David Perry

Associate Professor at Dominican University

Dear Student? How About Dear Provost?

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Image: Archery contest at the XXII Olympic Games (1980), by Sergey Subbotin (courtesy of RIA Novosti archive)

The Dear Student feature on Vitae had been attracting both fans and detractors when Jesse Stommel, an assistant professor of digital humanities at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, wrote a blog post decrying the series, which he saw as filled with “snickering” about “petty and pedantic” concerns.

His post sparked a sprawling Twitter and Facebook conversation, much of it on private pages, in which academics debated the right (and need) of faculty members to vent about students versus the obligation to show them respect and professionalism.

By way of disclosure: Stommel and I are friends on social media. We have never met. We don’t work in the same field. We do, however, agree that showing scorn for students in general is a mistake, and that doing so in a public venue is a problem. I’m just not sure that the “Dear Student” columns show scorn, although I understand why Stommel sees it that way. Rather, the columns reveal tired, disenfranchised faculty members who feel less and less in control of their own productivity.

The best defenses of the Dear Student feature have been made mostly on private tweets or Facebook threads that I do not have permission to quote. Defenders have explored these columns as a space for generally marginalized faculty members to exercise their authority in ways usually denied them by academe. In general, Vitae has done an excellent job providing a place for new voices in academic journalism -- including contingent professors, alt-academic writers, women, people of color, and people at non-prestigious universities. Whatever comes of this discussion, those voices need to be part of it.

The problem is this: In the Dear Student columns, the angry and precarious faculty are aiming their frustrations at hypothetical students making archetypal complaints that faculty hear all too often. But some real students are reading it. Vitae may be intended as a hub for graduate students and professionals in higher education, but that’s not of course how the internet works. Increasingly, people get their news not by loyally going to a site and reading the headings, and certainly not by subscribing, but by letting their social networks inform them what’s worth reading. Widely subscribed higher-education twitter accounts have plenty of student readers. The Chronicle is not our private club.

More important, students are the wrong target. While they can be petty, self-involved, rude, vindictive, and otherwise display some of the awful features of humanity, the problem is that they have entered into a system that treats them as interchangeable sources of income. Corporatist rhetoric makes students feel powerful enough to demand things of professors, while all the time concealing their real powerlessness in our neoliberal education system.

The student-as-customer model, as I’ve written about before, demeans both student and professor, rendering their relationship into a crude transaction that obscures the ways that learning works. Faculty members may feel bullied by aggressive students, relishing the chance for some “tough talk” via a Vitae essay, but the students have no real power. Rather, our higher-education system can enable what seems like bullying, when the real problem is that our administrations don’t have faculty members’ backs when we encounter difficult moments. In fact, our new systems of higher education don’t center on teaching and learning and don’t really support students or faculty. Our systems focus instead on paying the bills.

Students use bureaucracies, complaint systems, and threats of litigation as a means to claim a little room in a powerless situation. They have learned to deploy corporatist rhetoric as a way to demand rights. But they, too, are after the wrong target when they attack their professors.

Dorothy Kim, an assistant professor of English at Vassar College and a critic of the “Dear Student” columns on Twitter, suggested in emails to me that the feature could be used to educate students about what’s really going on at their universities. Show them, she suggested, where their tuition dollars are really going. Explain the problems with adjunct labor and how it devalues their education (without implying that adjuncts are worse teachers!). Convince them that we are allies in the fight to preserve the best parts of our higher education system.

In the meantime, let’s start some new columns. How about Dear Provost? Dear President? Dear Trustee (the type who seem to think they should have anything to say about faculty hiring)? Dear Anti-Intellectual Lawmaker? Dear Rich Donor (the sort who believe they can control the university but mostly only donate to sports)?

Now there are some people who could use tough love and unambiguous truth-telling from the faculty.

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