Diagnosis of an overwhelming fear, pt. 3

This post is a follow-up to Diagnosis of an overwhelming fear, pt. 2, and a partial-follow up to Rhetorical imperialism


The new hotness in this micro-epoch of the Age of Outrage is at Vox, where a pseudonymous professor touts his liberality but claims that his liberal students are terrifying. "I'm a liberal college professor," cries the headline, "and my liberal students terrify me":
I'm a professor at a midsize state school. I have been teaching college classes for nine years now. I have won (minor) teaching awards, studied pedagogy extensively, and almost always score highly on my student evaluations. I am not a world-class teacher by any means, but I am conscientious; I attempt to put teaching ahead of research, and I take a healthy emotional stake in the well-being and growth of my students.

Things have changed since I started teaching. The vibe is different. I wish there were a less blunt way to put this, but my students sometimes scare me — particularly the liberal ones.

Not, like, in a person-by-person sense, but students in general. The student-teacher dynamic has been reenvisioned along a line that's simultaneously consumerist and hyper-protective, giving each and every student the ability to claim Grievous Harm in nearly any circumstance, after any affront, and a teacher's formal ability to respond to these claims is limited at best.
He goes on, talking about how "boat rocking isn't dangerous, it's suicidal" and citing the rather insane job market in academia.
This shift in student-teacher dynamic placed many of the traditional goals of higher education — such as having students challenge their beliefs — off limits. While I used to pride myself on getting students to question themselves and engage with difficult concepts and texts, I now hesitate. What if this hurts my evaluations and I don't get tenure? How many complaints will it take before chairs and administrators begin to worry that I'm not giving our customers — er, students, pardon me — the positive experience they're paying for? Ten? Half a dozen? Two or three?
This seems like an overwhelming fear, all right. And then he really cements the position of his article, an awkward posture that is guaranteed to polarize:
The current student-teacher dynamic has been shaped by a large confluence of factors, and perhaps the most important of these is the manner in which cultural studies and social justice writers have comported themselves in popular media. I have a great deal of respect for both of these fields, but their manifestations online, their desire to democratize complex fields of study by making them as digestible as a TGIF sitcom, has led to adoption of a totalizing, simplistic, unworkable, and ultimately stifling conception of social justice. The simplicity and absolutism of this conception has combined with the precarity of academic jobs to create higher ed's current climate of fear, a heavily policed discourse of semantic sensitivity in which safety and comfort have become the ends and the means of the college experience.
This is the liberal complement to the complaints of the neoreactionaries. (Actually, lots of the specific complaints are the same. Hrm.) But as I said in that part of the apparently-now-serial diagnosis of an overwhelming fear:
My more general worry is that our civilization's tough social-political problems are coated in a blubbery layer of ostensible facts that just serve to confirm biases, and that just below that layer (which few ever drill down to, because confirmation bias is a great and terrible power) are surprising facts that explode lots of preconceptions. Facts that, I might hopefully add, are happier endings than a death spiral of reciprocal terror such as neoreactionaries fear.
Here I think there's actually a good mix of facts, they're just presented in a very unfactual arrangement. "Professor Schlosser" is echoing a lot of other stories of student outrage and censured faculty, but his (and the Vox editors') framing of the problem as primarily driven by students and pop-culture social justice? Blaming his fear on Tumblr, in other words? I've said a lot of things about the social-media version of social justice, and I'll say even more in the future. But I don't think that's the Fourth Horseman of the Academic Apocalypse. Not even one of the other three. While the poisoned discourse in online spaces is important to highlight and (hopefully) cure, academia is simply a different story.

My friend Asher put the distinction very well in his own commentary on the Vox piece:
One of the most frustrating things about Schlosser’s article is how close he comes to identifying the actual issue at hand. He laments the difficulty of the academic job market. He notes with concern that the “student-teacher dynamic” has become increasingly consumerist. He holds that it betrays the purpose of education to treat students as “customers” who are paying for a “positive experience.” He’s absolutely right, but the corporatization of education and increasing instability in academic employment can hardly be blamed on the purportedly misguided views of students. For one thing, college students have always held inconsistent political views based on false information cobbled together from dubious sources. College students have also always been easily offended. Neither of these long-consistent trends can account for relatively recent shifts in university operations.
This is all very true, and an important guide to how we should frame "the problem" with American higher education. However, I think some of the backlash against the Vox piece stems from a certain reading of why the piece is called "My Liberal Students Terrify Me," and why the author bothers to mention his students' supposed hypersensitivity.


