I wrote this short piece on something that's been bugging me: teachers ridiculing student work in social media. The frustration had been building for a while until I (unjustifiably) got angry at a junior colleague when I misread their post. I realised then that I needed to get this off my chest.
Like any profession, teachers have their ups and downs, their joys and frustrations. Like everyone else we gripe about the pains of the profession, such as when our students misbehave, the useless metrics of ubiquitous surveillance and when our teaching goes horribly wrong. We might do this with colleagues, with our family or even on social media. All of this is normal.
However, I’ve noticed some really inappropriate social media posts from colleagues who quote student work on social media for ridicule. This kind of behavior is increasingly copied by junior colleagues, particularly during marking season, who think that this conduct is welcome. I want to make clear why this is unacceptable and hope to convince my colleagues not to continue or imitate this behaviour.
I’m not sure when this started. I haven’t conducted systematic research on the topic. But I do know that this trend was encouraged among my Australian colleagues by the viral posting of this 2014 satirical piece in The Monthly, which caricatured undergraduate student essays in Australian history. Many humanities academics around Australia posted this on their social media for humour. I can’t remember if I posted it myself, but I definitely laughed along. Although that Monthly piece was written under a pseudonym, it was itself inspired by a 1983 essay in The Wilson Quarterly by Prof. Anders Henriksson, an American academic at Shepherd’s University, on undergraduate essays in European history, which was republished online in 2014. These encouraged an online environment where colleagues felt it was acceptable to laugh at ‘poor’ student work online among colleagues, which in turn set the tone for more direct ridicule of individual students.
For a start, this behaviour contradicts our role as teachers. It is our job to develop students’ skills, to facilitate access to knowledge and to guide students in their learning. As a university teacher I spend way too much time undoing some of the bad teaching the students have encountered through their high school education. I tell my students that ignorance is not something to be ashamed about or to mock but an opportunity to learn and an opportunity to teach. Indeed, I insist that learning to be good at ignorance, that is, being able to recognise and identify our true ignorance, is the start of real critical learning. Most people never recognise their own ignorance and so they proceed through life believing they ‘know’ something that they do not. Mocking student’s work online contradicts this valuable lesson to appreciate and live with honesty and humility in the lifelong task of serious learning.
It is inappropriate to mock students in a classroom for lacking knowledge or skills because it associates feelings of embarrassment and humiliation with the simple crime of not knowing something - surely the premise for most educational encounters. This makes students who are struggling feel ashamed and can demotivate them, causing them to participate less in class and thus fall further behind. It simultaneously trains other students to believe it is ok to be smug about their knowledge and to be abusive to people they perceive as ‘ignorant’. So rather than building a space for respectful and collaborative learning, such behavior contributes to a culture of academic elitism that makes students fearful of their ignorance. This produces a defensive classroom where students are afraid of appearing ‘stupid’ in front of their peers and their teacher rather than a culture of open and critical inquiry. If this is unproductive in the classroom, what would make it more appropriate in an online environment in front of a potentially larger audience? Even if you intend it as simply an online conversation between teaching colleagues, I argue it is still unethical and potentially harmful.
First, it is unethical because students submit that work for a particular assessment task within a course and have not given permission for their essays to be republished. No student submitting an assessment thinks that sections of it are going to be printed online for the amusement of others. Students, for the most part, retain copyright over their work, which is why, if we want to use our student’s work for a publication, we must ask their permission. This is assumed if we were to publish, say, a book on teaching or a journal article or a conference presentation on the success of an assessment and we wanted to quote their assessment submissions as an example. As the person in a position of power, the teacher should, on ethical grounds, always ask permission when sharing the student’s work. Yet these are all instances in professional life where we would be citing such work often in a positive and fair light. The fact that colleagues that ridicule students’ work online do not seek permission from the students they belittle, underscores that they know this behavior is wrong.
Second, professors often have postgraduate students on their social media; if not ones they directly teach then often some from other universities. When they ridicule students’ work in this fashion, there must be at least some students who wonder whether they themselves are being ridiculed behind their backs. Students that already suffer from impostor syndrome, particularly minority students, may feel even more vulnerable since this implicitly threatens them with the potential of professional mockery, which they cannot defend against. On the other hand, it implicitly gives license to other students to feel that it is acceptable to disparage fellow students’ work if it falls below standard, but also fearful that at some point they may fall on the other side of this ridicule when they have a tough time themselves. Rather than producing a research culture of mutual learning and support, it solidifies unnecessary and cruel competitiveness among a junior cohort. Further, given that so much casual face-to-face teaching is conducted by these postgraduate students, it trains them to replicate such contempt in their own undergraduate teaching and marking.
I’m not saying that we can’t complain about the tough times as a teacher on social media like other professions. Nor am I silencing teachers from complaining about unfairness or injustice in the workplace, which, yes, may involve students behaving badly. But none of that gives teachers the right to quote student assessment work online without permission, let alone in dismissive and derisive tones to be laughed at by fellow academics. Students submit their work ostensibly for the purposes of receiving constructive feedback, not to be scoffed at in public behind their backs.
In the long run I believe this behavior contributes to the nasty and toxic academic environments we see around us, built on the terror of mutually-assured humiliation. To be sure, there have always been these kinds of cruel academics and I don’t see that ending soon; egotism and narcissism is rife in many quarters. But for junior colleagues I want you to know that you don’t have to be like this even if the Professors around you are. You can choose to be a different kind of teacher, a different kind of colleague.