When I read articles about liberal arts education, often written by or about frightened professors, I sometimes find myself imagining The Frightened Professor as a stock character in a horror movie. In the opening scene of Night of the Super-Woke Student Body, The Frightened Professor stands in a dimly lit room. If they look into a mirror and whisper “microaggression, microaggression, microaggression,” a student activist will appear and attempt to eat their brains while screaming buzzwords—“Marginalization! Identity! Trauma!”—until the professor, sobbing and incoherent, begs for the sweet release only a sabbatical can bring.
If this dramatization sounds overwrought, consider the title of a widely shared Vox article from last summer: “I’m a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me.” That fear and demonization of student activists is echoed in many of the responses to Nathan Heller’s wonderful recent New Yorker article about the tensions between students and faculty at Oberlin College. One response has the title “Oberlin Is An Insane Asylum.” The horror movie continues, and practically writes itself.
In that article, Rob Dreher writes, “Heller doesn’t take a position at all on any of this, just lets Oberlin voices speak. And it’s damning.” I disagree. I thought the Oberlin students sounded, well, exactly how one would expect Oberlin students to sound: bright, articulate, engaged, extremely liberal, fiercely determined to get the education they want.
One small detail mentioned by Heller has been brought up repeatedly—that Cyrus Eosphoros, one of the interviewed students, wrote an op-ed for the Oberlin student newspaper requesting trigger warnings on Sophocles’ Antigone. The Daily Caller lists the Antigone complaint as #4 in a list of “The 11 Most Absurd Discoveries From The New Yorker’s Oberlin Exposé.” And so I find myself drawn back into the discussion I entered a year ago with a piece I wrote for Jezebel, called “How To Teach An Ancient Rape Joke.” Then, I was responding to a Columbia op-ed expressing concerns about Ovid’s Metamorphoses. First Ovid, now Sophocles! When are students going to stop finding classical literature so upsetting?
I study Classics professionally, so I have more at stake in this issue than most. I taught Antigone just last semester. And I hope that students never stop being disturbed by it. If you’re mocking students for having a strong emotional response to that text, you haven’t read it. (It should but doesn’t always go without saying that, if you haven’t read something, you have no right to an opinion on its appropriateness for the classroom, particularly on the internet, where there is already so much noise.)
Oberlin is, as one of the most liberal campuses in the country, an extreme case. But the issues that its students are responding to—racism, sexism, cissexism, elitism—are real issues that hit campuses on every level. Instructors, and especially adjuncts, are facing those very same problems. Instead of treating each other as adversaries, it might be more productive to empathize with each other. We’re battling the same kinds of discrimination. Students are fighting for their education; faculty are fighting for their jobs. Both fights are important. Both should work together much better than they currently do.
When you construct arguments for a living, as academics do, you’re bound to be wrong sometimes. Maybe most of the time. A lot of academics seem to think that shifting or softening their views is a sign of weakness, and it’s better to double down on a bad claim. But scholars thinking that they have nothing left to learn is part of what created the immense divide between students and faculty that we’re seeing now.
In the last year, I’ve started to understand what I now see as the mistakes I made in the article I wrote about teaching rape jokes. Specifically, I’ve come to see I was wrong about trigger warnings. Of course we should warn our students in advance about the kind of content they’ll encounter in our classrooms. Relying on the element of surprise to increase the impact of the material you’re teaching is never good pedagogy. I don’t agree with Eosphoros about everything, but I agree about that. Providing trigger warnings (or, my preferred term, content warnings) isn’t “coddling” any more than it would be coddling a student who uses a wheelchair to have a ramp so they can enter the classroom. It’s no more coddling than allowing a student with severe agoraphobia to complete coursework online. It’s no more coddling than providing readings in an electronic format so students who have trouble seeing can increase the text size, or students who have difficulty turning pages can read on a more user-friendly device.
Absent all other and less relevant concerns about oversensitivity, the Western canon, and political correctness: this debate is about whether we should make our courses accessible to all students. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep talking about oversensitivity, the Western canon, and political correctness. Preparing your students for the material you plan to teach doesn’t automatically mean taking a side in those other, separate conversations.
Greek tragedy has a way of clarifying these issues (which is, after all, why we still study it). There’s a company called Theater of War that puts on productions of Greek tragedies for veterans as a way of helping them cope with their reintegration into society. They’ve had incredible success in using these plays to help soldiers with PTSD. As one veteran said in a post-production Q&A, these plays have the power “to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.” But, crucially, the plays are never sprung on those veterans by surprise. Tragedy can be a powerful tool of emotional healing, but only if it’s presented thoughtfully. So give your students content warnings. As one Oberlin professor quoted by Heller said: “You’re going to a Quentin Tarantino film. You’ve never seen one before. It would be a normal thing to say, ‘So how are you with blood?’”
