Inside/Outside Troubles

Three recent articles about blogging or otherwise posting personal thoughts online caught my interest. The first, which I commented on at my personal website is the Chronicle piece by "Ivan Tribble", "Bloggers Need Not Apply". Tribble, recently released from search committee duties at his school, rails against academics who blog, under the guise of "helpful advice" to job-seekers.

We all have quirks. In a traditional interview process, we try our best to stifle them, or keep them below the threshold of annoyance and distraction. The search committee is composed of humans, who know that the applicants are humans, too, who have those things to hide. It’s in your interest, as an applicant, for them to stay hidden, not laid out in exquisite detail for all the world to read. If you stick your foot in your mouth during an interview, no one will interrupt to prevent you from doing further damage. So why risk doing it many times over by blabbing away in a blog?

The second article is a NYTimes "Style Desk" piece entitled "The New Nanny Diaries Are Online" (this piece may have fallen behind the Times’ paywall; read the Village Voice’s take on the subject here or Bitch PhD’s take here). The author, one Helaine Olen, describes her growing discomfort with her nanny after reading about her private life on her blog (the nanny has since abandoned the blog, but not before writing a fairly extensive and humiliating rejoinder to Olen’s piece).

Yet within two months of my starting to read her entries our entire relationship unraveled. Not only were there things I didn’t want to know about the person who was watching my children, it turned out her online revelations brought feelings of mine to the surface I’d just as soon not have to face as well.

My husband thought her writing precociously talented but wanted to fire her nonetheless. "This is inappropriate," he said. "We don’t need to know that Jennifer Ehle makes her hot."

And, finally, a Boston University journalism professor was fired for making this comment about a student on an online sports board:

"Of my six students, one (the smartest, wouldn’t you know it?) is incredibly hot. … It was all I could do to remember the other five students."

I don’t want to defend or castigate any of the actors in any of these situations — I’ve said my piece about Tribble at One Man’s Opinion and am working up something more specific on the Boston University case (stay tuned, folks!); Olen’s case has been suitably discussed by both her nanny personally and a bevy of Internet commentators. Instead, I’m concerned here with how each of these pieces illustrates conceptions about the division of public and private life in American (North American? Western?) conceptions of the self, especially where work is involved. In each of the cases, the blogger/poster has committed a transgression, revealing his/her private life in a public forum (the Internet).

Modern American culture is structured around the hard division between public and private spaces, personaes, and expression. This division defines and bounds our behavior among every dimension — religion, gender, sexuality, class, economics (consider how improper it is to ask someone’s annual income!), politics, and so on. Each of us does a pretty remarkable job of adapting to the varying definitions of proper and improper behavior in each context we move through in the course of our daily lives. At the same time, these boundaries can become contested — consider the furor over the Supreme Court’s decision striking down Texas’ sodomy ban (in Lawrence et al. v. Texas). The advent of the Internet has posed one of the greatest challenges to these "hard" boundaries in recent years, confouding efforts to adequately define public and private spaces and often shifting behaviors that were once considered "private" into the "public" eye, and vice versa. It is telling that Tribble contrasts the public exposure gained from blogging with the "privacy" of face-to-face interactions in such public venues as cocktail parties and classrooms:

We’ve all done it — expressed that way-out-there opinion in a lecture we’re giving, in cocktail party conversation, or in an e-mail message to a friend. There is a slight risk that the opinion might find its way to the wrong person’s attention and embarrass us. Words said and e-mail messages sent cannot be retracted, but usually have a limited range. When placed on prominent display in a blog, however, all bets are off.

What seems to bother Tribble here is not so much the comments themselves (after all, one would think an academic would have a bit more worry about inane comments made in the classroom!), but their iterability — their capacity to be repeated and, in being repeated, to escape the control of their author. The appropriate public venue for academic speech is publication, after passing through layers of vetting and peer review to minimize the consequences of iterability. While off-hand comments made in person are, in the Derridean sense, iterable, their lack of a permanent material form somewhat limits their impact. By writing on a weblog, though, the author grants his/her comments the permancence of publication without the benefit of academic screening. (An argument that might seem surprising to anyone with any depth of experience on the web — pages come and go with a surprising suddenness! For example, in the post on "iterability" I just cited, a link is broken, and the post is less than a year old. Tribble answers this argument bypointing to mechanisms like Google’s cache: "Even if you take your blog offline while job applications are active, Google and other search engines store cached data of their prior contents. So that cranky rant might still turn up.")