Asher takes the author to task for this:
Schlosser is kicking [the students] when they’re down, wrongly blaming them for all his colleagues’ misfortunes.
But his criticism is mild and quite fair. Compare to this entire blog post worth of satire:
But here's the rub: political correctness has gone mad. You truly cannot say anything any more. Or rather - to be technically correct - you can say whatever you like, but there will be consequences. And this is an extremely troubling development.

As a middle class white man I'm accustomed to being able to express my opinions freely. That has been my right (I refuse to use the word privilege, which has been taken from us in much the same way "gay" was) for as long as I have been alive, and it's a right I hold dear to my heart.  Many of my opinions are the result of literally hours of concentrated thought experiments carried out in the laboratory that is my mind. Some opinions I have adopted - they are the offspring of other thinkful men like me, and I've seen something in them I like, and so have taken them to my bosom to raise as my own. It matters not the origin of my opinions, what matters is that I hold them - but what matters more is that I feel free to share them.


I will end with a plea, directed to the Orwellian New Liberal Thought Police - those who believe that a white man's opinions have no innate value and may not be as objective and free from bias as any sensible person knows them to be - and 'tis simply this: can we not return to a simpler and more innocent time? A time when discourse was conducted between social equals, when men could delight themselves and their audience with discussions of abstract concepts, unconcerned with the dismal realities of those who might be affected by that which amused them so? Is that too much to ask?

Because I fear that if we cannot return to those times - if you will insist that every thought that pops into my head must be examined and considered before being spoken aloud or shared with the world in text - I may have to stop being a liberal at all and go over to the reactionary side, where they care not a whit for such niceties.  And that would be a loss to us all.
That's four out of ten paragraphs all in the same vein. It strikes me as the faintly nasty kind of satire, the kind that says "Look at this fool who spoke publicly and had nothing accurate at all to say. Let us mock his wrongness." Don't get me wrong, I like satire like that. But it does presuppose that the target of the satire is at least mostly wrong. And the thing is, I don't think he is; he just managed to arrange his mostly-true facts in a way that made the whole thing come off as entirely wrongheaded.

Consider P. Z. Myers' take over at FreethoughtBlogs:
But hey, let’s get right down to the really important stuff. Edward Schlosser is apparently a white man. He’s terribly concerned about the oppression visited upon us white men, as you might have guessed from that link to his blog post, where he was troubled that he was denied the right to date his students. We must protect the privileges of white male professors, even if it requires that we willfully misinterpret criticisms!


I think we see what this teacher is really afraid of: falling back on centuries of established thought is demanding acceptance of dogma and orthodoxy in lieu of questioning. He’s afraid of being challenged in the classroom!
There's some noticeable effort being put out to cement the identity of this "Edward Schlosser," who is maybe a man and maybe white but given that it's a pseudonym could easily be neither. It really seems that (1) there's this assumption that anyone who says these sorts of things (that the critic disagrees with) must be a straight white closeted-conservative male; and (2) if we can determine the straight-white-maleness of this speaker, everything he says can be roundly discounted, disdained, and mocked. I leave it as an exercise to the reader to decide whether Myers or "Graham Murkett" had the more audacious set of assumptions about "Schlosser."

You can tell that they didn't read very closely (I mean they read extremely shallowly). Myers links to the author's Tumblr blog, for example, and yet you can look at some other posts and get the impression that this person is quite liberal:
Yes, we’ve had unreasonable demands placed upon us.  Yes, this country is run cyclically either by idiot cultists who think the earth is 5000 years old or third way financio-utopianist technocrats who believe that the problems inherent to capitalism can be fixed only by giving more unbridled leverage to business and finance.  The world is shit.  Obviously.
That one, incidentally, is a follow up to the Vox piece,  and in this ask "Schlosser" criticizes the Vox editors for making the piece extra clickbait-y:
One regret I have with the Vox piece is that the editor changed it so that I explicitly expressed fear about liberal students.  That’s not what I wanted to say, because it’s not just liberal students who are capable of ruining an instructor’s career by asserting discomfort (blaming liberals in specific led to some A++ clickbait, however, so I can’t question her decision too harshly).  Liberal students have momentary political leverage that enhances their ability to assert discomfort, but that won’t last forever.
This suggests that "Schlosser" is not the pearl-clutching closet-conservative naif that the above takedowns want to portray. There are more orthodoxies than just the ones that someone doesn't like. And there may be genuine reasons among liberals to fear the rise of "progressive outrage" in higher education, in addition to the creeping administrative bullshit.

