On August 28, as the fall semester began, one student in Cleveland shared a remarkable story.
Her instructor in an online class, she wrote, had shown up on the first day expecting a room full of students. Taken aback, the instructor sent an angry email chastising them for failing to show up.
"Disappointed," read the subject line. "If this is how you will all act the entire semester, feel free to drop my course," read the email, in a screenshot on an iPhone.
About 15 minutes later, the professor apparently realized the error and sent a second email: subject line, "I’m sorry."
"I’m not a jerk, I promise," the second email read. "Please forgive me, class."
The student posted screenshots of the dual emails with the addresses blacked out, tweeted the images, and hundreds of thousands of people, myself included, guffawed.
My professor for my online class was mad when nobody showed up for the first day, then realized it was an online class pic.twitter.com/QAFlG8jFwj— Lauren (@laurenclairee6) August 28, 2017
It seemed too good to be true.
Curious, I persuaded my editors to let me investigate the origins of the message.
My research shows that the story described by the student almost certainly never happened.
Messages via Twitter, Facebook, email, a phone call, and texts to a phone number associated with the student went unreturned.
Here’s how I figured it out.
I came upon the messages on Tuesday while stress-scrolling through Twitter when I was on deadline for another assignment. The humor eased my nerves for a minute, and I posted to the newsroom Slack for everyone to enjoy. I then sent a message to the student on Twitter, asking for an interview. I received no response (hardly out of the ordinary — about 80 percent of my job is people ignoring me).
Scrolling through the student’s Twitter account, I eventually came across her real name, plugged it into Facebook, and found a profile with the same photo used in the Twitter account.
Convinced that this was the student, I sent her a Facebook message. On her profile, I saw she attended Cuyahoga Community College, though Baldwin Wallace University was also listed under her education information. That information has since been removed from her profile.
My first call was to Cuyahoga. There John Horton, a spokesman, confirmed that the college had a student by the name of the one featured on the Facebook profile. I also called Baldwin Wallace, which said a student by that name had applied there but hadn’t matriculated.
Mr. Horton, a former journalist who shared my interest in the story, said staff members reviewed the campus email system and found no record of a professor’s sending the above messages. That seemed significant, though it’s possible (if unlikely) that the email was sent using a personal email address.
Mr. Horton also said he reached out to the student’s professors, all of whom denied haplessly mistaking an online course for an in-person one.
Curious about whether it was possible for an instructor to associate a specific classroom location with his or her online class, I asked Mr. Horton for details on how courses are assigned to instructors. He provided a statement explaining that instructors have to receive special training and certification to teach an online course. And he described the way such classes are scheduled.
"When instructors receive their teaching schedule, an online course is designated with a ‘D’ at the end of the course number to identify it as a distance learning course. No room would be assigned for an online class," the statement read. "Given all of that, it is highly unlikely that an online class instructor at the college would mistakenly go to a classroom and wait for students to arrive."
The Most Dubious Detail
The student’s account seemed to be unraveling. Conveniently, it seemed, only she could answer many of my questions. In my experience, professors almost always have a signature block at the end of their emails. This one didn’t. The blocking out of the email addresses was ostensibly to protect the instructor from embarrassment, but it also conveniently prevents anyone from verifying the address.
The most dubious detail, which led me to conclude that the story was false beyond a reasonable doubt, is the timing. The time stamp shows the instructor’s emails arriving in the student’s inbox at 10:34 a.m. and 10:49 a.m. The clock shows corresponding times of 10:35 a.m. and 10:50 a.m., respectively.
The tweet was sent at 10:51 a.m.
For readers familiar with Twitter, that should raise alarm bells. The tweet would have you believe that the student received the second email, took a screenshot of it and the first one, placed the black blobs on the photo, drafted some language, and then sent the message out in no more than 2 minutes and 59 seconds (at most, but probably less).
There’s not a lot of room for error there, and it leaves little to no time for the student to react to the turn of events like a normal human being — say, by laughing to herself, telling a friend about it, or coming up with the idea to tweet it.
But we wanted to test my theory, so we enlisted the newsroom’s fastest tweeter, Adam Harris, as a guinea pig.
We sent Adam two emails identical to the ones tweeted by the student and asked him to compose an identical tweet as fast as possible. It took him a minute and 38 seconds to take the screenshots, upload them to Twitter, edit the photos, and type the tweet.
Adam knew the emails were coming and had explicit instructions. It stands to reason that, if the student’s story were authentic, it would have taken her significantly longer to compose and send the tweet — probably far beyond 2 minutes and 59 seconds.
I reached out via email to John Patrick Leary, an associate professor of English at Wayne State University, whose retweet had brought the item to my attention. I asked what he thought when he first spotted it.
He said he felt sympathy for both the professor and student, and a sense of self-identification with the professor. When I told him that I had concluded it was probably faked, he said he felt betrayed. Thinking about in retrospect, he added, it’s odd: If the class were online, how would the professor know which classroom to go to?
"So it’s less funny," he wrote. "But even as a fiction it still articulates a nightmare lurking in my head at the beginning of every term, that I will do something like this (write a syllabus for a class I’m actually teaching NEXT semester, prepare for the wrong class on the wrong day, etc.)."