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Speculative Diction

The politics of the public eye


Recently I wrote a piece for The Globe and Mail in which I argued that we should be encouraging Ph.D. students to learn how to communicate with broader audiences. One of the questions I couldn’t really address in that short article was: what’s it actually like to engage on those practices of communication, particularly as early-career scholars who might be working on PhDs and/or seeking academic employment? Yes, I discussed the positive aspects of public exposure, but what about the “flip side”?

There is one issue in particular that has been on my radar more than usual over the past few months. Public communication of almost any kind involves risk. When you stand up and say something “out loud”, you don’t necessarily (just) start a dialogue or deepen an existing debate. You’re also presenting yourself as a target. There is a certain loss of control involved: while you may well have taken the time to carefully articulate something in writing, it only takes a few moments for someone to make a snarky comment and post it, or to dismiss your views quickly on Twitter.

Thus in a number of ways, having a larger audience is a double-edged sword. It can bring more of everything; even though you’re likely to receive supportive feedback and open the door to nuanced discussion by widening the circle of readers, you also open yourself up to misinterpretations, criticisms, and sometimes insults, from a larger number of people. Yet while some may fear these negative outcomes as a result of speaking out to non-academic audiences, it is not only non-academics who are engaging in harshly judgemental commentary, garden-variety Internet snark, and even slander. Plenty of those “on the inside” are also willing to take aim at peers and colleagues, in ways that exacerbate conflict or show disrespect.

I can think of at least two examples of friends who have been dealing with public “responses” in this way. Tressie McMillan Cottom, a Ph.D. candidate at Emory, has dealt with ongoing attacks on her credibility and academic status that have been launched through Twitter, by email, and in online articles and comments. My impression is that most of these have been launched by other academics, including two graduate students who openly accused Tressie of plagiarism, unethical research conduct, and “lying” about the university she attends.

That incident in particular highlights the apparent irrationality of some of what one deals with when becoming a “public figure” as an academic. Tressie’s work on U.S. for-profit colleges and issues of race, gender and class is well-known and respected; hers is a strong voice on controversial and important issues in higher education, and she has already earned professional recognition for her contributions on this topic. The accusations made could be easily refuted with a quick Google search, and were (as usual) openly addressed by Tressie in her blog. So what was the point?

I think the actual logic comes through if we examine in more detail the comments being made about Tressie’s intelligence and, of course, her merit. For example, calling someone an “affirmative action admit” (in the context of U.S. universities) is a means of invoking someone’s race and/or gender as the primary reason for their presence in the university; this well-worn logic positions equity against “excellence”, and it is built on the belief that academics should, and usually do, succeed according to how much merit they have, rather than additionally through various forms of privilege, bias, and other circumstantial/systemic factors (a recession, for example). This assumed meritocracy is one of the deepest-rooted aspects of academic culture. It influences our understanding of the distribution of benefits and rewards in professional life, and it affects academics’ assessments of each other and of themselves–crucial to the process of peer review. It’s why, even though the discussion of privilege has entered academic research, we have mostly failed to turn the analytical gaze on academe itself.

Merit comes through again in a second example, that of Dr. Lee Skallerup Bessette, who has openly discussed her efforts to find a tenure-track position in an ongoing series of blog posts for Inside Higher Ed. It’s refreshing to see anyone willing to talk about this process, particularly in light of the critical problems faced by the growing proportion of “adjunct” professors in the United States and elsewhere. But it’s also somewhat depressing to see some of the responses she has received, such as these (anonymous) comments on a recent post about job market struggles:

“These issues are the result of personal decisions that you made; it may be time to take responsibility for those decisions.”

“As tempting as it might be to castigate the author for elitism and a monstrously inflated sense of self-worth, I won’t do that.”

“The world doesn’t owe us our dream job.”

These comments, besides showing a lack of empathy for another person’s situation, also reflect the sense of self-righteousness that results from a firm belief in meritocratic justice. Surely if she doesn’t have what she wants, it must be her own fault. Surely, if she had only worked hard enough and made “smart” choices, she’d be on the tenure track by now. How many others are thinking the same thing, without posting it? How many others are in Lee’s position, but are afraid that if they speak up, they’ll be told “you just aren’t good enough–move on”? Never mind that these commenters appear to be completely tuned out from the reality of U.S. higher education; they are familiar with the core values of academe, one of which is that merit leads to success.

Examples like these point to the reasons why there is ongoing discussion about “civility” that has unfolded on Twitter and in the academic blogosphere. In my opinion the underlying issue is not about Twitter, blogs, or social media. What should concern us is the way these media reflect and even exacerbate elements of academic culture that were already there to begin with, such as the emphasis on merit, and also a kind of performative proof of one’s own excellence at the expense of others. This latter issue is what Dr. Inger Mewburn, also known as “Thesis Whisperer”, discussed in her recent blog post on “academic assholes”. The post–which had 170 comments when I checked–describes the use of cleverness to disparage others while showing one’s superiority and gaining credibility among peers, something that many of us have witnessed in academic settings. As Inger states, “cleverness is a form of currency in academia” and one does not have to be nice to be clever.

What Inger highlights in her post also seems to be confirmed by the research I have been reading lately, which is about workplace harassment in academic settings, how it happens, and who is involved. I see plenty of connections between the tone, content, and apparent purpose of some people’s online behaviour, and the way that researchers discuss multiple systemic factors in academe that influence the amount of  “bullying” that goes on, as well as how it plays out.

As Lee has pointed out, we shouldn’t be surprised if academics–particularly those who are members of marginalised groups–don’t want to stand up in public and criticise the academic system. And who would want to talk about personal challenges in their career, when that might betray a “weakness”? Many people experience doubt, anxiety, stress and loneliness in academe, and this aspect of the culture works as a form of silencing that reinforces the existing lack of critique, even as it denies the political issues faced by many young or early-career academics. For both Lee and Tressie, and for many others, the vulnerability of having a “public face” is compounded by gender, race, and institutional status.

Even while they bring risks, blogging and using Twitter–and other forms of “public communication”–provide ways of building not only an audience but also a support network. Those who’ve been attacked, harassed, and chided now also have legions of defenders ready with thoughtful comments, critiques, shared experiences, and resources for dealing with problems and resisting demeaning criticisms. Many of us have gained friends, colleagues, and new perspectives through these exchanges. But can we “speak up” in our own immediate environments? If and when colleagues and peers are judgemental and nasty “offline” and invisibly, who’s there to defend us in the much smaller (and more isolating) context of a program, department, or faculty?

Through the use of arguments and critiques invoking meritocracy–often implied more than stated–we are being taught an ongoing lesson about how to stay silent, and some people are being “reminded” more regularly than others. We need to pay attention to exactly how that lesson is being taught–online and in the “public sphere”, and in the physical and social spaces of departments and universities; both publicly and privately; both by known and by anonymous participants; and we must consider how the existing tropes of academe come to inform people’s actions in those spaces.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. Janni Aragon / March 5, 2013 at 12:14

    Great post! It really is that you are not allowed to say anything. If you do, you face the possibility of getting attacked for speaking out. This is, of course, the negative side. The positive side includes the contacts saying that you shared something important.

    Thanks for saying what needs to be said!

  2. Tim Pettipiece / March 5, 2013 at 15:03

    Every time I read an article in UA by someone discussing the systemic barriers to permanent academic employment they get piled on by commentators (probably tenured academics) moaning about the author’s sense of “entitlement”. I’m sure this article will attract the same elitist nonsense.

  3. Sarah Boon (@SnowHydro) / March 5, 2013 at 15:35

    The myth of meritocracy is blinding people (both academics and non-) to the reality of the current university/society situation. We need to talk about real & necessary changes to our graduate programs, to how we deal with adjuncts, and even to the teaching/research situation of current faculty. But no one wants to rock the boat – in many places we *can’t* because of the in-house censure that occurs on campuses and within depts. It’s hard to find allies ‘at home’ like you can on Twitter or on a blog, where everyone knows what’s going on. On campus, it’s largely hidden….

  4. Kean / March 6, 2013 at 13:06

    People who talk about meritocracy miss the ‘irony’ that the word originated in Michael Young’s critique of the very thing they are doing (i.e. legitimating their position with reference to the idea of merit-based advancement).

  5. Carolyn / March 6, 2013 at 21:22

    Great article. You can definitely add me to that list. I receive horribly nasty anonymous emails and have felt incredible injustice (in the past, not currently) due to having a presence outside academia…all related to the “unspoken rules.”

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