The incident that prompted the series of posts on this thread concerned one of the most complicated teaching challenges of my long career. I have shared with a few friends and colleagues the specifics of that problematic part of the semester, but remain convinced that writing about it on a public blog is the wrong thing to do.
My colleague, Cara Diaconoff, weighs in, extending the conversation beyond the confines of social media, considering another of the many ways we discuss our students.
I’ve been interested to read the exchange about the ethics of mocking students and their work on social-media outlets. But what about mocking students behind their backs? Recently while conferring about final grades in an intro creative writing class I’m teaching as part of a team, this question came up.
A student from a wealthy background had written a prose poem about his first experience (at 8 years old) of smoking pot, which came to him courtesy of an older brother who, ten years later, would die of a cocaine overdose. The poem was, to put it nicely, awkwardly written, comparing the shed in which the kids were gathered to “ghetto huts” in “deepest Africa.” My colleagues roared at the badness of the phrasing and the incongruity of the image. But I remembered a candid and thoughtful essay the same student had written about the same topic, and I piped up that I thought it was arrogant of us to laugh at his attempt to express something heartfelt by means of an assigned poetry exercise. A heated discussion ensued.
The colleague who had laughed the hardest argued that if we restrained ourselves from being able to find humor in students’ bad writing, it was actually doing students a disservice in the long run, because our ability to find humor in it was so closely allied to our holding to high critical standards—standards that editors hold as well. Indeed, one underlying assumption of his remark was that one goal of an introductory creative-writing course ought to be to have students aim to publish their work—an assumption I don’t share. In the interests of personal and professional harmony, however, I eventually stood down.
The question continues to swirl in mind, though. Is being able to laugh at the students actually a way of taking them most seriously? As a writing teacher, I had thought one thing I had learned over the years is that you can never be too kind. I want to believe that even those who want to publish their work can learn just as much from a teacher who uses less blunt methods of evaluation—or who doesn’t even always think only in terms of evaluation—and who is willing, from time to time, to openly question her own assumptions about what qualifies as good and bad writing.
Full disclosure: I was a participant in the discussion that Cara recounts. I remain impressed by the level of passion that each of us felt about this subject, and, yes, we agreed to disagree. For my part, I am left with my awareness that as a comic writers I know that satire and mockery are kissing cousins. It’s a risk I take each time I tell a story. And as a writer who also teaches–as a member of family–I know how easily good-humored laughter can become derisive. I remain on the side where it all comes down to intentions.
Click on the link to the left to read comments.
Let us concede, then, our shared contempt for haters, those trolls we all know who for whatever reason get off on derision and ridicule. I must also concede, however, the honorable intentions of many who do write about their students publicly, including sharing their frailties and foibles.
If you’re old enough to recognize the photo above, than you’ll also know that as a regular feature of his long-running daytime TV show, Art Linkletter had a segment with the same title as this post. He’d park four of five cuties on stools and ask them questions. We, the loyal audience, giggled at their malapropisms, their lack of filters, their naïve misconceptions about almost everything. The producers liked to bring in first graders, because mispronouncing Massachusetts is even funnier if you don’t have front teeth. Cuties on stools was also a regular feature on Candid Camera, and Bill Cosby included them as part of his (non scripted) TV shows back in the day. Today, Jay Leno and Ellen keep the tradition alive.
Obviously, there’s a differences between a casual interview for entertainment purposes—where all parties have agreed to the transaction (the validity of six-year-old “consent” notwithstanding)—and teacher-selected, Facebook-posted syntax fails. But I would argue that some teachers who post those gnarly sentences share similar intentions with the programmers. Kids can are cute and funny, sometimes unintentionally so. Laughter is a good thing.
Or, others might argue: like everyone on TV, some people just like to draw attention.
Randall tells you how he found his way to this conversation, and then, in the compassionate voice that is the hallmark of good teaching, delineates his own boundaries.
It began, as so many things do in this world, with my status on Facebook:
I rarely, if ever, see FB posts from students complaining about their
instructors and their ridiculous assignments and random grading systems.
But post after post from instructors complaining about students, grading,
the horrible writing. I think it’s really, really unprofessional.
That led me, in a roundabout way, here to expound a bit on that idea.
Teaching, for me, is indeed heartbreaking, not because students fail to
rise to my expectations, but because of my failure to rise to theirs. Too
many times, I’ve discouraged instead of motivated, hurt rather than
helped, pontificated instead of listened. One reason I myself don’t
complain about students on FB is because I feel that I’ve failed them
enough throughout the semester when I wasn’t even trying to; a complaining
FB post seems like some final failure–a conscious, purposeful one.
Of course, the blame for students not rising to expectations doesn’t fall
entirely on the teacher. I get that. I also get that the expectations are
mine, artificial and subjective, arising sometimes from places within me
that aren’t necessarily full of light and love. And it is easy for me to
take it personally when students seem to ignore all that I’ve given them,
all the wisdom I’ve bestowed, the countless hours of grading and
preparation, when I seem to care more about their writing and performance
than they do. It hurts. I wonder if that hurt might send someone to FB to
share it; we all respond in different ways to such hurt. “You don’t matter,”
students’ work that appears to ignore my instruction might be saying to
me. I feel at times (sadly) that desire to fight back, to say I do matter.
