In response to a twit about Harvard’s first-ever black student commencement, a random law student told me it wasn’t the bad sort of segregation because black students wanted it. While I understood her point, it reflected the irrational infantile perspective that segregation is an unspeakable evil when perpetrated by some and totally wonderful when perpetrated by others.
I replied that she didn’t get it (which she naturally denied, as everyone who doesn’t get it invariably insists they do, they *do*), but that the response that failed to honor her opinion was condescending. You bet it was. Not only did I not know who she was or care what she thought, but we were not peers. What could make a law student assume that she was entitled to expect not only my attention, but my respect?
The problem with children believing they’re entitled to unearned respect starts in the classroom. Not long ago, there was a discussion about students taking liberties with their professors, as if the teachers were no different than the students, except they go to stand in the front of the room instead of sitting in the seats. The discussion devolved into the risks taken by profs in offending students, not pronouncing their names properly, giving rise to complaints of discrimination.
What eluded the academics was the fact that they were the grown-ups in the room, and it was not their job to coddle the little darlings’ feelz, but to teach them. They got their degrees, earned their jobs and were now in charge of the classroom. If the little shits didn’t feel valued, there was a door available to them. Of course, this concept was utterly foreign, as they fought to find a way to maintain a modicum of professional dignity without risking the babies storming the ivory tower.
At the start of my teaching career, when I was fresh out of graduate school, I briefly considered trying to pass myself off as a cool professor. Luckily, I soon came to my senses and embraced my true identity as a young fogey.
After one too many students called me by my first name and sent me email that resembled a drunken late-night Facebook post, I took a very fogeyish step. I began attaching a page on etiquette to every syllabus: basic rules for how to address teachers and write polite, grammatically correct emails.
Etiquette? What a quaint concept. Whether academics really want to be that “cool professor,” the one all the kids like and who uses words like “woke” properly and thinks their every thought and feel is deeply important, is unclear. I have long suspected that many don’t really like having the kids call them by their first name, inform them of how the world works and correct their misguided lack of appreciation of every child’s most heartfelt beliefs. Rather, they tolerate to get along with both their colleagues and their charges because the Academy is a dangerous place for grownups.
Over the past decade or two, college students have become far more casual in their interactions with faculty members. My colleagues around the country grumble about students’ sloppy emails and blithe informality.
It’s passive-aggressive to “grumble” about it. You don’t like it? Do something. Take back the classroom. And it’s not just about your feelz, sad academics who don’t like it when the kids no longer feel any need to address you with the formality once taken for granted. It’s about students understanding and appreciating that they are not yet the equals of their professors.
But the student response is that their opinions are as worthy of respect as their teachers. So what if their teachers know what they are first learning? So what if their teachers have the benefit of experience they lack? These are just weapons to suppress their very valuable feelings. Aren’t they just as entitled to believe what they choose to believe as anyone else?
Why are so many teachers bent out of shape because a student fails to call them “Professor” or neglects to proofread an email? Are academics really that insecure? Is this just another case of scapegoating millennials for changes in the broader culture?
This, unfortunately, is where Worthen attempts to profsplain her position in the context of infantile beliefs. While it may serve to make it more comprehensible within the framework of a child’s mind, it’s still pandering to lack of grasp.
Don’t dismiss these calls for old-fashioned courtesy as a case of fragile ivory tower egos or misplaced nostalgia. There is a strong liberal case for using formal manners and titles to ensure respect for all university professionals, regardless of age, race or gender. More important, doing so helps defend the university’s dearest values at a time when they are under continual assault.
Spare me. This isn’t an issue of age, race or gender, but of status. Earned status. The professors have earned their place at the front of the class. The students have not. Granted, academics have done everything possible to undermine the value of their status, their credibility, their knowledge and experience, but that doesn’t change the fact that as bad as the teachers may be, they are still the teachers. That fact, alone, is all that’s needed to justify their expectation that students behave with the required respect and formality of the relationship.
Insisting on traditional etiquette is also simply good pedagogy. It’s a teacher’s job to correct sloppy prose, whether in an essay or an email. And I suspect that most of the time, students who call faculty members by their first names and send slangy messages are not seeking a more casual rapport. They just don’t know they should do otherwise — no one has bothered to explain it to them. Explaining the rules of professional interaction is not an act of condescension; it’s the first step in treating students like adults.
Students have been taught to believe they are entitled to be treated as peers and to behave as peers toward others. They no longer need to be invited to address their elders by their first name, but assume it’s their right to do whatever they please. When no one tells them “no,” this becomes an entitlement.
But this isn’t “condescending,” although it’s become a fashionable put-down. This isn’t “patronizing superiority,” but superiority. It’s time for the kids to recognize that they are not yet adults, not yet their professors’ equals, not yet entitled to have grownups give a shit about their every feelz.
If they want to be treated like adults, then they need to behave like adults. They will never do so until they realize what distinguishes them as children and why they have not yet earned the right to be treated as equals. And if the professors stop lying to themselves, they can demand the formalities they’ve earned without having to make excuses or gaining the kids’ approval.