Fall 2020 Teaching Log, Part One: I Love Japanese Fantasy

This fall I’m teaching a class called “Japanese Science Fiction and Fantasy.”

This class isn’t about science fiction so much as it is about fantasy, horror, and speculative fiction.

I haven’t encountered a lot of writing in English about Japanese fantasy, unfortunately, and this is a shame. Meanwhile, there’s an overwhelming amount of writing in English on Japanese science fiction. In addition, there are so many translations of Japanese science fiction coming out each year that I don’t even bother to keep up with them anymore.

So why the disparity? I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it’s a gender thing. This isn’t to imply that women don’t read and write science fiction, but rather that subcultures surrounding science fiction were overwhelmingly dominated by men from the 1940s to the 1990s. When there were women in these cultures – and this is something Joanna Russ has argued much better than I can – their work tended to be downplayed and disregarded in various ways. They were “just fans,” they were writing “silly romance,” they were writing “for children,” they were writing “disposable comics,” they “weren’t serious writers,” and so on.

So science fiction became a legitimate subject of academic inquiry, while fantasy largely escaped critical consideration. After all, intelligent and important men read and write science fiction, while fantasy is self-indulgent frivolity for the ladies. Or, I should say, I’ve personally encountered that sort of attitude frequently enough to think that it’s deeper than the misguided opinion of any one individual.

My main goal for this semester is to use this class as an excuse to do as much research as I can in both English and Japanese to see what’s out there on Japanese fantasy. Hopefully I might eventually be able to make a few small contributions of my own to the literature.

I’m looking forward to getting started!

Image: A female theorist dealing with another load of crap

‘Is it a race thing or a lady thing?’ – the new Ghostbusters and the Academy
https://mutablematter.wordpress.com/2016/08/05/is-it-a-race-thing-or-a-lady-thing-the-new-ghostbusters-and-the-academy/

In the original Ghostbusters film academia was the subject of critique for being oversaturated with time, space, funding and equipment. The new Ghostbusters film performs a reversal by its portrayal of the privatised, neoliberal academy: the university is now the space where you have to apply for funding, and you will only receive it if you can demonstrate ‘results’. If you want to do something long-term, creative and out of the ordinary, you have to stay out of sight and hide in the margins. This is shown through Abby’s (Melissa McCarthy) character who does exactly that, although she underestimates how much the margins are increasingly being closed down. When her institution is taken over by a crude cookie-cutter corporate type, the women and their research are immediately kicked out. Abby’s original plan was to save Erin from mainstream academia and show her the beauty of the margins, but they are now even further than initially anticipated. As even the most dubious institutions aim to get in with the top achievers, the margins have to move outside of any institution. You essentially have to sacrifice your career and expose yourself to the risk of your own enterprise.

It’s so bizarre to me that I had this exact same experience. I left a comfortable and stable position at a top-twenty school, thinking that I would have more intellectual freedom at a university positioned a little more in the margins. The substantially lower-ranked school where I accepted a tenure-track position became more fantastically neoliberal with each passing year, however, and suddenly I was expected to produce more work than anyone else I knew despite being given almost no resources. It was this, basically:

First we see Erin (Kirsten Wiig), a theoretical physicist whose tenure is delayed by increasingly ridiculous requirements that no male colleague would have to perform. Another reference, another grant, another book – something is always missing, while male colleagues with less impressive achievements effortlessly move past. We see how Erin is aware of this, anxious to meet these criteria down to her appearance, but, at the same time, angry at having to perform a disproportional amount of ‘ass-kissing’. What I also like about the Erin vignette is the attention to knowledge policing: what gets validated by Western academia and what doesn’t. Academia rewards particular standards, particular modes of thinking and producing. You need to be similar to others, to cite the canon, to orient your research towards the current funding.
Despite being just as productive and successful as Erin, I was also denied tenure. My situation was simultaneously complicated and not complicated at all, in that it was an all-too-common combination of discrimination, intellectual conservatism, and neoliberal corporatization.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the concept of “the undercommons” (here’s a free PDF of the book), the gist of which is to “take what you can from the system and run.” I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of good people in an extensive support network reach out to me since I was denied tenure, and many people have generously offered concrete resources that might help me make it back into the system. I’m grateful, of course, but I suspect that there may no longer be any room in the system for someone like me, who not only does research in and about the margins but also teaches from and to the margins. If the system won’t support me, I’m not too terribly interested in giving more of my labor to support the system.