Iterability seems to lay at the heart of Michael Gee’s case as well. Consider, for example, Robert MacMillan’s commentary at the Washington Post:

But just because his words are gone doesn’t mean they haven’t been preserved elsewhere… like right here in this column, and over at Boston Sports Media, where blogger David Scott posted them on July 15 so the rest of us could wonder at them…

A fellow BU prof, Michael Feldman (writing as "the Dowbrigade"), adds these comments in his own response:

As regular readers will note, the Dowbrigade also works at a Major Boston University, and over the years we have had our share of "hot" students, but we would never dream of saying so in a public posting.

Gee could not have been fired for having "hot" students — professors cannot very well have a policy forbidding attractive women from enrolling. He also could not have been fired for noticing the "hotness" of his student — unless a professor is blind, s/he is going to have students that s/he thinks are physically attractive, whether in relation to their own standards of physical beauty or to those of society at large. Where Gee transgressed was in letting it be known that he found a student attractive (Feldman highlights the "sloe-eyed Sabra" part of the comment as a racial slur, but I don’t think this is the primary reason for Gee’s dismissal)– that is, in exposing the always-present but always-suppressed private reactions of a professor to his/her students (on whatever grounds) to the public eye. We professors are supposed to be neutral with regard to our students, to judge each of them solely on their ability to master the material presented in the class, not on their physical attractiveness, political beliefs, personality quirks, financial status, or any other individual quality (except, maybe, inasmuch as it contributes to their greater or lesser mastery of the course material). By making his private reaction public, he made the illusion of professorial neutrality more difficult to perform not only for himself, but for academics in general.

Gee’s offense lies not so much in his private reaction as in the his public puncturing of his (and his professorial colleagues’) professional image — which is also the offense committed by Olen’s nanny Tessy. Time and again, Olen notes that there are "things I didn’t want to know" about her nanny, things that, eventually, so punctured Olen’s image of what a nanny is supposed to be that she ended up firing Tessy. Now, nannies already blur the line between public and private — they are employees who are paid to take care of their employer’s children and household, but they are also "part of the family", often living with "their" family and certainly privy to many of the most intimate details of the family’s life. For many women — especially, perhaps, of the New York liberal career-woman type — the illusion of "nanny as family member" is crucial to what is, after all, a rather exploitive work relationship. As long as Tessy could be viewed as "one of the family", Olen was comfortable with the arrangement; but when she started reading posts that described Tessy’s nannying as "work" and her employers as just that, "employers", Olen’s comfortable illusion was shattered:

Most parents don’t like to think the person watching their children is there for a salary. We often build up a mythology of friendship with our nannies, pretending the nanny admires us and loves our children so much that she would continue to visit even without pay.

Without that "mythology", Olen literally grew disillusioned with Tessy’s performance.

Each of these cases presents an act of discipline, in which a person is punished for their transgressions against the supposedly hard and fast boundaries between public and private expression — which Tribble and Olen, in their decision to "go public" and write about these punished transgressions, have made to act as a warning to the rest of us (Tribble’s weak objection that no candidate was passed over solely for blogging notwithstanding — the intent of his piece is clearly to warn would-be academic bloggers to keep their mouths shut). But what does this say about the nature of employment in today’s American society? With Tribble’s and Olen’s cases, the real discomfort came not so much in their employees’ (or prospective employees’) lack of qualification for the job at hand, but in their suspicion of an active life outside of work. Although Gee’s transgression touches more directly on his ability to do his job, it must be noted that there is little in his comments to suggest that Gee would be impartial in his grading practices or as a teacher — if anything, his post seems like the effort of a new professor (he had worked as a reporter the prior 17 years) to deal with the realities of his situation. How do you deal with a student whose physical presence is distracting?

In each of these cases, it seems to be the fact of merely having an "unauthorized" — that is, non-work-related — private life that is being punished, reflecting an effort to extend the discipline of the workplace — of public life — into the worker’s private life. The epitome of this attitude can be found in Henry Ford’s Dearborn, a model community where news, church, even appropriate recreation was provided by Ford’s agents — and where workers’ home lives were monitored as well. While ostensibly protecting the boundary between public and private, the employers in the cases mentioned above are all in effect defining what their workers’ appropriate private life should be.

