The Lie Guy

Original: Chronicle of Higher Education

You’d think I’d get used to being called a liar. After all, I’ve written a candid, semiautobiographical novel about being a scam artist, been interviewed in the media about my former life of lying, cheating, and drinking, even edited a prominent philosophical collection on deception. But when a colleague recently ridiculed me about being known as a liar, my feelings were hurt. I have a new life. I’ve been clean and sober and “rigorously honest” (as we say in AA) for two years. Still, to tell you the truth (honestly!), I earned my reputation fair and square.

In the Internet age, a sordid past is a matter of very public rec­ord—for that matter, of public exaggeration—and if you write fiction and memoir about your worst days, as I did (and continue to do), even your students will take the time to read the racy parts (or at least excerpts in online interviews of the racy parts, or YouTube interviews about the racy parts).

God bless and keep tenure—I’d probably hesitate to be frank in this essay without it—although, to be fair to my institution, the ignominious stories about me and my novel were out before my committee granted me tenure. “It takes an odd person to work on lying,” my late mentor (and friend and co-author), the philosopher Robert C. Solomon, once told me, himself having written one or two of the best papers on the subject.

When I was 26 years old, in 1993, I dropped out of grad school at the University of Texas at Austin—I was on a fellowship, staring day after day at my stalled dissertation among stacks of books and papers from the Kierkegaard Archive in the Royal Library in Copenhagen—to go into the luxury-jewelry business. I decided to burn all of my bridges. I didn’t fill out any forms. I didn’t have the ordinary courtesy even to contact my two dissertation directors, Solomon and Louis H. Mackey. I just vanished.

I told myself that it was a conscious strategy, to prevent myself from going back, but I also knew the truth: that I was simply too ashamed to tell them that I had gone into business for the money. Like many of our deceptions, mine was motivated by cowardice: “Tell the people what they want to hear,” or, if you can’t do that, simply don’t tell them anything at all.

A few years later, my next-door neighbor (my wife and I had just moved in) caught me in the driveway and asked, “Hey, Clancy. Did you go to grad school at the University of Texas?”

“I did, that’s right.” I was already uncomfortable. I opened the door of my convertible. The Texas summer sun frowned cruelly down on me.

“I’m an editor of Bob Solomon’s. He told me to say hello.”

Busted. This was Solomon’s way of calling me on my b.s. It was his personal and philosophical motto, adopted from Sartre: “No excuses!” Take responsibility for your actions. Above all, avoid bad faith. Look at yourself in the mirror and accept—if possible, embrace—the person that you are.

But I was on my way to work, and Bob Solomon, at that point in my life, was the least of my problems. I had him stored neatly in the mental safety-deposit box of “people I had not lied to but had betrayed in a related way.”

The jewelry business—like many other businesses, especially those that depend on selling—lends itself to lies. It’s hard to make money selling used Rolexes as what they are, but if you clean one up and make it look new, suddenly there’s a little profit in the deal. Grading diamonds is a subjective business, and the better a diamond looks to you when you’re grading it, the more money it’s worth—as long as you can convince your customer that it’s the grade you’re selling it as. Here’s an easy, effective way to do that: First lie to yourself about what grade the diamond is; then you can sincerely tell your customer “the truth” about what it’s worth.

As I would tell my salespeople: If you want to be an expert deceiver, master the art of self-deception. People will believe you when they see that you yourself are deeply convinced. It sounds difficult to do, but in fact it’s easy—we are already experts at lying to ourselves. We believe just what we want to believe. And the customer will help in this process, because she or he wants the diamond—where else can I get such a good deal on such a high-quality stone?—to be of a certain size and quality. At the same time, he or she does not want to pay the price that the actual diamond, were it what you claimed it to be, would cost. The transaction is a collaboration of lies and self-deceptions.

Here’s a quick lesson in selling. You never know when it might come in handy. When I went on the market as a Ph.D., I had six interviews and six fly-backs. That unnaturally high ratio existed not because I was smarter or more prepared than my competition. It was because I was outselling most of them.

