On Student-Shaming and Punching Down

A few years ago, trapped in the midst of final exam grading, I started posting some of the real howlers I got as answers on Facebook. I didn’t use students’ names, and I don’t “friend” students on FB, so this sort of venting seemed like an OK way for me to keep my sense of humor during the end-term crush.

I have felt guilty about doing that ever since.

Now, I vent plenty on Facebook and (especially) Twitter. PLENTY. But I deploy my snark laterally, or upwards–not down. Not any more. If I am the advocate for teaching and learning that I say I am, then I need to walk the walk. If I argue that failure is not a defeat, but something on which to build successes, then how can I use others’ failures as fodder for cheap laughs?

When I was doing my Ph.D. work, our department had a graduate lounge for our exclusive use, and I used it plenty. Frequently, a certain one of my fellow Ph.D. students would come into the lounge after leading a discussion section and, without fail, just go full blast on his students. THEY DON’T KNOW ANYTHING! THEY CAN’T WRITE! THEY DON’T UNDERSTAND HISTORY! And then he’d get personal. “Student X is a slack-jawed yokel,” that type of stuff. And I would think: Dude, if you’re that cynical now (we were both in our mid- to late-twenties), then I want no part of you when you’re forty.

Facebook and Twitter didn’t exist then; hell, the internet was still fairly novel. But I imagine that guy, and others like him, probably LOVE the “Dear Student” series done by the Chronicle of Higher Education on its Vitae site (which is geared toward job-seekers and grad-school, early-career academics). And, to be sure, some of the behaviors in these columns’ sights might look like easy targets–just like the laugh lines in those student final exams I decided to publicly make fun of back in the day. However, it’s one thing to vent by trading stories and frustrations among trusted friends and colleagues. It’s another thing altogether to vent to vast swaths of the internet. And when it goes beyond venting, there’s a real problem. The “Dear Student” columns are mean. They punch down. They inflate the pedantic into the problematic, and then humiliate rather than empathize. And I’m certainly not the only one who has this reaction; yesterday, Jesse Stommel wrote a magnificent and eloquent essay on why “Dear Student” is such an awful idea. The entire piece is a must-read, but his point about the climate this type of student-shaming work creates is worth repeating:

Everyone that comes into even casual contact with Vitae’s “Dear Student” series is immediately tarnished by the same kind of anti-intellectual, uncompassionate, illogical nonsense currently threatening to take down the higher education system in the state of Wisconsin…Giggling at the water cooler about students is one abhorrent thing. Publishing that derisive giggling as “work” in a venue read by tens of thousands is quite another. Of course, teachers need a safe place to vent. We all do. That safe place is not shared faculty offices, not the teacher’s lounge, not the library, not a local (public) watering hole. And it is certainly not on the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education, especially in Vitae, the publication devoted to job seekers, including current students and future teachers.

He’s absolutely right. As one who has been particularly concerned with the (mis)uses of power in academic settings, Stommel’s admonition hit home for me. He put into words much better than I could have why I still feel guilty about my previous Facebook venting.

Again, this doesn’t mean the end of snark and sarcasm. But punch up, not down. Powerful tenured professor berating students or misusing his power to make life tough for female, LGBT, or African American faculty? There will be richly-deserved snark. Political leader who adapts a belligerently ignorant stance to justify depriving others of basic rights? You will be roasted on Twitter, and I will applaud and retweet. But calling out students–giving examples of their mistakes or missteps? No. As educators, we are the ones with the power. Student foibles are temporary. Our reactions to those foibles can be permanent–for both us and them.

Consider the following Twitter feed:
Twitter12 Twitter5Twitter3Twitter4Twitter9Twitter8Twitter1Twitter11Twitter7


All of these, actually, represent some of the “highlights” of my own undergraduate career. If my professors had been on Facebook or Twitter, and thrown these out on the internet (and it’s not like any of this crap I did was in private), what would have happened if I saw or heard about this “venting?”

Would I have gotten it together and kicked ass in my (second) Senior Year?

Would I have believed what some of my professors told me, that I should try for graduate school?

Would I have gotten in to a Master’s program, then completed it, then gotten into a Ph.D. program with a fellowship?

Would I have asked for the help I needed to address my increasingly deteriorating “lifestyle choices?”

Would I have been lucky enough to be in a position like I am now, where I can teach teachers and students? And in doing so, experience daily growth myself?

