By Richard Parfitt |
Something that’s bugged me ever since I started my PhD has been the number of my fellow academics that I see criticising their undergraduate students on social media, particularly on Twitter. Of course, you can see where it comes from. Academics are overworked, underpaid and under pressure to produce world-class research with little funding and no time. Frustrated people express their frustration, and they don’t always direct it at the right people. Nevertheless, academics have a duty of care to their students and a lot of the mocking and bitter comments that I read don’t seem appropriate.
These posts come in multiple forms. Often, I see academics posting quotes from their students’ essays with a commentary about how this is a simple mistake. An obvious error such as ‘Margaret Thatcher was the first woman to enter parliament’ or ‘America has been an independent country since the early 1900s’ has tickled the marker in question, and that marker thought they’d get a few likes on Twitter by reflecting on the ignorance of their students. In other instances, a student just can’t write very well, and pointing out that you’ve just had to read a whole essay using ‘you’re’ instead of ‘your’ will certainly get your fellow clever followers nodding and sighing in agreement. More simply, sometimes reading a poorly executed undergraduate essay might just be boring, and an amusing tweet on how you’re wasting good research time reading the work of an inferior mind is a good piece of catharsis.
I could write for pages about my issues with all of this, but let’s just start by asking why students are putting out work like this. They’re trying to engage with the material even if they don’t fully understand it. Students have to try things out and make mistakes. There’s a reason none of us publish the first draft of an article. Remember also that what is obvious to you comes from a great deal more experience and a great deal more knowledge. Your student may well have written their essay after eight seminars and a few lectures on American history having never studied anything outside of the Tudors and Weimar Germany before in their entire lives. They may have been hanging on every word you said and been the victim of their own bad handwriting when it came to going through their notes. Of course you point out the error, but making fun of it just makes it looks like you don’t understand the learning process. We know plenty about how overworked academics are, but students are in a very similar position. They’ve got one term to learn everything they can about this and maybe two or three other topics, possibly on top of an unpaid internship or a zero hours job.
Perhaps most importantly, the person who was supposed to guide them towards a better understanding of this topic was you. If they haven’t got a clue, you might have something to do with it. There will always be students who don’t make the effort. Nevertheless, teachers aren’t paid only to teach the naturally high achieving, but also those who struggle to understand or struggle to motivate themselves. The failings you want to laugh at may be your own.
My final point, which may be the most important, is that a lot of the young folk these days are on social media. Most of us have public Twitter accounts, and many of us have students who follow us. If you quote your student’s essay and laugh at how thick they are, that student might be reading and if they are there’s a good chance they might recognise a quote from their own essay. Most students can handle being wrong or being told their work isn’t very good, but we don’t reasonably expect them to handle public ridicule or even humiliation.
Social media is a great tool for sharing experience in academia, and for finding others who have had the same issues and difficulties as you. However, it should not be a forum for making fun of your students. They make mistakes because they’re try things out, because they’re engaging in genuinely new areas of study and, occasionally, because we don’t always do a great job of teaching them.