• 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.

Title

Why I'm Not (Super) Worried About That Professor Watchlist

It's the work of someone who's looking for something to believe in and probably hasn't found it.

November 25, 2016
 

 

 

I am concerned, but not overly worried about the ultimate impact of the Professor Watchlist, which aims to “expose and document” professors who “discriminate against conservative students, promote anti-American values and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.”

My biggest comfort is that very few students themselves, even those of the conservative stripe – and I have spent most of my time teaching where students who self-identify as conservative are in the majority – are in college to surveil their professors. I have seen different ideological views peacefully and productively co-exist inside the classroom thousands of times. People don’t join together at higher education institutions to throw garbage at each other.

Other reasons I don’t see success on the horizon:

1. The website itself is sort of comically inept.

2. This sort of thing has been tried (and failed) before.

3. Conservatives who aren’t primarily fueled by animus find this sort of thing abhorrent as it violates their core principles.[1]

To the extent I worry, it’s not about professors coming to harm at the hands of their students or institutions, which still have some protections in place against this kind of retaliation. Instead, my deepest concern is that some nutcase (or nutcases) untethered to reality will use this list to harass (or worse) individuals who are merely doing their jobs.[2]

I see it similarly to the re-emergence of neo-Nazis from beneath the rocks under which they usually dwell. We haven’t suddenly seen an upsurge in the total numbers of neo-Nazis. Emboldened by the election of a candidate whom they believe to be simpatico, they simply have greater visibility. But that greater visibility has the potential to attract others, and when the climate emboldens them to take extreme action, we have cause for concern.

The other thing that offers me some solace it that the Professor Watchlist is the work of 21-year-old Charlie Kirk, and in reading about Mr. Kirk, I recognized his type, and his type is not to be feared.

Kirk is what I call a “comer,” and anyone working in academia has experience with this type.

A comer is a smart, driven, accomplished student that primarily accomplishes things by figuring out what professors want and then delivering it to them. For sure, there are some academics who are prone to this kind of flattery, as it’s like looking in a mirror, though you’re suddenly 20 years younger. I may have fallen prey once or twice myself.

I will never forget one encounter with a young comer I once had in a class, the time that allowed me to understand this phenomenon. As a student qua student, this person was excellent, engaged, prepared, a dream in many ways. This was the student who people would identify as the “best” English major in the department.

But this student was struggling with the essay assignments in the course. This was an upper-division level special topic literature class[3] and my prompts were often as broad as, “Tell us something interesting about X.” If the course was working as intended, we had spent a good amount of class time talking about X, but the essay would require students to uncover something new, based in their own curiosities, and ideally involving research outside the materials I’d asked them to read.

The student had a hard time getting started, so we met in office hours and they asked a good question: If you were writing the essay, what would you write about? I started to think out loud, listing three or four questions I had about the topic that I didn’t have immediate answers for. The student was prepared, notebook out, writing dutifully. It all seemed encouraging.

When I was done with my thinking, the student asked: Which do you think is the best topic?

I said that I wasn’t sure, that I maybe had more to say about one, but another might be a little more straightforward in terms of research. It depends, I said.

The student looked a little defeated, perhaps even a touch frustrated and angry and then our breakthrough: “I just want to know what you want me to say.”

At first, I thought this was a case of a very common studenting strategy to try to groove their work to a professor’s particular sweet spot, but in conversation, it came out that for this student, the motives went deeper.  More than anything,  this student wanted to be a “professor” one day.

The student’s desire wasn’t to get a good grade for the sake of a good grade – though that was nice – but to be accepted and admired by the people they thought they wanted to be.

How much more human and understandable can you get? Who doesn’t want to belong to something?

With additional conversation, I learned that this student had been remaking themselves each semester into something that reflected back the image of the person in front of the room, a new critic one semester, a feminist scholar the next. In one creative writing course the student was Raymond Carver. In the next, David Foster Wallace. At their core, a comer is a kind of mimic, not out of a sense of calculation, but a desire for acceptance.

I don’t remember how we left it. I wish at the time that I had the wisdom to say that I accepted the student whoever they were, but I don’t think I was that smart. Hindsight has made me smarter.

I do not know what happened to this student, other than I’m certain that they are successful. There was too much drive for anything else to happen. I do wonder if they are happy, though.

My hunch is that Charlie Kirk is not driven by ideology (though he knows how to say all the “right” things), but by approval, particularly the approval of those Mr. Kirk thinks he might want to become. Flattered, these adults agree to support Mr. Kirk in his endeavors, believing that at least one of these millennial kids “gets it.”

It’s nice to feel like you belong to something. It seems like Charlie Kirk believes he could not find this belonging inside higher education. I think he’s wrong, but it worries me he feels this way.

When the interest fades (as it will), and the project fails to have much impact (as I hope), I predict Charlie Kirk will not keep it up because Charlie Kirk does not actually believe in this, except as a way to receive approval, to feel that belonging.

Ultimately, though, it’s not enough.

A life defined by who your enemies are isn’t going to work.

 

 

 

[1] I notice some “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander” and “chickens coming home to roost” type comments from people who seem to identify as conservatives, but I take this as mostly people performing Internet outrage. The “real” conservatives I know are pretty dedicated to living their principles.

[2] The other concern is state legislatures who treat their public institutions like political playthings, but that happens already.

[3] I am being deliberately vague, including the use of “they” for pronouns in order to take maximum care in protecting student anonymity. This person will never read this, but if they did, only the person themselves would recognize it.

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