Against cynicism in education

Working in academic support, I constantly think of two very different people. The first is a student, smart but sometimes unmotivated. He does his work, mostly gets it in on time, but is sloppy, some might even call him lazy, in his checking for errors. The second is the rhetoric teacher who sees his students make simple mistakes over and over in a stack of papers and feels frustrated at their lack of improvement. These are two people who on the surface look antagonistic to each other.

Both, of course, are past versions of me. I’ve been that “lazy” student, and I’ve been that “frustrated” teacher. So can I tell you that both want the same things. Both want to feel smart and respected. As a student, I wanted to attain some degree of academic success, but I sometimes sabotaged my effort by allowing myself to get overwhelmed by stress. As a teacher, I wanted my students to get better and tried as hard as I could to invent lessons to make that happen. Naturally, I got frustrated, sometimes even feeling like the quality of my teaching was on the line, when it seemed like students weren’t trying.

Eventually, I learned to reconcile the “lazy” student in me with the “frustrated” teacher by understanding that both came about from a cynical attitude. Cynicism about the potential for improvement, often drawn from a fixed mindset of one’s own intelligence or from what is expected by others, causes problems for both the student and the teacher. It’s one of the bigger causes of burnout in both.

Not surprisingly, a lot of this cynicism comes from a frustrated optimism. No student starts out hating learning. Most are thrilled when they learn something new as a young child, but somewhere along the line they change their view of education. Nor do most teacher get into teaching with a cynical attitude towards the profession. The cynicism that exists in education is there because of the way education works (or doesn’t work), and both sides have to fight it to find meaning and value in learning and teaching.

So when I see sites like “Shit my Students Write”, I understand the sentiment behind whoever put it together, but I’m deeply troubled by the cynicism behind it and what it means for education.In case you’ve not heard of it and don’t feel like Googling it, “Shit My Students Write” is a Tumblr blog that allows teachers to submit malapropisms, proofreading oversights, or other unintended humorous mistakes from their student’s papers.

The practice of sharing students’ humorous mix ups is not new. Teachers swap stories, and I don’t have much of a problem with that because of the purpose such swapping serves. Many teachers have a hard time not feeling like students’ failures are a mark against their own teaching. Discussions in the teacher lounge can be a way of relieving some of the stress and frustration. At the same time, those discussions help teachers reaffirm their own vision of themselves, find new strategies to reach students, and help vent negative emotions. Without an outlet for that relief and the support that comes from other teachers, it’s hard to walk back into that room with the positive mindset that teaching demands (and students deserve.)

However, “Shit My Students Write” is a very different kind of sharing. Everything is anonymous. Not putting up student names is understandable. But not putting up a name for the site creator or the submitters makes the whole affair seem much more cynical and eliminates those more productive elements from the process.

The public forum also leads to a more cynical attitude towards learning. This site unfairly exhibits mistakes as marks against the writers’ characters and abilities. Each quotation is taken out of the context of the original paper and the assignment, nor do we know the level of these students. That hasn’t stopped the blog from being passed around the internet. The site’s creator publicizes it as “evidence of the true cost of educational funding cuts.” If we’re really looking for evidence of the true cost in cuts in educational funding, we might look at the reaction that others are having to these blog posts.

Many are reblogging these mistakes, passing them with notes like this one by blogger liliuminterspinas: “Jesus kids are dumb. I’m literally rolling on the floor laughing. High school students are such shit heads! LMFAO”. That kind of judgment is the worst possible attitude for developing writers to encounter. The writers who do encounter these attitudes are the ones that give up, say they can’t write, and just turn in whatever they think will get them out of school as quickly as possible. They don’t spend the time to improve. Instead, they flee because they want to escape that realm type of negative judgment. Such cynicism isn’t the direct cause of the mistakes, but it certainly contributes to why students don’t improve.

Not surprisingly, many of the comments of those other bloggers who pass on these posts contain mistakes. Tabbythegreat passed along one post with the comment: “I can’t complain about my students writing anymore.” I’m guessing Tabby has a complaints with her “students’ writing” not the actual act of “students writing” because the context of the rest of her blog shows that she’s a gifted and passionate person who seems excited about teaching.

Or look at the above comment from liliuminterspinas, who said that “Jesus kids are dumb.” Again, just guessing here, but I think that by putting “Jesus” first in the sentence, she intended to use either direct address or a mild interjection to start her sentence. In either case, she should have put a comma between “Jesus” and “kids.” As she’s written it here, one might infer that she’s using Jesus as an adjective to describe the kids, as in these kids are either followers of Jesus or have messianic qualities themselves, which does not seem to fit the rest of her context. Of course, if we want to start putting in punctuation for her, we might guess she meant that she meant to say that “Jesus’ kids are dumb,” which would either imply that she has a very poor opinion against a Hispanic man’s children or she’s got a different version of the Bible than I do.

The point is that if we wanted to be cynical we could put up a blog about how “dumb” teachers or bloggers are and find plenty of humorous mistakes to put up out of context. But I know where cynicism gets us. I’m not interested in being cynical because that only leads to sniping, and I’m sure someone could find plenty of my own mistakes to spread around. Having been the student described above and having had trouble recovering from my own mistakes, I don’t want to do that, and I hope that if the bloggers I’ve quoted above ever find this, they’ll see that I am using their mistakes not as exhibitions of how dumb bloggers are, but rather as an exhibition of the danger of judging others by their mistakes outside of the context in which they are made.

Instead of judging,  I’m interested in thinking about where such cynicism gets us. Consider the post that liliuminterspinas posted three days after the “Jesus kids” comment, in which she links to the follow notebook page originally posted on the Tumblr blog of freakinkim:

With this note, liliuminterspinas, provided the caption: “I need someone to tell me this every morning when I wake up.” She’s absolutely right. I wish that someone had reminded her of it when she made the comment about “Shit my Students Write”.

Emotional intelligence cannot be separated from learning to live in and interpret the world around us. We all need to be reminded that we have control over our own frustrations, stress, and emotions. We need to know that we can choose what bothers us and what doesn’t and that things in life aren’t easy but we can make the best of it. And we all need to know that dwelling on the negatives only leads to a cynical attitude that leaves us making flippant remarks about another’s’ writing with no other productive energy behind it.

When this positive attitude is lost, we also lose the opportunity to teach. That’s sad because some of the posts that are shared look like they have some genuine productive energy behind it. Looking through these quotations, many of them show evidence of students trying to say what they think their audience needs to here. The post that evoked the above comment from Tabbythegreat was trying to convince people of the value of Planned Parenthood. In it, the author reveals that a trip to Planned Parenthood revealed to her that she had “genital warts from a strand of HPV.” Without Planned Parenthood, this disease would have gone untreated because she felt that she “couldn’t have something like this show up on [her] parents’ insurance.” This student seems to be passionate and trying to make a point that is valid: given the connection between HPV and cervical cancer, the fact that she was able to get it treated at Planned Parenthood means that Planned Parenthood might have saved her life. At the same time, she’s attempting to present this information in a personal anecdote, something I’m sure she’s seen work effectively in lots of other essays. Rather than rewarding that effort and working with her to revise, her teacher posted a portion of her essay on the internet with the caption, “In conclusion, TMI.”

Of course, this teacher might have also worked with this student to help her tweak her approach, but such work is severely undermined by the posting of such a passage on the internet.

The real damage done here is to the image of teachers, which is damage teachers can ill afford. Speaking with my fiancée about this post, she noted it reminded her of the cynical image of teachers that is projected in the latest commercials for the new Cameron Diaz movie, Bad Teachers. In the film, Diaz plays a foul mouthed teacher who says, “I became a teacher for all the right reasons: summers off, no accountability.” While the image is intentionally comic, there are certainly many who believe this sentiment and use it to advance their own agenda. For evidence of this, look no further than those politicians who want to drastically cut funding for public education while attempting to legislate their own curriculum without the educational training that they criticize some teachers of not having.

Given the attacks on teachers that are out there, it’s sad when teachers contribute to this cynicism themselves.

It’s even sadder to contemplate the educational environment this creates. While one smarmy comment about a student’s work on a website doesn’t do much damage, the cumulative effect of such negativity puts students into a place where they feel they can’t productively make mistakes.

When a classroom is productive and students feel safe to express themselves and take risks and maybe say the occasional “dumb” thing, they can learn and grow into the types of thinkers that we want and need them to be. When that atmosphere is absent, when it is poisoned by the cynicism of teachers who can’t deal with the frustration and lash out, blaming the students or submitting their mistakes to public ridicule, then educators fail to educate, and as a result, students fail to learn as much as they can.

But there is a way out. As the note above says, “Optimism is key”. And for optimism to work, one must build a support system that generates positive emotional feedback and productive suggestions. One must reflect on the difficulty of keeping such an optimistic system in place and prepare for the frustrations, stress, sadness, and anger are temporary states brought on by negative results that are inevitably part of any learning process. It is imperative that we understand that cynicism has no place in education.


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Good Writer, Bad Writer

Good writer, bad writer reflects the philosophy behind the first writing lesson I attempt to teach students. Too many of them come into college believing that their writing abilities are set in stone. The bad writers continue to struggle, and the good writers don't take enough risks in their writing, figuring that any misstep will throw them back into the "bad writer" category.

Good writer, bad writer is my attempt to break the power of that dichotomy. On here, I share the lessons and attitudes that I teach, but I also talk about the attitudes I have towards my own writing since many of those have informed my own teaching. Thanks for visiting.

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