Coddled or Resilient

We have little desire to reproduce in our classrooms the kind of educational spaces we mostly encountered as students.

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A few notes: First, we apologize for not realizing that the comments on our last post were disabled until halfway through the week; they’re fixed now! Second, our brief hiatus last week is due to the way Adriana’s NYC conference got in the way of our writing. Finally, feel free to contact us at dosprofx@gmail.com.

Echoing national conversations (see sources below), there has been a lot of discussion on our campus lately about whether today’s students are too coddled and/or sensitive. At Carleton, one focal point for these discussions has been in relation to the benefits and limitations of creating an institutional structure to respond to bias incidents. This year, a committee composed of students, faculty, and staff drafted a proposal for the creation of a college committee to respond to reports of bias incidents. Here, we want to think through one of the assumptions that seems to undergird some of the discussion around this potential institutional change: the notion that asking for support, by way of filing a report or writing to the administration, is yet another indication of our students being coddled, proof that, unlike us, our students are not resilient, not independent, and generally too reliant on adult figures to take care of their problems. In other words, one concern we have heard in the face of this proposal and want to address in this post is, why can’t students just learn to have difficult conversations about identity, power, and privilege? Why can’t they challenge each other when biased or offensive remarks are made? Why can’t they have thicker skin and learn not to be so offended by the inadvertent wrong word or the incorrect pronoun used out of ignorance rather than ill intent?

We absolutely believe that one of the critical skills that students can and should learn in college is how to talk about difficult issues of identity, power, and privilege across racial, gender, sexual, and class lines. We try to show our commitment to this belief through opening up space in all of our classrooms to talk about these issues and by providing students with listening and speaking strategies that allow them to do so more productively. We also do so through our involvement in the Critical Conversations program.  

At the same time, we see a few limitations of the insistence that students just need to learn how to take responsibility for confronting their classmates’ comments or behaviors without having recourse to institutional supports for when they cannot or don’t want to have those conversations. First, there’s the assumption that our students are needier, less resilient, less independent than we faculty were as students. To paraphrase Kiese Laymon’s longer, lovely post below, just ‘cause we didn’t ask for it doesn’t necessarily mean that we didn’t need it.

“The assumption that those of us who were educated in eras without the aid of robust psychological services, office hours and anti-oppressive institutional support are somewhat healthier because we were less entitled is tragic. I’m not convinced that our students need any more support than we needed. Many of our interior lives are proof that we needed a lot more help than we asked for. Our students ask for, and often expect and demand, support, care, compassion, justice partially because we – their teachers, administrators — didn’t get the support, care, justice and compassion we needed. Some of us failed to seek help and called that failure success. In a way that we should actually cherish, many of our students have been telling us, ‘We appreciate you and we love you, but we do not want to become you.’ (Kiese Laymon, public Facebook post, August 26, 2015)

Laymon and we are thinking in particular about the student experiences of faculty of color. For Anita, to the extent that she feels like a happy, healthy person in a racist and sexist world, it’s largely despite the formal educational spaces she was in, not because of them. For the most part, classrooms and our own mostly White faculty taught us how to navigate successfully these racist, sexist, homophobic spaces by giving us the skills, knowledge, and the cultural capital to assimilate into the predominantly White spaces of higher education. They did not teach us how to successfully challenge or change these spaces. We have little desire to reproduce in our classrooms the kind of educational spaces we mostly encountered as students. We want to learn from our students how to create different spaces and this means staying open to their critiques, even if we don’t always decide to change our classrooms based on those critiques.

