Discover more from Burnout Culture
I wrote an op-ed for the NYT about college op-eds. I also wrote about Dungeons & Dragons & burnout.
I have two new short essays to tell you about, including my latest New York Times op-ed.
And if you’re an academic who’d like to learn how to write op-eds, perhaps you’d like to take an online, asynchronous class I’m offering this summer on academic writing for the public. It will begin May 22 and run for five weeks. More info is availble here.
First, I wrote a short essay for Notre Dame Magazine about the time — almost 15 years years ago now — when I volunteered to lead a Dungeons & Dragons campaign with my friends and work colleagues and found much of the same frustration in that hobby as I did in the college classes I was teaching.
I think you’ll like this essay. I tried to connect the narrative arc to the intellectual arc and do so in just 1,000 words. I think it came together well. This article has no paywall, and even if you didn’t go to Notre Dame (neither did I), you’re welcome to read it.
Second, I have a brand-new op-ed about op-eds in the New York Times. As you may be aware, people keep saying that U.S. college students are woke and out of control. So much so, they’re silencing even the mildest departure from progressive othodoxy and pushing reasonable moderate students to the right.
While I do have some concerns about echo chambers and knowingness on campus and off, the narrative about uniformly-”woke” campus speech never seemed quite right to me. So to understand better what students’ opinions are like, I looked to places where, every day, students make their viewpionts publicly known, using their own names: their campus newspaper opinion sections. I read about 200 op-eds from across Texas, and I found:
In those pages, students test out arguments and exercise their thinking and writing skills in the service of an immediate social purpose. Seemingly unprompted, they have something to say. It’s true that these opinion pages feature some debate about mainstream politics and that voices on the left are more prominent than those on the right. But more frequent (and, to me, much more interesting) are the essays about issues that affect students day to day — homework during the first week of class, campus grocery delivery, long-distance relationships.
Reading these essays is a deeply reassuring exercise. I see hope for the future of civic life in these students who are brave (or perhaps naïve) enough to examine an issue in their community and make their best case about it in writing. They know what matters to their readers and draw on shared vocabulary and experience. At their best, these essays exhibit all that opinion writing ought to be.
Campus newspapers are so much fun to read. I mean: Here’s an op-ed a student wrote “in defense of” (???) Cixi, the nineteenth-century Grand Empress Dowager of the Qing Dynasty. Whenever I’m on a college campus, I seek out a copy of the paper and read the opinion. I got the idea for this piece after reading an op-ed in the UT-Dallas Mercury headlined, “Stop Packing Up Early” — that is, before class ends. As a friend pointed out to me, this is the perfect op-ed topic. It recommends a course of action that is both socially beneficial and wholly within the capacity of the reader to undertake.
My own essay drew some nice reader comments. One of my favorites described the piece as “sane,” which I take as a great compliment. Some other comments were rather unenlightening. In particular, a lot of people claimed that my sample of student opinion was unrepresentative, that I only looked to the tiny minority of students who are inclined to write something for the campus paper. The readers seemed to be positing silent majorities who are either rabidly liberal or frothingly antiwoke.
It’s true, of course, that I only examined opinions that were expressed. What else was I supposed to do? Do I have to explain how stupid it is to dismiss the evidence we do have in favor of evidence of unstated opinion that we by definition do not have?
In my experience, and in the experience of just about every professor I know, very few students voice strong, public opinions on any subject. Sure, it’s possible students are self-censoring because they hold opinions that would be shouted down by the woke mob. But in my extensive experience on campuses, I don’t hear that much from the woke mob itself. It’s true that there have been some high-profile shoutings-down of speakers. But day to day? Students are mostly skateboarding, studying, or watching Netflix.
I was annoyed last year by Emma Camp’s NYT op-ed, in which she said she came to the University of Virginia to debate her peers and found that no one else was interested. She drew the conclusion that her peers were victims of liberal groupthink. As someone who has taught college students for more years than Emma Camp has been alive, I can say there are many reasons college students aren’t eager to engage in classroom debate. Foremost among them: Class is boring and stupid. It’s just something to endure. So students take the path of least resistance and avoid engaging with the highly-opinionated student who always has her hand up.
