The Snake’s Garden




This comic was drawn by Naomi Skye (@lightsintheskye on Tumblr) and written by me, Kathryn Hemmann (@kathrynthehuman on Twitter).

I say this comic was written by me, but what really happened was that I sent Naomi a rambling email about how much I was enjoying the Good Omens miniseries on Amazon. I’ve been a fan of the book ever since I was in high school, and I think Naomi owns literally a dozen copies of it. Every character in Good Omens is wonderful, but I have a special fondness for the idea of the serpent who, having fallen from grace, makes a garden of his own.

This comic got a lot of attention on Tumblr, by the way, which is exactly as it should be.

Tenure in a Time of Crisis

On Wednesday of this week (March 25), the city of Washington DC declared a month-long quarantine. The same day, George Mason University decided to send me a letter telling me that my tenure case has been denied.

I knew this would be the case since January, when I got a letter from the university tenure committee, but the timing of the formal notification could not have been worse. On the same day, the university sent out an email saying that all tenure-track faculty would have an extra year to apply for tenure. The university wants to be “accommodating” during these difficult times, apparently.

I was going to wait until the current academic year is over to publish my thoughts on what happened, but maybe saying something right now, when a lot of academics are paying attention to the tenure system, might be a good opportunity to make a difference.

There’s a lot going on in my particular case, but what basically happened is that I got very sick during the Spring 2019 semester. I was open about this with everyone and even went to HR and the CDE Office (the Office of Compliance, Diversity, and Ethics, which handles things like Title IX and ADA resources) to formally register a disability at the beginning of the Fall 2019 semester, but the process was prohibitively convoluted and took much longer than it should have. It also ultimately ended up backfiring by causing certain people, specifically my department chair, to become extremely upset with me. In fact, my department chair met with my tenure liaison immediately after meeting with the CDE Office. This was extremely unethical, and the resulting backlash was such that it didn’t surprise me at all when I learned that the university’s tenure committee unanimously voted to deny my case.

The letter from the committee and from the dean both consist of multiple pages saying “this person has done excellent work” leading to a final paragraph stating “but this is not true excellence.” The rationale for this decision seems to be that my book isn’t out yet, but this makes no sense, as its publication met with an unexpected delay but was still on track to come out in time for my field’s major international conference in March (although it’s been pushed back again due to the pandemic).

To me, then, this feels like discrimination on the basis of disability, especially given the acrimonious conversation my department apparently had during my tenure vote despite strong support from my departmental tenure committee. Essentially, although I looked like an excellent candidate for tenure on paper, I was lazy and irresponsible. I was always friendly with everyone and never caused any trouble prior to getting sick, so this came as a huge shock. I have no way of knowing the details, unfortunately, since this process is completely opaque, but my department chair later had the only woman on my tenure committee sit down with me later to explain that sickness and disability are not “real,” and that people resent me for “not pulling my weight.”

It’s therefore extremely frustrating to me to have gotten so many emails from the university about “support” and “accommodations” and even “self-care” during the past two weeks. If the university really cared about these things, why wasn’t I granted a basic level of “support” and “accommodations” earlier this academic year when I asked openly and in good faith?

And this isn’t just me – there’s been a lot of talk on social media about how hypocritical the behavior of universities has been as they bend over backwards to try to appear supportive and accommodating. The following screencap, which comes from (this post on Tumblr), is a good example.

I’m hurt and scared, as many of us are right now, and now I’m also out of a job and have no health insurance. I was able to find a position at another university, but they’ve just put a hiring freeze into effect, so who knows what will happen. It’s strange for me to be in this situation while still devoting an extraordinary amount of work to keep up with the work required by the online classes that I’m also having to build as quickly as I can.

This situation is awful, and it’s entirely unnecessary. The university could always have pushed back someone’s tenure application because of exceptional circumstances at any time, because the tenure system is completely arbitrary. Why did it take a global pandemic for universities to acknowledge that this is a reasonable and compassionate policy?

Anyone can become sick at any time, and a “disability” can happen to anyone, even to someone who has previously been (and perhaps still continues to seem) healthy and productive. We’re all currently dealing with exceptional circumstances, but I think this is a good opportunity for universities to set a precedent of accommodating diversity by understanding and respecting the fact that “difference” means that different people are working under different conditions, many of which may be entirely out of their control.

Although it no longer affects me, I am obviously in favor of giving faculty the option to push back their tenure applications by a year due to exceptional circumstances, and I hope this crisis can create an opportunity for universities to become more tolerant of diversity and more humane to the people whose work contributes to and supports their communities.

