Complaining, censorious, and over-sensitive, university students are destroying their own institutions. Wait, seriously? People think that?
An earlier version of this essay was posted at the blog feministkilljoyWhat do I mean by “against students”? By using this expression I am trying to describe a series of speech acts which consistently position students, or at least specific kinds of students, as a threat to education, to free speech, to civilization, even to life itself. In speaking against students, these speech acts also speak for more or less explicitly articulated sets of values: freedom, reason, education, democracy. Students are failing to reproduce the required norms of conduct. Even if that failure is explained as a result of ideological shifts that students are not held responsible for – whether it be neoliberalism, managerialism or a new sexual puritanism – it is in the bodies of students that the failure is located. Students are not transmitting the right message, or are evidence that we have failed to transmit the right message. Students have become an error message, a beep, beep, that is announcing system failure.
In describing the problem of how students have become the problem, I analyze some recent writings that seem to be concerned with distinct issues even if they all address the demise of higher education and involve a kind of nostalgia for something that has been, or is being, lost. I have made the decision to quote from these texts without citing the authors by name. I wish to treat each text as an instance in a wider intertextual web and thus to depersonalise the material. Some of these texts do cite each other, and by evoking the figure of the problem student (who travels through this terrain with an accumulating pace and velocity) they all participate in the making of a shared world.
The “problem student” is a constellation of related figures: the consuming student, the censoring student, the over-sensitive student, and the complaining student. By considering how these figures are related we can explore connections that are being made through them, connections between, for example, neoliberalism in higher education, a concern with safe spaces, and the struggle against sexual harassment. These connections are being made without being explicitly articulated. We need to make these connections explicit in order to challenge them. This is what “against students” is really about.
One of my concerns in Willful Subjects was with the politics of dismissal. I was interested in how various points of view can be dismissed by being swept away or swept up by the charge of willfulness. So: What protesters are protesting about can be ignored when protesters are assumed to be suffering from too much will; they are assumed to be opposing something because they are being oppositional. The figures of the consuming student, censoring student, over-sensitive student, and complaining student are also doing something, they are up to something. These figures circulate in order to sweep something up. Different student protests can be dismissed as products of weaknesses of moral character (generated by “student culture” or “campus politics”) and as the cause of a more general decline in values and standards.
Let’s begin with critiques of neoliberalism and higher education. These are critiques I would share. I too would be critical of how universities are managed as businesses; I too would be critical of the transformation of education into a commodity; of how students are treated as consumers. I too am aware of the burdens of bureaucracy and how we can end up pushing paper around just to leave a trail.
Critiques of neoliberalism can also involve a vigorous sweeping: Whatever is placed near the object of critique becomes the object of critique. For example, my empirical research into the university’s new equality regime taught me how equality can be dismissed as a symptom of neo-liberalism, as “just another” mechanism for ensuring academic compliance. UK Home Secretary and Minister for Women and Equality Theresa May justified a withdrawal from some of the stated commitments in the 2010 Equality Act by arguing the law “would have been just another bureaucratic box to be ticked. It would have meant more time filling in forms and less time focusing on policies that will make a real difference to people’s life chances.” The practitioners I researched in On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life talked of how academics use similar arguments: that these forms and procedures are just another “box to be ticked,” in order to dismiss the more general relevance of equality to their work (“a real difference”). They can then enact non-compliance with equality as a form of resistance to bureaucracy. Equality becomes something imposed by management, as what would, if taken seriously, constrain life and labor. Whilst we might want to critique how equality is bureaucratized, we need to challenge how that very critique can be used to dismiss equality.
We sense the vigour of the sweep.