Pretend you are selling a piece of jewelry: a useless thing, small, easily lost, that is also grossly expensive. I, your customer, wander into the store. Pretend to be polishing the showcases. Watch to see what is catching my eye. Stand back, let me prowl a bit. I will come back to a piece or two; something will draw me. You see the spark of allure. (All great selling is a form of seduction.) Now make your approach. Take a bracelet from the showcase that is near, but not too near, the piece I am interested in. Admire it; polish it with a gold cloth; comment quietly, appraisingly on it. You’re still ignoring me. Now, almost as though talking to yourself, take the piece I like from the showcase: “Now this is a piece of jewelry. I love this piece.” Suddenly you see me there. “Isn’t this a beautiful thing? The average person wouldn’t even notice this. But if you’re in the business, if you really know what to look for, a piece like this is why people wear fine jewelry. This is what a connoisseur looks for.” (If it’s a gold rope chain, a stainless-steel Rolex, or something else very common and mundane, you’ll have to finesse the line a bit, but you get the idea.)

From there it’s easy: Use the several kinds of lies Aristotle identified in Nicomachean Ethics: A good mixture of subtle flattery, understatement, humorous boastfulness, playful storytelling, and gentle irony will establish that “you’re one of us, and I’m one of you.” We are alike, we are friends, we can trust each other.

The problem is, once lying to your customer as a way of doing business becomes habitual, it reaches into other areas of your business, and then into your personal life. Soon the instrument of pleasing people becomes the goal of pleasing people. For example, who wouldn’t want to buy a high-quality one-carat diamond for just $3,000? (Such a diamond would cost $4,500 to $10,000, retail, depending on where you buy it.) But you can’t make a profit selling that diamond for $3,000—you can’t even buy one wholesale for that amount. Since the customer can’t tell the difference anyway, why not make your profit and please the customer by simply misrepresenting the merchandise? But that’s deceptive trade! There are laws against that! (There’s a body of federal law, in fact: the Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act. Texas awards triple damages plus attorney’s fees to the successful plaintiff.) Aren’t you worried about criminal—or at least civil—consequences? And how do you look at yourself in the mirror before you go to bed at night?

During my bleakest days in business, when I felt like taking a Zen monk’s vow of silence so that not a single lie would escape my lips, I often took a long lunch and drove to a campus—Southern Methodist University, Texas Christian University, the University of Texas at Arlington—to see the college kids outside reading books or holding hands or hurrying to class, and to reassure myself that there was a place where life made sense, where people were happy and thinking about something other than profit, where people still believed that truth mattered and were even in pursuit of it. (OK, perhaps I was a bit naïve about academic life.)

I was in the luxury-jewelry business for nearly seven years, and though I don’t believe in the existence of a soul, exactly, I came to understand what people mean when they say you are losing your soul. The lies I told in my business life migrated. Soon I was lying to my wife. The habit of telling people what they wanted to hear became the easiest way to navigate my way through any day. They don’t call it “the cold, hard truth” without reason: Flattering falsehoods are like a big, expensive comforter—as long as the comforter is never pulled off the bed.

It seemed that I could do what I wanted without ever suffering the consequences of my actions, as long as I created the appearance that people wanted to see. It took a lot of intellectual effort. I grew skinnier. I needed more and more cocaine to keep all my lies straight. And then, one morning, I realized that I had been standing in “the executive bathroom” (reserved for my partner and myself) at the marble sink before a large, gilt Venetian mirror every morning for days, with my Glock in my mouth (in the jewelry business, everyone has a handgun). I still remember the oily taste of that barrel. Before I confronted the fact that I was trying to kill myself, I had probably put that gun in my mouth, oh, I don’t know—20, 30 times. I said, “Enough.”

I called Bob Solomon. That was in May of 2000.

I was relieved when he didn’t answer his phone. I left a message: “I’m sorry, Dr. Solomon. I’d like to come back.” Words to that effect, but at much greater length. I think the beep cut me off.

When he called back, I was too frightened to pick up. I listened to his voice-mail message. He said, “Clancy, this is not a good time to make yourself difficult to get ahold of.”

I called again. He let me off easy. (He was perhaps the most generous person I’ve ever known.) I caught him up with the past six years of my life. He told me to call him Bob, not Dr. Solomon: “We’re past that.” Then he said, “So, why do you want to come back?”

“I want to finish what I started, Bob.”

“That’s a lousy reason. Try again.”

“I need to make a living that’s not in business. I hate being a businessman, Bob.”

“So be a lawyer. Be a doctor. You’ll make more money. It’s not easy to get a job as a professor these days, Clancy.”

“It’s the one thing I really enjoyed. Philosophy was the only thing that ever truly interested me. And I have some things I want to figure out.”

“Now you’re talking. Like what? What are you thinking about?”

“Lying. Or failure. I feel like I know a lot about both of them right now.”

(I was writing a long essay about suicide, which, come to think of it, might have been more to the point at the time. But I didn’t want to scare him off.)

A beat.

“Nobody wants to read about failure. It’s too depressing. But lying is interesting. Deception? Or self-deception? Or, I’m guessing, both?”

“Exactly. Both. How they work together.”

With the help of a couple of other professors who remembered me fondly, in the fall semester of 2000, Bob Solomon brought me back to the philosophy doctoral program at Austin, and I started work on a dissertation called “Nietzsche on Deception.” One of the other graduate students—Jessica Berry, now one of philosophy’s best young Nietzsche scholars—called me “the lie guy,” and the moniker stuck.

I went to work on deception not because I wanted to learn how to lie better—I had mastered the art, as far as I was concerned—but because I wanted to cure myself of being a liar. What had started out as a morally pernicious technique had become a character-defining vice. I had to save myself. I needed to understand the knots I had tied myself into before I could begin to untangle them. (It seems like an odd solution now. At the time, I thought I was too smart for therapy.)

It’s an old idea, of course: The Delphic injunction “Know thyself” is an epistemological duty with moral muscle, intended for a therapeutic purpose. Throughout the history of philosophy, until quite recently, it was thought that the practice of philosophy should have a powerful impact on the philosopher’s life—even, ideally, on the lives of others. So I studied deception and self-deception, how they worked together, why they are so common, what harms they might do, and when, in fact, they may be both useful and necessary. Think, for example, about the misrepresentation, evasion, and self-deception involved in falling in love. Who hasn’t asked, when falling in love, “But am I making all this up?” Erving Goffman would have agreed with the joke—I think we owe it to Chris Rock: “When you meet someone new, you aren’t meeting that person, you’re meeting his agent.”

I was lucky: I was awarded my Ph.D. in 2003, and I got a job. Being part of a university as a professor was very different from being a student, even a grad student. Suddenly you have power. In business—especially in retail—the customer has all the power. But students are nothing like customers, although they are starting to act more and more that way, I’ve noticed, and have eagerly adopted the motto “the customer is always right.” My fellow professors wore their power like a crown. They didn’t feel the need to pull a smile out of anyone.

I was still going from classroom to committee room trying to please everyone. I don’t think it harmed me or anyone else, particularly: It was simply unnecessary. As that sank in, I became disoriented. It reminded me of when I was in St. Petersburg, Russia, in the 1990s, trying to hire the world’s best (and most underpaid) jewelers. No one cared about your money. The concept hadn’t yet sunk its teeth into the post-Communist soul. Similarly, in academe, no one paid much attention to the capital—charm—I was accustomed to spending in my daily life.

In fact, charm could even be a hindrance. In my first year, I was asked by a senior colleague to be the research mentor to a philosopher who had been hired around the same time. After talking about my research, my colleague added, “You are mostly who you seem to be.” This from a man who prided himself on being only who he seemed to be—as though we are all only one person!—and as a way of letting me know that he had “seen through me,” that he “was not prey to my charms.” Also, no doubt he was gently letting me know that I didn’t have to pretend to be someone other than I was.

