I’m Ok, You’re Not Ok

“Reclaim Your Rights as a Liberal Educator.” That’s the title of a short essay in this month’s Academe, organ of the American Association of University Professors. The phrase has all the imagination of a slogan unfurled at countless marches, but what it lacks in wit it makes up for in fortitude of the uniquely academic kind. Author Julie Kilmer, women’s studies and religion professor at Olivet College, sounds the standard “they’re-out-to-get-us” call and rallies her brethren to take back the classroom. We have, too, a vicious aggressor: conservative student groups that confront professors of perceived liberal bias, and they form a national network out to undermine the faculty, who come off as vulnerable and innocent professionals. While the professors uphold “freedom of inquiry to examine the worth of controversial ideas” and “teach college students to use analytical thinking in the development of new ideas,” groups such as Students for Academic Freedom do their best to subvert the process. Worst of all, they “encourage students to bring complaints against faculty to administrators.” To Kilmer, they are no better than spies, and they prompt her to wonder, “Each time a student is resistant to feminist theories and ideas, should I ask if he or she has been placed in my class to question my teaching? How is my teaching affected if I enter the classroom each day asking, ‘Is today the day I will be called to the president’s office?”

That’s the result of conservative student activism, and there is much to note in the panicky chill that descends upon this feminist professor and so many others. That they should so exaggerate the power of students, assume the role of victim, and concoct scenarios of interrogation without offering the slightest factual evidence or acknowledging the special protections of professorial life bespeaks an anxiety deeply held. Such disproportionate responses suggest a psyche in action, the mindset of people who’ve nursed resentments for many years within the artificial havens of one-party departments, tenure, and a 30-week work year. (Do not believe academics when they talk about summer research work. Outside the scientists, most of them are idle or labor on books and articles that they don’t have to write and that less than 50 people will read.)

With such vast disparities between the threat professors envision and the actual security they enjoy, one would think that more people would recognize the problem of ideological bias on campus. But they don’t, and the reason lies in a campus advent that has nothing to do with psychology. Instead, it’s a sweeping sleight-of-hand that liberal professors have executed in their discipline. We see it operating in this very essay in Academe, and in the sentences I just quoted. Did you spot it? Professor Kilmer worries that a student who “is resistant to feminist theories and ideas” may sit in her class as a “plant,” someone to incriminate her and send her upstairs for punishment. That’s how she interprets uncongenial students, and it’s an astounding conversion. In her class, any student who contests feminist notions falls under a cloud of suspicion. The ordinary run of skeptics, obstructionists, gadflies, wiseacres, and sulkers that show up in almost every undergraduate classroom is recast as an ideological cadre. If a student in a marketing class were to dispute the morality of the whole endeavor, no doubt liberal professors would salute him as a noble dissenter. But when he criticizes feminism, he violates a trust. He doesn’t just pose intellectual disagreement. He transgresses classroom protocol.

Behold the transformation. An ideology has become a measure of responsibility. A partisan belief is professional etiquette. A controversial outlook is an academic norm. Political bias suffuses the principles of scattered disciplines. Advocacy stands as normal and proper pedagogy. That’s the sleight-of-hand, and it activates in far too many decisions in curriculum, grading, hiring, and promotion. I remember a committee meeting to discuss hiring a 19th-century literature specialist when one person announced, “We can only consider people who do race.” For her, “doing race” wasn’t a political or ideological preference. It was a disciplinary prerequisite.

The reason professors can declare such biases so blithely is precisely because they have acquired a disciplinary sheen, the mantle of professional criteria. In the subsequent essay in Academe, “Impassioned Teaching,” women’s studies professor Pamela L. Caughie of Loyola University (Chicago) asserts, “In teaching students its [feminism’s] history, its forms, and its impact, I am teaching them to think and write as feminists.” So much for the vaunted critical thinking professors prize, and the injunction that they question orthodoxy and convention. Caughie aims to produce versions of herself. And it’s more than an ego trip – it’s a professional duty: “I feel I am doing my job well when students become practitioners of feminist analysis and committed to feminist politics” (emphasis added).

