Students say the darndest things!


Oftentimes, professors make sport of sharing humorously incorrect exam answers. I’ve seen a bunch of these during this end-of-semester grading season.

When students don’t know the answer, they sometimes entertain us with witty, technically correct answers that don’t answer the intended question. (There’s a well-selling book about this. And at least one website, too). But that’s not what I’m talking about.

More often, students flat out just write things on exams that go counter to everything we’ve been teaching. Often these trespasses are laced with poor spelling and grammatical errors. In these cases, it’s evidence of failure (of our students and ourselves as teachers). Sometimes our students are just so mistaken and messed up that what they write is tragically funny. It’s gallows humor.

What’s the harm in sharing the errors that our students make as long as we do it anonymously?

I sent the question to the ether of social media. Here’s how students responded, which reflects the overall discussion on twitter:

Among folks I know on Facebook, the prevailing opinion was different.

As for myself, I’m trying to apply the Golden Rule. Thinking back to when I was an undergrad, I would have been really pissed off if my professors if I knew that my professors were using my errors for giggles. And some of them probably were.

Does it matter whether or not the students are aware of it? If you disrespect someone privately does it matter if they are unaware? I try my best to not share opinions or information about someone that I wouldn’t regret if they found out about it. I’ve been critical of certain people and actions at times, but when I do this, I am prepared for the notion that they’d hear about it.

I wouldn’t ever want my students to think that I’m making fun of their mistakes. The way I go about it is to not make fun of their mistakes.

I know my opinion isn’t unique. Here’s Dezene Huber’s opinion that happens to encapsulate mine pretty well:

And if you’re more practical about it, then there is this to consider:

A couple people have pointed out that if students effectively do the same to us, but more publicly and without anonymizing us, with Rate My Professors. So it’s not wrong if we do it anonymously? I like Kenneth Fortino’s response:

Yeah, some students treat us horribly. But I’ll be the first to unilaterally disarm and show respect even when it isn’t merited. I am the professional educator. People can talk smack about their doctors and their lawyers, but doctors and lawyers don’t post insulting things about their clients on Facebook. (Some do in private gatherings, I imagine.) I don’t partake in this reverie because I want to act professionally, and in my opinion, sharing student screwups as entertainment on Facebook isn’t suited to the profession of professoring.

I realize I just shared a judgey opinion. I confess to harboring other opinions too, and I do my best to not let this get in the way of normal interactions with people who disagree with me. (For example, I think it’s immoral to eat factory-raised vertebrates. But nearly everybody around me does it all of the time, and yes, I find this behavior to be wrong. But I get along with folks just fine. So, I’m hoping that this opinion about faculty-student relations doesn’t get me in hot water with colleagues and friends.)

As far as I have seen, this genre of humor only happens at the university level among grad students and professors in the United States. I’ve had a variety of Australian and Canadian colleagues express that this ranges from unprofessional to disrespectful to unethical, whereas many of my US colleagues seem to be fine with it. Based on the number of people involved from various places, I don’t think it’s a result of poor sample size. This thing is okay with US scientists but not so much outside the US. Why the distinction?

Here’s a working hypothesis: education isn’t taken seriously as a profession in the United States compared to other places. Heck, even the US Department of Education recognizes that teachers aren’t recognized as professionals and sees this as a problem. This problem extends into higher education, in which undergrads are no longer the raison d’etre of a university, but merely are the source of funding. As undergraduate learning has evolved to be the by-product of a university, then the respect that is required for effective teaching is now optional.

UndergradsAreI visited google and searched “undergrads are.” Go ahead and try it for “professors are.” We’ve got a major deficit of respect on both sides.

One US professor shared, “As long as it remains anonymous, they really don’t care where it gets posted… I don’t post things to be mean. I post things because being an educator is a ridiculously hard job and we all need to stay amused.”

