fast feminism · generational mentorship · intolerant shrew · slow academy · teaching

The unbearable privilege of cynicism

Ron Srigley is doing it again. Last fall, he was in the LA Review of Books bemoaning the unrelenting vapidity of today’s university students, the soul-crushing inanity of teaching, the hollow commercialism of pedagogy, riven with “fads” like student-centred learning and the flipped classroom. And now again in the Walrus. Students are stupid and lazy. Teaching is meaningless. The university is hollow. “Pedagogy” is a farce. It’s a race to the bottom.

Only Srigley knows better, has standards, cares.

Much of the press has lapped it up. He is a truth teller, bravely thumbing his nose at power! He is leaping over the wall of the ivory tower to share its dirty secrets with parents! He says difficult things that need saying! Even if we don’t want to hear them! (Except everyone seems to want to hear them and say them, at least people who are not actually university professors, or university students, or pedagogy scholars). He’s the Donald Drumpf of higher ed.

Many reasonable people have produced thoughtful responses to the substance of what he’s written, some from a collegial perspective, others simply on formal logical grounds.

That’s not what I’m thinking about today. I’m thinking about how ready the world is to hear such things from Srigley, and why. Of course, conservative publications love him: he confirms their dim view of the university as a kooky liberal bastion of anything-goes hedonism. But why Srigley? I suspect it’s because he looks like many people expect a professor to: male, fluffy white hair, dark thick-rimmed glasses, a serious look. You go Google image search him. Then click on this: if you dare.

“Everybody is stupid, except me!”

What I’m saying, first is this: Srigley walks into the discussion with view that people are primed to want to hear. And he walks into the discussion with this tremendous amount of identity privilege. He is a living, breathing confirmation bias for everyone who only knows about university from watching movies.

How powerful is this privilege? Powerful. I’m going to say this advisedly and carefully: you will see Srigley described over and over as “professor of philosophy.” He is a career adjunct, touring North Bay and Sudbury, Ontario, and on annual contract at the University of Prince Edward Island. Powerful and conferring high status this career is not. His CV proudly lists a book published with the Edwin Mellen Press–you know, the one most famous for suing Dale Askey, for naming them as a vanity press of the first order. But no one links Srigley to adjunct employment conditions (dire) or the question of status among institutions (barbaric) or the notion of maintaining a research profile in an itinerant and no doubt heavy teaching career (an impossible bind). Nope. He’s just Professor. Expert. Authority. Because he says things that confirm people’s authoritarian biases and distaste for youth, and because he looks the way he does: white, male, cranky.

I am going to guess that hell would have to freeze over before Srigley self-identified as “adjunct” or even “teaching-track”. I’m going to guess he knows, implicitly and calculatingly, that he would lose status through this identification. And status is something he can fabricate out of thin air. Or out of privilege.

So Srigley becomes famous, basically, for complaining. And he’s a hero. For complaining. For calling his students and his colleagues stupid and shallow. For this he’s called brave.

Contemplate for a moment how far up the ladder of prestige and esteem such a strategy would get you, dear Hook & Eye readers, you marvellous and hard-working women teaching your hearts out as graduate students, as tenure-track faculty, as teaching track faculty, as Associates, as sessionals. Is the world ready to boost your voice when you decry classroom overcrowding? When you lament you have no office? When you suggest you are not sufficiently trained to do the main part of your job, and you want help? When structural constraints push you into Scantron multiple-choice exams when you would prefer essays? When you note that students don’t want Friday classes because they’re working at jobs for 20 hours a week to pay for tuition? And perhaps that’s why they’re not so perky in class? Probably not.

In fact, a key status-building activity for Srigley and his ilk lies precisely in the sort of move he makes in his op-eds: call everyone else stupid, and disavow, especially, teaching–the dirty work of the academy, the care work, the feminized labour.