We end up with indoctrination passing as proper teaching. When Kilmer states, “What happens to the feminist classroom when students challenge feminist principle?” we might respond, “An energetic discussion follows.” But for Kilmer, it means disruption and intimidation. By her own admission, she can no longer distinguish honest disagreement from insubordinate conduct. That’s what happens when disciplines admit ideology into their grounds. Accept the ideology and you’re sure to advance. You’re okay. Decline it, and you’re not okay. You’re not only wrong – you’re illegitimate.


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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31 thoughts on “I’m Ok, You’re Not Ok

  1. “Feminists do not seek to make themselves objects of study” – Bottomley/Gibson/Meteyard, pg 48 Critical Legal Studies, 1987.
    You have to realise that feminism rejects the Ebnlightenment idea of debate between opposing views as patriarchal & oppressive to women. Thus the student’s disagreement is itself a form of oppression of the female professor.

  2. Outside the scientists, most of them are idle or labor on books and articles that they don’t have to write and that less than 50 people will read.
    Things about this article that I noted that have nothing to do with the point of Mark’s original post.
    1. The above line was the basis of most of the comments.
    2. It (The Line, not the post) was partially about the effort to write an article that only 50 people would read, much less care about. This post, which was the effort of maybe 4 hours if that much, got 30 people to comment.

  3. Several commenters object to my reference to summer work loads, and I think I should have made clear that I had tenured professors in mind, not the untenured. I did say “research work,” though, which doesn’t account for summer teaching and administration and service that many folks do.
    I stick by the assertion about the extraneousness and inconsequence of most research for humanities folks. Anybody who doubts its unpopularity need only consult a humanities editor at a scholarly press, or look at the circulation figures for humanities quarterlies. A Yale Press editor announced awhile back that while Yale used to count on a guaranteed 1000 copies sold for every book, now it can only count on 250, and almost all of those are standing library orders. The books and articles pile up, and most of them disappear into the stacks forever. Still, professors labor feverishly over the next conference paper and manuscript, thinking more about personal advancement than the progress of knowledge and scholarship. And, unfotunately, for institutions, it’s all about quantity, not quality. One brilliant book in a twenty-year period counts less than three mediocre books in the same time.

  4. Do not believe academics when they talk about summer research work. Outside the scientists, most of them are idle or labor on books and articles that they don’t have to write and that less than 50 people will read.
    Wow, Mark. Your decline is accelerating dangerously.

  5. Leaving aside the nonsense about faculty workload (the NEA must be pretty desperate to have such a ‘Director of Research and Analysis’), Dr. Kilmer shouldn’t be worried about Students for Academic Freedom for a pretty straightforward reason: this clearinghouse for aggrieved students only has 440 posts in its complaint databases, and many of them are unsourced, duplicates and/or nonsensical. That’s for the entire country. SAF is the creature of David Horowitz, and didn’t originate in any student initiative.
    So, for all you Republican parents petrified that Buffy and Biff are going to hear some libberul remarks in classes – you’re right, they may well. But they don’t seem to be too bothered about it, so why should you be?

