Seems as though everyone is pointing to the Chronicle’s [pseudonymous] dyspeptic denunciation of graduate students, about which I feel a wave of indignation amplified by the twinge of sympathy I feel for Prof. Gradgrind. Let me explain.

First, Gradgrind’s stunning narcissism disgusts me. If her students discover that their fascination with [subject area] doesn’t warrant devoting themselves to teaching careers, Gradgrind should be relieved for them. They’ve attained a state of self-awareness and self-differentiation that surpasses Gradgrind’s. Gradgrind, in turn, needs seriously to re-evaluate her proclivity to vest her identity in her students’ replication of her choices and her career path.

Academia isn’t the only field that benefits from the fruit of advanced study. If her students are flourishing in non-academic vocations, Gradgrind should commend them with pride — not denounce them as deceivers. People who know me well can imagine my “barely contained fury” expression and tone as I type this.

Second, academia displays and perpetuates numerous deeply-embedded pathologies, such that sensible, intelligent, critical thinkers have plenty of reason to hesitate before committing themselves to teaching in higher education. Among the drawbacks are having to work with people such as Gradgrind and the careerist clones of whom she’s presumably proud.

I appreciate New Kid’s candor (and follow-up here) about the ways she (or he) was a difficult grad student for her advisor. I don’t hear her hitting the same points that Gradgrind did, though, and New Kid sounds a great deal more sympathetic to me.

Higher education involves coaching students through stages of erudition and critical thinking with which they’re less well acquainted than are their teachers. Under the circumstances, they’ll make mistakes and miss points as they try out new ideas and practices. That’s not a sign that they’re deceivers or incompetents, it’s a sign that they’re learners. Some among these students will perceive their misstep and self-correct; some will listen attentively (and critically, I hope) and adjust their efforts accordingly; some will refuse to acknowledge that their work could possibly have been improved; some will recognize their work‘s weakness, but will decline to extend themselves to improve it. My own work with students has been hindered by their encounters with Gradgrinds who imperiously imposed arbitrary standards (frequently reflective of Gg’s own specialization and inadequacies) and by Prof. Feelgoods who gushed about how marvelous their students are (without providing critical perspective on their “growing edges”). Gradgrinds and Feelgoods drive me batty, because I devote vast energies toward providing students with feedback that gives specific explanations of where their work could be improved, how improved, and why that’s an improvement — but how are students to distinguish my feedback from the capricious narcissism or the inflated encomiums?

Learning involves acquiring the capacity to make pertinent distinctions; Gradgrinds and Feelgoods obscure those distinctions, making students’ job all the more difficult, so that their failures “justify” Gradgrind’s self-absorbed scapegoatery. When students who want to learn can rely on teachers who devote their efforts to helping students learn, together they can attain great things. When students and teachers withhold their efforts, or offer false affirmations (whether “This work is publlishable!” or “I see what you mean, Professor”), or concern themselves solely with what benefits themselves, the sound pursuit of shared learning suffers.

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