Dear Student

Almost a year ago, I wrote a blog post responding to a series of student-shaming articles published at the Chronicle of Higher Education. The post was ultimately read by 45,000 people and spawned more than a dozen responses, some from the darker corners of the web. I hadn’t intended my little 750-word piece as a massive public pillory and didn’t expect it to be read by such a large audience. As I wrote in several places over the days following its publication, my piece was not meant as an attack on any specific individuals and was certainly not an attack on teachers. I wrote,

“This series plays to the insecurities of its audience in a way that feels opportunistic. Academic job seekers are concerned about their current and future livelihood. They are oppressed by a system that calls 75% of its labor-force ‘unnecessary,’ ‘contingent,’ ‘adjunct.’ ‘Dear Student’ turns that oppression, and the most snickering part of it, upon students.”

The Chronicle profits directly by encouraging a culture that pits vulnerable students and teachers against each other. The “Dear Student” series was not the first of its ilk, and not the last. What I see are teachers with genuine anxieties being asked to put themselves in a compromised position from which they are very publicly belittling students. Nobody wins. Not the students. Not the teachers. Not education in the eyes of its detractors. The fact that this kind of shaming often gets encouraged and defended by teachers is a structural problem. The fact that the Chronicle promotes it and profits from it is a decidedly corporate one.

What I listened to most intently during the aftermath of “Dear Chronicle” were the student voices, a number of whom commented anonymously on my piece:

“Part of the reason why I never asked for help was because I saw what my professors thought of those who did.”

“I dropped out of college, in large part due to the hoops I had to jump through to get my disabilities recognized. I was always so tired of having to justify myself and I didn’t want to have to argue ‘but I’m not like those students’ because then I’d be no better than the people judging me.”

“It’s a lot easier to stay motivated when you’re not made to feel like you’re stupid or a liar. It’s a lot easier to focus on studying when you’re not focused on having to justify yourself.”

This is where the conversation starts. By listening seriously to the voices of students and recognizing that students can be drivers of the conversation about the state of education. Teachers have anxieties. Teaching is one of the most emotionally difficult jobs I have done and can imagine doing. Of course, we need to vent. But it is not productive for us to continue creating spaces for teachers to vent that students can eavesdrop on but feel excluded from. I agree that we need to talk openly about real concerns, but there are better ways to have those conversations than by stereotyping, mocking, and shaming.

Some stats from a few recent studies of bullying in higher education:

  • 62% of professionals stated they had been bullied or witnessed bullying in higher education vs. 37% in the general population. Women, African Americans, and members of the LGBT community are disproportionately bullied.

  • 51% of students claimed to have seen another student being bullied by a professor/instructor at least once and 18% claimed to have been bullied themselves by a professor/instructor at least once.

These statistics are definitely in sync with my anecdotal experience. I have heard stories or seen students mistreated by faculty (and faculty mistreated by faculty) at every institution where I’ve worked. If you haven’t seen this bullying running rampant, you may be the bully. And it may be unintentional, because the problem is systemic.

The Milgram experiment famously put its participants in three roles: “experimenter,” “learner” (an actor), and “teacher” (the subject of the experiment). It was as much an experiment about education as it was an experiment about compliance. In short, the experimenter would order the teacher to give shocks to the learner, for getting a wrong answer, and more often than was expected the teacher complied. This was not a nice experiment, and I’ve found the videos genuinely harrowing. The results were compelling but flawed.

In the epilogue to Obedience to Authority, Stanley Milgram argues,

“Each individual possesses a conscience which to a greater or lesser degree serves to restrain the unimpeded flow of impulses destructive to others. But when he merges his person into an organizational structure, a new creature replaces autonomous man, unhindered by the limitations of individual morality, freed of humane inhibition, mindful only of the sanctions of authority.”

Milgram was ultimately denied tenure because the ethics of his experiment were rightfully questioned. Still, Milgram’s experiment has been continually re-created. Perhaps, what is most telling is not Milgram’s results, but the fact that the experiment continues to be repeated and debated and supported and refuted. When faced with an oppressive authority figure, we wonder how we’ll act, what we’ll do, who we’ll obey. The answers, unfortunately, aren’t clear. Even good teachers, kind teachers, given an oppressive hierarchical system, will misuse their authority.

