Is the Internet killing college?

Liberal students aren't the problem.

Internet Culture

Published Jun 11, 2015   Updated May 28, 2021, 2:53 pm CDT


It’s been fascinating to watch Vox over the last week. Last Wednesday, they posted an op-ed by written by a self-proclaimed liberal tenure-track professor, Edward Schlosser, who claimed that he was scared of his liberal students, because their zeal for identity politics is, in his view, threatening jobs in academia. Student complaints lodged not because they felt that a teacher’s methods are inappropriate or violate a policy are becoming epidemic, the pseudonymous author writes, and professors are getting fired over truly minor offenses.

The same thing occurred to Amanda Taub that occurred to me: This doesn’t sound like a student problem. This sounds like a university problem. It’s not like the students are actually deciding professors’ fates. Schools’ administrations are. 

And while Schlosser mentions the fact that students are treated more like customers by their school than they’re treated like, well, students, he doesn’t connect the dots. Universities want to make profits via tuition, ergo they have to make their students/customers happy, ergo if a student complains because they were offended by the content a professor is teaching, that professor’s job is at risk, even if a student’s offense at content really doesn’t have anything whatsoever to do with the professor.

And as Koritha Mitchell pointed out today, the point of teaching shouldn’t be to make students comfortable. Schlosser claims that in order to protect his job, he’s had to change his curricula, and Mitchell is, rightly, I think, calling that cowardly. Universities should have their professors’ backs, and they’re just as cowardly for firing professors instead of challenging students to do more than memorize material and to take in uncomfortable content and try to understand it rather than avoiding it.

This doesn’t sound like a student problem. This sounds like a university problem.

See? Very interesting developments, and generally speaking a really great conversation about the state of academia in America today, with the caveat that Taub’s response by and large reads as an extremely dismissive and unnecessarily personal polemic. Schlosser’s article has been shared on Facebook 254,000 times as of right now, so he’s obviously hit on something about higher education that’s bothering people. Of course, that being said, a lot more articles than you think get shared 200k+ times on Facebook without the kind of vitriol being slung that this conversation has inspired, so take it with a grain of salt, I guess.

I don’t think Schlosser is completely incorrect, but I think he is—and a lot of the conservative outlets who have picked up on his article are—reaching in a lot of different directions to find a cause for a phenomenon that he finds distressing, that being the sense that a contingent of young people are shutting down conversations because they are uncomfortable with the ideas expressed in those conversations.

I’m not willing to place this on young liberals alone, because that really depends on where you are and when. If you’ll recall conversations like Gamergate (which I’m happier calling a “conversation” than a “movement”), you might remember that people with socially regressive ideas were resorting to death, rape, and bomb threats to shut down conversations about making video games more inclusive. It cuts both ways.

One direction Schlosser points in to try and find the root of his problem (other than his employer, that is) is online media, and while I’m definitely less qualified than Schlosser, Taub, or Mitchell to speak to the experience of educators, I can at least speak to the experience of a person who writes in online media and is a leftist. Schlosser claims that analyses of this identity-politics-in-academia have been “too simplistic”:

The current student-teacher dynamic has been shaped by a large confluence of factors, and perhaps the most important of these is the manner in which cultural studies and social justice writers have comported themselves in popular media. I have a great deal of respect for both of these fields, but their manifestations online, their desire to democratize complex fields of study by making them as digestible as a TGIF sitcom, has led to adoption of a totalizing, simplistic, unworkable, and ultimately stifling conception of social justice. The simplicity and absolutism of this conception has combined with the precarity of academic jobs to create higher ed’s current climate of fear, a heavily policed discourse of semantic sensitivity in which safety and comfort have become the ends and the means of the college experience.

I don’t think I’ve ever simultaneously agreed and disagreed with someone more passionately than I do with Schlosser on this point. The atmosphere of online media has become very knee-jerk; too often it promotes opinion but not necessarily analysis, when analysis not always original or thoughtful analysis, regurgitation of buzzphrases without considering whether or not those buzzphrases even apply to the situation at hand, and a lack of empathy toward people who hold different opinions.

I’ve noticed that the reading public tends to give all published content some level of validation whether or not it’s particularly well thought-out, which means that a lot of stupid stuff gets passed around on Facebook and Twitter (see: Dadbod), which means that news outlets pick up on it and it becomes part of the public discourse as if it’s an important idea that merits discussion, even when there are a lot of bad, shallow, idiotic ideas that exist in the world.

We all have them from time to time, but the business model of online media has made it easy to validate them. I mean, it exists on clicks. If a post is going to get a reaction, no matter how thoughtless, heartless, haphazardly thrown together, or lacking in expertise it might be, it is at least enticing to publish. I mean, Thought Catalog has made itself way more than solvent by having absolutely no editorial standards or oversight of any kind.

A lot of stupid stuff gets passed around on Facebook and Twitter, which means that news outlets pick up on it and it becomes part of the public discourse as if it’s an important idea that merits discussion.

We do it for the clicks, although a lot of media outlets (one of which I work for) try hard to get clicks by publishing really quality writing and thinking, even if the subject is lighthearted. But plenty of articles get published on the big, wide Internet that are just there to get a reaction and a share, and hot takes on politics and social justice are dependable traffic-drivers for some outlets. Especially on sites that don’t pay writers or don’t pay them much, which tends to signal that they have less editorial oversight and are more concerned about quantity than quality, that also means that lots and lots and lots of opinions are expressed that are just feelings without analysis or nuance.

That’s the atmosphere in which the public is talking about social justice. And we’re doing a lot of talking, a tremendous amount of talking, and instead of recognizing that by talking we’re really just asking questions about major social problems, while posing the talking itself as the solution to those problems.

But here’s where I differ with Schlosser on his article overall: that questioning-and-talking is a good thing. Students should be able to question their professors and their professors’ motivations. Writers should be asking questions of their readership that are hard to answer, whether or not it becomes redundant. The thing is, social change takes a long, long time to happen, and it comes out of this very process.

Look at the Occupy movement, which was basically just a lot of talking in public spaces: It’s spun off into a populist movement for a higher minimum wage, environmental change, student debt relief, and income equality that has had practical results. The talking may not be the solution, but it’s what we need to do to figure out solutions. Rather than being across-the-board, universally “totalizing, simplistic, unworkable, and ultimately stifling,” online media is valuable for this process.

The fact that we’ve democratized these conversations means that those solutions aren’t being configured with the input of only a select few people, which is precisely what leads to further marginalization and injustice. I mean, look: Schlosser himself used online media to start this conversation about social justice and academia, so his argument and the method by which he chose to make it sort of double back over each other.

Maybe the public needs to be having a conversation right now about how adjunct professors are treated, about the disappearance of tenure-track jobs, about what we value about higher education, and how we can change the way academia is run in order to fit those values. Maybe those conversations need to be started by academics, so that we can hear what their experience has been like. And maybe Schlosser just used the power and viral potential of the Internet to do exactly that.

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Rebecca Vipond Brink is a writer, photographer, and traveler based in Chicago. 

Photo via audiolucistore/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Jun 11, 2015, 3:49 pm CDT