Class Warfare

Steve Vladeck has written up some thoughts spurred by the Town Meeting yesterday. When Students Strike Back — Some Reactions. Go read it. (The comments are well worth reading too.) I’ll wait.

Like Steve, I find myself taken aback by the size of the anti-strike faction among the students, and especially at the vehemence of a significant minority of the students who experience some of their professors’ decisions to move classes off campus as a wholly unreasonable imposition on their time (rather than as an understandable attempt to deal with difficult circumstances), or even as a cheap political stunt enacted by unfeeling hypocritical brutes.

I am lucky I am not teaching this semester, as it saves me the painful choices and the massive amounts of extra work that face my colleagues. So instead, let me ruminate out loud. It seems to me that there are two surprising things going on here: one is the lack of solidarity between (quite a few ) students and workers with whom they are in close proximity. The other is the lack of solidarity between (quite a few) students and the faculty with whom they are in close proximity. Indeed, one might go so far as to wonder at the hair-trigger anger of (quite a few) students at the faculty and administration. (The third thing going on — that so many people see their view as ‘neutral’ and the other view as ‘biased’ is unfortunate, but hardly surprising.)

I can’t help compare this to my memory of being a first semester 1L during one Yale’s many strikes. It may be that because I was off campus I wasn’t exposed to the full breadth of anti-striker and anti-strike-supporter sentiment, but my sense then, almost 20 years ago now, was that these views existed, were articulated, but were held by only a tiny minority. And while there was deep grumbling about individual faculty members’ choices, I don’t recall much hatred. I certainly resented my Contracts prof’s decision to stay on campus but it never felt terribly personal. It was just the way he was going to be.

So I’m wondering if it’s the times that are different, or the place?

There’s something to be said for the times: unions and strikes are much rarer now than they were when most of the faculty were students. Students are thus much less likely to have grown up hearing about respecting (or not respecting) picket lines, and also less likely to have a living family member in a union.

In one small but telling way it’s clearly the place: the Yale workers and their supporters did a much better job of pre-strike preparation than did the SEIU. This strike landed on UM very suddenly. Not only was there almost no well-publicized warning of the looming strike vote, but the time between the vote and the strike was short. At no relevant time did the union or its supporters do the hard work of explaining what might be likely to happen and why. That didn’t help make alliances.

But I think that’s only part of the story.

The other part of the story has to do with fear and resentment. There’s just a lot of it around here and now. It begins with the fact that for an appreciable fraction of our class, UM was not their first choice. Coming to class is not a source of joy and delight and the future seems clouded rather than necessarily bright. Almost all of our students got good to excellent grades in college. Not all do well here — the skill set the law needs is different from what makes a successful undergraduate, and people catch on at different rates (I sure didn’t get it my first semester). Those first term grades, and even some of the later ones, leave much of the class worrying that so long as they are not at the very top they may end up as losers. I graduated during a time of rapid expansion in the entry-level lawyer market. Today the economy is uncertain; students here and now have no less debt in real dollars, and have reasons beyond the relative statuses of the schools to be nervous about their futures. Add in the fact that many people find law school to be both hard and boring, and not all of them are actually here due to any great love for the law or related subjects (for many of the upwardly mobile, as for the scions of the upper middle class, law school represents a chance at a respectable, moderately interesting, and well-paid career), and pretty soon you have an explosive mix: a lot of fear, not all of it unreasonable, either, basted with resentment. Hard, hard work with an uncertain payoff beyond substantial debt.

It’s not a stretch to see how this fear translates into disinterest in the plight of janitors on the part of some: If you’re working harder than you ever have before and have more debt than ever before, and don’t have a job in hand for after graduation, it takes a pretty high degree of communitarianism to react well to the sudden announcement that your life is going to get harder and more complicated because people want you to spend some uncertain amount more on tuition. (The amount at issue may be quite small in the grand scheme of things but (1) no one in the SEIU has tried to explain that, if only because there are no specific demands other than unionization itself currently on the table; and (2) even a small amount rankles when that’s the reward for the end of the inconvenience.)