I doubt it.

I don’t like shame. I run and hide from what makes me ashamed, and do my level best to stay hidden.

I don’t know if my professors joked about me at the coffee pot, or traded stories about me at cocktail parties. But I do know that they took an interest in helping a student who was trying to get his act together. I do know that they helped build academic confidence for a student who may not have always been receptive to that help. I do know that they offered advice, perspective, and support–as well as references, recommendations, and cheerleading–to a student who wanted to pursue their field of study at the graduate level. I do know that they did this even at the times when I didn’t look or act as grateful as I truly was.

The simple truth is that I am where I am today–in all senses of the term–in part because others did not shame me for the things about which I was already ashamed. I was the “Dear Student” who the Vitae series has dead in its sights. What might we lose tomorrow as a result of shaming today? What do we do to ourselves, our colleagues (present and future), and our students if we revel in punching down at folks who may not even know they’re targets? What–WHO–gets damaged?

We all do.

So, I humbly offer a revised column:

Dear Student:

You’ll get better at this. So will we.

Faculty (a.k.a. former students)


17 Replies to “On Student-Shaming and Punching Down”

  1. Thank you for this post, which came across my Twitter feed earlier this afternoon.

    I was thinking about it while washing dishes after dinner and it occurred to me that this habit of punching down by professors toward students comes in part of out the fact that the academic system is self-perpetuating in that the majority of professors were, as students, the Hermione Grangers of the student body. The academic system is set up to serve those students (I was one of them) incredibly well. We get tons of positive reinforcement and encouragement to go on and become faculty precisely because our mentors see themselves in us.

    They don’t see themselves in the students who struggle because — and again we’re talking gross majorities here — most of them never WERE the students who misspelled words, who showed up in class drunk, who failed to do the readings, who forgot an assignment, who struggled to keep their GPA above 3.0, who couldn’t cover for the fact that their family was dysfunctional, their childcare fell through, they couldn’t afford their textbooks, or couldn’t pay for three meals a day. So in part the professorial reaction is an empathy deficit reinforced by the belief that students must do what they themselves did to succeed in college or graduate school — it’s like a hazing system in which those who are rewarded by the end result don’t want (or cannot) envision the system working different and still producing excellent results.

    Too, I think a lot of this shame-based punching down comes down to the fact that we’ve set up rewards system that on the one hand ostensibly expects effective teachers / professors to help the majority of their students to learn the content of a course well. But on the other end, they’re looked on with suspicion of they’re so effective that all of their students succeed. So there’s this tension in assessment whereby you’re punished if too many of your students succeed AND if too many of them fail. It relieves some of the the insoluble tension of that system if a faculty person can lay the failure at the feet of students for being “entitled” or “lazy” or “consumers” etc. If the professor can find an external reason for the student’s struggle they can say “if only Student X … did Y!” while at the same time maintaining the assessment system that makes them look tough and like they aren’t giving out easy As.

    1. These are great points; even a schlep like me did well in my History classes. And we reproduce ourselves in the faculty ranks! As students, when we sat in the front row, we could easily assume everyone behind us has the same views and attitude toward the material. And when we become faculty, we design our courses–and create our standards (implicit or explicit) with “ourselves” in mind, as opposed to everyone who sat behind us. And of course, the latter group constitutes a majority of students–mine, yours, ours.

      And our assessment culture does send mixed messages–I totally agree with you. Ideally, it’s a good thing if everyone makes an A–that means you succeeded with every student. In reality, it’s far different, though. We desperately need to have some good, tough conversations about grades and what we need/use them for (or not).

      Thank you for your comments; a lot to think about!

  2. Seems to me there’s a difference between making fun of students for laziness and willful lack of thought or interest (not so bad in appropriate contexts) and making fun of them for lack of ability or lack of knowledge that they may have had no opportunity to acquire (which seems kind of mean in any context).

    A world that refuses to even mildly stigmatize laziness and lack of thought is ipso facto a world that welcomes laziness and lack of thought.

    Can’t help but smile at how the only examples you could come up with of righteous punching up are wrapped up in tedious leftie political narratives. Oh yeah, the academy is full of sneaky white males keeping out minorities, and you’re a brave white knight for standing up to them!

    There are lots of more pertinent examples of punching-up courage. How about fighting against administrative bloat–that’ll actually earn you some animus from people who might be able to punch back down at you.

    1. I’m not clear how making fun of laziness and stigmatizing (perceived) lack of thought solves those problems. The beatings will continue until morale improves?

      You seem to be bringing some baggage to this post that it doesn’t carry.

      1. Seems to me one of the main ways “culture” works is like this. People hear others making fun of X. They get the idea, X is not viewed favorably around here. I should really work on not looking to be X. They even internalize the attitude: “I don’t think well of X either.” If X is something that does no harm and is nobody’s business, then this is a bad thing. If X is something bad (like laziness or sloppiness), then this is a good thing.

        Is this all not obvious common sense?

  3. Everybody on both sides of this issue agrees on some basic points.
    1. We should help students as much as we can. Even the worst students deserve our help.
    2. We should not malign students to their face or in a way that makes them easily identifiable.

    Maybe your professors did complain about you behind your back (or just in their own thoughts) but turned around and gave you the support you needed. You don’t know. Here’s what I know: I do both. Being able to vent helps me move past the annoyances and frustrations of teaching (and research, and committee work…)

    Using an online pseudonym when complaining about students and omitting specific details ensures that none of my students will learn what I think of them on Twitter. Most of my career advancement has been due to the positive evaluations of my teaching/advising from colleagues and supervisors. It is possible to be good educator and provide some dark humor about our plight.

    1. You sum up our areas of agreement well. And I’m not arguing that venting isn’t necessary, or that there aren’t plenty of things to vent about. But I am arguing for a more mindful approach and attention to consequences.

      If you can balance Twitter venting with effective teaching and advising, that’s great. I just know that I can’t do that. If I’m fulminating in one place, I’m doing it in every place. I don’t think I can compartmentalize. What starts out as venting, for me, can become cynicism that bleeds over into places I don’t want it to. And I don’t think I’m alone in that.

      1. Your call for a mindful approach to venting is well taken.

        You are likely correct that you are not alone in having diffculty compartmentalizing. But it is also likely that others can and must compartmentalize. For instance, if I had to be the same person in one place as in another, I would simply be numb. So, I fulminate someplace safe, and elsewhere I advocate for ALL of my students. If in the former I relate something I dislike about a student, I have made it into such a charicature that when dealing with the student in real life, I can put that over-the-top depiction right out of my mind.

        1. That makes sense to me. I think what I’ve really come to be aware of is the need for these safe spaces for all of us to fulminate–and that is a criminally-underused word, btw.

  4. I figure it’s reasonable to be a mirror…. give the student the same respect they give the teacher and the class. If teacher doesn’t show up drunk or unprepared for class, neither should student. If they can’t write, maybe history or English isn’t the right fit for them.

    If student tries hard and demonstrates improvement and is achieving at 90% of their capacity (but that translates to 75% of the course material) then by all means, give support but recognize that not every field/class/school is for everyone. It’s like Olympic gymnastics or figure skating… everyone starts out with a perfect score and we take deductions for various transgressions. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt at the onset but if you continually make a fool of me for doing so, I’ll run out of patience with you.

  5. Dr. Gannon, you could have taken those “real howlers,” put a book together, a la Professor Anders Henriksson’s book ‘Non Campus Mentis: World History According to College Students,’ and made some coin! I had Professor Henriksson for a few history courses, and he’s an excellent teacher. If anyone is unfamiliar with the book Non Campus Mentis, Dr. Henriksson took some of the funniest answers students had to some of his exam questions and compiled them for all to read and get a good laugh at. I know he didn’t do it mean-spiritedly, as Dr. Henriksson always struck me as having a rather dry wit, being in the mode of the “old school” tweed-wearing, pipe-smoking historians. I think what the good doctor was making fun of were the attempted and obviously flawed regurgitations of students of the “memorize-all-the-dates-events-people-and-places” school of history versus just making fun of the students or their grasp of the material. Of course none of the students are ever named, and I’ll admit to nervously wondering if I could have possibly written any of the gems held within myself, but I think that’s part of why it is so funny. Well, at least to me. We are, after all, only human!

    1. Besides the ethical issues, which the Tattoed Professor has spelled out clearly, publication of others’ work for financial gain is an infringement of intellectual property rights. Also, I teach my students not to plagiarize – did Dr Henriksson?

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