I'm a Liberal Writer Who Knows How to Deal With My Fears (A Response to Vox)

In 2009, I became a teacher for the first time. I was extremely nervous and still feel, for the most part, like I probably bungled large parts of the classes I was assigned. It was a busy semester – I was planning a trip to India, getting things in order for my thesis, taking two classes, and teaching two classes all at the same time. I was getting paid less than 10,000 for the year. To say that graduate students at US universities are stretched thin is a major understatement.

We had a couple of days of crash course teaching lessons prior to being thrown the wolves, so to speak. Because my alma mater is a Christian university, we were instructed in how to specifically handle our brand of students – students more likely to identify as conservative Christian and to have helicopter parents who get upset about what’s being taught in classes.

I was going through growing pains of liberal progressive politics at the time. I’d supported Obama in the 08 election the year before, which was a watershed moment for me both politically and theologically. I’d begun to identify as a feminist, and wanted to bring in these discussions into the classroom.

We were instructed to have outside materials approved by our supervisor before using them in the classroom because a couple of years back, they had to discipline a TA who brought in a sexually explicit poem for the students to read, resulting in student and parent complaints. The TA was fired and we were all subsequently told this story as a warning of what not to do in the classroom, especially at this institution.

There’s a lot of fear that faces new teachers and new professors. The people teaching your college-age children have a lot of different pressures riding on them, and not a lot of money to speak for it. Thanks to the collapse of the economy in 2008, universities are turning out massive numbers of new doctoral and master’s students, with almost all of us looking for jobs in an over-saturated and under-funded market. Student complaints and poor student evaluations can make the difference between being hired for tenure or scraping by as an adjunct at a community college (and with more and more universities leaning on adjuncts to fill teaching spots that should be filled by full professors, the likelihood of toiling away as an adjunct is more and more likely).

Though I’ve been technically out of academia for five years now, I’ve never been far from it. Most of my friends are involved in the academy in some way, and I stay deeply involved in the work of universities and higher education. Indeed, I’m returning, officially, to the academy this fall at a prestigious public institution. I may not be involved in the ins and outs of a current professors’ experience, but my six years of higher education and two additional years of teaching give me some insight into the fear that people face on both sides of the classroom.

When an anonymous professor decided to talk about his fear in an article for Vox.com, he started out from a legitimate premise. The environment of consumerism that inhabits most universities these days has created an impression of professors as products and students as customers. Failure to deliver a good product – an A in a class, or the right kind of teaching experience – and a professor could find themselves on the wrong end of the hiring committee when it comes time to renew contracts. This is a legitimate, genuine problem plaguing universities from the smallest to the largest and most prestigious institutions.

However, instead of traveling along that particular thesis, this professor pivots and decides that the problem with the producer-consumer mindset of the university is the liberal, social justice-oriented, politically correct behavior of the student body. It is this – and spineless administrations that bend over backward to keep the customer happy – that results in this anonymous professor’s fear of his own students.

To some extent, such fear is understandable. It’s never fun to know that the administration might not have your back when push comes to shove. It sucks to know that this environment is massively flawed and there’s not a lot you can do to fix it without overhauling an entire capitalistic, product-oriented perspective of education throughout the country – which, let’s be honest, is not going to happen in my lifetime, or this professor’s lifetime (we’re about the same age).

However, his anger at his impotence in this situation is being directed at the very people who have the ability to save his skin in these Hunger Games – the students. He calls in the tropes of students as coddled, as unwilling to engage in an intellectually honest debate. He morphs the discussion into one of politics as a whole, using the college classroom as a microcosm for the state of Leftist politics as a whole (sound familiar?). Their fear of having their feelings hurt, he argues, is what results in his fear of being accused of something he did not do or an offense he didn’t mean to commit.

