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Respect in the digital age

“I think it demonstrates a real lack of respect for students…How can students trust that someone is going to have their best interests in mind and be trying to help them in that course if they are making fun of them behind their back?”

— Hans Rollman, graduate student at York University

While perhaps not wildly popular in a mainstream sense, I have been coming across an alarming number of online resources in which professors and graduate students openly (and anonymously) mock students. In what I can only describe as immature and petty, these sites denigrate poorly written sentences, typos, and spelling errors from the papers of students. From Shit My Students Write to twitter accounts like Grumpy Historian and Prof Snarky, these anonymous postings are on par with the vicious gossip forums, like Juicy Campus.

I am sure everyone who has ever graded a paper has found sentences (or complete papers) that create the urge to pull one’s hair out and most graders have muttered under their breath or even complained to colleagues. These private utterances, while regrettable, resemble thoughts that are never said out loud because they are hurtful or just merely a product of frustration. However, once these thoughts are “said” on the Internet, they cannot be taken back and may end up hurting someone.

Have academics become so jaded that making fun of the people who we are supposed to be teaching is the only option? Or are we just that insecure about our own intelligence? Regardless of why people find the need to make fun of students, this disrespect for students and mockery of the learning process only hurts the relationship between instructors and students as well as perpetuates the stereotype of professors as pretentious intellectuals.

Furthermore, these sites that the claim to give anonymity to submitters are not, in fact, all that protective. Belittling the written work of a student does not protect the student or the grader because, barring plagiarism, the author could identify the quoted excerpt and connect it to a particular class assignment. Beyond the obvious feelings of shock or hurt a student seeing his or her work being openly mocked may feel, a grader who posts comments online can face real world consequences from the lack of true anonymity. For example, a teaching assistant at York University in Canada experienced the dangers of making fun of students online after her Facebook comments complaining about the writing of students went public.

Instructors should be setting a good example, but instead it seems they have taken the worst parts of anonymous student reviews and expanded upon them. While grading, especially when grading papers that receive copious amounts of red ink, it is important to remember being in the place of the student. I know I have turned in papers containing sentences that could have ended up on Shit My Students Write.That is why proofreading (done by the author as well as an editor in some cases) is a valuable tool. However, instead of getting frustrated or laughing at mistakes, we as instructors must teach the skills that improve writing, like proofreading.

Published in Academia Digital Humanities Teaching

29 Comments

  1. Great points Brian. You get to the close to the point of how we regard our students – are they learning and moldable, or are they finished products seeking our approval. If our students are pliable and still learning, then they deserve our respect since we can’t know what they will get out of their college or university experience.

    Are papers permanent or are they temporary iterations of the student? When we post their work online, we shift their writing to a permanent version. That changes their writing from speech (that may be forgotten) to print in a published version (which can not be retracted).

    Last point – our students reflect our work back to us. The mark of a good teacher is good students. These sites you tag reveal the flaws of poor teachers who apparently blame others for their students’ bad work.

  2. I follow one of the twitter feeds you mention, but I am ambivalent about its contents. Part of that has to do with the issue of respect, which you talk about. The other part has to do with my own mental sanity: I do not wish to become as jaded as these feeds sometimes appear. Otherwise, I figure, I should just give up on people altogether, which is hardly an option. Yet I suspect that these feeds are just silly venting, and they are meant to be harmless, even though they might not be. You’ll notice on some of them, for example, that the authors are almost constantly involved with grading, as if, perhaps, they had a 4-4 course load. That cannot be healthy.

    I wonder if showing the students respect is an item on their students’ course evaluations. It is on ours at George Mason University.

  3. Stephanie

    Apparently none of you are familiar with satire?

  4. First off, I respect your point of view and opinion regarding the sites and people you mention (above).

    However, I think what @ProfSnarky attempts to do is not make fun of individual students per se, rather what s/he found in the paper s/he is grading. I have yet to find an instance where s/he provides a name or identifying comment about a particular person (please, correct me if I’m wrong with that statement). If there were identifying monikers, I would probably dump him from my follower’s list – that’s just tacky.

    Yes, everyone makes spelling or grammatical errors once in awhile. I do it. You do it. We all do it. But this isn’t about minor errors – it’s the repetitive, common sense errors that SHOULD be caught by a basic proofreading session. You talk about respect for the students – that’s a two-way street. If the student had respect for the assignment, following directions, and proofreading, there probably wouldn’t be as many things to worry about. But that’s not the case.