I’m afraid a FB post might come from that place, that hurt and angry
place, and that’s also a reason for me not to post it.
If part of the punishment for errors, for not meeting expectations, is the
teacher-written FB post, then I’d play it safe. I wouldn’t risk a thing.
I’d follow the rules to avoid that kind of punishment. In the animal
world, when a dog is trapped and shocked, it will eventually stop looking
for escapes; but even more shocking (I think), is that, shown an escape,
the dog won’t take the “out,” but will lie on the floor, shock after
shock. Learned helplessness. Our students are trapped in our classes,
trapped with us. To me, the FB post might be that shock that teaches them
to lie there and take it. (Is there a part of me that wants that kind of
obedience?) Another reason for me to keep that FB post to myself.
In fourth grade, the teacher asked me to come up to the front of the room.
Was I going to get noticed finally? Was someone going to see something
within me that I thought only I could sense? She announced that this was
the reason we weren’t winning any handwriting awards. I still remember it
(clearly) and it still hurts. Imagine a student hearing that a teacher has
posted something about the class; imagine that expectation, that hope,
that desire to find within that post some shining, kind, sensitive vision
of himself or herself. Imagine finding out that the teacher instead views
each students’ writing as a mountain of work, as something to get through,
a sign of a generation’s idiocy, as something to post on FB, for the world
to see, comment upon, like.
What are your boundaries?
Comment below and click on the link to the left to read other’s comments.
I was surprised this week at the responses to a friend’s facebook post about college teachers anonymously quoting, and making fun of, on the internet, “amusing” mistakes from student papers. My friend, correctly, identified this practice as an ethical lapse. What surprised me was not that people do it, but that anyone would try to defend it once their error was pointed out to them, as some commenters did on the thread in question. Quoting student papers on social media without the student’s permission is unprofessional and wrong. Even if you’re praising the work, it’s wrong, but it is far worse when you’re making fun of it. I’d like to make a case for this, focused on the teaching of writing, which is the only kind of teaching I’ve done.
Lennon goes onto advise us not to do anything we wouldn’t want our therapists to do. Read the rest of the post here, and while you are there, visit the rest of his website. And if you haven’t read his fiction, do yourself a favor and check it out. Pieces for the Left Hand is my favorite.
A wonderful comment on an earlier post talked about the importance of empathy. I responded with an acknowledgement of empathy’s sometimes nemesis: frustration. Here’s Carla Baku reminding us that perhaps these are “inside” conversations. Ones that just happen to take place in a public venue.
I really haven’t seen a lot of public posts that I find troubling. Perhaps that’s a function of the sites I access; I’m primarily reading things written by people I know, and the teachers in my circle of acquaintance are dedicated and committed to their students’ best interests. If, on occasion, they write about particular teaching frustrations, I guess I automatically ascribe good intentions to their writing.If I saw public posts that went for the jugular and seemed to have a genuinely unkind intent, I’d be uncomfortable. And, obviously, if a student could be identified in the writing, that would be unconscionable.One thing I now understand about teaching that never occurred to me when I was a student, is how outnumbered a teacher can feel in the classroom! When I read the stories of other teachers, I have that feeling of aahhh….someone else gets it. I sense my cohort out there behind the words.
The composition of the road to hell aside, is it possible we can tell some of those stories with a good intention? For example, I admired David’s blog post about a cheating student. At the risk of sounding callous: it seems that for every student who struggles due to learning differences or other personal challenges, there is at least one student who flounders because–despite every advantage–he or she is lazy, cocky, indifferent, or oblivious. I’m not suggesting they’re fair game, but they are the ones who, for better or worse, impel me to tell tales.
Click on the link to the left see any comments left on this post.
Among other unfortunate meanings, deuce, for a while at least, was the term for what happened to a colleague when the administration didn’t care for what was written on a blog. Needless to say the 1st Amendment lovers in academia find plenty of reasons besides your writing to explain why your services are no longer required. And the adjunct status of this teacher meant ties to the university were tenuous at best. “Thank you for your all you’ve done for us, we’ve got five more just like you standing in line for this job, don’t let the screen door…”
Here’s Carla Baku:
I have written about teaching frustrations. Why? In part, for the same reason that any of us talk about frustrations at work—to vent a little, perhaps to get a validating virtual pat on the back. The primary reason, though, if I really examine my motives, is this: I’m a storyteller, and some of the things I read in student essays make really good stories.
A while back, at the end of a post I wrote a “teaser,” promising to tell the story of an incident in one of my undergraduate classes. I made a number of false starts before abandoning the post, initially because the complexities of the episode made it daunting to distill into a blog post, or even a series of them.
Another druggy story, and I confess that they chafe at me–for some reason even more so than the other common undergraduate greatest hits: the bad relationship, the teen vampire, the travails of the hero of the high fantasy quest.