How Privilege Works

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Over the winter break, an ambitious young reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Stacey Patton, got the idea for a new column in that magazine’s “Vitae” section. Patton, dear reader, is one of the bright young faces in the new journalism.  A staff writer for The Chronicle, she also contributes regularly to The Root, to Dame, to the Washington Post, and to Jezebel. With a PhD in History and an accomplished memoir chronicling her coming of age in an abusive adoptive home, Patton embodies both the alt-ac career path we are trying to spotlight for graduate students and the tradition of African American public intellectuals most prominently represented by Jelani Cobb, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Brittney Cooper. She is a hard-working survivor, a black voice with great promise, and, to those who know her, a clever humorist.

Patton proposed an imaginary set of emails or letters, written to students – not every student, but those singular few who, in a class of hundreds, show up irregularly, or aggressively militate for a better grade in the face or poor performance. Not the students who come to your office asking for help with an intellectual or emotional problem, but the ones who email you the night before an exam to ask for a re-test because they’re off to go skiing. In the course of fifteen years of teaching and thousands of students, I’ve had maybe a dozen such students, but they stick in my mind – and in my heart – as lost souls. Lost to me and lost to themselves.

“Dear Student,” the column that Patton produced, was pure, straightforward satire. Good, bad, or otherwise. More softly echoing “College Misery,” it featured a rotating group of faculty voices, each sarcastically responding to an imagined slight from a hypothetical, abstract, entitled student. “Let’s say,” one prompt read, “you get a note from a student who you’re pretty sure is making up a story about a dead grandmother. How would you write back?.” I contributed to the first two, and then got caught up on the semester. “Expect mine to be less snarky,” I wrote to her privately, preparing her for my submission. The “dead grandmother” excuse was alien to me. I took the charge as a creative writing exercise, and wasn’t particularly pleased with my efforts. Still, I thought nothing of the contribution, and hardly saw it as controversial. The point, as Stacey encouraged us, was to have “fun,” to vent some steam about the stuff that, every once in a while, drives us all nuts, even though courtesy dictates that we bite our tongue. The contributors to the series were all lifelong teachers dedicated to their students, but they understood the idea, too.

Then, a series of strange things happened. Another Vitae columnist – a fairly new one, and not a staffer at the Chronicle – issued a broadside against “Dear Student” on his own blog, and promised to walk away from the site until a public apology was issued for the snark and tone, which he felt was a form of “student shaming.” He did so without alerting the editors of Vitae beforehand, and without contacting Patton. Such a column, he stressed, has no place in a higher education forum, where it is easily googled by students. Nor does the cultivation of shame, he continued, have a role to play in pedagogy. The broadside went viral, its sincerity and sanctimony generating tweet and retweet, until its author promised – against the grain of his original refusal – to submit the piece to Vitae for consideration. Across the internet, wherever there was negative commentary, the broadside’s author appeared in the comments, curating his position carefully. He appeared below the fold at “College Misery,” for instance, where the site’s managers later accused him (with evidence) of posting additional comments supportive of his own entries using ghost accounts, forming a virtual chorus through what is known as “sock-puppetry.”

In short, it was a mess. Vitae has put a pin in the series, delaying the next entry until some editorial consensus can be reached about what to do next.

Few, though, have spoken out in support of Patton directly.

I find this silence curious.

Because, in many ways, “Dear Student” was a fairly obvious addition to Vitae’s stable of columns. It picked up on an earlier 2014 essay by Patton, “Dear White Academics,” in which Patton offered translations of common phrases – what was said to black faculty, in other words, and what was really meant, on the lower frequencies, to be heard.  “Dear Student” also echoed Vitae’s other “Dear ____” features, in which people would write in, and professionals would respond. Still, it was different. It was more deliberate, dripping, biting satire. Again, maybe not great satire – because academics aren’t natural satirists – but satire nonetheless. And it touched a nerve. Over the course of two months and four pieces, the volume and vigor of the commentariat grew, with some laughing out loud at the columns and others urging a more constructive approach, with considerably less snark. It is telling that in a venue renowned for tongue-in-check sass, and with other columnists on the site also subject to ridicule or abuse, that it was the accusation of student shaming lodged against “Dear Student” that stuck. That broadside against “Dear Student” didn’t come out of left field.

