On 24 April 2018, the online Chronicle of Higher Education published Julian Wyllie’s “Why This Philosopher Wants Her Students to Ask Someone Out, in Person.” In the piece, Wyllie lays out some context for the article’s subject, Boston College’s Professor Kerry Cronin, including the note that her work has generated a documentary, before reporting an edited interview with her. The interview articulates some of the ideas and issues surrounding Cronin’s now-extra-credit assignment for students to ask a person out on a date–with specific parameters given for the date–and to reflect upon it. In all, the article gives an interesting image of Cronin and her assignment as it relates to currently-prevailing social narratives about the early college experience, although there are some problems to be found.
Some of the problems are noted explicitly in the article. Wyllie reports Cronin as acknowledging the fraught nature of entangling students’ work with their romantic lives–although Cronin is correct to note that teaching students means teaching the whole student, and that means their interpersonal relationships become relevant to what occurs in the classroom. (Necessarily, those who view college as job training will disagree; personal and professional lives are “supposed” to be separate insofar as a person has or is allowed to have a life other than the professional.) And there is a decidedly ableist comment in response to one of the questions posed–the one about cheating on the assignment–that gives pause. A person who is mobility-impaired might well find it expedient to use technology to set up a date, and others whose differences are less visible might have other reasons to deploy technologies other than mouth-to-ear speech. (This is in addition to the set of people who legitimately perceive no need for romance in their own lives, at least not during the time they are enrolled in the class.) While the case might be made that the avowed extra-credit nature of the assignment might permit the imposition of additional restrictions on it (but likely not well), it does not excuse the ill-considered speech–particularly from a philosopher, who ought more than most to be attuned to the perils of such speech.
Such being said, there is something of interest in the assignment. Because it is necessarily a repudiation of the idea that college is about job-training, it is worth some attention. (I am generally against the idea that higher education is supposed to be about higher earnings first or only, as should long have been obvious.) Too, the idea voiced by Cronin in the piece that students who do not want to participate in the dating part of the assignment can still contribute usefully to the discussion prompted by reflecting on the experiences of asking a person out and going on a date with that person is a fine one; there is much to be learned from looking into why a student would reject part or all of an assignment–about the student, about the romantic environment in place, and about the assignment itself, among others.
Additionally, there are useful comments in the interview aside from discussion of the assignment. Cronin’s definition of hookup culture–a social system centered around “a physical or sexual interaction with no perceived emotional context and no perceived intention for a follow-up” that seeks to avoid communication about the relational implications of the interaction–seems to be one, as a point of departure if nothing else. And her notion that “People hide behind screens to guard from vulnerability” seems also to have some use to it as a way to understand why “kids these days” do so much through social media (in addition to the simple fact of time-demands precluding physical travel to the places needed to conduct affairs in person); why would a person–of any age–not take measures to guard against hurt that is likely to come? (And before I hear people complain about Millennials and younger needing protection, I wonder how many of those who make such complaints would go to play, say, baseball or softball without wearing protective equipment, or who would think to weld steel without a mask and gloves. I think few, indeed.) So , although neither is without its problems, there is something in the article well worth reading, something in Cronin’s assignment worth considering.