Professors and adjuncts have basically no control over the administration, but they have to deal with students every day. You can see how any changes to the professors' behavior might be weighted by students' influence more than admins'; even though the admins are the ultimate problem for professors in academia, students are a non-trivial, proximate problem.


Whence the fear of students?  Certainly the Vox piece is not the only one of its kind. The past few years have seen an explosion of think-pieces about outrage culture and the role of academia in shepherding students through discomfiting lessons. These range from the pointed:
The juxtaposition of the two films [Triumph of the Will and Night and Fog, in the author's sophomore-year sociology-history class] was, of course, no accident. They were programmed in sequence to make unavoidable the sense of a causal vector running from the submissive ecstasies of Nuremberg to the horrors of Auschwitz. You didn’t need a diagram. It was a shattering afternoon. The audience left in dead silence.

I’ve not forgotten the shock and logic of the segue. (Neither has a classmate I checked with, who was there as well.) Those images were engraved into our souls. The cinematic double whammy certainly made me, to use the current euphemism, “uncomfortable.” Oh yes, to put it mildly, it made me very uncomfortable. That was the point. Mission accomplished, Professor Sam Beer of Harvard’s Soc Sci 2. You impressed upon this 19-year-old soul an unbearable, ineradicable warning about mass rallies and mass murder. You didn’t draw me a diagram. You burned into me that more powerful thing: a synapse.
to the philosophical:
Best practice, then, means that we should reject the imposition of official policies about TW, but also that faculty have a (moral, pedagogical) responsibility to conduct themselves in the classroom in a way that serves their students to the best of their abilities. And this may include occasional warnings for specific instances of potentially disturbing material. But bear in mind the conclusion of Gitlin’s essay mentioned above: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make ye free” Not comfortable — free.”
to the dismissive:
Sadly, the decline in free speech at American universities, and the proliferation of ludicrous “trigger warning” mandates for books and courses, are topics covered largely by the right-wing media, so often I must hold my nose as I examine their sources. But even a right-wing venue can get stuff right, as Legal Insurrection does on the latest bit of nonsense from American campuses: a request from students at Columbia University (a great school, by the way) to put trigger warnings on the work of Roman poet Ovid.
to the snarky:
The answer to whenever another human being annoys you is not “make them go away forever.” We need to learn to coexist, and it’s actually pretty easy to do. For example, I find Rush Limbaugh obnoxious, but I’ve been able to coexist comfortably with him for 20 years by using this simple method: I never listen to his program. The only time I hear him is when I’m at a stoplight next to a pickup truck.

When the lady at Costco gives you a free sample of its new ham pudding and you don’t like it, you spit it into a napkin and keep shopping. You don’t declare a holy war on ham.

I don’t want to live in a country where no one ever says anything that offends anyone. That’s why we have Canada. That’s not us. If we sand down our rough edges and drain all the color, emotion and spontaneity out of our discourse, we’ll end up with political candidates who never say anything but the safest, blandest, emptiest, most unctuous focus-grouped platitudes and cant. In other words, we’ll get Mitt Romney.
to the exasperated:
So, yeah, I dared to enter the Hysterical Indignation Vortex in the wake of the tragic and very likely criminal shooting of Trayvon Martin without expressing enough indignation to make the liberal masses happy. I know this because about ten seconds after my piece got tweeted out — admittedly by me, so I know that I get what I deserve — it was retweeted again and again and suddenly every friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend or nobody-in-particular with a Twitter account and a somewhat justifiable sense of outrage at the death of Trayvon was pounding on my digital door, ready to publicly flog me for my impertinence while basically misunderstanding every goddamned thing I’d said. Some of those raking me over the coals, in fact, admitted that they found my entire premise so “repellant” that they didn’t even bother to read the piece all the way through — not surprising given both our 140-character attention spans and blinded-by-passion discourse these days, but still a lousy way to come out on top in a debate.
to the counter-outraged:
 It’s a place of unchecked executive authority and mind numbing regulations run amok. No, I’m not talking about Washington, but your typical modern university campus. College costs more than ever and students and parents increasingly fret whether they’re getting their money’s worth. But there’s one area in which American colleges are excelling: banishing certain ideas from public debate.

