A constant tension seems to exist between professors and students on today’s campuses. As the discussion over political correctness, trigger warnings and the material taught in classrooms continues, it seems like many professors feel they are “walking on eggshells” to avoid offending students.
However, when we consider the power dynamics on college campuses and both the historical and recent struggles of students within their own universities, I have trouble understanding why professors hold so much power yet feel so attacked by student demands.
Looking back on my years at Fordham so far, I think of several instances in which students attempted to take control of their campus to no avail. The Sex and Gender Equity and Safety Student Coalition’s (SAGES) attempts to increase dialogue about women’s health did not produce much change. Although Fordham administration responded quickly and severely to hate crimes on campus, the root of the problem, such as the lack of education and integration into our own community, has not been changed. Despite recent semesters of activism, it seems that students do not have very much power to take back their schools.
A wave of professors across the country published “pro free speech” articles, which tell the stories of professors who were punished by administrators as a result of teaching certain material or not providing trigger warnings before showing certain content in class. “The Coddling of the American Mind,” published by The Atlantic, famously publicized these points.
While some of these cases appear unfair (though some, in my opinion, were handled quite reasonably), this is not the norm. If it were the norm, students would have more say in what happens in their classrooms.
If it were the norm, ASILI, the Black Student Alliance, demanding a more diverse core curriculum would have changed things at Fordham. If it were the norm, I would not feel that my course evaluations mean nothing when my professor has tenure. If it were the norm, I would not be afraid to write this article. It is not the norm.
However, because these are the only stories discussed in the New York Times or The Atlantic, we create an image of college campuses in which students victimize their professors and administrations in order to block their freedom of speech and ability to teach.
Gradually, the conversation is shifting away from what is happening to what sometimes happens. This does not produce change; it only produces fear of change.
In reality, students have a significant disadvantage in the professor/student relationship, and as a student, it frustrates me when I read articles that professors are afraid of their students, lest they ask for a curriculum or classroom environment that does not damage their mental health.
I understand that the climate of universities is changing, and that professors are passionate about expanding the minds of their scholars.
But to say that students somehow attack their professors in their attempts to have some control over their educations simply downplays what really happens on campuses.