Let’s look at a specific instance. In a recent article, one professor laments the demise of the university. He conjures an ideal image of academic life, and not necessarily one that is a past although it lingers or seems that way. He evokes Oxbridge: a time and a place where professors and dons are the ones who get to decide what they are doing and how they spend or allocate their time and resources. He writes, “It is the dons who decide how to invest the college’s money, what flowers to plant in their gardens, whose portraits to hang in the senior common room, and how best to explain to their students why they spend more on the wine cellar than on the college library. All important decisions are made by the fellows of the college in full session, and everything from financial and academic affairs to routine administration is conducted by elected committees of academics responsible to the body of fellows as a whole.”I shuddered when I read this. One of the hardest experiences of my academic career was attending a wine evening at a college in Cambridge. I remember sitting there as expensive bottles of wine were opened, one after the other, thinking “austerity,” realizing in the pit of my stomach, what “tightening our belts” allowed some not to give up. Note also how critiques of neoliberalism might be masking elitism: a hatred of “the masses,” and a perception that standards are lowering because of the widening of participation.
It is interesting that the specific decisions referred to are how to justify the amount of wine being consumed (not whether the wine being consumed can be justified), gardens being planted, and portraits being hung, rather than the content of courses being taught. This ideal world of “don democracy” is then contrasted to the bureaucracy of corporate academia: “Instead of government by academics there is rule by hierarchy, a good deal of Byzantine bureaucracy, junior professors who are little but dogsbodies and vice chancellors who behave as though they are running General Motors.” One has to comment here on the assumption that “don democracy” or the elite system of Oxbridge is not itself “rule by hierarchy.”
The critique progresses: “In any case, the vast increase in bureaucracy in British higher education, occasioned by the flourishing of a managerial ideology and the relentless demands of the state assessment exercise, means that academics have had little enough time to prepare their teaching even if it seemed worth doing, which for the past several years it has not.” Academics no longer have the time the old dons had. But the time evoked as having been lost is a time that most academics would not have had; that there was always an economy of time (some academics might have had more time because others had less time). In our bleak world: “All professors are transformed into managers, so students are converted into consumers.” Here the students arrive as those who are converted into consumers, having previously come up as those to whom the dons had to explain why they spent more money on wine than books.
The consuming student is a problem: “One result of this hot pursuit of the student purse is the growth of courses tailored to whatever is currently in fashion among 20-year-olds. In my own discipline of English, that means vampires rather than Victorians, sexuality rather than Shelley, fanzines rather than Foucault, the contemporary world rather than the medieval one. It is thus that deep-seated political and economic forces come to shape syllabuses. Any English department that focused its energies on Anglo-Saxon literature or the 18th century would be cutting its own throat.” Even if the “hot pursuit” of the “student purse” is behind the demise of a discipline, it is the students who want the wrong things, who determine what is being and not taught, who have caused the loss of the right things (vampires, sexuality, fanzines; the contemporary world rather than Victorians, Shelley, Foucault, the medieval world). The repeated use of “rather than” implies that bad objects put in place because of what is “in fashion” with “2o year olds” have toppled the good objects put in place by old dons or departments. And it is implied that not following “whatever students want” would amount to the death of a discipline (“cutting its own throat”).
What a sweep!
Even my own relatively limited knowledge of what is taught in departments of English Literature would lead me to question much in this narrative. But what interests me here is how so much is brought up so quickly in order to be dismissed so quickly as a product of neoliberalism, of the transformation of universities into markets.
Note the placement of the word “sexuality” in this list. We can guess what this word is doing on the wrong side of the “rather than,” even though Foucault, a historian of sexuality, is on the right side. The “fanzines and not Foucault” operates as a cultural contrast: Foucault is a serious and heavy scholar, fanzines are silly and light. This distinction is gendered. The emergence of sexuality (and its studies) can be treated as a product of the marketization of higher education. In other words, sexuality becomes yet another bad object brought about because of what students want.
We need to challenge this assumption that some subjects only come into existence because universities are “in hot pursuit” of the “student purse.” We know the strong critiques of curriculum made by those working within departments that led to the diversification of the curriculum. We know of the work of “chipping away” at the walls that are sometimes called canons. We know of the long histories of feminist and queer activisms that led to sexuality as well as gender being taken up as legitimate subjects within the academy.
