Talking teaching on Twitter (and talking nicely to students)

Yeah, there was this one student and she was just insufferable.

She once got confused between the words ‘malicious’ and ‘magnanimous’ and described Lady Macbeth’s decision to persuade her husband to kill Duncan as magnanimous. In an exam essay. One time she fell asleep at 2 in the afternoon and turned up half an hour late to class. Another time she finished a tutorial essay with the words ‘But that’s a whole different issue, and it’s 3am, and I’m going to bed’. She had some sort of panic when writing her third year undergraduate coursework and had to have meeting after meeting about her damn feelings. In her MA year she went to hear a visiting academic speak about Adorno, and until the paper started blithely believed that Adorno was probably a Gothic novel. She finds it very, very hard to write effective conclusions. She’s always whining about technology issues.

Yes, dear reader, that student is me.

So the Times Higher Education twitter account asked people to tweet them stories about Bad Students and to be honest I missed all that palaver. I read about it in a fantastic post by Dr Caroline Magennis which you should go and read, because it is wise. Said post made me think about how I discuss teaching online, and what’s acceptable and what isn’t. I love teaching, y’see, and I want to do it responsibly. I’ve had the luck to teach excellent, charming, enthusiastic people. I’ve become used to pouring out my woes on social media (sorry. Y’all must be well fed up of that), but it’s so important to remember that teaching doesn’t fall under the category of ‘things it’s OK to moan about on Twitter or Facebook or whatever’.  I can moan about the weather or my own idiocy or my fraught relationship with my thesis, but students are people towards whom I have a responsibility, even when I’m frustrated with them (and I’ve probably done more frustrating things myself. See above). Dr Magennis’s piece is an excellent, timely reminder of this.

I think there is some space to tweet/blog/whatever about teaching – if you have a particularly great seminar and just want to shout from the rooftops ‘Oh my students are BRILLIANT, they made so many good points today!’ or if one of them makes a rather excellent joke, or if the entire seminar group decides to beatbox the ‘Willow’ song from Othello at you (yup, that happened in one of my classes. It’s a cherished memory). I don’t think there’s too much wrong with sharing such things. And I think that generalised moaning about one’s marking load is pretty excusable (also it’s, like, 90% of academic twitter), although references to specific things people have written is definitely not cricket. Essentially, what the THE requested is really pretty unpleasant: it ain’t OK to take out teaching frustrations on social media. Go for a walk, eat a cake, moan in a non-public fashion to your flatmate over a cup of tea, plan the next lesson.

Dr Magennis particularly calls out those who mine their students’ mistakes for cheap lols:

… for me, jokes should never ever be directed at our students. Ever. They should never have their exam or essay errors made fun of in public and, particularly, nothing said in a classroom should ever be tweeted for smug amusement.

This is really flipping important. Don’t mock your students for getting things wrong. If you want to mock someone for getting things wrong, mock me for the Adorno thing. I keep thinking I should probably not tell people about that, but I keep telling people because I think it’s quite funny. The Mysteries of Adorno is one of my favourite speculative mashups. Along with the TV series my friends and I invented the other day, Inherent Miami Vice.

To state the blindingly obvious – as a teacher, quite often you will know things your students don’t. Meanwhile, quite often they will know things you don’t, and you will learn from them, for education is not a one-way process. I often find students know things you don’t expect them to (like lots of Smiths lyrics, off by heart) and not things I think they will (like all the Spaced references I make to the accompaniment of tumbleweed). So when they need and/or want to know things, just tell them, and correct mistakes if necessary, and don’t make a big thing about it. There is nothing wrong with not knowing a thing.

The NUS responded to the THE thing rather beautifully, with the hashtag #mybestlecturer. I really don’t know what I’d tweet for that – there have been so many academics that fit that category for me. It’d be like picking a favourite book, or a favourite Horrible Histories sketch, or some such impossible task. But it does make me want to tell a story that’s too long for a tweet.

Early in my MA, sometime before I was cruelly disabused of my ideas concerning a certain German philosopher, I took a class taught by a brilliant (and generally all-round lovely) visiting professor. We had a meeting to discuss a coursework topic, and I told him I wanted to write on an incident from the 1550s but was worried that I didn’t know enough about Mary’s reign.

The professor, without an ounce of patronisation, started with ‘Well – Mary was a Catholic…’

And because I knew the stuff with which he started, we quickly moved on to less basic matters and he recommended books and whatnot. But I remember being just so grateful for the kind, non-patronising way he spoke to me. Like, if I – a student in my mid-20s, on an early modern MA, worried about what academics might think of me – hadn’t known that Mary was Catholic, that wouldn’t have mattered. Because it didn’t matter what I did know, it mattered what I would go on to know, and how I would use that knowledge. Really, all of the people I would put in my overflowing category of ‘My Best Lecturer’ have this skill. My supervisors are masters of it, and lord, that makes a PhD so much more of a pleasant thing to do. This is one of the most important lessons I’ve taken from all the good teaching I’ve been a recipient of. The importance of conveying information in a way that is nice, and comprehensible, and doesn’t skip the basics. And which, crucially, doesn’t make the student feel small or like they’re being ridiculed.

I didn’t actually write a particularly good essay for the visiting professor’s class. It was the first essay I wrote for the MA and I kind of messed it up a bit. I guess I’m my own worst student, but I try to learn from my mistakes.

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