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What follows is a very lightly edited transcription of a Twitter rant I went on this morning.

One of my heroes is a white woman who was deeply involved in the civil rights movement in the 50s and 60s. She’s someone who was hugely active in the movement at great personal risk and with great effect. I was honored to get to know her.

Once, years ago, she invited me to a panel she was on. A campus roundtable on the civil rights movement. There were three people on the panel: Herself, and a black professor and a black student leader from the campus. She gave a speech I don’t remember much of, as did the prof. Then it was the student’s turn to speak.

The student excoriated her. Attacked white people in the movement generally, and her in particular. Angrily. Vituperatively. Eloquently.

I was mortified. Horrified. I don’t remember the Q&A, how anyone responded. I just remember being shocked and so upset. Later, at dinner, I said something like “That must have been really hard.” She was confused. Asked what I was talking about. I told her. She looked at me, the penny dropped, and as best as I can remember, she said, “Well, he’s a nationalist.”

She didn’t feel betrayed or wounded or defensive. She wasn’t angry or embarrassed. At the same time, though, she wasn’t dismissing him. She understood his position. She’d had the discussion many times over the course of decades. She’d read what he’d read. It wasn’t new. She understood his position, and either respected it or didn’t. (Probably some of both, though that’s just a guess.) But the path he was on wasn’t the path she’d taken, and that was okay. She didn’t need to bring him around. That wasn’t her job.

If you’re a white person doing anti-racist work, “Listen to the voices of people of color” is crucial advice. Maybe the most crucial. One reason I’ve never told this story in print is that I don’t want it to seem like the moral is “You do you, white people!” But the reality is that just listening to people of color can never be the end of the journey. Because POC aren’t monolithic. (And for a hundred other reasons, but that’s a big one.)

But here’s a thing: If you’re white and a person of color thinks you’re racist, it’s not the end of the world. Your life isn’t over. They may be right, they may be wrong. (They’re more likely right than you think. Remember that.) But it’s not the end of the world.

Chait’s argument is that “racist” is so anathematizing — his word — that its intemperate use is not legitimate speech. And that’s bullshit. We win by having these conversations, not suppressing them. We, as white people, move forward by feeling that hot flush of shame I felt that night, and figuring out what to do with it.

Some people of color are jerks. Some women are jerks. Some gay people and trans people are jerks. Because many many people are jerks. But incivility isn’t the problem there. “PC” isn’t the problem there. Jargon and hashtags aren’t the problem.

If being online doing this work is too much, don’t do it. If you need help, lots of us want to help. I want to help. But there’s no way to get everyone to like you. There’s no way to be the perfect ally to everyone. There’s no cookie at the end of the tunnel. There’s no place where nobody thinks you’re an asshole. That’s not the goal.

The goal is to do good important work. The goal is to help make things better. The goal is to keep learning. The goal is to fuck up less and help more. The goal is to not hurt people through ignorance or malice or carelessness. The goal is to help to build something beautiful.

The goal is not to build a space where everyone loves you. Because not everyone is going to love you. And that’s okay. It has to be okay.

In his huge new essay on political correctness, Jonathan Chait offers a few examples of situations in which folks on the left engaged in acts of vandalism or property destruction in confronting ideas they found offensive — students on one campus who scrawled on a conservative student’s dorm-room door, a professor at another who ripped up a photograph of an aborted fetus. But while it’s true that these things happened, it’s also true that such incidents are rare.

I actually agree with Chait that this kind of behavior is illiberal and obnoxious, although I don’t see it as reflecting any particular anti-freedom animus on the left. Sometimes people get so upset by speech that they egg someone’s door or snatch a flyer out of their hands, but if Chait has evidence that folks on the left are more likely to engage in such behavior (or embrace it) than others (or than they used to be), I’d like to see it.

These isolated acts of vandalism aren’t Chait’s true target, though. They aren’t what he’s really angry about. What he’s really angry about is angry speech with which he disagrees. What he’s really angry about is people getting really angry about things he doesn’t think they should get angry about.

