An attempt to define and address a particular sort of bullying in universities

November 29, 2018

When one thinks about the term “bullying,” they are likely to have a relatively specific and stereotyped representation in mind. It seems we are all most familiar with the way we were taught to look at bullies in grade school onwards—peers attempting to exercise power over one another with violent language and actions.

We see the middle school bully as an intimidator, provoking battles that inevitably only they could ever win by using just enough violence to never be culpable but to always be menacing. We may also often think of them as psychologically troubled and perhaps not always entirely responsible for their actions. They are still just a child, after all.

However, upon further inspection, it should quickly become clear that the concept of bullying has a much deeper and more sinister reach than these examples from our childhood. Bullying permeates workplace relations, politics, religious hierarchies and, of course, higher education. Peer-to-peer bullying is perhaps as prevalent and more dangerous than ever, especially considering new ways that may attempt to give it legitimacy such as fraternal hazing.

One may be coerced into a sort of Stockholm syndrome; they accept their perceived inferior status as a necessary condition to their eventual happiness.

These things briefly considered, I now turn to the peculiarly interesting and difficult to define existence of bullying in the teacher-student relationship. As with hazing, we can immediately see the victim as readily placed into a power dynamic in which they are subordinate. It is obvious that a reliance on the judgement of the professor is fundamental to any educational course in the sense that it is the only way to be properly accredited. An employer’s ability to honor an applicant’s degree is in large part contingent on the trust in the merit of professors to vouch for their students’ learning.

On simply a sympathetic scale, the balance between this bestowal of power to instructors and the anxiety of the student to match up with the expectations placed on them is a fragile one, albeit necessary.

Where this hierarchy begins to become problematic stems from a desire on behalf of the professor to overstep the bounds of what is proper for their office; this is a tendency to perceive their power as not a responsibility they have to their students as given under specific necessity by their university but as an intrinsic right they have that is caught up in their freedom of how they run their classes.

So how, specifically, does this bullying by professors toward their students look? A reason that this topic is, I find, so underappreciated is that such bullying is usually very subtle: not so egregious to cause a rally of suspicion and much less any ramifications but definite and viscerally felt nonetheless.

And this is where the type of subordination I’m talking about can most be easily found: the felt response of the victim. Consider the old favorite technique used by teachers for ages (that has graciously started to fall out of style) that we identify as cold calls. There is a certain dread that many, myself included, feel in a class when it becomes apparent that we could be caught at any time in a trap of embarrassment and mockery.

The sinking feeling of spontaneously hearing your name and being prompted to answer a question when you don’t even understand the basic context of a class which you’re already struggling to stay afloat in is, bluntly put, horrifying. When I find myself in such a class where being cold called is possible, I end up finding myself spending much of the time weighing the odds of my being selected and creating safeguards to keep myself from exposure rather than focusing on the material I need to learn.

I’ve heard of a particular class at Brandeis that is even worse, where the professor specifically attempts to catch students embarrassingly unprepared as a source of comic relief for their peers. There is no doubt in my mind that that is an explicit act of bullying and abuse of power. It becomes more appealing at a certain point to avoid going to class altogether because the consequences of failure are preferable to those of public shaming.

Other, perhaps less frequent or more subtle forms of professorial bullying are numerous. Consider the professor that greatly favors the participation of a particular student or students at the expense of the contribution of others. Such a curation of classroom discussion may serve the purposes of their lesson plan but contributes to feelings of academic neglect in others. Or maybe there is a sort of indirect verbal abuse. Calling a student’s idea “stupid” is not too far removed from attributing the student their self with such inadequacy.

One could pick apart further the bad habits of professors to an extreme, citing things like an avoidance of eye contact or poor ability to remember names as evidence of bullying, but I think to do so would be to get ahead of ourselves. These factors may very well contribute to a toxic social environment, but as I said before, our greatest tool to identify bullying is to locate the moment and reason it is felt by its victim.

I do think it’s only fair in general to give these over-reaching professors the benefit of the doubt and view their actions as coming from a desire to push their students to take an active role in their understanding the material. I do not, however, believe it is moral nor should it be permissible for them to try to imprint this desire for a strong work ethic onto others—especially not through methods of intimidation like that of cold calls.

Bullying seems to me to often have something to do with removing the victim’s feeling as if they have a choice. It is an imposition of unnecessary control. Where the middle school bully has no justification for this type of aggression, it is easy to see that the college professor may be unintentionally incentivized to restrict the volition of their students for their mutual academic benefit.

The only way to combat this issue, as with most, is to give it legitimacy and open a dialogue about it. Students should feel compelled to treat their feelings of being attacked as real and important, and instructors should be aware of their duty to students to do everything they can to avoid creating such a sense in their classrooms. There may be difficulty with assuming we can eradicate every particular case of bullying, but it should be possible and therefore fiercely desirable to at least create even better guidelines for fostering sympathetic and moral professor-student relationships in general.

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