“Ummmmm please read my professors [sic] email.” As classes have hobbled back into session — on Zoom, in person, and a hybrid — viral tweets of correspondences between students and professors have again returned to the online fore. Most notably, a tweet from August 29 displays a lengthy email response from a professor at Emerson College to a student discussing the exclusion of Black queer writers on the syllabus for his queer politics course. As I scrolled through my timeline in a late-night torpor, I didn’t see what course it was for or what alternatives the professor had offered. Only after returning to the tweet the next morning, I realized the title of the course had never been stated. And the professor had included a handful of films focused on the Black queer community and a slew of anthologies with Black voices. (Is this enough? That’s for you to decide.)
Still, the student took the “support” — the Twitter likes, which at the time of writing this piece sit around 35.5 thousand — as justification to meet with administration about the professor’s conduct. These “calls to the manager” are known to lead to termination. Again, we know nothing about the professor: Is he tenured? If not, how frequently is his contract renewed? How much does he get paid? Is he (potentially) a graduate student?
This situation, imperfect as our lack of information makes it, illustrates an important question that college students have brushed against again and again: What kind of conduct can we expect from our professors, and what do we do when those standards are not met?
The question is difficult to answer. Professors who have been credibly accused of sexual misconduct by students still teach undergraduate courses at Yale. Accusations against figures like legendary literary critic Harold Bloom, a Sterling Professor of the Humanities until his death in 2019, were almost always weighed against the value of his scholarly contributions. And the 2015 viral video of Yale students confronting Nicholas Christakis, a Sterling Professor who was then Master of Silliman College, was met with derision by right-wing media sources. But these instances have clearer demarcations of power; Sterling Professor is Yale’s highest academic rank, and heads of college are understood to be core members of the residential college community.
Normally, though, the power dynamic between students and professors is murky at best. Students are correct to recognize professors as figures of authority, but the higher education system’s intense competition and devastating austerity has created a world in which highly educated and well-loved professors struggle to find secure (and often, any) employment.
Yale, like most universities, has two major types of faculty: ladder (tenure track) and non-ladder (non-tenure track). According to a 2016–17 report, nearly half of faculty were instructional — not on the tenure track. These professors also do the bulk of teaching in Yale College. Most non-tenure track professors are paid by the course, hoping to teach three courses that add up to a “half position” paying roughly $27,000 annually. (The federal poverty line for 2020–21 for a family of four is $26,200.) They also often hold one-year contracts, meaning that they must be reappointed by Yale at the end of June. If they are not reappointed, they must seek other employment — and rapidly, because most universities begin classes in August. COVID-19 has meant that these faculty will face even more instability: Graduate students across the country have been protesting insufficient pay and healthcare, programs have been refusing admission to Ph.D. candidates and non-tenure track faculty face devastating cuts at universities all over the country.
At Yale, students refer to ladder and non-ladder faculty congruently as “Professor.” But it’s clear that the university, despite its disproportionate resources, is intent on treating non-ladder faculty as disposable.
This means that the financial costs of student “call-outs” on Twitter can be enormous. For students requesting accountability from tenured professors, the obstacles often feel insurmountable. But an increasing number of faculty can’t rely on that degree of financial insulation from the consequences of their own actions — and indeed, at-will employment means that many are turned away by universities without explanation or justification at all. Additionally, these faculty face the precarity that comes with being a worker in an increasingly unstable labor market, in which fundamental entitlements like health care, food and shelter are indelibly tied to employment. For many people — whether they’re instructional faculty at Yale, linemen at an electric company, or public servants at your local underfunded government agency — losing employment is violence, and in a post-corona world, employment itself feels like a levee set to collapse under torrential rain.
Thus, professors face the same conundrum of accountability that we all face under late capitalism. It’s virtually impossible to hold people accountable without threatening their basic security. There are few avenues toward reconciliation in our society, and even fewer focusing on education or rehabilitation. Atonement is off the table. Instead, the one avenue we have toward justice (or rather, the fleeting high of “doing what’s right”) is calling the manager — or the dean. It’s jeopardizing employment. It’s potentially compromising someone’s access to health care, to food, to housing.
So, how do we hold our professors accountable without reinforcing the idea that fundamental rights are contingent upon employment or fortifying a culture obsessed with retribution? How do we talk about injustice without cultivating shame?
If you’re stumped, I am, too. But I think it begins with what sociologist Khen Lampert calls “radical compassion,” a state of empathy for others that “manifests itself as an impulse.” Still, we must acknowledge that even when we embrace “radical compassion,” there are often situations where multiple parties deserve our empathy.
It is unlikely we will see an end to university austerity. And it’s similarly unlikely that we will see any of the crucial policy measures — universal health care access, a jobs guarantee, loan forgiveness and an end to at-will employment — enacted that will lessen the corporate university’s grip on students, faculty and staff alike. We must recognize that the precarity we face as students intertwines itself with the precarity our professors face as well, that solidarity, which is often fed to us as a clear-cut alliance with the powerless against the faceless, “privileged” bosses, is a fickle thing. In reality, our professors aren’t the bosses, and we don’t always know what’s right.
But we have an obligation to our fellow students, faculty and staff to saddle up, armed with “the best we can do,” and soldier on.
MCKINSEY CROZIER is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. Her column runs on alternate weeks. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .