Anxiety in the Age of COVID-19

This week I invented a fun “adult” game to play with my partner. It’s called:

“Can you please sit on the couch with me and help me write emails because I am riddled with anxiety and have somehow managed to convince myself that every single word I write is bad and will cause everyone to lose respect for me and hate me forever.”

I’m currently struggling through a wave of anxiety, and it’s both intense and completely irrational. For example:

– An amazing colleague sent me a nice email expressing admiration for something I published recently, and I think I’m going to die.
– Another amazing colleague wrote to ask if they could put an unpublished essay of mine in a book they’re editing, and I think I’m going to die.
– I got a few new submissions to a zine I’m editing, and they are wonderful, and I think I’m going to die.
– A stranger who seems like a cool and interesting person sent me a message on Instagram inviting me to submit a comic to a zine they’re putting together, and I think I’m going to die.
– Someone sent me a message on Etsy telling me that they love my art, and I think I’m going to die.
– An artist I admire tentatively accepted an illustration commission for a novel I’m writing, and I think I’m going to die.

I feel awful, as if I’m an asshole for tricking these people. Like, they don’t know that I’m actually a terrible person, but they will find out. Nothing bad has happened, but bad things may potentially happen in the future.

When I was at my previous job, my older male department chair asked a female colleague to sit me down and tell me that anxiety doesn’t exist, and that it’s just a matter of me changing my attitude (or something). I keep thinking about this in an attempt to explain to no one in particular that I don’t actually want social interaction – even positive social interaction – to make me feel like I can’t breathe and might need to go to the hospital.

Emotionally I want to communicate and connect with people, especially friendly people doing cool things who it would be fun to work with. Intellectually I know that the worst thing that could happen is me making a silly typo or me eventually having to apologize for submitting something a few days late. Physically, however, I feel like I’m watching a grisly scene in a horror movie, except I can’t close my eyes until it goes away because this is my actual life.

Despite feeling like I’m on the verge of a coronary event, I’m going to ask my partner to sit on the couch with me and help me respond to some emails like a normal adult. This shouldn’t feel like I’m walking into battle, but it does and I hate it.

I’ll get through this, of course. It might take me a bit longer than it takes other people to respond to emails when I’m dealing with anxiety, but I’ll definitely get through this. I’m grateful to have a partner who supports me, and I’m very lucky that my colleagues (and students!) in my new department are accommodating. I’ve started being honest and upfront about what I’m going through, and everyone has been surprisingly kind and understanding.

I’m sharing this in the hope that it makes someone out there feel less weird and alone. There’s so much ambient stress and bad news in the world every single week, and I think a lot of people are experiencing this sort of anxiety at this level of intensity for the first time. It’s normal to feel physically sick, and it’s normal to feel mentally paralyzed. After experiencing wave after wave of negativity, it’s totally normal to have this sort of reaction even to positive events. So be kind to yourself, and let other people help you! You can get through this.

Live Your Best Life

I ended my post about theme park fandom with a question concerning how someone gets a job as a theme park journalist. I don’t have any serious interest in theme parks, so what I really want to know is how to get paid for doing what you love. It was mostly rhetorical… but also sort of an actual question.

Do you have to have your own YouTube channel? I am not telegenic and hate the sound of my own voice, but maybe it’s something to consider.

The talk I gave at Otakon last Saturday wasn’t great. I mean, it wasn’t bad. I’m going to say that it was a solid 6/10 performance.

This was mainly because of the platform. The way we had it set up, I couldn’t see the audience (which was virtual anyway), I couldn’t see the chat, I couldn’t see the producers, and I had no way to communicate with anyone. I didn’t even know if video was enabled while I was presenting. Basically, I was sitting at my desk and talking to a dead screen for half an hour, which was super awkward. Afterwards, I could barely hear the questions I was given, even with my laptop’s speakers set at maximum volume. There was no way to gauge reactions, which meant that any sort of humor (including even the most basic crowd work) was impossible. I was so nervous!

I’m definitely not blaming the producers, who did excellent work given the timeframe and limitations, and I’m doing my best not to blame myself. This was the first time I’ve ever given a virtual talk, after all. I spent a good two and a half hours editing the slideshow afterwards, and I also put together several pages of notes about what I can do differently in the future, including how to make humor work and how to be more engaging for an unseen virtual audience.

Still, I’ve been having these weird PTSD flashbacks to the talk during the past week. Like, I’ll randomly remember a word I stumbled over or a name I couldn’t remember off the top of my head or a typo in one of my slides, and I’ll experience an intense moment of physically palpable cringe. Then again, this sort of reaction is normal for a lot of people who give live performances of any kind. It’s difficult at first, but you gradually get used to it. I no longer have any problems with teaching or presenting in person, but this sort of virtual talk was an entirely new experience for me. Thankfully, now that I’ve done it once, it can only get better from here.