Twitch Studies

The Twitch streamers who spend years broadcasting to no one
https://www.theverge.com/2018/7/16/17569520/twitch-streamers-zero-viewers-motivation-community

The rise of popular (and profitable) influencers on platforms like YouTube and Twitch has also made the idea of being an online influencer aspirational. Some parents note that their children pretend to unbox toys to a nonexistent audience, and teachers report that their students often say they want to pursue YouTubing as a career. But when seemingly everyone wants to record footage or live stream, who ends up watching the content?

Starting a career on platforms like Twitch often means spending some time broadcasting to absolutely no one. Discoverability is an issue: when you log into Twitch, the most visible people are those who already have a large following. While there are tools to find lesser-known streamers, most people starting out without built-in audiences from other platforms or supportive friends and family end up staring at a big, fat zero on their viewership counter. This lonely live stream purgatory can last anywhere from a few days, weeks, months, sometimes even years, depending on your luck. According to people who have gone through it, lacking an audience is one of the most demoralizing things you can experience online.

I found this article by searching for the title, which I saw in a screencap photo in a Kotaku article about a professor who taught a session of his class about Twitch on Twitch.

Although I sometimes fantasize that I’m recording myself when I do 100% completion speedruns of Zelda games, I have to admit that I never got into Twitch. I understand the appeal, but like… Okay, how do I put this.

So much of being considered cool in high school and college is about sharing communal experiences. You don’t just watch a movie and talk about it, you have to watch it with your friends and share inside jokes that mainly take the form of repeating the lines from the movie that everyone in your friend group laughed at. I enjoy spending time with people, but I have trouble relaxing enough to passively consume content in the company of a group, so doing something like quietly watching a television show or sports game has always felt like having to sit through some sort of awful and boring lecture.

What I’m trying to say is that Twitch isn’t for me. I’m not suggesting that Twitch isn’t worth reading about and writing about and teaching an entire college class about; but, to me, it’s really nothing more than how teenagers and people in their early twenties have always spent time with their peer groups.

The primary difference, I guess, is that people aspire to do this professionally. In fact, some of my own students are already well on their way to making a career out of streaming or Let’s Play videos.

Anyway, I was thinking about teaching a class through Twitch (or possibly Discord) myself, but I ultimately decided against it. I understand the drive to hold class sessions via videoconferencing, but I also don’t think it’s entirely fair to assume that everyone will have access both to a good internet connection and to a quiet space where they can be alone, especially not during an arbitrarily set time, and not while they’re back with their families. See also:

‘Zoombombing’: When Video Conferences Go Wrong

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/20/style/zoombombing-zoom-trolling.html

Yahaha!

This comic was drawn by Frankiesbugs (@frankiesbugs on Tumblr) and written by me, Kathryn Hemmann (@kathrynthehuman on Twitter).

After three years of playing Breath of the Wild, I now see Korok hiding places everywhere… and I mean everywhere. (ಠ_ಠ)

2020 Writing Log, Part Ten

– “I am going to take a break from Malice,” I said. Then, having spoken, I immediately started writing the next two chapters.

– This has been a week for commissions, and I’ve spent a fair amount of time communicating with artists during the past few days. It’s been a lot of work, but I’ve been having a lot of fun!

– I worked with Checkuuu on an illustration of Zelda from Malice. This artist has been drawing Land of the Lustrous fan art recently, so their illustration is both Murder and Fashion, a combination that I very much appreciate.

– I worked with Lakokoosa on an illustration of Link and Sidon from Malice. They’re sporty, adorable, and totally dating!

– I worked with Frankiesbugs on a four-panel gag comic about the Breath of the Wild sequel. This idea has been haunting me since the trailer was first released last summer, and creating this comic felt like an exorcism. Truly I am blessed.

– I worked with JazineDraws on an illustration of Hero from The Demon King. This artist is such a superstar, and I literally cried when she accepted this commission. She was an absolute professional and sent me a lot of WIP images, and I feel like I learned a lot from seeing her process.

– And there’s more good work to come soon! It is so goddamn incredible to see my ideas come to life like this, and like… I really wish there were a way for me to do this sort of thing professionally.

– Anyway, speaking of The Demon King, I wrote a good four thousand words of backstory and worldbuilding. I could have written more, but I stopped myself before I became completely insufferable.

– I finished the line editing for all of the stories in It Never Happened. I also created the front and back covers of the chapbook and set up the page layout. This coming week is going to be about copying and pasting, which actually takes much longer than it sounds like it should.

– I got everything ready for my university courses to go completely online during the coming week. Oh man. Here we go.

– And finally! I got an offer letter from the University of Pennsylvania and signed a lease for an apartment in Philadelphia. I have to admit that I was genuinely worried about being jobless and homeless, but everything turned out all right, thank goodness.

