My favorite tweet from the “myphilprof” (my philosophy professor) hashtag has to be one where a student interrupted a professor to tell him that he was spilling water out of his water bottle while lecturing. He turned to stare at the annoying student and wordlessly poured the rest of the water out on the floor.

I laughed so hard. Where else can you be a bigger jerk than in the classroom? And it’s great. Students like college courses with professors who are like that. You can tell from their tweets and you can tell by how they plan to send their own children to learn from the same.

You might have your own favorite: twitter.com/myphilprof

The latest outrage

The tweets are helpfully set against what seems to be a theme in the opinion piece business lately (how do they coordinate their topics?): “faculty fear their students!” “Young people are out of control… with their sensitivities!” Professors have written that their colleagues stay up at night, afraid of how their students might react if they say something offensive in class! (If you think I am exaggerating, read here.)

This professor says he can’t even teach certain issues, like abortion, because of students today. His self-report is here. 

Us philosophy professors, of course, teach abortion ethics all the time. If you’ve forgotten what philosophy professors say in class, look again.

If you think there’s something fishy going on, given these two accounts aren’t compatible, I agree.

The complaining professors blame the psychology of today's youth for their fears. Young people are described as uniformly fearsome and infantile. How dare they be infantile and bully their professors, who can't stick up for themselves! That students are absurdly puritanical is sometimes given as explanation. The requisite consequentialist justification is attached to the complaints, too: these students better change, or there is no way they are prepared for the realities of life, where people don’t say the things philosophy professors say in front of students. 

Wait. See? Their argument doesn’t work if you reference the tweets I’ve linked to, because they show how very unfrightened so many of us professors are. 

Teaching is a skill

Some professors have always been afraid of their students, this pre-dates our classrooms being  "diverse" in any sense at all. We can’t attribute discomfort before a class with just concern over not coming off as sexist or racist. But what could make some professors today feel so alienated from their students over just these types of issues? 

Let's see, college campuses are far more diverse than they were in the past. Many of our jokes and references are in-group type things, and in a diverse enough classroom, it does take extra effort to include everyone.

This wouldn’t matter if students couldn’t complain. But students can complain today, so easily, so readily, even if they don't have any rapport with their professor. They can even complain anonymously, through Yik Yak in class if they want. 

If expression is good and free speech is good and helps us to learn, and professors surely know this, what is the problem? The philosopher Justin Weinberg has explained that we might as well think of students as perceptive, not sensitive. Why wouldn't we expect more diverse classrooms to include more perspective and a better, improved perspective? 

I remember the first time a professor ever used “she” as a generic pronoun in a course I was taking. I nearly fell out of my chair, I thought an actual “she” had entered the lecture hall. No, instead, he was just attempting to make women students feel included. I did. It was shocking to me to see how it felt, that the method worked. 

And as that trend in referring to women in examples continued, it was easy to compare before and after. I felt more and more an invited participant in academia. For years I had been sitting in classrooms thinking of myself as a kind of bystander or outside observer. When you are never expecting to come up in an example, you engage passively like that. Today, do students have more confidence? I think we can be sure that they do. They might not sit through long sexist jokes and stories addressed to just the men in the class, the way I used to. They might not want to think "I don't matter enough in this class to even imagine complaining" about it. That is how my women friends and I used to think. That went so deep we didn't complain about the sexist jokes to each other.

Notice, from the twitter feed, the wide range of jokes students today clearly don't mind. It's being excluded that matters, not how ribald the content is. I don't think we should kid ourselves about the cultural content young people can handle; they are "tougher" than my generation (and up) in that regard. (Try telling my students they are "puritanical" and you will get the funny look you deserve.)

I would feel sorry for the professors who are so frightened that they will do or say the wrong thing, but what about this? If these professors would open themselves up to the idea that students are the best part about teaching, maybe they wouldn’t be so worried. Maybe they would instead learn to relate to the new diversity in our classrooms. It isn't, after all, that much homework to find out what kids today consider racist and sexist. Students will even tell you. (See here.)

We are hitting our stride as a culture. We are on our way. We are beginning to recognize things about about sex, gender and race that many of us had no inkling of twenty years ago. Dealing with students, not alienating them, is a necessary part of teaching; learning that what we've said is offensive to our students is a necessary part of caring about the role we play in our relationships just in general.  

Maybe there are some things that are very frightening about working at a university. I wouldn't want to deny something like that. But it just can't be the students. They are no worse than us, though I do have my reasons for thinking that they are a bit better. 

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