    And if you don’t think students are do this, you’re wrong. Places like Rate My Professor are their way to talk about teachers. Think about it – what does “hotness” (that lovely red pepper) have to do with teaching? To me – someone who has paid quite a bit of money on my degrees and the past 15 years honing my craft as an educator – I become insulted looking at that damn pepper. Since when did education have to do with how attractive one looks? Besides…I no one has given me a pepper and I’m not exactly hard on the eyes (sorry – had to say that). 😉

    And as Mark notes, it really is about venting. I get a chuckle and get the drive to go back to grading or setting up lesson plans for the following day. Who knows.

    In the end, sometimes a bit of humor is needed to remind us not to take oneself so seriously.

    • Brian Sarnacki

      Thanks for your comments Alec. If I’ve learned one thing today, it is @ProfSnarky has a very devoted following. As for your comments about ratemyprofessor.com, you should note I linked to that website. I simply believe that as educators, with power over students, we should be held to a higher standard than students.

      I also agree with Mark that blowing off steam is essential to maintaining sanity. The part where I disagree with Prof Snarky and others, is on the appropriate venue for complaining. I find public comments that denigrate students (either specifically or generally) are counterproductive in the teaching process because they undermine the relationship between student and teacher in a broad sense.

  5. I think what you’re missing, Brian, is that respect must be earned; it’s not something automatically granted (because, if it were, it would be essentially worthless). Your entire argument is based off the fallacious assumption that every student’s work is worthy of respect.

    As an undergraduate student and having spent zero time teaching or grading, I can say for a fact that if a paper of mine was quoted on a professor’s twitter page and mocked, I would be mortified and embarrassed. But not for the reason you might suspect. I would be mortified and embarrassed because I had the audacity to turn in such a paper. I have yet to see a single quote from @ProfSnarky that could not have been fixed by either a bit of actual thinking or a quick proof-reading.

    Undergraduates, of course, are a work in progress. We are constantly learning and improving. However, that does not give us the right to turn in work that we obviously did not put enough effort into. As a non-traditional student, I work full-time as an analyst, attend university full-time (carrying between 14-18 credits in any given semester), AND run a start-up business, and I take great pride in my ability to manage my time appropriately as to turn in my best work and arrive to class prepared. Your entire post belittles my effort in favor of students with much less on their plate whom obviously have no interest in improving themselves or learning the material. Quite frankly, they SHOULD be ashamed of themselves. They are wasting both the professor’s and their own time.

    There is a bit of an unspoken contract between a professor and a student: The professor’s job is to teach and guide; the student’s job is to learn and grow. I’d be willing to bet a semester’s tuition that half or more of the quoted students have no interest in up-holding their end of the bargain, preferring instead to rely on plagiarism, poor work quality, and to place the blame on the professor when they don’t learn anything.

    Beyond that, these students waste MY time as a fellow student by asking questions that are on the syllabus or were answered in class. These students waste MY time in class by asking questions that were just answered in the lecture. I’m sick and tired of 15-30 minutes of every class being taken up by students who obviously aren’t prepared for anything more than the party taking place tonight. They’re ruining MY educational experience. (Nevermind the $15k+ I spend each year out of pocket on tuition.)

    And because of that, I don’t give a damn if they are publicly humiliated by their own ineptitude and/or laziness.

    • Brian Sarnacki

      Thanks for your comments. We appear to disagree with the acceptability of public humiliation. I do not find it necessary or effective in most cases. This may be naive, but we are all entitled to our opinions. Good luck with your busy (but impressive) schedule.

    • As a fellow undergrad, I can certainly appreciate that there is a spectrum of “good” and “bad” students in college, and the same goes for professors. You mention that students don’t have the “right” to turn in poor work — I say yes they do. They are paying to be there just like we are. They can fail out of college if they wish. If professors are taking up class time to repeatedly answer questions that are the result of a lack of reading or a generally clueless student, then yes, that’s on the teacher. They need to postpone such inquiries until after class. However, I have not really experienced that happening outside of a 101 class. Usually professors are on the ball enough to cut the fat and use those 55 minutes skillfully.

      So I see what you’re saying at the beginning of your comment. I guess I missed the part of your argument that justifies snark-tweeting as an acceptable method to solve those problems. It solves nothing. In fact, what it does do is create a hostile environment, and makes the professor seem sadly misinformed. If they are looking for flawless work, they don’t need to be teaching undergraduate students.

      I, too, hold my work to high standards. Each day I decide that every class I attend will not be a waste of my time. There are other students who don’t do this, and I wish they would understand the expensive timewaster that college becomes when that attitude is embraced. But I certainly wish public humiliation upon no one.

