The Complainers: Online with The Chronicle of Higher Education




The Complainers: Online with The Chronicle of Higher Education by Graham Hillard

StoryCorps for the very well credentialed

September 4th, 2013 reset - +

THE EMAIL, shared by veteran poster Mended Drum (and presented here with the necessary grammatical edits), is a doozie. “I’m really sorry that I was so rude in class today,” it begins.

I honestly didn’t know that you’d take off points if I turned in my paper late. I know that’s in the assignment page and everything, but it was my assumption that we were to be treated like adults in college and not have those nitpicky details held over our throats anymore. I hope that you will find it in your heart to grant me the points that I actually earned, as I couldn’t really turn the paper in on the day you designated because it would be really rude to come to class without any shoes. I know you don’t like that kind of thing.

So reads post number 1,722 (of nearly 25,000) of “‘Favorite’ Student Emails,” a dangerously addictive thread woven into the discussion boards at Chronicle.com, the online alter ego of the newspaper and job listing service The Chronicle of Higher Education. Equal parts group therapy, mentoring lunch, and bull session, The Chronicle’s boards (the Forums, or Fora, in Chronicle-speak) are the redoubt of two of America’s most beleaguered constituencies: college professors and those who would like to become them. Each day, the Forums’ 338,018 members contribute to the site’s 73,420 threads in informal pursuit of an exhaustive record of the life of the professoriate. Think of it as StoryCorps for the very well credentialed.

Despite its length, “‘Favorite’ Student Emails” is not the Forums’ longest thread. (“The Venting Thread,” a migraine-inducing litany of mostly non-academic grievances, is nearing 50,000 posts, to name just one competitor.) Yet I know of no online discussion that more perfectly reveals the ethos of its participants. Almost without exception, contributors to “‘Favorite’ Student Emails” are aghast: at the insolence of students, the spinelessness of administrators, the evisceration — decline is far too mild a word — of etiquette. Affront them with self-importance, unreason, or other forms of snowflakery (more Chronicle-speak, this time for students’ mistaken belief in their own uniqueness), and they will pin you, wings stretched, to the mounting board. Consider the case of Student X, who wondered if his professor “could just write a whole new exam for me” upon his failure to pass the original. Or Student Y, who wrote of a poster’s colleague, “He doesn’t like me because I don’t like to read and write.” Or Student Z, who, attempting to secure an excused absence, alluded to “problems with my vagina.” This is not an unrepresentative sample.

For readers who find this sort of edu-voyeurism painful — or who wonder, as I’ve often done, what students who stumble upon accounts of their own foibles must think — the Forums offer gentler options. For optimists, there’s “The Inhaling Thread,” the ostensible opposite of “Venting,” in which members make brief celebratory remarks. (Sample post: “Tuesday is over.”) Further afield, enthusiasts of various stripes contribute to such topics as “Girly Skincare/Makeup,” “Dog-to-English Translator,” and “Cycling to Work,” among others. Yet despite these niceties, highbrow scoffery remains, in many ways, the raison d’être of the Forums. (It’s certainly more interesting than what your dog is thinking.) Whatever your temperament, to steer clear of the complaining is to miss the point.

¤

In the absence of total societal collapse, it’s difficult to imagine a worse time to teach, or aspire to teach, at a college or university. Job security in the form of tenure — for decades the perquisite with which highly (and expensively) educated workers were enticed away from industry — has begun to wane. The role of the professoriate in university governance has shrunk in accommodation of a ballooning administrative class. Students, enabled by technology, have grown surly. Against these trends, the Forums stand as repositories of professional memory, oases on the long, unwatered highway from September to May.

In their first incarnation — evolving internet norms have led to multiple redesigns — the Forums came into existence sometime between 2000 and 2002. (“No one here can quite remember the date,” Denise Magner, a senior editor, told me.) Though early usernames occasionally revealed members’ identities and institutional affiliations, the Forums have since embraced, at least in theory, a culture of near-total anonymity. Members couch their posts in generalities, and names, with very rare exception, are not named — a custom that, until recently, led many posters to forsake even gendered pronouns in favor of the sexless neologism “hu.” (The trend has mercifully abated.) In the rare instance in which a mask slips — when, for example, a post’s geographical and institutional revelations leave too little to guesswork — the site’s moderators can be called upon for an edit.

Despite such limitations, more than one of the posters with whom I spoke noted the tendency of members — particularly those of long standing — to out themselves, in some cases via the very private messaging function with which I conducted interviews. Indeed, several posters seemed genuinely impressed by the site’s ability to produce authentic relationships. “Many of us have met other forumites on the outside,” Prytania3, an English professor at a community college in New England, told me. MsParticularity, an educational philosopher at a small Midwestern college, agreed: “Long-term friendships have been born here, and so have at least a couple of romantic relationships! Those who hang around often develop a remarkable personal and professional network.”

Perhaps due to the growing sense among university faculty that higher education is in a state of crisis, or perhaps because, as posters regularly remind one another, it really is a small world out there, interactions between the Forums’ members are often touchingly supportive, particularly in the face of legitimate grievances. Spend enough time on the Forums, however, and a darker theme emerges, one surely familiar to anyone who has spent time reading or thinking about higher education in this country: in the last decades of the 20th century, the traditional paradigm of teaching and learning gave way to the corporatization of the academy, a shift that engendered not only the explosive growth of the administrative sector but the ruinous student-as-customer model. As a result, posters declare, 21st century undergraduates have succumbed in large part to “Mass Distributed Slacker Syndrome” (Baka Janai), “Clueless Student Syndrome” (Erictho), and their insidious cousin “I Paid My Tuition and So Deserve a Good Grade Syndrome” (Harsh Critic). Given such circumstances, who wouldn’t want to huddle with friends and wait for the storm to pass?

¤

How, precisely, does one waste a day on the Forums? Let’s begin, while we still have the energy, with job hunting. According to data compiled by the Council of Graduate Schools, a full 50 percent of American PhD students leave their program without that degree, so we’ve made a good start already. And if we bought our own breakfast? Further plaudits! Between 2007 and 2010, the number of American PhD holders who qualified for food stamps or other assistance more than tripled. As numbers such as these suggest, to enter the Forums’ hiring threads is to risk serious emotional imbalance, particularly since the plight of faculty looks worse the closer one gets. Last year, the Census Bureau reported that while the number of full-time teaching positions in American colleges and universities grew by 32 percent between 1995 and 2009, the number of full-time executive, administrative, and managerial positions grew by 57 percent. In a trend widely discussed on the Forums, growth in the number of part-time faculty positions over that span (87 percent) outpaced both, smashingly. It is now estimated that adjunct faculty — part-time instructors ineligible for either tenure or traditional benefits and paid a median sum, nationwide, of $2,700 per course — comprise 70 percent of the professoriate.

Happily, the Forums are here to assist us, both with actual job listings and, our destination this morning, thread upon thread of advice. Of the 17 discussion boards broadly dedicated to academic careers, two — “Job-Seeking Experiences” and “The Interview Process” — deal explicitly with the business of procuring employment, settling between them such matters as whether or not to staple one’s curriculum vitae (consensus: who cares?), the difference between “tenure track” and “tenure eligible” positions (none, apparently), and what it means when a job advertisement states that applicants “must be legally able to work in the United States” (exactly what you think). Understandably given the state of the profession, neuroses abound. One popular posting genre asks respondents, almost always in vain, to justify a pestering phone call to the search committee. Another, so common its answer has become an acronym, invites members to opine on a poster’s fitness for a particular position. (A site search for AFTDJ — “apply for the damn job” — returns literally hundreds of hits.) Reflecting, perhaps, the competitiveness of the market, posts and posters regularly contradict one another, not only within discussions but through the very act of thread creation. “How Does One Survive a Super-Remote Location?,” a thread begun by poster LizardMom1 on June 11, was met, eight days later, with “How Does One Survive City Life?” Though both have been busy, “Super-Remote” leads, as of this writing, 76 posts to 71.

Among the most entertaining of the Forums’ job threads are those that reveal the absurdities at the heart of the academic hiring process, a mechanism that traditionally involves not only a series of interviews but a sample lecture or research talk, communal meals, and tours of the campus and surrounding area — plenty of opportunity, in other words, for humanity’s grimmer attributes to assert themselves. In “Your Interview Could Have Been So Much Worse,” a thread similar in tone to “‘Favorite’ Student Emails” but directed against search committees rather than undergraduates, contributors trade anecdotes from bizarre, disorganized, or humiliating campus visits. Notable posts include narratives by Rowan1, whose request to see a college’s theater was denied (the position in question was theater director), and WhipKitty, whose interview was marred when a potential colleague began sucking air, repeatedly, through a coffee straw. Yet the winning story — at the very least, the post that best displays the priorities of higher education in the 21st century — belongs to Present Mirth. Taking note of her size (“not very big”) and gender, the dean with whom she was meeting inquired, “Do you think you could handle a football player who had a grade dispute?”

