“Among the problems with treating students like children is that they become increasingly childlike in response,” Laura Kipnis, professor at Northwestern University, said. What has been described as the “neo-Victorian cult of feminine fragility” on college campuses is now used to characterize the fanaticism over microaggressions and freedom of speech.
Microaggressions, unintentionally offensive remarks related to one’s race or gender, can hurt. They can be particularly distressing when they come from our professors. As someone involved in activism, I’ve often heard fellow activists muse about reporting professors who express offensive ideas in class. I even know some students who have proposed lobbying for a reporting system.
I disagree with fretting over microaggressions. I believe that our collective concern over microaggressions is infantilizing and detrimental and that we should definitely not have a microaggression reporting system.
Last year, Ithaca College passed a resolution for the creation of a microaggression reporting system. The concept has since spread like wildfire, sparking campaigns at schools including Occidental College, George Washington University, Wesleyan, and Penn State. With the Barnard Columbia Solidarity Network gaining momentum in its fight against all forms of oppression, I’m sure that it’s only a matter of time before a microaggression reporting system gets tacked onto student activists’ laundry list of demands.
As a member of a good number of “marginalized minority” groups, I get it. I’ve had a number of professors who have made me feel uncomfortable. Sometimes, I admit, I’ve even fantasized about getting them in trouble with the administration, much like many of the people in my social circle.
But what exactly do we lose in reporting professors who offend us? A lot, I’d argue.
To begin, we lose our ability to handle people who make us uncomfortable. True, opinions hurt, and hurtful opinions can often create a hostile environment, but learning how to negotiate these hostile environments is good learning experience. By reporting microaggressions, students miss out on the personal benefits of working through problems without administrative intervention.
And, if it’s that serious, why not go to office hours and explain to your professor what they’re doing wrong? As students, we too often promote the fallacious notion that we are powerless. We can ruin professors’ lives as easily as they can ruin ours; in that sense, we may even have more power than professors do (although it almost never happens).
Professors can be intimidating, which can make approaching a professor with a concern feel almost forbidden. However, going through this process is beneficial for real life, where interaction with people who make you feel uncomfortable can have much higher stakes.
Once we leave Columbia, we’ll need to be able to navigate our interpersonal relationships without relying on administrators to mediate our problems. Being forced to learn this now is dificult, but worthwhile.
More broadly, focusing on penalizing those who utter microaggressions makes us college students look terrible in the public eye. It makes us look like children with too much time on our hands, crying over spilt milk.
Focusing on our vulnerabilities not only makes us look like babies, but also delegitimizes larger concerns we have—concerns that can be framed in the spirit of policy changes rather than hurt feelings. For example, we can direct our concern about racial injustice into a lobbying effort for an affirmative action policy to increase the number of professors of color the University hires, or work on policies that make it easier for students to avoid their alleged sexual assailants.
What we consider microaggressive or offensive speech can be good for our intellect, too. Sometimes, what you consider “offensive” can often be the truth or can help to reveal truths about society. For instance, a professor who assigns the book The Bell Curve (notoriously controversial because of its implications about the poor and people of color) could be subject to rebuke because of its level of political incorrectness . However, not assigning the book could deprive students of learning about a new theory related to intelligence and socioeconomic status.
Overindulging in our own sense of vulnerability is bad for our own emotional growth. When we have conversations that stress how we are victimized, we enmesh ourselves in conversations full of negativity and run the risk of taking minor things way too seriously.
As Kipnis wrote: “It’s astounding how aggressive students’ assertions of vulnerability have gotten in the past few years. Emotional discomfort is regarded as equivalent to material injury, and all injuries have to be remediated.”
Indeed, the remediation that students seek for microaggressions doesn’t just come with a price for our instructors, but for ourselves as well.
Toni Airaksinen is a Barnard College sophomore majoring in urban studies. She is a first-generation college student and TA for Barnard’s Environmental Science department. She tweets@Toni_Airaksinen. The Ivory Tower: Deconstructed runs alternate Wednesdays.
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