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.

Tenure in a Time of Crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do the Right Thing”

Black Voters Didn’t Vote for Biden in South Carolina Because They ‘Lack Information’
https://www.thenation.com/article/politics/biden-black-vote/

The argument would be offensive if it weren’t also so dumb. Older black voters in South Carolina have a lifetime of education and experience dealing with the most persistent threat to their safety and rights in this country: white people.

My read of the South Carolina vote is that black people know exactly what they’re doing, and why. Joe Biden is the indictment older black folks have issued against white America. His support is buttressed by chunks of the black community who have determined that most white people are selfish and cannot be trusted to do the right thing.

‘God don’t like ugly’ is what my grandma used to say
https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2020/3/4/1924191/–God-don-t-like-ugly-is-what-my-grandma-used-to-say

One of the most valued attributes in the black community is empathy. One of our strongest motivators is survival. We see Donald Trump as a heinous enemy. That’s not paranoia. For us it is a fact of daily life. So we chose to vote for a man, a white man, who has exhibited empathy over decades, who went to Selma on Sunday, who showed up at Mother Emanuel, who attended Elijah Cummings’ funeral, and who had Obama’s back for eight years. We decided Biden has the best shot at assuring our survival.

The first article is locked behind a paywall. An easy lifehack to use to deal with these sorts of articles is that, for most web browsers, you can bypass the paywall if you hit the “esc” key before you start scrolling down.

The second article has a lot of good screencaps from Twitter, and it’s powerful. If you decide to read it, you might want to sit down first.

For me personally, there are two main things to take away from this conversation. The first is that many (but far from all, obviously) community leaders and organizers don’t actually spend that much time on social media. The second is that this country really needs to devote more effort to understanding communities that exist (for the most part) independently of the major coastal cities, and this is especially true of the American South.

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.

How Tenure Works (and Doesn’t Work)

There are three broad types of teaching faculty in an American university: tenured, tenure-track, and everyone else. Tenured and tenure-track professors are essentially white-collar workers on multi-year contracts who receive full benefits and are eligible for paid research leave.

“Everyone else” varies from university to university, but the majority of people who aren’t tenured or on the tenure track have short-term contracts and receive no benefits. Although “everyone else” used to be the exception, they now make up roughly 75% of all teaching faculty in higher education in the United States. This is obviously a huge problem, and I’ll return to it later.

Tenured faculty enjoy the full privileges of employment at a university, including the ability to participate in the committees that decide department and university policy. They are also eligible to rise to high-level administrative positions. Tenured faculty also have a bit more power when it comes to “quality of life” issues like being able to schedule their classes at their preferred times and not having to teach large first-year classes. Their salaries are higher, the length of research leave they can take is longer, and they’re more likely to receive institutional funding. Tenured faculty can also teach graduate-level seminars – sometimes exclusively – and take on grad students.

The main privilege that tenured professors enjoy is that, short of sexually assaulting someone, it’s very difficult for the university to fire them (or to force them to retire, which is actually a major issue right now). This means that they can take longer to complete more ambitious projects, and they can start publishing with commercial presses and become public intellectuals if they like. There’s also no need for them to receive high student course evaluations, which gives them the freedom to develop more experimental classes and teaching methods while not having to put up with stupid undergraduate bullshit (like worrying about whether a kid will give your course a low score if you have a class session about race or LGBTQ+ material, for instance). Because they don’t have to worry about teaching and publishing so much anymore, tenured professors also have more time to become active in university service and administration.

A tenure-track professor, usually referred to as an “assistant professor,” has been hired by the university at an entry-level position. In order to be promoted through tenure, an assistant professor has to jump through burning hoops of fire. I know that’s an abstract description, but I don’t how else to put it. Because of the extremely competitive academic job market, the only people who are hired for tenure-track positions tend to be already functioning at the level of a tenured professor when they walk in the door. Regardless, receiving tenure isn’t a foregone conclusion, even at second- and third-tier schools with very few institutional resources and a nonexistent level of faculty support.

Unless a tenure-track professor is a serial molester or a complete academic fuck-up (or both at the same time), it’s actually in a university’s best interests to grant them tenure, usually after they’ve spent four or five years in the position. During this time, this person will have published research with the university’s name on it and otherwise promoted the university’s brand through their work, and they will have established a set of classes they can reliably teach. They will also have grown accustomed to the university’s culture while making connections with other faculty and staff members. In other words, the university has already put a lot of investment into someone by the time they go up for tenure, and that person has already become associated with their university in their broader field. Both as an institution and as a brand, a university wants to show that they have a lot of tenured faculty members, as faculty retention demonstrates not only the university’s wealth but also its prestige.