      • Tamara—I see your point of view but your argument seems inconsistent. Shutting down a student who asks a question in class, in front of everyone, strikes me as more humiliating and more public than any anonymized tweeting could ever be. Particularly since it needs to be specified that the reason for shutting down the question is because it’s clueless or ignorant, or else no one will ever ask a question in such a hostile environment.

  6. Eileen Nguyen

    I’m a 22-year-old undergrad (at least for another month and a half) who follows Prof Snarky and LOVES him/her. Do we agree on everything? No, of course not (see: politics). But I do appreciate the snark because it doesn’t seem as though s/he dislikes students or comes in expecting them to fail or, worse, wanting to fail them. It also doesn’t seem as though s/he thinks of faculty as saintly martyrs burdened with the horrors of undergraduates – we’ve tweeted at each other about crappy professors as well as crappy students. I don’t think anyone can deny that there are pretty awful students in college now, and while Prof Snarky complains about some of the bad work that s/he receives, s/he also complains about the ways that education has failed students (e.g. one tweet about how many students had never formally been taught grammar). It’s obvious that Prof Snarky wants to see students succeed, so the sting is really taken out of any complaints. Finally on the point of respect, not everyone is respectable as a scholar in “Snarkology” (the field Prof Snarky claims to teach). As long as the professor respects each student as a human being and one with the capacity to learn, that’s okay.

    Furthermore, it’s Twitter – there’s no way s/he can post a 140-character excerpt that’s long enough to be identifiable. Even if there WERE a long enough excerpt, it’s not humiliating, or at least it shouldn’t be. I was in a class once in which, on the first writing assignment, the professor was really annoyed by sloppy grammar and passed out a sheet with 20 or so problematic sentences taken from different papers (anonymously). Mine was one of them. I actually really appreciated the fact that she called me out – the only professor in four years at a well respected private university who ever took me to task on my grammar. Prof Snarky doesn’t name names or specify his/her university, geographical reason, subject, or even gender.

    • Eileen Nguyen

      Sorry, I meant to add a closing sentence.

      There’s no way AT ALL for anyone to trace these students from Prof Snarky’s tweets, so there’s no damage being done – I’m sure s/he writes on compositions all of the same corrections s/he posts on Twitter.

      • Brian Sarnacki

        Thanks for your comments. I am glad to hear you are confident enough to withstand public criticism (a skill some learn faster than others). However, I would disagree with your assertion that anonymous remarks do no damage. Prof Snarky’s comments help construct an image of academics as jaded or, well, snarky. I see the classroom as a space for trial and error, mistakes, and experimentation. The image Prof Snarky and the other websites I mention above, build can negatively affect some (but not all) students and undermine the learning environment of the classroom.

        • Eileen Nguyen

          I disagree with your view of the image projected by these people. To me, they come across as normal human beings who are interested and entertained by the same kinds of things as the rest of us (and, along those lines, whose accomplishments are also within reach if we work hard and seek help). I find that much more refreshing than a professor who plays God and pretends to be above it all.

          • Brian Sarnacki

            I think there are other, less negative, ways to display human fallibility. I also think it would be more effective for a teacher to show his or her humanity in class rather than anonymously on the Internet, but you are free to disagree.

          • Eileen Nguyen

            I see your point and agree that professors make themselves relatable or not relatable on an individual level, but your original argument was that these particular bloggers/microbloggers make all professors look “bad.” My counter-argument was “No, they make all professors look ‘good.'”

            As for “other, less negative, ways to display human fallibility,” what in the world could possibly be more human than complaining about one’s job?

  7. Lori Anne

    I think this discussion needs more of a focus on the medium of the expression–this is not an instance where a professor complains to his colleagues about the quality of students’ papers, or to a friend, or to a pet dog. These websites and twitter feeds are examples of individuals who are expected to be held to the highest standards in academics and ethics complaining, publicly and permanently. For better or for worse, writing something on the Internet will always create a public record of that statement. I know @GrumpyHistorian and @ProfSnarky tweet anonymously, but this doesn’t necessarily solve the problem.

