Thursday, February 28, 2013

"'Another gem'" UPDATED

Do your teach (at any level)? Do your friends teach? If so, half of your Facebook feed probably consists of anecdotes from class, cute snippets of kids' assignments, and examples of the more entitled emails sent by college students. The students in question are rarely (never, in my experience) named or readily identifiable, but it always struck me as iffy to share this type of info at all. On the one hand, the stories can be comforting to fellow teachers, the threads useful forums for advice, and yes, all of it can be immensely entertaining. On the other, students will find it. If you're in the class, certainly if you're the kid in question, you'll know.

So my inclination had always been to keep this sort of thing (and anything even quasi-confidential - I don't understand or trust the privacy settings, making me something of a paranoid curmudgeon, but anyway) offline. And then official policy in my department became that one could not share such stuff on Facebook, which struck me as reasonable. Everyone's qualms are different (and mine, given my feelings on parental overshare, are probably higher than most), so it's best if institutions have a policy.

On that note: An admissions officer at Penn just lost her job, seemingly over having made fun of parts of applicants' essays on Facebook. It's unclear what Penn's policy/her division's policy was on this, but it seems like the employee may not have seen these excerpts as breaching confidentiality, if the kids' names were not provided, and if the kids were not really identifiable. As much as I see this as problematic, it's not obvious everyone would (again, given the ample Facebook-newsfeed evidence), so yes, there need to be policies, clear ones, because common sense doesn't cover it.


And now, the second Facebook professional overshare of the day, this one also, strangely, related to circumcision. Lest you think discussion of male genitalia and its surgical modification is some facet of our modern TMI society, let me just say that a lot of the 19th C material I've had to go through for my dissertation involves matter-of-fact references to men getting circumcised, or references to them being or not being thus. To be circumcised (in this context) meant to be Jewish; when a non-Jewish man became Jewish, what would have to happen was not necessarily just alluded to.


Moebius Stripper said...

Seriously, that right there is half the reason I don't have a Facebook account. (The awkwardness of having to negotiate being Facebook friends (or not) with my students is most of the other half.) I stick to pseudonymous tweets, which I'm pretty sure can't be traced back to me, and which I keep pretty general - though I occasionally wonder if I'm pressing my luck.

On the flip side, I often Google my more, uh, interesting students to see if they're prone to overshare. Many do blog or tweet under their real names, and I'm generally quite impressed by their restraint, which I know I lacked as an undergrad.

Phoebe said...

Re: Googling students, I think I did this one semester before meeting them for remembering-names purposes, and found it just odd to know so much about them, and so didn't do it the last time I taught. I'm not sure what it would have helped if I found out (and this would be the fear, right?) that one of them had a blog entirely devoted to despising my class.

Re: pressing of luck, I think I'm just much more concerned about this sort of thing than most. Yes, despite my tendency to hold forth on WWPD and in the publications that will have me. I prefer to use my real name, in part because I want credit for what I've written here, but mostly, I suppose, because using my real name prevents me from writing anything borderline, where if it somehow came out who had written that, there'd be embarrassment of some kind. And I use my real name on Facebook as well, and don't do the thing where one can complain and say various confidential things to a select group of 20 out of several hundred. My feeling is, out there is out there, you never know who will forward what, whose computer will be left open where, etc. It just seems easier to save venting and such for in-person conversations.

Finally... the more I think about this Penn case, the more baffled I am by the near-unanimity among Chronicle commenters, saying that this employee was such an idiot, displayed such bad judgment. From what I can tell, the employee didn't identify let alone name the applicants. This kind of discreet venting is such standard behavior among teachers, and really hasn't come to be seen as crossing a line. I get that these were college admissions essays, but what does that change? Schoolwork is always supposed to be private, as in your teacher can't post your homework with your name on it. Is it supposed to be scandalous that these essays are being judged on how likable they make applicants seem? If not that, what are the essays for?

So yes, this still leaves me concluding that schools/divisions need to have explicit policies if they don't want any references to students/applicants, even unnamed ones, on social media.

kei said...

You aren't alone in being curmudgeonly, or paranoid, about these sorts of things. I guess what I find so bad about this stuff is that it's the combination of saying something inappropriate about someone else (particularly who's involved in some power relation to you) in public and in writing. Writing an email to someone about a student is one thing (and even that, I would avoid), but I just assume that what's etched on Facebook/Twitter etc. is permanent, even if you can delete the comment or account later. Screengrab options exist seemingly just to catch such events, and this is exactly how we know about Chris Brown's continuing anger-related antics.

