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The Hostile Renegotiation of the Professor-Student Relationship

College classrooms will never be the same again—and that's not necessarily a bad thing

JUSTIN TALLIS / Getty Images

There is a scourge on college campuses today, driving a wedge between students and faculty. Political correctness? Maybe that, too. But I'm referring instead to the newly triumphant caricature of today’s undergrad (and perhaps some grad students as well) as a hypersensitive, helicoptered student-customer who will file a Title IX complaint if the dining hall kale isn’t organic. Today’s undergrad is so entitled as to demand to be employable after graduation, and isn’t content to spend post-college years living off the knowledge that Great Books taught by Great Minds can confer. And college women, in particular, are preoccupied with designer yoga pants, or maybe with social-justice Tumblr, or maybe with paying back their loans—anything but how to go about romancing 50-something men with doctorates. 

Here's how we’ve arrived at this point: In February, writer and Northwestern professor Laura Kipnis published an article, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, titled “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe,” in which she made some general contrarian-feminist points about the advisability of faculty-student romance as a learning experience, as well as some more specific ones about whether a particular faculty-student relationship at her university had been consensual. Mattress-carrying students protested Kipnis, who, as she details in a more recent Chronicle essay, faced a Title IX investigation against her based on the convoluted claim that the essay and a related tweet had the potential to make students on campus uncomfortable. Some have defended the complainants’ case against Kipnis, but when Amanda Marcotte and Jezebel have deemed a particular feminist cause silly, it’s worth at least considering that it might be. In any event, Kipnis's essay on the ordeal—titled “My Title IX Inquisition,” and illustrated with pitchforks—turned this tenured, ostensibly liberal professor whose works include Ecstasy Unlimited: The Interpenetrations of Sex and Capital into an unlikely hero of the right. She also received more predictable support from center-left free-speech advocates like New York magazine's Jonathan Chait

Kipnis was found not to have violated Title IX after all. But the mere fact that she might have gotten in trouble—or, indeed, that she stood accused in the first place—was enough to get a meme going about the oppressed professoriate. Oppressed, that is, not by administrators—as Shimer College’s Adam Kotsko far more convincingly argues—but by students. Joining Kipnis’s anonymous but terrified colleagues is the pseudonymous but terrified Edward Schlosser, author of a Voxessay on Wednesday, “I’m a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me.” Unfortunately for Schlosser’s case, he has not, a la Kipnis, found himself at the center of a liberal witch-hunt. Indeed, by his own admission, the only student complaint against him is one he assumes came from a racist, reactionary student in his class. (Recall that the anonymous unsatisfied undergrad in the Affaire Marquette was also criticizing an instructor from the right.)

But the worried-professor think piece is trending, and one absurdity—contra Chait—won't stop it. As Northwestern’s Michael Kramer has pointed out, Kipnis’s February essay is "worth linking" to a recent New York Times op-ed, “What’s the Point of a Professor?,” in which Emory's Mark Bauerlein laments "college is more about career than ideas" and "paycheck matters more than wisdom." Thus, "students don’t lie in bed mulling over what we said. They have no urge to become disciples.” The Kipnis and Bauerlein essays are, as Kramer notes, "Two different kinds of declension narratives, each yearning to return to a time now past," but fail to connect "the structural undermining of university life "to the cultural shifts toward passivity (Bauerlein) or victimhood (Kipnis) that these articles suggest are at the center of a moral crisis in academia and higher education." 

Kipnis and Bauerlein also express similar concerns regarding the student-instructor dynamic. They decry what they see as the new, consumerist model of higher education, while placing much, if not all, of the blame for this development on students themselves. (Bauerline: “So many things distract them—the gym, text messages, rush week—and often campus culture treats them as customers, not pupils.” Kipnis, in May: “With students increasingly regarded as customers and consumer satisfaction paramount, it’s imperative to avoid creating potential classroom friction with unpopular ideas if you’re on a renewable contract and wish to stay employed.”) Schlosser argues along the same lines: “The student-teacher dynamic has been reenvisioned along a line that's simultaneously consumerist and hyper-protective, giving each and every student the ability to claim Grievous Harm in nearly any circumstance, after any affront, and a teacher's formal ability to respond to these claims is limited at best.” 

This much seems fair: The professor as hero, mentor, lover—to the extent this cliché was ever true—is done. But it's not because today's students are too squeamish, too far-left, or too consumerist to appreciate that model. It comes down to two factors: professionalization and (forgive me the academic jargon) changes in the broader societal discourse.

What I mean by professionalization—to be distinguished from infantalization (helicopter parenting; an age of consent of 30) or commercialization (students demanding trigger warnings, smoothies, high grades)—is that corporate workplace norms now govern conduct far outside the boardroom. The student-professor working relationship has been integrated into that of the working world generally, where restrictions exist regarding boss-employee romance because of power dynamics, not because employees are children or celibate. Professionalization has meant an end to the student-professor affair because it has recast professors as gatekeepers to future employment. The problem isn’t that an 18-year-old might date a 40-year-old, but that an 18-year-old might think she has to date a particular 40-year-old if she wants to get a job that will allow her to pay back her student loans. In other words, while new understandings of sexism and other forms of bigotry play into professionalization, they don’t fully explain it. The old model of learning for learning’s sake relied on students with manageable tuition payments and optimistic post-college job prospects. 

As professors have become less powerful as classroom prophets, they’ve grown more so as professional gatekeepers. Bauerlein totally misses this. Kipnis, for her part, seems genuinely confused about how a professor could have power over a student. From the February piece: 

[S]omehow power seemed a lot less powerful back then. The gulf between students and faculty wasn’t a shark-filled moat; a misstep wasn’t fatal. We partied together, drank and got high together, slept together. The teachers may have been older and more accomplished, but you didn’t feel they could take advantage of you because of it. How would they?