The venue matters. “Vitae” does not present itself as a journalistic arm of the Chronicle, but instead as a “service,” a potlatch of advice columns and strategy tips and networks and links for the hustlers of higher education. “Until now,” the site reads, “faculty and administrators have never had their own online resource dedicated to helping them crack the code for career success.” That was what Vitae was meant to provide. The secret of a good career and a good life, an outlet for faculty and higher-ups.

In the age of the Colbert Report, Andy Borowitz, and “Dear Wayne,” a satirical set of commentaries on the mythical bad student seemed, if anything, like logical extension of the guildcraft offered in Vitae’s virtual pages. The regular stable of writers for Vitae is an appealing lot not merely because they offer a lot of advice, but because they do it with broad brushstrokes and plain prose. And because the site itself includes a great many people with different kinds of careers and professional lives. There is Rebecca Schuman, the flame-throwing adjunct warrior, and Karen Kelsky, a sort of macabre “Ms. Mentor” for the 21st century, and Kelly Baker, the thoughtful, more existential columnist. And Sarah Kendzior and David Perry and many others. I don’t agree with everything in Vitae, and I sometimes find the pieces to be too short or too thin, but the same is true of Salon or Slate. I read it all. I appreciate the discordant voices and complementary tones, the mix of people from alt-ac pathways, mid-sized publics, community colleges, and freelancing gigs, the scorched earth jeremiads and the constructive “how-to” pieces.

Notably, the contributors to “Dear Student” were, even within the context of Vitae’s ensemble, a distinctively diverse lot. More than half were women of color.

No matter how I feel about the tone of individual contributors, I love the ensemble. Maybe I’m alone in this, but I don’t think so. I am willing to engage people who disagree with me without picking up my marbles and going home. And I suspect that most of the Vitae columnists feel the same. No one else has left the site. And most, on Twitter, have singled out the diversity of Vitae – its platform for new voices – as one reason they are staying.

This, then, is what I want you, gentle reader, to understand: that Vitae is a service, intended for faculty; that its columnists are a snarky, opinionated bunch, a sort of rag-tag band coming from atypical locations; that “Dear Student” was a match for the eclectic spirit of the site, that the contributors to it may have been especially diverse and perhaps especially sardonic but they weren’t too far outside of the pale of what Vitae typically offered, and that the original mind behind the idea represents a long tradition of black public writing.

The ending or suspension of this column should make us pause and reflect.

Pausing and reflection are hard work, though. Especially in the face of moral outrage.

The charges against “Dear Student” have stuck because they echo the fervor of other progressive causes. Leaving the site is described as a principled act. The Chronicle is accused of “profiting” from student shaming, which makes the departure a kind of divestment strategy.  The broadside is issued against the site, and not the creator of “Dear Student,” as if that is a distinction with a difference. The whole critique is sealed-off, presenting itself as the only ethically responsible position, a presentation confirmed by the amen chorus on Twitter.

But this, too, is how racial privilege works, in the end. It re-centers a particular voice and marginalizes what is different – what is, in the lexicon of the 1990s, the Other. It hides its privilege by adopting a moral tone, suggesting that only one way of thinking or being is the best, that other ways aren’t merely different but wrong. It refuses to share space with dissonant views. It demonizes tone without discussing substance. It cannot tolerate a world in which there are many voices, equally important. It does not engage in constructive dialogue. It offers withdrawal but ensures erasure and replacement.

No matter how you feel about “Dear Student,” there is a racial character to the way that Patton and her columnists were called out. If we want to endorse the notion of “racism without racists,” if we want to “check our privilege,” as the students insist, we need to at least interrogate moments like this, where a well-ensconced tenure-stream professor at an R1 – no matter how progressive and radical – insists that his tone and his approach are the only ones worthy of serious conversation. Where the creator of a column, perhaps hopeful that one day she’ll get a teaching job too, or that she might join the ranks of TNC or Cooper, or Cobb, doesn’t just take flak from the usual folks on Twitter and email, but from us. From academe. Because of her tone.  We can do better than this.