Still, assistant professors are required to demonstrate professional excellence in order to be granted tenure. The details of how this works differ from school to school; but, generally speaking, applicants are required to submit a portfolio of various materials that often runs more than a thousand pages in length. This portfolio will not only contain letters of support from people within the university but also from leading members of the applicant’s field – none of whom the applicant can choose or otherwise designate.

A tenure-track professor therefore has to publish as much as they can while establishing a strong professional reputation within four years, all while developing new classes, teaching a full course load, and getting high scores on student course evaluations. Although their service to their own university is limited by their rank, tenure-track professors need to “serve the field” by doing things like editing, translation, peer review, public lectures, media appearances, and so on. It’s a lot of work, obviously, but we wouldn’t be in the profession in the first place if this sort of thing didn’t give us a sense of satisfaction. This is one of the main reasons why the attrition rate for PhD programs is so high – at some point a lot of people realize that this isn’t what they want to spend their lives doing, which is valid.

In any case, someone going up for tenure first submits their portfolio to a special committee made up of members of their department, as well as one or more members of other departments who are qualified to judge their competence. The committee then makes a recommendation to the applicant’s home department, which takes a vote. The department chair will write a letter of support (or caution) based on that vote, and the applicant’s tenure case will be assigned to a nonpartial liaison who will present the case to the university.

In the end, it’s the university that decides whether or not to grant tenure. Even if the department votes against someone’s case, and even if their department chair hates them, the university can still decide to give them tenure. Because professors have a well-known tendency to be petty and resentful toward each other, it’s often the case that the university will grant tenure to someone a department has voted against. The reverse is also true – a person can be admired and respected by everyone they work with, but the university can still decide not to grant tenure for whatever reason it chooses. A decision against tenure may have nothing to do with the applicant at all; the university may have decided to discontinue funding for that particular tenure line in order to open a tenure line in another department, for example.

It goes without saying – and there is a towering tsunami of evidence that supports this – that the tenure process is biased against women, people of color, and other minorities. Women especially are held to higher standards, and any other minority identity that might apply to them only makes them more vulnerable to being perceived as inadequate and expendable. During the past ten years, I have seen one female colleague after another fail to get tenure, and it’s terrifying. In fact, the person who held my position before I did, a woman of color, apparently felt so alienated by the inherent prejudice of this system that she didn’t even submit her tenure portfolio even though (in my personal opinion) she would have had a strong case and benefited my department immensely in the long run.

If you don’t get tenure, you have one year to make an appeal. After that, if the appeal isn’t granted, you have to leave when your contract ends. The appeal process is a nightmare and requires the complete revision and re-submission of a tenure portfolio. Most appeals aren’t granted (even if lawyers get involved), so many people don’t even try. After all, if you’re going to go through all that trouble, it makes more sense to apply to other jobs than to stay at a school that has already made it clear that it doesn’t value the work you’ve done.

Unfortunately, as the number of tenure-track positions that open every year continues to shrink, it’s highly unlikely that someone who is denied tenure will find another tenure-track job. In addition, tenured professors in their seventies and eighties will not retire, thereby denying opportunities for younger people to enter their departments.

This is where we return to the problem of “everyone else” that I mentioned at the beginning of this essay. Although there are both abstract and tangible benefits to having tenured faculty, many universities have begun to privilege their short-term interests. According to this mindset, why would you pay a tenured professor an actual salary when it’s much more cost-effective to pay an average of $3,000 per class to a short-term worker who often has the exact same (or even better) educational qualifications?

Because of the state of the American economy since around 2008 or so, more people have been completing graduate degrees. Meanwhile, universities are relying more on short-term contracts, which means that there is a horrifying scarcity of tenure-track jobs. My field is one of the fastest growing fields in higher education, yet it’s a very good year when fifteen tenure-track jobs open in English-speaking countries. University departments tend not to hire across fields – for example, someone who wrote a dissertation about queer literature for a Gender Studies department will probably not be considered as a viable applicant to an English department – which places additional limits on the number of jobs that even highly qualified people can apply to.

Competition is fierce, even for temporary positions that don’t provide benefits or a remotely livable wage, so why should a university have to settle for a tenure-track professor who isn’t perfect? It doesn’t help that both tenure-track job searches and the process of reviewing a tenure case necessitate a staggering amount of unpaid labor from everyone involved. And what department would want to hire someone who already has a tenure-track job but didn’t appreciate it enough to go through the tenure process? I mean, given how much institutional investment goes into an assistant professor, why would a university want to hire someone who’s clearly interested in job hopping? And, if someone went up for tenure but didn’t get it, why would a university want to hire someone they see as another university’s discarded trash?

