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.

Sexism and Ageism in Fandom

On “Fandom Moms”
https://out-there-on-the-maroon.tumblr.com/post/620585756682027009/fandom-mom-used-to-a-jokey-affectionate-term-for

I can finally afford to attend conventions regularly, pay amazing artists for great work, delve into more detailed media analysis, appreciate symbolism and homages I didn’t understand as a teen… and I should give that all up now? Because I have a job that makes me cry from stress, do my own taxes, and should be Looking For A Husband Now?

Oh gosh yes. Wow.

For me, as a queer nonbinary person, I was really only able to do things that made me happy once I had a stable source of income. I got kicked out of high school for being gay a few months after I turned sixteen, and the following twelve or thirteen years were a constant struggle just to survive. I couldn’t watch television or play video games because I had to work all the time to pay rent while putting myself through college and grad school on a series of scholarships, fellowships, and grants that were generous but not quite enough to live on. If I had time to “have fun,” it was time I needed to spend networking by attending various parties and other social events. I couldn’t afford to go to conventions, and I certainly didn’t have energy to devote to developing my skills at creative writing and visual art.

I was 27 or 28 before I had enough breathing room to even think about doing something that wasn’t work, and getting involved in fandom felt (at the time) like one of the best things that had ever happened to me, not in the least because I didn’t have to pretend to be a serious adult.

So when I was accused of being a creepy older person (when I was 32, which I maintain isn’t actually that old, not that it matters) for existing in a fandom space that was shared by people of various ages, it precipitated an incredible jolt of anxiety. What if it actually is Too Late for me to enjoy myself and follow my dreams? I’d been getting this message from various places for my entire life – even when I was in college! – and it was a serious blow to suddenly start hearing it again from the inside of a previously supportive fandom community.

I’ve come to terms with this and moved on, but I’m so relieved that this culture is fading.

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.”

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.

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.

Neoliberalism in Higher Education and the Two-Body Problem

In January I notified my department at George Mason University that Spring 2020 would be my last semester at the school. I had been having difficulty with the university for the past two years, and I ultimately decided that it was not healthy or sustainable for me to continue working there.

Even though it’s far from perfect, I still have a lot of respect and admiration for the American university system, and I value every single day that I was able to work with my students, who are a brilliant generation of young people who give me hope for the future.

That being said, I think it’s fair to admit that I’ve had a lot of trouble adjusting to the institutional culture of George Mason University, which requires extraordinary work and commitment from its faculty without providing any resources to facilitate productivity. Because this trend toward neoliberalism – which emphasizes individual responsibility within an institutional structure – is far from uncommon in academia, I’d like to write about my experiences with the hope that my story might benefit someone else.

In retrospect, I think a lot of the trouble I experienced stems from the fact that it was impossible for me to live close to campus.

I’m married, and my partner is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. George Mason is in Fairfax, which is one of the Virginia suburbs of Washington DC. My partner is more comfortable with driving than I am, so we decided to live together in DC, where we share a modest one-bedroom apartment in a rent-controlled building in a neighborhood by the National Zoo.

I commute to Fairfax (which is about an hour away from DC), and my partner commutes to Philadelphia (which is about two hours and fifteen minutes away from DC). It’s possible for both of us to use public transportation, but it’s expensive and adds at least an hour to our respective travel times. We therefore share a car, which I use on Tuesdays and Thursdays and my partner uses on Mondays and Wednesdays.

This is not an ideal situation, obviously, but it’s far from uncommon. In fact, it’s so pervasive in academia that it’s referred to as the “two body problem” (here’s the Wikipedia entry). To summarize, most universities in the United States aren’t located in major cities; so, if someone gets a job at a university, it’s unlikely that their spouse will be able to find the same sort of job in their field close to campus that they could in a city. There is a gendered component to this, of course. If the professor is male, it’s easier for them to convince their non-academic spouse that it’s reasonable to leave their job in order to accept a lower-paying or “work from home” position near the university.