In my old life, everyone was always trying to be more charming than everyone else—even the gruffness of certain wholesalers was (everyone understood) only pretense, the pose of authenticity, the rough exterior that hid the honest, caring heart. To be charming was among the highest virtues.

But now the chair of a science department at my university—a person whom I like very much, and who is enormously charming—and other colleagues often seem suspicious of charm in anyone. Charm is what you expect from administrators, and they, we all know, are not to be trusted. Administrators are just glorified salespeople who can’t publish (so the story goes). A charming student is a dishonest student, an apple polisher.

If I was a bit rude to people, however, if I acted superior, if I had the right mix of intellectual distance and modest moral disdain, I was suddenly a member of the club. I had to be the opposite of eager to please. Other people must be eager to please me. And if they were, I should be suspicious of them. They should be subservient without being (obviously) obsequious. They can flatter, but never as a salesperson flatters; I want flattery only from my equals. This from people who were regularly checking to see how many hot peppers they’d earned. Or who fretted—or, still worse, pretended not to fret—about their teaching evaluations.

I got Bob Solomon on the phone again.

“Bob, the professor business is even sleazier than the jewelry business. At least in the jewelry business we were honest about being fake. Plus, when I go to conferences, I’ve never seen such pretentiousness. These are the most precious people I’ve ever met.”

“Come on, Clancy. Did you really think people were going to be any better in a university?”

“Um, kind of.” Of course I did. “And it’s not that they’re not better. They’re worse.”

“Well, you may have a point there.” (Bob was always very tough on the profession of being a professor.) “Focus on the students and your writing. The rest of it is b.s.” (That was a favorite expression of Bob’s, as it is of a former colleague of his at Princeton, Harry Frankfurt.)

“With the students, I still feel like I’m selling.” (I was very worried about this.)

“You are selling. That’s part of what it is to be a good teacher.” (Bob was in the university’s Academy of Distinguished Teachers and had won every teaching award in the book. He also made several series of tapes for the Teaching Company.) “To be a good teacher, you have to be part stand-up comic, part door-to-door salesman, part expert, part counselor. Do what feels natural. Be yourself. Are your students liking it? Is it working for you?”

“Yes.” They liked it all right, maybe a bit too much. “And I think they’re learning.”

“Then forget about the rest of it. Just have fun. That’s the best reason for doing it.”

Stendhal wrote: “With me it is a matter of almost instinctive belief that when any … man speaks, he lies—and most especially when he writes.” I still like to tell a good story. But doesn’t everybody who loves teaching? How else are you going to liven up the classroom when students’ eyes are always turning to their iPhones or laptops?

People often ask me now if I miss the jewelry business. My brother and I rode elephants in the mountains of northern Thailand to buy rubies from the miners. I flew to Hong Kong to buy a rope of gigantic black South Sea pearls—each nearly the size of your thumb—and a precious antique jade bracelet from a dying Chinese billionairess, and flew to Paris two days later to sell it to a customer. I walked through the winding, crowded streets of Jerusalem with my diamond wholesaler, talking about the two-state solution. I stayed at the Four Seasons, the Mandarin Oriental, or private mansions of friends. I lived shoulder-to-shoulder with celebrity clients, flew first class, had my suits custom-made, vacationed in Bali or wherever I wanted. More important—thinking of my life today—I didn’t worry about whether my daughters might have to take out student loans.

And the truth is, a lot of the time, that life was fun. The people were rich, noisy, outrageous. When I opened a new store, I felt like I’d created something special.

Would I go back? Do I miss it? No. Sometimes—I write this looking out my office window at the 100-year-old trees outside, their boughs barely lifting and falling in the autumn wind—I feel like a monk who has retreated from a world that was too much for him. “The greatest part of virtue lies in avoiding the opportunity for vice,” St. Augustine teaches us.

