I’m a liberal professor and my conservative students terrify me.
Well, not really, but things are about to get interesting.
Last year, a professor anonymously published an essay about how their liberal-minded students were a danger to their career even though they were a liberal themselves. It is ultimately a critique of a perfect storm scenario seen across the country.
The first factor is fragile position of all adjunct faculty regardless of their leanings. Universities over the last few decades have turned increasingly to employing adjunct professors as a cost saving measure. They are essentially contract teachers, paid at an hourly rate (which rarely reflects the hours actually worked or cost involved with teaching), are often not eligible for benefit packages, and are not guaranteed a position from one semester to the next. While some departments do their best to support their adjuncts, the system has essentially created a disposable work force. This is complicated by the fact that many universities do not have a methodology of promotion or retention based on the quality of instruction. As an example, my continued employment relies on two primary determinations: the first is a semesterly observation where a full-time faculty member observes one class. While my department encourages documenting this in detail, the entire process boils down to a single determination — satisfactory or unsatisfactory. The second determiner is the student reviews issued at the end of the semester. Essentially, my career hinges largely on if students like me, and this is true across higher ed. In fact, a few well placed complaints could keep me from being hired in the following semester, and again, the nature of the current system means faculty are essentially disposable.
The second factor in the perfect storm is the culture of vindictive protectiveness fostered on many campuses (discussed here). In order to protect students from emotional harm or discrimination, systems have been put in place that empower and encourage students to report and protect their fellow students from potential harm, both from legitimate trauma and somewhat less legitimate attacks on ideology. What isn’t discussed by Lukianoff and Haidt is the conflation of self and beliefs. And it’s a problem. But we’ll get back to that.
Essentially, the current college system has loaded the gun and pointed it at adjuncts and then showed students where the trigger is.
I am not worried about my liberal students. I have discovered that the key to misgivings around triggers is to discuss the nature of triggers themselves. This is not to say all interactions are stress free, but my push is always toward productivity and depth of expression. What are the facts? What is the goal? What can be done? Thus far, even opinions that dissent from liberal leanings can be used effectively. And I admit it, I have been afforded certain benefits in class (more on that later).
Still, times they are a’changing.
Over the last few years, I’ve noticed “conservative” figureheads try to use the same rhetorical strategies with a dash of false equivalence to suggest liberal hypocrisy. An example would be the “All Lives Matter” response to the Black Lives Matter movement. Here, functional critiques of systematic oppression, backed with data and evidence, are countered with misleading statistics and inappropriate comparisons of specific incidents. Basically, the rallying cry that Black lives do matter but are not treated as such is countered with the more generalized, normative response that everyone matters, so stop complaining. This is partially born out of an unwillingness to recognize the fragile white self as participating, consciously or not, in a system set up to benefit them over others. It hurts to be told you’re part of the problem. But the cost of self-protection in no way justifies a disavowal of a broken system. The new wave of white nationalism not only denies it, but seeks further differentiation and othering to suggest that it is deserved. They look over police shootings and ignore the larger trend against anecdotal evidence that, “he shouldn’t have resisted” or “you can’t be sure what a person is thinking.”
But this has been a media tactic which can be critically analyzed in a classroom, assuming that there is space allowed for dialogue.
I can understand other teachers’ concerns regarding this combination of influences but I have found that the underlying impulse of most liberal social justice warriors (and how is that a negative term? I think it’s badass, but I digress) is to guarantee open expression of ideas without causing distress to others. If you can guide away from personal attacks, typically the conversation around any topic is welcome. This isn’t to say that a small percentage won’t search out offense from benign ideas, but even that can be handled if trust is fostered. The point is, a teacher can handle these situations simply by being reasonable.
But the situation changes under the supercharged conservative fragility exacerbated by the empowerment felt after the last election. Even as soon as the first week after Trump’s election, students who had always worked to state their points thoughtfully began to throw out false equivalence arguments. I tried to guide back to supportable data or direct lines of reading but often times, the sound byte philosophy seemed to be enough for students.
