In honor of Maryland releasing fall student evaluations, a Facebook friend referenced one of the truly great Onion articles: Professor Deeply Hurt By Student Evaluations.
First, as an aside: while the Onion remains the high watermark of internet comedy and the standard to which all internet humor should aspire, there’s something to be said about these early articles (this one is from 1996) and the way they are truly classics of comedy. Since its grown in popularity from the alt-weekly format, the Onion has been able to hire more writers who can create more content. But there’s something really remarkable about the way timeless articles like this endure and become relevant with each passing year. But that’s another topic: I just want to point out that the Onion is so easy to access and share that we’ve become spoiled by its brilliance.
ANYWAY: I’ve always felt that this is one of the best satires of higher “education” that I’ve ever read. It’s a perfect example of the definition of satire as dead arch-genius Jonathan Swift saw it, as a “a kind of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.”
My first instinct was to see it as a joke on dopey freshmen like “Chad,” who claims the class is totally “boring” and “totally lame.” Chad is a stereotype because he’s entirely real. Bros like him line up to fulfill core requirements and couldn’t care less that their teacher is an expert on the Marxist roots of Homoerotic Mysticism in Augustine. Class is an unfortunate diversion between bong hits and football games. Chad seemingly represents the sad state of the contemporary undergraduate, which is as true in 1996 (when I was a college freshman) as it is today. From that perspective, this a classic case of pearls before swine, of the value of education and the damning apathy and sloth of Generation X, Y, or Z. When confronted by an intellectual giant like Leon Rothberg, Chad prefers to read “the boozer brothers.” In 2012, he would be lost on the Iphone his parents bought him as a high school graduation present. The tenured professors like Leon Rothberg probably have this article tacked up on their office walls. And that, frankly, is the really trenchant point of the satire.
Because here’s what Leon Rothberg has to say about Chad’s boredom:
“The needs of my first-year students come well before any prestigious personal awards offered to me by international academic assemblies,” Rothberg said. “After all, I have dedicated my life to the pursuit of knowledge, and to imparting it to those who are coming after me. I know that’s why these students are here, so I owe it to them.”
That’s a lovely sentiment, but we might add to the end of it the popular phrase that’s taken Twitter by storm: “said no professor ever.” The idea that Leon Rothberg would be concerned about what Chad thinks about his ideas and his pedagogy is the biggest joke of the article. In its satirical inversion, its a grim picture of academia that I don’t agree with, but that I often encounter. In this representation of tenured scholars earnestly caring about students more than their own scholarship and reputations, the Onion clearly implies the opposite. At the highest level of academia, professors could not care less what their students think about them because the power dynamics are so secure. The real Leon Rothbergs of the world would never know about Chad’s indifference to him, because he would protected by a phalanx of mediating TAs, but he would probably assume that all the “bored” students were to blame. As I say, as an aspiring scholar, I disagree with this binary because I’ve known some brilliant, highly-respected scholars who care deeply about the fate and intellectual life of every one of their students. But if you love this article, you have to admit that the Onion is equally if not more dismissive of the “recipient of the 1993 Jean-Foucault Lacan award from the University of Chicago for his paper on public/private feminist deconstructive discourse in the early narratives of Catherine of Siena.” Sounds like a hoot!
I think we can use missives like this to have a lengthier discussion about what students want and what teachers are willing to give them. And of course, to broach the powerful and thorny issue of assessment. Or is this article a time capsule of what academia was like in the middle-1990s? After all, this piece would have come out only a year after Barr and Tagg’s published and advocated their influential “Learning Paradigm.” We’ve since seen many moves to “democratize” education and to increase student involvement by shifting away from models of assessment that would measure the monologic and monolithic (and increasingly neolithic) “Instruction paradigm.” The Onion article concludes by seemingly putting it back on Chad, as a concerned Dean (haha?) insists that “Chad must be entertained at all costs.” Yet at this point, the joke is prescient: perhaps as an outsiders snide analysis at the way the academy has integrated technology, popular culture, and more student-centered directives. (And on that note, also see this Onion article). Since Chad doesn’t want to listen to a lecture on the feminine form in Augustine, maybe he’ll be more interested in a class on video games. Many engaged and progressive participants in academia vehemently disagree with this sentiment, but Chad’s parents probably don’t: they’d rather him do the heavy lifting of Great Expectations than be taught about narrative and agency in Grand Theft Auto. How would this article be written today?
I invite even more of a close reading of this article than I’m doing here. Its myriad satirical perspectives are a starting point for the way we think about the relationship between teacher and the student, and student and the academy. Its also frigging hilarious.