Covid 19 and the university: Professors are not Dorothy and the administration is not our Oz

Though the university is frequently characterized as a liberal hotbed, professors have always had to fight, sometimes even within our own ranks, for our right to speak up. This is especially so during times of national or global crisis when, predictably, efforts to silence supposed disgrunts may reach a fever pitch. Even at universities, and even within the professoriate, our habitual pleas for academic freedom and the need to be robust critical thinkers may fade. What’s more, it’s not unusual for those asking difficult questions to be scolded, smoothing the way for administrative overreach and excess.

Critics should expect to encounter efforts to silence them — both subtle and gross — culminating in accusations of disloyalty, to the institution, to the nation, even to humanity itself. These may begin as a gentle form of ostracism where the critic is simply ignored, even by those who suspect, or know, that the warning is more than just someone crying wolf. This passive strategy of shunning may escalate into more overt shaming, with squeaky wheels being called out for betrayal of the common good. Perhaps because I am a gender studies professor, I can never hear such admonishments outside the framework of the silencing politics of sexual violence. Keep it to yourself, the victim may be urged, or the police will come and take daddy away.

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Even basic questions of leadership competence and accountability may be automatically turned back on the critic, dismissed as potentially treasonous. When commanded to jump by a president, provost, or dean — some of whom until very recently were mere mortals, just professors like ourselves — otherwise staunch faculty advocates may now reflexive reply, “How high?” Obviously, this creates the perfect conditions for the most egregious forms of administrative overreach, especially when rumors are unleashed that employees will be lucky to have jobs come Fall. In the blink of an eye, proudly empowered members of the professoriate may be reduced to begging for scraps, perhaps volunteering to give back their salaries with no idea of what the financial exigencies actually are.

Too often, as a distraction during crisis times, difficult nuts and bolts conversations are bypassed, and, instead, we are urged by leaders “take deep breaths,” and “be grateful for what we’ve got.” In the service of compassion, privileged, tenure-line faculty who have relative job security, especially, may be urged to make “sacrifices.” Such humanistic values are, of course, well and good, but quickly turn sour when used to paint those who persist in demanding institutional accountability, or even rudimentary shared governance, as crass or unspiritual.

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Not incidentally, vague calls for sacrifice and compassion from the professoriate distract from the obvious and egregious economic disparities that we have long known exist between elite administrators and almost everyone else. Against this backdrop, the critically outspoken professor may still be painted as too privileged, naive, or narcissistic to appreciate the gravity of the situation. It is as if the horror of the fact that people are dying around the world — and that we all have a moral imperative to respond — somehow erases, rather than intensifies, our ongoing duty to think for ourselves and insist that our institution to live up to its basic commitments, including to campus employees far more vulnerable than most professors.

Professors’ special responsibility to be critical thinkers and outspoken members of our campus communities — including on behalf of our staff employee colleagues — surely doesn’t end because we are in the midst of crisis, regardless of what paternalistic higher ups or even terrorized colleagues may imply. If anything, the need for brave, questioning professorial voices is more urgent than ever and we must resist the temptation to glorify the authority or magical abilities of administrative colleagues as if we had suddenly been transformed into Dorothy and Toto, wandering haplessly in an unknown world.

As usual, there is a practical benefit to our continuing to behave as the flexible intellectuals, incisive social critics, and responsible, skeptical adults that we are. If we permit our fear to overtake us, and start behaving like dazed, frightened children, then we are inviting our presidents and provosts to function as decisive authoritarians, no matter how much (as is evidently the case) they may be flailing. Only with a collegial relationship based on mutual respect and fierce accountability can we both meet this crisis and also make it more likely that, together — faculty, students, staff, and administration — we will thrive in the aftermath.

Mission critical thinking: Preparing students and ourselves for catastrophic times

Most liberal arts professors have known for years that the greatest good we can do for many of our students probably isn’t to immerse them in the advanced esoterica of our particular disciplines but to help develop their critical reading, writing and thinking skills. In the disastrous age of MAGA, I have begun to more fully appreciate this lesson: Part of my job is to help prepare students to locate and respond to catastrophic social, political, and ethical problems, only some of which we are now even able to fully imagine.