In this respect, the act of blogging/posting becomes problematic not so much for the inability of the author to control the reception of his/her words, but for the inability of his/her employer to control the private life of the author. The act of posting becomes evidence of a deeper transgression than just misrecognizing or refusing to recognize the boundaries of appropriate public behavior; it shows the failure of the employer to adequately discipline his/her worker, or the failure of the worker to adequately conform to the expectations of his/her employer. In the end, though, both transgressions amount to the same thing — in the face of an employment regime determined to draw ever-smaller boundaries around the private, rejecting those boundaries is in itself evidence of an "unauthorized" private life. Which is why, I would venture, blogging has caught on in such a big way; in the face of greater and greater incursions on our private life — not just by employers, but by government, social advocates across the political spectrum, religious organizations, black-hat hackers and identity thieves, and ever-tightening security in retail facilities — blogging has provided a way to "push back", to assert a private life that nobody owns, ironically enough by making it public.

32 thoughts on “Inside/Outside Troubles

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  5. As an undergrad, I’ve wondered what it would be like to comment on someone’s blog, or even criticize one of their arguments and then find myself in a class taught by them. Worse yet, since I’ve been thinking of starting a blog again, what if they found that? Could what I say there effect their perception of me in class, or even my grade? Yikes.

  6. Hmm, @ J.S. Nelson, your thoughts are significant.
    Would it make a difference on the content of your comments on your teacher`s work, if they were spoken out face to face?

    oneman said: “…I’m concerned here with how each of these pieces illustrates conceptions about the division of public and private life in American (North American? Western?) conceptions of the self, especially where work is involved. (…)”

    From my view you can well generalize the case and use the attribute western to precise the phenomenon described, as it mirrors a certain understanding of work.
    I d go even further and claim, the separation of private and nonprivate lifesphere(s) itself is constituted by the common western understanding of work =/= private life, which makes a separate “private” lifesphere “necessary”. (To whom and why?)

  7. re

    “Tribble, recently released from search committee duties at his school, rails against academics who blog, under the guise of “helpful advice” to job-seekers.”

    This seems unfair. The column is written with nuance and plenty of explanation, and does not “rail” indiscriminattely against academic bloggers. Why do you think the advice it contains is just a “guise” for something else? This seems to push things to tendentious extremes.

    If you were on a search committee what exactly would you do differently?

  8. They want her in the full encompass of the nanny-cam, but they don’t want her to be fully human.
    There were “things I didn’t want to know about the person who was watching my children”.
    It puts the purchase of her labor above any other relationship they have with her, makes that transaction almost sacred; without a lot of prodding the employers could be pushed to say they “had a right to expect” whatever. They feel they have that right because they bought it.
    The nanny’s right to be a full person, with desires and an active or inactive sex or fantasy-sex life and to participate in the world as an entire person is still not a given, is actually denied – though not overtly.
    It’s ownership of another human being all dressed up as goods-and-services.
    Your last paragraph is most apposite.

  9. “If you were on a search committee what exactly would you do differently?”

    First of all, I would question the procedere of “preventive” online research on each candidate within the committee I belong. If I did not want to take private information into my consideration on a candidate, as “ethics” or “rules” perhaps indicate(?), I don`t do it. It`s up to me, non? I would advocate this position.
    Then, if I had not succeeded and anyway had something to tell the public I considered important and/or helpful I would not have done it anonymously.
    Second, if I truely was concerned about academics endangering their careers by maintaining blogs, I would not write in an offensive manner, but articulate myself in general terms and avoid refering to special situations or special blogs aka authors.
    Look, I don`t believe in “Tribble`s” noble motives.
    The way s/he writes increases in large parts subtile fear and discomfort especially on less experienced parts of academic audience. It especially hits undergrads following this debate, because these mostly are young people. At the same time they (we 🙂 ) are tomorrows academics.
    So, whenever you face a real troll on the net, theres two possibilities. Either you don`t feed it, or you beat it. For the former it`s much too late and in regards of it`s actual and virtual impact, I appreciate this topic being held up. I really would like to be sure about “Tribble” speaking about a nonfictional situation, but in the end, it doesn`t matter.

  10. Hello Orange: You raise interesting questions. In some of the cases “Tribble” mentions (have you read the column?), candidates urged the search committee to look at their blogs. In other cases, it sounds like the blogs were public, with the person’s full name and affiliation — in that sense they’re hardly private information. What’s difficult, as “Tribble” says, is that blogs sometimes impart more information than one is comfortable with, and that raises hard questions. What do you think about professors who blog about their students?