This problem is also gendered in that people who aren’t male are expected to perform more emotional labor and make more personal sacrifices as a matter of course. If a man isn’t physically present on campus because he lives far away, he is “making the best of a less-than-ideal situation.” If someone who isn’t male isn’t physically present on campus because they live far away, they are “selfish” and “not taking their job seriously enough.”

I’m openly nonbinary and use they/them pronouns, but I present (mostly) as female at work in order to avoid unnecessary discrimination (which can be a serious issue, especially at a notably conservative school like GMU). As you might imagine, then, I’ve been on the receiving end of numerous comments from my department chair that I’m “selfish” and “not taking my job seriously enough” because I can’t come to campus on Mondays and Wednesdays without enough advance notice to allow my partner to get Amtrak tickets to and from Philadelphia (and, if necessary, a hotel room). Amtrak being what it is, tickets aren’t always available, and a one-way ticket can cost well over $100. My partner and I do what we can, but we can’t afford to pay hundreds of dollars so that I can drive more than two hours to attend a twenty-minute meeting on campus.

I should add that my partner, who is cisgender and male, is never asked to come to meetings on campus when he’s not scheduled to be there. He is “making the best of a less-than-ideal situation,” after all.

Both my partner and I understand that my situation would be better if we were to live closer to GMU, especially because of the gendered double standard. My partner is a good and decent person, and he’s expressed willingness to spend even more time on the road so that I’m able to spend more time on campus – even though he receives a substantially higher salary than I do.

Unfortunately, Fairfax is one of the most expensive places to live in the United States. For various reasons relating to class and privilege, real estate prices in and around Fairfax are astronomical. There are relatively few apartment buildings, and those that do exist have prices comparable with those in Washington DC, which is one of the most expensive cities in the world.

For these reasons, George Mason University is a commuter school, a fact that’s openly acknowledged in written profiles of the university. Not only do the majority of students commute, but many faculty and staff do as well. GMU is a public school, and we’re all paid public school salaries – and, given GMU’s relative lack of prestige, our salaries are on the low end, generally lower than the salaries of faculty and staff of the same rank at the University of Virginia.

GMU has been attempting to promote on-campus engagement by building dorms (that are still quite expensive) and providing a block of single-family homes close to campus that are temporarily available to new faculty members. What happened with the faculty housing, however, is that everyone who moved into these houses couldn’t afford to move out, because of course they couldn’t. The university allowed them to stay, and there’s no longer any subsidized university housing for new faculty.

I know this because, during my first two years at GMU, I set up meetings with various people in the university administration to try to find a solution that would allow me to live closer to campus.

What I was told, over and over again, was to separate from my spouse. That way, I could live in one of the undergraduate dorms. With the undergraduates, what fun! I could only stay in the dorms for nine months out of the year, but I could always travel and do research for the other three. I study Japan, right? So I could get a new research grant every year to spend the summer in Japan. For holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, when students aren’t allowed to be in residence on campus, I could travel and get an Airbnb next to the library of a major university. Think of the research opportunities!

I was shocked the first time a senior colleague suggested this, but it kept happening. I set up formal meetings with about a dozen people to ask how I could be closer to campus, but I stopped trying when it became clear that such meetings accomplished nothing more than making me extremely frustrated. I also kept an eye on local real estate and apartment listings (which became something of a guilty hobby), but I never saw anything that was the right combination of not out of my price range, not abjectly miserable, and not already taken by the time I could schedule a viewing.

As a result, I remained in DC and continued to commute to campus on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and I put a lot of effort into being able to make it to campus for events or meetings for which I had been given sufficient prior notice.

Because George Mason University is a commuter school, I’m far from the only person who isn’t on campus every day. In fact, the corridor that contains most of the faculty offices for my department is always lined with closed doors and very quiet. Almost all of the department mailboxes are overflowing, since very few people check their mail more than once or twice a month.

