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Madeleine Elfenbein is a PhD Candidate in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. You can find her on Twitter @maddy_e.

Chronicle Vitae's “Dear Student” series, featuring snarky professor and TA retorts to common student requests for leniency, has garnered some push-back recently from professors and graduate instructors alike (folks like Jesse Stommel, Dexter Thomas, Dorothy Kim, and Kevin Gannon), who argue that public venting about miscreant students is unkind and inappropriate and discouraging to students, not to mention bad for morale. It's hard to argue with them on those points. Stommel’s post spurred indignation at the idea that students struggling with mental health concerns, financial pressures, and job anxieties (as well as actually dead or dying grandmothers) would find their requests for leniency subjected to ridicule. In short, as Kevin Gannon’s post urged, we should “punch up, not down.”

But before we double down on our indignation at this public grumbling, let’s take a moment to consider their source. As some of the replies to Stommel's post made clear, many of the complaining instructors saw their harsh critiques of student behaviors as punching up. In other words, they viewed their students as more privileged than themselves, and they saw these students’ requests for indulgence — an excusal, an extension, or some other bending of the rules—as unthinking expressions of that privilege.

This raises an interesting challenge to the conventional bias of pedagogical ethics, which tends to view the teacher as the privileged and powerful one in the student-teacher relationship. In an era of growing faculty poverty and precarity, how should our views about pedagogy and justice change? What does Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed have to say to instructors whose students have more disposable income than they do?

One thing is certain: the increased financial insecurity of the professoriate is reshaping the teacher-student relationship. Of course professors’ grousing about students’ ignorance and bad manners is nothing new; what is new is a generation of instructors whose class foregrounds—if not their class backgrounds—place them in a different consumption bracket than their students. Compounding the insult is the fact that untenured instructors rely on student evaluations (those notoriously biased measures of “competence”) to keep their poorly paid jobs. Given this imbalance, some instructors may feel that the best lesson they can give their students is a privilege check, perhaps by subjecting them to the same lack of generosity that these instructors have experienced from the institutions where they teach.

Alas, withholding empathy from our students is not going to right the cosmic scales of justice. Undergraduates — even wealthy ones — are suffering more than ever, as measured in mounting rates of depression and student debt, not to mention parental expectations that the present job market is unlikely to satisfy. Plenty of students may be self-centered and short-sighted, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t also suffering—and relying on their instructor’s overtaxed patience more than either of them realize.

The irony is that students and instructors are on the same side, and the syllabus and its rules are precisely what keep them there. The syllabus is a contract that protects students by enacting limits on the instructor’s arbitrary power, providing a set of transparent and universal criteria to prevent grading from descending into rank favoritism or sheer whimsy. And by plainly stating these expectations, it also serves to protect the instructor from students’ unreasonable demands. Finally, the syllabus is a document that protects instructors from the arbitrary power of their institutions—it serves as a justification for the material they teach and the grades they assign.

When a student asks for an instructor to bend the rules and depart from the syllabus, she’s asking for an act of mercy that may be at odds with principles of justice—toward other students, who may be going to great lengths to come to class and turn in their assignments on time, and toward the instructor herself, for whom the syllabus is a measure of professional integrity and a defense against institutional interference.

One way to keep students from making unreasonable requests is to make this struggle transparent. You can put the question to them directly: “How would you balance justice and mercy?” Instructors who do this may find that their students are less likely to trespass on their empathy, which makes it easier to grant excusals and extensions for grandmothers’ funerals without demanding a death certificate. If a student insists on abusing that empathy, that’s on her conscience, not yours. Or, as I’ve decided to do next quarter, you can offer all of your students a single “out”—one missed class or one 24-hour extension—and explain that that’s all the mercy they’re getting, and you hope it’s enough. Beyond that, you can offer unlimited empathy but no further indulgence. If we do ourselves that justice, we may feel less inclined to lash out at students for their trespasses. In other words, instead of punching up or down, we might try pulling our punches and see how it works out.

[Photo courtesy of Flickr user Ninja M. and used under a Creative Commons license.]