  11. “In some of the cases “Tribble” mentions (have you read the column?), candidates urged the search committee to look at their blogs.”

    Yip, I ve read the text in question. In other cases the committee did it without the candidates had refered to their blogs within their application.
    In regards of what I said above I was refering to these and to the virtuality (or actuality?) of online research on candidates within jobsearch generally being established.
    Moreover, as Rex said in a former entry and as Tribble`s headline (“bloggers need not apply”) implies, a distinction in regards of content and attitude is not made, but blogging–n`importe if academic or private or professional or whatever attribute you add–itself is represented as decreasing your qualification.

    “What do you think about professors who blog about their students?”

    This depends very much on what and how the professor blogs about his students.
    Tad McIlwraith over at fieldnotes does sometimes blog on past class discussions and his students` perceptions and arguments and I find these entries quite enriching. Imagine a professor who conducts an ethnographic study on educational institutes at his or her own department blogging their findings.
    What would you think about the author?

  12. I should note that Tribble, despite noting that there may well be constructive uses for blogging, notes that merely having a blog, regardless of its content, is grounds for suspicion.

    “The content of the blog may be less worrisome than the fact of the blog itself…. Past good behavior is no guarantee against future lapses of professional decorum.”

    In the face of this kind of thinking, it’s not pertinent to ask about “professors who blog about their students” or any other question — becasue even if I’ve made sure to write about only 100% acceptible (by whoever’s standards) topics, tomorrow might be the day I start divulging professional secrets or describing my hot and heavy sex life or whatever.

  13. Orange: McIlwraith’s blog looks great and I think it would be a plus in hiring, and indeed promotion and tenure — one could make make a strong argument that somethng that’s of such consistently good quality and communicates academic work to a larger audience is a worthwhile service and should be supported. It’s very carefully written, rant-free, and entries are short and to the point.

    Oneman: The Chronicle’s anonymous columns cultivate a slightly cute, exaggerated, snarky style. I wouldn’t take all of them entirely seriously, but there’s a lot of decent advice in them, I’m afraid. And the Chronicle, bless its stodgy heart, has had good coverage of specific blog controversies.

  14. “The Chronicle’s anonymous columns cultivate a slightly cute, exaggerated, snarky style.”

    That style is well comparable to some kind of blogging professors you had in mind when you asked for my opinion on blogging on students, non?

    The only advice I can read within Tribble`s text is to stop, better to never begin blogging if ambitioned to get a job within academia.
    Do you consider this realistic and helpful? Do you advocate improving strategies of hiding?

  15. What I also find interesting about the whole public/private thing is that, in some contexts, what is usually considered public information becomes private. For example, it might be considered rude according to *some* swingers to ask one about one’s workplace because that would make the person identifiable. So, in contexts where one adopts an alternate persona and where this alternate persona goes against societal expectations regarding propriety, the “main” persona’s public info becomes the alternate persona’s private info. This way, anonymous sex can really be anonymous AND the person engaging in this particular act need not worry about their temporary partner(s) showing up at work and saying something like “So, how about that orgy last Saturday, huh?” (Disclaimer: I mentioned swinging as an example. I am not saying that this is true of all swingers nor am I saying that swingers are doing anything wrong.)

  16. Some disparate thoughts.

    Started blogging during a faculty workshop at Indiana University South Bend. The workshop was given by a faculty member and a research librarian who have been quite active in the blogging and blogging advocacy.
    During that workshop, we briefly talked about issues related to those mentioned here but the main purpose of the workshop was to show the benefits of academic blogging. As in ethnography or classroom presentation, some personal details are usually considered appropriate yet one expects the blog to reflect the academic persona of the author. In lectures, ethnographies, and faculty webpages, professors display a wide variety of attitudes regarding personal details. Some might not even mention that they’re married or that they have children while others might use anecdotes from their children’s lives. All of this is rather well-known but rarely discussed. In some cases, it might hard to tell if it’s acceptable to, say, use a funny image on a personal webpage or if one can use a collaborator’s name in an ethnographic piece.

    The iterativity issue is interesting. It seems that some people are quite reluctant at having their specific words haunting them later on in life. Students are expected to take notes in class and that means that one’s words are taking to a broader domain. Some comments may be made off-the-record and designated as such. Do some instructors still prevent students from recording lectures? In fact, what are common practices in terms of recordings of academic lectures?

