“You don’t understand”

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. Please leave any comments there.

One day, while I was still in my Master’s program, I somehow—and I don’t remember how—wound up in an on line conversation with someone whom I think was in England. We were comparing notes on post-modernists and we shared an experience of being told in class, “You don’t understand.”

The script goes something like this. A professor will say something that, to put it mildly, invites challenge. It somehow doesn’t make sense or seems completely off the wall. A student (often myself) questions the assertion. The professor responds, “You don’t understand,” or something along similar lines. Crucially, the blame for misunderstanding or lack of understanding is shifted onto the student, the student is silenced, and the professor is immunized from having to explain.

The practice was so pervasive in my Master’s program that I labeled it “intellectual bullying,” a term I’ve seen used similarly in other contexts. It doesn’t really work. Some of us were teaching freshman level classes ourselves; we recognized what was going on, and sometimes we would meet in the office we shared (conveniently just across the hall from the classroom) and either close the door so we could burst out laughing or just shake our heads. That program came under and remains under direct control of the Dean’s office.

But most graduate students are just plain better at brown-nosing than I am. We just carry on, because the goal is the degree. And you don’t get any extra letters after your name for in-class arguments with the professor. Still, it’s something you hope to leave behind.

For the most part I have. My present program is a clear step up and the professors are generally far superior. But this semester, the “You don’t understand” response has returned. Not precisely in those words, but along those lines.

I can’t offer details. A rule in the on line classrooms, like with Las Vegas, is that what happens on Caucus stays on Caucus.

But it’s a reminder that academia is ferociously hierarchical. Even when it pretends not to be.