As a result, when I first came to GMU, no one invited me to have coffee with them. No one invited me out to lunch, and no one invited me to a house party. I sent friend requests on various social media platforms to other people in my department, but they never responded. There were very friendly campus cultures at University of Pennsylvania (where I went to grad school), Haverford College (where I first started teaching), and University of Notre Dame (where I was a visiting professor), so I was a bit put off by this chilliness. I was actually more than a little hurt, to be honest, but I realized that this was just part of being a faculty member at a commuter school.

I was gradually able to become friendly with a few people, but I ended up becoming much closer to many of my students than I ever was with most of my colleagues. Based on various interactions I’ve seen over the past five years, I don’t think many of my colleagues are particularly close to one another.

This isn’t the worst situation in the world, and I’m sure that other people have had to deal with more difficult circumstances. I’m an adult, and I can perform well at my job even despite a lengthy commute. After all, it’s not the commute itself that’s the problem – it’s the unreasonable expectation that I behave as if I lived in the same (exorbitantly expensive) neighborhood as George Mason University.

Because it was extremely difficult for me to live close to the university, I was never able to establish a strong physical presence on campus. People in positions of power – especially my department chair – accused me of being uninvolved and uninvested in “the intellectual life of the department,” and I wasn’t able to cultivate a close relationship with a tenured senior colleague who might have been willing to sit down with the department chair in a friendly meeting and help him tone down these sorts of accusations.

And again, just to emphasize the point that there is a gendered double standard at play, I want to repeat that my male partner spends less time on campus than I do and has never had to deal with any of this.

You might be reading this essay and thinking, “I don’t know what this person is complaining about; I was successful at my university while facing even greater hardships.” If that’s the case, that’s wonderful, but I can guarantee that you were successful because someone, at some point, saw you struggling and either helped you out or let the small things slide.

Or it could be the case that there was never any need for anyone to assist you or forgive you because you were always exactly where you were supposed to be and always did everything perfectly. If that’s the case, you are in the .001% of human beings, and you deserve to be proud of your accomplishments.

Still, you have to ask yourself about the necessity of everything being perfect all the time. For example, does your car have to be in the top .001% of cars, or is it enough that it has good gas mileage and gets you where you’re going without breaking down? Does the sandwich you ate for lunch have to be in the top .001% of sandwiches, or is it enough that it was healthy and satisfying? Does the person who delivers your mail have to be in the top .001% of postal carriers, or is it enough that your mail arrives undamaged and on time every day?

What I’m trying to suggest is that, even though perfection is wonderful, it’s not strictly necessary.

So if you have a professor who – like many professors – lives far away from the university and can’t come to campus at a moment’s notice, that’s not ideal, but isn’t it enough that they show up when they’re supposed to and do their job well?

Sometimes it’s reasonable to expect excellence, of course. If you’re going to make that demand, however, you have to be willing to expend the necessary resources. In my case specifically, if my university truly expected me to be physically present on campus and highly engaged in campus life, there should have been someone at some point who offered to make this possible, especially when I reached out to multiple people to ask for help.

It should go without saying that I would have preferred to live close to campus, ideally without having to separate from my partner – or without having to live in student dorms or a low-budget student apartment for the rest of my life. Because George Mason University is a commuter school, there was never that much happening on campus, but I enjoyed the events and lectures and performances I was able to attend, and I genuinely would have liked to feel as if I were part of a larger university community. Unfortunately, this was not possible due to concrete limitations of resources, especially time and money.

What hurt more than not having access to a supportive community, however, was constantly being made to feel as if this was because I was a lazy and irresponsible person who was not willing to make the necessary sacrifices and commitments. The people involved in this sort of mean-spirited bullying are specific individuals who should have known better yet made the decision to be cruel instead of kind. That being said, the institutional culture at George Mason University not only enables but actively promotes this sort of toxic behavior, and that’s a much more serious problem than the pettiness of a few grumpy old professors.