    On the public/private dichotomy. From personal experience, it often seems that many people in the US and Canada commonly blur the distinction between work and domestic life while people in some parts of Africa (Mali) and Europe (Switzerland, France) are quite intent on compartmentalising life from work. IMHAWISHIMVVVHO*, with lack of compartmentalisation come several problems. When you bring work to your home or when you bring home to your work, you miss opportunities to get away from the worries in one when you’re in the other. When there is no distinction between work and the rest of life, you get the feeling that you live to work. Academics may be especially prone to this as we may care so much about our work.

    The cases themselves remind one of the case, a couple of years ago, of a journalist who attend the Davos conference and shared some thoughts in private emails only to see these emails “leaked” to the WholeWildWorld. Made a stir. Many mentions of how careful one should be with words uttered. IOW, we’re never safe. Funnily enough, people thought the emails were fake because the author’s writing was quite bad.
    Most experienced ‘Net users know the dangers of transmitting confidential or sensitive information. The typical gaffe is the private email mistakingly sent to a mailing-list. Those are the occasions which have the best chance to be remembered by everyone. We all do those mistakes and may be well-advised to always remain true to ourselves and be able to stand by anything we put in writing.

    Nancy’s point on swingers brings an interesting issue on the value of anonymity. We may disagree on whether or not complete anonymity can ever be attained but, judging from the use of “nicks” and anonymous postings (“anonymous coward” on Slashdot), several ‘Net users seem to cherish anonymity. It might have originated from role-playing games but has taken a much broader value. In other social domains (and maybe on different parts of the ‘Net), anonymity is associated with illicit activities or inappropriate behaviour. In online social networks, anonymity seems to work more as a community-building method.

    [This said by someone whose last name is rare enough to make it an unlikely “nick.” The advantage of such a name, though, is that it’s usually available as a username…]

    Anyhoo… Should stop rambling now, lest sensitive information is imparted to malicious people… 😉

    *In my humble (and when I say “humble” I mean “very, very, very humble”) opinion

  17. Alexandre mentioned “the benefits of academic blogging”.
    Now what exactly makes an academic blog? The content? The blogger`s academic degree? Would you call i.e. phantom professor`s blog an academic blog?

    “From personal experience, it often seems that many people in the US and Canada commonly blur the distinction between work and domestic life while people in some parts of Africa (Mali) and Europe (Switzerland, France) are quite intent on compartmentalising life from work.”

    I find this quite interesting, though I believe, it`s more a matter of face-to-face communication vs. online communication than national peculiarities coming into account in regards of people`s different blogging attitude.

  18. I don’t think this is about control of the academic employee primarily. Hierarchies require closed ranks. We know officers aren’t supposed to fraternize with troops. But when you post on the Web you fraternize with the troops. In a university, students need to know the professors are the scholars, and the students are the humble vessels. Teaching seems to require or benefit from awe. Universities are selling prestige, and awe is part and parcel of that. The Web isn’t even the public at large–it’s disproportionately young and educated. Just the people among whom you don’t want the reputation of your brand besmirched.

  19. There are interesting differences between the cases. I’m reluctant to lump the BU guy in with the others, because his blunder related to a very important part of professional job performance. Professions have different codes of conduct, but most of the time the first rule is “don’t even think of fucking the clients.” The only exception I can think of is engineering, and I’m not even sure there.

    The Nanny case is interesting because nannies are not professionals. I think that means that her dismissal is the most offensive and unjustified. She was really in a position of complete powerlessness.

  20. MT writes:

    We know officers aren’t supposed to fraternize with troops. But when you post on the Web you fraternize with the troops. In a university, students need to know the professors are the scholars, and the students are the humble vessels.