Chait is angry that the Michigan Daily fired a columnist for writing a piece they didn’t like. He’s angry that students have organized protests against speakers they object to. He’s angry that professors like me are including trigger warnings in our syllabi. He’s angry that some people get angry about microagressions. He’s angry that college theater groups are choosing not to stage plays that some people find obnoxious. He’s angry that professors are being challenged on their use of language by their students. He’s angry that some in the media are giving a soapbox to positions he finds unworthy. He’s angry that people are launching hashtag campaigns to mock people with positions they find unworthy.

Deep breath. Halfway done.

Chait is angry that some people treat his views with skepticism or disdain because of his race and gender. He’s angry that the term “mansplaining” is increasingly used imprecisely, and that it’s spawned additional related neologisms. He’s angry that people are accused of “tone policing,” and of being bad allies. He’s angry that people once yelled at each other on a mailing list to which he doesn’t belong. He’s angry that some leftists don’t share his belief in the transformative power of the marketplace of ideas. He’s angry that a lot of writers are angry about how people react when they get angry.

Chait is outraged by all of these things, and all of these things are speech acts.

When someone protests a campus speaker, they’re engaging in an act of speech. When they complain about microagressions, they’re engaging in an act of speech. When they challenge their professors, or trend a hashtag on Twitter, or write trigger warnings into their syllabi, or accuse each other of racism, or criticize our country’s conception of free speech, they’re engaging in acts of speech.

Isn’t that what they’re supposed to do? Isn’t that what he’s looking for?

Jonathan Chait’s essays do not lack for impassioned, cogent critics. Every time he publishes something, thousands of people take to their keyboards to argue with him, including many of our country’s most prominent liberal and left voices. Not infrequently, Chait engages with these critics at length — on blogs, on social media, in national publications. People are taking his ideas seriously and they are confronting him earnestly where they think he’s wrong. But that’s not enough for him.

Chait doesn’t just want engagement, he wants engagement on his terms. He wants his interlocutors to stop accusing him of mansplaining. He wants to be able to chastise them for their tone without being accused of tone policing. He wants them to stop dismissing him because he’s white, or because he’s male. Never mind that there are legions of his critics who stand ready to do just that. He wants them all to do that.

Now, yes, it can be scary to talk in public these days. It’s easy to make mistakes and to say things wrong. It’s easy to spark an argument when you don’t intend to. But that kind of reaction isn’t generally hard to defuse. Apologize immediately if you can, step away from the keyboard if you can’t. Figure out how you screwed up, explain your mistake briefly and non-defensively, and maybe take a little break while things cool down. Soon everyone will have either accepted your apology or forgotten about your transgression, and everything will be back to normal. In the vast majority of cases in which someone puts their foot in their mouth on the internet, the whole thing blows over pretty quick.

When things get difficult is when the thing you said that set people off wasn’t a mistake — when the statement that lit the fuse was one that you stand by. Where things most often get heated and stay heated is where someone thinks you’re wrong and you think they’re wrong and neither of you is misunderstanding the other.

And that’s the position Chait finds himself in at the moment. He thinks his critics are wrong, and they — unsurprisingly — think he’s wrong. At the same time, though, he thinks they’re wrong to think he’s wrong.

Chait describes his opponents on the left as enemies of free speech, as proponents of coercion over reason. But a hashtag campaign isn’t coercion. It’s speech. Calling someone a racist isn’t coercion, it’s speech. Complaining about mansplaining and microaggressions and tone policing? Speech, speech, speech.

In Chait’s framing, PC conventions “lock in shared ideological assumptions that make meaningful disagreement possible.” But what does this even mean? If it means anything, it means that people who share certain views disagree vehemently with people who don’t share those views — so vehemently, perhaps. that amicable chat becomes difficult.