When I talk about neoliberalism in higher education, this is what I’m talking about – institutional cultures that promote the interests of the university-as-corporation by keeping workers in a constant state of economic and emotional precarity. Employees will work harder if they’re constantly being made to feel that their labor is never sufficient; and, when the stress causes them to pass their maximum point of productivity, they can easily be replaced by younger and fresher workers who can be hired at lower salaries. The same goes for students as well, in that students who drop out can be replaced by students who come in already paying a higher base tuition.

This is not healthy, and it’s not sustainable.

For me personally, it wasn’t healthy or sustainable to continue commuting, and it was unreasonable to expect that I would separate from my spouse in order to be more “productive.” In addition, it wasn’t healthy or sustainable to continue making enormous sacrifices of money and time only to be accused of “laziness” by senior colleagues. I like to think I did good work – and every metric used to evaluate me supported this – but developing a serious anxiety disorder because I was never “good enough” was also not sustainable, especially when this negative assessment was directly connected to factors completely beyond my control.

It’s a fair question – Why should the evaluation of someone’s professional performance be dependent on something as notoriously difficult to control as the real estate market?

I think it’s an even more critical question to ask why the evaluation of someone’s professional performance should be dependent on the privilege they bring with them to the position, especially in terms of wealth, mobility, and gender.

This post is the first half of a longer essay. In the second half, I’m going to elaborate more on how the neoliberal emphasis on “individual responsibility” creates serious problems when combined with a systematic denial of basic resources.

Don’t F**k With Cats

This three-part documentary series on Netflix is really upsetting, and I mean really upsetting. It’s difficult to write a summary, but basically, a group of people on Facebook tries to track down a man who posts videos of himself killing animals, thus giving him the attention he craves and inspiring him to post a video of himself killing another human being. The documentary itself is well-made and doesn’t show the grisly bits of the actual videos, but it’s still not a pleasant experience to watch. Thankfully, there’s nothing particularly sensationalist about the project, and the “internet nerds” are presented as normal and intelligent adults.

The director has said that he created this documentary for the purpose of spreading awareness, which I appreciate. My experience with trying to get my anxiety treated over the course of the past year has been that a lot of people – especially people born before around 1980 or so – just don’t understand how violent and upsetting online engagement can be sometimes. Even people my age and younger haven’t responded well when I try to talk about this, and common responses include:

– Maybe the person attacking you has a mental illness. (That’s not a valid justification.)
– Maybe you shouldn’t spend so much time online. (That’s not the problem.)
– Maybe you deserve this. (No one “deserves” death and rape threats.)

What I think people who haven’t experienced extended episodes of online harassment aren’t getting is that sometimes it’s possible to encounter people on the internet who are genuinely scary. When you become the target of a person like this (as one of the primary “narrators” in Don’t F**k With Cats does), it has nothing to do with you specifically, and there’s really nothing you can do about it.

I also recently read the book Nobody’s Victim, which is written by Carrie Goldberg, a lawyer and advocate for victims of internet stalking and harassment. This book is just as upsetting as Don’t F**k With Cats, especially since many of the people Goldberg represents (as well as Goldberg herself) have had to suffer through intense and pervasive victim blaming. No one they go to for help understands what happened to them, and everyone thinks the fact that they became the targets of scary people is somehow their fault. Very few people believe what they’re saying in the first place, and a lot of the evidence they produce to document what they’ve experienced is used against them.

I personally haven’t been the target of anything as severe as what appears in Don’t F**k With Cats and Nobody’s Victim (thank goodness), but it was still very easy for me to recognize the patterns of how popular online platforms enable abusive modes of behavior and the hate crimes of disturbed people. I’m finally starting to see people within fandom share resources (like this) discussing best practices regarding how to process and handle these types of encounters, and that’s wonderful, but I’m really looking forward to there being a greater awareness of these issues in mainstream society as well.