There’s an interesting discussion going on, digitally, regarding the way we roll our eyes, digitally, at students’ poor prose. This has become an industry in itself: I’m not going to pretend I don’t spend a lot of time chuckling at this site. There are also books like this and this.

My favorite experience was a fairly benign one – it didn’t involve student error so much as hasty penmanship. I was teaching a 7th grade logic class (yes, that existed) and was having students translate normal language into universal language (i.e.: Woofy the dog is spotless to “Some Dogs Have no Spots”) so that it can be the universal or particular premise of a syllogism. One of the phrases I gave was “Mr. Daniels [an administrator] tucks his pants into his socks.” Not foreseeing that lower case cursive “ts look a lot like lower case cursive “f”s, I was delighted to see a student respond “All Mr. Daniels is a pants into socks *ucker.” Thankfully, Mr. Daniels found this as funny as I did.

[Click here to get the links to all of these]

The issue begins here: when Clare Potter, the Tenured Radical, takes a pretty hard line against such behavior, claiming:

Humiliating students in their absence is, of course, a symptom of very intelligent, highly verbal and very resentful group of people trying to amuse themselves during bouts of grading, an activity many of us despise. Strangely, making fun of students while grading is usually perceived by other professionals as harmless fun. It’s an academic version of  ”Kids Say The Darndest Things,” a regular feature of the middlebrow Cold War TV show Art Linkletter’s Houseparty in which small children were served up by their parents to be ridiculed on a national broadcast.

She cites, favorably, an article by Cathy Davidson, who claims:

So don’t blame the next eighteen year old who calls, knocks on your door, or emails to boost that B- to an A-. He’s been taught his whole life how to get the good final score that equals educational success.

This prompted an interesting debate on Twitter and Jeffrey J. Cohen’s facebook page, in which issues such as institutional demands are referenced as reasons why teachers engage in such behavior. Also, as they note, Potter doesn’t really give a solution other than to come up with unorthodox assignments. To this, I’d respond, such assignments produce even more unorthodox and ragged results because less diligent students fail to understand the parameters of the assignment; this isn’t a reason not to think outside of the box, but it doesn’t really solve the problem. And grading these creates its own set of problems: I always come up with a detailed two-page rubric and a series of instructional prompts that give the students structure, lest they assume that a “creative” project is just an opportunity to do whatever they want.

While Potter is characterized as “wrong-headed,” she’s not wrong. And yet, I don’t doubt that teachers who chuckle together at misguided prose love their students and want them to succeed.

Here’s the on-going debate. (Note: you will need an institutional account to access the Chronicle articles; post in the comments and I’ll try to get you a copy if you want it)

Grading in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction by Clare Potter (links to other valuable resources here as well, such as Davidson’s article)

The responses via Twitter, collected on Storify

On-going discussion on Jeffrey J Cohen’s public facebook profile



  1. Great post, Andy. I’ve been following this debate with interest and it seems to me there’s been an overreaction on both sides.

    One thing I don’t follow: where does Potter say “assign unorthodox assignments”? This has been a sticking point for many of the discussions unfolding across the internet. But she just says instructors shouldn’t assign assignments we don’t want to read. This doesn’t have to mean unorthodox, necessarily. Folks assigning final position papers in Engl 101 do this all the time: e.g., “no papers about lowering the drinking age or school uniforms.”

    One thing I’m particularly frustrated with: essay questions on timed final exams. They don’t produce good writing. I don’t like reading them. Students don’t like writing them (I sure didn’t as an undergrad – they are exercises in how much bullsh*t can I come up with in a set amount of time). So for next semester – I’m going radically change how I ask them to frame their essay questions or I’m going to cut them and replace them with more short answer. Not unorthodox, just a recognition that I’m doing something that’s not working and I need to find a better way to assess what they’ve learned over the course of a semester.

    I, too, enjoy reading the many academic tumblrs but I almost never link to them on social networks because:

    1) My social networks are publicly available. I wouldn’t say anything on twitter or facebook I wouldn’t say to a student’s face within earshot of other students. True, some answers on Shit My Students Write are just hilarious. Sometimes the student knows s/he’s being hilarious or a wise-ass. That’s fine. But publicly (and regularly, and contemptuously) chastising spelling, malapropisms, factual errors, and general ignorance or disinterest for sport does strike me as petty. There’s a difference between laughing with the student (“Here’s ‘x'”) and laughing at them.

    2) Some (not all, by any means) of the posts are so mean-spirited. (e.g., http://phdstress.com/post/34311520799/when-undergrads-havent-understood-the-text http://phdstress.com/post/34298027933/when-an-undergrad-asks-if-i-want-to-read-his-paper). Where’s the humility? Good-natured ribbing is fine, but it should come with some admission that we’ve all written our fair share of dumb things on timed writing exams. We’ve all had to stay up until dawn trying to finish a term paper. We’ve all made totally wrongheaded wild guesses when we don’t know the answer. And we’ve definitely all taken classes in which we did not feel personally invested. How about some sympathy?

    3) Although I agree Potter is short on solutions, I also think consistent dissatisfaction with a key part of one’s job demands some sort of response. This doesn’t mean I have to love grading (as some people on the storify thread imply), but it should mean the vast majority of students are meeting the objectives of the course. E.g., this gif: http://wheninacademia.tumblr.com/post/37384687580/when-i-read-fifteen-papers-in-a-row-all-starting-with. Sure, laugh about it. But also figure out how to address it.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful response, Rob. I think I put some of my own practices into my selection of the description “unorthodox.” For instance, at the end of my Lit in a Wired World classes (as I’ve explained constantly on Facebook), I give an assignment that I love grading: students pick a text of their choice and create a wiki about interpretive discussions surrounding that text available via the web. The best ones are delightful; the worst are misinterpretations of the assignment that go uncorrected by me because the student started it at the last minute. I think what Potter might be hinting at is the proscriptive prompts that teachers use year after year that always come up with the same results. If that’s the case, drop the assignment. But I do think we have to be sure what we’re assessing whenever we develop these projects. So “unorthodox” doesn’t work as a description of she’s (albeit vaguely) advocating, even if the thinking she inspires results in orthodox assignments.

    I agree regarding essay questions like you describe. It’s why I always give students the question ahead of time so that they can prepare for it. I also let them bring in an outline (that they hand in with the exams). These usually result in thoughtful, albeit informal answers inspired by a prompt that lets them bring in the topics of the course that they found most interesting (“Pick three texts . . .”) My exams are frequently, on some level, failures of ambition: students don’t finish them. So I have to adjust my grading accordingly: grading what they did finish rather than an ability to write a lot in a two/three hour session.

    Like you, I don’t know what to do with the memes. Whenever someone posts one, I know they refer to their own general frustrations, and I’m fully aware that the poster is equally willing to express his/her own anxieties as a teacher. But doesn’t it feel like any of the posts you cite, readily available and unprotected, could be exhibit A in a ratemyprofessor response? The GLADIATOR meme reflects intellectual arrogance, but I could see it being used in a kind of silly way: the teacher is expressing the fact that his class is nothing like this, or something; but that context isn’t there.

    I think we’re ready for a, and perhaps have been participating in, a discussion of pedagogical humility in the digital age. This is a start.

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