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that these same fears cause anger at the faculty. It’s only human nature for students to internalize that they earned the good grades while blaming the faculty for issuing the bad ones, especially when they are used to doing well with less effort. Yet, like Steve, I am taken aback by the extent of the bitter resentment an appreciable group of students is directing at the law school’s faculty and administration. Neither group has any say in the University’s labor policies. To the extent that the law school’s contribution to university ‘overhead’ (which I imagine includes cleaning services?) is a fixed percentage of tuition, it’s not even obvious that a single dollar of any settlement will necessarily come out a single law student’s pocket, although obviously the law school administration can’t say that right now even if it’s true.

There are one or two faculty members who are notoriously insensitive in the first year. But I don’t think that’s the root cause for this anti-faculty animus any more than I’m going to blame the TV blowhards whose anti-intellectual and especially anti-academic rants so frequently fill the airwaves.

I’d expect that most of the faculty see students as junior versions of themselves and their friends. After all, we were (almost) all law students once. What the current fracas reveals is that many students not only don’t see the faculty as senior versions of themselves, but seem quite unaware that even when it doesn’t feel their pain, the faculty wants them to learn, and to go out into the world prepared to do good and to do well.

What we have here is a serious failure to communicate.

But it seems I got my halloween costume about right.

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5 Responses to Class Warfare

  1. Jennifer McLoone says:

    Although I’m not sure I disagree with much of what was said in your post, I find myself wanting to reiterate a point here that I have made to others over the past two weeks. Some students, apparently those at the town hall meeting yesterday, may have animus against the professors for moving classes off campus because they either don’t support the merits of the strike or don’t want to bother themselves with thinking too hard about it and are mad that they are being inconvenienced. But there are other students, myself included, who are against holding classes off campus because we don’t think that action supports, symbolically or otherwise, the striking workers, especially in light of the hypocrisy of some members of the faculty between their usual levels of respect (or lack thereof) for the UNICCO workers and their sudden solidarity with them. I also disagree with holding classes off campus because I think many professors are doing so as a way of protesting the administration, without making that part of their position clear to students, and without providing objective information that could assist students in understanding why the professors have reached the conclusion that the university is not actually being neutral. Without that information, it appears to me that the professors are jumping to conclusions regarding the administration and I am not willing to join them in doing so. But regardless of the fact that I disagree with holding classes off campus, I recognize that is a professor’s perogative. However, just as I respect the professors’ opinions, I think the least a professor can do is initiate a debate amongst and with students, before making the decision to move classes off campus, so that we have an opportunity to express our positions. In addition, professors who feel strongly enough to move classes off campus (and even those who don’t) should be willing to devote class time to discussing the issue with students and should be willing to lead a class discussion in a way that does not alienate those students who disagree with the professor’s position. That is not to say the professor shouldn’t share his/her position, but she has to avoid attempting to indoctrinate her students. Lastly, and most importantly, professors need to recognize that they cannot imply anything from a student’s presence in a class held off, or on, campus. Nor can it be implied that a student who disagrees with holding classes off campus is upset at being inconvenienced, or is unsympathetic to, or even unsupportive of, the position of the UNICCO workers. Personally, I am opposed to holding classes off campus, but not because I don’t think the workers should be paid a living wage and receive health insurance. Furthermore, despite my disagreement, I attend the off campus classes and drive other classmates to and from the off campus locations because I value the experience of learning in some semblance of a classroom and not by listening to a tape. Everything I have written here should go without saying, but unfortunately my personal experience with some professors has been to the contrary. Certainly that doesn’t excuse the position of the students at the town hall meeting, but it hopefully does serve as a reminder that not everyone on campus is willing to take an absolutist position.

  2. Pinski says:

    Disclaimer: Not a University of Miami student.