My main concern, at the moment, is how to become a Ghostbuster.

Community

I should begin by saying that, when someone is harassed, the only person to blame for it is the person doing the harassing.

There’s usually only going to be one person doing any actual harassment. Most of us aren’t assholes, after all.

That being said, about 90% of the experience of being harassed is watching other people as they witness the harassment while doing nothing to stop it. This is how the bad behavior of assholes is allowed to escalate, and this is also how targets are primed to be victims.

More often than not, the target of harassment is chosen because they’re friendly and polite and don’t push back against the harasser. They know this, but they’re often plagued by a lingering sense of self-doubt, as if they have done something to deserve the treatment. The harasser takes advantage of and exacerbates this insecurity, of course, but the target’s sense of self-worth is also eroded by how the community treats the harassment as normal.

You can avoid one asshole, but you can’t avoid everyone in your office or classroom. This means that the target doesn’t just feel uncomfortable around the harasser, but around everyone. This is how a hostile workplace environment is created.

I’ve said this before, but the purpose of American Title IX laws is to protect the university. Because of systemic injustice, protecting the university almost always means protecting the person accused of harassment. If a professor takes steps to confront or report a harasser, they could very well lose their job. From a legal perspective, professors cannot respond to harassment in any way unless the target reports it directly in clear language. Even then, the professor can only relay the complaint to the appropriate office, as they cannot legally take any sort of action to protect the target of harassment. The same goes for workplace supervisors. We can report harassment, but we can’t do anything to address or prevent it.

I think this is why so many people allow harassment to continue – they believe that a higher authority will intervene and handle the situation. Unfortunately, this is almost certainly not going to happen, at least not in the way that it should.

It’s therefore up to a community of peers to address and prevent harassment. This is not ideal, and it has the potential to backfire by becoming a different sort of harassment in turn, but it’s usually the only way to protect the target. No one needs to be a hero. “Protecting the target” usually takes the form of making sure that the harasser is not invited to events where their target is going to be present or making sure that the target doesn’t have to walk to class alone if the harasser is always waiting outside the classroom. It also involves the act of acknowledging of the harassment by pointing it out and making it visible while it’s occurring.

It feels wrong and weird to have to give this talk to grad students, as if we (collectively, as professors) are abjuring responsibility, but it’s better than saying nothing at all. It’s also an important lesson about academia, I think. The institution will not protect any of us, so we have to protect ourselves.

Down Here We All Float

The Coming Disruption
https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/05/scott-galloway-future-of-college.html

Galloway, a Silicon Valley runaway who teaches marketing at NYU Stern School of Business, believes the pandemic has greased the wheels for big tech’s entrée into higher education. The post-pandemic future, he says, will entail partnerships between the largest tech companies in the world and elite universities. MIT@Google. iStanford. HarvardxFacebook. According to Galloway, these partnerships will allow universities to expand enrollment dramatically by offering hybrid online-offline degrees, the affordability and value of which will seismically alter the landscape of higher education. Galloway, who also founded his own virtual classroom start-up, predicts hundreds, if not thousands, of brick-and-mortar universities will go out of business and those that remain will have student bodies composed primarily of the children of the one percent.

I recently read through a threaded conversation on a subtweet and saw some rando (probably a grad student) complaining that I only write positive reviews of the work published by my friends.

On one hand, that’s absolutely true! My friends and professional colleagues are doing amazing work, and I think their writing should be promoted and appreciated.

On the other hand, I don’t really have much choice in the formal assignments I get. I have the ability to turn down review requests, but walking up to the editor of an academic journal and saying “let me review this” isn’t really a thing I can do. I mean, I could do it – there’s nothing stopping me – but writing academic book reviews is time-consuming and difficult, and I don’t have the energy for more than I’ve been formally requested to do. My priorities lie elsewhere.

