Kids these days!

Campus culture has been much-discussed in recent weeks, as a growing consensus has emerged that today’s college students, though well-meaning, are often prone to overreaction and oversimplification of complex political and moral issues. The result is hurt feelings in the campus community and, all too often, shattered careers for professors.

Let’s grant that this diagnosis is partially correct. It does seem to be the case that campus political activism is often characterized by lack of nuance and by massive impatience. Student groups sometimes seem to choose “targets of opportunity” without any clear overarching strategy. Online activist culture has arguably contributed to this situation by substituting clever memes and carefully orchestrated outrage for actual political analysis. The result is an approach to political advocacy that does little to foster a community based on dialogue and mutual understanding.

The thing about this diagnosis is that, aside from the online aspect, pundits from time immemorial have said similar things about college students. This is because college students are adolescents who have often been thrown into a very intense and confusing social situation without much in the way of preparation. Simplistic moralizing and group identities based more on common enemies than shared substance are part of the natural growing pains. I went through a phase much like that described by the David Brookses of the world, and now I’m not like that anymore. Surely many of us can say the same, if we’re honest.

The hope, obviously, is that the end result of a college education would be, in part, a more sophisticated grasp of political realities, institutional structures, moral ambiguities, etc., etc. For me, the question is not whether college students are acting like college students, but whether our institutions of higher learning are helping them toward that laudable goal of political maturity.

And this brings me to the last segment of the punditical concensus: the ruined lives of professors. I think we need to recognize that students do not have the power to hire, fire, or discipline professors in any college or university in this land. That power is vested in some combination of the faculty, the administration, and the Board of Trustees. There is no necessity for those with actual power to use it to deal out draconian punishments for trivial offenses against the profound moral standards some student happens to have read about in a blog post that morning. Part of being the adult in the room is knowing when to tell someone they’re overreacting. If it really is the case that the situation is “worse” today, surely this overindulgence of petty complaints is a contributing factor.

Of course, here someone could say that those poor harried administrators are responding to market forces in our bold new neoliberal world of student-customers who are always right. What’s strange to me, though, is that students are always right about very trivial matters, but in the eyes of administrators, they are only very seldom right about much more serious offenses. When a professor is accused of sexual exploitation of students, for instance, suddenly he can count on institutional backing and the glories of tenure. There is a similar mismatch between students who are uncomfortable reading Huck Finn (always right!) and those who are uncomfortable being in class with a fellow student who has raped them (let’s not be hasty…).

One almost begins to think that administrators are opportunistically deploying student complaints as weapons in their ongoing war against faculty job security, while taking an equally opportunistic approach to more serious accusations that could significantly damage the institution’s reputations. And maybe part of the education we as faculty can provide to students is how to recognize these dynamics and start fighting the real enemy.

6 thoughts on “Kids these days!

  1. The argument here seems to hinge on students often succeeding in ruining professors’ careers over minutia. Is there really much evidence that this is the case? There’s certainly been a sizeable uptick in op-eds and blog posts about professors being imperilled to retaliate against minor offences, but that could just be a few marginal cases seized upon by the media—”Professor Fired for Assigning Ovid” sells better than “Student Complaint about Ovid Dismissed by University Committee”. Absent some hard stats, therefore, I’m unwilling to readily accept that there is some epidemic of professors drawing administrative rebuke for the hurt feelings of oversensitive college students.

  2. It’s never one thing. It’s never an increase in liberal sensitivities or an opportunistic faculty with new leverage. It can be, and likely is, both. And to make matters more complicated–it’s in varying degrees depending on the university’s overall academic strengths, political ideologies, and dare I say it, fiscal competitiveness. I’d argue the root of this increasing perception of sensitivity (at the expense of academics) stems more from the impact that people who aren’t themselves students at these universities, people who have no vested interest in the academic quality of their education and hold no tangible claim to its security. Of course, some of them will be enrolled in the school though; we all know many uni students who aren’t there to learn, or at least, only to maintain the habitual facade of being a student. It’s a growing pressure on universities as they take on more severe business-like policies. As fiscal income is drained away from secondary education, public relations becomes paramount. And anyone with two cents could explain why the court of public opinion is a terrible governing body. In a modern world where complicated ideas can be shared easily with .. to put it politely.. confused people, and often simplified to it’s detriment for bite-sized consumption, hard to grasp ideas are surely becoming fuel to emotional fires. That sentence doesn’t even need historical citations. Unfortunately, I’d agree with the professors on this matter–regardless of how much repercussion is being experienced for their teachings. A teacher must have the authority to say unpopular things, and we need to hold professors accountable to facts, not feelings.

