Apparently, it’s been around since last November, but I just learned about a site called “Shit My Students Write.” It’s a Tumblr site that posts bits of less-than-stellar student writing, ostensibly as “evidence of the true cost of educational funding cuts.” I have chosen not to include examples of these posts, for reasons that I hope will become clear, but you may want to take a moment to visit the site and get a sense of what’s there.
Back? Of course, there’s nothing especially new about this activity, except maybe the use of social media to accomplish it. Teachers have been mocking the efforts of their students since time immemorial. I taught at one university in which some instructors put up a “wall of shame” in the teachers’ staff room, and they posted whole student essays that were, for whatever reason, deemed risible. The department believed this was in bad taste, and had it removed.
I understand why teachers do this. I’ve stared down enough stacks of papers in my time to know how potentially crazy-making it is to grade student writing. You get tired. You get punchy. And then you run across some absurd gem a student has written that forces you either to laugh or cry. At that moment of choice between derision and despair, it’s probably better to laugh at it.
But there’s a difference between laughing to oneself and posting student writing in a public forum for everyone else to see. It’s a bit like getting drunk and posting a bunch of stuff to your Facebook page that, in the cold light of day, shouldn’t really seem all that funny. Or rather, in the case of “Shit My Students Write,” it isn’t funny enough to override the potential danger that a student might find their own writing posted there. Maybe some of them wouldn’t care, but then maybe some of them would.
How would that feel, to find out a teacher of yours has publicly posted something you wrote for the express purpose of mocking you? It’s as if Henry Higgins, not content with stuffing Eliza’s mouth full of marbles and making her “enunciate,” also paraded her through the streets of London and invited passersby to poke fun at her. I don’t think Pickering would have stood for it.
My Fair Lady is an apt analogy for another reason, and that’s the fact that sometimes student writing sucks (to the point of seeming funny) precisely because teachers are asking them to do something new and difficult. Some of the examples on “Shit My Students Write” are surely the result of intense ignorance or laziness, but others may very well be the result of an honest attempt to complete a difficult (or vague) assignment. Students are made vulnerable when we ask them to write, precisely because the gap between where they are and where we want them to be is so very obvious. It takes a certain amount of trust in the teacher, whether warranted or not, for them to turn in anything at all.
Do I think teachers who post (bad) student writing in public forums are monsters? Of course not. But I do think that fewer teachers would do it if they spent more time considering the implications of that act.