On my third hand, I kind of want to be like, How about you become my friend so I can write positive reviews of your work too?

I feel like academia was already on the verge of collapse before the pandemic. It’s currently a disaster, and an attitude that holds that “we all rise if the water level rises” is more relevant and pragmatic now than it’s ever been.

Between one thing and another, I’ve been spending the past two weeks seriously thinking about how to amplify the voices of people from marginalized positions. To be honest, a lot of these voices are doing brilliantly and don’t need my “assistance,” such as it is. Still, I want to use the platforms I have to at least try to help change the discursive space so that it can better reflect the rich diversity of voices in my field.

I agree with everything Scott Galloway says in this interview, and I think “disruption” is not a strong enough term for what’s going to happen as American universities become more corporate. If we’re lucky, however, this might become the opportunity people need to transform what (and who) is considered valuable and important in higher education.

Consumable and Disposable

I’m going to say something that sounds like self-pity, but it’s really more of an observation.

I feel like, at the beginning of every relationship I have with another person, they grant me a certain number of “goodwill points.” These goodwill points will never increase, but they will steadily decrease. The only way for me to prevent them from decreasing is to be constantly active and productive, thus maintaining the level of goodwill this person felt for me when our relationship first began. I have to be very careful about what I do, however, because one wrong move might reduce the remaining goodwill points to zero in one fell swoop, thus influencing the other person to terminate the relationship.

I know this might sound like the deluded thinking of someone with anxiety, but I have no other way of interpreting the behavior of other people that, as far as I can tell, has no relation to who I am or what I do. From my perspective, I’m just being myself and doing the sort of work I’ve always done. I’m pretty constant, and I try not to cause trouble for anyone if I can help it.

What I’m trying to explain with this model is how I can sometimes wake up in the morning and find that people have randomly unfollowed me on social media. Like, I don’t think I did or said anything weird, but I could have, or it could simply be that I reached the limit of someone else’s tolerance.

I should clarify that I’m not upset about losing one or two followers. Rather, since I became more active on social media about five years ago, this has been an almost daily occurrence – you gain some, you lose some. I know that it’s random, but it still feels a little personal.

I guess it’s become almost something of a truism that social media has had a negative influence on the way we treat other people as consumable, with relationships being ultimately disposable. It’s not entirely accurate to say that you have a “relationship” with someone who follows you on social media, but I think this mentality also applies to a lot of professional relationships, with the vast majority of people who have entered the workforce during the past fifteen years being treated as consumable and disposable.

I just read Emily Guendelsberger’s book On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane, and nothing she experienced surprises me. What she writes doesn’t just apply to low-wage work, however.

Speaking from my personal experience as a former tenure-track professor, I constantly felt like I was under an enormous amount of pressure. I worked seventy-hour weeks for five years, and (unsurprisingly) this ended up making me sick. I was forced to declare a disability in an attempt to temporarily reduce my workload to a fifty-hour week, at which point my tenure liaison gleefully informed me that there would “never be a place at this university for people like you.” Since reaching out to my colleagues in the field via various professional networks, I’ve come to realize that I’m far from the only person who has received this sort of treatment. Ironically, we’re the lucky ones who were at least on the tenure track, and we were spared many of the indignities experienced by the adjunct precariat who work just as hard (if not harder) and make exponentially lower salaries.

As painful as it’s been to be fired, it’s even more painful that none of the people I’ve worked with for the past six years has said anything to me. Like, it’s not my anxiety telling me that I’m not good enough, and it’s not my anxiety telling me that the people I was friendly with didn’t actually care about me. Employment in the twenty-first century, low-wage or otherwise, is deliberately designed to be exhausting, and it’s difficult to make real friends or form lasting relationships if you are constantly, constantly working your ass off to avoid being judged as unproductive and insufficient. Friends are wonderful, but “friends” aren’t going to pay the rent.

In the absence of real relationships, then, we’ve collectively developed a vague system of steadily decreasing goodwill in which your value as a person is measured solely by how productive you can be and how successful you are at regulating your behavior to remain on-brand.