“Critical thinking,” that darling term we educators have been kissing and cuddling for decades, no longer cuts it when we face the full horror and possibility of what we are collectively facing. In past decades, “critical” has signaled ways of thinking, reading, and writing that occur from a questioning and investigative mode, a disinterested evaluation of facts, logical relationships between claims, and the biases of all concerned, including oneself. This is all to the good, especially the importance of challenging claims that happen to suit one’s preexisting expectations or preferences. Certainly, we would all be much better off if “critical thinking” of this sort could dislodge the irrational mob-think and craven consumerist claptrap that passes for much of current social and political discourse.

Teaching critical analysis as a fairly narrowly cognitive approach is evidently not enough, though. What we need is a reclamation of “critical” that is bolder, more dramatic, and far more socially and emotionally urgent than any we may have ever before used. In short, we must train students and ourselves to function as intellectual and psychological EMTs, prepared to move into the disaster zone with the skills, judgment, and nerve necessary for both triage and long-term, sustainable healing and repair. We need proactive, brave, pliable first responders who are also long-term strategic solution-seekers capable of evaluating and rearrange the big picture. The “critical thinking” values that must underlie our teaching work today are “critical” in the sense of “mission critical” and of “critical condition.” The symbol for this might include a pen and inkwell, but also a blood red armband and a sturdy multi-tool.

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This more urgent, red-alert version of critical thinking obviously must include much of what has always mattered about this traditional skillset, including close reading, basic logic, the analysis of evidence, and evaluation of perspective. But it must place greater explicit emphasis on qualities of individual motivation, self-care and character development, including the cultivation of:
– a healthy combination of confidence, humility, self-efficacy and self-reflection
– an unwavering commitment to empathy and compassion that does not slide into paternalistic pity or overwhelmed quietism
– a bias toward positive, productive action in the service of deep communal values, including for example, participatory democracy and racial equality
– an ability to make tough, real-world decisions in the face of incomplete information and general uncertainty
– the courage to go against the grain, to swim upstream from groupthink while still respecting the legitimate needs of the community

Even this cursory, general list serves as a cautionary guide for me: As a feminist philosopher, I have for decades emphasized a cognitively based, moderate notion of critical thinking that has reflected both a (perhaps naive) confidence in human reason and a (legitimate) concern about alienating students. I have, then, often ended up focusing on tweaking reading, writing and thinking skills, careful not to be “too normative” or “too directive” with respect to the social and emotional values surrounding these supposedly “neutral” cognitive standards. I haven’t avoided real world issues — this would not even possible in the courses I teach — but I have sometimes highlighted the intellectual “toolbox” aspect of critical thinking in order to sidestep the messier social and ethical facets that give cognitive values sense and power.

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For better and worse, I know that I am not the only instructor who has been dancing carefully among the demanding arms of cognitive, emotional, social and ethical competence. Unfortunately, there is extraordinary pressure on professors to treat students like desperately needed, precious, fickle, customers. Further, the long, determined march from tenured to contingent faculty has eroded the secure ground from which some faculty can be expected to engage in difficult dialogues. It is surely no accident that the academic freedom necessary to engage in authentically holistic critical thinking has been hacked away by conservative extremists at the very time it is most urgently needed. Regardless, we can no longer afford any semblance of the fantasy that liberal arts professors are debate coaches meant to lead students through “what if” puzzles to achieve oblique insights or incrementally improved logical skills. The most privileged of professors, at least, surely, might rethink our relationship to “critical thinking.”

So, though I still push my students to wrestle constructively, directly and intellectually with texts — this humanistic work matters! — I engage with them in ever more practical, particular, personal, and socially urgent terms. And I am more prepared than ever to acknowledge my astonishing ignorance, because, like so many well trained, smart professors, I have been caught off guard by the scale and doggedness of the retrograde cruelty and naked greed of conservative extremists. And so I commit as much to the pedagogical power of empathy, ethical sensitivity, and self-empowerment as to more specifically cognitive values. This isn’t a self-esteem based pedagogical gimmick, but, instead, a matter of necessity: It will take the empowered, compassionate, creative strategizing of all of us — young and old — to MacGyver our way out of this mess.