Wednesday, June 03, 2015

The Paper Chase

(h/t @Shoq for the head's up on this article)

I have been told that law school is not like this anymore, but I have number of friends who have gone down to JD Town over the decades, and their experiences have all sounded remarkably similar: despair, fury, self-loathing, collapsing mid-slog at the thought of how long the Sisyphusian horror will continue, some vomiting and crying and, finally, exhausted triumph (this does not include one of my Chicago pals whose ordinary law school travails were further complicated by the fact that our boss was a sadistic, racist asshole and college dropout who actively tried to sabotage my friend's studies over and over again.)

So I am guessing that the author of this article -- "I'm a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me" -- is not a professor at a law school, where heartbreak is a required course.

 Probably doesn't teach at business school either.

 Or J-school.

 Or med school.

Or nursing school.

Or any trade school.

Or a military academy.

I'm a professor at a midsize state school. I have been teaching college classes for nine years now. I have won (minor) teaching awards, studied pedagogy extensively, and almost always score highly on my student evaluations. I am not a world-class teacher by any means, but I am conscientious; I attempt to put teaching ahead of research, and I take a healthy emotional stake in the well-being and growth of my students.

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.
I, too, have taught college.  At a Well Known College in Chicago.  I was also on staff at that college, in a position where my tiny team and I had to put the department back together because after years of negligence it had basically gone feral. Whole labs had been commandeered by pirates and their droogs and molls. Packs of wild dogs roamed the halls while the faculty hid in the dung-wattled teacher's lounge getting wasted enough to brave the crossfire and get back to class.

When the Well Known College finally moved to repair this mess, they did so by 1) handing the outgoing chair an enormous pile of money and telling him to stay in his office and play "Empire" until he died and, 2) hiring me and my merry band in at just barely above minimum wage to rebuild civilization.

And we did -- Yay us! -- and in the process we pissed off a lot of droogs and molls and pirates and wild dogs, all of whom made their way down to the Dean of Crazy Students to register a rich and fragrant bouquet of complaints against me and my rectification crew.

When I returned a few years later the teach a few classes at the same college, I was heartened to see that the changes we had made had taken root and become institutional.   Also there was still a Dean of Crazy Students and still young maidens and neckbeards who felt that since mama and papa were shelling out a shit-ton of money to send them to a Well Known College,  we were their employees.  Many, many more times than once we heard a variant of "I pay your salary!" from some disgruntled child who felt that their mediocre "C" work should really be an "A" or that being docked a grade for multiple absences was Cruel and Unusual punishment, even though that rule was in the syllabus, on the board and mentioned by me ad nauseum.

And now, a bit of deeper background.

I took classes off and on at various places as it suited me for years until it was made clear that I Had No Future without a degree, so I was on campus back when Andrea Dworkin was riding high and all men were monsters and all marriage was rape...and I was around when the Men's Movement was a thing.  I remember Piss Christ, was right down the street when "What is the Proper Way to Display a Flag?" was giving people the sweats, and I vividly recall the day a gang of Chicago aldermen marched into the School of the Art Institute and snatched down the painting depicting the late mayor Harold Washington in bra and panties.

So as a weary and threadbare traveler who has been observer, student, staff member and instructor at schools which were always being wracked one way or another with the fury and cultural apocalypses of the day (which, in turn, often end up being the only-vaguely-remembered college reunion memories of tomorrow), all I can say it that when I read "Edward Schlosser"s take on the modern academy --
In 2009, the subject of my student's complaint was my supposed ideology. I was communistical, the student felt, and everyone knows that communisticism is wrong. That was, at best, a debatable assertion. And as I was allowed to rebut it, the complaint was dismissed with prejudice. I didn't hesitate to reuse that same video in later semesters, and the student's complaint had no impact on my performance evaluations.