    See, this doesn’t jibe with any philosophy of teaching or scholarship that I’m supportive of. As a teacher, my job is “faternizing” with my students. I could bark “orders” at my “troops” until my throat was raw and bloody without advancing one whit in the arena of learning — real learning comes of dialogue. If I accept that whatever I bring to that dialogue comprises a “brand”, then it seems to me that the “young and educated” demographic is exactly who I want to “target” to build “brand awareness” (although I question whether the Internet is, in fact, “disproportionately young” — when I was doing market research for a dot-com during the First Great Internet Bubble, the average Web user was 45-60, all stereotypes aside — more financially secure, less physically active, and with more time to spare than the average 20-something). As for the “humble vessels”, I’d like to meet one someday, but in the meantime I’ve got students to teach, and they are decidedly not humble vessels. Given the incredibly low priority Tribble’s Midwestern Liberal Arts Uni most likely places on classroom teaching (as opposed to research, publication, and grant-writing), I would be very surprised indeed if Tribble’s concerns extended to something as ill-regarded among most academics as classroom relations. In my corner of academia, though, where teaching ability is a major factor in getting, keeping, and advancing in the job, “awe” is not an option. “Awe” (unearned, attitudinal, awe anyway — “awe” as a result of leading students to the brink of epiphany is fine and dandy) is simply bad teaching.

    As a scholar, the same thing holds — it is in the interest of scholarship that I connect with as many informed parties as possible. Through working at Savage Minds, I have had the opportunity to test out half-formed ideas and receive feedback and criticism from a much wider and much better-informed audience than I am able to reach in my normal off-line daily life; in the long run, this means better ideas (or better arguments in support of the same ideas) — that’s scholarship in the most traditional sense. And it’s a direct continuation of the same thing our foreparents did — the whole range of 19th century scientists who built institutions like the AAA, Royal Academy of Sciences, American Philosophical Society, and so on as forums for the advancement and development of thinking in their fields.

  21. Just writing to say that I agree 100% with oneman’s position. It is foolish in the extreme for any teacher to assume divine prerogatives in the classroom. An occasional bit of worshipful awe is flattering. More than a bit is counterproductive to teaching the arts of thinking for oneself.

  22. I’m not using “awe” to express the intensity of the relationship or feeling between student and teacher. Just its kind or quality. I also share oneman’s sentiments about teaching and scholarship. I’m just pontificating on what I think might be the assumed essence of academia that in Tribble’s mind blogging offends.

  23. On second thought, MT’s comments may well jibe with the thinking of the Ivan Tribbles of the world re: good teaching. I’m currently reading _What the Best College Teachers Do_ (I think that’s the title — I’m too lazy to go check at the moment) and am fascinated by some of the comments the researchers include from people who they interviewed and decided not to include as examples of “best practices”. It seems that there is a widespread belief in the importance of the “firewall” between professors and students, and “awe” may well be part of the “toolkit” used to maintain this wall. Itnerestingly, the teachers who get the best results in tehir study are almost invariably those who work hard to break down such walls — or not to allow them to go up in the first place.

  24. “Itnerestingly, the teachers who get the best results in tehir study are almost invariably those who work hard to break down such walls—or not to allow them to go up in the first place.”

    Yes, but one could view these people as parasites on the system or free riders. The answer to the implicit question “What if everybody did that?” is unclear.

  25. Also for me “work hard to break down such walls” is important phrasing. I think an undergraduate has an idea of what a university is that no one professor can easily break down.

  26. Priests of the Catholic Church probably get great results too from humility and the Socratic method. But you can’t help being impressed by the institution, of which the priest or the professor is sort of a franchise.

  27. I’m not sure how good teachers would be considered “parasites or free riders”. The book itself is based on a rather exhaustive study of professors meeting several criteria, primarily based around student performance. Now, the cynical me might sometimes feel that producing good students is not a primary goal of the university, but I think the rest of us, non-cynical me included, see things like raising test scores, increasing completion rates, and encouraging advanced research as positive things — and if every professor did that, it would be a Good Thing Indeed. I would say that profs who do not attain such consistently positive results are the ones that are “free-riding” the system…

  28. O.K. “Parasite” is a loaded word. What I mean is that in a heterogeneous system–a system of diverse teaching styles–a certain minority style may stand out as successful and may be successful only because the heterogenous system creates a habitat in which it works. What kind of habitat would we have if every professor treated students in all respects as their peers? Right now students enter the lecture hall with expectations which I doubt are all annihilated even by professors who are way out on the bell curve of intimacy or egalitarianism. I suppose to a certain extent expectations become moot over the course of the semester with a new professor, yet it may be students and professors won’t reliably and speedily get to such a point if those expectations about “what a professor is” cease to be culturally pervasive. It’s typical that professors begin a term formally and gradually relax. Then they’re even more relaxed with grad students. It looks a lot like students “learn the rules of the game” or the “culture of academia” as it were.

