Out-Martyring the Academic Martyr Squad

O Academic Martyr Squad, your paper-grading crosses your defining characteristic–I see you the cross of grading, and raise you the cross of ACADEMIC FREEDOM.

A little backstory…

When I published “The End of the College Essay (An Essay),” I definitely expected a fracas. Here, in no particular order, is what I expected, and could handle:

1) Righteous indignation (the more senior the faculty, the more prestigious the institution–in short, the less likely one is to have graded an average Freshperson paper from the American hoi polloi in the past decade).

2) Disagreement and passionate defense of the essay, even when students don’t want to write it. And this was kiiiiinda my point. If you’re so wedded to the idea, then we need to work to fix it, pronto. The plagiarism, the rush jobs, the general consumer mentality of today’s American college students–these are real problems, and they need to be dealt with. Don’t like my scorched-earth approach? Totally OK with that–suggest something better.

3) Personal attack in response to a systemic critique. This happened in response to Thesis Hatement, so there’s no reason it wouldn’t happen here.

What I didn’t expect was for #3 to turn as ugly as it did.

What I also didn’t expect was to get CC’d emails to various higher-ups where I currently teach, demanding I be fired.

After attempting to defend myself on teh Twittarz and teh Facebooks (whilst also attempting to drive/be driven 1000 miles to my brother’s in Texas, our first step on an epic cross-country winter thaw-out–and please don’t rob our house; we have no valuables there, honestly, just some very cheap furniture and really ugly carpeting), I stopped being able to, physically, because every time I wrote something (usually, “This ISN’T ABOUT FIRST YEAR COMPOSITION GAH! It’s about SUBJECT CLASSES that do not need a major writing component to learn them kiddies somethin’ interestin’!”), it would  metastasize into three nasty Tweets from a comp instructor, being all like, “HOW DARE YOU NOT TREAT WWWWRRRRRRRIIIIITTTING as a SUBJECT?” “That’s not what I–gah, never mind.”

So, I’ve largely left teh Twittarz for the time being, even though as most of you know, I loooove hanging out there, and that is where I have met some of my favorite cyber-friends in the past six months. These favorite cyber-friends include (but are NOT limited to, in case I didn’t mention you): Annemarie Perez, Liana Silva Ford, Lee Skallerup Bessette, Tricia Ryan, Katie Pryal, Sarah Kendzior (now my real-life friend!), Eric Garland (ditto!), Chuck Pearson, Suey Park (NAMEDROP! I AM TWITTER FRIENDS WITH THE GREAT SUEY PARK!), Gerry Canavan, William Pannapacker, Roopika Risam, Roger Whitson, Joe Fruscione, Noel Jackson, David Creech, MANY OTHERS (I love you!), and Adeline Koh.

It was Adeline who reached out to me to tell me how disgusted and shocked she was when a few of my trolls started openly picking on my students, who came pretty quickly to my defense (and all of whose final papers I enjoyed reading immensely–or, at any rate, as immensely as you can enjoy reading student papers). These are the same people who excoriate me for “hating [imaginary] students,” deciding a bunch of wide-eyed actual 18-year-olds were open season. And when other folks started bombarding the poor Chair of the English department (where I do not work!) with emails, Adeline told me she got fed up, and asked if I’d mind if she, Roger, and some friends wrote an open letter. The letter would explain that even though most scholars don’t actually agree with my scorch-and-burn pedagogy, they don’t find it necessary to try to burn me at the stake. I was shocked, moved, and made to feel extremely unworthy of such incredible support. And still feel the same way now.

At any rate, here is the letter.

I don’t deserve it, but I appreciate it. I don’t deserve to have all those people risking their jobs to “defend” a dork such as myself, who writes incendiary things on purpose, but I appreciate it. And it makes a good point: do I have the right to publish something controversial without getting fired? Do you? I was telling the heroic adjunct (and all-purpose) labor organizer Robin J. Sowards the other day that at no point during this kerfuffle did I believe academic freedom applied to me in the least. It doesn’t. I know that. I could still get fired. I know that. But that is absurd.

Yes, my piece got some laughs in at the expense of a few imaginary students–but since when can’t 18-year-olds take a joke? Yes, my piece was exaggerated and extreme, that strange mixture I do of satire (do I really give up on all students because of the student-as-customer mentality? I do not, and I want people to change their ways) and of sincerity (are traditional intro-body-conclusion 5-page essays the way they are currently assigned in required subject courses largely a waste of everyone’s time? Yes, yes they are). I understand if my very weird style and my very punchy voice aren’t your thing. I do.

