(With apologies to Jon Ronson)
In the fall of 2003, Thursdays meant tears. Having left the safety of a small state school for an elite PhD program, I knew I was not prepared. Worse, I thought other people knew it too. I had come in off of the wait list, the only student in my small class that particular year to do so. On Thursdays, I had two seminars back-to-back, during which I wrote names and words to look up later in tiny print in the corners of my notebooks. I had not heard of Foucault or Habermas; I did not know my ontology from my epistemology; and I did not know what a paradigm was, let alone what it would mean to shift one. On Thursdays, after a full day of recording all I did not know, I would call home and weep to my parents that everyone knew "I was the stupidest one." When my parents reassured that I was not, I'd use logic against them: "it has to be someone, and there's only six of us, so..." In other words, this is a boring story of a first semester at graduate school. Years later, I have a term with which to describe the insecurity that had me locked away in my shared apartment bathroom once a week sobbing like a baby. Mine was a classic case of impostor syndrome: I knew I did not belong and was sure that others were having this knowledge confirmed through each interaction with me. Soon, I would be found out as a dummy and asked to leave.
Now, more than a decade later, I rarely worry about this. Sometimes I'm uncertain when undertaking a new project or class. Sometimes I still do not know the name or work of a particular theorist and feel a bit shy about this. But largely, I no longer worry that I'm about to be uncovered as a fraud and told to pack my things and get out.
But then, on June 1st, 2016, as I was sitting blithely by the side of a pool, it happened. Names were named, my stupidity exposed, and I was revealed for the faker I am.
A few months ago, in an effort to communicate my scholarship more broadly and to join the 21st century a bit more robustly, I joined Twitter. I use the platform in a boring, banal way: "It's Marilyn Monroe's Birthday!," "Apply to our MFA program;" "Yay, silent movies." I don't understand the more complex features or how to do anything very tricky. Basically, what my father is to Facebook, I am to Twitter.
When I opened my phone this particular afternoon to see what there was to see, I discovered that someone had mentioned my name. Investigating further, I saw that in the particular tweet that mentioned my name, the author had written “an oddity of academe to be sure.” Confused about what this meant, I followed the conversation upstream to its source.
The initial post had come from an account that, in an effort not to promote bad behavior, I’ll call actual_peerreview.* The tweet included a photograph of the abstract for an article I had written with this caption: "When you're not all too bright but the salary’s better in academia than Starbucks." Oh no. This was not good. I looked down at the tweets that followed and they were in a similar vein, taking a few unpleasant detours along the way, including a potshot at my state school alma mater, and a repost of a photograph from my faculty website and corresponding commentary.
This, in short, was the blow I had been waiting for as I cringed my way through the first semesters of graduate school. I had forgotten to worry about it during my professional life, but now actual__peerreview had brought my stupidity forth for all the world to see. The twitterverse had announced its disdain: “you’re a fraud! We hate you! Go away!”
I felt ashamed as I sat next to my parents who were chatting away; they were thrilled to be in town visiting my new baby. I did not want them to know this was happening to me; I also realized I was deeply afraid that colleagues would see this, or, worse, were participating. It was shocking how quickly the posts returned me to that primal adolescent fear that everyone had joined together to laugh at me. To come up shamed on social media is a bit like floating along through the halls of high school and suddenly realizing someone you thought was your friend has started a pregnancy rumor about you—it's as much bewildering as it is painful.
After the initial shock, I considered the unlikeliness that my colleagues were in a secret cabal with a vendetta against me or the article, a piece about Virtual 2Pac that appeared in a feminist film studies journal. Although the essay makes some claims that might be considered political (about the commodification of certain versions of black masculinity), it's not throwing polemical bombs. And, typically, I'm a scholar who works on modernist literature and silent film, not particularly hot button topics. I'm proud of the work I do and I think my texts are worth thinking about, but I also know that I'm not setting the world on fire. As I thought more and poked around on the discussion thread, trying to figure out who these people were, I realized that I did not know them, or they me. As I said, I'm new to Twitter and there's plenty I may be getting wrong—also, in an act of astounding courage, the account actual__peerreview appears to have "muted" my account before tweeting, a nice term in this context—what I can see is that this account posts abstracts from the humanities or social sciences each day, placing the pieces and authors in the internet’s stockades for their public shaming. The account has received a bit more attention lately for being one of the places where Dr. Mark Carey’s “feminist glaciology” article was discussed.
I have not been at the center of a media frenzy in the way Carey has, and my article is not nearly the kind of sexy fodder for such discussions as his has become, but I will nonetheless remember the incident for the rest of my days and I retain some hurts from the comments, which have dredged up old status-based insecurities about my state school education ("SUNY I can understand, but @Vanderbilt? Wow, she should ask for a refund") as well as concerns about how I am perceived as a young woman in academe (to the gentlemen who is "DTF": no thank you, sir). Overall, though, this particular instance matters to me and not so much the broader world. In the life cycle of social media, the incident was over almost as soon as it began. The last time I checked, the initial post had been retweeted twenty-seven times and "liked" sixty-six times.
Despite my uncomfortable feelings about these sixty-six “likers,” I am now more secure in the work that I do than I was as a twenty-something graduate student. Although I considered deleting my Twitter account, I decided that this was letting bullies win. Instead, I refrained from replying to the thread (bloggers call this "feeding the trolls," a wonderful phrase) and simply removed the app from my phone for a bit to make myself stop my obsessive checking on the thread.
So why rehash the incident here and now? If I am over it (or getting over it, to be a bit more honest), why feed social media bad behavior with its main form of sustenance, attention? The reason is because I am thinking about my own students: both graduate students and the undergraduate students I am encouraging to consider a career in academe, as well as the painfully insecure graduate student I was not so many years ago. My brief experience with public shaming makes me want to think about both the kinds of encouragement we give to our students and the way we train them to write and respond to other writers. There are probably several other articles that could be written about this twitter feed: whether about the uptick of venomous social media shaming of social science and humanities scholars; about the way claims to “rigor” can mask certain kinds of anti-intellectualism; or about the interesting intersection of readers who appear on this Twitter feed: STEM professors and graduate students skeptical of the humanities, people offended by what they refer to as the perceived “SJW” (“social justice warrior,” a term used sarcastically) bent of the academy, as well as Christina Sommers, who is a big fan. There’s a lot of anger out there that’s worth considering, and I hope that scholars in the humanities, the social sciences, and the STEM fields will continue to collaborate, bridging what I now see to be a quite dangerous divide between what C.P. Snow called the “two cultures.”
But for now, I’m reacting in a more personal, human way and worrying about the personal, human ways in which my students might respond should they come up similarly unlucky in the social media lottery.
Part of what disturbs me about what this particular twitter user is doing is the framing of his project as an intellectual crusade. Presenting the social sciences and humanities as idiotically lax, the author takes it upon himself to evaluate scholarship and scholars alike, designating himself the ultimate arbiter of scholarly worth, regardless of field difference.
What I’d want to say to my students is that this is nothing like peer review. What I’m worried I cannot say to them is anything reassuring about how they will be treated should they enter this profession in our social media moment. In part what’s tricky at present time is that the boundary between the workplace and the rest of the world is increasingly blurred, and in order to promote our scholarship, to increase our “impact factors,” we must go more and more public with our work. We blog, we tweet, we post on Academia.edu, etc. This means opening ourselves up to greater scrutiny, for better and for worse. And, very often, I think it’s for better. In a recent class, my students did all their writing on a blog. One student’s mother followed and commented on posts during the semester. At the time I thought this was a cool way for parents to see their children’s intellectual work and for students to feel excited about their writing’s significance. Now I’m a little less sanguine and a bit more worried about the risks to which I’m exposing my students as they venture out into an Internet with many hidden trolls under its bridges. For the record, I did ask actual_peerreview for his real name (see attached image), but he declined my request. This National Post article suggests the author is an academic who is protecting his career, which might be damaged by his courageous choice to publicly shame other academics by name (http://news.nationalpost.com/news/world/heres-why-an-article-about-feminist-glaciology-is-still-the-top-read-paper-in-a-major-geography-journal). Meanwhile, I have been encouraging my brave students to send their words out, names attached.