In 2015, such a complaint would not be delivered in such a fashion. Instead of focusing on the rightness or wrongness (or even acceptability) of the materials we reviewed in class, the complaint would center solely on how my teaching affected the student's emotional state. As I cannot speak to the emotions of my students, I could not mount a defense about the acceptability of my instruction. And if I responded in any way other than apologizing and changing the materials we reviewed in class, professional consequences would likely follow.

I wrote about this fear on my blog, and while the response was mostly positive, some liberals called me paranoid, or expressed doubt about why any teacher would nix the particular texts I listed. I guarantee you that these people do not work in higher education, or if they do they are at least two decades removed from the job search.
-- I do not see the failure of Liberalism or social justice or whatever:
I agree with some of these analyses more than others, but they all tend to be too simplistic. The current student-teacher dynamic has been shaped by a large confluence of factors, and perhaps the most important of these is the manner in which cultural studies and social justice writers have comported themselves in popular media. I have a great deal of respect for both of these fields, but their manifestations online, their desire to democratize complex fields of study by making them as digestible as a TGIF sitcom, has led to adoption of a totalizing, simplistic, unworkable, and ultimately stifling conception of social justice.
Instead I see Reaganomics and the deeply Libertarian impulse to let an utterly unregulated capitalist fighting pit settle every issue operating at peak efficiency.

By transforming the previously-extrinsic factor of a college degree into the minimum entry requirement for even the lowliest job, American capitalism has handed the American college and university system a license to print money.  This has made the demand for college degrees perpetually inelastic:  since your kids have to have it, they can charge whatever they like.

Second, not only has American capitalism guaranteed colleges and universities an inexhaustible source of wealthy, but governance and rewards structures within those temples of higher learning are handled in the way which capitalism loves best


To the ippy tippy top -- the administration, departments chairs and the tenured -- go the lion's share of the wealth and job security, while the heavy lifting is done by a"contingent" workforce of academic beanfield-hands, kept in a perpetual state of economic insecurity:
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.
What the author is describing is not some exotic peonage arrangement peculiar to UC Sunnydale. What the author is describing is the everyday reality of labor for virtually every working class American scrapping for a living in our brave, new right-to-work/employment-at-will economy (from me, last year):
Thank's to the Conservative Long War on Labor, today almost every worker in almost every job in almost every state is an "at-will" employee who may be canned by the boss for almost any reason, or no reason at all:
[A]n employer may terminate its employees at will, for any or no reason ... the employer may act peremptorily, arbitrarily, or inconsistently, without providing specific protections such as prior warning, fair procedures, objective evaluation, or preferential reassignment ... The mere existence of an employment relationship affords no expectation, protectable by law, that employment will continue, or will end only on certain conditions, unless the parties have actually adopted such terms.[6]
Yes, there are exceptions such as race, religion, sex, handicap status and so forth, but the burden of affirmatively proving that you were fired because you're a member of one of those protected categories falls to the fired employee, and short of discovering a cache of documents in which your boss explicitly outlines his plans to terminate you because you're a woman or gay or over 40, you're usually shit outta luck. 
Welcome to Capitalism 101!

I have seen people sacked for being too unattractive for the new boss's tastes.  For having too must melanin.  For being dangerously competent.  For being too honest.  Too old. Because the boss's drinking buddy or mistress doesn't like you.  For having the wrong last name.  For having the bad luck of not knowing an alderman who owes you a favor. Because the boss needed to make a soft place for one of his pals to land when he got laid off from some other division.

Because in a free and unregulated labor market, firing you because, well, fuck you, that's why, is the boss's very own modern-day droit du seigneur.
Once a degree became the only remaining Letter of Transit available to get your kid into the middle class, it became a commodity...another product in the marketplace.

And in the marketplace, the customer is always right.  

And the more the fortunes of the people at the top depends on catering to the whims of the customer, the more monstrous unreasonable the customer gets to be:

When colleges made the checkbooks of the parents of temperamental children their primary focus, they went out of the eternal verity business.