What I’m saying is that, because of the tenure system, there is either too much mobility as early-career academics are uprooted from their communities and forced to move to a different university every year (and sometimes every semester) as they apply to tenure-track jobs, or zero mobility for people who actually get a tenure-track job and but can’t leave without effectively ending their career.

I’m not yet sure what suggestions I would offer to help restructure the tenure system in American universities, but I think acknowledging that it looks good on paper but has major disadvantages in practice is probably a good start.

Decontextualizing Harry Potter

From the beginning of the 2016 American election cycle, a popular way to signal social belonging on Tumblr has been to reblog angry posts about J.K. Rowling like the one above.

J.K. Rowling isn’t perfect. No human being on this earth is perfect, and Rowling is no exception. Rowling’s books are far from perfect, and I have to admit that I personally don’t particularly like or enjoy them. It’s important to critique popular media, and it’s reasonable to hold public figures to basic standards of decency. Still, I’m concerned about posts like this, which promote decontextualization as a performance of progressive political ideology.

It’s difficult to make generalizations, so I want to refer to the post above to demonstrate what I mean.

To begin with, most of these posts about the Harry Potter books are coming from an American perspective that doesn’t attempt to address the cultural context of the original books. For example, while Americans tend to think everything is about race, British people tend to be much more sensitive about class. Class intersects with race, because of course it does, but class is widely perceived to be the basic framework of social hierarchy in the United Kingdom, and it’s coded in complicated ways that may be unfamiliar to many Americans.

What’s going on with the “house elves” in the Harry Potter books is that the author is taking the well-known figure of the brownie from Celtic folklore and using it to make a statement about class, specifically the class of people whose labor has always enabled the “great institutions” of the United Kingdom to function properly. Without bothering to talk to them or to listen to what they have to say, Hermione sees this class of people as “slaves,” which the house elves themselves find extremely insulting.

This plot line is resolved as Hermione gradually learns that it’s offensive and counterproductive to claim to speak for an entire group of people whom she believes, as an outsider to that group, to be marginalized. Meanwhile, actual members of the group take up activist work based on their own experiences and achieve real change; but, in the end, the “group” is a collection of diverse individuals who have different opinions regarding their “oppression,” and many of them subtly or actively challenge the notion that a privileged group should be allowed to ahistorically define their entire existence as “oppressed.”

Ron tells Hermione that she’s crazy for caring and that nothing should change because this is the way things have always been, but his traditionalism and intellectual laziness are shown to be just as misguided as Hermione’s naive activism. Harry (who is still a teenager, after all) admits that he can see both sides but doesn’t care about the discourse. Nevertheless, when someone close to him is clearly a victim of discrimination, Harry will stand up to protect them, even if he doesn’t like that person.

I don’t agree with the position that ideology doesn’t matter as long as you treat other people decently, which I think is simplistic and reductive, but I can understand how it works as a thematic element in a series of books written for ten-year-olds.

Rowling herself doesn’t entirely agree with this position either, and she addresses the very real and practical problems of the “I see people as individuals” mentality directly in her work for adult readers, including the book she wrote immediately after concluding the Harry Potter series, The Casual Vacancy. The people writing and reblogging posts like the one above don’t acknowledge this, however, perhaps because their only encounter with contemporary British fiction is a series of kid’s books about teenage wizards written during a decade in which a lot of the conversations we’re currently having about social justice were still evolving.

I should add that these books only got as popular as they did because of their cinematic adaptations. These movies are gorgeous and artistically well-crafted, but they tend to flatten and even erase the nuances of the novels. The posts on Tumblr that are critical of Rowling don’t hold the directors and producers accountable for failing to emphasize the progressive themes of the books in order to achieve a broader commercial appeal, nor do they challenge the systems of privilege that have limited the contributions of minority voices to the cinema industry. Instead, these posts pin all faults of the franchise, both real and imagined, on an individual female writer who was very poor for most of her life (thus her various explorations of the theme of class) while decontextualizing what she wrote decades ago in fantasy novels meant for young readers.

Again, it’s vitally important to think critically about popular culture, and I strongly believe that public figures should be held to basic standards of decency. I am all for critiquing the Harry Potter series and Rowling’s creative decisions. That being said, the trend of posts on Tumblr that hold one progressive female artist or activist responsible for everything that’s wrong in the world by means of aggressive decontextualizations of what she’s actually doing and saying are frightening, especially since they’re starting to recirculate within left-leaning spaces in advance of another election cycle.

In the end, who does it benefit to say that books about respecting difference and resisting authoritarian violence even when not everyone on your side is perfect are “problematic” and are only read by bad and stupid people? Moreover, given that the Harry Potter series is the primary gateway a lot of younger kids have into enjoying books, who does it benefit to say that reading itself is something that’s only done by bad and stupid people?