And that’s what really upsets Chait — the vehemence. He is, he is certain, a man of the liberal left. He is, he is certain, an anti-racist and an anti-sexist and a supporter of the oppressed. He is, he is certain, a friend of these terribly wrong people. A friend and an ally. And if you don’t agree with him about that, if you refuse him his rightful recognition as a member of your team, you’re not just disagreeing with him, you’re silencing him. You’re coercing him. You’re denying him his rights.

But nobody has the right to be embraced. Nobody has the right to be liked.

Not even Jonathan Chait.

Update | I’ve written a bit more on the white liberal’s fear of being called a racist.

Since Obama’s proposal that the federal government and states enter into a partnership to make the first two years of community college free, there’s been a lot of ink spilled discussing the plan and debating its merits. But one consequence of the announcement is deserving of more attention than it’s received so far — the effect it’s having on higher education debates on the state level.

Take my home state of New York, for example. Here, the two weeks since Obama’s reveal have seen pols launch no fewer than three different plans to dramatically boost economic access to public higher education. Of the three, two can be fairly described as free higher ed plans. Let’s take a look:

  • A proposal from New York City council member Ben Kallos would commit the city to paying off ten percent of any CUNY graduate’s college loans for every year they stayed in the city. After ten years, the full debt would be retired at no cost to the student.
  • Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams wants to go further, faster — he’s suggesting that the city beat Obama to the punch by eliminating tuition at CUNY’s community colleges completely. No federal legislation required, no two-year limit, no hoops of grades or enrollment, just free CUNY community college for all.
  • In his State of the State speech yesterday, Andrew Cuomo proposed a model for means-and-residency-tested loan forgiveness statewide. Under his “Get on Your Feet Loan Forgiveness” plan, CUNY and SUNY grads who stayed in-state and whose income fell below $50,000 a year would have their first two years of loan payments absorbed by the state.

None of these proposals is going to be implemented tomorrow, and even Cuomo’s — the least ambitious and most likely to see enactment — took a huge, unexpected hit with the federal indictment of the state legislature’s most powerful Democrat this morning. But the near-simultaneous emergence of the three plans reflects the shift in the national discussion wrought by Obama’s announcement and the new territory for legislation and organizing that’s opening up. (One of the three plans — Cuomo’s — technically pre-dates Obama’s, but though it was first mooted in October it received virtually no attention and no public push at the time. Post-Obama it got a big writeup in the Times and prominent placement in the SotS.)

WBAI, the venerable NYC public radio station, had me on this morning to talk about Obama’s free community college proposal. You can find a stream of the segment here for the next couple of weeks — click on Haskins in the Morning for January 12, and skip forward to the 15-minute mark.

Anyway, it was a great interview, and it gave me the opportunity to provide a wide-ranging take on the subject, so I’ve transcribed it for y’all — edited lightly for clarity.

WBAI: Turning now to the announcement last week that President Obama made about a plan to make the first two years of community college free for all students. Under a program dubbed “America’s College Promise,” Obama administration officials have said that an estimated nine million student a year nationwide could benefit. The average tuition savings for a student at a two-year college is estimated to be $3800 a year. The administration so far has declined to provide an estimate of the cost to the federal government overall, but they said states would be expected to share about a quarter of the expense. Obama’s goal, said Cecilia Munoz, the White House’s domestic policy director, is “to make two years of college the norm the way high school is the norm.” Joining us to talk about what this change could mean, not just for students, but for teachers at community colleges around the country, is Angus Johnston. Angus is a historian of American student activism who teaches history at CUNY’s Hostos Community College. He also runs the website studentactivism.net. Angus, thanks for being with us this morning.

AJ: Good morning! Thanks for having me.

WBAI: So, as a community college teacher yourself, I wonder: What’s your reaction to Obama’s announcement of this program for a free two years of community college?

AJ: Well, there are things to be cautious about, certainly, but in the main I’m really excited. I think it’s been a long time coming, and I think it’s a tremendous opportunity — not only for students and faculty, but also for people organizing around access to higher ed.

WBAI: So what are some of the logistical questions that arise for you with a plan like this, in a place like New York City, and in a community college like yours, which is Hostos, one of the CUNY community colleges? What are some of the challenges facing community colleges, and how do you think this proposal might affect them logistically?

AJ: The biggest challenge for students is for those who intend to do a four-year degree who would choose this option as a low-cost way to start that process. Because we know that when students start at a community college and intend to transfer to a four-year school, a lot of them wind up falling by the wayside. That’s something that needs to be eased as much as possible, but it’s also something that will be encouraged by this plan. More students who intend to obtain a four-year degree will start at a community college if this gets implemented, and I’m a bit nervous about that.

WBAI: And can you tell us why? Why does that make you nervous? I mean, some of the reactions that I saw on Twitter from people who teach at places like Kingsborough Community College and Borough of Manhattan Community College was, “Oh my God, I can’t imagine having more students in those facilities, how could we possibly manage an increase in students?” Is that something you’re worried about?

AJ: It’s something I’m excited about! I mean, if we have more community college students, then we have to have the facilities for them, we have to have the faculty for them. Certainly it will be a matter of pushing hard to ensure that the faculty who are hired — and we will have to hire more faculty if we have more students — we’ll push hard to ensure that the faculty who are hired are full-time faculty on the tenure track, because we’ve got a huge problem with adjunctification at community colleges. But that’s something I think that we should welcome — that challenge of transforming our institutions to meet this new need.

WBAI: I do want to come back to the labor question that you raised, the question of who the people are who are going to be teaching these new students, and what this means for the labor question of, as you mentioned, adjunct labor and the tenure track in community colleges. But first, I just want to talk about the state funding aspect of this proposal. So Obama has said that one quarter of the funding for this plan will have to come from the states, and I wonder, based on your experience here in New York, how feasible you think that is. Is that a roadblock for this? What has been the trend in New York’s budget for community colleges? We’ve been seeing big reductions — would this require a big turnaround?

AJ: Well, throughout the country we’ve seen a disinvestment by the states in higher education — at the community college level, and even more intensely at the four-year college level. I think the intent here — and there are a lot of details that haven’t been released — but I think the intent here is to make the federal portion of the financial package so attractive to the states that they would pony up the money to match it because it’s a better deal for them, it’s a better deal for their students. And it’s also going to be, presumably, hard for a state to say, “Oh yes, we had the opportunity to make community college free for all of our students, but we chose not to do it, because we don’t have the” — whatever the dollar figure would be. So a lot of it is going to come down to the question of what exactly the federal government is proposing as far as this cost-sharing goes, and will it be a carrot rather than a stick for the states.

WBAI: Right, right. And so, I know that — one of the things that you mentioned before, an issue that a number of people have raised since this announcement, is the labor implications of the program. According to an adjunct faculty advocacy group called the New Faculty Majority, seventy percent of community college faculty are part-time. How do you think the Obama plan might affect the work of community college teachers and what you call the adjunctification of community college labor?

AJ: First of all, let me just say, and I apologize for seeming to disagree with your premise, but one thing that I want to say is that we have to distinguish between adjunct faculty and part-time faculty.

WBAI: Right. That’s a good point.

AJ: Because a lot of folks who are adjuncts are essentially full-time — in fact, including myself, I’m an adjunct faculty member teaching what is essentially a full-time courseload. So there’s that. But yes, it’s a huge problem. It’s a problem in community colleges and it’s a problem across the board in American higher education. And I think, again, one of the things that we’re going to have to do — as faculty members, as people who care about American higher ed, we’re going to have to see this not as something that’s being delivered from on high, but as something that we need to fight for. We need to fight to shape what the original proposal looks like, we need to fight to get something good passed, we need to fight to make sure that whatever is passed is something that is sustainable, and is good for us and good for our students. We need reinvestment in higher education, and we need reinvestment in full-time faculty, and we’ve had a very serious long term trend away from that. And I think that reimagining higher education as something that is a right for all Americans gives us an opportunity to reassert the importance and the centrality of having faculty who have the capacity and the tools to do the job right.

