Schlosser’s trenchant and heartbeaking observations do not reflect my own experience at my institution… but enough of my academic friends and colleagues (globally!) have expressed to me, in private conversations, the sense that their long and hard-earned careers and reputations can be destroyed now for teaching difficult ideas or rubbing a student’s sensibilities the wrong way–or just because someone has an axe to grind, and chooses inflammation/defamation as their offensive weapon of choice. I feel hopeless about teaching.
A single, pissy student–or, say, a trio of mean girls– can gather a mob; can disseminate and widely promote poisoned preconceptions and misconceptions about a professor who somehow challenged them, and it can snowball until indignant people who imagine they’re acting on behalf of Justice are in fact perpetrating blind Injustice, never imagining (in their victimized narratives and proud vendettas) that they might be flat-out wrong, basing judgments on self-serving gossip, assumptions, and insufficient information. The arrogance! And undermining their own expensive educations, to boot.
In today’s climate, an injured (or unbalanced, or narcissistic) student with an agenda can ruin a career. A teacher dare not relax her or his vigilance; must not even make a normal human misstep– say, mispronouncing a name; taking a student’s gender for granted while in the throes of an interactive exchange; having an opinion on a politicalized issue; making a statement with which one or two students disagree without having even understood the statement.
When I was a student, it was a thrill and a joy to have my cherished assumptions upended and my mind blown. I trusted my teachers, even the tough ones, even the ones I didn’t like. I sometimes felt ignorant, because I was ignorant. Not stupid, but ignorant. Or glib, or unprepared. Often, I said something in class and was told I was wrong… and professors often mistook me for someone else, or failed to use my preferred name (which was not my given name, and which was, at that time, strikingly nonbinary). Not once did it occur to me to gather a horde of followers to overpower, tar, and feather the professor before chasing him, or her, from the campus.
Professors do not take on the impossible work of teaching (it’s not for money, believe me, that we do what we do) because they are evil, or uninformed, or care nothing for positive social change or for student wellbeing. On the contrary. Most professors teach, in addition to research, scholarship, service, because they are deeply curious about the meaning of life…and care, a lot, about helping students develop mature critical thinking and insight, those tools for a better life.
As a teacher, I always tried to recreate the mind-blowing, upending experience for my own students. I have dialed it back considerably in this climate. I am now much less of a creative, motivated, determined teacher; more of a careful, obsequious guide. I fear that the days of truly transporting, tranformative teaching are over: some students (the worst among them, frankly) will not stand for any ideas they do not approve.