  29. The “free rider” interpretation might make sense if we were simply weighing who students subjectively liked – it would be conceivable that, e.g., in a very hierarchical context, less hierarchical staff members would stick out and receive favourable mention, regardless of their effectively in other ways. I haven’t read the study in question, but I would hope that it would be methodologically more sophisticated than, say, “”, and avoid this kind of popularity contest artifact…

    More importantly, though, I’m not sure our only options are to “treat students in all respects” as peers, vs. to maintain a strict hierarchy (even if mutually constituted by the expectations and practices of both professors and students). I have studied and taught in the past in an extremely hierarchical university, and am currently studying and teaching in an extremely non-hierarhical one. As a student, I vastly prefer the less hierarchical version and, as a staff member, I find it also suits my teaching style (i.e., fewer staff here engage in behaviour that strikes me as borderline bullying, while a number of staff at my previous university probably crossed this line… Of course, my previous university may have been an extreme case – I was always struck, because I also working in the private sector at the same time, by how much worse students were treated by many professors, than even the most junior employees would be treated in most workplaces…)

    I don’t know whether students perform better abstractly in a more or less hierarchical system. My guess would be that intensely hierarchical systems can generate a degree of existential angst that some high-performing or otherwise better adapted students might find motivating, while more borderline students or students who don’t “grok” academic culture quickly would be more likely to drop out before getting an opportunity to find their feet. But I may be over-extrapolating from too limited a pool of examples…

    Nevertheless, in neither institution was the distinction between professors and students unclear. The difference, mainly, relates to whether the distinction involved quasi-unavoidable differences – e.g., the professor sets the ground rules for the standard of work to pass the course, knows a bit more about some things than the students (hopefully), remains sufficiently aware that the student is in a structurally vulnerable situation, and therefore avoids abusing that situation with inappropriate intimacy, etc.

    Going beyond this, to present some kind of “aura” in a professorial role, seems to me to be counter-productive to conveying core academic skills – critical thought, evaluation of evidence, complex argument, etc. And, in this respect, I think you’ve hit on a salient comparison when you mention the priesthood: cultivating an aura makes absolute sense, when you’re speaking about an institution that wants to cultivate an appreciation of mystery. If a university, however, is trying to cultivate this kind of aura around its practitioners, it seems to me that this is a fundamentally self-undermining (and arguably also unethical) approach for an institution dedicated to the search (as unfashionable as this might sound) for scientific truth – a search that contains within it the premises that there are better and worse interpretations of empirical evidence, that existing interpretations are hypothetical in character and therefore can be contested by, and need to defend themselves again, competing interpretations, etc.

    I was struck on my latest round of student evaluations that a fairly large number of students mentioned being surprised by that fact that I would tell them when I personally wasn’t sure of something, and when the academic community as a whole wasn’t sure of something, and encourage them to argue with a hypothesis I put out. Now this is simply bizarre: how can you teach at the university level and not lower the aura barrier enough to let students in on the “secret” that we are putting forward hypotheses, which can be contested and which we must be able to defend with evidence, reasonable argument, etc., if we want people to agree with us?

    Perhaps I am misdiagnosing the cause of my students’ surprise, but the point remains that maintaining certain kinds of distinction between professors and students can distinctly impede students’ ability to master skills that are absolutely central to higher level academic work. Abolishing this kind of aura of authority, and accepting students as prospective equals so that they get some practice reasoning through and debating significant issues, is essential to mastering these skills. This doesn’t mean breaking down all barriers – some barriers are protective for students, and others are unavoidable since the professor objectively *does* have structural power over students’ marks. It does mean, though, asking yourself whether a particular barrier falls into one of these categories, or whether you are just using a barrier to remain in a personal cofort zone that does little to facilitate student learning.

  30. N. Pepperell writes,

    Perhaps I am misdiagnosing the cause of my students’ surprise, but the point remains that maintaining certain kinds of distinction between professors and students can distinctly impede students’ ability to master skills that are absolutely central to higher level academic work.

    The other side of the coin is, of course, that undergraduates come to us fresh from nearly two decades of schooling in which learn what the teacher tells you to learn and regurgitate on exams is the norm. It isn’t enough to simply say, let’s get rid of these barriers. Simply tearing them down will leave most of our students in a blind funk. We need to think about a process that weans them away from schooling and prepares them to function more independently.

