• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.


Higher Education? More Like Subordination.

We work inside institutions of subordination. Is this conducive to learning?

March 14, 2016

I have been haunted by a phrase from a recent Inside Higher Ed article: “subordinate learner.”

Tim Cassedy argues that in order to succeed, graduate students must be “subordinate learners,” existing as a kind of “ward” of the mentoring professor. Cassedy argues that the effective subordinate learner “involves being deferential, humble, tractable, eager for criticism and ready and willing to take direction.”

The rationale is not strictly pedagogical – in fact, it’s not pedagogical at all - but more of a requirement for gaining membership to the guild. You are subordinate and then, hopefully, superior. Cassedy believes this dynamic requires that candidates navigate a “disorienting rearrangement of their identities” as they move from ward to peer.

I am haunted by the phrase “subordinate learner” because the idea of subordination seems to be such a pervasive force in higher ed.

Cassedy says that this dynamic as played out in graduate education, “is fundamentally infantilizing, which is not to say that it is evil.”

I’m not so sure about that last part.


I seem to find it congenitally difficult to assume the role of “subordinate learner.” This is not to say that I’ve ever believed I have all the answers, but I’ve never been keen to follow the rules of school just because they’re there. I’ve found grades to be actively de-motivating, and if I wasn’t interested in a class, forget it.   

When I did take a shot at subordination in graduate school, it nearly ruined me. I’d entered my MFA program in the thrall of my major professor’s work and was eager for his approval. I began writing stories for the soul purpose of receiving his certification that I had what it took.

The results were not good. The stories themselves were actually passable, but my interest in my own work dropped to negligible levels. Fortunately, my major professor was not the in loco parentis type, and thanks to his laissez faire approach I was able to find my way to a voice that took in what he had to teach, but was oriented around my own personal compass.

I didn’t really have a choice, though. This was an act of survival; subordination was going to destroy me.


For pre-tenure, as well as non-tenure track faculty, subordination is the coin of the realm, though it comes in different denominations.

Non-tenure track faculty are adjunct, attached to, but not part of. In the hopes of earning the opportunity to get on the road to superiority, they must subordinate themselves to everything and everyone, sometimes including students. It is a terrible trap.

Faculty on the tenure track must pursue research that will meet the approval of those superior. They must teach appropriately – often well, but not too well. They must be “collegial.” All of these things are very eye-of-the-beholder, but they are the price of entry to what they wish for, the chance to be not subordinate, but “self-regulating.” To me, from the outside, this is the real prize of tenure, the chance to pursue curiosities without concern for security or position.

From the start of graduate school this takes what? Twelve? Fifteen years to achieve? What mentality remains at the end of this journey?

Climbing up the hierarchy requires a belief in the merits of the hierarchy.

How can we be surprised that so many are so conditioned to subordination?


It seems to me that undergraduate students are not only increasingly comfortable, but even eager to be subordinate, William Deresciwicz’s “excellent sheep.” The “best” students are the ones willing to sacrifice the most of their selves. As long as the rules of the game are clear, many students seem willing to play them, even as they decry the pointlessness of it all in the grand scheme of things.

This is the maze we’ve constructed for them. Why should we expect them to behave differently? Anyone who says students “don’t care,” isn’t paying attention to the things we’re telling them to care about.

The ability to keep plowing forward in the pursuit of grades and achievement is a badge of honor. There is an actual epidemic of amphetamine abuse (under the guise of drugs like Adderall) that is, if not sanctioned by schools, largely ignored. Talk to students and they will tell you “study drugs” are a veritable requirement to survive finals.

If students were truly our “wards” and all this subordination is in the service of some holistic development, and the gauntlet we ask them to run is truly meaningful, maybe it would make sense.

But I’m not seeing it.

The saddest part is that very little of this effort is in the service of learning. Do we believe that?

As institutions of subordination, I cannot help but think we’ve lost the plot.

But did we ever have it? Maybe not.


Perhaps because I was one, I have always been sympathetic to the insubordinate student.

I’m not talking about the kid that does nothing whatsoever, the ones who have checked out of class entirely.

(Though, truth be told, I can respect this as well when it’s done as a conscious choice.)

I’m talking about the students who have all the traits we look for in a “good” student: intellectual curiosity, passion, internal motivation.

These are the students who work a little too hard on a particular assignment that’s captured their attention, often sacrificing performance in other classes in order to focus on the object of interest. I have seen these students miss deadlines not out of lassitude, but because they are simply not done pursuing their own goal. The best of the insubordinate don’t even care if there’s a grade penalty as long as they can finish what they started.

They achieve what we wish for any scholar, self-regulation, but because school runs on subordination, they are often punished with bad grades, the same way a tenure track professor should not be writing a blog focused on public engagement, and should instead grind away at their research that will be read by few.

It doesn’t seem incidental that so many of our entrepreneurial class – Jobs, Gates, Zuckerberg - are college dropouts. They were the very definition of self-regulating.


Our values seem out of whack.

Why is compliance so important?

I’ve been mulling this stuff for weeks. I don’t have an answer.



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