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As it happens, handling grade disputes is a frequent topic on “In the Classroom,” home to more than 11,000 threads and a fine place to spend a lunch hour. The busiest of the Forums’ “careers” boards, “In the Classroom” is to cyberspace what the faculty lounge is to the brick-and-mortar campus: a place to blow off steam, namely, and, in sunnier moments, to share pedagogical tips. Exasperated by a student’s deceitful email? Here’s Anakin with an offer of drinks and commiseration. Want help planning a Tuesday/Thursday section of a course that usually meets on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays? Ask MountainGuy, who recommends leaving “just enough vagueness” in the syllabus “to give yourself room for minor adjustment.” This level of responsiveness — posts are usually answered within minutes, almost always with more than one reply — may help explain the loyalty demonstrated by the Forums’ members. Most of the forumites with whom I spoke have been on the site for years and report multiple visits a day; although calculating the average user’s number of posts in a 24-hour period would involve working with more than 300,000 pieces of data, a quick glance reveals that, for some members, the number is as high as 16. In their messages to me, forumites were often effusive, speaking of the Forums as “personally and professionally enriching,” “illuminating and edifying,” and “career-changing.” Distinguished Senior Member Systeme D (14,451 posts since March 2008) illustrated the protective instinct of many users when, in response to my request for an interview and perhaps questioning my motives, she wrote, “It is very kind of The Chronicle of Higher Education to provide this space for academics to help one another, and I would never wish to bite the hand that feeds so many.”

Fair enough, but what about those grade disputes? On this subject as on others, conversations on the Forums can feel like an endless Thanksgiving dinner with the in-laws: Everyone at the table has an opinion. “Back everything up, stay cool, and don’t take it personally,” advises Prof CJ, who, according to his member profile, “still uses actual books for his gradebooks.” “You sort of get numb after a while,” writes NoCalGirl, who recommends taking a “conceptual” approach to student complaints. Fine ideas, but tell them to poster Mccfan, who, in a thread entitled “What Does Your Institution Do if Students Threaten to Kill You?,” revealed earlier this year that a disgruntled undergraduate had not only made threats against her life (“[He said] that he ought to fucking kill me and my colleague”) but had admitted to looking up her home address. “Get off the Fora and call the police now,” replied Tenured Feminist, answering almost immediately. “Not the university police. Your local town police.”

What do contributors to “In the Classroom” write about when they’re not fleeing assassins? Though threads come and go (between 2002 and 2010, at least 19 separate discussions of group work blossomed and died), many become mainstays, amassing thousands of posts over the course of months or even years. Some of these (“Upserd Student Misspellings”) are as airy as puff pastry. Others (“Bang Your Head on Your Desk — The Thread of Teaching Despair!”) are as heavy and foreboding as bouillabaisse. Among those on the lighter side are “Hee Hee Hee! Overheard on Campus” — an active thread since October 2007 and among the oldest of the old timers. As I write this paragraph, eavesdropper Lohai0 has just reported overhearing a young man’s diagnosis of a buddy’s post-coital infection (“Dude, if it’s dripping, you have to get it checked out”), barely topping her story from 10 days ago in which a student, speaking to his mother by telephone, requested that funds be added to his supplemental meal plan lest he “go to jail and probably be prison raped.” Over in “‘Favorite’ Conversations with Students” (7,700 posts and counting), highlights include this conversation, between Rowan1 — the prospective theater director — and an undergraduate who, as part of a movement exercise, had achieved a particularly informative pose:

Rowan1: You need to wear underwear.

Student: Why?

Rowan1: Because your shorts are too revealing.

Student: So.

Rowan1: You need to be dressed appropriately or I will ask you to leave class.

Student: I have shorts on.

Rowan1: End of conversation.

And this one, between poster Monita and a “very nice student”:

Student: You work with animals, right? Do they talk to you?

Monita: Um....? You mean like “bark” or “eep eep”?

Student: No, no, I mean in words. My cat can talk.

Monita: What does your cat have to say?

Student: When she wants to go outside she says “oooowwwwt.”

Monita: Uh huh.

Student: When she wants fed, she says “nooowwwww.”

Monita: Hmm.

Student: When she wants to be snuggled, she says “uuuuuoooop.”

Monita: Has it occurred to you that these words all sound just like “meow”?

Student: No they don’t. You just have to hear it in person. I’m not good at imitating cats.

Fortunately — or unfortunately, depending on your perspective — not every story shared on “In the Classroom” is attributable to the loosening of sexual mores, or to the citizenship of certain students in an alternate universe. Just ask contributors to “Plagiarism Chronicles” (2,100 posts), who, in the last four and a half years, have caught students stealing from other students, the assigned course readings, SparkNotes, online dictionaries, encyclopedias, term paper mills, dissertation abstracts, Essence Magazine, The New York Times, a master’s thesis for which their professor was first reader, their own professor’s monograph, Bonnie Tyler’s 1984 hit “Holding Out for a Hero” (for an essay on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), and, of course, Wikipedia. In a sign that strategic thinking has yet to vanish completely from America’s colleges, one student accused of borrowing from the latter claimed, upon being confronted, to be the author of the original entry.

How do forumites account for such behavior? Poster NonTrad Admin suggests that “admissions policies [and] admissions practices” are to blame, particularly among those universities (tuition-dependent and often modestly endowed) that are “competing for every individual student.” (OldAdjunct agrees: “One of the many factors to consider is that some significant number of people sitting in front of us now would never have been there 30 years ago.”) Avaya, a social scientist at the University of Auckland, posits a negative relationship between student achievement and the advent of portable technologies: “Students can now text message and surf the internet during class,” she writes. “Yes, they could doodle before, but doodling does not have the same allure.” Other members find answers in deeply rooted cultural phenomena, among them “the increasing vacuousness of our society” (MickeyMantle) and “the trend [of] building children’s self-esteem” (HootOwl). Still others point to declines in “college readiness” (Frack) or the ability of universities “to simply dispose of the more egregious cases of disrespect and rebellion” (Acrimone). Yet even expressions of discontent on the Forums are subject to a minority report. “Show me a scintilla of objective evidence that students are any different today than they have ever been,” writes LarryC. “Complaints about ‘students these days’ are grumpy, old guy bullshit.”

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Back from a long lunch, and it seems that a few of our job applications have found the mark! One way to think about the career path of an assistant professor — traditionally the rank into which tenure-track faculty are hired — is to imagine the life of a Soviet official during the Great Purge: certain missteps will definitely get you killed; other, lesser offenses may or may not. So it is with the newly employed academic, who, having beaten considerable odds to land a position in which tenure is a possibility, must navigate requirements both explicit and slippery: publish a book by year seven; also, make no enemies. As a consequence of the latter, much of the discussion on both “The Tenure Track” and “Mid-Career” — two boards devoted to helping us avoid the pitfalls of our new professional lives — focuses on bearing grievances silently until one becomes essentially unfireable. Take, for example, “The CHE STFU Center for Professional Development,” a thread in which untenured posters air work-related resentments and receive counsel to, well, shut the fuck up. (“CHE” stands for Chronicle of Higher Education.) Though a number of contributions to “CHE STFU” are openly satirical (YellowTractor: “While my ability to STFU in terms of my own tongue has reached a level of consummate artistry, my body language continues to betray me”), the dozens of threads that could accurately be described as its philosophical descendents tend toward the deadly serious. Among these are “STFU in Textbook Decisions,” “How to STFU in a Small Department,” “STFU in the UK” (for the Anglophile), and “STFU Learned Again” (for the incorrigible).