I’m wondering if I might be able to make short videos for my class this semester. A general rule of thumb is that, unless you’ve got a lot of text on each slide (which you really shouldn’t), you should spend about one minute on each slide of a presentation. If you’re reading aloud from an essay, one minute is about one double-spaced page. I can definitely make a five-slide presentation and write a five-page “script” to go with it every week. The problem would be recording, as I have exactly no equipment and zero experience in video editing. This would be the point pre-semester when it would be good to go to campus and ask a specialist for assistance and advice, but… you know.

So I guess I’d have to wing it, and maybe keep access to the videos limited to my students. If I’m going to do this, there’s no time like the present. Once I get the hang of it, maybe I can re-record everything and put it on YouTube…

Or not, actually. I mean, we’ll see, but I think it’s important to listen to what my anxiety is telling me. Right now, my anxiety is telling me that this isn’t a good time to teach myself to do something that I won’t enjoy and that won’t be rewarded with positive feedback or financial compensation.

What I actually enjoy is making slideshows, and I also enjoy making zines. Maybe, instead of trying to make videos that I will hate and (let’s be real) no one will watch, I could adapt my slideshows into zines. Printing isn’t that expensive, but it isn’t cheap either, so what I could do would be to make free PDF zines and then, once my finances are a bit more comfortable, print one or two that I think might attract interest. A zine based on my class session about urban legends might be good, for instance.

I don’t think making zines out of my lectures is going to win me fame and fortune, but you know what?

If your dream job doesn’t exist, perhaps you just have to make it yourself.

Consumable and Disposable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Happened

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

How to Make Classes Work, Step Two

Wear a suit to every class.

No exceptions.

Because of some weird harassment from [redacted], I had an intense panic attack at the beginning of the semester that left me so sick and weak that it was impossible to wear a suit for the first two weeks. Anxiety may be psychosomatic, but it’s still very much a physical illness.

You may be thinking that I must be some sort of crazy person, and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong, but I’m actually one of the most normal people I know. If you sat next to me on an airplane or met me at a wedding reception, you’d think I was normal too. I like to talk about normal adult things like pets and vacations and real estate and other people’s children. I’m even a little boring, but in a totally normal and average way.

So how does a normcore person like me with no history of health issues turn into a nervous wreck? Stewing in a toxic environment for a few years will do that to you, and at this point I’m having trouble imagining a more toxic environment than academia.

That’s by design – the university system is structured to consume so much of your life (see my essay about how tenure works) that you stop being able to imagine what the world outside looks like. This isn’t healthy, obviously. If I get tenure, one of the first things I’d like to do is to figure out a set of concrete actions that will help to enable the promotion of a culture of kindness, tolerance, and diversity. I genuinely believe that both professors and university administrators (myself included) would be much better at our jobs if we weren’t so stressed out all the time.

Anyway, I think the combination of my casual clothes at the beginning of the semester and the fact that I’m not a cisgender man may have led some of the students to arrive at the conclusion that I am fun.* I actually am fairly easygoing, but I’m always 115% serious in the classroom, and the suit helps convey that message with less room for misinterpretation concerning the level of effort and engagement I expect from my students.

 

* This conclusion is erroneous. I haven’t had fun since 2008.

Sweaty & Upsetty

Sweaty & Upsetty is a collection of short comics I posted on Tumblr between 2014 and 2018. Some of these comics are about fandom, and some are about anxiety, but most of them are about the experience of being on the internet as a weird little gremlin. There are also a few comics about my Super Mario Bros. headcanon, which is that Bowser and Princess Peach are not-so-secretly dating.

This zine is twenty pages long, standard half-letter size, and professionally printed by Mixam with a velvet-touch cover and full-color glossy interior pages. It was an experiment in formatting artwork for print, so I only made fifty copies to give to friends. I also dropped off a few copies at my local comic book store in Washington DC, Fantom Comics, and I have three last copies that I’m going to leave at Quimby’s Bookstore when I visit Chicago for an academic conference in late October.

My artwork has improved in leaps and bounds since I started sharing it online five years ago. I don’t think I’ll ever reprint this zine, but I’m looking forward to putting together another comics zine early next year!

Why I Buy Books on Amazon

Amazon is evil, and I’m afraid of them. So why do I still use their stupid website to buy books? Let me give you six reasons.

