Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Tattooed Professor Raises an Awkward Question about Education

I am predisposed to despise anyone who calls himself The Tattooed Professor, and while I completely disagree with him, his reaction to that U of Chicago letter to freshmen is instructive:
As a faculty member, I would be enormously dismayed if my dean sent this letter to my incoming students. Because now they’ll come into my class already having received a clear message about what my institution seems to value-and it isn’t them. The Chicago letter reeks of arrogance, of a sense of entitlement, of an exclusionary mindset; in other words, the very things it seeks to inveigh against. It’s not about academic freedom, it’s about power. Know your place, and acknowledge ours, it tells the students. We’ll be the judge of what you need to know and how you need to know it. And professors and students are thus handcuffed to a high-stakes ideological creed. Do it this way, in the name of all that is holy and true in the academy. There is no room here for empathy, for student agency, or for faculty discretion.

Displaying empathy for the different experiences our students bring to the classroom is not a threat to our academic freedom. Allowing for a diversity of perspectives to flourish, even when that diversity might challenge the very structure of our course and its material, is not a threat but an opportunity. Our first reaction to expressions of student agency, even when they seem misguided or perhaps frivolous, should not be to shut it down. If we really value academic freedom, then we need to model that with and for our students. Ableism, misogyny, racism, elitism, and intellectual sloppiness deserve to be called out. That’s not a threat, that’s our students doing what they’re supposed to as engaged citizens of an academic community. This year, we should challenge ourselves to quit fixating on caricatures and hypotheticals and instead acknowledge the actual landscape of teaching and learning in all its messiness and complexity. When we act out of fear, we do harm. When we assume the worst from our students, that’s what we often end up getting-from them and from ourselves. We can do better than this.
Ok, so the U of Chicago is elitist. Isn't that the point?

As I wrote about the Oberlin protesters: if you don't believe that professors have something students don't, call it wisdom or knowledge or power or whatever, why are you in college? If you explicitly reject, as the Tattooed Professor does, that notion that "We’ll be the judge of what you need to know and how you need to know it," what are professors for?

There used to be a publication called The Insurgent Sociologist, and one night when I was bored in the U of Minnesota library I thumbed through it. It consisted entirely of far left professors bemoaning their part in The System. That is, they rejected the hierarchical structure of society, and it drove them crazy to ponder that half the point of college is picking the people who will occupy the upper rungs of the structure.

The point is that from a far left perspective it is very difficult to justify university education. For my whole lifetime the far left in America has been all about attacking privilege and hierarchy, and rejecting the notion that some people are better than others. If college graduates are not in some sense better than non-students, why have colleges? And if professors are not in some sense better than students, why should students listen to them?

Obviously this is crude language, and we could formulate more subtle distinctions; professors aren't better, they just have useful technical knowledge, or some such. But to some people the whole set-up of a classroom is hierarchical and therefore wrong. I wonder how the Tattooed Professor would justify his salary, if he doesn't think he knows any more than his students about what they ought to study?


G. Verloren said...

"But to some people the whole set-up of a classroom is hierarchical and therefore wrong. I wonder how the Tattooed Professor would justify his salary, if he doesn't think he knows any more than his students about what they ought to study?"

Playing devil's advocate, there is such a think as tuition free education and unstructured instruction.

I would imagine many on the extreme far left would advocate a more communal approach to the communication and dissemination of knowledge, in which people freely share what knowledge they possess rather than charging for it or otherwise introducing other "artificial" barriers to the access of said information (such as scheduled classes, pre-determined curriculum, structured lectures or presentations dominated by a single figure, various rules and restrictions which must be followed, et cetera.)

While it would sound disingenuous to my ears, I would not be surprised to hear this professor state that he would gladly give up his position and salary to share his knowledge freely in an ideal setting of his choosing. And while that might sound like hollow posturing, my experience with many far left thinkers is that often they genuinely believe such notions, and take offense to people doubting their sincerity. (Not that they'd ever realistically be tested on it, but still - for them, it seems to be the principle of the matter.)

The thing is, I'm not entirely certain far left thinkers are wrong, per se. In an ideal world, I absolutely think a communal system of free knowledge delivered without restrictions in whatever manner or format best suits a given individual's needs or desires would be near to perfection.

But the problem I always have with such thinking is that it is insufficiently practical. Extremists of all kinds always seem to aggresively promote and cling to raw ideals and theoretically principles, with little care for the details of the present reality. They fixate so much on their views of how things should operate in order to achieve an absolute perfect world, that they fail to consider how they can take the present flawed world and start to make it slightly less so. They're so focused on exact nature and position of the finish line that they can't even begin to address taking the very first step to get there.