    Here’s a hypothetical: Because @GrumpyHistorian’s tweets are not protected, this means that if a student quoted on one of his/her tweets were to enter the excerpt into a google search, that tweet would pop up. This student, then, most likely (despite Ms. Nguyen’s hypothetical reaction) would be offended and, possibly, would run complaining to the nearest person who will listen. How do you think that would turn out? Remember, as Brian stated in the post, a TA has been fired just for complaining about student work on Facebook. And sorry, First Amendment freedom of speech rights won’t necessarily protect you here. Universities and colleges have a legitimate reason to want to stop this kind of public speech: it reflects INCREDIBLY poorly on the school as a whole. Who wants to shell out thousands of dollars a credit hour to attend a university just to risk someone snarking about their papers in a public forum?

    I know, I know–this situation is highly unlikely, but something to think about. And it’s definitely not the only reason to think twice about publicly complaining about your students. Brian is absolutely right–it has to do with respect. And while respect should be earned, there is a certain level of respect we owe to everyone as human beings. Don’t we as instructors and professors expect our students to respect us, just merely because of the string of letters after our names and of our position of authority? Shouldn’t we return some of that respect? The mere presence of websites like shitmystudentssay.com does nothing to further the interests of the people who post there, except to make them feel smug that they caught a funny mistake on a paper. Yeah, I’ve dealt with awful students also. You know what I do? Complain to my friends and colleagues and occassionally my advisor–who, by the way, always reminds me not to let the head of the department hear, because I am only a lowly TA and can be fired for something as simple as mishandling a problem student.

    You know how to deal with students who plagiarize or have awful work? By grading. By meeting individually with students. By, yes, failing the occasional student. It is not by creating a permanent and public record of individual students’ failings. Shouldn’t we, as educators, hold ourselves to a higher standard of ethics? This isn’t just about letting off steam–there are plenty of avenues for that, try yoga or training for a marathon if you’re really stressed. I just think educators should be held to a higher standard. What else did we go to school all those years for?

  8. I agree with you, Brian. I am a follower of @ProfSnarky, and I have noticed that the brand of “snark” employed by this anonymous tweeter is condescending and jaded. It seems like this professor has given up, and considers his/her position of professor to be better than and above the students, as if being a professor is a privileged club and he/she can’t resist pointing out to students everywhere that they are not a member of that club.

    Of COURSE students are going to make mistakes and occasionally be ill-prepared. If @ProfSnarky took the time needed to manufacture all those sarcastic tweets and transformed it into empathy and nurturing, helpful teaching practices perhaps the quality of student work he/she is accustomed to might improve.

    No wonder colleges across the nation are failing to teach students. If a professor comes to class expecting the worst, then they are planning to accept the worst, and that needs to change.

    Just another reason why I am on track to become a college professor. Professors are there to teach and to help and to counsel, not to denigrate.

  9. Rita

    Eileen, you have amazing perception and maturity for one your age. Brian, and others, when you’ve taught a 4/4 load and graded as many papers as some of us have, you’ll relate to @profsnarky and @grumpyhistorian better. When you see the same mistakes over and over, after drilling, testing, coaching and begging, you get jaded and snarky. When you hear the same lame student excuses, you get jaded and snarky. When you have students who don’t come to class and expect you to then tutor them on the material before the test, when you have students who defy the requirements in the syllabus (refusing to use proper format, turnitin when required, or just do everything late) you get jaded and snarky. You’ll get angry and frustrated when you witness really smart kids blowing off assignments and being lazy contributors to group projects because they feel entitled and special–because they grew up in a world where everyone gets a trophy whether they cross the finish line or not. Then when a kid gets caught plagiarizing or falsifying research and you have to deal with their angry parent (who expects you to pass their cheater regardless, because they’re special) and their lawyers, you get really angry and jaded, even if you know the university will win and back you up every time.

    Are all students like this? No. Just like not all faculty are jerks, or exceptional teachers. But the really good ones and the really bad ones stand out, both teachers and students. The ones in the middle are where the vast amount of work gets done–teaching and learning-wise–and we should be glad for those folks.

    As for @profsnarky and @grumpyhistorian, I went through their tweets, and I see nothing that would humiliate a student individually. Nothing. I also see genuine caring and concern, and I’ll bet their lectures are fun and informative. I’ll bet they are professors who spend one on one time with students. I’ll also bet lots of students follow them–I know all mine do–and learn from them.

    • Brian Sarnacki

      Thanks for your comments. I think my post has taken on a life of its own outside of what I actually wrote. I had no intent of suggesting the people behind these twitter accounts were bad people and I sympathize with their complaints. My disagreement is with how they complain. You are free to be as jaded or snarky as you would like, many people complain about their jobs. However, as I know these profs understand, you can be fired for complaining about your job (hence the anonymity of these twitter accounts). Furthermore, I see little good in making these frustrations public. While you may not find anything that could humiliate students, that is your opinion. What humiliates people depends on the individual so I would challenge you to keep an open mind.

