Some of my facebook friends and others have been posting and reposting this email exchange between an NYU Stern School of Business professor and an MBA student. To summarize the exchange, the MBA student showed up for the first day of the professor’s “Brand Strategy” class an hour late, apparently because he or she was “sampling” the first day of other courses in an effort to determine which course to take. The professor sent the student away immediately, since he has a standing policy of refusing entry to anyone who is more than 15 minutes late for class. The student, who could not have known of this policy (not having the syllabus), complains to said professor in an email, explaining the situation, even though he or she has decided against taking the class. It shall be left at that, yes? Oh, no it shan’t. For the professor suddenly feels the urge to demonstrate how much bigger he is than the student, and fires off a rousing, caustic email upbraiding the student for all sorts of shortcomings, and suggesting that he or she get his or her collective shit togevah, like, yesterday. The email finds its way on to the intertubes, whereupon a cheer erupts, and all us betrodden professor-types are meant to fist-pump vicariously through the emailing skillz of our Stern Professor friend, hereinafter, Professor Bickdick (on account of his having such a bick dick). Take that, former abusive student-types!
Now, far be it from me to choose sides between an MBA student and a business school professor (I also don’t adjudicate the relative ethical merits of the Wehrmacht and the Red Army, for instance), but there is an odd irony involved in the exchange that most have failed to notice. To get to it, you have to follow the logic of Professor Bickdick’s reply, which I’ll repost here in its entirety:
Thanks for the feedback. I, too, would like to offer some feedback.
Just so I’ve got this straight…you started in one class, left 15-20 minutes into it (stood up, walked out mid-lecture), went to another class (walked in 20 minutes late), left that class (again, presumably, in the middle of the lecture), and then came to my class. At that point (walking in an hour late) I asked you to come to the next class which “bothered” you.
You state that, having not taken my class, it would be impossible to know our policy of not allowing people to walk in an hour late. Most risk analysis offers that in the face of substantial uncertainty, you opt for the more conservative path or hedge your bet (e.g., do not show up an hour late until you know the professor has an explicit policy for tolerating disrespectful behavior, check with the TA before class, etc.). I hope the lottery winner that is your recently crowned Monday evening Professor is teaching Judgement and Decision Making or Critical Thinking.
In addition, your logic effectively means you cannot be held accountable for any code of conduct before taking a class. For the record, we also have no stated policy against bursting into show tunes in the middle of class, urinating on desks or taking that revolutionary hair removal system for a spin. However, xxxx, there is a baseline level of decorum (i.e., manners) that we expect of grown men and women who the admissions department have deemed tomorrow’s business leaders.
xxxx, let me be more serious for a moment. I do not know you, will not know you and have no real affinity or animosity for you. You are an anonymous student who is now regretting the send button on his laptop. It’s with this context I hope you register pause…REAL pause xxxx and take to heart what I am about to tell you:
xxxx, get your shit together.
Getting a good job, working long hours, keeping your skills relevant, navigating the politics of an organization, finding a live/work balance…these are all really hard, xxxx. In contrast, respecting institutions, having manners, demonstrating a level of humility…these are all (relatively) easy. Get the easy stuff right xxxx. In and of themselves they will not make you successful. However, not possessing them will hold you back and you will not achieve your potential which, by virtue of you being admitted to Stern, you must have in spades. It’s not too late xxxx…
Again, thanks for the feedback.
Wow. That’s a big dick he’s swinging around, no? But we should notice a few things about this argument. Professor Bickdick first deploys the usual language of business discourse, suggesting that our hapless student should have performed a risk analysis, and probably would have been wise to hedge his bet. Well, that’s why he’s a business professor type: he can call up the most banal jargon for every situation. But the question is in fact central here: Professor Bickdick is actually quite serious (despite his protestations that he will only get “serious” later) – he’s quite serious, that is to say, that the student should have deployed precisely these decision making devices “in the face of substantial uncertainty.” What we know about Professor Bickdick is that he seeks, at least at the level of his instructions here (I won’t pretend to read his mind) to transform all aspects of life into business decisions. Can we go further? I think so. Apparently, before becoming Professor Bickdick, the good “doctor” made his name by starting a fun little internet site. I won’t link it here, since I’m not in the business of sending more hits to such venues, but suffice it to say that it involves envelopes that are red, and is primarily concerned with leveraging the gift relationship in the service of high priced commodities, to wit:
You give to affirm a friendship, to celebrate a new beginning, to thank a colleague, to honor family, to connect with a loved one, to commend successes, to mark passages, to give a little encouragement — or just because it’s a joy to give.
