A cartoon of a girl getting her pigtails pulled by two boys

When real people get mean–in cyberspace

We’re all prone to bouts of anger, fits of ill temper, and nasty comments we wish we would have held in. And we’ve all been on the receiving end. Depending on our profession–and the people we surround ourselves with–some of us receive more negativity than others. If there were a “Bad sh@t I’ve had to deal with” scale, my experiences would probably rate about average for my demographic.

The other day, I had a conversation with my coworker, Brenda*, about cyber-bullying. She thought that people were meaner online than they would be in person. I disagreed: I’ve known some people who can be pretty vitriolic without a computer screen as a barrier. I also think that it probably hurts a little less when someone lashes out at you electronically. Then Brenda shared a recent experience she had, which was online–and extremely hurtful.

First, let me give you some background. Brenda teaches “adult enrichment” psychology classes at a community college. Her department is separate from the rest of the college, which means the teachers get lower pay and aren’t represented by the part-time teachers’ union. Basically, Brenda’s been getting paid between $8-$12/hour to teach, once she factors in all her administrative and prep time. Not much, right? To boot, the department sends out contracts about three-four months in advance, but often cancel teachers’ classes with only a week’s notice. That means that, if you’re a good employee, you clear your calendar months in advance yet often find no class to teach. One semester, every single one of Brenda’s classes was canceled.

In spite of the lack of pay and regular class cancellations, Brenda has remained a good employee. She always shows up on time, she prepares for her classes, and her students have given her positive feedback overall, many sending her personal emails to thank her. Has the “adult enrichment” department ever thanked her? Nope. Not so much as an email or a card over the holidays saying, “Thanks for doing that thing a school is intended to do: educate people.”

So, getting back to the meanness. After a year of teaching, Brenda got an email saying her upcoming spring semester class was a “go.” There were many sections of the email bolded and highlighted–in not just one, but two colors–but it got the point across: next week she was to teach a class. Maybe because there was so much going on in the email–or because Brenda had a lot on her mind other than this class, she missed this:

You are required to confirm receipt of this electronic go packet within 2 days of its being sent.

Brenda received a second email with the subject line “overdue confirmation!!” four days later. This she responded to:

Hi F—–,

So sorry! I did not know I had to reply. Yes, I will be there to teach it.



The administrative assistant who had sent the email replied back:

OK, thanks.  Yes, ALL go packet emails contain a paragraph that says you must respond within 2 days.  Also, please remember to get your completed attendance sheet back to me by the date stated in the go email…

You are required to confirm receipt of this electronic go packet within 2 days of its being sent.  Please reply to this email or call me at:——  or ———

Please return the completed attendance sheet to me no later than 5/16.

Have a great class!


Normal enough. Even kind of nice. When Brenda showed up Monday to teach her class, someone from the adult enrichment department popped her head in to make sure all the classroom equipment was working. In Brenda’s opinion, the class went great. Then, the next morning, she got an email from the same administrative assistant with the dean and another person from the department CC’ed:

After multiple emails and no response, I would like to know if anyone heard whether Brenda showed up to teach her class last night?  I should not have to send multiple emails and have K— make phone calls as well. K—-, were you able to reach her yesterday?


Image courtesy of Wikimedia
Image courtesy of Wikimedia

Brenda was shaken. What could be this administrative assistant’s intent? Was she trying to get Brenda fired, or was she just forgetful? And why did she have to CC the dean? Wouldn’t it have been easier–and a lot less hurtful–to ask the person who had popped her head into the classroom if she’d seen Brenda teaching the previous night?

After taking  a few moments to process her feelings, Brenda hit “reply all”:

Hi F——-,

We corresponded last Friday regarding the class, and I confirmed that I would teach it. You replied. I just forwarded you the email exchange from my other account.



An hour went by, and she got no response. Did the department think it was OK to address teachers this way? Teachers who had always been responsible, though they never got raises and were never acknowledged by the college? Thinking that this administrative assistant might have sent other emails implicating her as a bad employee that she wasn’t CC’ed on, Brenda decided to “reply all” a second time:

F—-, K—–, and C——,

I would also like to point out that, after teaching in this department for a year, I have never missed a class due to illness, incompetence, or any other reason. I have had multiple classes canceled on me with only a week’s notice though I signed the class contract months in advance committing to keep my schedule clear for those dates.

The implication that I would not show up to teach a class after demonstrating so clearly to the contrary is hurtful to me. Particularly after committing to this class via contract last year and emailing last week to confirm I would be there.



Finally, one of the members of the department responded:

Hi Brenda,

There’s no intention here to cast aspersions on character, and I’m sorry if there was a misunderstanding.  We do occasionally have no-shows, and we have even had an instructor pass away a few days before a class began.  F—-’s follow-up is simply our best attempt to avoid problems.  Thanks for understanding.

No intention of “casting aspersions”? Really? Then why jump to the conclusion that Brenda had not shown up to her class? 

Hi K——,

I guess I am confused as to why my follow-up to F—-’s  follow-up was not noted. I clearly replied to her last week.

Take care,


This spurred the administrative assistant to reply with something akin to an apology:

OK, I see that now.  I guess I am going to have to stop emailing to instructor’s personal accounts and just use their school emails as required by the school…..it gets too confusing.

So, yes, we are good.  You did respond to my second email request for confirmation.  Sorry.


Oh, we’re “all good,” are we? Brenda wasn’t feeling “all good.” She felt like crap. For her, the final nail in the coffin of being an underpaid adjunct was having to read emails like this–and then be told that she was over-reacting to them. Note that the dean never responded. Maybe she saw it as below her to reply, though her administrative assistant, who apparently went unreprimanded, sent out the offending email.

Since I’ve never met F—–, the administrative assistant, I don’t know that she wouldn’t have said this to Brenda in person. I guess I’ll just have to wonder if she’s meaner in cyberspace than she is in real life.


*Not her real name


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