This veers away from the Penn thing and is more about teaching, and I may be without much company on this front, but I also see this kind of behavior as a larger, deeper problem about teaching. Granted, not all comments are cruel, but some of the more egregious ones really disturb me. There's something weird in the background I don't like--"I'm the knowledgeable expert; look at this ignorant fool!" How is this kind of attitude towards one's students conducive to teaching them anything? And if the student is making some grave error on material you've been teaching them, how is the student's mistake or failure also not in some at least indirect way saying something about the teacher not being able to reach out to the student? I realize a student's failure is not at all necessarily reflective of the teacher's failure to teach; I'm just saying the student's failure is emblematic of at least a disconnect between the teacher and student. And when a teacher mocks a student, I think that mockery is saying as much about the student as much as the teacher.

I realize that this problem of mocking students isn't new, so my criticisms would stand regardless of the existence of social media. But again, when all of this is made public and (to me, essentially) permanent, everything becomes a bit more complicated.

(I may have peculiar feelings about teaching, so I can see why someone might not totally be on board with the stuff above.)

Phoebe said...


I'm not sure if your view is peculiar, but a) I've seen what you describe, and b) I'm with you 100% on this.

The only devil's-advocate angle I could add is that a) some of this mockery is intended as 'oh how adorable' (esp. if these are young kids) in the manner of "kids say the darndest things", and b) sometimes (esp. if these are less-posh students) it's coming from genuine frustration over the low level of student preparedness overall, the result of years and years of weak schooling and absentee/stressed parenting, such that no one teacher could possibly solve singlehandedly. And with language classes, certain mistakes are simply amusing (as in, they mean something amusing) to those who know the language, and are indicative neither of a teacher's failings (no teacher brings about immediate fluency) nor of a student doing poorly in the subject. It still shouldn't go on Facebook (do people not have in-person conversations?), but it's not always malicious.

But it's also not never malicious, and examples of the malicious variety do spring to mind. (FWIW, nothing from my own university let alone department) As for what those postings are about, I see it as not unlike the "Bitter Barista" blogger - the teachers who do this are unhappy with their lot (their pay, the amount of respect they get), and the main thing they can feel good about is that they know more about their subject than the kids in their class. (With the barista, his superiority came from feeling cooler than his customers.) It's problematic, but as with much unpleasant behavior, can be traced to insecurity.

Nicholas said...

I've been thinking about this for the last few days, since my initial impulse was that sharing the occasional oddly-worded sentence from a student paper is not much of a big deal. It may be a reflection of my own experiences alone but: the instances in which I share something are devoid of identifying details, and generally have nothing to do with the overall quality of the work. My favorite example was a midterm in which a student inter alia mentioned the failure to stop World War II as a mark against the United Nations; gaffe aside, it was an A- exam. Exams are weird constructs, and everyone has a bum sentence or two in a long paper: I think there's nothing particularly harmful in collecting and periodically sharing examples thereof. Grotius or Hobbes or Locke sometimes say strange or funny things, too, and I don't think it's any different when those get posted.

The problem is clearly when this shades over from general bemusement to active contempt for the student involved, or students in general. In my experience, that's much more likely to happen in more private fora than Facebook: meetings amongst professional colleagues, etc. In a weird way, it seems like the semi-public status of Facebook moderates what is and can be said; it's alright to be bemused or slightly frustrated with some classroom situations, but anything stronger than that gets negatively sanctioned.

Then again, this is all anecdata, so I'm prepared to believe my observed instances of this behavior are abnormal.

Phoebe said...


What you describe - things being genuinely amusing, and not pointing to a student's overall weakness in the class - covers the bulk of the Facebook updates I've seen in this area. I rarely see contempt, and have not seen that from anyone in my field/department. People do tend to use common sense.

But you have to consider it from a student's perspective. Let's say you're the kid who just got an A- on the exam, and you find that your instructor put your hilarious mistake on Twitter. Do you think, 'heh, true, how funny! and how wonderful, an A-!' Or do you think that this devastating error was what stood between you and an A?

Even apart from the grade, which is not the central issue, it seems like students' feelings could be hurt even just realizing that they're being discussed. If anything, I find students tend to overestimate the extent to which teachers give them any thought, positive or negative, after class, but to have written proof that you made an impression, and not a positive one, seems potentially upsetting, even if it's something that to the poster/to other instructors was not meant that way at all. If a prof of mine in grad school posted something hilarious from one of my papers, even an A paper, and somehow that got back to me, I wouldn't be pleased.

As for offline contempt, maybe? This is something I've mostly seen expressed in this way where grad students discuss undergrads as though they're a more spoiled caste, as opposed to just younger. (I think this has come up on WWPD before, but not sure where.) As in, 'mommy and daddy' maybe are helping the kid financially, the kid who works 20 hours a week and is in school full time, but the kid is 19. That a grad student, at 29, is self-supporting is not scrappiness. It's old age. So there can be an odd kind of pseudo-class resentment, partly fueled by the fact that a certain number of undergrads do go on to do something more lucrative than grad school (yet, considering how many of them end up entirely unemployed, or at Starbucks...), but largely, I think, based on confusion over what's age and what's privilege.