If we don’t know, we should know.
These histories of labour and activism are “swept away” by the assumption that such subjects only come into existence because of the “student purse.” It is this activism that enabled a challenge to some of the decisions made by departments as well as dons about what is of value, decisions that solidify as canons. These decisions are often protected by assumptions of universality, which is a way of making a decision beyond reproach. The various subjects made possible through the labour of political critique and activism are dismissed in the flourish of a “rather than,” as simple expressions of the wanton nature of the market (that monstrous body).
The figure of the consuming subject who wants the wrong things, a student who is found wanting, is hard at work. She is how an idea of universal knowledge or universal culture can be so thinly disguised as a critique of neoliberalism and managerialism. She is how an academic world can be idealised in being mourned as a lost object; a world where dons get to decide things; a world imagined as democracy, as untroubled by the whims and wishes of generations to come. Interestingly one white male academic when asked about “decolonizing the university” during an Occupy event was reported to have something like “this is education not democracy: we get to decide what we teach.” He helpfully reveals to us how the democracy often defended is an illusion: what is being defended as democracy is often despotism.
We have an understanding of how, when students are being critical of what we are doing, when they contest what is being taught, they can be treated and dismissed as acting like consumers. In other words it is when students are not satisfied that they are understood as treating our delivery as a product. Critique as such can be “swept away” by the charge of consumerism. Students become the problem when what they want is not in accordance with what academics want or what academics want them to want. Students become willful when what they will is not what academics will or not what academics will them to will. What seems to be in place here is what Paulo Freire called the “bank model” of education, in which teachers deposit knowledge into the bodies of students like money into a machine. Rather ironically, students are more likely to be judged as acting like consumers when they refuse to be banks.
Luckily I would say: don’t bank on it.
The figure of the censoring student who pushes unwanted speakers off campus exists in close relation to the consuming student. Both work to create an impression that students have all the power to decide what is being taught as well as what is not being taught, what is being spoken about, as well as what is not being spoken about; and that this power is at the expense not only of dons and departments, but also politicians, journalists, and other public figures.
Students: they keep coming up as having all the power.
Yet the instances of apparent censorship (translate: student protests) seem to generate more discourse and discussion rather than preventing discourse or discussion. So much high-profile speech and writing is generated by those who claim they are silenced!
But we can still ask: what is the figure of the censoring student doing? By hearing student critique as censorship, the content of that critique is pushed aside. When you hear a challenge as an attempt at censorship you do not have to engage with the challenge. You do not even have to say anything of substance because you assume the challenge is without substance.
In the first instance, critique and contestation (“they want the wrong courses!”) is dismissed as consumerism; in the second instance, protest (“they don’t want the right people!”) is dismissed as censorship.
Another figure comes up, rather quickly, at this point, often lurking behind the censoring student. This is the over-sensitive student: the one who responds to events or potential events with hurt feelings. She also comes up as someone who stops things from happening. I could refer here to a number of recent pieces that I read as a moral panic about moral panics. Many of these pieces refer to US college campuses specifically and are concerned with the introduction of safe spaces and trigger warnings.
The figure of the over-sensitive student is invested with power. The story goes: because students have become too sensitive, we cannot even talk about difficult issues in the classroom; because of their feelings we (critical academics) cannot address questions of power and violence, and so on. A typical example of this kind of rhetoric: “No one can rebut feelings, and so the only thing left to do is shut down the things that cause distress — no argument, no discussion, just hit the mute button and pretend eliminating discomfort is the same as effecting actual change.” Or another: “While keeping college-level discussions ‘safe’ may feel good to the hypersensitive, it’s bad for them and for everyone else. People ought to go to college to sharpen their wits and broaden their field of vision.” Here safety is about feeling good, or not feeling bad. We sense what is being feared: students will become warm with dull edges, not sharp enough in wit or wisdom.
