On Student-Shaming and Punching Down

Author: Kevin Gannon
Original: The Tattooed Professor


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)


 

Advertisements