The ethics of student howlers competitions

Inside Higher Education just put up a list of the winners of the "exam howlers" competition.  Some are funny.  Some are dumb.  Some I don't get the humor about — they're not howlers, but just things that put sad on my face.  I've been teaching for a while, and I've got a pretty good list, myself.  Papers referring to Descartes "cognito" argument and complaining that there are no disguises, one paper on Aristotle's Five Causes which double-dips on efficient causation, and one jaw-dropper of a short essay on why we shouldn't worry about fallacies, because we'll never argue perfectly.  Also, since I edit a journal, I've got my fill of crazy submissions, too.  And I mean crazytown.

I got to wondering about these competitions.  Are they in the wrong spirit, especially for educators?  I mean, I've had many a laugh over beers with colleagues about some silly student paper, or a goofy  journal article I'm reviewing.  I don't see much wrong with that.  But why the public display?  A private chuckle over a student's error is one thing, but isn't putting that material up for public ridicule another?  Doesn't this break a tacit agreement of confidentiality between teachers and students to do this?  For example, I always ask students who wrote exemplary papers for my classes if I could save them and use them as models for further classes.  It seems wrong for me to use those papers, even in praise, without their permission.  Isn't it the same with howlers?

11 thoughts on “The ethics of student howlers competitions”

  1. There is I think at least a tacit–if not explicit–confidentiality pledge.  Students' grades are not to be distributed publicly, even to their parents.  Seems to me that this would apply to their "name redacted" work.  While the confidentiality pledge is minimally adhered to via the redaction, it's always possible that the student know that their work has been held up to global ridicule "learn from my fail".  Besides if students know of the possibility of this kind of ridicule, it's nearly as bad.  So I think your intuition is the right one–if you wanna make fun of them, then ask: "may I post your fail on a blog so that others may learn from you fail?"   

  2. Yeah, I think it's in bad taste. Though I do love "in Lehman's terms" and the statement that mucus is a vicious substance …

  3. For me, as I see it, I would like to be the person someone uses to show what a good paper looks like. (Don't we all?)
    I also hold myself to a high standard, and will tell anyone listening that I want to be held accountable for my mistakes, and having a bad paper I wrote become someone's jolly moment is something I will accept if it is creating a humorous situation that also teaches someone at the same time. If my paper is going to be posted just for laughs, then no, I think it is crossing the line, and that would create ridicule I do not need. If my comedy of errors can help people learn the right way to do something, then by all means, post it!

  4. I think that there is a issue with copyright violation. The papers that are written by these students are original works by them submitted to the professor for purposes of grading. At no time do I understand my submission of my work to my professors as granting them permission to hand my original work to a third party for that party to display my work for profit. Esspecially when that third party is not sharing any of the profits from my work with me. 

  5. @dcz I'm Certainly not a lawyer, but as I understand the arguments floating around TurnItIn, it is likely that copying portions of a paper turned in for a grade falls under "fair use" exception. 

    Seems like FERPA problems would be a bit of a stretch. I don't know much about this either, but I sometimes get the sense that there is this hyper-expansive view of what FERPA prevents that floats around academia. Has any violation remotely close to this sort of scenario ever arisen? It seems difficult to see a couple of sentences as a release of academic records.

    It's an interesting question. There's something analogous to a doctor publishing anonymized pictures of patients in undress to make fun of the less than attractive physiques. But, at the same time, it seems as though one might argue that in order for the howlers to be wrong, there must be some actual harm done by publishing the anonymized answers. I can't see more than some private embarrassment.

  6. So let's distinguish between the legal question and the ethical question.  That is, you can fail ethically with some obligation but yet it could still be legal to do so.  I'm presuming that it's legal to do this, as IHE probably isn't going to make an obvious legal blunder. Most of the legal privacy issues have to do with publicly available correlations between *names* and performance.  That's not happening in these competitions.
    The ethical question is whether its in the spirit of being an educator to make these errors public, even if they are anonymous.  I'm inclined to say that students, when they write for my class, write for me.  To take what they say beyond the bounds of our conversation seems a breach of the tacit agreement of confidentiality between student and teacher. 
    Another example that pumps the intuition:   A few years back, one of my students opined in class that I "must dog-cuss" them to my colleagues, because they regularly disappointed me by not getting some part of the reading done or by doing poorly on the quizzes.  I replied that they and their performances do frustrate me, but what and how they do in class is between me and them, not between me and my colleagues.