The Srigley Manoeuvre(tm) is, thus, really only available to conservative white dudes, and the glory of it is you get plaudits for not doing a damn thing at all. (See also: I’m a liberal professor and my liberal students terrify me). Me (and you, I imagine), I hold a tiny bit of my soul in my hands every class I walk in to. If today’s group work didn’t work, then I’m going to redo next-day’s lesson plan to try it a different way. If the writing on the final paper is poor one year, I’m going to rejig the whole course so it’s writing-focused from day 1. If my students don’t know something I think they should know I try to teach it to them. And I sit in committees on curriculum. And I attend teaching workshops. And I engage my students every day as if they were human beings who mattered, who have stories.

Could this sound any more like care work? Could I feminize this description any more, make it sound less like what many expect to be “the life of the mind” and any more like exactly the sort of “handholding” Srigley stakes his whole career against? Probably not. It’s exhausting but it’s my job and I’m actually doing it and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t but it is my duty and my vocation to teach my discipline to the students who enrol in my courses and by God, I’m going to try.

So are you. Srigley is not: he’s climbed on his high horse and mistaken throwing insults for revolution, hot air for hard work, his rejection of 2016 for a principled stance for classical values.

And that he gets so much attention for it should remind us all how far you can go on pure privilege, and bashing those less powerful than you, how far you can go by slipping into the easy stream of gendering and deprecating care work and marking as manly and principled the act of saying “no” to anyone who needs your help.

14 thoughts on “The unbearable privilege of cynicism

  1. Thank you. That his insulting caricatures of work so many of us put so much thought, effort, and care into get so much traction really is one of the most depressing things about them. It's one thing for him to be a lone crank drawing exaggerated conclusions from his own miserable stock of 'anecdata,' but for so many people to hail it as valuable truthtelling? That's even worse.


  2. The founder of Poetry Magazine, Harriet Monroe, as a U. of Chicago writing teacher c. 1900 found the students impossible. 'Twas ever thus. Change in the last thirty years, networked information driven, has been so dramatic and rapid that today's students know new things and in new ways, things we don't yet understand. Cynics perhaps are unable to bridge the gap from their print-oriented age, c. 1450-1980, to the immensity of what has occurred since the 1970s.


  3. I have always believed that cynicism is bread from ignorance and fear. Thank you for unpacking Srigley's privilege and making clear the strategy he uses to oppress: “call everyone else stupid, and disavow, especially, teaching–the dirty work of the academy, the care work, the feminized labour.” I continue to trust in the enduring strength of feminized labour, the care work – as you call it – to consistently be the undercurrent of our work regardless of gender. These outliers may annoy or even sting but will never have an enduring place in the landscape of of higher ed especially when they ignore the power of networked teaching & learning that is at play now. Its precisely voices and blogs like this that give courage and insight. @edtechinsight


  4. I like your take on it: that's right, I think. We have seen a lot of change. And Youth become more alienating the further our greys grow in from our temples. Part of the work of educators is to continue to work toward connection. We need our students vision of the right now as much as they need our understanding of the past, if we're going to build any kind of future worth having, together.


  5. Aimée, thank you for cogently writing the response that I was unable to muster in conversation when someone asked me about Srigley's criticisms (will be forwarding the link…). I think it's also important to call out how the university institutionalizes the “dirtiness” of this (feminized) work and enables its dismissal by the value (not) placed on it. The flip side of Srigley's rant may well be the voice of an adjunct who has effectively internalized the self-loathing taught by a system that literally devalues the work of teaching by paying less to the faculty who do more of it. I don't disagree with your explanation of how easy it is for Srigley to materialize privilege, but who *wouldn't* want to distance themselves from the job that the institution itself refuses to value?


  6. Thank you for addressing this. There are so many of us who do care about what we do, and it's sad when the voice is too often given to those who don't and see our work as beneath them. I'm so tired of the cynical argument that “students aren't like they used to be”. They aren't and that's ok by me.


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