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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Students Shouldn't Be Viewed as Subordinates

A professor changes his mind based on student feedback. What could be the problem with that?

March 10, 2019

Geoffrey Stone, University of Chicago Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor of Law met with some students on a contentious issue of language use in the classroom and then changed his mind.

This has upset some commenters on the Inside Higher Ed story covering Prof. Stone’s shift. One commenter on the IHE story chides Stone for his “spinelessness” in giving in to student demands. Another is upset that Stone has changed in response to student “feelings,” and argued it is a signal of a coming extinction of “intellectual discourse.”

I find these responses interesting in what they signal about how we view the role of students as part of the institution and inside the classroom.

The contentiousness centered on Prof. Stone’s use of the N-word as part of an anecdote to demonstrate that the fighting words doctrine limits on free speech[1]are still necessary. Stone related a story he’s used often in the past of a black student suggesting that the fighting words exception may be no longer relevant, that words don’t often trigger violence.

In his re-telling, Stone uses the N-word in its full form, relating how a white student turned to the black student and said, “That’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard, you stupid [N-word],” after which the black student lunged for the white student, thus perfectly illustrating Prof. Stone’s point that the fighting word exception remains relevant. 

It is indeed a perfect[2]little illustration, and it’s nice when those show up to help dramatically illustrate the professor’s point. I’ve got a handful of those go-to’s myself, though none of them involve racial slurs, possibly because I don’t teach courses on the First Amendment.

It’s an anecdote Stone seemingly liked to tell. Here is a 2017 story from U of C student newspaper, the Chicago Maroon about controversy Stone stirred during a talk at Brown university in which he relayed the same anecdote and was questioned about his use of the N-word by a student in the audience. 

In 2017, Stone defended his use of the word, but in 2019, after meeting with a white student who was offended by its use as part of the anecdote and a “law school student leader who had heard complaints from several black students” he says he will no longer be using the word.

“This is really important -- this is not about censorship, or about anybody telling me what to do or not to do,” he said. “This is something on which students have enlightened me. And that’s great.”

Prof. Stone listened to students, and he changed his mind. Good on ya, Prof. Stone. Over the course of my career I have come to learn the value of listening to students, and I recommend it wholeheartedly. Students are far more expert in their own learning than they’re often given credit for, and listening to students has greatly enhanced my own knowledge and enjoyment of teaching.

We do not know what the law students may have said to Prof. Stone to change his mind, but if it were me, I would’ve started by pointing out that in today’s day and age, very few people are walking around believing that the fighting words doctrine may have been obviated through racial reconciliation. If anything, it’s the opposite, so as great as Stone’s anecdote may be, it’s illustrating an era gone by, if it ever really existed.

The commenters who say that Prof. Stone is exhibiting “spinelessness” or hastening the demise of “intellectual discourse” are both dismissive of and insulting to Professor Stone. The man says himself that he changed his mind based on calm, rational discussion, that he had been personally “enlightened” by the students. He has modeled the kind of attitude we should wish for in students and professors. This is a win-win situation if I ever saw one.

To me, these commenter attitudes, that student desires for change should be resisted at all costs suggest a world view that sees students as “subordinates” in the classroom. Stone shouldn’t have changed his mind – apparently, even if he agrees with the students – because to do so cedes some measure of that authority. I believe that framework to be unhealthy and not conducive to learning.

I think it is unhealthy to view students as subordinates to their professors because students are not truly subordinate to professors. As an adjective, a subordinate is lower in rank or position. A professor is a subordinate to a dean, for example. However, when I look at the organization chart of an educational institution, I don’t see students anywhere on there. Students are not ranked within the hierarchy because they are a separate group.

As a noun, a subordinate is someone under the “control” of someone else in the organization. While I admit that much of education at every level seems to center around how we can control students, I also submit that trying to control students is inconsistent with helping them learn.

I once bought into the idea that students were indeed my subordinates, that it was in their best interests to learn to march to my tune, but experience has taught me otherwise. My desire to control students was predicated on my fears - fears of messy outcomes, fears of being judged (by students or other faculty). Ceding more control to students proved to me I had nothing to fear, and it was in fact the opposite, letting go of control could be liberating.

There are frameworks other than superior/subordinate which can work in the classroom. Professors and students can be “partners” in learning, which seems to be the case with Prof. Stone and the law students. They are both learning from each other.

Coach and players sometimes sounds nice as a way of thinking about professors and students, and I think I practiced this for quite a while. This puts the professor on the sidelines as the students must take control of the game through their own actions. You set the students up to succeed, but they rise and fall on their own merits.

Ultimately, though seeing myself as the coach led me to take to many prescriptive approaches. I was calling the plays, expecting students to run the routes as I’d designed them, but sometimes they learned more when they were allowed to call their own audibles.[3]The pressure of the game (graded assignments) brought out my desire to control the outcomes.

I like professor as “guide” when it’s a course thick with content. A good guide helps contextualize information and experiences without dictating the response to those experiences.

But here’s something else I’ve been mulling over, and I’m wondering how others feel about it professor as a combination of “landscaper” and “groundskeeper.” A landscaper designs the space as it could be experienced, influencing actions, but not closing off the possibility of alternative experiences. The groundskeeper maintains the space for maximum exploration and fascination, swapping out the decayed for the fresh, perhaps re-orienting a footpath here and there as user experience has shown a better way.

This strikes me as especially promising in the context of a writing course where the learning is internal and unique to the individual student.

I’m no yet sure if this works, but I do know if learning is the goal, it’s superior to seeing students as subordinates, at least for the kind of learning I value, and in the subjects I teach. 


[1]Essentially, words that incite violence are not necessarily protected by the First Amendment.

[2]It’s so perfect, it has the whiff of apocrypha to me. Perhaps it wasn’t quite so dramatic, and a student posited something like, “What if I said to you, that’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard…” thus making the point without inciting the actual, dramatic reaction. I suppose it doesn’t matter, but I’m curious anyway. For sure, at least some of the students who were present at the original incident would recall it. 

[3]Apologies for torturing my own metaphor.


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