  6. I teach in a business college. The last time I checked the national average salary for Management, MIS, Marketing, Finance, and Accounting faculty ranged from around 70K to 90K, depending on area of study. My salary falls somewhere in that range and I think that I am probably overpaid for what I do. However, considering what I had to go through to get the job I am underpaid.
    I was making over 100K when I went to graduate school. I was told it was supposed to be a 3 to 4 year program when I entered but somehow most of the people going through ended up taking 6 or 7 years. During that time I had an assistantship that was around 10K. I depleted my family?s savings by the end of the fifth year and went into the job market ABD.
    At my new job I found that I have a few needed reports that I have to do and many worthless ones that are also required. I am in the classroom 12 hours per week and I usually prepare for an hour or two before each class. If I have multiple sections of the same class that helps but I always have at least two different classes to prepare for. I have 8 hours of “Office Hours”, plenty of grading, advise 40 students, serve on 6 committees, and have various department meetings when the Department Chair is bored (required). In addition to the above I am expected to do research and since I am untenured I will be terminated if I fail to do enough. Of course, ?enough? is not defined but the rumored amount goes up every year.
    I like my job. I love teaching and interacting with the students. I love learning new things. The paper pushing is a major drag but the ability to come and go as I please is a great perk. If I want to get play golf or attend my child’s school event during the day I can usually do so even though I will be up late that night making up for it.
    Much of what I do is not needed or could be done more cheaply by a trained monkey (but it would have to be a smart monkey). But if you want to hire people who are smart, have a good work ethic, and have industry experience then you have to be willing to pay a decent salary. I will forgo 100K+ per year in exchange for 2/3 the money, less stress, and more freedom and I like the deal. If you drop the salaries much more than what they are good luck hiring anyone who is capable of actually functioning in the business world.
    Faculty in the social sciences generally don’t have the same opportunity costs so they don’t make as much money. I suspect that has something to do with the number of flakes you get teaching in the social sciences. It is just hard to find bright people who are sane and can function in society who will work for much less.

  7. I think if someone on a hiring committee says, “We can only consider people who do race,” one should respond, “Well, I think we can only consider people who do class.”
    Academics don’t do class very well these days. They want diversity in terms of race and gender, but not class. They say they focus on race, class, and gender, but it’s really race, gender, sexual orientation, the environment, the Third World, the disabled, and only then class.
    And when they do think about class, it is women and minorities that they are thinking about, not poor white males.

  8. Many non-academics would also wonder why tenured people should be given salaries and benefits in high five or low six figures for teaching a few classes a week
    Well, a spouse of a tenured full-professor department chair with 15 years teaching experience after a PhD from one of the top universities in his field and 2 prestigeous post-docs with an endowed chair who each week is scheduled into 19 hours of class, lab and seminar, 4 hours of independent study meetings with students, 1.5 hours of committee meetings, 3 hours of problem sessions, one full 14-hour day travelling to a national lab to conduct research, not nearly enough office hours for the big classes he teaches with no TAs… where was I again? Oh, yeah, I wonder in what base arithmetic is $55,000 considered “high five or low six figures” ?

  9. What data on summer research habits has Mark Bauerlein presented? What are only DJ and colagirl expected to produce statistical arguments while everyone else can just spout off on whatever they want?
    I detest academics who politicize their topics; I detest second-raters who make up for their second-rate-ness by making students follow the party line. But if the response is to say all humanities and social science is junk and should be defunded, then frankly I’ll have to side with them, because at least they accept the legitimacy of humanistic research.
    Go ahead. Make conservative academics like myself think you’re not just hostile to the abuse in academia, but to the very existence of humanistic research. Fat load of good it’ll do you, or the conservative cause.

  10. Many years ago I was a student at Harvard Law School and I had the privilege of being in a Torts class taught by Duncan Kennedy, a well-known “critical legal studies” professor who was/is quite far to the left. (I may be mistaken, but I believe he professed to be a Marxist.) At one point in the semester, a conservative student made a conservative point during a discussion, and, of course, was immediately hissed/booed by the usual group of leftist conformist student idiots. The impressive thing was that, notwithstanding his obvious disagreement with the student’s point of view Kennedy immediately jumped to his defense, strongly admonished the class not to engage in that sort of censorship of ideas, and then used the comment as a pedagogical device to play out alternative ways of thinking about and working through legal doctrine and analysis. It was really nice, and in thinking about that event, it strikes me that it was great example how a mature, thoughtful, and intellectually confident professor responds to alternative viewpoints expressed in the classroom. Rather than insisting on adherence to particular point of view, Kennedy welcomed, indeed encouraged, alternative view points and used them as a means to explore different ways of thinking about a particular topic. The absurd, paranoid approach apparently taken by Kilmer seems to me to be evidence of an immature thinker who lacks confidence in her own position and intellectual prowess.

  11. In order to be an effective teacher, you must first build a relationship of trust with those you hope to teach. That was the problem with many professors under whom I studied. They arrogantly presumed that such a relationship was an entitlement. The best professors, regardless of whether they leaned left or right in their views, were the ones that recognized their duty to earn their students’ trust and respect. The worst were those that delighted in belittling everyone that didn’t share their political worldview, and fostered a contentious environment.

  12. This reminded me of my undergrad English class. We had to write on several subjects and I always took the conservative or Christian point of view for the starting point of my arguments. The teacher used all but two of my essays in the class (without naming me, at least) and then tried to argue why my concepts were incorrect. With that in mind I used one paper to say that if all cultures were equal in worth, the British should apologize for stopping the widow burnings in India and we should accept daughter sacrifices to voodoo in Haiti. To my amazement, (at that time, not now) the teacher actually tried to argue that killing the women was all right because it was being included in the culture. I guess if one wants to off a female relative and get a pass from academe, just take them to India or Haiti and have at it… I’m still shaking my head over that one.

  13. I have a wife who is a chemistry professor.
    I still recall her disbelief when, during her PhD thesis writing ordeal, she was told that people in humanities, law, etc., just write up their opinions about things and the “research” is simply citations to other people’s opinions.
    She wondered aloud at this. No actual facts have to be discovered through the scientific method? No provable results of experiments are detailed and held up to peer scrutiny?
    She thereupon considered all higher degrees in such fields to be little more than puffery, at least when compared to the hard sciences. After thinking about it some more, I found I agreed with her.

  14. Well, what if such silly courses as Womens’ Studies are required for a degree? Should students have to be subjected to Kilmer’s shrill and paranoid ilk?

  15. Would that this sort of attitude ended with feminist theory – radical or otherwise. The nebulous concept of “social justice” is also now considered a mandatory area of study in many programs.
    Goddard College, for instance, has two separate and mandatory competencies listed for their Masters in Psychology & Counseling. These areResearch and Social Justice: an understanding of the ways social science research relates to issues of social justice.
    Psychology and Social Justice: an understanding of the history of social justice advocacy in psychology and the student’s relation to it.
    The vague descriptions on their site provide no information to the prospective student regarding what’s actually required to demonstrate the competency described. In both cases, the student is required to perform some form of “field work” that involves or furthers the cause of “social justice” (whatever that is). I have no doubt that this is more the rule than the exception throughout most contemporary higher ed.
    Think of the response from the school if a student decided, mid-way through the program, that their tuition wasn’t being paid to pursue political activism!

  16. I agree 100% with your central argument, but I have to say I’m with DJ in that I wish you hadn’t included your comment about professors’ workloads. My father is a tenured professor in one of the social sciences (though he isn’t a leftoid, thankfully) and he works every day of the week, year round, including weekends, Christmas, and New Years’ Day. Furthermore, in addition to writing books that will be read by “less than 50 people” (in point of fact, he has authored or co-authored several widely-used textbooks and is generally acknowledged to be one of the leading experts in his field), a great deal of his time is spent advising grad students of widely varying skill levels, including getting grants for projects that will allow him to employ them as research assistants (anyone who has ever been in grad school and worried about their funding knows how important having an assistantship is). It’s not a coincidence that my brother, who initially planned to go into academia, bailed after his master’s and took a regular 8-to-5 job that he can leave at the office.
    That being said, I do agree entirely with the main point of your post. I think the leftist tilt of the academy is harmful to it in all sorts of ways, harmful to students as well, and exerts a corrosive effect on the fabric of society at large as well–Greg’s and TMLutas’s posts demonstrate why, in that students essentially learn that they must spit back whatever their professor tells them if they want to earn a good grade. That some conservative students are beginning to challenge this should be a cause for celebration–isn’t one of the central tenets of academia supposed to be that we are always supposed to challenge our presuppositions? The paranoia that is greeting this from certain quarters of the academy speaks volumes.

  17. “I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind, got my paper And I was free”
    Indigo Girls
    How true, if they only knew how true.