WBAI: Absolutely.

WBAI: Angus Johnston is a historian of American student activism. He teaches history at CUNY’s Hostos Community College. Angus, could you tell us — you talked about students falling by the wayside, initially coming in for a two-year program and not going on to complete their degrees. Could you just briefly flesh that out for us for a bit? What happens to these students who, as you say, fall by the wayside?

AJ: Sure. There are two things going on here. One is that graduation rates for community colleges — the folks who get the two-year degree — are very low. They’re low throughout the country and have been low for a very long time. And there are a number of issues involved in that. A lot of students are part time, a lot of students are working full time and returning students, and there’s all sorts of life issues and other things that could interfere with the completion of a degree there. And we need to work on that. That’s something that a lot of folks are pushing to improve, and it’s something that we need to spend a lot more time and energy on. The other issue is successfully making the transfer from a community college to a senior college to continue on to get the four-year degree. And a problem there is that the process of selecting a four-year college that’s going to be appropriate for you, that’s going to be accessible for you, figuring out how to navigate that — all of that is difficult. And then there are other problems which this program is designed to address, such as the question of whether your credits are going to transfer. One of the things that Obama has said is that a pre-requisite for colleges participating in this program will be to have a really robust and vigorous credit-transfer policy. There are downsides to that, as with everything, but that’s a really important part of what he’s suggesting.

WBAI: And how does that work at CUNY, from where you sit? Do you see your students going on to the CUNY senior colleges, places like Brooklyn College and where I’m sitting today, City College?

AJ: Yes, a lot of them do, and in fact a lot of them go on to more selective private and public colleges as well. One of the things about the community college, and I see this every semester, is that the range of students, the variety of students, is so incredible, because you’ve got students who are there for all sorts of different reasons. Some of them are immigrants and have not built up a track record in the American educational system. Some of them are folks who have tried college in the past and not done so well. Some of them are folks who have never had the opportunity to go to college before, and so either in youth or later on in life they’re giving it a crack. And so some of the strongest students that I have ever taught in my life, and I’ve taught throughout the CUNY system, have been students that I’ve had at Hostos.

WBAI: So I wonder. One of the criticisms floating around about this plan is that it gives a subsidy, more or less, to more middle-class students, right? That the poorest students who are going into community college programs are already eligible for federal Pell Grants, and that the level of Pell Grants is already more than most of the in-state tuition costs for students going to community colleges. I wonder what your reaction is to that, as an advocate for free, fair higher education for everyone? What do you think about the idea that this program might actually be subsidizing people who need it less?

AJ: I think there are two issues there. The first is that I’ve got a lot of students who don’t have a lot of money who would be shocked to hear the description of financial aid as being incredibly cushy and satisfying for everybody. And certainly there are gaps in the Obama proposal as well. If it only covers tuition, or only covers tuition and fees, that’s not sufficient. There’s a scholar named Sara Goldrick-Rab out of Wisconsin who has presented a similar proposal which goes well beyond tuition and fees, and I think we should push this in that direction. So the first thing is that I would take issue with the premise. The second thing is — and this is a more profound question — I believe that education should be free. I believe that the role of the public educational system is to provide an education to anybody who can benefit from it. And if we’re talking about SUNY Binghamton or we’re talking about Berkeley, well okay, we can have that discussion on another day and reasonsable people may disagree. But if we’re talking about a place like Hostos Community College, the idea that we are swimming in all of these upper middle class students is just kind of silly. And another thing that’s really really important is the whole question of sticker shock, which refers to the idea that when students see what the listed tuition rate is, they may be scared off. If students know that Hostos is free, if students know that any of the CUNY or SUNY community colleges are free, they will be much much more inclined to go. And the students who will be more inclined to go are going to be the students who know least about navigating the system.