It’s so smarmy-jargony when professorly people say, “Let’s unpack that statement.” So I won’t say it, without putting it in quotation marks. But I’ll spend this long paragraph trying to make sense of that previous quote. Many professors, including me, see that a lot of students don’t take their education seriously. Some student don’t try as hard as they should, and some who do try don’t have adequate skills for studying, communicating, or thinking critically. So, it’s no surprise that a bunch of dumb stuff appears on exams, some of which are genuinely funny. Likewise, a bunch of students disrespect faculty in a grand variety of ways. The university provides the same rewards to the faculty who teach barely adequately and to those who teach really well. Investing time into high quality teaching typically creates more professional difficulties than opportunities, as long as most of the students are pleased then you should be good to go. And nobody at all bothers to spend any time or money to actually evaluate whether a professor is teaching effectively. Teaching in a US in a university is not only ridiculously hard, but also — outside the classroom — a thankless task which isn’t valued by our peers, bosses, or society. (Okay, I think I’m done “unpacking.”)

If teaching isn’t considered to be a professional activity, then sharing stupid things that students write can’t be considered unprofessional.

Because we have so many students who don’t learn what we intend for them to learn during the semester, when the exam produces tragically comical evidence of this fact, then sharing these failures on social media can seem like a reasonable outlet.

In my opinion (founded on my experiences and observations), the biggest thing that gets in the way of effective university teaching is a lack of respect for students on the part of the instructors. When I’ve had a not-so-good semester, it has been caused by my failure to respect students on account annoying behavior and entitlement. When I’ve had a really good semester, it’s when I respect the students, and my respect for them shows in both my effort and my demeanor.

When students that I am advising volunteer gripes about other classes, they typically start with, “He doesn’t even like us,” or “You can tell that she doesn’t want to be there,” or “He doesn’t even care if I do well.” Students can tell when you don’t respect them. And they’re a lot less likely to care about learning as a result. Maybe college shouldn’t be that way, maybe people should be that way, but that’s the way it is. The first ingredient in getting our students to learn is to show them respect and do what we can to earn it. Even when they sometimes deceive us with dead relatives, academic misconduct and a lack of effort.

I have the fortune of working in a university that is (relatively) inexpensive, with most of the student body that is under-entitled. This presents different teaching challenges than over-entitled attitudes that prevail in expensive private universities, but also makes it really easy to respect the students. I’m not in a position to evaluate their choices. I only am evaluating how well they’ve met the expected learning outcomes. I wouldn’t want my profs to share my screwups behind my back, so I’m doing the same courtesy for my students.

9 thoughts on “Students say the darndest things!

  1. Thanks for an interesting post. Quite frankly, I would be extremely surprised if this was something that was more prevalent in the US than elsewhere. I think it has more to do with the individual than with nationality. Some people are simply less sensitive and caring than others.
    I am sure I have shared something funny a student has written, but never something that would be embarrasing, I hope (the caveat because we all make bad judgment calls from time to time). The students that write something humorous on purpose when they don’t know the answer I reward, because it breaks the monotony of marking. The ones that simply struggle and write something because they don’t understand, I try to help. That is my job. I am far from perfect as an instructor, but my key philosophy is that if a student fails, then I have failed. The greatest reward for me as an instructor is to see a struggling student turn it around. The perpetual A+ students would make it in any situation, so while they are a pleasure to have in a class, they don’t necessarily reflect on the instructors .

  2. “As far as I have seen, this genre of humor only happens at the university level among grad students and professors in the United States.”

    I saw this in Canada, too. It’s not unique, or even unusual, to the U.S.

  3. I agree with you on the larger issue, though I’m dubious about your working hypothesis for why it happens (I’ve heard enough stories from people who work in medical fields to think that similar gallows humor happens amongst medical folk talking about patients).

    It’s weird to me that so many people don’t understand the power dynamic here. Students talking smack about professors is not like professors talking smack about students, because professors have power over students. Which is not to say that it’s great when students are disrespectful of professors, it just isn’t the same as the other way around. But people with power in a given context seem to be generally bad at understanding the power dynamics in that context, so I guess it’s not too surprising.

    It’s an easy temptation to give into, though. I like to think I’m pretty good about this, but it occurs to me that during the term project/final grading meeting for the class that I TAed for, there were times when I was less respectful than I should have been while referencing a couple of groups’ projects in discussions with the other TA and the prof – not mocking them in quite the way you’re talking about, and also not in a public or semi-public forum like Facebook for the amusement of people not staffing that particular course, but not respectful of them either. So that is something to think about and try not to do again.

