Dissecting Trolls

Most readers of this blog probably know that in Internet parlance, a troll is a person, usually partly or completely anonymous, who posts off-topic and usually really vicious or mean comments. Karl Fisch tweeted yesterday about the depressing nature of the comments left on a recent Huffington Post article about his influential “Did You Know?” video. I responded that I created a writing assignment based on some poor argumentation I found in YouTube.

I was looking for videos to share with my Hero with a Thousand Faces course students, and the first video I came across was one in which Tolkien discusses how he began writing The Hobbit. Essentially, a poor argument (on both sides) has developed in the comments on that video that Star Wars is a ripoff of Tolkien’s work. I read through most of them, and while I don’t advocate actually responding to comments of this sort, I did find that the argument on both sides was essentially composed of a series of ad hominem attacks. Neither side offered any support for their argument, and I kept reading to see if someone—anyone—would mention that the similarities that exist can be attributed to the fact that both stories involve heroic journeys and can be analyzed using Joseph Campbell’s theories regarding the monomyth. No one said any such thing. My own students have already studied Star Wars. They are currently reading The Hobbit. I knew that any one of them could explain the similarities between the stories based on solid evidence, which is something the commenters on YouTube either can’t or won’t do.

I created a writing assignment based on this idea, and I have full confidence that my students will be able to argue their points better than Internet trolls, but I cautioned them not to actually try it. Real Internet trolls don’t listen to reason. Or much of anything really.

8 thoughts on “Dissecting Trolls”

  1. Hi, Dana,

    What an interesting argumentation assignment. It reminds me of something Jeff Wilhelm said at NCTE: "The only resource you have to teach your kids something new is what they already know." Certainly my students know commenting and you've shown me how I can make commenting the bridge to teaching students argument and fallacies. Thank you!

    1. My pleasure, Lee Ann. It just struck me as I looked at the comments that these students had learned all about ethos, logos, and pathos, and were capable of making much better arguments than the ones I was reading.

  2. Hi,

    That is so interesting. I just watched a show on the history channel that uses Campbell to dissect Star Wars. I did a quest project last year that involved my kids learning about the Hero's journey and then creating our own hero stories. We read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Araby as our literary examples and watched The Goonies as our visual example. The kids just loved it. I really like that assignment idea. I haven't read The Hobbit in years…

  3. Dana,

    That sounds like a great lesson plan, and yes, I bet your students could do better. One thing: the assignment on scribd that you posted seems to be password-locked.

  4. Thanks, Dana. I just showed these videos at a Web 2.0 conference for novices (of which I am a member!), and I created a wiki for the conferences for the members, and not one has ventured on to join! You are still my online mentor!

    1. I wouldn't worry overmuch about folks not joining the wiki. The same thing happens to me when I make wikis for conferences (GISA and GCTE). Happy holidays, Jan.

  5. I was taking a wait-and-see approach before commenting, but if you've visited the YouTube video I linked, you may have noticed that the argument about Star Wars has largely stopped. A student of mine couldn't stand it and left a comment apprising the other YouTube commenters of Joseph Campbell's research, and the commenters promptly began arguing about whether or not Tolkien's speech is intelligible.

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