Back in 2010, this video was making the rounds on the internet (I believe that the original version is found here, on the site where these movies are made). On one level it is pretty funny, of course–lampooning the naive undergraduate student’s dreams for a career in “the life of the mind,” as it was once known, by means of a harsh introduction to the politics and economics of contemporary University life. The humor, it seems, is in the clash of viewpoints and both side’s dogged persistence to stick with their story, as if the conversation wasn’t even happening.
Undeterred by all that she has learned, the student finally asks: “So, will you write me a recommendation?” “Yes, give me the forms. I will have it for you by Monday,” her Professor replies.
But it occurs to me that a certain degree of privilege is needed to generate the sort of cynicism that either allows one to make the observations that turn into this professor’s harsh script or enables viewers to judge the student as naive and thus funny–for it seems to me that we’re laughing at her, and not with her. To rephrase, my guess is that, if we find the video funny, then we are not laughing at the Professor, seeing her as an outrageous parody of a jaded curmudgeon. No, I presume that many viewers hear her as speaking the truth to the stubbornly naive student.
My point? Why is this video funny, to whom, and for what reasons?
For I can easily imagine someone who has no illusions about the practical implications of the modern university not finding this funny at all and, instead, seeing it as a sad commentary on the sort of privilege needed to generate the cynicism of the Professor’s speech–comfortably ensconced in her position where, yes, she no doubt works very hard, may receive less pay than she deserves, and may receive little recognition, but where she also fails to recall, to pick a quick example, those peers form grad school who were not so lucky to find work in the University despite all of their unsung hard work. Whatever our complaints, as Professors we earn our living reading, writing, and talking about things that we find fascinating. Thinking of my own father, who drove a dump truck, was a janitor, then a milkman (yes, with a horse and wagon), and then pumped gas, it’s not such a bad gig, if you think about it. In other words, viewed in this manner, the video is a self-satisfied rant at the expense of the student, making the student a prop necessary for the Professor’s entitled speech. Viewers laugh, then, perhaps because, for some of them, it captures their disappointment with the unmaterialized entitlements to which they thought they were due.
Read in this way, there’s not that much distance between the student and the professor. Both are painfully naive: the student for failing to understand the University to be an institution within a complex socio-political system and the Professor for…, well, for failing to understand precisely the same thing. Both think the University is about the disembodied life of the mind–one eagerly hopes to gain access to it and the other sadly laments that it never turned out that way. The dialogue is, in fact, a monologue.
Despite the video’s apparent interest to speak truth about our institution in order to empower students, I therefore see it as ironically dis-empowering them by turning undergraduate students into the straight man for someone else’s joke. If, as Professors, we’re wishing to change the problems that we see with our work conditions, and thus the conditions that the next generation entering leadership roles in higher education will inherit from us, then it strikes me that we can do better than to complain from our privileged position to the very people who help to create the institutions within which we carry out our work.