Afternoon InquisitionAnti-ScienceScience

AI: Is it ok to post Student Essays?

OMG. I just found a folder with a whole bunch of things I saved from the early 90s, when I was a new Assistant Professor teaching Evolution.

I had forgotten I was a “CHILD OF SATIN!”

This, I’m sure, explains a great deal for some of you.

I am trying to remember how I got this note–I think it was under my windshield when my car was vandalized (silly me–I had a Darwin Fish on it.)

Anyway, I have these amazing bluebook essays and comments from my teaching evaluations where students discuss creationism and evolution. I would love to share them, to give people a flavor of the sorts of things I run into when teaching evolution.  These are old enough that they probably can’t be identified to any individual (and the evaluations are anonymous anyway.)

Should I scan and post them?


Bug_girl has a PhD in Entomology, and is a pointy-headed former academic living in Ohio. She is obsessed with insects, but otherwise perfectly normal. Really! If you want a daily stream of cool info about bugs, follow her Facebook page or find her on Twitter.

Related Articles


  1. Oh c’mon, like we’re going to say no.

    Post with a note that you will remove on request should the author identify themselves.

  2. I’d be uneasy if it were me. I know this because when I do AP exams the college board asks if you would be alright with them using your essays for educational purpose or whatever even if they’re not identifiable. I usually check “no”.

    Even though I know that I’m epically eloquent and well-reasoned I still am uncomfortable with it, possibly for irrational reasons, but because I know that I would have no control over that piece of writing, who sees it, or whatever, and would not be able to defend any attacks against it.

    From what I’ve gleaned we’re going to see what a bunch of creationist students have written and we’re probably going to laugh at them. Would you feel comfortable if you were said creationist?

  3. Regardless of the content of the essays, when they submitted the essays they didn’t agree for the essays to be put in the public domain. It would unethical for you to post them without getting permission from the authors.

  4. If you were going to be doing this for some good, educational value, or to expose some previously unknown issue – I would say yes.

    But to do it without their permission and just to entertain us, is not really a good thing. It may not be as extreme as vandalizing your car, but the pointlessness of the gesture is similar.

    And to what end?

  5. You can’t just scan them, because you can see the handwriting. It is perfectly fair to transcribe them – if you do that, even the people who wrote them probably won’t be able to identify them.

    But you definitely want to take the high road here, less you get any more accusations of being a “child of satin”.

  6. It’s not like these were written with some expectation of confidentiality – a teacher is not like a medical doctor or psychiatrist in that respect. Every student knows that any essay stands a chance at being used as a teaching examples for students in later years. It would take an incredibly naïve student to not realize that.

    I wouldn’t see naming the person as any sort of ethical breach, just lacking in compassion and empathy for a person about to undergo ridicule.

    If you can reasonably easily scrub the identifying information before posting, please do so. Without correction of the logical fallacies and errors of fact, how else does one expect the science deniers to amend their ways?

    I prefer to reserve my mockery and insults for those who demonstrably continue to spout falsehoods after having things explained to them and I wouldn’t be able to say that for your former students. Thus, whatever silly things the may say, their essays and comments deserve to be corrected and treated with respect as if they were merely lacking in knowledge rather than ridiculed and belittled as if they were shills for the Discovery Institute.

  7. Is a child of satin one born to parents wearing those lovely satin jackets I coveted in the early 80’s?

    Unless there was an expectation of publication, I’d stick to exerpts only. That should give the flavour of creationist silliness without the wrath of someone recognizing their anonymous essay on the ‘tubes.

  8. I think it’d be okay if you did OCR on the essays so the handwriting isn’t identifiable – you can remove the names, but I’d find the handwriting to be a privacy issue if it were me.

  9. For the record, “Child of Satin” is an awesome band name.

    I’d say you’re ok with excerpts without names attached. I’ll even share some fun essay answers in exchange, from astronomy classes I’ve taught.

  10. Doesn’t the school have a policy about this? Are you allowed to post student essays on bulletin boards or copy them and hand them out to the class? Does anyone own a copyright on them?

    (No such issues could possibly apply to the note on your windshield. Not only was it posted in a public place, but it explicitly says “TAKE THIS” right on it. Like Abby Hoffman’s “Steal This Book”…)

    In any case, I think it would be fine to paraphrase the essays. I’m sure it would be hard to capture the full illogic, but it would be fun to try.

  11. I have to go with maybe. As Elles points out there are exams where permission is asked for use of the submitted material for purposes other than the immediate grading of the student, which shows that there is an expectation of privacy for such essays. So I think scanning them and posting them in full is right out.

    I would however not have any qualms about using excerpts of student assignments for educational purposes after a few years. So if you post a selection of doozies, even as scans, to educate us, you’re good in my book.

