Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Mocking Bad Students From A Bathroom Stall (Or: I Rarely Trust a 'Sconnie)

There's been an article making the rounds of Facebook (well, at least my Facebook, which is full of academics) concerning the Dear Student feature in Vitae. Dear Student is a somewhat humorous collection of profs venting about common student bullshit and often takes the form of the emails most profs wish they could send to their students. But since such honest replies would typically get one fired, they're instead collected at this little niche website read only by academics.

As with anything even slightly amusing in the academic world, of course the humorless scolding had to come sooner rather than later. This specific humorless scolding comes from a dude named Jesse, so I feel a special need to comment, so as to attempt to save the reputation of academics named Jesse (we're not all humorless scolds! I promise!).

You can read the piece, but the gist of it is that students are special magical snowflakes and anyone who ever says anything bad about them, no matter the reason, is a horrible person who hates the idea of education. I think. It's kind of a disjointed piece that tells us a lot about what we shouldn't do, but completely glosses over the fact that these are real issues which require some sort of response. But then again, moral grandstanding is rarely oriented toward practical activity. So it goes.

I'll leave aside the fact the piece in question was written by a white guy at an elite institution chiding a column organized by a woman of color, which regularly features many contributors of color, and is almost completely populated by academics at less prestigious institutions, because at this point, no one should be at all surprised by the tone-deaf instructions of our social superiors telling us how to behave.

But the fact that dude is working at one of the most prestigious public universities in our nation (UW-Madison) is actually pretty important to understanding the rank hypocrisy and uselessness of dude's complaints. For instance, when chiding profs for being upset that students try to add a class 6 weeks into the semester, pretending nothing of importance could have already happened, and if it did, could sure be made up in a day or two, he writes : "The work of gatekeeping is anathema to the work of education. Our classrooms should have more doors and windows, not less."

Which is a really easy argument to make when you teach in a gated community! Hey, you don't need to do any gatekeeping, great for you. But that's because your university has already done the gatekeeping for you! Contrast this with my institution -- when we fail to meet our enrollment quotas for the year, our administration fully admits they dip into the stock of applicants who (and again, this is fully admitted in the open, no matter how unconscionable it may be) are neither college-ready nor expected to finish their degree. I haven't researched the application requirements of Bucky, but I'm guessing you won't find many students at UW-Madison deemed not college-ready by their own administration.

He similarly scolds profs who are upset by student grade-grubbing, writing grades are "a red herring. Any teacher that regularly gets caught up in power and control struggles with students over grades has missed the point." Cool, thanks man. You're so zen. I bet at the end of every semester, you write the registrar telling them to take their grade bullshit and shove it up their asses instead of submitting your final grades. Anyway, here's where I assume that teaching at an elite institution means he probably has TAs that take care of such emails for him. But even if he doesn't, what exactly does he suggest I then do instead of engaging with the students who complain about their grades? Maybe I should calmly explain to them that grades are not the point and they should't be concerned about them. Well, I can report that is not an effective tactic, because I've tried it repeatedly. Maybe instead I should point them to this column with the advice that some dude says we shouldn't be arguing about this, so discussion over, I guess?

But what really takes the cake in this missive is the incredibly snotty coupling of these two paragraphs:
Everyone that comes into even casual contact with Vitae’s “Dear Student” series is immediately tarnished by the same kind of anti-intellectual, uncompassionate, illogical nonsense currently threatening to take down the higher education system in the state of Wisconsin.
The word "entitlement,” used pejoratively about students in two of the four articles, needs to die a quick death. College students ARE entitled -- to an education and not the altogether unfunny belittling on display in the “Dear Student” series
It would take years to unpack everything wrong with this hyperbolic handwringing, but I'd like to note that I've met several people who have read the Dear Student series and they don't appear to be tarnished at all. But dude seems to a literary person, so I'll forgive some rhetorical flourishes. But the second part there really sums up my problem with his kvetching, as I think he's got in entirely backward.

Complaining about students who have no interest in their education is not anti-intellectual -- it's a defense of the importance of education. It's a defense of the idea that learning takes real effort and sacrifice. It's a defense of the idea that if you come into a class 6 weeks late, you're not only doing damage to your own ability to learn, but harming the general dynamic of the class and hampering your fellow students (who are also dealing with all the same life problems and whatnot) because they have to wait for you to catch up. Saying I should bend over backward for that student for no reason other than that they're a super special snowflake is horridly anti-intellectual, because it assumes all that missed information is unimportant and unnecessary. In fact, I can hardly think of anything more anti-intellectual than saying "So what, the student missed half your class? Whatever, they'll be fine. Can't have missed that much in multiple weeks of class time and readings."

Saying students are entitled to an education is the complete exemplar of Scott Walker's consumerist model -- these kids paid to be here, given them the commodity they paid for! Sorry dude, I'm not going to commoditize education no matter how snotty you are.

Saying students are entitled to an education belies the most fundamental misconception of what education even is; I can't "give" someone the education they're "entitled" to because education is not something that can be given. Education is something that can be guided, can be encouraged, can be assisted, etc., etc., but it can never be given. It's something that has to involve extensive work on the part of the student. Saying otherwise is like saying signing up for a personal trainer entitles you to be physically fit. No, it entitles you to someone who will help you get fit, but you've got to do a lot of work. And if you ignore all of their advice, belittle the methods and techniques they're trying to help you learn, and constantly skip your meetings with them, I think the personal trainer is well within their rights to decide they don't want to help you anymore.

He ends the piece by noting that teachers need a safe place to vent. However, like the rest of his diatribe, while he never says where that could be, he does make sure to tell you all of the places it shouldn't be. In the following places, according to Jesse "Not The Fun Jesse" Stommel, it is inappropriate to complain about your students: your office, your teacher's lounge (do universities even have those? Maybe at the elite places, I guess), the library, the bar.

As someone who loves to complain about bad students, this really leaves me in a bind. If I can't complain in my office, in my department, or at the bar, you've eliminated about 90% of the spaces I ever occupy. So where is this safe place you claim profs can have? What about my own personal blog read by about 6 people? No, if my office is too public, surely this is too public. What about in the comfort of my own home? No, that can't be. If my office, with my door closed and no students present is too public a place to complain, then my house must be, too. What about when I'm in the bathroom? That's the most personal, non-public place I can think of (and no student has ever been in my bathroom. Well, none has ever been to my house, but maybe outside the bathroom they could be walking by a window and hear me or something?). That must be it. If only a humorless scold were here to tell me whether I was right or not!

But I kid. Kinda. I read things like this with a weary sigh and remind myself that this is the kind of thing I for some reason voluntarily signed up to deal with when I became an academic. So if you need me, I'll be in the bathroom complaining about stuff. I think it's ok in there...

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