A generation ago, college students marched demanding freedom of speech. Now many of those old campus radicals have become administrators and are demanding freedom from speech, including ”microaggression” reporting services designed to cleanse the English language of any locution that might offend. Didn’t George Orwell warn us about this?
to those written by David Brooks, who is possibly not okay you guys:
There will always be moral fervor on campus. Right now that moral fervor is structured by those who seek the innocent purity of the vulnerable victim. Another and more mature moral fervor would be structured by the classic ideal of the worldly philosopher, by the desire to confront not hide from what you fear, but to engage the complexity of the world, and to know that sometimes the way to wisdom involves hurt feelings, tolerating difference and facing hard truths.
You've got stand-up comics like Patton Oswalt, Chris Rock, and Jerry Seinfeld lamenting the rise of outrage culture and how it's destroying comedy. You've got activists giving up and leaving activism because of opposition from their own allies. It may not be new, but it's also not nothing.


And yet this isn't the whole story. As Asher also points out, through a Marxist lens:
[...] We live in a post-industrial, late capitalist, neoliberal hellscape. The only fields experiencing stable growth are low-paying, at-will McJobs at one end and administrative “bullshit jobs” at the other. The bourgeoisie have really begun to own their political emancipation in the past few decades, and they have shifted regulatory schemes accordingly, eroding employee protections and public programs. The natural rate of unemployment shot up a percentage point during the last recession, and we’re lucky it only went up that much. The results of all this? Administrative positions at universities have grown at a far greater rate than tenure-track faculty positions. Many public universities remain woefully underfunded. Faculty and classified staff naturally bear the brunt of any funding cuts. On the demand side, meanwhile, students increasingly, and not unreasonably, understand a college degree as a ticket out of the service industry. It is, in the driest and most clinical terms possible, a service that they purchase in order to build human capital.
Put less Marxy, university education is now viewed as a commodity, a purely commercial endeavor, a credential for getting a better job that "shit shoveler." That's from the student end. On the administrative end, prospective students are viewed as sources of funds, as traditional state funding has dried up. And where has that gotten us? The blog Gin & Tacos, written by a Political Science professor somewhere in the retrograde Hell that is the Midwestern United States, contains many windows into this brave new learning environment:
Some of the administrative bloat is pointless. The rest of it is a result of two legitimate problems. One is that competition for students is intense (at private schools, "desperate" doesn't go far enough to convey the enrollment situation these days) and colleges increasingly look to compete by turning the experience into a playground. Not only do they need to spend billions collectively on creature comforts – elaborate Rec Centers, luxury student housing and food, etc – but they have to hire countless paper pushers to administer the programs intended to keep students entertained. A gym is more than throwing up a building and filling it with treadmills. There have to be group fitness classes, semester long programs in whatever is trendy, a calendar full of events, and anything else you'd find on a cruise ship or resort.

The second part is the one people only whisper about. More and more students are going to college over the past two decades, partly driven by the availability of loans and the inability to enter most fields without a degree. The end result is that moreso than any time in the past, today there are huge numbers of students flocking to college who have zero ability to succeed there. Universities of course want to retain these students, and in order to do so they have to create a massive bureaucracy of support services. Any skill tangentially related to completing college level work now has a lavishly staffed support center devoted to it on campus. A writing center, a study skills program, tutoring services, a math helpdesk, a massive bureaucracy devoted to the shockingly large share of students diagnosed with various disabilities, and anything else you can imagine.

If you want to stay open, you have to admit a certain number of students. In an ideal world you accept only students who can succeed given the nature of the school. In reality you end up taking a lot who probably can't. And if you accept students who do not know how to write sentences in English, you better have someone ready to hold their hand if you expect them to last longer than a semester. That costs money – a lot of money.
Or, in pithy conclusion: "College costs a lot more than it used to. But "used to" didn't include paying half a million bucks to bring Katy Perry to campus and having to teach high school graduates how to do math involving fractions."

I try to believe that Western Washington University is, if not avoiding this trend (because it surely isn't), at least suffers from only a very mild case of administrativitis. And that it's not so desperate as to vacuum up anyone vaguely college-aged with no regard for prospective success—not that it has much choice, given the widespread failures of K-12 systems anywhere that's not affluent and white, and maybe even those places too.

That said, as a teaching assistant I got course evaluations opining about the validity of letting a graduate student teach freshman algebra, in a class where more than a few students legitimately did not know how to do fraction arithmetic. So, there's that.

Framed this way, it looks a hell of a lot like the administration is playing students against faculty. But even that narrative grants individuals too much agency; like it or not, this really seems like another Moloch problem—perverse incentives run wild, proving that this is why we can't have nice things. Sure, the poisoned discourse on social media isn't helping, but it's a complete accessory to the real problem on college campuses.

So in some sense, the professors' fears are justified. To make a blunt analogy: When you're in a room that's full of gasoline fumes, you're going to fear even the tiniest spark, even if that spark alone won't hurt you. The administration is the gas; the students' outrage is the spark.