As a professor, I have a lot of educator friends. And the vast majority of the time, they are teachers I deeply admire, thinkers and writers I respect, citizens of the world I would like to emulate.
But come the end of the semester, I start seeing all over my Facebook page, and on the blogs and pages of friends of friends, and in the comments sections of academic blogs written by people I don't even know, something that drives me crazy: "funny" quotations from student papers.
Someone will write something like this:
I learn something new every day. Today it was that "Shakespeare and his Mid Evil contemporaries had to be very careful about what kind of political references they put in their plays, because if the queen didn't like what they wrote about her government, it was 'Off with their heads!'"*And the comments section will be full of people who find it hilarious that the student in question, after a full semester of a Shakespeare class, still confuses the Renaissance with the Medieval period. And apparently thinks that Medieval comes between the Early Evil and Late Evil periods. And is quite happy to create a mash up of Queen Elizabeth I and the Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland.
And the commenters will quickly become jumpers on the band-wagon, who will share their best hilarious tales of student errors.
It's like the online version of Jay Leno's "Jaywalking" or of a movie's blooper reel, with everybody laughing till their sides split as a welcome break from grading their own stacks of 85 papers and 120 exams.
Only it isn't. Because a blooper reel is outtakes from a movie for which movie stars got paid giant buckets of money, and in the blooper reel, they are laughing at their own mistakes, which means they know they made them, and even they think it's hilarious. "Jaywalking" is a little more mean-spirited--and frankly it always made me a little uncomfortable for that reason. But if you are going to let Jay Leno interview you on the street, and you genuinely don't know who was the first president, or what the current one looks like, I get that you are kind of asking to be made fun of.
On the other hand, student errors in papers are not part of a mutually-agreed-upon context for mockery. In fact, they are precisely the opposite. They are the efforts of less-experienced learners to synthesize information they have gleaned over some period of time into a coherent set of claims and discussions for our evaluation.
Are some of them better at this than others? Of course. As with all things in the world.
Are some of the things we encounter in papers truly laughable? Absolutely.
Are there always students in a class who are downright intellectually lazy, or procrastinators, or people who only attended half of the class sessions, or ones who skipped all the short writing assignments and then requested extra credit opportunities to make up for work they'd missed? Yes.
And without a doubt, these are all deeply irritating facts for someone who has been writing detailed comments on papers all term trying to help students become better writers, and offering extra office hours, and putting dates and historical information on the board because students reading literature often also need history lessons--only to find that all of this has been ignored in favor of the unsupportable hypothesis and the inane generalization. ("Women in the eighteenth century [by which the writer means the 1800s] were pretty much confined to their houses for their whole lives."*)
But that doesn't give us the right to mock these claims--completely inane though they may be--in specific detail in public forums. In legal terms, it is a a violation of federal laws that protect a student's right to academic privacy to have lines from his or her paper thus publicly quoted without permission. But in moral terms, it's far worse than that. It is a violation of the basic trust that students place in their teachers--trust to guide their ideas, impart information to them, steer them when they falter, help them learn to participate in the discourse community that is a particular discipline.
Of course, there are occasional moments in student papers that really tickle our funny bones. But, in general, I think it is less hilarious and more a sad commentary on the state of the U.S. educational system when I realize that I have many students who have spent the all the years of their young lives not reading, not learning history, not thinking deeply about how to question and challenge things they find in print. (I teach at a university that admits many at-risk and first-generation college students who are under-prepared for what college will require of them.)
When students write really absurd things about history or poetry or what long-dead people "really thought," it is my job to realize that this is the mark of the reams of things no one has ever taught them, not least of which is often how to "do" school. If I have done my job, they are a little better about all of these things by the end of the term than they are at the beginning.
Even so, I cannot undo a lifetime of educational lack in four months.
But I can keep myself from laughing at their ignorance. I can offer them some kind of firm-but-gracious feedback that provides them with a sense of how to do better next time. I can avoid making their efforts the butt of my jokes, as if my PhD entitles me ruthlessly to equate a lack of facility with specific information or specific writing conventions with a lack of personal worth. And I should.
At least, I should if I want to hold my head up and call myself a teacher.
* These are made-up examples, not quotations, though all the errors are representative of the kind of historical anachronism, lackadaisical grammar and spelling, and casual attention to basic facts that I've seen educators mock.