An alarm is sounding: campuses have become asylums controlled by the inmates, professors are afraid of their students and everyone faces punishment for crimes of thought and speech. Yet other observers rebut such terrifying tales with their own stories, which suggest the landscape of higher education is multifaceted, with an array of institutional contexts and voices. As alluring as it can be to view campus protests merely as confrontations between hypersensitive students and fearful campus employees, that perspective elides crucial historical understandings that can help us to navigate these challenges in the months ahead and forge alliances in the work of justice in higher education.
Yet those examples represent just a fraction of American campuses and thus present a selective -- and perhaps intentionally exaggerated -- picture of what is in actuality a diverse landscape of institutions, people and concerns. Students at San Jose State, for example, recently organized in response to a racial harassment incident involving student roommates and racist remarks about Latinas made by a university philanthropy board member. However, those incidents garnered little attention compared to the ones we cited above.
The protesters at SJSU, like the campus’s larger student population, included a high percentage of commuters, transferees, first-generation college students, members of the working class and immigrants. Many work to pay for school and living expenses, and a startling number struggle with unstable housing and food insecurity. In addition, SJSU students routinely face delaying graduation due to rising fees and limited course offerings -- both outcomes of severe state funding cuts. Thus, far from being coddled youngsters who expect the world to bend to their feelings, these students juggle course work, extracurricular activities, employment and family responsibilities, and yet find the wherewithal to speak up against the injustices around them.
At Oberlin, where the snowflake archetype may resonate more deeply, it still benefits no one to paint an entire student body with so broad a brush or apply such dehumanizing stereotypes to individuals. Students here embody varying levels of wealth and privilege. And while for some acquiring an elite education is a means to maintain a socioeconomic position, for others, arriving on the campus is a disorienting introduction to social and economic mores and ways of interacting with others that they are totally unfamiliar with and did not necessarily seek out. Castigating “fragile snowflakes” may offer psychic relief in stressful times, but it gives outsize visibility to certain students and styles of engagement while rendering myriad others invisible.
By and large, the students we encounter at our respective institutions are resilient and hardworking; as young adults, they can also be self-doubting and anxious. The special snowflake archetype not only flattens the ethnic, racial and socioeconomic diversity of the college student population but also dismisses and silences students’ legitimate concerns, while shifting any blame onto them (albeit sometimes their parents). It is easier to bemoan the shortcomings of a generation of students than it is to critically examine systemic inequities and blind spots in higher education that might be producing the problems those students highlight.
A Disconnection From History
Although higher education’s present challenges seem unprecedented and intractable, it helps to situate them historically. One thread in the “what’s wrong with colleges today” conversation brings attention to the sources deemed responsible for indoctrinating activist students. These include feminist and minority professors, who wield strange concepts like intersectionality and microaggressions and whose presence stirs nostalgia for an ivory tower that was once objective and unburdened by identity politics.
As tenured minority women faculty members in ethnic studies, who are also first-generation college graduates, we are struck by such notions’ disconnection from history. Our paths were paved by developments including affirmative action, the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, Pell Grants, the feminist and civil rights movements, and the San Francisco student strike of 1968 -- turning points that expanded the boundaries of belonging and legitimacy in America writ large and the academy writ small. In the latter, the assumed supremacy of Western thought and white male authority also came under intensified contestation, with (we believe) salutary effects. In ethnic studies, for instance, scholars examined “America” through previously unconsidered or explicitly excluded voices, while applying frameworks like racism and empire next to or in place of American exceptionalism. In turn, new opportunities and niches permitted a wider scope of participation in higher education and the life of the mind.
Seeing continuities between past and present, we note that student demands still invoke principles like inclusion and diversity. Their concerns go beyond race and gender, however, and encompass many more identity groups -- all in constant flux. As our understandings of how power works evolve, so do our expectations for reform.
It is not enough, for instance, to simply enroll more students from underrepresented groups. Calls are made to also adopt anti-oppression practices that touch every facet of interaction and axis of inequality. Some of those practices (say, using the nongender binary “Latinx” or introducing oneself with “preferred gender pronouns”) might seem silly in their novelty, impracticability or sense of proportion. But we should also recall some of the outlandish demands of earlier generations: radicalized youths in the 1960s rejecting “Oriental” for “Asian-American” or feminists fighting patriarchy with terms like “herstory.”
Not all of those gestures stuck, and we ought to debate efficacious and collaborative versus misguided and alienating strategies for effecting broad change. But this Pandora’s box was opened long before the current generation of college students. It behooves us then to seek them out in their discontent -- even when wrapped in petulance and youthful arrogance -- if it springs from a yearning for inclusion, dignity and fairness.
Mindful of a generational divide separating us from our students, their protests and expressions of alienation resonate with us. We were once in their shoes, seeking “safe spaces”-- to use today’s parlance -- in academe, uncertain but hopeful that we might eventually find them. Now as tenured faculty, we find ourselves navigating a crossroads, or duality of identity, with embattled colleagues and administrators on the one hand, and concerned students of color on the other.
Indeed, another important although largely overlooked discussion in higher education concerns faculty of color -- women of color, in particular -- shouldering a disproportionate share of emotional labor only to encounter an “ivory ceiling” that demoralizes the spirit and impedes advancement. It can be discouraging when our efforts to bring greater diversity and equity to the academy go unrecognized or are even deemed antagonistic. How we navigate our jobs as professors is guided by our histories, our professional responsibilities and ethics, and an abiding belief in the power of education. Usually that makes for a rewarding and exhilarating mix, and our present challenges call for more, not less, engagement. To opt for the latter will only leave us further adrift.
