Amused Teachers and Public Readers: Empathy and Derision in Student Blooper Collections
My research focuses on how students and their writing are depicted by teachers, universities, and popular culture. In my dissertation project, I study the representation of students in one kind of text, “student blooper collections.” This term describes the many books of unintentionally humorous student writing that have been published since the 1930s in the US.
While my dissertation is now almost complete, I wouldn’t have known at the start of this project what a student blooper collection is. Weirdly enough, I knew years ago that my dissertation would involve challenging the common practice of publishing student writing for laughs. I encountered the popular Tumblr blog Shit My Students Write while finishing my first year as a Master’s student. This website publishes unintentionally amusing gaffes and errors that teachers encounter in their students’ writing. My first reaction to the website was disbelief – not at how “badly” students write, but at the many teachers who participate in the public humiliation of their students. The students in my classes at the time, whose challenges with writing would, in some contexts, reveal them as so-called “bad writers,” were deeply insightful, sincere, and critical. I was unsympathetic to the view that “students these days,” as the complaint goes, “can’t write/read/think.” Regardless of the motivation behind Shit My Students Write, such a complaint surfaces frequently when people on the internet re-post student writing from this website hundreds, sometimes thousands, of times.
For awhile I believed that Shit My Students Write was a relatively new way to laugh at student writing, not a far cry from teachers posting student papers on their office doors or above the copier, but new nonetheless. A bit of poking around led me to the 1930s Boners series. (I have to admit, this out-of-date term for blooper, or funny mistake, made me anticipate a fun dissertation project indeed.) Boners was published in 1931 and became the 4th bestselling nonfiction book that year. It also features the work of a young Dr. Seuss. Opening my frayed copy of Boners when it arrived in the mail, I was struck with disbelief again, this time at how the editors of this book depict students. They explain that readers should not be judgmental of students, who are doing sometimes the best they can under intolerable educational circumstances (mainly, rampant test-taking). How can we maintain mocking stances toward students today when empathy was once more popular?
It’s tempting to predict that my dissertation concludes with a plea to teachers: please take your students, and their writing, more seriously. Certainly. But my ultimate goal isn’t for teachers to adopt a humorless approach to student writing. That’s not human. We would do well to remember something Anders Henriksson, another curator of amusing student writing, says in his 2008 student blooper collection: “To err, sometimes with hilarious results, is a feature of the human condition.” I would be thrilled if my dissertation and the work that grows from it compel more teachers to remember their students’ humanity.
Jessica Winck is a 4th-year PhD student. She teaches courses in the Composition program and is finishing her dissertation.