Conservatives, libertarians, and “heterodox” liberals like to trot out surveys that indicate a high level of self-censorship among college students. I have no doubt there is at least some self-censoring occurring on campuses; students have told me as much. At the same time, though, it’s a lot easier to tell a pollster — and, crucially, yourself — that the reason you don’t speak up in class is that angry progressives will yell at you if you say something they disagree with. In that case, you’re innocent. Someone else is to blame for your reticence.
But maybe the real reason you don’t speak up in class is that you’re afraid you’ll sound dumb. Or you didn’t do the reading and thus didn’t form an opinion on the topic. Or you spend class time watching European soccer on your laptop. These circumstances are much more common than commentators, including ones who teach, acknowledge.
The people who do the most complaining about college students’ opinions are only looking at a handful of campuses through the very narrow window of national politics. If it didn’t happen at Stanford, it didn’t happen at all, so far as they’re concerned. During the Great Privilege War of 2014-16, I didn’t hear students use the term at the small, unheralded college were I taught.
Please note that I’m not engaging in denialism here. I’m not saying there is no such thing as cancel culture or that there are no unquestioned orthodoxies in universities or elsewhere. I am saying that the range of issues covered by those orthodoxies may be relatively small in comparison to the issues that students are concerned with day to day. But because those issues don’t map onto the broader culture war, outside observers ignore them. The result is a distorted view of campus discourse that ultimately undermines universities’ social function to advance and propagate knowledge.
I should add that I engaged in my own distortion by not looking more closely at community college newspapers. This was a dumb oversight; my own county’s community college system has several healthy-looking papers. (Sadly, many larger universities’ newspapers are barely publishing at all.) Now that I have read some community-college op-eds, though, I don’t think reading more of them would have changed my central argument.
I’ve written a lot about college students in the past year. That’s because I spend a lot of time at universities and interact a lot with students. My long NYT essay from last year about the collegiate learning breakdown might seem to be hard on students; after all, in it, I basically say they need to buckle down and study harder than they’ve gotten used to. But in other essays, I’ve been more appreciative of students’ efforts.
The through-line, I think, is that I see students as having agency. They’re in charge of their lives. Their education is mostly up to them. Their opinions are their own and deserve to be taken seriously as reflecting their real concerns. There’s a whole movement in higher ed to infantilize students, to say that students’ lives are already so hard that they can’t possibly be expected to do the things they need in order to learn. There’s a related tendency among some observers to view students as the future saviors of the world; the kids are so good and already have everything figured out, and mean grownups just need to get out of their way. (I wrote a critique of this latter view — as expressed by Tim Kreider, one of my favorite writers — a few years ago for The New Republic.)
Both the students-as-helpless-victims narrative and the students-as-future-heroes narratives are false. Students are people, normal people. They have normal-person goals and concerns and capacities and faults. That’s why students often frustrate me: People are frustrating! But it’s also why students often impress me.
Megan Tran, editor-in-chief of the Daily Texan, the student paper at the University of Texas at Austin, told me she had recently hired a slate of columnists who represented more diverse backgrounds and viewpoints than had been the norm at the paper for the previous few years. I’ll admit: I didn’t see a monotonous liberalism in the op-ed section even before Tran hired new writers. But maybe there have been subtle shifts that are hard for me, as an outsider, to detect. In any case, the Texan recently published a very good piece on confronting death.
If fostering diversity of thought in the campus paper means more college writers join the national culture war, then forget it. As Jane Coaston recently argued, that conflict has already created too many extreme, obsessive, and performative politicians and pundits. I was about to write that a better national conversation may begin with better local, campus conversations. But I think what’s needed is less national conversation — I say, having just written for a national newspaper — and more discussion of the local issues that immediately affect each other’s lives.
Korean interview. For anyone who reads Korean, here is an interview I did with the online magazine Topclass. Thanks to my book’s translator Song Seom-byeol for a very quick turnaround on translating this interview.
English interview. And if you read English, you can read a very good article about burnout on the European careers site Welcome to the Jungle by Jelena Prtorić. I was interviewed for it. The article is good not just because I’m in it but because it takes the science and experience of burnout equally seriously. It recognizes that there’s no lifehack that will combat burnout.
Academic writing for the public class. The class will start on May 22. More info here.
Thanks for reading Burnout Culture! Subscribe for free to receive new posts.