A Constructive Response to Professorial Anxiety

Engaging in a bit of tab clearance before I head off to DAMOP tomorrow afternoon, I noticed that I still had How to Teach an Ancient Rape Joke open. This is because while I found it kind of fascinating, it's not all that directly relevant to what I do, and I didn't have anything all that concrete to say beyond "Huh. That's interesting." So it languished in one of the many, many open tabs cluttering up Chrome, too interesting to just close but not anything I could see a clear angle to comment on. And eventually it was sort of forgotten until I set about paring down open tabs before an out-of-town trip.

I have a slightly different slant on it, though, after the past week's blow-up on academic social media over a pair of articles on Vox. The first was an anonymous professor complaining that he fears students and the second a response saying that the real problem is the deprofessionalization of the professoriate and the rise of contingent faculty making everything more stressful. These generated a great deal of heat, and not all that much light.

One of the more disappointing aspects of the whole thing is the insistence on both sides that this is an all-or-nothing question when, in fact, it's perfectly possible for there to be truth in both of those articles. That is, changes in the relationship between faculty and the institutions that employ them have unquestionably increased the strain on contingent faculty (whether adjuncts, visitors, or those lucky enough to be on the tenure track) in ways that carry over into what they teach. That doesn't mean, though, that the current political moment can't also have changed the classroom atmosphere for those faculty in ways that are not particularly helpful. It's true that contingent faculty will always find something to freak out about (God knows, I was a giant ball of stress before I got tenure, and that was before the job market really cratered), but that doesn't mean that their freaking out can't involve some genuinely problematic elements.

In that context, the Jezebel "Ancient Rape Joke" piece stands out as something that we could use more of. That is, it explicitly acknowledges that increased sensitivity to issues around sexual assault have genuinely made it harder to teach certain types of material that appears in works that cannot easily be cast out of the syllabus. And it goes on to talk about some constructive approaches to handling that material in a way that's sensitive to legitimate concerns (that have recently taken on much greater weight), but respects the importance of the original sources.

So, you know, more like that, please.

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