      • Rita

        I guess if a comment humiates you then you recognize yourself in it.

  10. Kenneth

    Brian, I basically agree with you. I wonder, though, if these kinds of comments have a function beyond their actual content. It’s well-known, for example, that in private, medical doctors discuss their patients in ways that seem callous (identifying them by their ailments, for example–“Oh, she’s that bladder cancer in Room 22”–my source for this, I should assure everyone, is sociological studies, not *Grey’s Anatomy*); lawyers discuss clients in similarly “jaded” kind of ways. Academics rarely have a chance to do this, since we tend to work in our own offices and don’t spend a lot of time chewing the fat around the water cooler. Sociologists and psychologists suggest that such comments are a coping mechanism and a way for these professionals to bond with each other. I wonder if such comments are a way for professors to bond in the same way in a profession that can be very lonely. I mean this merely as a description, not a judgment either way, and even if such comments do have this function, it doesn’t mean that the negative effects you discuss don’t outweigh such (possible) benefits.

  11. Brian Sarnacki

    Kenneth, I agree with you in regards to the potential social value of these comments. As I’ve posted above, my disagreement is with the airing of these complaints in public. I’d rather have professors install a water cooler and take out their frustrations in a private social setting than take their complaints to the Internet.

  12. I’m one of those who follow (and sometimes RT) Prof. Snarky (and I do think that most oh Prof. Snarky’s tweets show that s/he *does* care for her/his students, that s/he *does* take teaching serious, and, most importantly: that s/he is *honest*).

    Those tweets don’t make student X identifiable by other persons (unless, perhaps, sometimes, if they’ve also taught student X, in which case they already know about student X).

    Might those of you who think that such tweets should not be tweeted please consider to leave academia? Yes, this is meant as harsh as it sounds.

    If a teacher is not upset and angry about poor work by students (or colleagues) of which it is obvious that it could have been far better if student X or colleague Y would have cared about the quality of his/her work: then this is a sign that this teacher (who is not upset or angry) does not care, does think that texts which could have been better if their authors had cared about their quality are o.k. enough as they are now. Nobody who thinks like that should teach at an university.
    If a teacher is upset and angry about unnecessarily poor work but is silent about this: s/he does a disservice to his/her students.

    You can’t have teachers who care and who are honest without getting to know that they will be upset about poor work.

    You have every right to criticise your teachers (and I am posting this so that you can easily find out who I am and where I teach), and you can do so remaining anonymous but attacking me mentioning my name.
    But you should also be grateful to those teachers who make it visible to you that there are persons in academia who *do* care about the quality of their students’ work, and that a decent university is not a place where you get top grades for poor work and where you get pass grades for showing up and spending just 20 minutes on a paper you hand in (unless you are a genius).

    No, I’m not Prof. Snarky. But I’m grateful to him/her. If you have a teacher who does never ever snark: you either have a teacher who does not care or who is not honest.

    I sometimes do teach on “the worst 10 mistakes, which you should try to avoid when doing X”, and that would not be relevant teaching if those “worst 10 mistakes” were not mistakes present in rather recently received essays etc..

    • Brian Sarnacki

      Dear Commenters: Before commenting, please read my post and all previous comments as your points may have already been addressed.

      Please excuse the snark, hckGGREN, but I thought this type of explanation may be more easily understood by Prof Snarky’s following, which is posting the majority of comments (see I get frustrated by common mistakes too). I will reiterate that this post is not meant to be a holier than thou “you cannot get frustrated” or a personal attack on Prof Snarky. I disagree with the public airing of frustrations and the tone in which some of these public comments are made. You are free to disagree with me and I am sure Prof Snarky is not going anywhere. I do hope professors point out common mistakes (they need to in order to teach). It is my humble opinion that there are more constructive ways than snark, like lists demonstrating common mistakes, though perhaps your list is heavily sarcastic.

      In the end, and this goes for anyone who wants to comment only to stick up for Prof Snarky (notice no one has mentioned shitmystudentswrite, which was the main reason I wrote the blog post), if you love Prof Snarky, that is fine. If you must, reread the post, skip the one mention of Prof Snarky, and think about my larger point.

  13. […] about students.  Largely, this has been about students’ writing.  Then, I noticed that someone else noticed, too. And then, there was a backlash. I am of the opinion that there is a fine line between being snarky […]

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