Second, the idea that students should just learn how to take care of these conversations themselves is a very neoliberal one about individual responsibility and freedom. Among the many assumptions and assertions of neoliberal ideology is the notion that “personal accountability replaces government responsibility for collective welfare” (Pauline Lipman). Responding to the reach of neoliberal ideology in contemporary societal organization, norms, and practices, Henry Giroux makes the case that neoliberalism now functions as a public pedagogy that teaches us that we have “little to hope for–and gain from–the government, nonprofit public spaces, democratic associations, public and higher education, and other nongovernmental social forces.” So, understood within neoliberal ideologies, it does look like our students are coddled and sensitive. But one way we understand students’ demands for the administration to take responsibility for what happens on campus is that they are pushing for the “state” [the college] to take more responsibility for their individual and collective well-being, rather than leaving it up to individual students. As we noted in our post about the defaced posters, we do want to develop ways to come together as a community to address bias incidents and to empower all individuals of a community to feel the need to raise these issues; however, we also want to challenge notions of individual responsibility that dovetail too neatly with neoliberal notions that pervade our institutions and ways of thinking and that absolve the State and institutions from their responsibility to care for their publics.

Third, our expectation that students must and can become more resilient and independent in being able to engage in these conversations seems to rest on the assumption that we faculty know what we are doing. But based on our own experiences trying to navigate such conversations with fellow faculty and staff, we have to disagree with the idea that we know how to have these difficult conversations, or know how to teach an increasingly diverse student body. And why would we? Most of us went to HWCUs and were taught by mostly White faculty alongside mostly White students. And really, the U.S. at large finds it challenging to talk about race, whiteness, structure, and power and how we live them materially as discussed in this recent Codeswitch podcast episode.

In our experiences, we faculty also avoid difficult conversations that might lead to a breakdown of communication or challenge collegial relationships. For example, when faculty members were concerned about our blog post about allyship, most of them did not write to us or have a conversation with us. Instead, they wrote to the faculty president–who we’d argue is an institutional resource for faculty–to express their concerns. And this makes sense to us because these conversations are hard. So why should students not have an institutional resource to turn to when they feel concerned about a fellow student’s speech? If we as adults shy away from difficult and potentially divisive conversations, it seems unfair to tell our students that they should learn how to do so when we don’t do so ourselves. These conversations are difficult because it’s difficult for all of us–faculty, staff, and students–to go beyond “the reflex of taking it ‘personally’ when one’s position of structural privilege (and the habits of response that go with it) are called out by others” (thanks, AJ Scheiber).

While the line between personal responsibility and institutional accountability is undeniably a blurry one, we’d like to propose that our students’ requests for help should be understood not as a sign of being coddled or lacking resilience, but instead as a sign that they, and we faculty, live in a society where conversations about bias, privilege, and power are hard ones to have. Rather than dismissing their concerns, we should entertain the possibility that they might be asking for the right kinds of support and resources from institutions by challenging neoliberal notions of individual responsibility, and that they’re right in saying that our institutions have a role to play in providing these supports and resources.

Inspirations/sources

Chatterjee, Piya & Maira, Sunaina, Editors. (2014) The Imperial University : Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P.

Giroux, Henry. (2004) The Terror of Neoliberalism: The New Authoritarianism and the Eclipse of Democracy. Boulder: Paradigm.

Lafargue, Ferentz. (2016) “‘Coddled’ Students and their ‘safe spaces’ aren’t the problem.” Washington Post March 28: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/grade-point/wp/2016/03/28/coddled-students-and-their-safe-spaces-arent-the-problem-college-official-says-bigots-are/

Lipman, Pauline. (2011) The new political economy of urban education. NY: Routledge.

Lukianoff, Greg and Jonathan Haidt. (2015) “The Coddling of the American Mind.” Atlantic Monthly September: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/09/the-coddling-of-the-american-mind/399356/

Roth, Michael. (2015) “Sick of hearing about pampered students with coddled minds? This university president is.” Washington Post Nov 20: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2015/11/20/sick-of-hearing-about-pampered-students-with-coddled-minds-this-university-president-is/

5 thoughts on “Coddled or Resilient”

  1. Great take on this oft heard criticism of today’s students. While I worry about the overuse of “neoliberal” being used to describe anything and everything we don’t like, I think you do a really good job of explaining why this is a feature of that ideology — and thanks, because I hadn’t really spent much time thinking about it from that perspective, that students are agitating against the prevailing societal norm to see government and cooperative social organization as the problem rather than part of the solution.
    I anticipate you may get some push-back on comparisons to faculty approaching governance structures when issues arise. Perhaps a future post will question the boundaries between labor and learning, workplace and community on contemporary American campuses!