  3. The question of evidence is raised in a particularly strange way by yesterday’s Vox post on this topic. The post begins with the author describing the only time a student has made a complaint against him, which was a complaint from a right-wing student that the administration treated as entirely spurious and which caused no problems for the author. In other words, the post begins with evidence that the concerns raised in the rest of the post are overblown, but that doesn’t seem to give the author any pause at all.

    Adam, the thing this post really brings out to me, that I hadn’t really thought of before, is how de-politicized and de-politicizing these complaints about a supposed epidemic of student oversensitivity are. This is odd, because the people making the complaints usually present themselves as standing up for robust debate or political agonism; yet their complaints focus much more on individual behaviour and psychology than they do on the organisations of power that construct these subjectivities and allow them to have particular effects.

  4. Are administrators the “real enemy?” Let’s imagine why a hypothetical administrator, seeing himself or herself tasked with the responsibility of guiding a ship through very troubled waters, might presently be forced to honor trivial complaints:

    1 The fear of crossing vague guidelines set by the OCR in the Department of Education and risking the possibility of losing federal funding.
    2. The calculation that even a frivolous lawsuit on certain matters would be more costly, tangibly and intangibly, than a questionable decision on free speech ever could be.
    3. The recognition that students (and their parents) view themselves as “customers” and honorably refusing to acknowledge this may likely have deleterious consequences to recruitment and retention.
    4. The realization that constituencies in the university may have incentives, however perverse, in seeing otherwise negligible complaints visibly adjudicated.

    Also, our hypothetical administrator may grant your point that adolescents have always been prone to “simplistic moralizing and group identities based more on common enemies than shared substance,” but argue that, first, present college students are different at least in increased narcissistic personality traits (see Twenge, et al), second, the “common enemies” are now more likely to be found on campus, and third, college students today are more likely to couch their complaints in a legal and medical discourse that make those complaints harder to dismiss. Thus, the hypothetical administrator must, for the good of the institution, increasingly honor trivial complaints.

    (None of this is meant to suggest that serious complaints do not exist or are often mishandled.)

  5. Pointing out that they have reasons or rationalizations doesn’t mean that they’re doing the right thing — or that their short-term panicked responses aren’t creating even worse long-term circumstances.

    But then, I was already suspicious when you used the phrase “be forced” instead of “feel constrained” or something like that. It’s weird how the boss always totally lacks moral agency or responsibility in these kinds of discussions.

  6. Adam:

    I respect you deeply for remaining engaged in the game. While it is certainly a truism that students are the end-users, the consumers of the products of the classroom, I wonder just what a consumer-centered educational system would look like, especially when the product is about teaching them to be better, more mature consumers/learners.

    I have taught literature in the past, and I am currently on the faculty of a medical school and university hospital in the North East. The more things change, the more they stay the same. I have thrown in the towel in a very real way. I suppose the coup de grace for me was when a medical student, bright for sure, but in the context of his peers quite average and nothing like the better and best in his class, complained that the ‘high pass’ I gave him in my ‘class’ was an inaccurate assessment. We met in my office, and we discussed the matter, and I tried to explain that I assessed him individually and comparatively and the HP he earned reflected my honest assessment of his achievement. After this episode I was hounded by his advisor and other administrators advocating for an ‘honors’ rating mainly because I did not provide enough guidance for his success. As a busy practitioner I had no time to pursue the matter and they and the student wore me down. I changed his grade to the H and after that I gave everyone an H unless I thought they would present a clear danger to patients. All students are equally gifted and gifts to our world.

    Adminstrators, the bosses, might not be the problem, but they’ll often do what they must to pass the problem down stream. The net result from my perspective is that we are unleashing a generation of physicians whose self-centeredness and self-importance trumps the very honor and sacredness of the profession they will ostensibly advance. What kind of college graduates are we unleashing if we participate in imprisoning them in perpetual adolescence? I often get to meet these types when they enter medical school, medical residencies and fellowships. Just whom are we serving when we move these young adults along into a system they believe is there solely to gratify them?

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