Are Teachers Really Afraid of Their Students?

A lot has been written lately about hyper-sensitivity on college campuses. The latest entry in this genre is a long, rather complex analysis on, published anonymously by a professor at a “midsize state school.” This writer’s claim is that a reductive vision of social justice, one based on feelings rather than objective analysis, is making for a toxic learning environment and ultimately harming the progressive cause. Feelings can’t be wrong. So, this logic goes, the only way to win a debate is to yell really loud.

Ironically, this article resulted in something of a backlash, with a social media figure yelling about how she shouldn’t be quoted without her consent. That’s an interesting position. And seems to prove the writer’s point about hyper-sensitivity. On the internet. What about in the classroom though? Are things really as bad as they seem? Are teachers really afraid of students?

In my experience, no. I’m a (white male) teacher at a major public university. My (grad student) colleagues and I complain about a lot of stuff, but getting in trouble for offending our students isn’t very high on the list. Still, many teachers obviously feel differently. Perhaps they’re justified. Perhaps my colleagues and I are naïve. Still though, I can’t help but think that the hysterical online environment is unduly tinting their perception of the classroom situation.

Of course, as a teacher you will occasionally encounter prickly, hyper-politically correct (or politically incorrect) students. Part of being an educator though is learning how to negotiate with such people. As an example, let’s look at a situation described in the Vox article.

During a discussion of the 2008 financial crisis, a student voices his opinion that said crisis was caused by “Fanny and Freddy giving homes to black people.” This is a big, obviously problematic claim. Note how the Vox commentator responds though. Instead of seeking to engage the student, to bring out the causes and potential effects of such a belief, the teacher instead attempts to “state the facts,” telling the student that his view is “an oversimplification, and pretty dishonest.” The student feels disrespected and files a complaint, accusing the teacher of bias.

I understand the teacher’s frustration: the student hijacked his lesson plan. The administrative complaint could have been avoided though through proper pedagogical practice. Instead of positioning himself as “the subject who knows,” to misquote Lacan, this teacher should have sought to explore, with his students, the gap between their varying perspectives. In short, when yelled at he shouldn’t have yelled back. Instead, he should have practiced what he preaches in the Vox article.

My larger point here is that digital discourse seems to encourage a certain sort of rhetorical behavior. This, as the Vox commentator correctly notes, often involves yelling really loud about your feelings. Teachers must work to counter this influence. We need to cultivate listening, understanding and collaborative, critical exploration. And the place to start is with our own practice, both online and in the classroom. If we do this day-in-day-out, we have nothing to fear from our students.

How to Write the Internet

Let’s talk about writing. Specifically, how to write for a broad audience about complicated, rather esoteric topics in a public, online forum (such as this blog). I’m a writing teacher, but at the moment, I will admit, I don’t really know what such a space requires. One of my goals in starting this blog is to find out.

Stylistically, I want to keep it simple: short paragraphs, as little jargon as possible. I want to talk about big issues in rhetoric, philosophy and education in a way that’s interesting and accessible to people both inside and outside of academia. So in a way, this project involves translation. It also involves practical application. In short, I hope to show how abstract scholarly concepts can help everyone, not just scholars, better understand the world. We’ll see how that plays out!

I may not know what I’m doing, but I do know what I like. In that regard, I’d like to present two recent articles, both from, which I think well represent “how to write the internet.” The first is “The Myth of the Hero Cop.”  Here, David Feige shows, quite persuasively, I think, how the US public’s adulation of police officers is both ill-founded and socially destructive. It’s more dangerous to be a black man in Baltimore than to be a cop—that’s a powerful claim. And it makes this article a powerful (and important) piece of public rhetoric.

The second is about little league sports. Here, Justin Peters draws upon personal experience and scholarly sources to make what I feel is a rather counter-intuitive argument about how organized youth sports basically suck. The perspective (as with the previous article) is fundamentally pragmatist, I.E. concerned with real-world thinking and being and its effect on lived experience. This is what I respect and what this blog will try to emulate.

Until next time.