First, I read a lot of scholarship. Since it’s easy to get distracted while reading an academic book, I find it more productive to read paper copies than digital editions. I highlight text and take notes in the margins, so library books are out of the question. Bookstores don’t keep academic books in stock, and I’m not about to order them for full price (which is often more than $100) from the publishers.

Second, I read a lot of literary fiction in translation. I’m not trying to sound cool, because I don’t think literary fiction in translation is ever going to be cool, but I enjoy reading the sort of books that you can only find if you can search for them by means of an aggregate of hundreds of independent storefronts.

Third, I read a lot of fiction and graphic novels that haven’t been translated, and Amazon ships internationally for cheap. In fact, buying a book shipped via DHL Global Express from Amazon Japan or Amazon France is often cheaper than buying the translation at an American bookstore. True story!

Fourth, I read a lot of garbage, and I mean A LOT of garbage.

Let me give you an example. I love the manga series Black Butler, but I do not want to walk into an actual bookstore and ask an actual human being to special order the latest volume for me. In fact, I don’t even want the latest volume to be physically in my apartment, which is why I buy the Kindle editions. I also read a lot of Kindle singles, some of which are so bizarre that they’re probably intended to be performance art. Like most performance art, there’s a lot of potential for misunderstanding. Can you imagine yourself going into an independent bookstore and asking, “Hi, I was wondering where you keep your chapbooks of short experimental fiction. I’m looking for I Got Pounded in the Butt by a T-Rex, could you tell me if you have it in stock?” I guessing that you don’t need any help imagining the look on the face of the English major at the till, which brings me to my next point…

Fifth, I tend to dislike independent bookstores. Don’t get me started on the snobbishness of book culture, because we will be here all day and all night and I still won’t have said everything I have to say about literary gatekeepers and their bullshit.

(I love independent comic book stores forever and always, but that’s another story for another day.)

Sixth, I don’t dislike big chain stores as much as I dislike independent bookstores, but they’re still awful. Let me tell you a short story to help explain why.

The other day I decided that it’s finally time for me to read Pride and Prejudice, so I went to a Barnes and Noble in the suburbs. The entire store was very cringe, with lots of Harry Potter and ghostwritten politician “autobiographies” everywhere. But fuck me, I’m very cringe myself, so I went straight to the super discount shelves to check out those giant glossy books about “How to Make Your Own Healing Crystals” or whatever. I was carefully studying the covers of all the garbage books no one else wanted, and I was about to pick up one of those “witchcraft in a box” packages when a store employee came up to me. She was a super cheerful teenager with bouncy blonde curls, and she asked if she could help me find anything.

I did not in fact need for her to help me figure out where Jane Austen is in their fiction section, but I couldn’t help imagining the awkward conversation we’d have if I requested that she take me there. She would ask if I’ve read the book, and I would have to tell her I haven’t. The reason I’ve never been able to get more than fifty pages into Pride and Prejudice is because Jane Austen has always struck me as a mean girl, and I don’t like the way she makes fun of Elizabeth Bennet’s mom. I’m not sure how I would explain this to the rosy-cheeked teenager, who might respond by repeating some nonsense about the book that she read on Tumblr – where there happens to be a lot of angry and impassioned Jane Austen discourse, if you can believe it.

While this awful conversation was flashing through my mind, I realized that the girl was probably ordered to approach me by one of her supervisors, who saw me concentrating intently on something no sane person would actually buy and was therefore worried that I was a shoplifter. I then got a ridiculous mental image of myself sneaking out of the store with a giant “Witchcraft for Dummies Starter Kit with Bonus Crystals” box under my shirt, which would honestly be only slightly less embarrassing than taking it up to the cash register to pay a whole $8.99 to another teenager who would have to keep a straight face while asking me if I wanted to sign up for a store card.

What I mean to say is that this girl surprised me, and I ended up replying to her offer of assistance by saying “no.” Not “no, thank you” or “no, I’m good,” or “no, but I’ll find you if I need anything.” I just said “no” and walked away. Even though it was a little rude of her to interrupt me, this dick move instantly turned me into the bad guy, because what sort of douchenozzle treats retail workers like that? I felt like such an asshole, especially when they didn’t have Pride and Prejudice on the self with the rest of the Jane Austen books and I was too embarrassed to ask where it was.

And that’s why I don’t like going into bookstores, thank you for joining me on this journey.

In conclusion, I love books, and it makes me happy to support writers and publishers, but I’m also a weird little gremlin who probably shouldn’t be allowed to go out in public. Amazon enables the full extent of my reading habit without being judgmental, and that’s why they get all my money even though they’re evil.