The moral panic around trigger warnings is a very good pedagogic tool: we learn from it. Trigger warnings are assumed to be about being safe or warm or cuddled. I would describe trigger warnings as a partial and necessarily inadequate measure to enable some people to stay in the room so that “difficult issues” can be discussed. The assumption that trigger warnings are themselves about safe spaces is a working assumption (by this I mean: it is achieving something). The assumption that safe spaces are themselves about deflecting attention from difficult issues is another working assumption. Safe spaces are another technique for dealing with the consequences of histories that are not over (a response to a history that is not over is necessarily inadequate because that history is not over). The real purpose of these mechanisms is to enable conversations about difficult issues to happen. So often those conversations do not happen because the difficulties people wish to talk about end up being re-enacted within discussion spaces, which is how they are not talked about. For example, conversations about racism are very hard to have when white people become defensive about racism. Those conversations end up being about those defences rather than about racism. We have safe spaces so we can talk about racism, not so we can avoid talking about racism!
The very techniques introduced to enable the opening up of conversations can be used as evidence of interlopers closing down conversations. Anyone with a background in Women’s Studies will be familiar with this; we come up against stereotypes of feminists spaces as soft, cozy, easy, which are the exact same sexist stereotypes that make Women’s Studies necessary as a feminist space. The very perception of some spaces as being too soft might even be related to the harshness of the worlds we are organizing to challenge.
The idea that students have become a problem because they are too sensitive relates to a wider public discourse that describes offendability as a form of moral weakness and as a restriction on “our” freedom of speech. Much contemporary racism works by positioning the others as too easily offendable, which is how some come to assert their right to occupy space by being offensive. So much gets “swept away,” by the charge of being too sensitive. A recent example would be how protests against the Human Zoo in the Barbican, about how racism is disguised as art or education, are swept up as a symptom of being “over-sensitive.” According to this discourse, anti-racists end up censoring even their own viewpoints because they are “thin-skinned.”
So much violence is justified and repeated by how those who refuse to participate in violence are judged. We need to make a translation. The idea that being over-sensitive is what stops us from addressing difficult issues can be translated as: We can’t be racist because you are too sensitive to racism.
Well then: We need to be too sensitive if we are to challenge what is not being addressed.
What is meant by addressing difficult issues? I have been met with considerable resistance from critical academics when trying to discuss issues of racism, power, and sexism on campus. Some academics seem comfortable talking about these issues when they are safely designated as residing over there. Is this “there” what allows “difficult issues” not to be addressed here? It seems to me that it is often students who are leading discussions of “difficult issues” on campus. But when students lead these discussions they are then dismissed as behaving like consumers or as being censorious. How quickly another figure comes up when one figure is exposed as fantasy. If not over-sensitive, then censoring; if not censoring, then consuming. And so on, and so forth.
My own sense is that our feminist political hopes rest with over-sensitive students.
Over-sensitive can be translated as: Sensitive to that which is not over.
All of these ways of making students into the problem work to create a picture of professors or academics as the ones who are “really” oppressed by students. This is what it means to articulate a position or a view “against students.” One US professor speaks of being “frightened” by his liberal students. He blames so much on “identity politics.” And so much is blamed on identity politics; that term is used whenever we challenge how spaces are occupied. It has become another easy dismissal. We are learning more here about professors (their investments, emotions, and strategies of dismissal) than we are learning about students.
And this is where it gets hard, and this is where I write with a sense of political urgency. There is another body of work that is “against students”: work on sexual harassment. This body of work intersects with the work on trigger warnings and safe spaces. They imply that a concern with safety and survival is creating the vulnerabilities that are then used to justify the regulation of academics or faculty. These literatures generate the figure of the professor as potential or would-be victim, the one who is endangered by the very construction of students as vulnerable. One article states: “I was writing about an academic culture that misunderstands power, inflates vulnerability, and infantilizes students.” I have read other articles that suggest that when students talk of harassment it is assumed that professors must be guilty of coercion: “an enunciation of an accusation is all it should ever take to secure a guilty verdict.” The implication here is that it is easy for students to complain about professors who harass them (“enunciation” – as if an accusation is a word that can be thrown carelessly); and that complaints are automatically registered as guilt, as if an offense is only committed because a student is offended. The figure of the over-sensitive student slides into the figure of the complaining student whose “hurt feelings” are treated as sufficient grounds for complaint.
