Fuck Positivity

I have to admit that I’m getting tired of “positivity.”

Like, “Don’t feel like you have to be productive during a pandemic! It’s okay to take a day off and let yourself rest and recover.” That sort of thing.

That’s applicable to some people, sure. It’s wonderful to have a financial and emotional support system. Everyone should have a safety net, and no one should feel pressured to be productive when they’re exhausted and on the verge of psychological collapse. Not everyone is so fortunate, however.

I wish we could collectively be more realistic about this. Specifically, I think it’s much more accurate to say that the pandemic is facilitating the creation of an even wider gap between people who have resources and people who don’t. If you don’t have resources, you will suffer whether you manage to be productive or not. There might not be a place for you when you get back in if you drop out now, and you might still lose your place even if you somehow hang in there and do everything right.

We’re not “all going to get through this together,” and it’s ridiculous to pretend otherwise.

This doesn’t make for a likable tweet or Tumblr post, but I wish the trending message right now were more along the lines of “something has gone terribly wrong, and we need to fix it” or just “be angry and go feral.” Like, who the fuck cares about productivity right now? People are dying and going hungry and getting sick and losing their homes, and we’re supposed to be positive?

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.

Glass Towers

Death of the Office
https://www.1843magazine.com/features/death-of-the-office

Offices can be not just offensive to the eye but harmful to the body. Sitting isn’t quite the new smoking, but it certainly won’t do you any good. A life lived on one’s bottom increases the risk of heart disease, type-2 diabetes, some cancers and all manner of back problems. Offices also entrench social inequalities. The top dog is more likely to hire in his own image, perpetuating male privilege. In 2018 there were more men called Steve than there were women among the chief executives of FTSE 100 companies. Offices even tend to be more physically unpleasant places for women than for men: as a recent study showed, the ambient air temperature is generally set to suit “the metabolic rates of a 154-pound, 40-year-old man” (probably called Steve). Men are just fine; women freeze.

Fuck capitalism. ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)╭∩╮

The writer ends the article by arguing for the validity of a space dedicated to work that isn’t your own apartment. I don’t think this is an apology or a cop-out. As much as I hate office culture, I also hate working from my bedroom. Like, that’s not what I meant when I said “fuck capitalism.”

#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.

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.