  18. For TMlutas, who objects to the following:
    “(Do not believe academics when they talk about summer research work. Outside the scientists, most of them are idle or labor on books and articles that they don’t have to write and that less than 50 people will read.)”
    OK, let’s amend the first few words to read as follows:
    “(Be very skeptical of academics when they talk about summer research work…..
    Is that better?
    It seems to me you are being a tad narcissistic
    when you claim that since your summer research is read by more than 50 people, the author’s point is negated. Did you notice the “most” appearing in the next sentence?
    If you would like to contest the general statement, please have at it with some hard evidence. But countering using your own situation is weak – especially when you undercut your own point by pointing to the disincentives and tendency-toward-laziness inherent in the tenure system.
    Many non-academics would also wonder why tenured people should be given salaries and benefits in high five or low six figures for teaching a few classes a week and “publishing” research that no one reads. Generally people who labor in obscurity get paid low wages, while those who make significant contributions get the Big Bucks. Entire library floors filled with unread tomes are evidence that a system paying huge amounts of money to very generously fund their authors is either broken, or a fraud.
    The way many educated non-academics see it, the professorial class tells each other and the world that what they do, no matter how obscure, how far removed from hard science or mathematics, how much lacking in practicality or utility, or how much freighted by spurious “facts” and woozy, agenda-filled “reasoning”, is really, really important — and then reward themselves as if they truly add significant value to our store of knowledge.
    Most don’t, yet get paid as if they did.

  19. I remember with affection and gratitude most of the educators I had the good fortune to learn from in the 60s. Those were indeed turbulent times, with civil rights and Vietnam at the forefront of daily life. Academics certainly had their opinions, even biases. But I am hard-pressed to recall even one professor who was as terrified of dissent as today’s tenured academics seem to be. At some point, a faculty’s duty to try in earnest to educate the next generation was supplanted by a license to preen in front of adoring sponges, whose tuition now allows them only the right to witness whatever prejudices, emotions, neuroses and insecurities drive their teachers. Higher education is now primarily a pedestal for faculty narcissism.

  20. Greg —
    Merely to be pedantic, 2+2 will never = 100. I believe you’re tongue in cheek was for binary. Since 2 is not binary, the best you can hope for is 2+2=11.

  21. As someone who never went to college in the US, I can’t help wondering: why would anyone ever take Women’s Studies? In the ‘ole USSR, Communist Party History was at least a required subject for all majors; are those ridiculous “humanities” the equivalent? Of course now that my son is in his freshman year, I won’t have to wait long to find out 🙁

  22. This article hits the nail right on the head.
    “Do not believe academics when they talk about summer research work. Outside the scientists,…”
    If people in Liberal Arts were bound by the same evidence-based approach of science, much of the blather they spout would be recognized for the nonsense it is. This is the real fear of such folks – that a student will be able to best them in an argument because the intellectual foundations of much Left-wing ideology is so rotten.

  23. Oooh! Those evil conservatives – they lurk everywhere. The next thing you know is that they will force everyone to use logic and reasoning in the classroom. Then we are all doomed.

  24. (Do not believe academics when they talk about summer research work. Outside the scientists, most of them are idle or labor on books and articles that they don’t have to write and that less than 50 people will read.)
    I am an untenured faculty member at a small teaching university. The talk about summer research is true for most of the faculty members I know. If you would change the last part of your statement to “…articles they don’t want to write becuase they know it is unimportant and less than 50 will read it.”, then I would agree with you.
    Teaching is still a reasonably cushy job and I am not complaining. I just want to point out that it is like most jobs and has its bad points as well.