Put another way, there’s no aspect of your life or relationship in your life that can’t be translated (through the mechanism of Professor Bickdick’s brilliant web site) into a luxury item, like, for instance, a mother’s birthstone necklace ($95 USD), a silk and cashmere cardigan (when your friend or loved one is sick! – $150 USD), and etc. Everything – and especially the gift relation – can be commodified. Finally, Professor Bickdick was teaching a class on brand strategy. Now, I couldn’t find a direct description of a course called “Brand Strategy,” but what would seem like a similar course, “Brand Planning for New and Existing Products,” lists part of its goals as the following:
Creatively explores multiple ways that the branded product experience can create associations in the mind that may develop into mindshare (e.g., the immediate and preferential recalling of your brand when a need arises). Measures the knowledge effects of brand awareness, disposition, propensity, expectations, attitudes, and behavior and discovers the resulting level of brand equity.
Yummy mindshare! If I may risk a lay translation: the class that the student was sampling is concerned with hooking people affectively to a particular brand, or set of brand signifiers, at basically every level of their existence (disposition, propensity, expectation, attitude, and behavior). Or, simpler still, the guy teaches people how to create desiring consumers. So, to summarize, not only does Professor Bickdick instruct his almost student to treat decisions on attending classes as risk analyses; not only did he make his bones (and probably his substantial fortune) transforming the gift relationship – which is structurally immeasurable – into a calculable commodity relation; but the very class that the student had the gall to interrupt is directly involved in the production of a consumer subjectivity. And what is Professor Bickdick upset about?
He’s upset that this student acted like a consumer! He’s upset that this student treated his class as nothing more than another product on a store shelf, to be sampled at one’s leisure, tried out, inspected, and bought – or not. The “lucky lottery winner” that is the student’s Monday evening professor is not a lottery winner at all, but the brand that won the market share.
Oh, but wait, you say. Isn’t there all that stuff in there about “disrespectful behavior” and “decorum (i.e. manners)?” Isn’t there all that stuff in there about “respecting institutions, having manners, demonstrating a level of humility?” Doesn’t that count for something? Why, yes. That is where Professor Bickdick is at his most inconsistent. It is here where we see that all the blathering about risk analysis and all the background on brand building and mindshare never really cut it even for Professor Bickdick. Never mind that “Judgement” and Decision Making – presumably based on some derivative of rational choice theory that remains the grand fetish in our business schools – operates in direct contradiction to a notion of mindshare, which seeks to eliminate precisely such analytic calculations in the commodity’s consumption phase. You can’t square “immediate and preferential recalling” with the putative neutrality of risk analysis, however deluded both positions may be. But no matter. As we know from one of Deleuze and Guattari’s pithier aphorisms, nothing ever died of contradiction.
The real incoherence comes when Professor Bickdick tries to mix in remnants from what are essentially dead social formations (decorum, manners, respect for institutions, and the like) with his otherwise formulaic and predictable capitalist jargon. The professor is actually upset that the student treated his class like any other commodity on the market, but he’s equally upset that the sacred unity of his lecture was disturbed. Notice that Professor Bickdick never once suggests that other students themselves may be disturbed by late-comers, an easy enough argument to make, and the only real pragmatic objection to the student’s actions. Rather, the late-comers’ “behavior” is inherently “disrespectful.” It fails to pay due tribute to the eminence that is the professor, or acknowledge the size of his massive, er, congregation. In this sense, Professor Bickdick is quite right to introduce a paragraph break between his nonsense on “substantial uncertainty” and his real lance thrust on a supposed “code of conduct.” The first is the capitalist explanation of how the student erred. The second is the feudalist explanation of the same. We also know from Deleuze and Guattari, however, that the first effects a universal decoding – and indeed, it is precisely such a decoding that all Professor Bickdick’s activities actually serve to produce. It’s all the same to his “gifting” website if you’re celebrating a marriage or consoling the bereaved or honoring a colleague or whatever: it all translates into money, the universal equivalent, and all the dense cultural codes associated with these particular activities fall by the wayside. If there’s a better example of universal decoding than Professor Bickdick’s website, I’d certainly like to hear about it. What Professor Bickdick, in his dick-swinging zeal, doesn’t seem to understand is that such decoding would include his sacred “codes of conduct.” We have, then, the odd presentation of an MBA student who behaves in precisely the way Professor Bickdick teaches people to behave – in the mode of capitalist production, as a consumer, and etc. – but who Professor Bickdick must also sternly lecture (with the joke sent out to friends, no doubt) for violating in that very decoding behavior some archaic mode of feudal respect.
And we’re supposed to cheer about this? Even if we put Professor Bickdick’s incoherent email aside, we might at least say that, yes, yes indeed, we’ve all been tempted to write such emails. And we’ve all been tempted to do so precisely because we teach in this fraught context, where we’re constantly negotiating between the the decoding effects of the classroom gone commodity and the recoding or residual coding of the classroom as hierarchical institutional space. It is in that conflict that the desire to respond in these ways almost always erupts. So, why do most people I’ve taught with not write this email? Is it because we’re still mostly untenured, and such emails would look egregious to a tenure committee? Yes, certainly. Our labor interests are not spared the decoding. Is it because we generally don’t have time to compose such emails, given all our other work and interests? Yes, that too. But there may even be a simpler explanation – however complex the context in which such desires emerge and decisions are made.
Probably, unlike Professor Bickdick, most of us actually like our students.