“Its a well known fact you are not respected by your work collogues and in general just a vile rude obnoxious person.”
A former colleague of mine now teaches an undergraduate research methods course in a large sociology department at a New University. A major problem in this department is student attendance. Living far away, having to hold down one or several jobs to fund their studies, and often experiencing a broad range of personal troubles, many students find it hard to come to class on a regular basis. While the department has a minimum attendance policy, it is ineffective and not consistently enforced. Hence, my colleague a few days ago circulated the following e-mail:
“Dear Research methods Students,
This email is to encourage you to attend lectures and seminars. I have noticed that the attendance has decreased dramatically from the first couple of weeks. If you do not attend you will not benefit from our support and will not do well. In both lectures and seminars we constantly provide students with help and advice on how to tackle research issues and how to do your assessments.”
Yesterday, one of her students replied as follows:
“It would seem a rather better thing to actually stop and think what it is about you, why student are no longer keen to attend your lectures rather then berating them and insisting they will not do well .
Your not liked by students ,as you talk down to them and are considered rude, arrogant and belittling .You are also gaining the reputation of having problems with Black female students and student who are mothers, leading to the assumption by some people you are prejudice!!! Its a well known fact you are not respected by your work collogues and in general just a vile rude obnoxious person .
Academically you are by no means outstanding however, it is at the cost of having no social interaction skills.
Think about how you talk to people and let people sit where they want in lectures for god sake . they are the ones paying for it!!!!”
My former colleague is in fact well liked by her colleagues and managers, and she has an outstanding track record of successful teaching and research. Having worked with her myself, I have no doubt that she is not a racist and harbours no ill will towards student mothers. Rather, over the years, I have come to know her as somebody who makes an outstanding effort to accommodate the needs of each individual student.
It is not my aim here to give undue attention to a personal anecdote or to write the hagiography of the unappreciated lecturer. Rather, while I am hesitant to write in a spirit of unrelieved pessimism, the quoted e-mail does seem to capture in an outstanding manner the new spirit of academic life in the era of cuts, commercialisation and audit culture.
To begin with, the statement is noteworthy that it “would seem a rather better thing to actually stop and think what it is about you”. Here, we see in raw form the inversion of the teacher-student relationship that is increasingly characteristic of British higher education. The student seems to understand teaching as a service to be rendered as part of a good she has purchased and now wishes to consume – a degree, learning, classes, etc. are commodities that can be purchased, just as the student would purchase a hamburger at Burger King or a bottle of Tesco Value shampoo. The lecturer is meant to facilitate the exchange of value for money and be compliant, just as the student would expect the workers at Burger King to be quick, efficient, and courteous about producing a meal. Just as the student would expect Burger King not to question her intention of acquiring a meat patty in a bun, she also does not wish her lecturer to question the manner in which she is purchasing a degree: “let people sit where they want in lectures for god sake . they are the ones paying for it”. After all, nobody wants to be told where to sit in a cinema either, and attending classes and lectures is much the same thing!
Of course, most universities do not (yet?) quite conform to this polemical overstatement of my case. Hence, the student requires further justification for her complaint: “You are also gaining the reputation of having problems with Black female students and student who are mothers, leading to the assumption by some people you are prejudice!!! Its a well known fact you are not respected by your work collogues and in general just a vile rude obnoxious person .” – and so forth. As my colleague has in fact an excellent reputation in her department, these accusations will have little practical impact and are unlikely to be taken seriously. However, such a mindset and demeanor on the part of students is liable to have a severe emotional impact on my colleague and other academics who experience similar incidents. Such occurrences may cause considerable distress, which, in turn, may prevent academics from working to their best standard, particularly in cases of insufficient support by managers and protection from such bullying.
But why can students bully academic staff? A few suggestions – based on personal experience, as well as the extant academic literature on the matter (feel free to contact me about this): First, there is the rise of a kind of academic philistinism, in so far as universities are increasingly run by a class of managers oriented towards considerations of profit and the marketability of educational products, with little understanding of and often a distaste for intellectual pursuits. Within this mindset, educational standards may be legitimately weakened to suit market demand, students are certainly entitled to demand value for money, lecturers are de-skilled, and managers may be unwilling to support disciplinary action against students, for fear of lawsuits harmful to the brand name. Moreover, any attempts by lecturers to reconstruct relationships with students within the classroom and point students towards the importance of their intellectual development are delegitimised from the outset – newspapers, TV commentators, university catalogues, academic managers, etc. are likely to have drilled the ‘value for money’ mindset so deeply into students that redress may be simply impossible. Second, there is the replacement of the deliberative and tendentially democratic bodies of academic decision-making with chains of command adopted from the corporate world. Within these chains of command, lecturers find themselves at the bottom of the pile and may be quite vulnerable to aggressive behaviour on the part of students, in so far as any counteraction may depend on uncertain support from a ‘line manager’.
By raising these issues, I do not primarily wish to point to a crisis of endemic bullying of academic staff, even though one might envision such a crisis to occur at some point in a future of £9,000 tuition fees. Rather, I wish to highlight a fundamental disruption of staff-student relationships conducive to the building of rapport and the development of students’ sociological imagination: How can we still legitimately claim that studying sociology is about understanding the connections between history and individual biography, the interfaces of structure and agency, and so forth? How, moreover, can we still legitimately claim that insights into these links will somehow turn our students into better citizens, capable of competently taking part in public life and making informed choices at the polling booth? It’s all about getting a degree to get a job, isn’t it (after all, so we are told). Beyond its ability to provide students with degree certificates, in such a setting, sociology might well have begun to outlive its usefulness.