The trick then, actual_peerreview’s nom de plume aside, is that when one’s academic work is critiqued in ways that are not academic, it’s difficult to tell how to react. If the attack were strictly personal—“Hey Katherine, you’re a total jerk”—it would be both bizarre and easier to dismiss. And if it were entirely academic, well, then it would be peer review. With social media comments on scholarship, we’re in murkier territory. Additionally, what my new Twitter fans reveal is the messy way in which criticisms of scholars and their scholarship become blurred, especially since what the account and its followers seem most to object to are not the particular papers but the methodologies, theories, and disciplines which they represent.
And so, I am trying to move beyond this incident by thinking about how I’d speak to a student about putting her work out on social media when her very membership in a given discipline or use of a particular theory means she may be publicly ridiculed. Here’s an attempt:
Writing something “better” would not have mattered. At first, I thought, “hey, that’s not even the worst thing I’ve written. I kind of like that article.” This is not the point. More effort on my part would not have stopped people from behaving badly. In fact, the top scholars of my field would likely have received similar criticism, by virtue of their engagement with similar ideas and theories. Perfection would not have saved me. This is an important lesson for students in particular, who are often writing scared. As Robert Boice’s work on academic writing demonstrates, perfectionists who hold onto work for too long are less influential. And by God, let’s don’t let bullies stop us students from being influential.
Your work is not you. But the response may be about you (or an idea of you). I identify as being a kind of boring “regular liberal.” I think the New Deal sounds great and I think the literary canon should be more inclusive. I recycle. So I was a bit affronted by the accusation that I was being rabidly political in my scholarship (“TOXIC MASCULINITY HETEROPATRIARCAPITALISTIC [sic] MISOGYNIST!!,” one commenter translated my article). But again, this is not the point. Even were I being more polemical, this would not justify the tenor of the remarks. Moreover, as I reviewed the comments, I kept realizing: 1. That the commenters were reading my abstract, not my article. 2. Many were reading the abstract superficially. 3. Almost all were looking for the abstract to support their idea of me and/or my discipline. 4. When I looked at what these ideas of me included—stupid, sexually available, greedy, language policing, and, most bizarrely, a believer in the occult? --they had very little to do with who I am or how I conduct myself. They are not even very good representations of my writing. When working with our students, whether they have received needlessly hostile reviews of their writing or particularly nasty and personal student evaluations, it may be helpful to remind them to be skeptical about people who know them very little and yet wish to make big claims about them. As the saying goes, “is it helpful? Is it kind? Is it true?” In the case of nasty (distinct from negative) comments, the answer to these questions is often no.
Some people wish you would just shut up and go away. Despite university and program emphases on diversity, not everyone wishes to see universities or academic scholarship change (this tension may be one among many explanations for the fractious conversation around campus protests this year). As a result, students can find themselves putting scholarship forward in a world that contains those who wish to expose them for affirmative action faker, who wish they would get kicked out of the academy, who wish they would stop writing and talking. In a cursory survey of the articles tweeted, I noticed a large number of papers that used feminist, queer, and critical race theory among the ranks of the pilloried. In my own experience, I was described as both stupid and someone that a user would be “DTF”—a charming way to engage with women during the peer review process, surely.
The justification for subjecting humanists and social scientists to this public shaming goes under the banner of exposing “jargon,” that easy target of bad sentence contests. These contests and actual_peerreview’s twitter feed wish postmodern theory would go away. In the past, I have occasionally taught Lee Edelman’s Homographesis with its defense of “jargon” and its skepticism towards the political agendas that move under the cover of plain speech such as “family values,” a term of art if ever there was. For me, teaching Edelman is a way of helping students question kneejerk responses to difficult theory. Things that are difficult and seem needlessly opaque can make students angry at first. I get this. As it made me during my first years of grad school, theory can cause students to feel dumb and it can make scholars seem like pretentious, elitist jerks. Heck, sometimes scholars are pretentious, elitist jerks. But it’s also the case that theory can be a profoundly empowering and important tool for thinking: most of us have had that glorious light bulb moment in the study carrel or in the seminar room when we suddenly have a word to describe that nagging, previously nameless thing. I would encourage us and our student to keep working in words, yes, sometimes playfully and deconstructively, with goofy parentheticals and slashes if need be. Through words, even awkward new ones, we come into new ways of thinking. Let’s not turn off an avenue for thinking.
