Against Cop Shit

Thesis: abolish cop shit in the classroom.

For the purposes of this post, I define “cop shit” as “any pedagogical technique or technology that presumes an adversarial relationship between students and teachers.” Here are some examples:

While I am most familiar with higher ed, cop shit undoubtedly reaches its sine qua non in the K-12 classroom, particularly given how such classrooms are even more militarized (actual cops, metal detectors, education premised on compliance, etc.) than higher ed. While I was getting my hair cut yesterday, my stylist told me about her daughter’s math teacher, who is currently punishing her daughter for falling behind on work due to a broken arm by assigning her upwards of fifteen pages of homework a night. The child is seven. This is pure, uncut cop shit.

Now I am a graduate student, which means that I am simultaneously an inexperienced teacher as well as one who teaches many front-line, entry-level classes. I admit that I am perhaps missing part of a larger picture that encourages or even requires the use of cop shit in the classroom. Yet when my students come to me with reams of documentation for a simple cold, or fearful that I will dole out unexcused absences for them taking job interviews, I have to wonder what that larger picture could be. I’ve only taught for a few semesters and I don’t pretend that my experiences are generalizable to the level of empirical data, but my students seem to do perfectly well in the absence—as much as I can make—of cop shit.

So why do we have cop shit in our classrooms?

One provisional answer is that the people who sell cop shit are very good at selling cop shit, whether that cop shit takes the form of a learning management system or a new pedagogical technique. Like any product, cop shit claims to solve a problem. We might express that problem like this: the work of managing a classroom, at all its levels, is increasingly complex and fraught, full of poorly defined standards, distractions to our students’ attentions, and new opportunities for grift. Cop shit, so cop shit argues, solves these problems by bringing order to the classroom. Cop shit defines parameters. Cop shit ensures compliance. Cop shit gives students and teachers alike instant feedback in the form of legible metrics.

In short, cop shit operates according the the logic of datafication. Indeed, the rise of ed tech has seen the multiplication and proliferation of unprecedented forms of cop shit. See, for instance, this illuminating post on the “The 100 Worst Ed-Tech Debacles of the Decade,” published at the end of last year. It’s a murderer’s row of cop shit.

Cop shit is seductive. It makes metrics transparent. It allows for the clear progress toward learning objectives. (“Badges” are cop shit, by the way.) It also subsumes education within a market logic. “Here,” cop shit says, “you will learn how to do this thing. We will know you learned it by the acquisition of this gold star. But in order for me to award you this gold star, I must parse you, sense you, track you, collect you, and—” here’s the key, “I will presume that you will attempt to flout me at every turn. We are both scamming each other, you and I, and I intend to win.” When a classroom becomes adversarial, of course, as cop shit presumes, then there must be a clear winner and loser. The student’s education then becomes not a victory for their own self-improvement or -enrichment, but rather that the teacher conquered the student’s presumed inherent laziness, shiftiness, etc. to instill some kernel of a lesson.

No wonder the traditional humanities classroom of “read things, come together and talk about them, and write papers about them” has disappeared in the age of cop shit. There’s no game to fix, no battle to win.

And I want to fend this one off at the pass: if a classroom is so large that it requires cop shit in order to effectively run, then the answer is not actually to use cop shit. The answer is hiring more instructors. There are enough to go around.

In conclusion: expel cop shit from your classrooms; expel cop shit from your hearts. We are educators. We are not cops. If you want to be a cop, I recommend you go be a cop. At least then you’ll wear a nice uniform that lets us know that you are not on our side.

Edit: one more point that I thought about a few moments after I posted this. Cop shit also flies in the face of, indeed disallows, developing real solidarity between students and teachers. This solidarity is particularly important when those teachers are themselves (graduate) students. As the wildcat strikes at UCSC teach us, we need to develop lines of solidarity not only within our preformed categories (students, grad students, TT faculty, adjuncts, etc.), but also across those categories, in ways that reveal the insufficiency of those categories. Our students are powerful resources in this regard, particularly given how higher ed increasingly conforms to a market model of those students as consumers. Students standing alongside teachers in strike actions, for instance, can be a very powerful thing.

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