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  2. This is not a response to you, chmg, but to potential detractors. Even if we don’t think about the second point in terms of ‘neoliberal ideology’ (though I still find it a helpful frame), the point still stands. Students asking institutions to assume responsibility for their role in fostering and reproducing bad cultural practices, assumptions, and habits, is anything but asking to be coddled.
    First of all, we claim to want our students to be critical thinkers. Secondly, implicit in the criticism, about them being coddled, is a counterclaim for them to assume responsibility. Well, and we’ve seen this a few times historically, when students ask for institutions to assume responsibility in attempt to resolve problems they are actually living up to our desire to have them think critically. They are recognizing the role institutions play in the reproduction of particular power and privilege points (and of course, the lack thereof). Not only ought we heed their lesson, that institutions aren’t neutral sites, but we should live up to our demands on students and become better critical thinkers ourselves. Furthermore, when students engage an institution as an interlocutor with a role to play, they are assuming responsibility for their positions and rolls as burgeoning scholars and citizens.

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  3. Great post! I’m still not sure what I think about the specific proposal at hand, but this post has given me a lot to think about.

    One problem I have with the “students should figure out how to have these conversations themselves” is that this, once again, puts more of the burden on students of color, and ends up shifting more of the blame/responsibility onto them. Which I think is vastly unfair. So in that sense, shifting some of the responsibility (for at least getting the conversations rolling) to the administration, somehow, seems like the humane thing to do. How to do this effectively, of course, is the big question.

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  4. Great post! I think it is critical to connect ‘coddling’ criticism of student activism to neoliberal ideology around individual responsibility and ‘just talking things out’ (indeed, we could just say liberal ideology in the latter case– a dogmatic commitment to deliberation is built into the ground floor of On Liberty).

    While this point makes clear that we should be suspicious of claims that students should avoid institutional means of addressing issues and ‘figure it out on their own,’ I think we should be equally suspicious of claims that student activists’ interests and aims are necessarily best furthered by institutional means. (‘Equally’ because I think both stem from the specter of neoliberalism.) Administration interests don’t always correspond to the goals of anti-oppression politics. Here’s an example: At the University of Chicago, there has been a multi-year campaign to build a trauma center at the university hospital (basically, there was no trauma center on the south side of Chicago, and people would die on their way up to the trauma center at Northwestern). When students and community activists occupied the administration building demanding a meeting with the university president to discuss the matter, the administration responded by calling in the police, breaking down the windows to the building, arresting the protesters, and having substantial charges made against them. Resistance to union organizing among graduate workers at Columbia, The New School, (previously) NYU, and other private schools nationally is another example. Sometimes we should see certain elements of the university as structurally opposed to the goals of anti-oppression politics. These aren’t issues that get resolved over tables with deans– they get resolved by mass autonomous organizing and mobilization.

    The efficacy of using university/administrative institutions is certainly something that only be decided by folks on the ground in a specific situation with all its particularities. But I do think, for those of us in positions to advise burgeoning campus movements, it’s sometimes worth planting seeds of critical doubt about whether administrative solutions are conducive to the kinds of goals students are fighting to achieve. If neoliberal ideology takes up the pole of ‘less state,’ it also, even more insidiously, sets the terrain by reducing the debate to one of more versus less.

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  5. Very interesting post and a very interesting issue! I’d like to pose a slightly different take on the matter. I have a different thought when I read, “So why should students not have an institutional resource to turn to when they feel concerned about a fellow student’s speech?”. I wonder how far we should go in regulating speech. I wonder less about if there should be an institution to turn to, and more about what, if anything, that institution should do in response to any issues raised.
    There is a really good book, Kindly Inquisitors, that I can’t do justice to here, but that makes this point very well. There is a large lap between regulating words and regulating actions. And the former while definitely appealing in some situations (especially when we strongly disagree or find someone’s position unbearable) is a dangerous step towards censorship and has wide-ranging implications even on the open discourse required for the scientific method.

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