Milgram concludes his book with this line, “the condition of freedom in any state is always a widespread and consistent skepticism of the canons upon which power insists.” Whatever else we might say about Milgram and his experiment, there is something useful here. His call was for a constant vigilance, flushing at any onset of unthinking, uncaring obedience. And yet his call was couched within an experiment that was itself mean, callous even, desperate for results — the same sort of educational system we see today in K-12 and Higher Ed. A precarious labor force is an obedient one. And ill-fitting cogs do not make for better machines. A system of standards, outcomes, and measurement (in which assessment drives learning) is well-served by adjunctification, casualization, and corporatization — a well-oiled experimenter demanding the intimidated teacher abuse hapless learners.

Who in this system is most vulnerable?

It’s important to think about intersectionality when talking about power and hierarchies. Teacher / student is a binary that needs deconstructing but never at the expense of the other identities in play (race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, etc.). No binary exists in a vacuum.

If a straight white male student harasses a gay teacher, that is an example of homophobia. If the same teacher gives the student an “F” in retaliation, that is an example of misused institutional authority. If the gay teacher has a conversation with the student or all the students about systemic gender and sexuality bias, that would be a direct response to those dynamics without an abuse of the student / teacher hierarchy.

When we talk about “ranting up,” as I did in my “Dear Chronicle” piece, students are not “up.” If a teacher is targeting a student publicly, calling out their student-ness from a position of authority, and belittling them, I’d call that “ranting down,” no matter the other positionally involved. And too often it is the most vulnerable students (the ones facing multiple oppressions) who get the least compassion in our educational system.

Kindness does not mean sugarcoating. But neither should “professionalism” excuse cruelty. Being frank and honest is essential. Students are not undifferentiated masses of positivity. Each of them is unique and worth my acknowledging and engaging individually and respectfully. Some of those interactions are difficult. None are easy. We have to approach our interactions with students from a place of care. Like when my dad let go of my bike for the first time even though he said he “had me…” It was a loving gesture. And he did have me. Just not the seat of my bike. As a teacher, I want students to “show up” because I value their contributions — because I (and the other students in class) learn as much from them as they learn from me. Advocating for students doesn’t mean being blindly permissive. It doesn’t mean having no expectations.

Marty Bickman writes, “We often ignore the best resource for informed change, one that is right in front of our noses every day — our students, for whom the most is at stake.” And, to that, I responded, “We have built an almost ironclad academic system — and I acknowledge myself as one of its privileged builders — a system which excludes the voices of students, which calls students ‘customers’ while monetizing their intellectual property, which denigrates the work of learning through assessment mechanisms and credentialing pyramid schemes.” This is not a system that empowers students.

We can’t get to a place of listening to students if they don’t show up to the conversation because we’ve already excluded their voice in advance by creating environments hostile to them and their work. Listening to students is not a gimmick. Sean Michael Morris writes,

“At some point, we need to stop blaming students for the state of education. If, after so many years of controlling student behavior, analyzing their data to understand and curtail that behavior, we are still unhappy with their performance, perhaps it’s time we turn education over to them.”

We can’t get to a place of listening to students if we continue to create us/them dichotomies — as I have done in this very sentence — that position teachers and students against one another.

The work of educating from a place of care might seem abstract, or might be dismissed as touchy-feely, but if our goal is truly to resist the corporatization and standardization of education, we must recognize the ways that the failure to acknowledge students as full agents in their learning is a process that runs immediately parallel to the failure to acknowledge teachers as full agents in the classroom. The process that makes teachers increasingly adjunct is the same process that has made students into customers. And the gear that makes this system go depends on the pitting of students and teachers against one another.

The gear that makes this system go is obedience — mere compliance at the expense of critical engagement and complex human understanding.

For education to work, there can be no divide between teachers and students. There must be what Paulo Freire calls “teacher-students.” Specifically, he writes, “no one teaches another, nor is anyone self-taught.” So, “teacher” becomes a role that shifts, and learning depends upon a community of teacher-students. Any authority within the space must be aimed at fostering agency in all the members of the community. And this depends on a recognition of the power dynamics and hierarchies that this kind of learning environment must actively and continuously work against. There is no place for shame in the work of education.

[Photo by Franck Vervial]