    I still remember the shock and delight of my first semester in graduate school. I had gone to ask Prof. Jack Roberts, whom I’d met at a summer program in quantitative anthropology, what I should take this first semester. Roberts replied, “The whole point of being a graduate student is to stop being a student.” He pointed to the library sitting across the quad and added, “Why don’t you go over there and find out what you’re interested in?”

  31. I should perhaps have added that this feedback came from a set of students, most of whom were in their final year of undergraduate study… I agree that, straight out of high school, most students come to uni with little or no experience organising their own study, and with very little awareness even of how broad the universe of potential study can be. So some kind of structure to provide appropriate guidance and ease students into independent academic work is obviously required.

    Ironically, the more hierarchical university where I previously worked was also worse at providing this kind of guidance – so faculty tended to cultivate an “aura” (not all faculty, of course, but organisational culture favoured this approach) that tended to infantilise students, while also explicitly adopting a “students are adults – they should be free to sink or swim” attitude toward guidance. To me, this seemed a serious abdication of responsibility…

    In my experience (not simply with uni students – I have also, e.g., designed high school curricula, specialised curricula for students with learning disabilities, etc.), it actually doesn’t take all that long to get students to the point that they can take appropriate initiative in directing their own study. But you have to support them while they orient themselves, cultivate their own sense of intellectual curiosity, develop a sense for their own strengths and weaknesses, etc. Faculty expertise can be very helpful to students engaged in this process; faculty “aura”, however, tends to get in the way – if only by establishing the professor as a sort of uber-Freudian-father-figure, with whom students need then to break to establish their own intellectual independence… ;-P

  32. Maybe when I’m done with _What the Best Teachers Do_ I’ll right up a summary/review for the site. Ironically, the biggest hang-up to finishing it (and the 4 or so other books I’m slogging through) is that I have to actually go and teach.

    This much I can say — the book begins by laying out the parameters of the study, particularly how they determined who the “best” teachers are. The criteria had to be flexible enough to fit a wide range of disciplines, yet firm enough to be comparable across those disciplines. While student feedback was used, it was far from the only or most important criteria — the authors note that many of the professors they found most effective were not particularly well-liked by students, though most of them managed to earn the respect and appreciation of their students, even when grudging. Other criteria included performance on standardized tests, such as the LSAT or board exams, or exams given across a department within a school. E.g. if 12 sections of Chemistry all use the same final, then a prof whose students score consistently higher than those in the other 11 sections must be doing something noteworthy. Completion rates, law/med/grad school acceptance, publication rates, and other factors were all considered where applicable.

    Two main themes have stuck out for me so far. One is that the best teachers seem to have a highly developed sense of how humans learn. The other is that the best profs tend to work against the kinds of hierarchy mentioned above — encouraging meaningful discussion as among equals has been a keystone of many of the practices. Interestingly, a lot of the profs in the study did not use graded assignments much — though I’ve yet to come across the part of the book that explains how they reconcile this with the end-of-semester requirement to assign a grade. I can’t believe that the best profs are just handing in a roster of A’s across the board, at least not without serious challenge from their administrations.

    The book is not without some problems, notably in the “best practices” approach to research design (e.g. what if the worst profs, the ones they *didn’t* study, do exactly the same thing?) but I’ll save my critique for when I have time to deal with the book more in-depth.

  33. Now, the cynical me might sometimes feel that producing good students is not a primary goal of the university, but I think the rest of us, non-cynical me included, see things like raising test scores, increasing completion rates, and encouraging advanced research as positive things

    A related cynical view is that (maybe delving too) deeply, it’s the primary goal of few individual professor’s–and that people become professors and find satisfaction in professing in diverse ways. Also I think a lot of professors deeply identify as “professors” and, ala Ivan Tribble, have an idea of what a professor is that doesn’t square with the most modern and enlightened findings about good teaching. Many seem to view their teaching styles as personal and an expression of who they are. So I suspect we’re running up against something deep and entrenched in this blog squeamishness. That doesn’t mean necessarily that, ala Planck’s line about the acceptance of new scientific theories, the institution won’t evolve any faster than the old fogeys die off…but I suppose it might. At any rate, I think righteous resistance is par for the course.

    When I think of it, it wouldn’t surprise me if this hubbub didn’t get bigger than that which occurred over the intro of ethnic studies. The professor-student relationship is an ancient tradition and key to the whole concept of the university. Note we don’t beg for data or analysis regarding whether the taboo against teacher-student sex and romance makes sense. Certain aspects of the role of the professor just seem obvious.

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