Wringing our hands over college students’ behavior and the state of higher education might appear unseemly against the backdrop of national tragedies: the nightclub massacre in Orlando, Florida, the fatal police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and the Dallas sniper attack. While the ivory tower seems removed from the real world, we see as our mission in it the production and dissemination of ideas to better understand and address the problems of our world today. In our work and teaching, issues of bigotry, inequality, injustice and racism are especially salient. Seen this way, campus tensions and the conversations about them are not a sideshow, but part of the broader social and political landscape and, indeed, efforts to create a better world.
As we prepare to resume classes, we hope that all campus players -- students, faculty, staff members, administrators -- proceed with care and purpose about when to debate versus when to go to war, how to recognize allies, and the various ways that working for justice can manifest. We hope that more voices are considered and invited to the table.
And to our students, we have been long at work on many of the things you seek. Let’s find ways to work together.
Magdalena L. Barrera is an associate professor of Mexican American studies at San Jose State University. Shelley S. Lee is an associate professor of comparative American studies and history at Oberlin College.
The wits of the Algonquin circle once held a competition to see which one of them could come up with the most sensational headline. If a prize was given, I assume it was something fermented. Dorothy Parker won -- because of course she did -- with “Pope Elopes.”
Well, that one would certainly sell some papers -- or, as we say now, go viral. Until recently, the art of the headline was largely defined by the haiku-like challenge to balance impact and brevity within the constraints of a newspaper format. The greater a headline’s prominence, the larger the type, but the fewer the syllables it could contain. Given those terms, Parker’s masterpiece seems difficult to surpass. (That said, the legendary New York tabloid headline “Headless Body in Topless Bar” merits a special commendation for accompanying a real-life story.) Digital publications don’t have to adjust the length of a title, or even an article, to Procrustean specifications, but they have to take into account that readers’ attention is under continual bombardment. A headline must tickle the curiosity or otherwise imply that the article will at least be worth the opportunity cost built into reading it.
The contemporary phenomenon of “clickbait” makes that promise and then breaks it almost immediately. The Oxford dictionary defines the neologism as referring to online material “whose main purpose is the attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to a particular webpage.” It subsumes a variety of what might be called, to be generous about it, fluff, including diet tips, sex advice, amazing new discoveries that you will not believe, lists of movies or TV shows (annotated to celebrate or mock them), photographs of celebrities (from high school yearbooks, the red carpet or mug shots) and video footage of animals engaged in adorable behavior. In taking the bait, visitors drive up site traffic and boost exposure for its advertisers. Clickbait content is to boredom what seawater is to thirst. If consuming it has any benefits, it's hard to imagine what they would be.
Two months ago, Gwilym Lockwood published a paper called “Academic Clickbait: Articles With Positively Framed Titles, Interesting Phrasing and No Wordplay Get More Attention Online” in The Winnower, an open-access online scholarly publishing platform. The author, a Ph.D. student in the neurobiology of language department at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, describes his primary area of research as “a fairly niche topic: iconicity (or how much a word sounds like what it means) in Japanese ideophones (or words that are like onomatopoeia but much more so).” He notes that one of the papers based on that research “managed to get an Altmetric score of four,” while another proved “much more successful, with an Altmetric score of 49.” As of this writing, Lockwood’s paper in in The Winnower displays a score of 284, which definitely counts for a break out of the niche.
Calling something “academic clickbait” hardly seems like a recommendation -- least of all given that, as Lockwood writes, “clickbait content tends to be put together in a more cursory way” than, say, a newspaper article; “far more effort goes into attracting the click in the first place than creating content of value.” Far from enriching the vocabulary of scholarly insult, however, Lockwood intends to show how small but significant tweaks to a paper’s title can make it more likely to win the attention of one’s fellow specialists and possibly among wider circles as well.
He collected the titles of 2,136 articles appearing in the open-access journal Frontiers in Psychology in 2013 and 2014 and, with the aid of two assistants, determined how they scored on six factors studied by previous researchers interested in the sharing of newspaper articles as well as citation statistics for scientific papers. He also counted the number of words in each title and collected the article’s Altmetric score (which factors in discussion in mass media and on academic blogs, as well as citations in papers). Some of the findings included:
A short title did not necessarily give an article greater visibility, despite earlier research showing that articles with shorter titles are cited more often than those with longer titles.
Titles clearly stating that the research showed or proved something attracted more attention than titles that did not.
Likewise with what Lockwood calls “arousing phrasing,” which is marked by “more general and less technical terminology” and “interesting or eye-catching turns of phrase.”
Framing the title as a question can increase the frequency with which an article is downloaded (other studies have suggested as much), but it did not correspond to a stronger Altmetric score.
Titles were rated as having or lacking “social currency,” depending on whether “a nonacademic [would] sound impressive and interesting if they were talking about this topic to their nonacademic friends in the pub.” Not surprisingly, this was the factor for which Lockwood and his assistants’ scores showed the widest variation in judgment.
General conclusions: “The positive framing of an article's findings in the title and phrasing the title in an arousing way increases how much online attention an article gets, independently of nonclickbait measures like how interesting the topic is or the length of the title. However, including a question in the title makes no difference, and having wordplay in the title actively harms an article's Altmetric score. This suggests that academic media is treated similarly to nonacademic media by the public in terms of what initially attracts people's attention.”
For all the figures, tables and citations, the project seems like a bit of a lark -- or so one might take the disclosure that the two research assistants “were compensated by [Lockwood] for their time and effort with dinner and beer.” For that matter, the title “Academic Clickbait” embodies what it names: it’s designed to tempt the reader into having a look.
At the same time, however, the title also does the article itself something of a disservice. Lockwood's advice is in general sound; it explains some ways to convey a sense of the significance of research to a reasonably wide range of possible readers who might be interested in it. By contrast, clickbait enriches somebody, but it's definitely not the public.
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