  7. Certainly there are lots of reasons to share student work with people who are neither the instructor nor the student, that are internal to the educational function. Students may write for the instructor, but administrators, accreditors, etc. are often shown data and samples of student work without their explicit permission. So if there is something that makes this sharing problematic it must, it seems to me, be either sharing the student work in public with those who don't have a legitimate interest in the work (though in a professional venue, IHE), or the motive, ridicule or pleasure.
    My guess is that it is the sense that the motivation is somehow base that makes this seem ethically troubling and not the sharing or violation of confidentiality. For example, if I quoted several insightful answers to exam questions, would the ethical spidey-sense fire in the same way? 

  8. @Aikin, I did not say that ethical issues are legal issues. However I will contend that legal violations are ethical issues. One of our most fundemental social agreements is that we will all obey the law. So a violation of the law is a violation of that agreement/trust and therefore something unethical.
    I do believe that the idea behind a copyright law is the unethical part of a professor submitting a students work as a howler, more than a tacit agreement of confidentiality. (Esspecially so since you contend yourself that the person's privacy is not violated through submitting thier work.) 
    During the learning process one is more likely to make mistakes and from time to time some of them will inevitably be silly ones. But that is what happens when you are learning new things. Now for the IHE to turn to professors to submit these humorous mistakes is exploitative of the student.
    It took the student effort to produce this mistake. Granted, it more than likely was not intentional, but it is still part of the students work and effort. For the IHE to turn around and post it on there website to attract readers and increase advertisement revenue is exploitative because the person who produced the work or made the effort is not recieving any of the revenue from it's publication. The professor making themselves a participant and the avenue of the exploitation is wrong, because that was not in the understanding of why the student was producing the work.
    The student was producing the work to demonstrate their level of understanding of the subject and to have thier mistakes corrected. The tacit agreement is that you will use the work only for the explicit reason for producing it, and not for other uses. If someone buys your book, you are not giving them permission to hand it over to a friend to use and post chapters of it on thier webpage inorder to gain hits and advertisement revenue. If you found out about it and had the revenue you would sue that person's friend under copyright law. Well as for professors submitting your students' work to the howlers they are doing the same thing. They are allowing for the IHE to take advantage of anothers work for profit without any of that profit being shared with the person who produced the original work. That is explotation and that is what I see as unethical and also as the underpinning for copyright laws.

  9. @dcz To reiterate: This sort of use of another's work (even granting the assumption that work produced for a grade remains the producer's intellectual property rather than the institution's or instructor's) falls squarely within the "fair use" exception. Fair use I take it is a recognition in the law that one's moral right to intellectual property is not absolute. Just as students can quote from a textbook in their essays without paying copyright to the authors, so a faculty member can quote from student papers (even assuming that the student retains copyright) without compensating the authors (whether or not the professor derives profit from it). 

  10. When I attended ITT in Burr Ridge, IL from 2007-09 I had to sigh a quarterly waiver form that allowed ITT to own any emails I downloaded from any student accessable computer.  This meant that if I had created a document and emailed it to myself for printing at school, that document then became ITT property.
    It is a sobering thought to think that legally, any IP that I had instantly became theirs whenever I retrieved it through email.  I do not know if this is revelant to the discussion, but I thought this situation would be informative.

  11. Brian, your case is troubling.  That said, many employers have the same policy with regard to the email accounts they provide — you have no reasonable expectation of privacy.
    The howlers case, I think, is unique.  First, because it is between students and teachers, which seems to me should have a special understanding of confidentiality (except for purposes of assessing teacher performance).  Second, it's the howlers and the spirit with which they are being shared that troubles me.  We've been attending to the first element, but maybe it's the second element that's doing the ethical work here.
    Maybe the thought can be captured as follows: teachers should have the disposition of caring for the intellectual health and growth of students, and publicly sharing and taking pleasure in howlers is contrary to that disposition.  The emotion I feel when reading those howlers is a special kind of schadenfreude — perhaps an educational kind.  I'm troubled, I guess, by teachers feeling and sharing schadenfreude over their own students' failures.

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