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Monday, April 30, 2012

Educating Gracefully: A Minor Rant on Obligation

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.


Molly said...

Interesting! I'm a teacher and my co-teacher and I always get a chuckle over the turn of phrases that our kids use. What's more, sometimes the students will find an error in their writing and come running over saying, "can you believe I wrote that!" and giggling. I'm glad that they can laugh at their mistakes. I think that with every silly error my students make, I just adore them more...
I'm going to keep contemplating this and check back to see what other people have to say!

MommyTime said...

Molly, I think what you're describing is a bit different that what really worries me. If there is a sense of collaborative giggle -- that the kids themselves are learning to recognize mistakes and grasp how to fix these errors, and not to take themselves too seriously in the bargain -- I think that's okay. What disturbs me more is the kind of talking about them behind their backs, specifically to laugh at their ignorance, that seems to me to be what is going on when people post comments to Facebook, or tweet, or email to each other, or otherwise publicize their students' errors just for the purpose of laughing AT them rather than with them.

Suburban Kamikaze said...

Standing and clapping. I've seen examples of this that made me cringe. I'm sure it's just a symptom of frustration in many cases, but it looks like sanctimonious bullying from the outside.


Anna Lefler said...

You know what? I'm so glad you said this!

I have had similar frustration when I see literary agents who make a side career out of mocking the less-than-stellar query letters sent to them by prospective clients. It just comes off as, well...MEAN.

I think the only time a teacher can get away with it is when their students are very young and the results are adorably misguided. Otherwise, it comes across as cruel.

Just my opinion, but there it is.

Have a great weekend!

:-) Anna

Hollywood Farm Films said...

if it were not for the mistakes, there would be no room to grow.

Audrey at Barking Mad said...

Hello friend! It's been a long time.

I'm so glad you're still writing and contributing to the blogosphere.

Epic applause from this side of the country for this post. I hope and pray that when Gabriella is in college she has not just one, but several teachers like you. I suppose I should rephrase that to include not just her secondary education, but her primary, too.

The night we dropped Meg off at college back in August of 2008, I tossed and turned as I lay in bed, wondering if she was really prepared for college? Sure I thought about the extracurricular "activities" that seem the norm for all college students living in dorms these days, but more than that, I worried about whether she was really prepared for the level of work she'd be expected to complete and the papers she'd be asked to turn in?

She did pretty well her first year despite my concerns, but I do have a feeling some of her instructors let her, and others slide.

Despite the fact that Meg decided that $50K a year was too steep and didn't want to be in debt up to her eyeballs upon graduation (we paid for her first year but weren't able to contribute any more after that) she left college after her freshman year and joined the Air Force and is working on her B.S. through them, while on deployment with a husband and one year old back at the base in the UK. I'm still not sure she's any more prepared, academically, to finish college.

As sad as it is, I know the academics at Meg's former college have a "round table night" where they compile what they consider the best of student "bloopers" and spend the evening sharing them while drinking and laughing. While it's not posted on a blog for all to see, I still think it's just this side of bullying. I don't think they should be laughing at all, but sad that our kids are arriving less and less educated, to the level they used to be.

tara said...

Oh wow, that was so well written! It is such a good point, and people often forget the impact that social media can have on others. It's so easy to post something on Facebook or Twitter and think "nobody will read this" when in fact, other people do.


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