Night in the Woods, Part Three

Night in the Woods contains universal themes, but it’s also specific to its cultural and political moment. If you ignore the context, you run the risk of misinterpreting the story (as I would argue that the person who wrote the Polygon review did). I’ve seen numerous reviewers and theorists label Night in the Woods as “cosmic horror,” but that’s not really what the game is about.

The protagonist, Mae, encounters two monstrous entities during the story. The first is an unseen creature that lives deep in the abandoned mine tunnels under the town of Possum Springs. A cult of older residents of the town have kidnapped and sacrificed at least two young people and one of their own members to this creature in return for a vague promise that the creature will somehow prevent the town’s slow economic decline from advancing. The members of this cult tell Mae and her friends that they’re getting older and would like a younger generation to take over, and the creature itself tells Mae that it’s been sending her strange dreams so that she would be more receptive to the fact of its existence (and thus presumably more willing to join the cult). The second monstrous entity is a giant cat that Mae encounters during one of these dreams, which tells her that, although it’s a “god,” it has no interest in the welfare of lesser beings.

Mae and her friends don’t join the creepy death cult, of course. At the end of the game, Mae explains that what she’s taken away from this experience is the conviction that, if there is no benevolent higher power in an absurd and hostile universe, then she and her friends will just have to help and protect each other while doing the best they can for themselves and their community.

I’ve read a few interesting theories about the relationship between the mine monster, the space cat, and several mysterious incidents in history of the town of Possum Springs, but I don’t think any of that is really the point. What’s more compelling than any of the elements of cosmic horror in Night in the Woods is the fact that the game is filled with commentary on large, impersonal systems that exploit hardworking but vulnerable people.

Mae feeling forced to drop out of college while her brilliant friend Bea can’t go to college is an example of this. Mae’s parents being afraid of losing their house to the bank because of a usurious mortgage they took out to finance Mae’s tuition is another example, as is the fact that entire neighborhoods in Possum Springs consist of little more than similarly repossessed, unsold, and subsequently abandoned buildings. Mae’s friend Angus was abused as a child, which was observed but ignored by his isolated religious community. Meanwhile, the pastor at the church where Mae’s mom works wants to open a shelter for the railroad drifters, but she fails to obtain a permit from the city council, which is afraid that lowering the property values in that neighborhood will fatally disrupt an already struggling real estate market.

In other words, Night in the Woods suggests that it’s not individual activities such as “going to college” or “owning a home” or “participating in a religious community” or “being engaged in civic service” that’s the problem; the problem is but larger economic forces that steamroller over working-class people in small towns. None of the people Mae interacts with are stupid or unaware of what’s happening, but most of them aren’t given any real choices. For example, Mae’s aunt, who is a local police officer, is doing the best she can, as is Mae’s father, who was laid off from his job and now works at the new large supermarket that forced the local grocery store to be shut down.

There’s an ongoing side story (largely told through optional sidequests) about the historical tension between the mine owners and the labor unions in Possum Springs, and it’s clear that the mine owners were evil while the labor unions were brave and valiant. At the end of the game, Mae’s father is seriously considering starting a chapter of a labor union at the grocery store chain where he works, but the game’s presentation of unions isn’t entirely positive. The unions are male-dominated, for one thing, and there’s a scene in which Bea explains to Mae, from her own experience, that homosocial labor solidarity lends itself to an atmosphere in which overt sexual harassment is swept under the rug. In addition, Mae’s friend Selmers, who started writing poetry as part of the rehab program she entered after becoming addicted to pain pills at her job as a pharmacy, performs a reading of an incredible piece about how even unionized jobs are becoming unsustainable in the face of global capitalism.

What I’m trying to say is that the “horror of an absurd and uncaring universe” in Night in the Woods has very little to do with the mine monster or the star cat. Meanwhile, the death cult of older people who will literally sacrifice the lives of younger people for the vague promise of being able to sustain an imagined standard of living is about as clear of an allegory of the months leading to the 2016 U.S. presidential election as you can get.

According to Scott Benson, the game’s writer and artist, Night in the Woods is supposed to be set in western Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh, but Possum Springs could be anywhere, really. The first time I played the game, I thought it was set in an area of rural north Georgia around Athens, but it could be anywhere – upstate Michigan, rural Kentucky, eastern Washington State, Baltimore, St. Louis, Portland, San Jose, Fairbanks, Cleveland, Buffalo.

The game is so well-written, and it’s so relevant and important. The scariest thing about Night in the Woods is the sheer number of reviews I’ve read that brush it off as a boring platformer with unexplained cosmic horror and an unlikeable protagonist. I’m strongly considering writing about the game for a professional venue, but I need to figure out how to do so without referencing (and thus reinforcing the validity of) these reviews.