The power professors hold is not, as Kipnis seems to be arguing, an abstract, Foucauldian dynamic, but a straightforward one: Professors issue grades, thus determining whether or not a student graduates. They write letters of recommendation. They may offer professional contacts. 

Professionalization could be viewed as a negative trend in higher ed, in that it partly stems from the scarcity of good jobs for graduates and contingent faculty alike. But insofar as it’s about minimizing distractions from coursework, then maybe the old system, where high grades went to disciples and class time to chit-chat, also had its drawbacks. It’s hardly a given that student-professor chumminess encourages learning.

But the question of the moment is whether campus sanctimony has made professors' lives impossible. Are student activists—who, according to the New York Times' David Brooks, form “a moral movement”—policing their instructors’ every word, and doing so with the power to enforce? Has the balance of power really shifted such that, as Kipnis claimed, “it’s just as likely that a student can derail a professor’s career these days as the other way around"? Schlosser, meanwhile, is prepared to conflate grade-grubbers with leftist activists and leftist activists with the general student population: “So it's not just that students refuse to countenance uncomfortable ideas—they refuse to engage them, period.” Are enough students like this—or are the ones like this sufficiently influential—to make leaps of that kind?

While evidence for a “plague” of this sort of thing remains scant and largely anecdotal, social media–driven identity politics could well have had some impact on the classroom. The dynamic Schlosser describes, in which “people become more concerned with signaling goodness, usually through semantics and empty gestures, than with actually working to effect change,” is alive and well online, and students accuse one another of “privilege,” so it would indeed be surprising if none of this had any impact on student-instructor relations.

Same, too, regarding Schlosser’s assertion that “seemingly piddling matters of cultural consumption warrant much more emotional outrage than concerns with larger material implications.” That is, I’d agree, a fair critique of liberal politics, and, specifically, of how universities themselves approach issues of inequality. While I haven’t witnessed any of this myself, it seems plausible that today’s standard-issue student complaints (my grade is too low, etc.) would now sometimes appear in the new language of “triggering,” to the frustration of professors trying to take actual complaints seriously. People, and that includes students, live in the culture they live in, and can sometimes be manipulative. 

Then there’s the matter of feelings. Kipnis and Schlosser both insist that students are preoccupied with theirs. Writes Schlosser:

I am frightened sometimes by the thought that a student would complain again like he did in 2009. Only this time it would be a student accusing me not of saying something too ideologically extreme — be it communism or racism or whatever — but of not being sensitive enough toward his feelings, of some simple act of indelicacy that's considered tantamount to physical assault.

While much of Schlosser’s article is about the dreaded “feelings” takeover of campus politics, his entire argument is based his own feelings about what might happen—but hasn’t yet. “Things have changed since I started teaching. The vibe is different. I wish there were a less blunt way to put this, but my students sometimes scare me — particularly the liberal ones.” He offers examples of academic labor being precarious, rounding ambiguous anecdotes about “adjuncts getting axed because their evaluations dipped below a 3.0 [and] grad students being removed from classes after a single student complaint” up to a left-wing conspiracy. While leftist students have never actually come after him, he insists that this is due to his own self-censorship and avoidance of controversial course materials. He offers extended musings on his “fear” of a theoretical student complaint: 

Instead of focusing on the rightness or wrongness (or even acceptability) of the materials we reviewed in class, the complaint would center solely on how my teaching affected the student's emotional state. As I cannot speak to the emotions of my students, I could not mount a defense about the acceptability of my instruction. And if I responded in any way other than apologizing and changing the materials we reviewed in class, professional consequences would likely follow.

What he’s describing, in other words, is a chilling effect on campus. Meanwhile, Kipnis has just gotten through explaining that the Title IX case against her involved the accusation that her February article “had a 'chilling effect' on students’ ability to report sexual misconduct,” something Kipnis and her supporters find baffling. Chilling effects are tough to measure without resorting to emotion. Kipnis is (rightly) prepared to brush aside the possibility that she silenced anyone through the weapon of an essay in a publication for academics, but asks that readers nod along to the idea that a couple of (provoked) campus radicals have silenced even tenured professors writing: “Most academics I know—this includes feminists, progressives, minorities, and those who identify as gay or queer—now live in fear of some classroom incident spiraling into professional disaster.” 

They may indeed live in fear—we’ll have to take her word for it—but is that fear rational? Or is it as performative as the student protests allegedly responsible for it? Which is to say: If indeed this spate of articles reflects a genuine paranoia on college campuses today, one can hardly blame undergrads alone for such a climate. Professors and students alike have declared a mutual fear. That can’t be a good thing for education, even if a decent amount of the fear is for effect.

So, how to get past this stalemate? One step would be for professors to—as my own former instructor Eric Schliesser suggests—consider where the (handful of) students asking for trigger warnings and safe spaces are coming from, and not to be so put off by newly politicized students’ time-honored lack of subtlety as to dismiss their concerns. What professors shouldn’t do is mirror their students’ (purported) outrage. Administrators, meanwhile, might learn from the Kipnis debacle and reassure professors that they’re not on the cusp of losing tenure for having been contrarian in, say, the Chronicle of Higher Ed. (If Kipnis really didn’t know what the complaints were against her, that’s a problem.) And students—as much as such a thing is possible to ask—should restrict emotion-rooted complaints to times when something is actually upsetting them, and not extend them to all classroom interactions or coursework that fails to abide of-the-moment sensitivities and terminology; so when they do voice legitimate concerns, it will carry more weight. But the burden, ultimately, is on instructors to treat their students as students, not caricatures.