I was wrong in another way, too. I intentionally left out a fairly significant part of my own story—which is that, after I put a not-insignificant amount of energy into considering how to teach the rape joke in Euripides’ Cyclops in a way that was thoughtful and sensitive, my students could not have cared less. Not a single one of them wanted to talk about the ethics of rape jokes. They were much more interested in symposium culture and the minutiae of the scene’s grammar. In other words, the students were less disturbed by the material than I was by their apathy to it.
Often ignored in the discussion of the hypothetical oversensitive student is the reality of the insensitive student, who is an equally if not more common figure in the classroom. The blank stare of that student, an undergraduate who is extremely comfortable with upsetting material, haunts me in the same way that the wagging finger of the student activist haunts the imaginations of others. Really, unless you’re at Oberlin, these apathetic students will far outnumber the student activists. This is true even at other elite schools.
In a class of 10, I’d roughly estimate that you could expect to have at most one activist responding as a loud, resistant reader of the text. Two or three others will be “good students,” the type who are bright and engaged but don’t have a strong agenda other than to get a good grade. One or two will be outwardly hostile to the activist’s approach. And five will seem, to the professor, like they’re there only to warm their seats.
What often happens in practice is that the lone woke student does not, in fact, receive the response he or she is looking for. This is because instructors are employed not to engage with a single person’s objections, no matter how valid, but rather, to teach the entire class.
Sometimes, on the other hand, an activist student can successfully engage the rest of the class in a lively and productive discussion—a situation that the instructor can facilitate, and in response to which the instructor will be profoundly grateful. This is one of the few cases in which the unfair burden that women, people of color, and LGBTQIA individuals often carry—to educate others on how to converse without marginalizing them—can be flexible, and fruitful; in college, educating those around you is hard to avoid. Both in college and graduate school, there were times when I felt I was learning much more from the other students around me than I was from my professors. That’s normal and, actually, kind of great.
This open transfer of knowledge should exist not only between students, and from teachers to students, but also from students to teachers. One of the elements of the liberal campus debate that worries me the most is that everyone is assuming they know what is best for everyone else. Students should accept that sometimes, yes, your instructor with a Ph.D. might know a few things that you don’t. So might the other students. But good professors know that they can learn from their students, too.
Heller is correct on one crucial point that I don’t think readers have been taking seriously enough. Colleges like Oberlin do encourage individual expression while simultaneously grooming all of their students to belong to a single socioeconomic class—the intellectual and professional elite.
In other words, studying Antigone doesn’t just teach you about Greek drama and female political resistance. It also turns you into the kind of person who has read Antigone. Judith Butler’s book Antigone’s Claim is a classic, but there’s also been something of a feminist pushback against talking about Butler, because she’s nearly incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t extensively studied feminist theory. And if we believe that feminism should be inclusive, then the intellectual elitism of Butler and Antigone can pose a problem.
This re-entrenching of elitist ideology at top-tier academic institutions bothers some students (and faculty!), and it probably should. The students who aren’t uncomfortable with it are those who come from so much privilege that they’ve internalized since childhood the idea that they’ll be in charge someday.
These, of course, are the apathetic students, the one or two in every classroom who are openly hostile to discussions of social justice. If the classroom figures as a war zone, a horror movie, these students are part of it too, and though they present a problem for the activist student, they arguably create an even bigger problem for the instructor. Too many of us have spent an exhausting semester mediating between those two kinds of students, only to discover at the end that both gave you negative evaluations: one saying that you inappropriately allowed your personal politics to influence classroom discussion, one saying you didn’t do enough to make the classroom a safe space for everyone.
Negative evaluations are, for both kinds of angry students, a weapon of choice. But I wonder if they realize just how powerful and damaging a weapon evaluations are. The professors interviewed for articles like Heller’s are invariably tenured, or at least on the tenure track. Those people are in a small and rapidly diminishing minority. Most faculty these days are contingent faculty, or “adjuncts,” a group that comprises more than half of the academic workforce (some say more than 70 percent).
