I’ve enjoyed your class this semester, but I need to prioritize other demands on my time during the exam period. Could you tally my grade and let me know if I can pass this class without submitting the final paper?
Please reply at your earliest convenience.
I fell out of love with teaching during the exact moment I opened this email from an undergraduate student. My disillusionment with academia has always been present in varying degrees since the beginning of my career, but the shift in my belief in the value of my work was sudden and complete, like flicking off a light switch before going outside.
Professors famously enjoy complaining that their students are lazy, and I couldn’t agree less. Having taught at various colleges and universities in the United States, it’s been my experience that the kids are all right, actually. There are always going to be a few students in every class who don’t make any secret of the fact that they’d rather not be there. Still, most undergrads are hardworking and earnest young adults who have grand dreams but are painfully aware of their low likelihood of achieving success. They’re intelligent, they’re socially conscious, and they’re almost frighteningly talented. Unfortunately, for most of them, their prospects aren’t great.
As of 2021, the average annual cost of a four-year college in the United States is $35,770, and the vast majority of college students owe at least $30,000 in student debt when they graduate. The employment opportunities for recent graduates aren’t great, regardless of whether they major in the Humanities or a STEM field. Ambitious students aiming for salaried positions are often forced to enroll in a graduate degree program. Others continue to accept unpaid or underpaid internships after graduation as they chase the chance of a stable job that offers a livable wage. During their hunt for a decent job, many recent graduates feel compelled to move far away from their family and friends, breaking both their intimate social ties and the networks of connections that college life is supposed to facilitate. Any way you look at it, it’s a bleak picture.
I teach classes about contemporary media cultures in East Asia. The discipline tends to attract Business students and STEM majors who’d like to minor in the Humanities for personal reasons but feel as though they need to justify their choice on a resume. Most of my students aren’t white, and many of them have explained that they’re interested in histories and cultures that aren’t Anglo-European. Some of them have admitted to wanting to learn about the country their family immigrated from in a space that’s mostly separate from the complications of the relationships they have with their parents and grandparents. It can be tricky to occupy to the position of teaching someone about their own culture, but it’s been a pleasure and an honor to stand behind my students during their journeys.
What I feel that I owe to these young people, the gifted and the mediocre students alike, is to help them make their way in the world. A professor publishes research and teaches classes, but it’s also our job to create connections for our students. We write letters, we make phone calls, we introduce our students to the right people, we send them applications to programs that align with their goals and interests, and we help them win grants and scholarships and paid internships. When necessary, we do battle against the bureaucracy of the university administration on their behalf.
What students get out of our classes isn’t necessarily the acquisition of concrete knowledge, but rather a framework for dealing with the world on both an intellectual and a practical level. In the end, even if our students don’t become specialists in our fields, they will hopefully have a pleasant experience learning about how beautiful and complicated and interesting the world can be.
That’s what I thought, at least, right up until the point I lost my job at a public university during the pandemic. After I was notified that my contract wouldn’t be renewed, I was able to find a part-time job at the sort of well-funded private university that can afford to hire temp workers during a pandemic. Although I’d gotten my degrees at places like this, actually teaching there was an altogether different experience. Many of my students, at twenty years old, have a higher net worth than I will ever have at any point in my life. They know it, and they made sure that I know it as well.
For all the magic of teaching and learning, higher education in the United States is a tool of social and economic privilege. The rich use it to maintain their wealth, while it causes the lower and middle classes to become poorer. The undergraduate students who go to colleges that aren’t “top twenty schools” work hard and take on massive amounts of debt in order to have access to something that students born into wealth feel entitled to. No matter what my intentions may have been when I entered academia, no “decolonizing the classroom” initiatives, job placements, or glowing recommendation letters can account for that fact that I function as a cog in an engine of inequality. To add insult to injury, my salary isn’t even that high. American universities espouse a neoliberal ideology of “personal commitment to teaching and service,” which functions as a means of justifying their exploitation of the precarious labor of instructors.
In other words, my career in academia was like an abusive relationship. I kept telling myself that it would get better, but this was little more than a fantasy that supported my idealistic but naïve view of higher education in the United States. Nothing made this clearer to me than reading my first “please reply at your earliest convenience” email from a student who saw our power dynamic for what it was and had no qualms about using the privilege of his position to negotiate a grade.
You may be wondering how I responded. I allowed the student to pass the class without completing the work, of course. The way I see it, you either do things for love or money, and I’m not being paid enough to care.