are aware of the group's existence, and easily solved on your own without involving the university.

(Most of what I said has already been mentioned in previous answers, except perhaps for the last bullet point.)

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