Friday, December 04, 2015

I Will Never Tire of Shaming People Who Talk About "Student Shaming"

I've written about this subject before, but self-righteous academics keep writing these articles, so I'll keep belittling their arguments (shaming them, if you will). Recently published on the Shit Academics Say new blog SAS Confidential (which is hugely disappointing, because I normally love SAS), we have yet another post about how super upright moral professors never say anything bad about their students, and if you do, it means you're a horrible person who is single-handedly destroying the institution of higher learning. Ok, so I hyperbolize a little, but not that much.

While I think my previous take down of what is, essentially, the same argument holds up pretty well, this gives me an excuse to catalogue the many more problems I have with this line of thinking. And Lord knows I love nothing more than to complain on the internet. So in addition to all the previous reasons I've listed for hating this opinion, here are some more crotchety complaints! In numbered form!

1) This is the most annoying type of argument: the kind where what is claimed to be the most moral position possible and the author's own position on the subject just happen to be one and the same! "Oh no, it's not that I'm writing 2,000 words about what a great person I am and how I'm so much better than you, it just turns out what I do is the only possible way to do things!" Kevin Gannon, the person who wrote the offending column this time, promotes himself as a pedagogical expert on his linked website. So I have to assume he's familiar with the fact that people have all sorts of varied learning styles, and what works for one may be terrible for another, etc. And yet, he writes things like:

I don’t like shame. I run and hide from what makes me ashamed, and do my level best to stay hidden.

Bummer dude. It legit sucks that you feel that way. But did you know that not every person alive responds that way to shame? Let me take you on a special journey in the way back machine to learn about a time Young Jesse got his ass shamed pretty fucking hard in front of a college classroom. In my very first semester of college I was a music major (vocal performance, to be exact) and of the many music-related classes I had to take, one of them was Aural Training. Which is basically learning how to pick stuff up by ear, but in a very formal way (this, by the way, is a skill I do not posses to this day, and it blows my mind that people are able to do this).

So in one of the first weeks of class, by which point in time I had already realized I was in way over my head with this music shit (I just liked to sing!), we had an in-class assignment where the professor played simple songs on the piano and we had to transcribe them. Just by listening to them! Witchcraft! By virtue of the fact I'm still amazed people can do this, you might surmise (correctly!) that I was not able to do so. My transcriptions were bad. Laughably bad. And I mean that literally -- they were so bad that the next class meeting, the prof played what I had transcribed for the entire class, all of whom (including the professor!) were laughing uproariously. Of course, he didn't announce whose it was, but I still don't think I've ever been more embarrassed. If anyone was actually wondering whose it was, it would have been pretty easy to figure out it was the kid whose face was turning brighter red by the second and who was doing everything possible to slink as far down in his chair as possible.

But this also kicked my ass into gear and made me realize I needed some serious help if I planned on passing the course. So I went out and got a tutor and put in a shitload of time on practicing this stuff, and I managed to pull a B- in the class, simultaneously the lowest grade I earned in college and the one I'm most proud of. Would I have put in all this extra work had I not been shamed in front of the class like that? Eh, who the hell knows. This is a rather pointless anecdote from which we can draw no conclusions. But it is the same level of selective, completely non-empirical evidence employed in Gannon's piece, so it felt appropriate.

2) Gannon actually kind of gives away one of the biggest problems with his piece when he writes things like:

What would have happened if I saw or heard about this “venting?”


I don’t know if my professors joked about me at the coffee pot, or traded stories about me at cocktail parties.

You see the running theme there? It's that as a student himself, Gannon had no idea whether his professors were doing this kind of behavior or not (But let me help out: they were. They definitely were. One, because so many professors complain about their students. Two, if you were half as sanctimonious as an undergrad as you are now, all of your professors were complaining about you). After all, the only two examples provided of dangerous student shaming in Gannon's piece are the Dear Student column on Vitae (an offshoot of the Chronicle of Higher Ed) and one twitter account of an anonymous professor. Well…do you think any undergrads are reading these things? I mean, seriously? I would wager somewhere between 98 and 99.99% of all undergraduate students don't even know what the Chronicle of Higher Education is or that it exists. I didn't even know it existed until I was several years into grad school.

But upping the ante of simplistic dichotomous thinking, Gannon follows up admitting he has no idea if the professors he had ever vented about him, he notes:

But I do know that they took an interest in helping a student who was trying to get his act together.

Hey, did you know that these two things are absolutely in no way mutually exclusive? That a professor can both be upset by his students shitty behavior, even going so far as to commit the crime of complaining about that behavior, while simultaneously attempting to help the student correct said shitty behavior? If we did live in your weird hypothetical world in which to complain about bad behavior automatically disqualifies one from attempting to help students, then I could follow your argument. But since those are completely unrelated activities which do not effect one another in any way, I can't follow how one supposedly prevents the other.

3) Finally, in what is possibly the most glaring omission of these two pieces is the complete dismissal of the concept that sometimes students do things for which they should be shamed. I briefly touched on this in the previous post, but it's worth noting that the two most prominent critiques of the Dear Student series specifically and the idea of "student shaming" more broadly have both been written by white men. While the Dear Student series, for instance, is edited by a woman of color and regularly features women and/or scholars of color, many of whom are in precarious labor positions.

As a sociologist, I'm not really trained to see many things as coincidence, so I'm having a hard time not seeing something in the fact that the two most prominently-shared pieces I've seen on this subject were both written by white dudes. Which means we have to delve into the thorny world of privilege, and especially how privilege can blind one to the experiences of marginalized people.

Because while much of this student shaming is indeed about students just saying or doing something dumb, a great deal of what I see is coming from women and/or people of color who are venting far less about their students' lack of technical skills and far more about their students' lack of respect for them, which often comes in the form of directly challenging their knowledge or authority. This is something that I can attest through both empirical evidence and personal experience does not happen to white men at anywhere near the levels it happens to people of literally any other identity in the classroom. I've heard countless stories from academics far more accomplished than I about being belittled or disrespected in the classroom, while I, a literal long-haired hippie, have never once experienced that in roughly a decade in the classroom.

This isn't a case of some young, misguided student not knowing the subtle ins and outs of the world of academia, this is assholes being sexist, racist, homophobic, etc.That kind of behavior deserves shame!

And therein lies the rub -- by lumping all forms of complaining about students into the nebulous category of "student shaming" and then labeling all student shaming as bad, you necessarily silence very real problems. This is, in fact, a very classic derailing technique, a way of dismissing out of hand very legitimate critiques from people who are experiencing problems that will never effect you. Because the guys writing these articles don't experience this kind of crappy behavior from their students, it's clear they're basing their critiques of "venting" on the kinds of problems they encounter, ignoring (willfully or not) the wide array of problems that effect people with other identities. And then they hold up the fact that they don't complain about their students' minor transgressions as evidence they're more virtuous than those who complain about their students' racism/sexism/homophobia, etc. Again, it seems hard to call it coincidence that we have two white men positioning themselves as the arbiters of reason and civility against a horde of women and people of color who are all angry and irrational.

Really, that's the take away point; I'm not trying to make venting about problem students or anonymously shaming them on twitter out to be great moral enterprises or anything, just noting that they serve some pretty legit purposes. So if you don't like participating in these kinds of things, that's fine, ignore them. But please knock it off with trying to argue that because you personally don't like something, it's somehow necessarily an immorally corrupt practice. To borrow from your arguments: wouldn't it be a lot more helpful for you to reach out to those of us venting and try to help us learn rather than take to the internet to shame us?*

*Included only as a mildly humorous jab at what seems to be a fairly hypocritical stance on their part. Please do not actually reach out to me.

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