On bullying, snark, and writing teachers

Something happened on twitter this week that motivated me to write this post.  Generally, I’ve noticed a bit of a trend (granted, this is sampling bias) of Higher Ed folks tweeting, facebooking, reddit-ing, and otherwise publicly mentioning, kvetching, and snarking about students.  Largely, this has been about students’ writing.  Then, I noticed that someone else noticed, too. And then, there was a backlash. I am of the opinion that there is a fine line between being snarky and bullying. Satire loses its power in my eyes when it takes aim at the powerless. It is one thing to laugh with a person when they have a typo or an unfortunate word substitution (thong for thing, for example) (iPhone auto-correct gets me in trouble regularly. I once blew up an eye vessel laughing too hard at damnyouautocorrect.com). It is quite another to be laughed at.

Listen, we all get tired of feeling like we are repeating ourselves to our students. We get frustrated that nothing seems to change. But openly complaining on twitter is counterproductive at best, and hurtful at worst.  The thing is that we can teach all we want; it is the learning that matters.

In my experience, a student not taking care with his or her paper is a result of not taking a risk in his or her writing. And really, why would a student take a risk when he or she risks being openly mocked when they fail? I have seen third grade classrooms, steeped in the writing workshop approach, produce essays that would put my eleventh graders to shame. The third graders’  supportive classroom environment allowed them to take risks and grow as writers. I also have worked with adults terrified to show me their writing, because all they have known are writing teachers who myopically and fanatically focus on grammatical and spelling errors, thereby sacrificing risk-taking (and along with it voice, argument, and all the other aspects of writing that makes it wonderful.

I have some suggestions for addressing this pressing problem of poor student writing. Some truths: writing is not easy, and teaching writing is even harder.  Here is the beginning of a list of resources (not exhaustive by any means!) that I have personally found valuable as a teacher of writing and as a writer myself.  Please feel free to add your own voice to this conversation in the hopes of being productive.



  1. Well-put, Andrea. I think that students feeling like their environment isn’t supportive enough for their writing to do good work is a major problem here.

    Another issue behind the snark, unfortunately, is a full-on lack of understanding and lack of respect between teacher and student. That seems to be triggered by savage, long-standing, systemic inequalities, and a lack of transparency about the way social and educational institutions function.

    1. Julie, I agree wholeheartedly on your point about the inequalities and the ways in which our educational institutions function, especially higher ed. I have been employed on staff in the past and now as a grad student and the intricacies of every interaction sometimes overwhelm me. To know that so much was hidden just out of view from me in my own undergraduate education astounds me. I had no idea, really, what must have been going on.

      There are lots of things that need fixing, that’s for sure. I just want to focus on what is in our control: respecting the students in front of us. Thank you so much for your comments, friend : I really value your voice, as I hope you know 🙂

  2. I think you make some great points on the issue of Internet snark. I think the main issue causing the snark is not risk-adverse student behavior, but open and unashamed lazy behavior. “Shit my students write” might be an exception to this.

    I would hope most higher-ed faculty confine their snark to the Internet (I know not all do), and are generally supportive of students. I’m in science and engineering, but no matter how frustrating students get, you don’t take it out on them. If venting to other higher-ed strangers can help Professors not take it out on the students directly, Internet snark might even be helpful. What has caused most of the arguing has been the undercurrent of hostility in the other anti-snark pieces.

    The links to improve student writing are great stuff. I for one am glad to be informed of these things, since I had no idea they existed.

    1. Mark,
      I really appreciate the time you took to so thoughtfully comment. I am also so glad to know that the resources at the end were useful to you. I have done lots of work writing across the curriculum (I also taught HS Biology), so if you have any questions about working with your science and engineering students, let me know.

      I still believe that the openly lazy behavior is a way of covering up the fear of taking a risk in writing. Ed Psych has long noted the learned helplessness that comes when a seemingly impossible goal is presented to a learner. Imagine a lifetime of seemingly impossible tasks. I think I have more to write about this, but I worry that the general trend of seemingly entitled and so-called lazy behavior is a way of saving face for the majority of our students who have only known a school system centered on standardized testing.

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