31.1.15

TRIFECTA.

In a recent update on Marquette University's non-suspension suspension of John "Marquette Warrior" McAdams, I suggested that the university's complaint about a weblog post provoking online impoliteness toward a graduate student was a stretch at best.  "In a world of social media and Rate My Professors, there's plenty of opportunity for dissenting, disgruntled, or simply disgraceful students or observes to identify faculty and graduate assistants who let their freak flag fly, and have at them."  And that's before I discovered some new way of connecting smart phones called Yik Yak, the use of which has already frightened the Perpetually Aggrieved.
University officers are now locked in a panicky debate over how to deal with this new technological scourge. I’m not entirely certain that these administrators realize the value of this admittedly volatile phenomenon. Yik Yak offers faculty and executives alike a new, scary, but undeniably real glimpse into various elements of the undergraduate psyche. Professors can learn about certain patterns of holdover bigotry that inflect campus life in ways otherwise invisible to the adults in the room. We begin to get a sense for the fault-lines in the moral landscape of our school, the flags under which march the regressive forces of prejudice and doomed privilege.

Yes, it involves a certain degree of “who’s getting marginalized this week,” but that question is one we should be considering already. Last year—2014—brought numberless wrenches and fissures on my own campus, and a twisted element of consolation was the opportunity to hear the most reactionary elements lashing out in fear of self-wrought obsoletion. On a calm day, a platform such as Yik Yak provides a glimpse of the workaday stresses in undergraduate life; on the worst days, the platform is like an X-ray that lets us study the cancers of the campus, the malignant growths we thought had gone into remission.
Yeah, it was scary enough when Accuracy in Academia or No Indoctrination (now closed?) had to aggregate the inanities of the self-despising multiculturalists and the loopy ideas and circulate them.  It now happens in real time, and deanlets and deanlings can see the pushback, and perhaps the more thoughtful among them might see something other than "regressive forces" at work.  And embattled former Marquette graduate assistant Cheryl Abbate might have pulled her weblog, a perfect circus of politically correct shibboleths, in response to an emergent student rebellion, not because of anything Professor McAdams posted.

I have a trifecta, though, because a more recent episode of Yik Yak pushback took place at Eastern Michigan University, and the story even merited mention at the house organ of business as usual lowering higher education (behind their paywall).  But a participant in an unofficial Eastern Michigan discussion list shared some of the juicy bits.
In a confidential report on the Yik Yak incident issued last month, Sharon L. Abraham, the university’s director of diversity and affirmative action, said the professors had “described a classroom environment where students talked during lecture, responded aggressively to requests to stop inappropriate behavior, and were generally disrespectful.” It said the professors had “felt threatened when dealing with students in the class who were physically large and male.”

Some Yik Yak posts about the professors suggested racial and cultural divides.

After one of the professors described a topic as too complicated to get into, one student wrote, “Are you calling me stupid? I’m an honors student bitch!”

Another Yik Yak post said, “She keeps talking about Detroit. Bitch, yo white ass probably ain’t never been in Detroit.”

[Professor Elisabeth] Däumer recalls reading the Yik Yak posts directed at her and asking herself, “Just who the hell did they think they are?”
Priceless.  The class in which the Yik Yak talk back took place was a mandatory honors seminar.
First off, the setting (which I kind of knew before, but I think that’s key here): this was a mandatory interdisciplinary studies lecture hall class of 230 first year students, and it met at 9 am on Fridays.  The article says that students “resented” having to be there and were “unhappy” about what had been going on before the Yik Yak incident. If I were a first year student and I was told I had to show up to a lecture hall class on a Friday morning, I’d feel the same way.
I'm not going to get into whether scheduling a class on a Friday morning is productive or counterproductive, although Eastern, in common with many universities that are going to lose students if community college ever becomes "free", offers most of its classes as Monday and Wednesday, or Tuesday and Thursday, or all in one go on one day.  Rather, I want to focus on the offending course, “Interdisciplinary Exploration of Global Issues: The Environment: Space/Place, Purity/Danger, Hope/Activism.” What perfect postmodernist wordnoise, and what perfect irritation of protected-status minorities with the condescension they perceived.  Not exactly the "regressive forces of prejudice and doomed privilege."  More like what happens when an honors program ought to come with an asterisk.

Eastern Michigan's students, staff, and faculty have been dealing with the social media storm since last semester.  There's more in a mid-January posting, and in the comments, specifics of the student discontent.
Although I was not privy to the details of the discussion threads on yik yak, my impression from what my students said they saw seemed more in the order of what Steve Krause was discussing, i.e. words like “bitch” and also a discussion of how unprepared 2 of the instructors were. In fact, according to my class’s discussion, the yik yak threads centered on how disorganized 2 instructors were, how unwilling those instructors were to allow discussion in the course, and how repetitive the material was. (students were very clear that 1 instructor was quite prepared and appeared very professional).
Thus the trifecta. Perhaps we're dealing with a university attempting to distinguish its first-year offerings from those of the community colleges by promoting an honors(*) program, or other themed learning community or freshman experiences.  Or perhaps we're dealing with a university offering a simulacrum of higher education to a clientele indistinguishable from the intake of the local community colleges.

Thus: students can push back without any provocation from dissident professors, pushback is an emergent phenomenon, and U.S. News continue to sell college ratings.

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