Combating Those "Devious Licks"

It's all about students wanting community.

Are you familiar with the recent viral social media phenomenon “devious licks”?

As described by the KnowYourMeme website, “devious licks “refers to a trend on TikTok where users film themselves pulling supposedly stolen school supplies out of their backpacks with a variation on the phrase “first day of school copped a devious lick.” The word “devious” is often replaced with another word like “diabolical” or “godforsaken,” usually intended to be tongue-in-cheek. The trend began on TikTok in early September 2021.

My grade school years obviously happened before the devious licks phenomenon, but I think I might’ve been involved in something similar way back in the day.

It involved the class pencil sharpener and someone saying, Wouldn’t it be funny if…?

We thought it would be funny if we figured out how to remove the part of the pencil sharpener that served as the receptacle for the pencil shavings so that when we went to sharpen our pencils, the shavings would fall to the floor. It became a group effort to disappear the receptacle when our teacher wasn’t looking.

The teacher started keeping the receptacle on her desk, so when we needed to sharpen a pencil, we’d have to retrieve it from her. We started snapping our No. 2’s like nobody’s business to make for maximum disruption.

The prank ended when it became clear that our fun was causing our teacher, who we liked just fine, genuine emotional turbulence. We hadn’t thought of her at all because we just thought it would be funny, not because we meant anyone harm.

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The hindsight of age and the experience being on the other side of the desk have given me some insights into what drives these actions. In my opinion, one of the things all students crave is a sense of agency, the belief that they retain some measure of control over themselves and their domain. The structure of school is often at odds with this desire.

A little rebellion is endemic to the system itself, and experienced teachers will often use this spirit to productive ends by allowing students brief periods of bending (or appearing to bend) the rules. Students like my writing text  The Writer’s Practice because I acknowledge up front that a lot of school-related writing doesn’t allow them to experience and practice agency, and I intend to do things differently. That sense of liberation can induce students to practice much more responsibility over their own writing than if I was simply exercising my own authority over their grades.

The desires for a sense of community and a sense of agency are very powerful, and likely have been turbocharged by a return to school after pandemic-forced separation. Add in the potential for your devious lick to go viral, and forces that are always simmering underneath the surface burst forth into an apparently widespread phenomenon.

Now that students are purportedly getting arrested for offenses like removing soap dispensers from bathrooms, I want to think more deeply about the phenomenon, to perhaps understand and address it at the roots and prevent any negative downstream effects through overreaction.  

Writing at the Washington Post, Kristen Mei Chase rounds up some advice for parents in addressing this phenomenon with their children. The advice includes reminding kids about the terms of service and guidelines on the digital platforms where the videos are posted and alerting them to the consequences of leaving a digital footprint that others may access forever. 

I think it’s all good advice, but we also should consider the response at the classroom and institutional level and how any response reflects our pedagogical values. 

For one, I think it’s important to remember that relatively low-grade school pranks and vandalism are nothing new. The cool kid seniors at my high school (meaning someone other than me) always did something near the end of the year, like paint the lockers or dump hay in the central mall. That we are seeing a handful of incidents go viral on TikTok doesn’t mean the problem is new or even that there’s more of it than ever before. Vandalism should be punished. Destruction requires restitution, but punishments should be in context and proportional keeping the long term interests of the student and community in mind.

Second, I think an authoritarian crackdown to stop petty offenses is a mistake. If we accept that we’re looking at students exercising agency—albeit in a counterproductive way—to put the screws to students even harder risks an escalation of the phenomenon.

Third, it is likely that as with every other online phenomenon, this too will burn out and burn out quickly. At some point, the online community will grow tired of the old thing and go in search of the new. 

However, this still leaves us with the dynamic that has always existed. To make it easier to deal with these sorts of problems in the future, it helps to explicitly establish a sense of community. 

In his book, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…, Dr. Christopher Emdin champions the use of “cogenerative dialogues” (cogens) where students are put in charge of establishing classroom rules and norms. This makes students responsible not just for the rules, but for the enforcement of the rules through the mechanism of community consensus. When community disruption happens, there is an established process for working through the problem.

No, abiding by community-established guidelines does not offer the burst of excitement that going viral on TikTok can deliver, which is why doing the long work of making sure students believe they are part of a community is even more important. 

This doesn’t prevent misbehavior—kids are human too—but when disruption occurs, a sense of community gives schools something to fall back on other than punitive measures. 

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