Powerful customers and vulnerable instructors: the tyranny of “not nice enough”

Despite my affection for a long ago high school principal who, with a thick Oklahoma accent, urged us simply to “be nice,” it isn’t a term I have much use for any more. There’s often a suggestion that “nice” means something like “insipidly boring,” “smilingly false” and that it connotes some measure of cluelessness. There’s some awareness too, that nice has race and sex-specific associations such that people of color and white women are generally pressured to “smile and be nice” as white men are not. These sexist and racist implications are noxious, of course, and add weight to the conclusion that “nice” is perhaps irredeemable. Unfortunately, “nice,” and some of its stand-in cousins, still play a powerful underground role in shaping academic contexts.

One of the problems with “nice” is its near boundlessness. It often functions as a sweeping, catch-all adjective to be trotted out when we either aren’t able, or don’t wish, to be more specific about why we’re embracing or rejecting someone. This becomes clearer when we contrast “nice” to “polite” which usually suggests some specific perceived behavioral violation: he fails to reply to my quickly chirped “good mornings” or she ignores a special favor I did. While we might reasonably disagree about the various rules and appropriate fallout associated with politeness — and, of course, this can vary from culture to culture — at least there’s something concrete to point to when we praise or blame someone on this basis. This is probably true of judgements about behavior that is marked as “respectful” or “civil” though these terms too can be abused until they are as vacuous as “nice.”

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Many of the articles warning about biased student evaluations take issue with such vague, subjectively-based personality assessments. Significantly, professors of color, both women and men, and white women, are often judged according to racist and sexist stereotypes. Of course, these judgments may be expressed in general, supposedly innocuous terms: she wasn’t “approachable,” he was “too intense,” she wasn’t “warm.” But when it comes down to it, they might as well be accusing their professors of failing to be nice. And while every worthwhile instructor will value constructive student feedback, such mercilessly sweeping personality assessments are dangerous. This is especially so since college students have become “customers” and instructors are mostly part-time contract workers. In fact, it’s hard to overstate the power of student complaints in this era of blisteringly loud, instant communication combined with a shamefully vulnerable contingent faculty labor force.

What is determined to be “nice,” then, matters, can vary wildly, and can function as a locus of informal power because it is determined solely by the feelings of the judge(s). If the judge decides I am not nice, then it is my responsibility to shape up, to improve my performance. I am at her mercy and nothing would be stronger proof of my deficit of niceness than for me to insist that, in fact, I really am nice and it is she who is mistaken. If she feels that I am not “caring” or “warm,” then she may well proceed as if her assessment is infallible. The hideous double-bind here is clearly revealed when we consider that absolutely any defensive moves the accused makes may be taken as further proof of her gaping personality flaw. Surely, no truly nice person would argue with someone generous enough to provide feedback about how not-nice she is!

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The supposedly infallible and amorphous character of judgments about others’ niceness helps explain why they have been officially abolished in many professional contexts. That situationally or temporarily empowered others, such as students, may wield such capricious judgments to punish or shame teachers they do not like can produce a toxic, bottom-up bullying situation. There are, of course, all sorts of actual conduct violations an instructor may commit, but these should be describable as instances of unprofessional behavior which are, of course, the basis for serious and actionable allegations in most organizations. Ironically, fuzzy accusations that a professor is not nice, or warm, or caring enough can actually distract from actual behavioral violations, for example, that he fails to properly grade student assignments, replies only rarely to their emails, or exhibits clear signs of exasperation when responding to their reasonable questions.

But the fact that “niceness” has been so heavily critiqued does not keep it from creeping back into our lives, and our educational milieus risk reinscribing the same cliques and hierarchies many of us suffered in junior high school. A narrowly scripted, but not fully specified, set of behaviors is required to gain approval, and success is determined by some relatively, situationally empowered beholders. God help that studious teen-aged girl who is found to be “stuck up,” or lacking in niceness, for once that label has adhered she is probably doomed socially. And god help the professor whose students levy (and publicly share) a similarly damning judgement when she insists they earn their high grades rather than pandering to their desire for easy A’s.

At bottom “niceness” is so flexible and vague that it can function almost entirely as a kind of retrospective label to mark someone we just don’t like. As adults, of course, we can’t openly reject others on the grounds that they don’t gush over our cute puppy photos or that they fail to laugh loudly enough at our jokes. But even as, in our better moments, we critique professionally insipid personality evaluations such as “nice,” “warm,” or “caring,” they still get plenty of uptake. If I decide that the woman working as a cashier or nurse or letter carrier — or senator or judge or political candidate — isn’t nice, or warm, or friendly enough, I can quickly find great support for my judgment, even from folks who don’t know her at all. In fact, agreement about her vague, gender-specific personality failures can bond critics as quickly and surely as smoking an illicit joint together in the high school girls room. It should surprise none of us, then, that some students are eager to demolish their most vulnerable instructors with these same trusty swords.

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