Students and scholars alike are in precarious positions

What links the anxious, fearful undergraduate and the anxious, fearful academic? Pervasive precarity, argues Matthew Vernon

November 10, 2016
Miles Cole illustration (10 November 2016)
Source: Miles Cole

“I need a higher grade.”

This office-hours refrain is all too familiar to academics. For years, I’ve stuck to the same script in response: I explain my grading policy, discuss the completed assignments and offer an explanation for the earned grade. Usually this has been enough.

No longer. Now, increasingly anxious students offer me a barrage of evidence documenting mounting educational debt and intervening personal circumstances that kept them from attending class. One student activist even hinted that his grades would be higher if he wasn’t dedicating so much time to the campaign to fire the university’s chancellor, Linda Katehi (who resigned in August). Even my top students view their undergraduate experience as traumatic and talk about needing the summer after they graduate “to heal”.

A recent flurry of articles that purport to explain a new generation of students and their relationship to institutions of higher education have painted two portraits of students that are seemingly at odds with one another. On one hand, students are responding to a new era of being consumers of an “educational experience” rather than pupils to be challenged and evaluated. An article by Nathan Heller in The New Yorker in May, “The Big Uneasy”, exemplifies this approach. It frames the problem as being within elite liberal arts schools, and presents students as sensitive to a fault, politically aware and, at times, antagonistic towards their institutions, criticising them for failing to cater to their needs. In one instance, this was literally the case, as students at Oberlin College in Ohio protested against its dining hall’s “inauthentic” ethnic food.

On the other hand, there are those less privileged students at public institutions who are being squeezed by the ever-higher tuition fees that they are being charged as state funding declines. A recent study by California State University found that one in 10 of the institution’s 460,000 students is homeless, and one in five is sometimes short of food.

On the surface, the obstacles faced by public university students seem to have little in common with those of their counterparts on elite college campuses. But I work at a public research university with a strong reputation, and I see both the student who has spent weeks protesting to the detriment of her studies and the one who works too many hours to even open a book. And it strikes me that while the symptoms and the stakes are different, both are suffering from the same widespread condition: precarity. They share the constant feeling of being on the verge of the security that they believe their bachelor’s degree will assure, while also coping with a dread of failure.

During my office hours, I’ve become aware of the limits of my professional abilities. My once iron-clad idea of professional ethics bends beneath the weight of doubt about my profession. Grade boundaries seem to pale into insignificance when set against very real concerns about a job, or a well-considered political position. I was a first-generation college student and I am a faculty member of colour, so I am particularly sympathetic to the difficulties and frustrations of being a student.

At the same time, grades assume an outsized importance as I wonder if, as a junior faculty member, refusing to make concessions will return to haunt me in my course evaluations. Precarity has increasingly come to define relationships within the academy. The protests earlier this year against Katehi followed a cloud of scandal around nepotism and misuse of student funds. When she was finally put on administrative leave in April, she filed a grievance against the university system for unfairly targeting her (a claim that has gained more credence in light of the California system’s slow response to the mishandling of sexual assault cases and allegations of financial mismanagement at the University of California, Berkeley). And faculty members seem to be caught in the crossfire, with senior faculty divided on how to respond and junior faculty uncertain about whether it is safe to even speak up at all. Needless to say, this all comes after years of tuition fee hikes, state funding cuts, expanding enrolments, classroom shortages and pension renegotiation that has left students, faculty and staff at every level of the university system aggrieved. Precarity, it would seem, goes all the way up and all the way down.

This is dangerous if it metastasises into barriers of suspicion between parts of the university that depend on one another: when the student becomes just a credit hour to be collected, or when the teacher becomes merely an obstacle on the way to a prime internship and a great job. But if precarity isolates us, it also has the potential to unite us. Of course there is no easy antidote given its roots in the hard reality of inequalities of money and power. But things could be done – by the government, at least – to alleviate the growing problem of student debt. And, thankfully, universities are finally turning their attention to the issue of diversification, as shown by the California system recruiting its most diverse class ever in 2016.

It is no accident that public universities are at the epicentre of debates about the meaning of the public good, and they are uniquely positioned to redefine it. For starters, they could reconceive the value of undergraduate education in terms other than post-graduation employment. This would mean our no longer having two conversations about higher education in private and public settings, but one about how all institutions of higher education should encourage student growth and ambition.

Maybe then we could return to the days when students simply wanted a few more points on a paper.

Matthew Vernon is assistant professor of English at the University of California, Davis.

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POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: We’re on shaky ground

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