Ironically, and perhaps sadly, the habit of silence inculcated by the Forums is often useful on the Forums themselves, where the uncovering of inadvertent political affronts can take on the tenor and severity of a blood sport. In the 11 or so years of the Forums’ existence, posters have taken public offense to, among other things, a colleague’s inquiry into why a new hire chose to leave “big city” to work at “very small rural U”; a professor’s admission that he noticed a student’s obviously visible thong; an instructor’s reference, on his syllabus, to having “found” Jesus; the invitation to have “a blessed day”; the usage, due to its “gender associations,” of the word “giddy”; Robin Williams’ voiceover work in Aladdin (and, while we’re at it, his performance in Mrs. Doubtfire, which, to quote poster Anthroid, advances the idea “that men can be better women than women just by donning a dress and pretending that pantyhose is more difficult than it actually is”); the Forums’ rule that all posts must be written in English; the adjective “cottonpickin’”; the acronym WASP (“as offensive [to me] as the ‘n’ word is to others,” says Gennidad); the assertion that, in Eastern Europe, “nepotism is just a given”; the reference to “sensitive, non-violent movies” as “chick flicks” (Prof Mom: “I do not believe small farm animals watch many movies”); an academic search committee’s request that applicants include transcripts; a student’s assertion that “Elderly people relax [their] muscle[s] all day because they do not do much”; the practice of assigning children their father’s surname; pink office paper; and the Pontius Pilate allusion “washing your hands of it,” which a recent poster worried might upset “Jewish academics” (or, as one wag predicted, “Roman colonial administrators”). Though members mount the occasional defense (Fiona: “Academics aren’t necessarily more offended. We’re just more verbal about it, because we have the writing and vocabulary skills”), the Forums can feel cloistered at times, as if the real world is happening elsewhere. Two days after controversial poster Beeblebrox attempted to deflect a charge of misogynism by revealing himself to be “an out, bigendered, and bisexual African American male,” The Washington Post reported that Liberty University, the fundamentalist Christian college in Lynchburg, Virginia, ended 2012 with more than one billion dollars in assets.

Can everyone on the Forums be serious, or who they claim to be? Like all anonymous message boards, the Forums smack at times of the apocryphal, a fact that surely contributes to the obsession of some members with identifying trolls — posters who, as the Urban Dictionary puts it, compose “a deliberately provocative message . . . with the intention of causing maximum disruption and argument.” Perhaps due to the site’s very nature, trolling at the Forums can feel like the research mechanism of an exceptionally lazy social scientist. In one recent example, Polyanne, a new member and self-described “bi-sexual woman in a poly[amorous] relationship,” included in her post a series of questions so pointed (“If you are poly, are you out? If yes, fully or partially? If partially, to whom?”) they might have been lifted from a cultural studies abstract. In another, a contributor posting under the username Bojangles, surely preparing a dissertation on ageism in academia, solicited responses to his or her wish that “some older colleagues would just simply retire, so there would be room to hire more women and minorities at my school.” Though both posters were immediately identified as trolls (Prytania3 to Pollyanne: “As for coming out, I doubt it will be any problem since you are under a bridge”), members seemed hardly able to help themselves: the thread on polyamorous families was active for half a month before petering out.

I asked my growing (and troll-free) network of colleagues how the Forums have contributed to their understanding of what an academic career looks like. Not surprisingly given our previous correspondence, their answers were almost uniformly positive. One member, who requested that I withhold even her username, told me that the Forums’ biggest contribution is their dissemination of the “large and important differences” between fields. (“History and engineering are worlds apart in their norms.”) Totoro, an economist at an Australian research university, had similar instincts: “I think the most important things I have learned are about people and careers at very different kinds of institutions than me.” MsParticularity, the educational philosopher at the small Midwestern college, continued the theme, praising the Forums’ ability to present “the multiple aspects of academic life and how those can vary across different types of institutions.” Yet one poster, SeniorScholar, who told me that her “anecdotal memory” of academic careers stretches as far back as “Harvard in the 1930s,” answered differently. “I’m old enough and grumpy enough to notice only that people are more willing to complain about things everyone in their field knows about and expects.”

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Quitting time at last, but not before a quick look into the future. “Higher education is a serious mess,” MsParticularity told me in a long message. “For all of the talk about ‘student-centered’ education, this has nothing to do with students and everything to do with grafting a business model onto a system that has to do with people.” “I don't know exactly how the future of higher ed will shake out,” writes LarryC in a thread entitled “Supersizing the College Classroom,” “but I do know [that] it will have a lot fewer professors.” Though claims such as these can seem alarmist at first glance, mounting evidence suggests otherwise, as firms like Coursera and Udacity seek to digitize (and eventually profit from) more and more of the university experience. And what about the recent New York Times article predicting a future in which student essays are graded by computers? Reading its conclusion that the technology would free professors “for other tasks,” I thought immediately of breadlines. Other tasks, indeed.

Whatever happens, I suppose it will be nice to have a community. Perhaps we haven’t wasted our time after all.

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Graham Hillard is a journalist, poet, and fiction writer.

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