We’re living in a difficult time, and I’m afraid it’s going to get worse before it gets better. I hope everyone reading this is doing okay.

How Instagram and Tumblr Work

I’m a big fan of Gal Shir’s texture brushes, and yesterday I read his self-published book View Insights, which is about how to grow a following on social media, specifically Instagram.

The first 2/3 of the book contains good general life advice, such as:

(1) Do what you actually enjoy doing
(2) It’s not necessary to quit your day job
(3) Divide your ideas into “big projects” and “small projects”
(4) Learn how to balance and prioritize your projects

The book also contains a few pieces of advice that are predicated on assumptions that strike me as somewhat “masculinist,” such as the idea that no one cares about pictures of your face or your personal life – which is not even remotely true in the online spaces I have experience with, where people tend to care just as much about the artist as they do the art. So your mileage may vary, I guess.

What I found interesting about this book was the last third, in which the author digs deep into how Instagram’s algorithms work and why they work in the ways they do. Tumblr is an altogether different platform that works in different ways for different reasons, but Shir corroborates some of the tendencies I’ve noticed on Tumblr, such as:

(1) The “value” of a post is algorithmically ranked within a limited number of tags
(2) This “value” is partially dependent on the “user rank” of the poster
(3) This “value” is also determined by interaction from other “high-rank” users
(4) The level of interaction needs to be significant, like commenting or sharing (and not simply liking)
(5) This “high-rank” interaction needs to happen within the first few hours of posting

A while ago I speculated (here) about what I called “anchor blogs” on Tumblr, which are blogs that may not necessarily post original content but still manage to be influential. I was thinking about how actual person-to-person social networks tend to function within fandom; but, if this algorithmically based “user rank” theory is true, this would help explain the patterns I noticed relating to how any given post spreads.

Tumblr has passed its prime, so I’m not sure if any of this still applies; but, according to this theory, this is what you would have needed to do in order to become a “high-rank” user:

(1) Interact with a lot of content
(2) At a significant level
(3) Within hours of it being posted
(4) And follow a lot of people
(5) While having “high-rank” followers

What all of this boils down to is that these two platforms reward “engagement,” which is essentially extroverted behavior combined with the condition of being on your phone all the time. Shir says that, when he first started trying to build a following on Instagram, he would devote three hours a day to interacting with other posts and people on the platform during peak hours. Unlike Instagram (and Facebook), I’m almost 100% certain that Tumblr doesn’t apply a secondary “positivity rating” to posts and comments, but actually being genuinely friendly probably doesn’t hurt.

2020 Writing Log, Part Nine

– I posted Chapter 30 of Malice on AO3. I’ve now been writing this story for almost a year to the day. It’s currently at 62k words, which is a decent level of productivity. I’ve gotten a lot of support from readers, and I’m grateful and honored. Still, I think this might be a good time to take a break from this story to reassess my writing goals.

– I edited Chapter 28 and posted it on FFN. I also edited Chapter 29 and uploaded it to be queued next weekend.

– I replied to all the comments I received on AO3, which was a lot of fun. Next week I want to set a goal of leaving a comment on someone else’s work. Even if it’s just a short comment!

– I did two more rounds of editing on the stories in It Never Happened. This week I’m going to get started on line editing and page layout.

– I turned in the proofs for my book manuscript. The publisher gave me about a week to go over these, and this particular week has been wild. I was able to catch a few typos and formatting errors in the proofs, but I’m sure there are more. I have strong feelings about this process, but I probably shouldn’t say anything until the book actually comes out.

– Given that universities in the United States are shutting down, everything has been cancelled, including the talks I was supposed to give during the next two months. You’d think this sudden influx of free time would help me be more productive, but this situation is actually super stressful. This comic on Twitter captures the feeling perfectly.

– During the past week I was able to work with Frankiesbugs on Tumblr to create a short original horror comic. They did an amazing job, and it was an absolute pleasure to work with them. Not to be weird or anything, but exchanging emails with this artist on a daily basis helped keep me sane during a difficult time.

– There have been a lot of emergency commission posts on Twitter from people who’ve suddenly found themselves out of work, and I’ve been in contact with about half a dozen artists. If I had to make a prediction, I would say that I’m probably never going to see the art I commissioned, but it doesn’t really matter. I was in a similar situation a few times when I was younger, and it would have meant the world to me for someone to send me money and say they believed in me. If actual art materializes, that will be a bonus.

– I wish more fic writers took commissions. I would take commissions myself, but dear god I can barely write my own stories at this point. Good luck to us all, I guess.