On “Shit My Students Write”

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.

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9 thoughts on “On “Shit My Students Write”

  1. Interestingly, I found out about this site– from one of my former students. So I don’t know, maybe there is an element where they too find it kind of funny….

    Reply
    • I think that, as an undergrad, I would have found it funny, too—so long as it wasn’t my writing being skewered. I was kind of obnoxious that way.

      What I worry about, I guess, is the potentially adversarial relationship it implies between teachers and students. It’s hard enough to get students to take risks, and I don’t think it will help them to imagine us snickering in the break room (or online) about their various foibles.

      Reply
  2. While I have to admit that, mired in my end-of-semester grading, some of the postings on SMSW elicited a chuckle from me (such as the Rebecca Black reference), and I do find myself frustrated with evidence of actual laziness in student work. However, the excerpts that made me squirm more than LOL were ones that seemed to be a betrayal of the student’s confidence. One is an excerpt from a student who shared personal information that was clearly not intended for a public audience, as the “real” audience was likely only the teacher.

    Most of these betrayals, however, happen in cases of a student’s probably sincere efforts to appropriate or mimic academic English. In addition to your point about students struggling to respond to vague or difficult assignments, I also wonder how many of these posts actually jab at students for whom English is a second or third (or fourth…) language. While mistranslations or idiomatic oddities have definitely made me laugh at my desk, something about exposing them in a public forum feels not only like a betrayal to the individual student, but more than a little bit racist, or at least xenophobic. Further, students learning academic English are often already self-conscious about the potential for major linguistic blunders. Stumbling onto their own words on a site like this could be deeply troubling. I don’t think an Engrish.com for writing teachers is the best way to handle our grading insanity. If nothing else, the classroom should be a space in which students can experiment with language and sometimes fail in a big way, without facing social consequences in the larger public.

    Reply
    • I totally agree, LMB. It does kind of feel like a betrayal. No, teachers aren’t physicians and lawyers, so the rules of confidentiality aren’t as clearly defined for us. Still, posting a bit in which a student talks about having an STD seems almost as bad as a doctor blabbing about it.

      And I agree that one possible consequence of this, whether all of us engage in such behavior or not, is a chilling effect on trust between teachers and students.

      Reply
  3. Pingback: On “Shit My Students Write” « Teaching Writing in a Digital Age

  4. I don’t know. Decontextualized from the essays as those quotes were, some of them seemed to have potential. I kind of love this one:
    “I do not intend to mediate the artistic process with my mind.”
    Where did the student end up going with that? Most likely it was simply a justification for not doing what the prompt asked, but I’m still curious what the student’s rationale was.

    And of course one other thing I’m curious about is just what the prompts look like that engendered these responses.

    Reply
    • Good point. Maybe I’ve just become desensitized over the years, but some of the student writing in there seemed kind of reasonable to me, depending on the assignment.

      Reply
  5. The soapbox I’m trying not to get on on the WPA list:

    I find the whole enterprise depressing and mean-spirited. It’s not hard to understand why a student might be distressed about finding his/her work there. It’s not hard to understand why it might be offensive to dedicate an entire site to “Look how dumb they are!”

    And the people who justify it by saying “My student sent it to me” seem not to understand why some students might find this funny. Because they feel better about themselves seeing their peers get pilloried? Because they know it’ll never happen to them? “Look at how dumb they are! And how smart I am because I’m not as dumb as they are!”

    More than anything else, this site reminds me of the Jay Leno segments where they’d broadcast people who didn’t know answers to simple questions as if that were high comedy.

    “Look how dumb they are!” just isn’t funny.

    Reply

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