Wading into the ongoing and lively discussion about the “Dear Student” series in Vitae, Corey Sparks noted on Twitter that “Working hard on behalf of students and complaining about them aren’t mutually exclusive categories.” The profession largely agrees, though our discourse on our work leads many of us to call The Chronicle of Higher Education the “Chronicle of Dire Education”and laugh when Google offers “chronic fatigue syndrome” and “Chronicles of Narnia” in its auto-complete search options. Negative discourse makes sense though on some level; while academia celebrates hard work and tireless efforts, yet we are also now beginning to express the systematic problems in the profession that have, as yet, not been addressed in The Chronicle. The problem is that we often fail to deal with those problems. The discourse surrounding “Dear Student” is problematic for that reason, and has been taken up by many but we would like to offer a perspective that also positions anonymous discourse and cyberbullying within the academy (by students and by professors) as part of the discussion.
On January 29, 2015 the first installment of the “Dear Student” series, an article entitled “Dear Student: Should Your Granny Die Before the Midterm,” appeared in Vitae. A similar article appeared on February 6, 2015, addressing students who have yet to purchase their textbooks. These articles purport to be advice pieces with ChronicleVitae reporter Stacey Patton setting up the problem, followed by contributions from faculty. However, the solutions posed by those faculty members are often, in fact, textbook (oh, the irony) examples of bullying. The language in the responses is passive aggressive at best and mocking at worst. It is clear in the responses that the faculty members are assuming they have absolute proof that the student is lying. Perhaps most shocking, the faculty members have no problems identifying themselves in a public forum, as if owning up to abuse makes this behavior okay. While many have defended the series as satire, and others as a much-needed space to vent frustrations common to the profession, the approach these articles take is damaging to students and faculty and to higher education in general.
On February 28, 2015, Jesse Stommel published a response to the “Dear Student” series that has, in the last week, become a lightning rod for the profession. Responses opened discussion of professorial privileges, as well as different levels of privilege occupied by professors of diverse race, gender, and sexuality. We were struck by a portion of Stommel’s post when he noted that “Dear Student”
plays to the insecurities of its audience in a way that feels opportunistic. Academic job seekers are concerned about their current and future livelihood. They are oppressed by a system that calls 75% of its labor-force “unnecessary,” “contingent,” “adjunct.” The “Dear Student” series turns that oppression, and the most snickering part of it, upon students.
Students are vulnerable, and contingent faculty, whether pre-degree, part-time, adjunct, or limited-term appointments, are also vulnerable. The discussion thus far has largely focused on students, which is appropriate, but it should also be expanded to include contingent faculty who are uniquely vulnerable to career devastation from students, from administrators, and from their (our) tenured colleagues.
The “Dear Student” series taps into a culture of “backroom as frontroom” that serves, however deliberately or inadvertently, as a model for professional discourse. These behaviors become the norm but are not professional behaviors by any standard. The Hippocratic Oath asks healers to affirm their commitment to ethical standards – and, first, to do no harm. Academic faculty are not physicians: we don’t dedicate ourselves to healing the hurts of the body and, despite the claims we may make in our cups, we’re not in the business of healing souls. But we should not do harm. Words hurt, and words put down in open postings to the Chronicle or Higher Ed not only hurt real people – our students and ourselves – but are searchable by Google (and its auto-complete functions), they’re archived in the WayBack Machine, they’re picked up and reported by international organizations. The posts are retweeted, posted to Facebook, emailed to colleagues. These “nastygram” posts will exist forever: they’re inescapable, and they cannot be retracted.
Cyberbullying by faculty is characteristic of the disinhibition effect – we think, because we cannot see our victims, that they do not exist. We cannot make eye contact with readers on the other side of the computer screen, and thus we forget that they are people. The blogger Lindy West recently wrote about her experiences confronting a troll who created a Twitter account assuming the identity of her recently-deceased father. The wisdom has been, for years, to ignore the trolls: they just want attention, they’ll go away eventually, they want you to engage them and get mad, because they want to get a rise out of you. And this is true. However, this form of advice presupposes a place of security that contingent faculty do not have. So how do those faculty respond in these situations? How can they assert their authority in the classroom and maintain their integrity as educators? Those are the answers we need. West found that trolls – or cyberbullies (faculty and student) – also hate themselves: “I think my anger towards you stems from your happiness with your own being. It offended me because it served to highlight my unhappiness with my own self.” This is, however, cold consolation to those who are under assault.