WBAI: Right.

AJ: Whatever their economic background is, they’re the students who most need help getting into the system. And frankly, K through 12 education is free to everyone including the wealthiest among us, and we’ve survived as a country having made that decision.

WBAI: Right. I saw a funny tweet this weekend that said something like, “Those first twelve years of education, that’s America, but public education beyond that in the thirteenth year, that’s socialism.”

AJ: Exactly. And somebody — I think I retweeted that one, and somebody responded saying that with the rise of the charter school movement, more and more people are saying that those first thirteen years are socialism as well.

WBAI: Right.

AJ: And I think that’s a legitimate point too.

WBAI: So the questions that this program opens vis a vis the privatization of higher education and what the Obama administration’s stance has been towards for-profit higher education is a discussion for another day, and we’d love to have you back sometime to talk about that. But very briefly, in our last thirty seconds or so, I wonder, as a historian of student activism — we’ve seen many movements, particularly here in CUNY, for the idea of free higher education. Do you see the proposal as pushing this forward, pushing this further, particularly from the student side?

AJ: Well, I’ve been working with students who have been pushing for free higher education in the United States for a very long time now, and the first thing that always gets said to them is that it’s preposterous, it’s unrealistic, it’s a fantasy. Well now we’ve got the President of the United States saying it’s not a fantasy, and I think that one of the things that we’re going to see out of this is a huge new invigoration of the student-led grassroots movement for free public higher education at the community college level and beyond. I think it’s going to be a very exciting spring as far as student organizing goes.

WBAI: Well, that is definitely exciting news, exciting prospects. We have been speaking to Angus Johnston. He is a professor of History at Hostos Community College, and runs the website studentactivism.net. Thanks so much for being with us this morning, Angus.

AJ: Thank you.

Last night President Obama announced a plan to partner with states to make two years of free community college available to all Americans. The proposal, introduced with a YouTube video from the president and a  press release factsheet, will be the focus of a presidential speech at Pellissippi State Community College in Tennessee later today.

I’ve written a number of times before about why I support free public higher education — about why it’s a worthy concept in general and about the potential of Tennessee’s implementation of it on the community college level. Hell, I’ve even written a manifesto on the subject, complete with tee shirt.

Obama’s proposal is not the one that I would have put forward. There are a lot of details yet to be fleshed out, and some real reasons for concern about the plan as described. As a prod for a new national discussion, however, and as a starting point for organizing, I welcome it wholeheartedly.

I’ll be watching and reporting on Obama’s speech when it happens in a few hours, and writing more about my thoughts then and later. First, though, a roundup of others’ initial reactions:

  • American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten says the AFT, a union of K-12 and college educators, is “delighted” with the initiative.
  • History professor David Perry likes the plan, and calls for a push to incorporate mandates for full-time faculty hiring into the program’s college credentialing process.
  • The New York Times notes that Tennessee’s governor and both of its senators — all Republicans — will be at today’s speech.
  • Politico adds that he’ll be joined by Vice President Biden, as well as Jill Biden — herself a community college professor.
  • Matt Reed, a community college dean who has a regular column in Inside Higher Ed, is concerned about sustained funding for such a project, and doubts it’ll get through Congress before the next presidential election.
  • The Institute for College Access and Success released a stinging attack on the plan last night, which it has partially walked back as more details have become public. TICAS remains, however, opposed to free tuition plans that aren’t targeted through means testing.
  • Forbes columnist Andrew Kelly worries about costs, standards, and undercutting for-profit colleges.
  • On that last subject, at this writing (10:15 am ET) for-profit education stocks are down an average of about 1.5% from yesterday’s close.

That’s just a start. I’ll have a lot more in a bit.

About This Blog

n7772graysmall
StudentActivism.net is the work of Angus Johnston, a historian and advocate of American student organizing.

To contact Angus, click here.

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