Let’s pause here. I want to state what many feminists know too well: It is very difficult to address the issue of sexual harassment. And: It is very difficult to address sexual harassment within universities (particularly the harassment of female students by male academics).There is a growing and important literature on the problem of laddism within UK universities. See for example this very helpful workshop provided by Alison Phipps. Things are difficult to address for a reason. Since I have been engaged in diversity work on campus I been contacted by staff as well as students from a number of different universities about their experiences of sexual harassment. And I have learnt just how pervasive sexual harassment is, as well as just how much harassment is normalized in or even as academic culture. I have heard how academics justify their behaviour as their right. A female professor told me about one academic in her former institution who had multiple sexual relationships with his female students. When a complaint was eventually filed, he justified his conduct as a “perk of the job.” I have heard sexist excusing of sexist behavior: “ah yeh he’s a bit of a womanizer,” “ah yeh he’s one for ladies.” I have heard how much sexism (as well as racism) is defended as “just banter.” And I have learned of the countless ways in which female students are told that to enter the university requires accepting and expecting this kind of conduct. And yet despite sexual harassment being widespread (this “despite” is probably misplaced), it is rarely publicly discussed, sometimes because of confidentiality clauses attached to the resolutions of specific cases, and sometimes because, I suspect, a frank discussion of the problem would require challenging entitlements that some do not wish to challenge.
The reality is so far away from the picture created by the figure of the complaining student (who wields her power over academics) that it is or should be striking. I have been in touch with students from many different universities who have made complaints – or tried to make complaints – about sexual harassment as well as other forms of bullying. I have learned of the myriad ways in which students are silenced. Some students are dissuaded from proceeding to formal complaints. They are told that to complain would damage their own reputation, or undermine their chances of progression; or that to complain would damage the reputation of the member of staff concerned (and if they do proceed with complaints they are often publicly criticized as damaging the reputation of the member of staff); or that it would damage the reputation of departments in which they are based (with a general implication being: to complain is to be ungrateful). Students have reported how their complaints are “sat on,” how they have to testify again and again; or how they are doubted and ridiculed by those they go to for advice and support.
Because students who complain about harassment are silenced, the problem of sexual harassment within universities is constantly and grossly under-acknowledged (as much violence against women is under-acknowledged). The picture of the complaining student whose accusation becomes truth is so far from the truth that there should be a public feminist outcry. We need a public feminist outcry.
I want to pause on one piece of writing (addressing the US context). It is written in the same kind of jokey tone that characterises the first article I engaged with, and has a similar nostalgia for a time past, a mourning for a freedom that has been or is being lost. Here it is not neoliberalism that signals the beginning of the end (of dons and their delightful democracy), but what the author calls “the prohibition,” a moment in time when freedom from restriction becomes the restriction of freedom.This period of “freedom from restriction” is described as a boozy and fun period when students and staff could have sex with each other without worrying about the consequences. I found myself wanting to reach for Rosalind Coward’s classic Female Desire – an early debunking feminist critique of the myth of sexual freedom. The introduction of new laws around “consensual” sexual relations between staff and students is described as the rise of a feminist moralism and puritanism, based on a misunderstanding of the fluid or dispersed nature of power (the author cites Foucault; yes, he comes up again, indexed weakly, again).