When we put our backroom discussions in the frontroom of our professional discourse, we show how unhappy we are with ourselves. Is our anger justified? Of course it can be, and certainly many of our collective frustrations stem from a profound awareness of how horribly destructive the academy can be for an individual. Many of those harms come from outside forces, but we cannot consider our students to be outside the academy. The academy is a place of learning and our students are, and must always be, our primary concerns. So, then, what do we do when we are attacked from within, by the very students we seek to serve? We offer an example from our own experience: one of the authors of this piece recently received a vicious email from an email account created expressly to belittle her, critique the course’s content and workload, toss out gendered slurs, and imply that 99% of her current students felt the same way, whispering curses behind her back. The author is teaching an 1102 course that disrupts the established and comforting narratives of history, one which anchors modern racism in systematic historical marginalization and oppressions – so she expected, and has deliberately invited into the classroom, discussions to challenge the idea that change is necessary.
Unlike West, the author hasn’t written back because the student isn’t best served by vitriol. We are the adults in this situation; the student is not. Brittain Fellows are also fortunate: the author received immediate affirmation and positive support from Writing and Communication Program administrators, the LMC department chair, and the Dean of Students; on the technical side, the Institute’s cyber security division immediately responded. No one asked her how she brought such vicious rhetoric upon herself. Despite this support – which many of our colleagues lack — we are uneasy because a complete lack of response isn’t appropriate, particularly not from a communications instructor. The response has instead been indirect: a concerted effort to “keep calm and carry on” teaching, altering nothing from the syllabus, and shielding students from the consequences of a cyber assault upon their instructor. Yet the temptation to engage in public backroom chatter is tempting, because complaining is cathartic and can be very useful. But the fact of the matter is that anything we say will be marked by our positions: our students are very aware of the power we hold over them, even as we’re painfully aware of our own lack of power within our profession. Anonymity is tempting, but we risk further disinhibition if we put our backroom chatter into message boards or apps designed to allow us to vent without fear of consequence without considering that consequence, the harm that we do, might be useful.
Recognizing that faculty are not immune to the temptation to use public online forums to vent their frustrations should help us relate to our students rather than further distance ourselves from them. Jeff Rice suggests just that in his recent article in Inside Higher Ed. Reflecting on recent discussions about cyberbullying on the social media platform Yik Yak, he writes that it is exposing some uncomfortable truths for faculty, such as a “fear of talk” and “digital talk.” He writes,
The hallways on the floor of our campus building are traditionally quiet. There is so little talk. Behind each office door, I assume, a faculty member works, answers email, grades, reads, drinks coffee, daydreams. Some are exasperated with their students. Some are exasperated with their colleagues. Some are exasperated with me, the interim chair of the department.
This lack of basic collegiality results in a number of behaviors detrimental to faculty, as well as, in the case of exasperation with students, behaviors that are detrimental to our students. Perhaps it is this fear of talk and discourse that leads to faculty participation in the very cyberbullying that we are pedagogical tasked to work against. Rice thus asks a provocative question: “What would a faculty Yik Yak look like on our office floor if all of my colleagues, behind their closed office doors, were typing their thoughts into the platform several times a day?” His answer? “Probably not that much different from what students write.” The “Dear Student” series supports that speculation. So what are we to do?
The posts in the Chronicle and Higher Ed reflect the same desire to do harm that West’s troll or our anonymous emailer expresses. Jeffrey Cohen, posting an emotionally powerful reflection on family tragedy to In the Medieval Middle, reminds us that
We are not mental health professionals, we are intellectuals who train, assess, inspire within secure boundaries. I’ve heard some version of these statements for years. I believe them. But affect is integral to cognition. Students are not ID numbers taking up a seat for a semester. It’s OK to say (isn’t it?) that a kind of love motivates me to work for and with my students, that vulnerability is built into any good classroom, even when we refuse to see its workings.
Saying “love” is the solution to faculty cyberbullying would be facetious: love is not enough, but love is a start. Love is a part of why we teach. And, as the editors of Hybrid Pedagogy notes, “A space of love is a space of learning.” But love is not just directed outward, and self-love is necessary to help us keep teaching and modeling behaviors that, above all else, do no harm.
About the Authors:
Valerie B. Johnson (PhD in English, University of Rochester; MA in English, University of Rochester) has been a Brittain Fellow since Fall 2013. Her research area is medieval British literature and culture, with particular interests in medievalism, ecocriticism, and gender studies. Follow her on Twitter @sovereignforest or email her at email@example.com
Caitlin L. Kelly (PhD in English, University of Missouri; MA in English, University of Tennessee) has been a Brittain Fellow since Fall 2013. Her research area is 18th-century / Romantic-era British literature and culture, with particular interests in religious and print cultures and the development of the novel. Follow her on Twitter @CaitlinLeeKelly or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org