Maybe I’m persisting in a kind of self-deceptive naïveté that Bob wouldn’t have approved of, but you could say that my livelihood now depends on telling the truth. Back then I was arms-and-shoulders deep into life, and now at times I feel as though I am only skating on its mirrored surface. But I’d be afraid to go back. I feel peaceful now. It’s less work to be me, and to have me around. I don’t feel the need to lie. Most of the time.


Dr. Martin’s new book on deception in romantic relationships entitled “Love and Lies” is now available.


What Parents Need to Know About College Faculty

Author: Joseph Fruscione
Original: PBS NewsHour

It was a nice spring day in 1999 — my second semester of teaching. I was walking past a campus tour group and saw one of my students leading it. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect: as I was passing them, a parent asked if all university faculty were full time. “Yes,” my student said. I was taken aback, because I’d told my classes about being adjunct, as well as a bit about what “adjunct” meant and how many of us there were in the English department alone teaching freshman writing.

The next day, I pulled him aside after class and asked him about it. “I’m not mad at you; I’m just curious: Your class knows I’m a graduate student, not a full-time professor with tenure. I don’t even have my doctorate yet. Why did you tell that parent all university faculty were full time?”

“That’s what the university wants us to say to parents,” he replied.

This is one of many moments in my career I’d like to revisit with the knowledge and dedication to activism I have now. Granted, things have improved a bit since then: another former student told me in 2013 that tour guides tell parents the school employs a variety of professors, and that some of them teach at other schools. This is slightly better, but still not ideal at a school whose tuition is among the highest in the country — yet whose senior administrators receive CEO-level compensation.

I’d love to visit as many colleges as possible during spring tours and back-to-school move-in time. Fifteen years of adjuncting — six as a Ph.D. student, nine as a scholar and hopeful jobseeker — has given me a lot of rich, sometimes troubling experiences that I’d want to share with parents and students. I wish, for example, a parent was with me that time I was in the elevator with my department chair, who quasi-complained about having to teach one class in a semester when I had four first-year writing courses across two schools. (To be clear: I’m not questioning how much work and how many demands chairs have. I’m questioning the myopia of this person’s comment.) “I guess I shouldn’t complain about this to you,” the chair said. “Yes, but it’s fine,” I said. “I manage, and I’m gaining good experience.”

Had some parents been with me, I could’ve added this: “Maybe you can explain to them why the university thinks it’s good to give students — especially freshmen — a string of part-time professors who may be teaching at other schools to make ends meet. Can you or one of the provosts meet with their children while I’m teaching somewhere else to approach a livable wage?” At the time, I was playing nice because I’d hoped (naively) that I could move up the ranks in the department to a full-time position. Perhaps I should’ve damned the torpedoes and just spoken my mind. Playing nice rarely helps adjuncts move up at any school.

We are all a part of higher education’s culture of contingency, regardless of whether we’re students, parents, staff members, graduate TAs, administrators, professors, former academics, and so on. The precarious working conditions on American college campuses mean that adjunct and other non–tenure track faculty must often choose between their desire to teach and their desire to deal with the financial realities of what is, fundamentally, full-time part-timing. In such cases, students suffer when their adjunct professors have to curtail office hours, spend more time traveling between campuses than preparing lectures, grade and comment on writing assignments when they have 70-80 (or more) additional students across several campuses, and otherwise splinter their time and attention.

If you’ll indulge me, parents, I’d like to assign some tasks to any of you both interested in learning more about your children’s schools and willing to help change American higher education. (After 15 years of teaching, I apparently can’t resist assigning homework.) Ultimately, you have every right to know exactly where your tuition dollars are going, how university administrations and policies are harming your children’s learning conditions, and how your children’s teachers are not always treated professionally and equitably.

