Tuesday, March 24, 2015

How Should We Talk About Our Students Online?

A few weeks ago, in my digital world at least, there was a flurry of activity around the issue of online 'student-shaming,' specifically in response to the new Dear Student column on Vitae. The Dear Student column presents hypothetical situations involving students making unreasonable requests of professors, with a slate of profs providing satirical email responses to the situations, such as missing textbooks, late enrollment, or family emergencies the day before the final exam. Jesse Stommel, an assistant prof at U of Wisconsin-Madison, objected to this column, and in a much-shared broadside, withdrew from his new post as columnist for Vitae. The internet responded, and various scholars chimed in: Dorothy Kim, responding to comments on Stommel's post, scrawled an epic twitter manifesto in support of Stommel about treating our students as humans and giving them the benefit of the doubt. Kelly Baker (of Vitae) storifyed a number of her twitter conversations and concludes, ultimately, that there are strong material reasons for ranting against students, but we should be pairing these rants with success stories: "instead of shaming students, we should publicly celebrate those who have inspired us," @joshua_r_eyler writes on Twitter. Others have argued that we should rant up, not down. One rebuttal points out that Dear Student is largely satirical and gives voice to a diverse ensemble of writers and respondents, including many women of color.

I like the Vitae. They've reposted one of my H&E blogs, they are geared toward young scholars like me, and they seem engaged with #alt-ac and #CAF issues. Not many involved in this debate have recognized that Stacey Patton, the Vitae reporter who began the series, is herself a woman of color with a PhD in History; she does not currently hold a tenure-track job. ((She runs a website, Spare the Kids, whose stated mission is "to provide Black parents, families, and communities with a full range of alternatives to corporal punishment." So we could say that she seems...cool?)) The attack has been leveled, strangely, at Vitae rather than engaging with Patton herself.

Of course, I echo others; we shouldn't student-shame. But let's take a moment and think about why many of us do it, even though we shouldn't. I'd wager that many of the worst culprits are actually those who are just starting out in the profession, who are having a hard time starting out in the profession, whose working conditions are precarious, who are underpaid, who are underrecognized, who worry about their own ability to manage a classroom and occasionally project that worry onto students. Sometimes I do it because I'm constantly plagued with imposter syndrome, because I search for validation through the distinction between my students and myself, because I am comforted with the thought that I am, in fact, smarter than them, and have the authority to stand in front of the classroom. I love my students, and am known as a very caring, devoted professor. But sometimes I, too, fall prey to the temptation to scoff at a sweeping "Since the beginning of time" opening to an essay, or carp about students who feel comfortable enough to accost me about a mediocre grade the moment I hand back the papers, without even pausing to read, let alone digest, my comments. It is worth noting, though this comment may be for another post, that the hierarchy is not always clear in large, corporatized universities; when students come from rich, privileged families and educators are  not granted basic working rights and benefits--is complaining about students always "ranting down"?

So, with all this in mind, how should we talk about students online? I recommend the following guidelines.
  1. Let's not shame students for succumbing to the immense pressure put upon them to succeed, to work hard to get better grades, to go into debt in the name of education, to fit in to a society that is still largely dominated by rich, white, cisgender men. Let's stop calling our students "kids." It's infantalizing, in the most literal sense, and perhaps reflects a larger attitude of superiority and inattention to our students' complexity, adulthood, diversity.
  2. Instead, let's think of our students as allies. I blogged a couple weeks ago about undergraduate student support for the graduate strikes as one of the most inspiring things to come out of the collective bargaining movements, in both New York and Toronto. Undergraduate students--those we sometimes refer to as 'kids'--fight for us. They fought for the unioners at NYU, and the unioners won; undergraduates have thus had a direct impact on the material conditions of grad students at NYU, present and future. It's worth taking a few moments and contemplating this fact. 
  3.  Let's not screenshot or copy sections of our students' papers online, even the good ones. It's condescending, and disrespectful of our students' rights to privacy. How would you, as a scholar, feel if you discovered that some of your unpublished work was posted somewhere without your consent? Joke about it with friends, perhaps--and marvel at the great papers too.
  4. Relatedly, while celebrating rather than shaming students is a great idea, be careful--let's not [humble-]brag about how great our students are online. At least not too much. You're often not reeeeally praising the student; you're praising yourself (especially when done within the privacy of facebook, when the student must remain unnamed and ignorant to your praise). In general, feel comfortable and confident celebrating your successes on social media (see: H&E's Boast Post column!), but be aware of others, and practice moderation.
  5. Instead, let's share teaching strategies online, the things we do with students. Talking about what activities you're trying, what material you're using, how your pedagogy is shifting, and soliciting advice: these are all appropriate uses of social media.
  6. Let's ask our students for their permission if we want to celebrate their achievements online. My class website has a page for "Excellent Student Writing" where I post A papers with the authors' consent, using the papers both reward and model for others. 
  7. Let's treat students as humans. 
  8. But let's be honest with ourselves, too, about the realities of our working conditions, about the hardships of higher education, for educators as well as students. Let's recognize our need for outlets and validation, and perhaps for productive anger, for brainstorming possible solutions to the problems of higher education.
Other suggestions? How should we be talking about our students online?

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