    I think its about the time and era.
    First, many of my generation hate unions. A lot that is reflected by the most visible unions are from sports. There you have unions arguing over millions of dollars the rest of the public struggles to get by. They watch as the “unions” cause the ruining of businesses. Look at the linking of the Delta pilot’s saga and Delta’s collapse. Or GM and its pushing jobs out of the country because “unions” made it too expensive to do business in the U.S.
    Second, many of my fellow university students (and law students especially) have an entitlement complex. This is seen in many ways. I think part of that is apparent from your students dislike of your attendance policy. We are paying you, we should be the ones who should decide whether we take advantage of that. Meaning that because we are adults, you should let us learn the law on our own if that is what we want (nevermind the ABA rules on attendance). This complex can be also seen in some of the views of the students, for example (from Professor Vladeck’s blog) “that [professors] have a contractual obligation to show up when our classes are scheduled and at their scheduled location, and to teach [students] what they’ve signed up to take, regardless of any supervening factors.” You can see it in the NYTimes article about students emails to their professors.

  3. rsojo says:

    I cannot help but wonder if the reason that so many students complain about their off-campus classes is because they cannot get on the Internet? Walk into any UM class at anytime and more than half of the students are IM-ing or surfing the net. Having to go to class AND pay attention, now that’s an inconvenience!

    There is something I wouuld like someone to clarify:
    If those member’s of the faculty (and students) really want to show solidarity, why dont they have the conviction (courage?) to not hold class, or go to class alltogether? By holding classess off-campus, and attending them off-campus, are we not theoretically crossing the picket-line? Isin’t that off-campus classroom in essence a sattelite branch of the UM Law School?

  4. another student says:

    I completely agree with Ms. McLoone’s post, and want to make it clear that my comments in the “roulette” thread are based on similar sentiments. I am not against the strike or anti-union whatsoever; I just disagree with the effectiveness of student and faculty “solidarity.”

  5. Lou says:

    I don’t think it’s sufficient simply to say that students who are irritated by the inconvenience of the strike are self-centered. Yes, they are, but what’s behind it? First, I think this strike throws into stark relief how out touch many UM Law students are with real life. A school with an average entering age of 24 of necessity means that few UM law students have worked for any substantial length of time. If one has worked in the world for a while, he or she can much more easily see and sympathize with the lousy deal these janitors have and why they want to make better lives for themselves in the only way they can. Students who have never had to worry about health insurance, retirement security or cost of living adjustments simply can’t relate to the situation these janitors face.

    At the same time, the overwhelming majority of UM Law students came of age in a time when both major political parties simply abandoned economic security issues. The Democratic Party – the traditional voice of working people – has abandoned that decades-old concern to a startling decree in favor of neo-liberal economics, free trade and social issues. Even the most politically engaged students at UM Law will have been exposed to endless discussions about abortion rights or gay rights, but virtually none on pocketbook issues, such as the minimum wage, the right to join a union or retirement security. In our era, one really has to search out sources that discuss such issues in any detail and, to be charitable, most UM law students haven’t done that. Additionally, and no less importantly, the steep decline of the labor movement to a representing only 8% of private sector workers means that labor issue’s are simply not lodged in the national consciousness in the way they once were.

    I’ve heard many comments, such as “Well, they’re janitors and they chose to do that,” or “Why can’t they just go do something else?” I even heard one student say “That’s what the market prices their services to be.” Aside from being distressing, such comments arise from ignorance. But what does the law school do to combat that ignorance? Almost from the moment one enters UM, there is a thoroughgoing emphasis on individual achievement and inner directed methods of assessment, i.e. final exams, Socratic method, class rankings, your summer job, etc…At the same time, few professors provide any context at all for what the law means in the grand sweep of society. Finally, the fact that UM Law has no meaningful public interest program – except a smattering of UM scholars and the Alfieri Center — means that there is no natural constituency of students who are plugged in to issues such as workers’ rights.

    Some of these issues are in the control of the law school, and some are not, but it’s not enough to diagnose UM law students as self-centered and leave it at that.

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