Why are y’all whining? The academic version
There is a lot of whining in academic of late and I have had enough of it. To be quite honest.
But before I begin, several caveats:
1) These comments do not apply to contingent faculty, especially part time ones who are vulnerable, underpaid and treated largely as second class citizens. Asking for justice is not whining.
2) I am a tenured faculty member with rank of associate professor and serve as chair of my department and have served and led many committees at my university. I also was a full time contingent faculty member at my university for 10 years and taught part time at several other institutions. I recognize that I rant from a position of privilege.
So….race, gender, trans and other sexuality issues becoming issues of protest, boycott and even leading to firings and other upheavals . Microaggressions. Trigger warnings. Student evaluations. Faculty afraid to piss off students. Grade inflation and other erosion of academic standards. Administration siding with students over and against faculty judgment and discretion. Threats to tenure and academic freedom. Contingent faculty.
These are some of the issues that have appeared in the popular press and discussed on social media in the outrage and counter-outrage cycle. Now it is my turn….
I say all of the below with deep love and affection and expect that you will listen with charity, as you usually do!
You have come to college to learn and to prepare for your lives as engaged, responsible citizens in a global and multicultural context. You are adults in some senses and adults-becoming in other ways. You have a right to physical safety, respect, to be free from emotional and other forms of abuse. You do not have a right to be surrounded by people who are always nice, kind, agree with your and/or reinforce your biases. You have a right to a quality, well-delivered and relevant education that does not ignore the Real World and is guided by professionals. You do not have the right to dictate what you will and will not study, you do not have the right to treat those professionals with disrespect, derision or other forms of abusive or childish behavior. There are things you know and bring to the classroom, and that ought to be considered and respected; but you also must consider and respect that there are thing that you do not know and that you do may not know what you don’t know. That is why you are here.
Part of the beauty of college is that you come into contact with people, ideas, concepts and areas of study, that you – left to your own devices – would never have come into contact with. You will encounter these strange, irritating, off-putting and maybe even enraging things in a relatively safe and controlled environment where you can engage them and take intellectual risks in doing so. You have academic freedom. You are allowed to question, ask, probe, argue and push provided that you do so as member of the community acting with professionalism, kindness and basic human respect. This freedom is not license to be a troll or an asshole. (You have social media for that ;)) Take advantage of the professionals of all kinds that surround you. They have much to teach you and you will never again be surrounded by such concentrated richness supported by these professionals and your own peers. Take chances to ask Big Questions, develop good life habits and follow your mentors who want to help. We are here for you and we want you to succeed. But in order for us to do our jobs, you have to do yours. You need to be professional and respectful, go to class, study, be engaged and take ownership and responsibility for your interactions and your community. This is dress rehearsal for the play of Life and we want the reviews to be fabulous!
You are no doubt feeling pretty good now, because well ‘Those darned kids” amirite?
Buckle up. It is your job to be the grownups here. You are in charge, even if you are at a place where the administration does call many of the shots. You have the academic freedom and pedagogical and scholarly expertise and you should own it. You are (by and large) NOT the victims, but you are unwilling or refusing – no doubt out of fear – to stand up and be role models for your students. Your students are immature, annoying, underprepared and unfamiliar with academia, don’t read and cannot write. Umm….duh. They have come to college for you to teach them all those things.
You might think that you are or should be above having to deal with such prosaic matters. That you should be able to lecture, grade and focus on your scholarship without having to be bothered with student anxiety, bad manners, lack of academic preparation and a myriad of other problems. I would tell you: you are so mistaken. You are engaged in the vocation, in the calling, of educating the whole person for citizenship and a very complex and messy world. Your students have already been through much personal and social messiness by the time they get to you and you must remember always: they are becoming adults. They are not there yet. Getting them there is (in part) our job.
As academics, we often live in an odd, insular world and we are shocked when other people do not understand this world, when they want to change it or when they think it is outdated, odd and insular. Of course they do. You live here year after year. The students do not. Their parents (some of whom have not been to college) do not. The broader public does not. It is your job to bridge the gap and bring them all into the world, like the over enthusiastic tour guide and convince them there is value, import, passion and joy here. It is your job to convince them you have the skills, dispositions and experience to guide the young on their journey, that you will challenge them and help them grow and that you will also take care of them. Not in a paternalistic way (although there are some unavoidable aspects that border on that), but in a way that grants them autonomy as it recognizes their vulnerability.
All of the issues that you face in your classrooms, your office hours, your committee meetings, your conferences and your meetings with administrators are the issues being wrestled with in the Real World. Actually academia IS part of that Real World. #jussayin’ #sorrynotsorry And while we are on the topic of administrators….they are not evil. They have a job to do, which when they do it well enables the work that we do with students and allows us to engage in teaching, scholarship and membership in a community. I am not naïve. I know it does not always go well. I know that there are inherent conflicts, problems and faculty often feel a lack of support from administration. But administrators and staff are not your servants. They are your partners and the more that they feel a sense of support and understanding about the tough job they have to do, the more they will be willing the extend those things to you.
As a faculty member, what I need from my fellow faculty (and not just in my institution) is to stop the whining and own up to both our limits and responsibilities. Our universities have issues that we have been avoiding that have hit critical mass and must be addressed in a clear, rigorous and compassionate way. If you don’t like what your administration is doing, speak up. Then figure out how to work together to resolve the problems and make the university better. If you don’t like what your students are doing or saying, speak up. Then support them in moving forward and addressing their concerns, fear and issues. They call us Professors for a reason. You must, you have an obligation to profess. Yes I know it carries risks. I took risks and professed unpopular positions while a contingent faculty member, and again when untenured. For me these risks were essential to my authenticity and my job, so I was willing to take them. Again, I am not naïve here. It does not always work out well, but neither does the world you are asking your students to live in. They are asked to take risks, to challenge themselves and grow – all of which are scary. I cannot ask my students to do what I am not also willing to do. They have power yes and they are learning to use it. But we also have power. A great deal. And we must use it and use it responsibly.