The emotional pleas for understanding the profound trauma that students are enduring in the aftermath of the Garner and Brown grand juries are coming fast and furious. Harvard 3L and law review editor, William Desmond, gave it his best shot, only to be ridiculed for his melodramatic prose and vapid reasoning.
Oberlin student, Della Kurzer-Zlotnick sent an impassioned plea to her professor as a privileged white student on behalf of students of color, for accommodations, only to be met with a terse “no.” This outraged her enough to issue a trigger warning based on his dismissiveness. In the New Yorker, Harvard crimlaw prof Jeannie Suk, in a curiously conflicted post, explains why law professors are giving up teaching about rape:
But asking students to challenge each other in discussions of rape law has become so difficult that teachers are starting to give up on the subject. About a dozen new teachers of criminal law at multiple institutions have told me that they are not including rape law in their courses, arguing that it’s not worth the risk of complaints of discomfort by students. Even seasoned teachers of criminal law, at law schools across the country, have confided that they are seriously considering dropping rape law and other topics related to sex and gender violence. Both men and women teachers seem frightened of discussion, because they are afraid of injuring others or being injured themselves.
It’s easy to make fun of this burgeoning insanity, and indeed, it well deserves whatever ridicule it receives. The primary enablers are academics, who have given away their classrooms to their special little snowflakes. Frankly, the response of Professor Raney at Oberlin, the guy who said “no,” is both remarkable and refreshing. But Columbia Law School lacked his fortitude.
During a twitter discussion with David Ziff, who lectures at University of Washington Law School, he responded to my “just say no” to the inmates running the asylum with the astute point that it’s ineffective pedagogy. Students don’t respond well to a stiff slap these days. Nobody has ever told them they’re wrong. Nobody has ever said to them “denied,” without a heart-rending explanation and gratuitous tummy rub. They can’t handle it.
Despite the sense of defeatism in Ziff’s point, there is a very real issue with the fact that these students are not merely sincere in their belief of entitlement, but absolute in their understanding that academia owes them accommodation of their every feeling.
How do we undo the environment that gives rise to these misguided demands that the academic world reshape itself around the emotional needs of every student? Demanding that they go cold turkey is one approach, but I suspect Ziff is right that it just won’t work. Building on a lifetime of academic entitlement, it’s impossible to flip their narcissistic worldview of emotional hegemony upside down with a swift kick in the ass.
Ridiculing their wallowing in self-serving emotion might be fun for the rest of us, but will do little to help them to understand that they aren’t the center of the universe. They won’t appreciate the joke, and they will reflexively be defensive. That’s what comes of an excess of passion with a dearth of grasp. They won’t get it.
But this cannot go on. The minefield grows every moment, with every feeling of every student of every cut, whether real, imagined or so tiny that no one else can see it. Suk’s revelation, that professors would rather give up teaching than enter the minefield is an outrage. It’s both a reflection on the Academy, one of cowardice in the face of responsibility, and the cumulative failure to teach children to grow up.
A few years ago, I urged law professors to take back the classroom. The trend was already quite clear, and would surely get worse if the slide wasn’t stopped. It wasn’t.
They have questions, and demand not only prompt answers, but answers that validate them. The will not tolerate the Socratic Method, as it belittles them and reflects a lack of respect. There are no longer wrong answers in law school, but just answers not as right as they could have been. And when a student disagrees, asserting that his answer is every bit as good as the one the professor “suggests,” they have no qualms about informing the professor of her error.
These problems seem almost quaint compared to what professors face today.
Student organizations representing women’s interests now routinely advise students that they should not feel pressured to attend or participate in class sessions that focus on the law of sexual violence, and which might therefore be traumatic. These organizations also ask criminal-law teachers to warn their classes that the rape-law unit might “trigger” traumatic memories. Individual students often ask teachers not to include the law of rape on exams for fear that the material would cause them to perform less well. One teacher I know was recently asked by a student not to use the word “violate” in class—as in “Does this conduct violate the law?”—because the word was triggering. Some students have even suggested that rape law should not be taught because of its potential to cause distress.
It’s unclear whether the professoriate has come to grips with the toxic environment for learning that has grown under their watch. Yet, Suk’s post suggests that they’re beginning to recognize that the curriculum, the concepts, even the frigging words they’re allowed to utter, are now dictated by the most absurdly delicate flower in their classroom.
Some academics likely share these ridiculous sensibilities, and are only too happy to limit their lectures to happy law rather than ableist slurs. They fail their students even as they promote their own agendas. After all, why should students in criminal law be forced to learn the unpleasant trigger lessons of crimes?
Can this be changed by just ending the accommodation of every special snowflake’s emotional needs? Is Ziff right, that this won’t work as they are incapable of hearing the words, “you’re wrong,” without curling up in a ball in the corner, screaming “hater”? Can they be gently nudged back to reality, or does this perpetuate the misguided view that their entitlement dictates the world they’re constrained to endure?
No, not all students are like this. No, not all professors either. But the lowest common denominator rules, and is depriving students of the lessons they must learn and the maturation process they so desperately need. By giving in to them, academia is failing them, and failing us as we expect them to competently take the reins some day.
Can we clean up the toxic waste dump of academia so that the environmental disaster of education doesn’t reach the stage of no return?
Update: Sadly, Ziff chose not to offer his thoughts, here, but rather to write a post at his own blog. After doing his best at turning me into a brutish cartoon character, he offers his deepest thought:
I’m not sure how Greenfield’s “smack” pedagogy gets them there. Yes, they need to be told “you’re wrong,” but just telling them “you’re wrong” does not help them get to “you’re right!” Greenfield’s law school sounds like a gauntlet, where every wrong answer is met with mockery and opprobrium, until… well, until what exactly? The student goes into a cocoon and comes out a self-confident spitfire like Greenfield himself? Sure, there are students who might succeed under such a system. But what about others who might not? Should we do as Greenfield suggests and send them away from law school to work at Dairy Queen?
Well, sure, my idea was just smack a kid every day until they graduate. Sharp eye there, Ziff.
And training the lads (or gals or whatever the other gendered forms of “lad” are) means, like it or not, understanding them, listening to them, and partnering with them on a common mission. Greenfield recoils at the idea that law professors “work with” their students. I fail to see a problem with that construction of education.
That sounds so sweet, “partnering with them on a common mission.” Like holding hands ans skipping down a lovely road. Thank the lord Ziff doesn’t coddle his students. He partners with them instead.
Now I know that Ziff isn’t the simplistic buffoon this suggests he is, so giving him the most charitable interpretation, I guess his point is that he’s a wonderful teacher, law schools do a spectacular job, and all the students are awesome, while I’m just a mean old curmudgeon.
See? Problem solved. All these students aren’t a problem. All you need is a strawman, some empty rhetoric and a good place to hide from scrutiny.
Certainly, Ziff’s view is Ziff’s, so it can’t be attributed to all lawprofs. But don’t you feel better knowing that baby lawyer you just hired will be happy to partner with you on a common mission, so long as you respect his feelings? And don’t use any words that might trigger his profound trauma, because then he’ll need time off. Paid time off.