    • I’m on facebook with a bunch of doctors and nurses. None of them share equivalent anecdotes on facebook. I don’t have complete information and as always am glad when data can help me learn.

  4. I try not to engage in this either. I am so far out of the gossip loop everywhere that it’s ridiculous. When I was a summer camp counselor, the counselors would trade stories about their days and what certain kids did that day that was goofy/ridiculous/disrespectful, and sometimes we laughed, but it never felt like judging, more like colleagues comparing notes and trading ideas about how best to get through to one of the kids (through learning what didn’t work that day as much as what did). I can’t say none of the disrespectfulness went on, but we really did try to keep it to a minimum. And I imagine it’s the same in an academic department; but it shouldn’t go beyond there.

    The only way I can see it being OK to share a bad answer or a funny answer is if you ask the student if you can use it (and perhaps keep in anonymous if requested) to highlight a misconception that many students had or a question a lot of them got hung up on. And even then, that doesn’t mean share it on Twitter.

    To your larger point about teaching not being considered a ‘profressional’ field or respected…I find that sad. A hallmark of our species is our ability to learn and transmit information between one another’s brains…and some teachers, help facilitate that process more than others. It’s important. Other countries seem to get that. I think there are places that have reality TV shows where tutors compete to be the ‘best’ tutor in the competition to win fabulous cash prizes or whatever. I can’t see that happening in the US.

  5. Terry, curious if your feelings change if what’s being shared is not a student’s amusingly (to the prof) incorrect answer on an exam or something, but rather behavior that’s inappropriate in some way. I’m thinking for instance of a student just flat-out asking to have their grade raised, for some laughable reason like “I’m premed” or “I’ve never gotten a C before” or “My dad paid for this building” or etc.

    I ask as someone who shares your discomfort with publicly sharing amusingly-bad exam answers and the like, and who believes in the importance of respecting students. But arguably, some behaviors deserve disrespect, or at least aren’t entitled to any expectation of respect.

    Against that, one could argue that respecting your students means respecting them even when they don’t deserve it, or at least respecting them up until they do something way more egregious than just having the cheek to ask you to raise their mark. So that if as an instructor you need to vent (or laugh) about something your students have said or done, you only do it in private, because anything else would be disrespectful.

  6. I don’t think it’s necessarily horrible or too disrespectful to share in conversation outrageous things that students say in asking for an unwarranted grade change.

    I’ve seen in comments in various places that these comments are shared to vent frustrations and to seek an outlet. This makes sense, especially if our role as teaching is the not-professional part of the job. We are trained as researchers, and when we receive disastrous manuscripts to review that are submitted by junior scientists who have received inadequate support from their labs, we don’t make fun of these scientists or vent about it, but we express concern about them. Or at least we should.

    I don’t tend to post on facebook or other social media about grade-grubbing effort by my students. There are lots of things that we have to do as part of our job, and dealing with inexperienced students who may attempt to manipulate us is a part of the job. I don’t find it frustrating anymore. It’s just a fact of life. I’ve noticed that these kinds of anecdotes tend to be shared by people who are relatively new to teaching full loads (I don’t see it in tenured people) and they’re not as accustomed to dealing with undergraduates in lecture courses. I imagine once we experience the gamut of entitlement, more interesting aspects of the job might emerge and the annoyances of entitled students becomes part of the background rather than a big frustrating part of the job.

    So really, when I see these kinds of vents, I just get a little concerned about my friends/colleagues that they’re not enjoying the job as much as they could, and hope that they will get to a place of experience where instead of seeing the students as a source of frustration, they’l choose to see a set of people who are still learning how to navigate their way through life and don’t yet know how to successfully interact with people and don’t know the boundaries of their ability to manipulate others.

  7. Hi Terry,

    Yes, it’s also my impression that frustration with grade grubbing is more common in junior faculty. Though I’m still more frustrated by it than most of my senior colleagues.

    Getting less frustrated by grade grubbing isn’t an unmitigated good, since I think many experienced people are no longer bothered by grade grubbing because they are no longer all that emotionally invested in the students as a whole. They don’t care that much any more if students grade grub–and also don’t care as much as they used to about, say, the overall performance of the students. There are many exceptions, obviously; just an anecdotal impression.

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