What is an adjunct, exactly? The term covers a wide range of different kinds of academic employment, generally defined by a total lack of job security. An adjunct’s contract may be for a single course, or a semester, or a year, or a few years. Some of those contracts include benefits such as health care. Many don’t. Crucially, when those contracts are up, the university has total freedom to choose whether to renew or not. To be an adjunct is to be constantly worried that you won’t be asked to return. The character of The Frightened Professor may have something very real to be afraid of (a much better Vox article than “my students terrify me” addresses this issue).
Most students are not aware that their professors work within this system. I was at a conference recently where an adjunct faculty member spoke about how she’d given a survey to her students to find out what they knew about the academic labor situation. Most of them didn’t know that she was an adjunct; they didn’t really understand the differences between adjuncts and those on the tenure line. They did, however, have a vague sense that it was better to be taught by tenured or tenure-track professors than by adjuncts. In short: among students, contingency is little-understood and yet still looked down upon.
What students don’t know is how much their teaching evaluations place adjuncts in a double bind. No matter how glowing your evaluations are, the university will never promote you to a permanent faculty position. There may be rare exceptions to this rule, but I consider those fairy tales. So the upside of good evaluations is minimal, but the consequences of bad evaluations can be catastrophic. There’s such a glut of unemployed PhDs that universities have little incentive to renew the contract of someone students don’t like. (That glut also means that, as a general rule, nobody will ever get a job at a better institution than the one where they got their PhD, making the system elitist as well as exploitative.)
So, imagine that you are a student about to leave a blistering evaluation, perhaps because the classroom felt either too political or not political enough. You likely have no idea that contingent faculty tend to be women, while tenured positions tend to be men, or that academia has a way of turning pregnancy into a career-ending disability, of forcing women into taking on more service-related duties, of punishing them for speaking their minds. You are likely unaware that student evaluations are heavily biased against women, as well as against people of color, and old people, and unattractive people, too. You probably don’t know that white people make up 80 percent of the contingent faculty workforce—and that even if your instructor is a white male, chances are high that he’s part of an extremely exploitative labor system.
Maybe the instructor really, really deserves that bad evaluation. But students, in their attempts to protest oppression and marginalization in the university, often inadvertently perpetuate it. What students and instructors have in common is that we must participate in a system that often disproportionately punishes the very people we’re hoping to advocate for.
Student activists see insensitive faculty as the problem; contingent faculty are hostile to students because complaints can literally be the difference between making a living wage and going on food stamps. They’ve become adversaries. But really, they should be natural allies. Both have excellent reasons to be angry at universities.
I found Heller’s article heartening because he refuses to give a simple explanation of what’s “wrong” at Oberlin. It’s a problem that won’t fit into a neat box. He often does seem to subtly critique student activism, but he embeds praise within his arguments. Folded into a story about how students self-segregation by race destroyed a research workshop about Black Lives Matter is a quote from the instructor in charge of the program:
“‘Sometimes it gets caricatured that students are consumers who just want to see themselves reflected in the curriculum, and I suppose those critiques have a certain validity,’ she told me. ‘But my experience is that it’s less about them than about trying to understand peoples and process in a world that’s changing.’ Student movements have an odd habit of ending up on the right side of history.”
In this you can see how Heller is willing to consider that the students’ goals are worthy, even if they may be trying to achieve those goals in an ineffective or counterproductive way.
The tensions on college campuses are erupting because they lie at the intersection of very real, very serious issues: systemic oppression, the corporatization of the university, increasing hostility to affirmative action and diversity initiatives. Empathy isn’t the whole answer, but it couldn’t hurt. There are no stock characters here, only human beings with painful personal histories and emotional baggage and uncertain futures.
Students: read Gawker’s series of adjunct stories. Many of you are paying an extortionate sum and going into debt for your education, and you should know where that money is really going. Faculty: take your students’ pain seriously. Just because they’re young doesn’t mean that they haven’t experienced real trauma, and their desire to make the world better should be celebrated and not ridiculed.
The great Sophocles scholar Bernard Knox said that Antigone, along with many other Sophoclean heroes, is characterized by what he called “the heroic temper.” The heroic temper is a total inability to compromise or consider the viewpoints of others. For Antigone, there is no moral ambiguity, no gray area. She hangs herself, entombed, a death considered preferable to yielding. It’s a compelling story that we should teach in our universities. It’s no model for political progress or protest.
Donna Zuckerberg (@donnazuck) is editor of Eidolon, an online Classics journal. She received her PhD from Princeton in 2014 and is currently working on a book about the (ab)use of ancient Greece and Rome by the men’s rights movement. Read more of her work here.
Source image via Getty