Which is a real shame.


Lawrence said...

I work for an evil global corporation. That's not hyperbole. We buy televisions and other plastic crap made by slaves in China and god knows where else and push it out to stores big and small across the US of A. Buy a new one in two years and throw the old one in a landfill. And we're Fortune 75 or 100, depending on the year, so this is just a pissant division. But we, North America, had a soft Q1, so 100 people got fired in the North America business unit. Three in my office. Last year it was me. Only last year we were way ahead of forecast. It just sounded like fun to some people to...I think they called it Organizational Effectiveness. Anyway, there was an open position and I was friends with the hiring manager, so now I'm an accountant, instead of a financial analyst. Smart play, and lucky. I dodged that bullet like Agent Smith. They fire us in good times and they fire us in bad times. The goal is to fire us all, not that anyone owns up to that. And anyone who is in a position to know the plan is bound by an NDA, which tells you all you need to know.

zombie rotten mcdonald said...

I'm a professor at a midsize state school... and I never thought this would happen to me.....

Susan of Texas said...

"The current student-teacher dynamic has been shaped by a large confluence of factors, and perhaps the most important of these is the manner in which cultural studies and social justice writers have comported themselves in popular media."

Twitter killed the academia star.

It's odd that he assigns the power in the relationship to the student over the system that gives him no protection. It's almost like it's all about his feelings.

There is nothing he can do about winner-take-all capitalism and his vulnerable position so he attacks the students, as if this will make his position more secure. They need to change for their own good and for the good of the political process!

John said...

Hey, I'm an adjunct at the University of California. We unionized. And we struck in 2003. Things are not great, but they are definitely improved. Our wages are up. We do have somewhat more job security.

One of the big problems contingent academics have is that they are either too busy or, more commonly in my experience, too stupid to unionize.

Of course, the most comic thing of all is to watch the tenured professors, who are the apex of the academic food chain and most of whom consider themselves to be on the left politically act like complete exploitative asses towards the adjunct faculty. I do hope there is a special place in hell for such hypocrisy. It's crazy--it's not universally true (and not true in my department), but I am perpetually seeing professors striking leftist poses about issues far removed from them personally turning around and doing cruel things to the less empowered employees at the University. I do hope there's a special place in hell...

n1ck said...

This professor is upset that he's a part of the system that is encouraging students to act as if their professors are their customer service representatives, and instead of criticizing the system and punching up, he simply punches down. At imaginary hippies, of course. Libruuls, as I like to call them.

At this point, unless you're extremely lucky, you need some type of degree or license to break into the middle class, and even a degree or two isn't always enough. JD degrees are only partially valuable, depending on your particular circumstances. Ask me how I know.

So, of course students are going to grab and claw at the best grades they can get. At least the intelligent ones. Getting a B on something might drop you out of the top 10% of your class, which might result in $100,000 in student loans becoming simply a very, very bad bet that at least has a low vig.

Capitalism is all about getting a bunch of money and power, and then using it to cement yourself at the top.

Oligarchy is simply a relatively short phase that comes at the bottom of the Capitalism-Fascism slope. I'd argue that the slope is simply the ability for people to move up or down economically based on intelligence, activity, and luck.

The goal of oligarchs is the level plateau at the bottom, which is aristocracy. It's why our oligarchs aren't satisfied with their level of wealth and now want all of the power to boot. If you have all of the money and all of the power, it becomes infinitely easier to write those laws that maintain the status quo.

Our current oligarchs see the finish line, and they want to cement themselves as the founding members of their family aristocracies. To me this isn't some radical, deranged notion, but the clear, obvious observable reality all around me (low taxes, "free trade" and "both sides" is what allows this to be possible).

You'll know we've finally arrived at the plateau of aristocracy once the estate tax is killed off. If you think wealth inequality is bad now, wait until that happens. 1981-20XX will seem absolutely progressive in comparison. No, really.