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.

A Global Pandemic Is Not the Time for a “Competitive Performance Report”

If you’re wondering how I’ve been handling the pandemic, last week was rough. I got an official letter from my university stating that my tenure case has been denied on the afternoon of the day that the city of Washington DC sent out an emergency warning declaring a month-long citywide quarantine. Even though I’d already given notice in January that I wouldn’t be renewing my contract, the university decided to let the mechanics of the tenure process continue to run so that my position could be terminated. On the day a national emergency was declared. Which is totally what a classy place like my school would do.

This was petty and unnecessary. To make matters worse, my department chair forwarded me the university’s letter along with a smug email. Apparently, I should have already gotten my second book under contract. He knows that this decision is “disappointing” to me, but I should do my best not to allow the anger and fear of the times to “affect my behavior.”

For the moment, let’s set aside the fact that my department chair has tastelessly used a state of national emergency to exert dominance over a junior colleague by suggesting that a normal emotional response to the situation would be immature. Instead, I want to emphasize that it’s absurd for this decision to be based on my second book project. This might be different in different fields, but the sixth year of a tenure-track job is a normal time for people to get a contract for their second book, especially if they (like me) entered a tenure-track position directly after getting a PhD instead of spending several years in postdoc positions. My plan was therefore to get my first book out and then, during the Spring 2020 academic conference season, start talking to academic presses about my book on The Wind Waker, which already has a prospectus and 20,000 words of sample chapters.

As it turns out, I did not talk to representatives from any presses. In fact, most of the conferences I was scheduled to attend this spring were cancelled because of, you know, a global pandemic.

I didn’t respond to my department chair, of course. Instead, I set up an email filter to send all of his messages directly to my spam folder. Problem solved.

Still, this hurt, and the silence of my colleagues during my prolonged illness, subsequent harassment, and resulting decision to leave the university has also been difficult to process. There’s never a good time to have to go through something like this, but the timing couldn’t have been worse.

So how am I doing? I guess the answer is that I’m not in a good place, but I’m doing the best I can to support my students and my friends while being kind to everyone going through this mess alongside me.

Next week will be better. And the rest of my career will be better, honestly, because I’ve learned to recognize the red flags of unprofessional academic behavior. There will be no more of this nonsense.

And fuck neoliberal capitalism, seriously. Our labor, experience, and expertise are valuable and should be treated with respect. Our lives are valuable and should be treated with respect. A lot of us are struggling right now, but I hope we’re able to come out of this crisis filled with all the frustration, fury, and demands for justice that insecure people with small minds think it’s “immature” for those of us in marginal positions to express.

A global pandemic should not be used as a means of punishing individuals for failing to deliver “a competitive performance report.” As for the institutions that have failed to perform, however, maybe it’s time for a radical reevaluation of priorities.

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 letters 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. Apparently, although I look like an excellent candidate for tenure on paper, I am 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 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 energy 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 Legend 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 can’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. Doing something like quietly watching a television show or sports game has always felt like having to sit through an 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