Unlike actual_peerreview, actual peer review is incredibly helpful. Again, pen name aside, with one very small exception, what I experienced when I opened my phone was not peer review. Telling a writer that she is stupid and should get a new job does not tell her how to improve her essay. Obviously. That’s because the target of actual_peerreview is the author and her discipline, not the essay.
Instead, in actual peer review, the collaborative nature of writing is allowed to emerge through a focus on the written object; the writer has begun something and then her reviewers help make that thing better and brighter, whether or not they ultimately recommend publication. In a healthy peer review process, energy is directed at building a better piece of writing or research and the lovely side effect is that we often become better writers and researchers in the process, whether we are on the giving or receiving side of the criticism. What I received from actual_peerreview was not intended to make my writing better; it was a shaming. A shaming cannot possibly improve the field, the writer, or the piece; at best (or worst), it may have the effect of shutting writers up, turning off voices that might otherwise contribute someday, even if it’s not with the piece in question.
While actual_peerreview is doubling down on the second word that makes up “peer review,” I’d like my students to focus on the first. In the peer review process, reviewers are engaging with anonymity in its most generous form, gifting the author with helpful criticism and turns of phrase, knowing that the author is trying to join the same conversation in which they are participating. In contrast, what’s going on in the twitterverse is anonymity in its most cowardly form, hostility that creates distance between the academic writer and these readers.
In addition to helping our students parse occasionally unprofessional criticism they may receive, I also think we might serve our students better by showing them how to constructively review and respond. As a younger scholar, I have sometimes struggled with this—it’s easier to set one’s argument up by taking someone else’s down; it’s easier to sound smart when criticizing than when praising; gossip is fun, even when it’s academic gossip! But taking time in the seminar room to help our students acknowledge what an author is doing well, or at least acknowledge what she is trying to do, before moving to negative criticism is what it means to be a responsible critic. In casual terms, we might call it being “game,” willing to try out what the author or research has presented before bagging on it. This kind of gameness is also what will make our graduate students better responders to their own students.
This gets me to the one comment on the thread that I liked, the one that made me laugh aloud when I read it. In part, my essay argued that Virtual 2Pac’s Coachella performance represents a new moment in media history that should make us worry about the way celebrities will be commoditized in the future. On the thread, one user summarized my essay this way “Virtual 2Pac is a bit shit.” When I read this, I snorted. I smiled. Perhaps a bit unfairly reduced, but basically true: I do think Virtual 2Pac is a bit shit. In addition to proving the adage that brevity is the soul of wit, this post showed that the author had read what I had written, and, to a degree, had given it a fair shake.
In other words, I could imagine a casual conversation in which a peer might say something like this to me in an effort to help me write a better, more interesting article. Writing, after all, has always been a way of thinking for me and any time peer review can push me to think in new or better ways, I welcome it. What I fear as I train students to enter our strange new public/private terrain of academic publishing is that being reviewed will be associated with shaming and being found out. I fear that my students may get turned off from putting their thoughts to the page and putting those pages to print.
Gird your loins and venture forth bravely. In some ways, actual peer review is a cozy place. We do basically agree within our fields that our theories and fields and methods have value. However, it’s worth sticking our necks out and communicating with the world outside the bubble exactly because we believe our fields and theories and methods have value. It’s a little scary and exposed out there, and we may fear that the worst can happen.
That’s just true. For 22-year-old me, what occurred on Twitter comes pretty close to “the worst that can happen”—I was exposed as a stupid fraud in front of lots of people.
I would say to a student that the good news is that the worst can happen and you will not be destroyed. It sucks, like you thought. But you didn’t die and the people who already respect you and love you will continue to respect you and love you. More good news: no one is trying to kick you out of your discipline. The bad news is that these bullies don't want your discipline to exist.
In some ways, this last bit of bad news can be galvanizing. Whatever insecurities we may fight as writers and scholars, we love our disciplines. This is why we’ve committed our lives to the work we do. In the face of Internet hatred, the love of our work, our students and our fields may be a great resource for resilience.
* Since the time of this incident, the account has gone offline; however, a new account with a different creator has sprung up to take its place.
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