The words “moralism” and “puritanism” are constantly being mobilized in anti-feminist writings. These words are useful because they allow a critique of power to be reframed (and dismissed) as an imposition of moral norms. We could consult for example Ray Filar’s smart challenge to an anti-feminist diatribe in which the word “moralism” is used nine times. It is an exhausting repetition! And these are often the words used by harassers themselves, as if to refuse an advance is to be moralizing (she says “no” because she is a prude, say). If you refuse an advance, or if you dare to call repeated and unwanted advances “harassment,” you are being moralistic.
Surely, not, you might say.
Just take this account of the introduction of laws on sexual harassment: “We see the old Victorian moral panic in the guises of political correctness and strictures on sexual harassment.” In this piece of writing, sexual harassment is referred to twice, and both times as a kind of moralism that restricts freedoms that would otherwise be enjoyed (the introduction of sexual harassment as a stricture as intending that restriction).
We are looping back to a starting point: how equality is dismissed by being identified with managerialism, with the imposition of moral norms from the top down. Feminism is then aligned with management, as a technique for managing unruly bodies, just as feminism can be aligned with the market, as a consequence of unruly bodies. Not surprisingly the techniques for dismissing feminism are the same techniques for justifying male power. Of course what has to be remain unsaid here is this: The freedom of some rests on the restriction of the freedom of others. So much harassment is justified and reproduced by framing the very language of harassment as an imposition on freedom. And so much violence (such as domestic violence) is not called violence because it is understood as a right and a freedom: “It is not violence, it is not force, I have a right (to your body).”
We are up against history; walls.
When sexual harassment becomes embedded in or as academic culture, then we are talking about how some women do not have access to universities even after they have applied and been admitted. Sexual harassment is an access issue. Sexual harassment is an equality issue. Sexual harassment is a social justice issue. We are talking about women who have to exit the institution to survive the institution.
We are talking about missing women.
I have become more and more aware of what we are talking about.
Of who we are talking about.
We could and should refer to the important blog, Strategic Misogyny, which collects stories of harassment within universities. We need to hear these stories; to listen to their collective wisdom. Different posts describe in detail what harassment can feel like, and what it can do. And we learn how power might function by not being dispersed. We are reminded when we read these posts of the immense power that academics have over students: They grade student essays and exams; they have discussions about students in meetings that are closed; they sit on committees that decide funding; they have access to confidential files that hold personal information. It is very important to recognize “power over” as a modality of power.
It is in this context that we must question the constant exercising of the language of consent (and its companion “will”). If the person who is asking for your consent holds power over you (in effect a power to decide a future, whether a door is open or not) what does it mean to give or withhold consent? I am not saying here that that all consent is coercion, but that consent in the context of asymmetrical relations of power is not a stable ground for establishing whether or not an abuse of power has occurred. It is because some have power over others, to open or close that door, that we need boundaries, rules, and norms. So much abuse of power within universities is justified by the illiberal use of the liberal language of will and consent. As I argued in Willful Subjects, some might become willing when the costs of not being willing are made too high. Being unwilling might mean being expelled from a group that would allow you to access the resources necessary for your survival, let alone progression. Being unwilling might mean being called frigid or (worse still) a feminist. These names have costs. Becoming willing might be a way of avoiding these costs.
We have a sense of what is going on here. Challenges to sexual harassment within universities can be swept up and swept away, as if the challenges are themselves the products of managerialism or neoliberalism. It’s just another way that academic freedoms have been restricted, just another way academic dissent is punished.
The power embedded in the historical teacher-student relation is reversed.
We have a sense of what is at stake here. Critiques of neoliberalism and managerialism have become useful tools for those who abuse the power they have. Those who are accused of harassment can argue, or at least imply, that students who challenge their practices are acting like consumers, being censoring, over-sensitive, or just complaining. They can position themselves as victims of managerialism as well as marketization. A critique of neoliberalism can be used to imply that those accused of harassment are the ones who are paying its costs.
This is how harassment can be justified as an expression of academic freedom.
That is where we are; this is what we are up against.
We need to support, stand with, and stand by, those students who are fighting to survive hostile institutions.
It is our job.