  12. The odds of someone reading their own production on this blog is very small, but not impossible. I think sensitivity would dictate that only exerpts be cited, which would probably not be recognized after so many years.

    I would not expect the creationists’ body of work to be the only source of mirth.

  13. Silly me. I left my overly-verbose comment on the poll, instead of here. What I said (no need to read again if you saw it there):

    Putting on my dean hat, even though I’m on furlough today.

    While I would consider this to be an educational use of the information, to help people understand a problem you face in communicating science, I am a bit wary of simply scanning the documents whole and dumping them into the web. If you were conducting research on this topic, there would be IRB approvals (which would include having obtained informed consent). And if you tried to make a case for using these data elements as historical artifacts (as historians use diaries or personal letters), I assume the analysis would aggregate patterns in the data and only quote “typical statements” rather than publishing the documents entire. And an IRB might not buy that argument, since the materials were collected from documents the authors presumed would be used in a limited way (for evaluation by an instructor to determine the students’ performance in a course).

    But this isn’t “Research” according to the statutes, and the web is a different world. If the goal is to “just put it out there” and let the masses chew on them, I think, at a minimum, you’d need to ensure that the students’ identities are completely disassociated from the content posted, and that the content itself is unlikely to reveal their identities (that is, institution, course title, session and section info are scrubbed, along with any personal references that could be used to identify an individual).

    Even so, I think you risk that a former student might find her/his essay had been posted, and that person could object that s/he had a reasonable expectation that submitting a paper for class did not grant permission to have it presented for public discussion. If the objection were formal and legal, I think you’d lose.

    Quite honestly, I would rather read a “typical” comment and Bug Girl’s always thoughtful analysis of it, as well as the discussion that arises therefrom. I believe the most educational purpose would be in considering what you would do now that you didn’t know to do when you were new to teaching, untenured and less securely fixed in your position? Or, what would I do, if I had to deal with a student who pushed back and got the administration involved? What would other readers do, if their classmates’ anti-scientific views were having an impact on the class in that way? What I want to know is now “do some students believe” but, “how do we teach through that moment?”

    That would be way more interesting to me than simply posting the papers.

  14. @tiberious:
    I used to ride the L past a wall outside a cemetery where some gang members spray painted their name. I believe they were called the Latin Rogues, but they couldn’t spell very well, so the wall read “Latin Rouges”.

    It changes the impact, I would say.

  15. Probably better if you could transcribe or otherwise convert them into plain text.

    Did you check w/ anyone at that institution (or any other institutions what would have similar policies?) about whether or not it’s legit to share scanned or transcribed comments from teaching evals? It may also matter if these are eval comments vs. assignments…

  16. Were it me, I’d exhaustively check into any policies on the publication of student work that may exist (or have existed at the time of creation) at the individual school, within the district/system (dunno if we’re talking HS or college), and perhaps even at state level. But then, I personally have a tendency to get caught out for anything even slightly against the proverbial Rules, and using other people’s stuff Makes Me Nervous.

    That said, I think it would make for very interesting discussion, particularly with the emphasis that these are student essays and not necessarily definite-and-fully-formed-adult-opinion essays. (I’m leery of any “haha yay, mock the creationists!” oversimplification.) Looking at what students are taking away from their education and a discussion of different teaching approaches would be pretty cool.

  17. I would imagine you can share comments on teaching evaluations. If the bluebook tests were taken exclusively in class, you might be able to use those, too, as they are a class activity rather than an outside work coming in. Talk to someone higher up about it; shift the blame.

  18. Speaking as a college teacher… yeah, not OK. The papers are the work (& property) of the students, and I’d feel it unethical to post them. Which is too bad… I’ve got a lot of fun essays (and plagiarism examples) that would be educational.

    I have been asking the “burning question in heavy boots” for some years, with all the responses accepted without names, so that I could compile and post those results. The results… are very interesting. And depressing.

  19. I would say no. I think essays do have an element of confidentiality to them, and FERPA had occurred to me too.

    Teaching evaluation comments seem more like fair game, though, given that they were anonymous to begin with.

  20. If the essays have plagiarism in them and you post them without crediting the essay writer, are you then responsible for the original plagiarism? I’ve never quite understood that.

  21. Dear Child of Satin,

    Are you of the Silk or Polyester clan of Satin? Or are you mixed Silk/Polyester Satin? I will not inquire as to the weight of the weave.

    (note: I have a habit when I visit a certain fabric store to go into their separate fine fabrics/bridal section and stroke the very heavy weight silk satin that is over $80 per yard!)

  22. Unless you have a release, I would say it is unethical and possibly worse. I think both the students and the school could argue it is privileged and proprietary. I certainly wouldn’t recommend doing it without a discussion with the school at the very least.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to top button
%d bloggers like this: