For some years I have been annoyed with and quietly disdainful of scholars who reproduce their students’ mistakes in public or semi-public forums. It usually occurs when they are marking student essays or exams. They will pick a silly mistake and hold it up for mockery by, mainly, fellow scholars. And it obviously resonates, because these posts usually get several replies from other scholars.
I have been wondering why this behavior rubs me the wrong way. The big obvious reason is that this is “punching down”. I have no problems with trenchant criticism of fellow scholars, and all the more so for things marked “the consensus”. Tear it down! By all means attack what scholars have said and have published: at least they’ll know they’re being read. But come on: students?! Have you suddenly figured out that they don’t know as much as you? Is that it? Sure, mention a humorous mistake in a one-to-one conversation. Some of these mistakes are, after all, funny – that’s not in dispute. But there is something just wrong about a whole group of scholars laughing about their students making mistakes. Students are there to learn. They are allowed to make mistakes. Yet it has seemingly become quite acceptable to post their mistakes in public or semi-public forums, and is done by both seasoned and younger scholars. And it strikes me as a dick move.
It’s prominently a North American preoccupation, too. It is almost always accompanied by a holier-than-thou justification along the lines of: see how little they work! see that they do not read the Course Book that I spent hours preparing! see how much smarter I am! Well, that last justification is not expressed, but it is always implied by the discourse of mockery. What is it about some scholars, in particular North Americans, that they can endlessly whine about students not being deferential enough to their higher status in life? Some of the longest threads I have seen on Facebook involve scholars, mostly North American scholars (I have a lot of them as Facebook friends, perhaps not much longer, though), complaining that a student emailed them with “Hey” instead of “Dear Doctor” or “Professor” or “Herr Professor Doctor” or whatever they demand in recognition of their Higher Station In Life. Surely there might be better ways to advertise your cultural capital…. if you really feel the need? This, too, strikes me as basically a dick move. (If you don’t believe me that this is a especially a North American trait, have a search through North American course syllabuses – there are usually detailed instructions about how to email or address your lecturer “properly”.)
By far the worst example of student-mocking I have seen is the twitter account Bible Students Say (@BibleStdntsSay). For about eight years or so, @BibleStdntsSay tweeted more than ten thousand examples of mistakes that he found in his students’ essays and exams. More than ten thousand. Having not looked at it for years, I recently checked in on the account, and it is now only available to subscribers . But when the vast majority were posted, the account was open to the public.
What makes this the worst case? It is not simply the fact that @BibleStdntsSay posted so many student mistakes. What makes this egregious is that these were students enrolled at a community college, in Delaware – a low-fees college which gives many people with less education the opportunity to participate in tertiary education. These include many students from lower and lower-middle class families. These include many students who struggle in their learning. It was this particular demographic that a Biblical Studies lecturer (and pastor) chose to mock – by tweeting their mistakes.
I know that people often look for new reasons to defend their actions after receiving criticism. But if that’s your initial reaction, maybe it’s worth considering that what has become acceptable academic behavior is, well, something that truly deserves mocking.