Strangely, I found myself entertaining these ideas to the detriment of logic, facts, and my overall lesson plan. Like major media organizations over the last few years, my mind shifted to a belief that I had to give equal space to all ideas, regardless of their validity or proof. I was terrified not to. Regardless of my reasonings or best efforts, these students would complain and my job would be on the line. Perhaps more disappointing was the notion that the fragile liberal environment usually grew out of a want to protect others who might be triggered or marginalized. These new hostilities extended from the need to push personal ideologies and save personal egos from harm.
Me, teaching at an outdoor bar like a pinko liberal hippie.
Early in my class, I teach a piece entitled, “No, You Are Not Entitled to Your Opinion” in hopes of demonstrating to students that opinion or ideology, on its own, means very little and they are impossible to argue against. Facts don’t have to matter in opinion. They don’t need to exist. It always seemed to work before but then there I was, afraid to push these newly emboldened students to back up their claims.
But this could just be a personal problem, right?
Last week, a friend made me aware of a new .org website proclaiming to seek defending freedom of speech in academia by providing a space for students to anonymously report teachers for liberal bias and other forms of “anti-American” progressive “indoctrination.” I won’t link to the site because I don’t want to promote traffic there, but it’s easy enough to find. There is the caring caveat that they don’t seek punishment for these professors but they do feel students should be warned. This sentiment is also offset by faculty “mug shots” and a list of “liberal crimes.”
Because this is a personal page, I don’t mind admitting here that I lean as far left as possible in most issues but I also try to hold myself to the same standards as my students: any topic discussed is all about proof, data, and support. Critical examination is necessary.
So why am I convinced that I will show up on this McCarthy-esque black list? I teach feminist criticism. I discuss articles surrounding contemporary social issues. I challenge students to question their positions harshly. And perhaps most detrimental to this process, I don’t give away A’s.
Students have a tendency to deny personal responsibility (and yes, the current climate reinforces this approach), so when they fail, it’s not due to lack of effort, procrastination, misreading, or a lack of understanding of what’s being asked of them. No, it’s clear to them that the professor just doesn’t like them. It’s always personal.
It may be unfair to generalize, but it is a tendency.
Now add power to that situation. Students will not only look for the professor to be unjust to them, they will create opportunities to demonstrate it. The term “witch hunt” comes to mind and I’m not convinced high schools are teaching The Crucible with the same depth that they used to.
So yes, I’m afraid of my conservative-minded students, especially in a time when “conservative” is a term increasingly adopted by bigots and hate groups (remember when it was just about fiscal policy?). But, as it turns out, it’s not because it might mean trouble for me.
I have to face a fact — my ability to move around triggers with liberal students is benefited by my unconscious presentation as a liberal myself, even when I try to keep it out of my class. Liberal media is just as guilty of spin and misinformation, but as long as I’m recognized as being on the “same side,” students will hear me out. But for those who see me as an opposition, emotional reasoning will make my actual goals of open critical analysis difficult. In truth, it is not my conservative students that are to be feared, but the simple dichotomy used to define thinking as right or wrong based solely on ideology… and like it or not, I’ve played into it in the past. But I am willing to work against it for the benefit of all my students. I just worry that my influence will be trumped by the larger divisiveness in society.
So fine. Put me on a list. Go to my superiors. Try to get me fired (my department is very supportive). But don’t come into my classroom and not expect your reasoning to be challenged, because bad news, bro. That’s how you learn. You question. You develop new methods of examining information. You make things complicated.
The truth is, if I’m afraid of my conservative students, it’s because of what they are doing in practice by buying into the type of rhetoric that watchlist is selling- that there are liberals and they are all alike and they want to indoctrinate you. When students are led to believe that all major issues can be solved with a dichotomous “us or them” philosophy, education suffers as a whole. In truth, if we want to make America great, then the goal should be nuance and individual exploration — not following the herd like sheep.
The real secret in my teaching is that I love to be proven wrong. I love to learn new things. I’ve got a lot of good ideas, but I could always use more, be they labeled conservative, liberal, or any number of more appropriate, focused, meaningful terms. My job is to know more, so I’m learning too. I subscribe to the Socratic method — it’s not my job to tell you what to think, but it is my job to show you how to question and learn in order to think better. I have always taught with this belief and I know it will be useful later in their life.
Don’t like it? Debate me. Bring your evidence. Let’s do this.
I may be scared, but I’m also very motivated.