It’s now a commonplace that a ‘woke’ mob of ‘snowflakes’ are ruining campus life in the US. In the past month, the Times has covered the story of an American academic who claims he was forced from his job by ‘wokeism’; the Economist has fretted over ‘wokeness’ at ‘elite schools’; and the Netflix show The Chair has dramatised the story of a bumbling professor whose hypersensitive students destroy his life. In Iowa, where I’m a bumbling professor, state legislators tried to pass a ‘Suck it up, buttercup’ bill taking aim at anti-Trump and BLM protests. But the most easily triggered students on campus this year are the ones who think we’re violating their rights by asking them to wear masks or get vaccinated, even as the Delta variant has overwhelmed local hospitals.
These are the same students who last year sported T-shirts emblazoned with ‘Trump 2020: Fuck Your Feelings’ and ‘Trump 2020: Make Liberals Cry Again’. But it’s out of respect for their feelings that, as in many US states, the legislators who told the buttercups to suck it up have passed a law against mask or vaccine mandates on campus. And university administrators have obeyed, sending out guidance warning us not to ‘penalise or criticise students for not wearing face masks; provide tangible incentives, such as extra credit or a higher grade, to students who wear face masks; or direct students to sit in different areas of the classroom based on whether they are wearing face masks’. Even by the repressed standards of Midwestern politeness, a ban on ‘criticising’ students on a university campus is sweeping and bizarre.
But the students who won’t wear masks still complain any time they feel ‘pressure’, and call their parents, who also complain. Administrators get regular lists of these complaints from the provost’s office. They then have to track down the complaining men – and they are almost always men – and try to placate them. This has created obvious tensions on Iowa’s campus, just as it has in Georgia, where faculty facing similar bans have been protesting.
One of my colleagues with a high-risk medical condition has been advised by her doctor not to be in a room with unmasked individuals. She told her students this and reminded them that the university ‘strongly encourages’ them to wear masks. She was met with smirks, eye-rolls and groans from the men who continue to sit in the front row with bare-faced grins.
Gender and race play a part in all this. In my classes, students dutifully follow my lead and don their masks; I’m a white man who teaches Milton, who may be the whitest poet who ever lived. But I supervise a large programme, with forty instructors teaching around fifteen hundred students, and in classroom after classroom I observe a different scene: unmasked white men staring down female instructors and instructors of colour. It’s a matter of policy, not accident, whose feelings we’ve decided to protect. If you’re an immunocompromised student or instructor who doesn’t want to sit surrounded by a bunch of unmasked, unvaccinated people? Well, fuck your feelings.
The sense of bro-grievance has metastasised beyond masks. At a recent Faculty Assembly meeting, we were told that the students who refuse to wear masks are also complaining loudly when instructors move classes temporarily online because of Covid exposure or infection. This apparently violated the ‘advertisement’ of in-person teaching.
Another instructor described a student as a ‘raging asshole who doesn’t read anything except mask mandate’ legislation. One disturbing side effect of the situation is that some faculty have started turning against their students or seeing them as threats. Teachers have always dished on their students, and vice versa, but the level of hostility strikes me as entirely new.
My department recently endorsed and published a statement affirming that ‘a university that teaches critical thinking and promotes the advancement of scientific knowledge as part of its core mission has an obligation to its students, staff and faculty to follow public health guidelines to offer a safe, equitable and collegial learning environment.’ But few of us feel we’re fully honouring that obligation.
The notion of wide-eyed students sitting rapt at the feet of their bespectacled, tweedy professor was always a fantasy and is now hopelessly out of date. But it contains a grain of truth: universities are built on the idea that knowledge, and even wisdom, can best thrive and be communicated in an environment – call it ‘collegiality’ – that fosters trust and respect. Anyone concerned about the tyranny of the ‘woke’ should be far more frightened by the way this truth is being sacrificed to protect students’ right to feel good about being wrong.