This is why I'm a staunch reformist rather than a revolutionary. For example, as I'm sure you've noted from my prior commentary, I feel capitalism is deeply flawed and I would, in principle, advocate some form of communal or socialist system instead. But I'd never say the answer to our current problems is to burn the world and rebuild from the ashes, and I'd likewise never begin to believe that my own notions on what we ought strive for instead are somehow perfect or immutable.

I will always ultimately be concerned solely with what we can do to make our current situation less problematic, and ensure that we're at least moving in the right direction overall, rather than wringing my hands over the fact that we haven't reached utopia yet, nor will do so in my own lifetime, nor even likely within the a timeframe I can even properly conceptualize.

pithom said...

Good post, John. The opposite of quality is equality.

John said...

Yes, Verloren, it is possible to imagine a different way of sharing knowledge, one that is less hierarchical, more respectful of everyone's perspectives. And it might work for some students. As I have mentioned here before, my two older sons passionately hate the way we educate in our society, and both refuse to have anything to do with our university system. But as you say, our universities are what they are, and dreaming that they might suddenly become radically different is pointless. Fortunately, one thing our society has in abundance is ways for the motivated to learn the things they care about – one of my sons has listened to more than a hundred hours of lectures on eastern religions, all downloaded for free, and is also teaching himself how to compose electronic music.

But personally I loved the elite college I attended just the way it was, full of arrogant professors who flaunted their vast knowledge, where the reigning assumption was, not that you are ok just the way you are, but that if you want to be ok you had better get busy and learn something, and we mean now. That was what motivated me.

Anonymous said...

My experience is that the best faculty is one that offers a variety of teaching styles that suit a variety of student desires. Personally, I was never inspired by the austere, meet-my-standards-I-dare-you challenge of "if you want to be ok you had better get busy and learn something, and we mean now." But many students are. Overt left or right ideology in a professor mostly inspired me to want to disagree with it, but some students will gather like disciples around a partisan guru. Nor was I very inspired by the professional machines, but some students I knew admired that and wanted to imitate it. I was most inspired by professors whose salient characteristic was an obvious love of the material, for the humor or weirdness or surprise or the drama or the big questions they found in it. A faculty with some of each of these is best, it seems to me.

To me the problem with the Chicago letter was that it prejudged the decision of style, which should be up to the individual professor (and student, who will learn to choose the style of professor they find most inspiring).

I will add that some professors who tell themselves they are being challenging seem to me to be engaged mainly in indulging their own hostility. But maybe that is the point. The world does have its hostile aspects, and some students are inspired by them.

G. Verloren said...

I'm personally more in David's boat on this. I think everyone learns differently, the and ideal goal is to provide options so that each individual has the chance to learn however works best for them.

Absolutely, give the people who excel in a traditional university setting the option to have that. If having a brainy professor challenging you gets your gears turning, that's fantastic.

But then we also need to give people such as myself access to other methods. I've never been a competitive individual, and I've never felt terribly pressured to bother to "prove myself" to anyone, especially to those who go out of their way to try to rile me up about something and purposefully get a rise out of me (even if they think they're doing me a favor in doing so).

Some people respond well to being put under vise like pressure - a sort of sink or swim situation, where being thrust into a precarious position spurs them into action - but I and many others differ greatly. I've always responded far better to encouragement and discovering common ground, and to expressions of interest and curiosity, rather than to dares or challenges. I'd much rather someone passionately tell me about something that they're personally invested in, because typically their own curisoity and interest will rub off on me in the process. I'd rather circle around something and examine it from all angles while slowly closing in on it, rather than tackle it head on in a fevered bullrush.

Different people simply work in different ways. Some people like a structured lifestyle, and they do well in heirarchical systems. Other people like a looser approach, and they operate more organically - even chaotically - yet excel despite it thanks to their own special methods to their madness. And because of the inherent differences in how people learn, any system that relies on only one set approach to teaching people is inherently flawed.

We need variety and flexibility. And we'll get there, in time. In the meanwhile, we need to patient and think of ways to adapt what we already have and muddle through as best we can, minimizing any suffering and undue difficulty along the way.

If we're stuck pushing round pegs through a square hole (while waiting on society to implement an additional round hole to accomodate them at some indeterminate point in the future), the least we can do is be gentle about it and try to make the difficult passage as easy and undamaging as we can given our current limits. That might mean taking extra time and being patient, or using specialized tools which we normally don't need, or even reorienting our angle of approach. But surely we have an obligation to make that effort, instead of just violently forcing the issue and chalking it up to acceptable losses, just because that's easier.