  25. I’m sympathetic with your central argument, to say the least. But this seems like an ugly non sequitur:
    Do not believe academics when they talk about summer research work. Outside the scientists, most of them are idle or labor on books and articles that they don’t have to write and that less than 50 people will read.
    Granted, one of the effects of tenure is to undermine the incentive to work. But you tell people not to believe academics (outside the sciences) when they claim to do research over the summer.
    Well, I work 6 day weeks over the summer, and I’m an academic in the humanities. Do you think I’m unsual? Not for untenured people and those with ambition — despite the gross inefficiencies of the marketplace in academia, which further undermine the incentive to work. I do have tenure, btw.
    What’s your evidence that I’m unusual in this regard? What you say in support of it seems simply irrelevant to the question of how hard I work during the summer.
    To say that I don’t have to do the research is irrelevant; the question is whether I do it. And I do, and for several reasons (none of which is that I have to): I like what I do, I care about my reputation, I want a better position.
    To say that my work will be read by less than 50 people is the ugly part of the non sequitor. For most of my work, it’s false — because my work is good and gets read. Admittedly academic research has a very limited audience, and that’s true of my work as well. So maybe I’ve got a hundred, or a few hundred, readers. What does that have to do with the issue of how hard I work? Nothing. I’ll even agree that most academic research is pretty bad, and doesn’t deserve to be read widely. But these claims have nothing to do with how hard anyone is working.
    Since I agree so strongly that the AAUP stuff is disingenuous nonsense, I wish you hadn’t muddied the water with this other stuff.

  26. The collateral damage for the get along/go along route is rather severe in my opinion. People who would be terrific professors are discouraged and even ejected from the profession. Those on the right who are bright quickly figure out that they should structure their academic efforts toward a life outside the academy. That does the academy no service, starving it of center-right minds other than those combative few who are willing to put up with the nonsense of pervasive ideological bias.

  27. Without defending the right of professors to indoctrinate, or inflict their biases on students…
    the academics I know DO work all summer. I can just about handle the standard BS that academics have summers off when it comes from people who have no idea about what being an academic is about, but from a working academic, it is very sad.
    This summer I:
    for three weeks spent 8-10 hours a day in the library on a research trip (which I had to pay for out of pocket, as usual. I would come home and spend more time writing and reading.
    2) reviewed 2 books, and red (for professional reasons, believe me) a dozen more, plus numerous journal articles
    3) wrote an article for publication
    4) began drafting my second book
    5) taught 2 summer school classes (I actually was PAID for that task)
    6) wrote letters of recommendation for students
    7) as my department undergrad coordinator, went through three 2-day trransfer orinetation sessions, and met with dozens of incoming students (minimal stipend)
    8) attended hours of “winding up” meetings for university committees after the date from which the state of NC ceases to pay me
    9) fielded loads of professional-related inquiries, e-mails, etc etc.
    10) spent many hours ordering books for the fall, revising syllabi, preparing power points, etc, for upcoming courses.
    I could go on.
    I don’t think any of this is unusual.
    I can be as critical of my profession as anyone, but the fiction that professors don’t work hard (even in summers) is just that.
    There are some lazy professors, but the challenging nature of the job market pretty much gaurantees that most faculty members are self-motivated overachievers, and variations on that theme.
    That is the reality I encounter every day at my university, where by the way there is comparatively little pressure to produce in order to recieve tenure.

  28. I can’t say this strikes me as a new thing– except the fact that there are students willing to call the faculty on the matter.
    My father always encouraged me to smile, nod, say the right things, and then think whatever I darned well pleased.
    That worked okay for me, but I’m a reader so I was inclined to read actual history and not just swallow whatever the teacher told me and therefore was able to get an education in spite of my schooling. School then became an exercise in saying what the latest authority figure wanted to hear– an invaluable skill in these days of corporate downsizing.
    My advice– keep your head down, and study something with lots of math. Even the most ardent feminist professor can’t make 2+2 = 6 (although an enterprising engineer can make 2+2 = 100).

  29. Professors are intimidated by students? An 18-year old freshman scares a 45-year old professor with tenure? Most students, accustomed to teachers as athority figures, will question themselves rather than a rogue faculty member, even a t.a., when his or her grade hangs in the balance.
    I experienced this in 1966 at the University of Illinois, when I was too naive to challenge plumeting grades in a freshman rhetoric class after “failing to develop my ideas correctly” when I doubted the utility of the United Nations.
    And if I were to question her evaluation of my performance, to whom would I have would I have gone? Someone with the same prejudices, no doubt.
    And now, even with departments dedicated to indoctrination, these professors are afraid of students? Give me a break.
    As an aside, my daughter made a rule for selecting classes: Nothing with “woman” or “women” in the title.

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