Want to be more active and engaged in helping improve your children’s college experiences? Think your voice needs to be heard? Here are some simple yet effective ways to get started:

  • Help my fellow advocates and me petition David Weil, the administrator of the Wage and Hour Division at the U.S. Department of Labor, to investigate higher education. (I wrote more about our petition in this previous Making Sen$e post.) We hope to reach 10,000 signatures by Labor Day.
  • Read (and then share) these recent pieces by John Warner and Mary Grace Gainer about what you should know and you can do.
  • Encourage your children to know more about the contingency of their adjunct professors, as well as how that status affects their learning environment. Remind them that financial necessity leads many of their professors to teach at other schools, and perhaps do extra tutoring and editing on the side to make ends meet.
  • Ask your children to contact the university newspaper about writing stories or op-eds about their adjunct professors. (If they need a model, have them read this nice piece from a freshman at my former school.)
  • When your school is trumpeting the new facilities (but perhaps not telling you about those for their leaders), the newly hired star professors (who probably won’t teach undergrads), and view campus “business” as that of a luxury cruise (huh?), ask instead about the working conditions and job stability of their non-tenure track faculty — i.e., the likely majority of professors your children will have. (You’ll get some sample questions in a second.)
  • Follow the advice from other professors (see below) about what you need to know, what you can do, and how you can do it. Learn more about these and other writer-activists dedicated to improving American higher education. Share their work with other concerned, tuition-paying parents whose children might be facing record levels of student debt after they graduate.

The next time you’re on campus, you can ask someone in charge — dean, provost, admissions director, and so on — questions like these:

  • What percentage of your faculty are adjuncts? Approximately how many of your faculty have to teach at other schools?
  • How much do you pay adjuncts per course? How do adjuncts’ salaries compare to those of full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty?
  • How many, if any, tenured professors teach first-year students?
  • What are the salaries of the school’s upper-level administrators, and how many (if any) courses will they teach this year?
  • How is there funding to install posh new facilities or pay star professors who probably won’t teach my freshman, yet not enough to pay the majority of our children’s professors a living wage or give them meaningful full-time positions?

You can also ask campus tour guides these questions, but remember most of them are undergraduate students making a little extra money; they’re not the ones remaking higher education in a corporate, almost anti-intellectual image. If anything, they’re victims of the new college campus, not the creators of it.

Even if you’re not visiting campus, you can call or email the school. You might get the truth. You might not. You might get some spin or adminspeak about “valuing all faculty equally,” “financial realities,” and “some faculty teaching at multiple schools.” If you contact your schools, take notes about whom you’re speaking with, what he or she says, and so on. Then, let me know what happens, so I can write a follow-up piece. When more of you start asking these kinds of questions, university administrations will realize that their actions to undermine higher education are not going unnoticed.

I’m far from the only person eager to talk with you. I asked my professional network what they’d most like to say to parents. I got some smart, wonderful responses:

Natalie Dorfeld: I’d ask them how they would feel if they knew some of their children’s professors were on food stamps.

Brianne Bolin: I’d tell them that at my school, 78 percent of classes are taught by adjuncts who get 8 percent of the extortionist tuition that they’re shelling over. I’d also ask them if they were more concerned with an education or a piece of paper.

Debra Leigh Scott: Don’t blindly send your children to college without informing yourself about the corporatized university of 2014. Don’t apply to colleges without getting the real numbers of adjuncts who will be teaching your children. Know that the universities lie about this. Look at the adjunct-run lists, and get the numbers and the details from somewhere other than the universities themselves.

Desirée Sunshine: Don’t go into debt. If you can’t pay as you go, it’s not worth it.

Gordon Haber: Parents should lock their kids in the basement rather than let them attend for-profit colleges.

Miranda Merklein: Do not send your kids to schools with a pattern of low-wage contract labor, budget cuts to faculty (reduction in costs to instruction), and tuition increases. That pattern demonstrates a lack of concern for education.

Amy Lynch-Biniek: Ask about labor conditions; insist that working conditions equal learning conditions.

Seth Kahn: Make the effort to understand contingency. Know the differences among different kinds of academic jobs. Senior administrators (president, provosts, chancellors and deans) and faculty are very different; there are ranks of faculty even within tenure track, and those titles mean some concrete things.

Melissa Bruninga-Matteau: Absolutely know the ratio of tenure-track faculty to adjuncts, and ask what percentage of classes are taught by non–tenure track faculty, including if there are any grad students teaching classes.

Amy Leggette: Discuss the purpose and expectations of higher ed: i.e., is it job preparation? An “experience”? Or something else?

“Parents need to know they are getting state-of-the-art stair machines instead of well-compensated professors.”

Professor Never had even more to say: As a parent of a rising high school senior, I have found touring colleges with my son a sort of revolting experience. I wasn’t the rebel I’d planned to be on the tours as I found the all-smiles-come-to-our-college/resort atmosphere sickening and oddly oppressive. While I was disappointed in myself for not doing a better job of educating the other parents on the tours with me, I take every opportunity I can to educate all the other parents I know who have kids of similar age about how universities are spending their money. Parents need to know they are getting state-of-the-art stair machines instead of well-compensated professors. They need to know they’re getting luxury dorms instead of professors who have office space and health care. They need to know most universities care more for attracting students than they do about educating them.

Touring colleges should be a lot of things, but “a revolting experience” should never be one of them. (Ever.) These pieces of advice are the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Remember, this comes only from people in my social network. Surely, the tens of thousands of non–tenure track faculty across the country would have more to say. The more you encourage your children and fellow parents to follow your lead in asking tough questions, the more American higher education can change.

Parents: college students and faculty need you on their side if higher education is going to change. Know where your tuition dollars are going. Know more about how the “budget shortfalls” at your children’s schools affect their learning but not senior administrators’ bloated salaries. Know also how many of these administrators are making efforts to further erode professors’ job stability and academic freedom through restrictive social media policies, rejections of tenure cases, and controversial decisions to rescind job offers. Ask the questions your children’s schools may not want to hear.

You can help, parents. A lot. College semesters are starting up again. You might be on campus to help your son or daughter move in, or you might be figuring out how tuition payments are affecting your yearly budget. Either way, you can help fix higher education by following the above advice, asking questions, and otherwise taking an active role in understanding the truth about your children’s education. Students and faculty are on your side; they want you on theirs.

On Student-Shaming and Punching Down

Author: Kevin Gannon
Original: The Tattooed Professor

A few years ago, trapped in the midst of final exam grading, I started posting some of the real howlers I got as answers on Facebook. I didn’t use students’ names, and I don’t “friend” students on FB, so this sort of venting seemed like an OK way for me to keep my sense of humor during the end-term crush.

I have felt guilty about doing that ever since.

Now, I vent plenty on Facebook and (especially) Twitter. PLENTY. But I deploy my snark laterally, or upwards–not down. Not any more. If I am the advocate for teaching and learning that I say I am, then I need to walk the walk. If I argue that failure is not a defeat, but something on which to build successes, then how can I use others’ failures as fodder for cheap laughs?

When I was doing my Ph.D. work, our department had a graduate lounge for our exclusive use, and I used it plenty. Frequently, a certain one of my fellow Ph.D. students would come into the lounge after leading a discussion section and, without fail, just go full blast on his students. THEY DON’T KNOW ANYTHING! THEY CAN’T WRITE! THEY DON’T UNDERSTAND HISTORY! And then he’d get personal. “Student X is a slack-jawed yokel,” that type of stuff. And I would think: Dude, if you’re that cynical now (we were both in our mid- to late-twenties), then I want no part of you when you’re forty.

Facebook and Twitter didn’t exist then; hell, the internet was still fairly novel. But I imagine that guy, and others like him, probably LOVE the “Dear Student” series done by the Chronicle of Higher Education on its Vitae site (which is geared toward job-seekers and grad-school, early-career academics). And, to be sure, some of the behaviors in these columns’ sights might look like easy targets–just like the laugh lines in those student final exams I decided to publicly make fun of back in the day. However, it’s one thing to vent by trading stories and frustrations among trusted friends and colleagues. It’s another thing altogether to vent to vast swaths of the internet. And when it goes beyond venting, there’s a real problem. The “Dear Student” columns are mean. They punch down. They inflate the pedantic into the problematic, and then humiliate rather than empathize. And I’m certainly not the only one who has this reaction; yesterday, Jesse Stommel wrote a magnificent and eloquent essay on why “Dear Student” is such an awful idea. The entire piece is a must-read, but his point about the climate this type of student-shaming work creates is worth repeating:

Everyone that comes into even casual contact with Vitae’s “Dear Student” series is immediately tarnished by the same kind of anti-intellectual, uncompassionate, illogical nonsense currently threatening to take down the higher education system in the state of Wisconsin…Giggling at the water cooler about students is one abhorrent thing. Publishing that derisive giggling as “work” in a venue read by tens of thousands is quite another. Of course, teachers need a safe place to vent. We all do. That safe place is not shared faculty offices, not the teacher’s lounge, not the library, not a local (public) watering hole. And it is certainly not on the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education, especially in Vitae, the publication devoted to job seekers, including current students and future teachers.

He’s absolutely right. As one who has been particularly concerned with the (mis)uses of power in academic settings, Stommel’s admonition hit home for me. He put into words much better than I could have why I still feel guilty about my previous Facebook venting.

Again, this doesn’t mean the end of snark and sarcasm. But punch up, not down. Powerful tenured professor berating students or misusing his power to make life tough for female, LGBT, or African American faculty? There will be richly-deserved snark. Political leader who adapts a belligerently ignorant stance to justify depriving others of basic rights? You will be roasted on Twitter, and I will applaud and retweet. But calling out students–giving examples of their mistakes or missteps? No. As educators, we are the ones with the power. Student foibles are temporary. Our reactions to those foibles can be permanent–for both us and them.

Consider the following Twitter feed:
Twitter12 Twitter5Twitter3Twitter4Twitter9Twitter8Twitter1Twitter11Twitter7


All of these, actually, represent some of the “highlights” of my own undergraduate career. If my professors had been on Facebook or Twitter, and thrown these out on the internet (and it’s not like any of this crap I did was in private), what would have happened if I saw or heard about this “venting?”

Would I have gotten it together and kicked ass in my (second) Senior Year?

Would I have believed what some of my professors told me, that I should try for graduate school?

Would I have gotten in to a Master’s program, then completed it, then gotten into a Ph.D. program with a fellowship?

Would I have asked for the help I needed to address my increasingly deteriorating “lifestyle choices?”

Would I have been lucky enough to be in a position like I am now, where I can teach teachers and students? And in doing so, experience daily growth myself?

I doubt it.

I don’t like shame. I run and hide from what makes me ashamed, and do my level best to stay hidden.

I don’t know if my professors joked about me at the coffee pot, or traded stories about me at cocktail parties. But I do know that they took an interest in helping a student who was trying to get his act together. I do know that they helped build academic confidence for a student who may not have always been receptive to that help. I do know that they offered advice, perspective, and support–as well as references, recommendations, and cheerleading–to a student who wanted to pursue their field of study at the graduate level. I do know that they did this even at the times when I didn’t look or act as grateful as I truly was.

The simple truth is that I am where I am today–in all senses of the term–in part because others did not shame me for the things about which I was already ashamed. I was the “Dear Student” who the Vitae series has dead in its sights. What might we lose tomorrow as a result of shaming today? What do we do to ourselves, our colleagues (present and future), and our students if we revel in punching down at folks who may not even know they’re targets? What–WHO–gets damaged?

We all do.

So, I humbly offer a revised column:

Dear Student:

You’ll get better at this. So will we.

Faculty (a.k.a. former students)