For some reason this year, the annual tidal wave of back-to-school news stories has bothered me more than usual. The story about the Duke students refusing to read Fun Home. The story about the frat guys who thought the best way to welcome newcomers to their campus was to drape their house with sexually inappropriate and vaguely threatening messages scrawled on bedsheets. And always, always, the catastrophe of student debt and whether or not college is worth it.
Not only do I get a barrage of news stories about how students are hopeless, professors are parasites, higher ed in general is a waste, circulated and recirculated via social media (thanks, friends), I get anywhere between five and 20 press releases in my inbox a day offering “media opportunities” -- junky nonstories sent by someone who’s done exactly no research on who I am and what my actual job entails, sometimes even with the added irritation of a follow-up phone call. These “story opportunities” include gems like hey, lots of people buy their school supplies online, or the chance to speak with an author who has self-published a book on how adult learners can use their untapped psychic powers to achieve academic success. As I’m writing this, another one has appeared with the “story” that Yale freshmen this year are more “diverse” but still have a “zest for learning.” (So glad to hear that “diversity” and “a zest for learning” are not mutually exclusive.)
The other day I got one of these that I found to be truly gross. It was from the PR firm that represents Tinder. Someone had analyzed data from the app in order to uncover which colleges and universities have the most “popular” students: those lucky men and women who got the most right-swipes, indicating the highest level of sexual interest. Here’s the Google Search that shows how many outlets have picked this up in the last day or so. Here’s the story as it appeared on the Washington Post’s tech blog. Most outlets just ran the information as provided in the press release, with little tweaking or elaboration, and a lot of local outlets did the local angle: Texas stations talked about Texas schools, etc.
I can’t figure out exactly why I find this gross. I know it’s not a pearl-clutching college students are using technology to have sex!!. I don’t care about that. In fact, one of the thing I find gross about all this is, well, just let them go ahead then and don’t make a story about it. Don’t collect data on it, for heaven’s sake.
Something else I find gross about it is, this is not my job. My job is to educate students, to advise them, to counsel them to success in a rigorous curriculum with an eye ultimately towards overall well-being and meaningful employment. My job is to edit a scholarly journal in my field. My job is to do research and write books and articles that contribute to disciplinary knowledge and humanistic inquiry and, yes, help make a socially sustainable community committed to individual flourishing and part of how we do that is to make sure that people have access to art and culture and literature and good writing skills because these things make our lives better.
My job is not to field gross press releases from some hack who can’t even be bothered to learn who I am and what I do before he hits send. And I don’t think I should have to have my experience of my job poisoned by junk news stories that have nothing to do with the purpose of higher education.
And then there was this: the “insights” that came along with the “data.” It seems that something all this number-crunching revealed is that most of the schools with the most popular women are large state/public universities. (“The top 10 schools with the most popular females are all public schools.”) Most of the schools with the most popular men are Ivy League and of that ilk. The sexist and classist assumptions that underlie this “insight” I find pretty troublesome. (I find the press release from Yale noted above to be similarly troublesome, if you couldn’t tell.) Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton, in Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, have helped me think through some of this. They note that the organization of higher education, particularly the dividing line between large public institutions and “elite” schools, punishes students who come from less affluent backgrounds, or who make choices related to their social lives -- the four (or five) year party -- that have negative consequences when it comes to academic success and entering the workforce. Or Ann Mullen’s Degrees of Inequality: Culture, Class and Gender in American Higher Education, which compares the experiences of students at Yale and Southern Connecticut University in order to show how deeply ingrained privilege is in our higher education structures. What role does privilege play in the Tinder story?
It bothers me that no one is asking this so far. And it bothers me that this story, as do so many others in the run-up to the new semester, miss the point of what we’re trying to do in higher education.
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