What Happened

During the past week I updated my CV, my website, and all of my online profiles to reflect the fact that I’m moving to a new job. I’ve been holding off on doing anything with Facebook because I know it’s going to result in people asking me what happened, so I should probably figure out what to say. Okay, here goes:

What happened is that I was offered a part-time position with full benefits, an amazing salary, and a lot of research perks at an Ivy League school, and I accepted. This is partially because I’d like to buy a townhouse in Philadelphia, but it’s mainly because I want to be able to devote more time to writing without having to worry about participating in university administration as tenured faculty.

That’s not the question people will be asking, however.

What happened at the university I’m leaving is that it’s a large regional public school that doesn’t provide even basic resources for research or teaching (I had to make my own photocopies off campus, for instance). I put up with this because I liked my colleagues and students; but, in my second year, a seventy-year-old man became department chair at the same time a seventy-year-old man became president. Both of these men are aggressively awful, and the stress caused me to develop an anxiety disorder. This specifically affected my interactions with my department chair, who openly harassed me in front of my colleagues and in front of university administration, none of whom did anything to stop him. When I finally went to the Title IX Office to request a formal intervention, the university did a complete 180 from granting me substantial yearly raises in order to retain me to unequivocally denying my tenure case.

Essentially, I was denied tenure on the basis of a disability that was exacerbated by workplace harassment, so I walked away and accepted a better position elsewhere.

The situation is obviously more complicated than that, but this is the gist of it. In any case, I’m tired of talking about this, and I’m looking forward to putting all of this unpleasantness behind me and moving on with my life.

Talking to Strangers

Talking to Strangers, Malcolm Gladwell’s newest book, is about why we can’t catch people who are lying and don’t believe people who are telling the truth. Gladwell is very careful to divorce the act of not believing any given person from identity politics. What I believe he’s trying to suggest is that our cognitive failures have more to do with human psychology than the particularities of any given society in any given place at any given time. Moreover, suffering from a critical misunderstanding is something that could happen to any of us, regardless of race or gender.

Malcolm Gladwell makes a strong and convincing argument, because Malcolm Gladwell always makes a strong and convincing argument. Malcolm Gladwell is an excellent writer and very good at the sort of journalism he specializes in.

That being said.

Oh boy.

That being said, it’s a bit disingenuous for Malcolm Gladwell to remove gender from the equation when almost every single example he references involves people either not believing what a woman is telling them or not believing that a woman could be who and what she clearly is.

A clever reader will pick up on this, of course, but it would have been nice for Malcolm Gladwell to include, like, I don’t know. A single footnote? Acknowledging the existence of the incredible amount of research that strongly suggests that gender is a major contributing factor regarding whether or not we believe what someone is saying, especially when all available evidence supports their testimony.

For example, why does no one believe the female victims of sexual assault and abuse, even when the incidents are well-documented and reported by multiple unconnected parties? Is it because of complex psychological reasons, or is it because, I don’t know, women are lying liars who just want attention and will only cause trouble if you take them seriously? I mean, it’s always good to hear the full story and judge these incidents on a case-by-case basis, but it’s also taken for granted as a truism in the LGBTQ+ community (especially transgender and nonbinary communities) that people either start believing you or ignoring you almost immediately after you change your name and gender presentation.

Also, I keep saying this, but it’s not necessarily the case that people don’t believe women, but rather that they don’t care and hope the problem will go away on its own. Based on my own experience, I would say that this is doubly true when it comes to women refusing to act on the testimony of other women, as the credibility of the woman who takes concrete action based on the report will be disbelieved or disregarded by association.

Personally speaking, as someone who is not female but presents as female for the sake of job security in a precarious environment, I have deliberately made myself unavailable to meet with female students whom I’m reasonably certain intend to speak with me about being harassed by a male student or by one of my male colleagues. I know this sounds evil, but listen.

If I can only justifiably report one incident of sexual misconduct or gender-based discrimination in any given academic year, I need to make sure that the case I report is worth it, meaning that the report will add evidence against a serious repeat offender instead of “merely” giving the student a sense of support and closure. Title IX “compliance” offices at American universities need only to “address” an incident on paper, so it’s unlikely that anything will be solved – or even change – for the student who has experienced abuse, harassment, or discrimination. As a result, the only way I can help anyone is by not “wasting” the impact of any given report.

