Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis’s Kafkaesque Title IX experience — which ended as it should have — has prompted a lot of punditry on both sides of the political aisle about the worsening state of political correctness on campus. As I’ve noted previously in this space, this is actually a more complex question than just saying “It’s run amok!” But it’s a question that is definitely worth debating.
Now Vox has published a pseudonymous article by “a professor at a midsize state school” about the terrors of teaching at a university gone mad by political correctness:
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.
This article has also made the rounds, prompting some skepticism among academics and some more punditry from the pundits. As a professor at a nice leafy campus, I never know how much stock to put in a first-person account about students who do not seem like any students I have taught recently. As I said before, it’s hard to know whether this is a broader trend or simply the highlighting of some outliers.
Still, let’s stipulate that the prioritization of student feelings over student thoughts is a big problem. The thing is, it’s only half of the problem.
The really important part of the Vox essay are these passages:
We’ve seen bad things happen to too many good teachers — adjuncts getting axed because their evaluations dipped below a 3.0, grad students being removed from classes after a single student complaint, and so on.
I once saw an adjunct not get his contract renewed after students complained that he exposed them to “offensive” texts written by Edward Said and Mark Twain. His response, that the texts were meant to be a little upsetting, only fueled the students’ ire and sealed his fate. That was enough to get me to comb through my syllabi and cut out anything I could see upsetting a coddled undergrad, texts ranging from Upton Sinclair to Maureen Tkacik — and I wasn’t the only one who made adjustments, either. . . .
The academic job market is brutal. Teachers who are not tenured or tenure-track faculty members have no right to due process before being dismissed, and there’s a mile-long line of applicants eager to take their place. And as writer and academic Freddie DeBoer writes, they don’t even have to be formally fired — they can just not get rehired. In this type of environment, boat-rocking isn’t just dangerous, it’s suicidal, and so teachers limit their lessons to things they know won’t upset anybody.
And here we get to the other half of the problem. For tenured faculty like Kipnis or myself, these kinds of PC inquisitions are energy-draining and infuriating, but not career-killing. But most people teaching on college campuses are not tenured. Tenure-track faculty feel highly vulnerable to bad student evaluations, and adjunct faculty actually are highly vulnerable to student criticism.
What’s truly insane about the Vox essay is the outsized role that student evaluations play in the assessment of teaching on campus. Evaluating teaching is a tricky business, but I fear that too many universities lean way too hard on student evaluations. There’s a mountain of evidence that these evaluations do not properly measure teaching quality.
Students have been passionate and misguided since the invention of students. What has changed is that student input has real consequences on many of the people who teach them.
This usually leads to the retort that students are the university’s customers, and consumer feedback is important. Although I don’t have a problem with student evaluations being part of any measurement of student teaching, the notion of students as customers is a meme that needs to be killed with fire.
Fortunately, Rebecca Schuman did this very thing last month in Slate.
Imagine how the Yelp template would work in college. Despite the “sommelier”—in this case the professor—strongly recommending that the “customer” purchase the Chem 101 textbook for Chem 101, the customer, being always right and in possession of the money, decides instead to purchase the textbook for Abnormal Psych 500 because it “looks better.” Then, when it’s time for midterms (our customer has not attended a single lecture—she’s paid her money, after all!), our customer notices that none of the exam questions match anything she’s read. Since she’s paid many thousands of dollars for this course, she is, as the customer, fully entitled to both an A and a full refund. And if her professor, TA, adviser, the registrar, and the provost don’t issue her a profuse apology, it’s zero stars. Fire everyone! . . .
Education is neither analogous to customer service nor does it need an analogous paradigm at all. It is its very own paradigm, one that has been established since before Socrates patiently nudged Glaucon into the light.
By the very nature of what they are signing up to do, college students are not always right, and since customers are always right . . . well, you know how a syllogism works. Thus the nonprofit university should not be acting like a corporation. That even today’s public universities do act like corporations should be infuriating to state legislators. Instead, they are doubling down, using these blatant category errors as an excuse to run professors out on a rail, all in the name of “customer service” to students who do not yet view themselves as customers. It’s not rhetoric to say that college students are not customers and that the university is not a business. This is not an angry proclamation. It is a statement of bland, indisputable truth.
There should be a vigorous debate about whether political correctness is run amok on college campuses. But the structural problems need to be addressed as well. Because as someone who has been working on college campuses for a while, I don’t see today’s students acting any more self-righteous than previous generations of students. What has changed is the relative power of non-tenured faculty, and the ethos of treating the student body like the most powerful Yelp reviewers in the world.