At The New Inquiry, Sara Ahmed writes about the demonization of students by the very institutions of higher learning that are supposed to serve them. She argues that the figure of the “problem student” is blamed for the crisis in higher education, when in fact it is the institutions themselves that are failing students:
What do I mean by “against students”? By using this expression I am trying to describe a series of speech acts which consistently position students, or at least specific kinds of students, as a threat to education, to free speech, to civilization, even to life itself. In speaking against students, these speech acts also speak for more or less explicitly articulated sets of values: freedom, reason, education, democracy. Students are failing to reproduce the required norms of conduct. Even if that failure is explained as a result of ideological shifts that students are not held responsible for – margin-ad-rightwhether it be neoliberalism, managerialism or a new sexual puritanism – it is in the bodies of students that the failure is located. Students are not transmitting the right message, or are evidence that we have failed to transmit the right message. Students have become an error message, a beep, beep, that is announcing system failure.
In describing the problem of how students have become the problem, I analyze some recent writings that seem to be concerned with distinct issues even if they all address the demise of higher education and involve a kind of nostalgia for something that has been, or is being, lost. I have made the decision to quote from these texts without citing the authors by name. I wish to treat each text as an instance in a wider intertextual web and thus to depersonalise the material. Some of these texts do cite each other, and by evoking the figure of the problem student (who travels through this terrain with an accumulating pace and velocity) they all participate in the making of a shared world.
The “problem student” is a constellation of related figures: the consuming student, the censoring student, the over-sensitive student, and the complaining student. By considering how these figures are related we can explore connections that are being made through them, connections between, for example, neoliberalism in higher education, a concern with safe spaces, and the struggle against sexual harassment. These connections are being made without being explicitly articulated. We need to make these connections explicit in order to challenge them. This is what “against students” is really about.