A few days ago, one of my students asked what made me want to stay in school so long, and continue to stay in school as an instructor. In answering, I found myself swelling into an inspired soliloquy (see below).
Later that day, I read the Chronicle of Higher Education article on Eastern Michigan University Honors College students who during class post racist and sexist comments about their instructors to one another’s phones. Via the Yik Yak app, students participate in a virtual dialog during instruction, a running commentary of insulting their instructor’s appearance as well as teaching, and calling their instructor “a vulgar term for female anatomy.” Of course students criticize teachers. But whether you spit it out of your mouth or type it onto a virtual bulletin board, these kind of remarks smack of hate speech.
I also wonder at the Chronicle’s hesitant vagary with their “vulgar term for female anatomy.” Which one? And in omitting the vulgarity, did the Chronicle downplay the students’ offense? Reporting that students call their instructor a cunt during class, for instance, seems much worse than reporting that students use “a vulgar term for female anatomy.”
I’m unsure of how to respond to or maybe just overwhelmed by this kind of student behavior, and the always unspeakable-ness of women’s bodies, and popular tendencies to minimize disrespect of and even actions against women.
So instead I’ll deliver again my own mid-class speech here. To honor those students who don’t follow Eastern Michigan University’s so-called honor students’ example. When a student recently asked what made and makes me want to stay on campus, I said:
Because I’ve always been impressed by ideas and by the world around me. How better to honor human imagination and achievement than by serving both? Each day, I think about how things are and how they might be, and I encourage others to do so. This is what it is to be an educator.
And because I appreciate my students. I get to spend the day sharing ideas, listening to ideas, and perhaps even creating new ideas with students. Who are brilliant. In any given room on campus, there’s such a wonderful diversity of experience, knowledge, hope, interests, creativity, and willingness.
I can ask a room full of university students to translate a few lines of Latin. Or to describe how we might 3d print a building. Or to judge the ethics of civil forfeiture. Or to explain why light bends like it does. Or to recount a scene from The Odyssey. I can ask anything and someone answers. Someone always answers. Or at least tries to. And when someone tries to answer, someone else usually steps in to help try.
More than an academic community, we’re a community. Last winter when the weather came in faster than we thought it would, campus was as icy as the rest of the city. But not as frustrating: as I inched my way off campus, I keep inching. Because at every crossroads, drivers took turns. Whether at two-way or four-way stops, drivers from each direction stopped so that everyone had a fair turn. Fraternity members from the nearby houses stationed themselves on the hills, pushing cars along to keep us from sliding off the road or into one another.
But we didn’t make it far because once off campus, downtown drivers didn’t pause to waive anyone into traffic. Instead, they drove into and blocked intersections rather than give up their turn to get through the light. Off campus, the right-of-way kept the right all for themselves.
As I told my students (by this point, the room had paused in their discussions to listen to me explain my long-time dedication to learning) I like this community. At the university, we pause to think – about books and ideas, of course, but also about how things are and how things might be. And that’s world changing.
I didn’t say in class but very well could have continued:
Students are respectful. They try their best not to hurt one another’s feelings as they critique one another’s writings and ideas. They apologize to one another when they show up for peer review with work that isn’t their best. Men and women alike hold the door. We all say thank you.
Students are proud. I still smile at the student who took the time to walk across campus to my department to report that he had had to work hard for his A, but he had earned it. And it felt good.
Like my students, I’m proud. Because I might help them succeed. I ask them to work hard and I work hard too – in the classroom, in office hours, in conversations that walk across campus, during late hours on my laptop at home, and on recommendations I write as they apply for scholarships, to honors programs, to exchange programs, and to employers.
I’m not so naive as to think that students often sing my praises like I do theirs. But that’s ok. It’s not my job to make students like me. I teach first-year, foundational courses that often predict whether or not students fare well in the reminder of their academic careers, or even whether or not they graduate. In these courses, I try to help students develop the critical reading, analytic thinking, and clear writing skills prerequisite to academic success. I try really hard, because a lot’s riding on these courses. My classes are hard because my responsibility is to my students’ success, not to my own popularity.
All this is not to say that I think posting racist or sexist or otherwise offensive comments about an instructor or colleague or classmate appropriate. Like cyberbullying of any kind, such behavior signals that as individuals and as a culture, we’re doing something wrong. And we should do something about it. But rather than respond to the Chronicle article with yet another comment shaming the so-called honors students who’ve disrespected their classroom and their community, I thought instead to write here about my own students.
My students are probably cursing me now, as they prepare tomorrow’s essays. But the ideas in those essays are going to be really good, and the conversations they’ll start in class tomorrow are going to change the world.