But you best not threaten me–and you especially best not threaten my students. Because, as this letter demonstrates, even though I hardly deserve them, I’ve got friends, and when you fuck with me, you fuck with them too.


10 thoughts on “Out-Martyring the Academic Martyr Squad

  1. Nuts, Rebecca! (I’m so glad to be removed from this crazy academic world.) Essays are terrible. I commend your efforts to ACTUALLY teach skills to students who, for the most part, UTTERLY fail to figure out how to write a proper essay, no matter what. They get middling grades, then their degrees, without significant improvement (generally speaking); meanwhile, graders suffer and the education system digs itself ever deeper into the abyss of uselessness. Sigh. Go Rebecca, go!


  2. I support you, 100%!

    I think my ultimate issue with paper writing is that, regardless of the class, I never feel I have a good enough grasp of the material to discuss it freely in an essay–even in classes I’m doing well in. It’s that moment where I tend to panic and worry that this paper will bring down my grade enough that it will damage my GPA. I think most students tend to freeze at that point. They procrastinate. Ignore the assignment altogether in the worst case scenario or just half-ass it at best. I would never mind writing another paper again as long as I knew I had a professor that I could come to and really discuss things–figure out what I’m missing, maybe get a different perspective on something, and/or provide me with other resources for making sense of the topics we’re discussing. Sadly, even at prominent universities that is not always available to a student. I’ve often had disinterested, aloof professors that couldn’t seem to explain anything other than precisely how they said it in class. Or worse, professors I could never get a hold of due to ridiculous office hours or a habit of not actually being around for them.

    It makes you wonder how many papers they had to write that they may have half-assed and didn’t really understand to get their degree, doesn’t it? Seems cyclical– write a required paper, manage a decent enough grade to pass the class but don’t gain any additional knowledge from it, graduate with your degree, assign students papers and essays that they won’t gain any actual knowledge from and hope they make a decent enough grade to pass…

    For those that are attacking you just remember that they likely feel uncomfortable by outside-the-box thinking because perhaps they don’t feel like they are a qualified enough teacher to do the job without handing out essay assignments. I’ve found in classes where I have the most assignments and busywork are the very ones where the professor cannot seem to provide me with any other information beside what the textbook tells me no matter how many degrees they hold.


  3. My favorite comment, by far:

    From what I’ve read, anyone who dares to critique her claims (even people who have years of experience teaching in a number of disciplines and at a variety of levels, institutions, etc. just 1) gets called out by her as an elitist tenuredprof who doesn’t support adjuncts (ugh! tiresome!), 2) gets told they didn’t understand that the piece was actually satire that they are somehow too dim or white to understand (!!) 3) that the piece was misunderstood because it was really talking about things it didn’t talk about at all, at least not explicitly–in this instance, content courses vs FYC courses, under-paid adjuncts. Then 4) the part where it’s hard to be her getting so much bad treatment and being so Hurt. Of course 5) her effusive thank yous in response to the various attempts of helpmates to rescue and protect the once fiery princess from further harm. Self-indulgent millennial cycle from provocative fury that dissolves into public, self-pitying tears over and over again.

    The truth hurts.


  4. What is wrong with these people who have nothing better to do than try to get strangers fired for disagreeing with them on the internet? They must have an amazing amount of time on their hands.
    I hope your administrators are as disgusted by the real emails as I am by the mere idea of them.


  5. Hey Rebecca, just saw this–so sending along my support (although it seems perhaps things have calmed down?–I hope so anyway). I wanted to sign that letter but didn’t know if it was appropriate as a non-affiliated person: outsider mom and tutor supports this chic too! 🙂

    As a tutor of dyslexic learners, I thought the piece was thought-provoking and I wrote a response from that perspective. I tweeted you the link but maybe you didn’t see it if you’ve been off twitter. You don’t HAVE to read it 🙂 but I thought you’d appreciate knowing your writing was good fodder for others.


  6. I saw this late, but I’m so honored (seriously) to be considered a Twitter friend! And yet I assign papers (though not the end of semester draft never read lengthy research paper beloved of so many when designing syllabi). How can this be? How can I both respect your thoughts and experience and yet have my own? It’s almost like the internet/academia DON’T have to turn everyone into enormous, useless tools.


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