(How did I arrive at this conclusion? Believe me, friend, you do not want to know. Not to mention that no one believed me or cared when I tried to tell the relevant story in any number of informal and professional forums.)

If you’re disgusted by this, you absolutely should be. If you happen to be a cisgender man (of any race, ethnicity, nationality, or sexual identity), you should also take away from this that your privilege gives you an incredible power to do good in the world through allyship and advocacy.

Speaking as someone who is often on the receiving end of not being believed, even with impeccable credentials and a strong and assertive affect, I think all of the reasonable, intelligent, and sane reasons Malcolm Gladwell provides for why we can’t catch people who are lying and why we don’t believe people who are telling the truth apply if and only if gender is not a factor – but let’s be real, gender is absolutely fucking always a factor.

#Coronacation Is A Lie

These Are Not Conditions in Which to Thrive
https://elladawson.com/2020/03/22/these-are-not-conditions-in-which-to-thrive/

This is not going to be inspiring or invigorating—it will be terrible. It already is terrible. Here in the United States, it’s a totally predictable worst-case scenario come to life during a corrupt and incompetent Presidential administration. This will fundamentally change our world, and in the short term, that change is for the worst. People are already dying. The economy is tanking. Families are fighting and grieving and separated and afraid. A billion little tragedies play out behind closed doors every single day. It is too much for the human mind to process and too much for the heart to handle.

These are not conditions in which to thrive. Just get through the damn day. If that’s all you accomplish, that’s enough.

Thank god people are finally starting to spread this message.

I’ve had a number of students write to thank me for being so accommodating during the transition to online classes. I don’t think I’m doing anything special, but apparently a lot of professors have settled into an “everyone needs to work harder now” mentality. What the fuck. What. The actual living fuck.

Let Me Have This Silver Lining

Now Is the Time to Cancel Student Debt
https://www.thenation.com/article/society/now-is-the-time-to-cancel-student-debt/

A coronavirus response that includes canceling student loan debt will allow borrowers to purchase the necessities their families depend on: food on their table, a roof over their head, and critical health care. It will eliminate the worry many borrowers will face when they send their last paycheck to the government, instead of using it to keep their families secure.

A broader student debt cancellation plan will ensure that the entire economy remains functional, not just select industries impacted by travel bans and a slump in retail spending. Consumer advocates at the nonprofit Americans for Financial Reform, say, “Cancelling student debt would be a powerful tool to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus crisis on individuals, families, communities and the broader economy.”

The group says that canceling student debt would provide a short-term stimulus to the economy during the most urgent time. They point to a report by Brandeis University that shows student debt cancellation would free up hundreds of dollars each month. Americans freed from student loan debt would use that money for everyday spending and to pay other bills.

I mean, yes, it would definitely help the economy, but it’s also the right thing to do.

Congratulations, I Guess

My first monograph, Manga Cultures and the Female Gaze, was officially released yesterday, on April 1, 2020.

This doesn’t mean much, unfortunately. Amazon currently has the book listed as “out of stock,” and at the moment you can only get the digital version from the publisher’s website.

Last weekend I was supposed to have been giving a high-profile panel, promoting my book, and talking to presses about my second book project at the big conference for my field. I was also scheduled to give a handful of talks at universities up and down the East Coast during April. I’ve been working for the past four years to make this happen, and now it’s all just… gone.

This sounds like an inane thing to say during a global pandemic, but I can’t help but be upset.

I keep thinking about Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, which is about why certain groups of people seem to be magically successful while other equally worthy people can never seem to catch their big break. Gladwell’s conclusion is basically this: Sometimes, you’re just at the wrong place at the wrong time. Sometimes, entire generations are at the wrong place at the wrong time. And there’s nothing that you or any one individual can do about it.

I’m feeling frustrated and useless right now, and I’m also haunted by a strong sense of being “the wrong type of doctor.” I wish there were something I could do. Not about my stupid book about comics, but about the general state of the world. Given that my personal experience with the American university system has been so broken, I’m starting to think seriously about alternative routes to achieving broader and more accessible public education.

If nothing else, I guess I have time.