They Know You’re Making Fun of Them

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Editor’s Note: A recent satirical letter in The Chronicle Review provoked a lot of controversy online. Here is one of two perspectives on the letter and the reactions it elicited. You can read the other piece here.

If we cannot find it in our hearts to respect our students, then it’s time for us to step out of the classroom.

That perennial reminder is prompted by a satirical piece published recently in The Chronicle Review about a fictitious student who lied about the death of a family member. As soon as it came online, academic twitter was, well, atwitter with well-directed protests. In writing about academic life, the “student shaming” genre that pits professors and students against one another as adversaries is not new — there was a similar article published in 1999 in the humor magazine, Annals of Improbable Research. Nevertheless, this latest essay struck a nerve. For many of us, it painted a false picture of how faculty members regard the challenges our students face.

Foremost, I’d like to directly address students who have seen this piece of satire: This is not us. Well, it’s not most of us. (Few of us actually treat students with this level of disregard while in the classroom, as the author has explained, just in case we didn’t understand the nature of satire.)

An overwhelming majority of college and university professors work with our students as individual adults, all of whom have their own experiences and challenges, and we won't judge you based on our interactions with other students. When you feel that a professor disrespects you, please know that you deserve better, and that if you are wronged by a professor, there are offices at your institution that are there to support you, including the dean of students. There is a major differential in power between professors and students, and we are genuinely concerned about our peers who abuse that power. Cranks and unjustified rants are often given a bigger platform than they merit, and that was the case here.

Did you see the satiric Review essay as symptom of the ills of higher education? Me too. Far too often, faculty and students play the academic experience as a game, treating others as game pieces rather than fellow humans. We’ve all had experiences that emphasize how gamesmanship can be used — by students and faculty alike — to advance within higher education. By assuming our students will be dishonest, we feed the most insidious features of that game.

Of course some students do go through college gaming the system. When faculty respond in kind, instead of with empathy, we become that which we lament.

Some academics defended the satirical essay and its critique of student deception, and claimed that earnest folk like myself just can't recognize satire when we see it. Of course it's satire. We know an insulting joke when we see it. We can also see that it comes at the cost of students, even if they remain unnamed. It's “punching down,” which isn’t funny, it’s just mean.

Empathy is the only valid response when a student tells you about a death in the family. Even if it’s intended as a joke. If you are concerned that some students are “getting away with” lying, is that more important than the concerns of students who have actually experienced a death in the family during finals week or some other critical moment of their studies?

I realize that there are those among us who often deal with students who may be lying. I hope that fellow faculty members are aware that it is possible to build a course that treats all students fairly and doesn't put the dishonest at an advantage over the honest. I have two thoughts I’d like to share on this front:

  • First, a nontrivial fraction of your students are probably facing legitimate adverse circumstances (e.g., sexual assault, some medical conditions) and would benefit from some leeway in your course, but they are not likely to come forward. You can develop your syllabus so that everybody has a bye or two during the semester. That puts you in a position so that you don’t have to differentiate who is lying and who isn’t, and puts your students in a position where they don’t feel as if they need to bare their souls just to get through the semester. This approach is fair, humane, and doesn’t require faculty effort to adjudicate the severity or sincerity of student excuses.
  • Second, undergraduates are aware that some professors make fun of students who have personal difficulties that interfere with their coursework — including, yes, family members who have died. This form of humor creates a chilling effect so that students who are experiencing legitimate adverse circumstances are less likely to volunteer that information, and will suffer low grades rather than face the scrutiny and humiliation from their professors.

Finally, I’d also like to address the broader audience of The Chronicle. It’s expected that a publication about the academic sphere would feature controversial opinions. I’d argue that it’s the duty of The Chronicle to voice ideas with which we might disagree. Is that what this satire was? A legitimate position that some of us disagree with? Or was it just a mean-spirited dig? Does its publication help perpetuate a culture that inhibits the growth of academia as an environment where mutual respect can grow?

A post on the site Tenure, She Wrote explains why students should be prioritized over satire: “Students see us. They see how we talk about them. They see how we treat them. They hear us when we say we do not believe them. And when you publish those diminishing thoughts in The Chronicle, even as a ‘joke,’ they see the authority of the academy behind you.”

We, as an academic community, need to figure out whether we want the leading periodical covering higher education to amplify the voices of those who place more obstacles in front of students by making jokes at their expense. I thank the editors for the graciousness of allowing this conversation to occur in their own pages.

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