However, to categorize student activity and student protest on campus as merely “hurt feelings” is to minimize the real truth of the discussions. In particularly, this professor cites Judith Shulevitz’s article in the NY Times (which I responded to here), with an example of a debate at Oxford University’s ChristChurch college that was canceled in response to student protests. He characterizing the cancellation of the debate as pro-choice students unwilling to have faith in their own arguments, entirely ignoring that the context of the cancellation was because the debate was being held between two white, cisgender, heterosexual men whose reproductive rights are not under threat.

The real story here, however, doesn’t fit so neatly into his narrative about students in the classroom being offended at the offhand remark of their professor. Indeed, his examples in this arena are remarkably non-existent. There’s a lot of bluster about rescinding invites, of student protests about things like sexual assault, about the discourse leaning more on popular culture than on “real” issues, but it does not seem he can point to a single, verified example of a professor being disciplined or fired because a student “felt bad” about something they presented in the classroom.

Indeed, his only discussion of an actual student complaint that happened to him was from a conservative student at a community college, and his administrators dismissed the complaint as absurd on its face. (Note, as the professor says he has been teaching college classes for 9 years, and as he has a doctorate, my best guess is that this community college experience is less than five years old – meaning this supposed sea change has happened ridiculously fast).

He also tells the story of a fellow adjunct who was “axed” after he exposed the students to “offensive” texts from Edward Said and Mark Twain. This, he says, the source and beginning of much of his fear – this despite having recently dealt with a similar student complaint that was dismissed.

However, this one example is lacking corroboration or other support, aided by his status as an anonymous author. There is literally no way to check the veracity of his claim, and so we have to take it on his interpretation. But, as his later misrepresentation and misinterpretation of the Oxford debate protest show, he is not exactly the most reliable narrator.

Is it possible for adjuncts or graduate students to get disciplined or even fired for student complaints? Absolutely – the stories I have heard through the grapevine as an academic confirm that as such. But there is no evidence to show that these complaints are necessarily increasing or that the environment for professors (not adjuncts!) is so much worse than it was when this man and I both started teaching.

If this supposedly toxic discourse is the result of social media’s influence on the debate (as his comments deriding the “democratization of the debate” indicate), then I would not have heard stories about being careful in the classroom in 2009, three short years after Twitter hit the scene and long before Tumblr actually become the social media behemoth it is today. The question is not whether or not the democratization of discourse is having a negative effect on the college students of today but rather why college professors are afraid of students being exposed to this democratizing process altogether.

The plural of anecdote is not data, as many who rely on evidence and proof like to say. And while I am one to listen to stories and prioritize the stories and yes, the feelings, of my readers, I know enough to know that it takes a lot more than a few well-publicized examples of this supposedly restrictive campus environment to justify a professor’s fear of their students.

It’s also deeply important to note that this anonymous professor patently ignores cases that don’t fit his narrative. A college student recently tried to get Dr. Saida Grundy fired from Boston University because of tweets she sent about her research. This student – a white male – deemed her tweets “racist” and compiled them into a document. His obvious aim was to get Grundy kicked out of the academy and to ruin her reputation. Similarly, a black professor in Minneapolis was disciplined for discussing the structural nature of racism with her mostly white students – and the white students complained to the college about the classes.

While our anonymous professor spends time handwringing over coddled students and hurt feelings, he ignores the racist attacks on professors of color by white students – professors who genuinely have things to fear from the student body. This ignorance is intentional – the real victim of institutional support of student complaints is not the white male professor who fears he can’t read Mark Twain in class. It is the black woman academic who is banned from talking about her life and her experience because her “colorblind” white students might feel implicated in the discussion of the black experience.

But acknowledging and discussing such actual, real instances of students being valued over the lives of professors would undermine this professor’s point about identity politics. If identity politics don’t matter, if the prioritization of race, gender identity, sexual orientation, and past trauma are ruining the discourse, then the cases of black women experts in their fields being disciplined by an institution determined to believe the white male student over the black female professors challenge that narrative.