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.

Disney Doesn’t Need Public Defense

The Marvel Juggernaut: With Great Power Comes Zero Responsibility
http://cinemalogue.com/2019/11/18/the-marvel-juggernaut-with-great-power-comes-zero-responsibility/

Due to the clout of its ubiquity, AVENGERS: ENDGAME merits a deeper look. Its fundamental ideology is libertarian-conservative. Superheroes fight, but only up until the point they want to quit. They’re rewarded with the domestic tranquility of the heterosexual nuclear family (at the expense of the less conventional concept of “found family”). Every female character receives sub-par treatment, especially Natasha Romanoff—a childhood abuse victim incapable of bearing children, sacrificed in favor of a “family man” who commits (racially selective) extra-judicial murder without consequence. Untold trillions of lives lost as collateral damage in the aftermath of Thanos’ cosmos-wide “snap” are forfeit for the sake of one five-year old child of one billionaire on one planet.

The story quashes the political nature of its chief protagonist, Steve Rogers—created by two Jewish men to combat the rise of pro-fascist sentiment in a pre-war, isolationist America. Favoring a bigoted past over a present more aligned with Steve’s values, Marvel takes a vocal political force—a tireless fighter against oppression—and reduces him to milquetoast, Pleasantville made manifest. Adding insult to injury, Peggy Carter spectates this regressive resolution to Steve’s arc. She’s wordless, existing only for Steve’s gaze, her independent life overwritten to be his prize and a means to an end: the complete neutralization of an anti-fascist.

People are free to enjoy whatever they like, of course, but the Disney Corporation is no one’s friend.

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.

Writers Have to Be Supported to Survive


I’ve recently seen several posts with tens of thousands of notes circulating around Tumblr that are extremely critical of the idea of fanfic writers accepting donations to support their activities. Many of them, such as the one excerpted above, refer to the guidelines of AO3, which are meant to defend the right of the site to exist on the basis that the content it hosts is purely transformative and not intended for profit. The undertone of these posts, however, is a strong pushback against the idea that fanfic writers might aspire to the same levels of professional success and support as other creators in fandom.

I would like to argue that the idea that fan writers deserve to have a choice whether to receive compensation for their work is reasonable, especially since many highly visible fan artists, YouTubers, and Twitch streamers can receive hundreds, thousands, and even tens of thousands of dollars every month through donation sites like Patreon and Ko-fi.

Yes, intellectual property is protected by law and legal precedent, and it’s important to understand fandom history and to respect the ongoing battle AO3 has to fight. And yes, fan writers use copyright-protected names and scenarios. At the same time, fan artists use protected names, scenarios, and images, while YouTubers and streamers use protected sound and video – and sometimes the entirety of the protected work. If the “transformative work” and “added value” and “critical commentary” and “performance” arguments of fair use laws apply to visual artists, video creators, and streamers, why don’t they work for writers?

There are three things going on here.

The first is that AO3 is an independent NPO, not a giant media conglomerate. Even if YouTube is forced to take down certain videos that violate intellectual property laws, YouTube itself is not in danger of being taken offline. AO3 is in a much more precarious situation and therefore has to be extra cautious. This is an issue specific to AO3, however, and it’s not universally applicable to other hosting and sharing sites.

The second is that many media corporations in the United States consider digital images to be ephemeral, meaning that they have a short shelf life in the popular consciousness. Fan art and video streams shared on social media will help to promote a piece of media while it’s still trendy, but they also tend to be quickly consumed and discarded and thus aren’t perceived as being in danger of becoming long-term competition for the original media property. Because it used to be published in the form of physical books and magazines, fanfic was considered to be competition, but this perception has changed, partially due to the support fanfic has received from commercially successful writers like J.K. Rowling and George R.R. Martin.

The third is sexism. This is complicated; but, to make a long story short, fanfic has been treated differently because, unlike illustration and video editing, it is primarily associated with communities of women.

Media industries overwhelmingly dominated by men, such as comics and movies, have always provided ways for younger male fans to enter the industry as professionals. There is a long history of commercial studios actively scouting emerging talent from popular fan artists and amateur video producers, so media corporations have a vested interest in not completely shutting down spaces in which these creators can develop and exhibit their talents. For example, an aspiring comic artist can take his portfolio of X-Men character illustrations to a comics convention to show to an industry representative, and Marvel will hire him if they like his fan art. Because these industries have traditionally been male-dominated, however, the work of women was seen as derivative and embarrassing. A male artist who drew a fan comic would get a job, and a woman who wrote fanfic of the same media property would get a cease and desist letter.

Moreover, women have historically been expected to be the keepers of public morality. For instance, a male professor who writes mediocre novels about cheating on his wife with underage female students can easily be promoted to the head of a prestigious creative writing program, while a woman in any profession can be in danger of losing her job for writing any novel at all. Because of this, many female writers have had to hide their creative careers in a way that male artists and video producers have not. Even though these prejudices are fading, many fic writers are still very serious about protecting their real names and identities. At the same time, many fan artists and other creators use their fanwork to promote themselves while using their professional names – and, thanks to social media, we can now see that not all of these creators are male.

Because a new generation of female and nonbinary fan artists, animators, video producers, and streamers are now comfortable pursuing their creative careers while using their professional names and accepting donations while they establish themselves, it only makes sense that fan writers would want to do the same thing. After all, if people like Rebecca Sugar and Noelle Stevenson can go from posting popular fan art and fan comics on Tumblr to becoming mainstream showrunners, why couldn’t a female or nonbinary fanfic writer go on to become an actual scriptwriter for the next, say, Star Wars or Pokémon movie? If illustrators, comic artists, YouTubers, and Twitch streamers can receive donations to support their fanwork while they establish their careers, what arbitrary rule says that writers can’t do the same thing while still respecting AO3’s legal guidelines?

There is an entire generation of younger writers who have come into fandom with ambitions of professional success and no understanding of why they should feel pressured to separate their fandom identity from their professional identity or why they shouldn’t have the choice to receive the same support as creators working in other mediums. Instead of mocking younger writers for not knowing fandom history – and instead of shaming older writers for resisting outdated prejudices – I think it’s worth it to support them and hopefully change the culture.

Most people don’t want donations and only think of fandom as a fun escapist hobby, but writers should still be able to access the same choices as other creatives. I’ve already shared my thoughts about the issues I personally have with Patreon, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want other people to explore that option for themselves. After all, writers have to be supported for fanfic to survive.

I feel like I could write an entire book about this – and I have! I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the publisher can stick to the May 2020 release date, because I’d really like to talk more about fandom and cultural change, as well as what the achievements of artists might suggest about the future of fiction.

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?