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:
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.
I 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.