Those Who Won’t Teach

The various distinctions that institutions of higher education like to draw between themselves are sometimes important and sometimes true (not necessarily both at once). And sometimes those distinctions hold some weight outside of higher education, among prospective students and their parents, or in wider public domains.

But just as often “professors” are the same everywhere in the public imagination, and “universities” are more or less one big lump that spans from Harvard to community colleges. So the policies of administrators and the actions of faculty in any given institution can end up having a general effect on everyone in the profession.

Which is why I care more than I should about the story of a journalism student at SUNY Oswego who was the target of severe punitive action by the Oswego administration for what was essentially a bungled class assignment. As reported by Gawker off of documents from the free-speech organization FIRE, the student was asked to write “a profile on a public figure”. He decided to write about the Oswego hockey coach and reached out via email to several of the coaches of other teams in the division, handling the initial contact badly in several ways.

FIRE is more interested in the free-speech side of the case, I think. What I think matters is what it says about how Oswego’s administration sees education, its alleged reason for existing.

Looking at it as a teacher, I see three things that I’d mark down and try to teach the student after seeing this assignment or hearing about how he was going about it. First, he misidentified himself by implying he was doing the profile for the public affairs office, where he was interning, and as he found, the consequences of a misidentification can be fairly serious for the credibility of the writer and the completion of a story assignment. Second, he should have called rather than contacted via email, for a host of reasons. Third, he was clumsy in the way that he tried to signal that he wasn’t just writing a puff piece.

But that’s why students pay tuition and attend classes and do assignments: to be taught how to do it right. The Oswego administration decided instead that the ego of their hockey coach or the inviolability of their administrative demeanor or something else was far more important than teaching students.

It’s easy to dismiss this as one institution doing it wrong–basically, the “It’s Chinatown, Jake” approach to witnessing harm being done. But this sort of story ends up affecting us all in two ways. First, feeding the cynical fear of a generation that higher education is just rent-seeking, a credentials factory. Second, it is precisely this kind of clumsiness that is going to help even the weakest versions of online education make the case that what large universities offer is at a minimum no better than the wholly online product and is many cases superior, because at least there’s none of this kind of nonsense going on.

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3 Responses to Those Who Won’t Teach

  1. Matt_L says:

    Based on the initial expulsion from campus it seems like the student was in trouble for lese-majesty rather than academic misbehavior. The reasonable punishment would have been to have him to the assignment over and to apologize. Looks like they got there eventually (according to Gawker), but only under duress.

    Clearly the student made several awful mistakes. But if you can’t make mistakes in college and learn from them, where can you?

  2. CarlD says:

    Yeah, I agree completely. Not to muddy the analysis but I thought the same thing about some of the central features of the Pine breastfeeding case – that treating the student journalist like a full-fledged, empowered professional was, in that context, a category error. And reflective of a wider pattern among some of our colleagues to see students as adversaries, even sometimes as depersonalized avatars of adversary groups. Which they may well be, but for us the vocation makes them students first, and the opportunity is to teach.

    I’ve also been thinking about this in relation to my uni’s endless gen ed reform. One of the key, but virtually undiscussable cleavages is between those who think of the students as irredeemable barbarians who need to be desperately browbeaten with the time-proven wonderments of civilization, and those who think the students are folks who don’t know some good stuff and could productively be invited to learn. It seems that the former attitude fuels a dialectic of reciprocal resentment that may be identity-affirming for everyone involved, but works against us in the longer term. Certainly the instant case is part of that dynamic.

  3. David says:

    But I really wonder if this is the whole story? In my experience, administrations at large schools are incredibly reluctant and slow to act… except in areas relating to money, of course. Failing to pay a parking ticket or a tuition bill, or to sufficiently prove one’s in-state status, brings the full institutional wrath down upon a student’s head more or less instantly. But if an emotionally-troubled student starts acting up in a classroom, administrators’ default response is almost always nonaction—wagering that the problem will likely “go away” by itself somehow, probably, without the administrator having to put themselves on the line by confronting the student in any way.
    So would an angry email from a hockey coach really be enough by itself to set an expulsion in motion? (and who cares about Div III hockey, anyway??) What administrator would want to risk that? And–sure enough–SUNY-Oswego came away with a huge black eye, which is every administrator’s personal paranoia.
    So I wonder if there is a back story. Was the student known to be difficult already? Was this a ‘last straw’ (pushed by frustrated professors), but that fact got lost when the case was taken up by free-speech advocates? If not, it’s hard to fathom how Oswego could’ve bungled it so badly…
    (And for contrast: at my Div I football factory–err, research state university–there is a large, paid, professional staff of the Athletic Department–“fixers”–dedicated to smoothing exactly this sort of thing over before it gets anywhere near the media, by managing head coaches’ huge egos & statements, gently diverting professors’ criticisms, resolving athletes’ academic-issues with intensive tutoring, etc.) But I guess Oswego is Div III…. and therefore perhaps so are their “fixers”?
    (ahh, if I could only go back in time and somehow prevent the Faustian bargain with football…)

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