Sunday, August 20, 2017

Good news and bad news on the academic front

The good news is that while I was in Ireland, getting acquainted with my other country, the one with 95 percent fewer swastikas, a blogger with the charmingly self-deprecating nym of Gabriel Conroy posted a long, thoughtful, seriously engaging review essay (3000+ words!) of the book I wrote with Jennifer Ruth, The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom: Three Necessary Arguments. Jennifer and I were kind of flabbergasted, all the more so when Mr. Conroy emailed us to let us know about the review. Remarkably, he even pasted it into the email as text just in case we didn’t want to click on a link in an unsolicited email. We thought: This is a scrupulous person we are dealing with.

Jennifer and I proceeded to have a productive exchange with Mr. Conroy by email, acknowledging his critique of the “Wal-Mart gambit” but pushing back a bit on his skepticism about tenure--and especially his suggestion that his own position (as a non-tenure-track faculty member in an academic library) might not require academic freedom. Jennifer, especially, pressed our case about professionalism v. cronyism, arguing (as she is wont to do, because she is right about this) that crony and patronage hires are far easier to pull off when the decision-maker is one person than when a legitimate search committee is conducting an open search, and that professional procedures and practices are valuable partly because they reduce (though cannot eliminate entirely) the degree of arbitrary caprice in a system.

As they used to say on blogs, read the whole thing. As Jennifer said to Mr. Conroy, it’s the most sustained discussion of our book we’ve seen so far.

But if you do read the whole thing, and you read the comments (I know, I know--you should certainly stop before the deranged racist shows up deep in the sub-sub-basement), you will get to the bad news, though of course it is bad news only for me.

Deep in the thread, one “Tmesis” shows up to inform Mr. Conroy that I am an “ass and a bully,” and that I am abusive to adjuncts in comment threads. (You will want to know how I manage to determine that pseudonymous commenters are adjuncts. The answer is that I have internets X-ray vision and can determine the employment status of all commenters on higher-ed threads.) Tmesis also claims that the plan Jennifer and I propose for converting contingent faculty to a tenure track “would involve cutting research out of the professional vocation of the majority of college teachers.”

As Berube et. al. who are on the upper end were blessed with charmed genes and a natural status above all others that endows them with “research” abilities. They seem to believe this – or argue for it at any rate.

Mr. Conroy, intrigued, asks for links. Tmesis promptly supplies them. And this is where things get seriously weird.

One of the links Tmesis provides is Jennifer’s and my essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education, in which we say,

Some people oppose our plan on the grounds that it would somehow prevent contingent faculty members from doing research. This is a serious misunderstanding. We are trying to move contingent faculty members onto a tenure track without requiring research from them.

(This is a tipoff that Tmesis doesn’t read all the words, or has significant difficulties understanding some of them. As for the bit about “charmed genes,” what can I say? Anyone who knows my work on intellectual disability knows that I believe in innate genetic hierarchies, and that I am on the top of them.)

Mr. Conroy, being of sound mind, reads through the links and replies, “I didn’t find Berube’s engagement as bullyish or trollish as you did.” This bit of equanimity totally enrages Tmesis, who proceeds to let loose with both barrels:

It’s hard to see in the way the comments are listed, but Berube stopped responding to Jemina. But then he answers the exact same questions when posed by someone else. That’s on purpose, and the purpose is to demean Jemina. And he will discuss working conditions for adjuncts but can clam up when asked about his own labor status? Nope. He doesn’t get that much privilege allotment from me. openinhibiscus says, "It’s ok to discuss working conditions of some but not all scholars. Some questions may be asked, others cannot. Some may opine, but questions from others go unanswered, or are answered partially. Jemina is so obviously right to ask questions, in any tone she wants. The dismissive and condescending way her questions are being treated is downright ugly.”

Aside that, comparing people’s serious concerns about their profession to Nigerian email scams is asshole territory, especially from endowed super prof man status. He trolls anonymous commenters, dismissing them as “random people on the internet” who are “hostile and accusatory” which is clearly untrue. Because a commenter is anonymous, or critical of one’s work, their questions don’t matter? People post anonymously precisely because of the professional structural exclusion that his book was supposed to address. Berube should be angry that such a situation could exist, instead of pompous, dismissive, and inflammatory (troll-y) toward the concerns of others.

I had to read this a couple of times to plumb the many layers of batshit here. In that IHE thread, this “Jemina” showed up to demand that Jennifer and I release our salaries and other employment information. I figured that someone willing to divulge their salary to a pseudonymous internet commenter would probably also be willing to help Nigerian princes with complex international financial transactions, and I said something to that effect. But I was willing to talk about my conditions of employment other than salary information, so I did.

Still, the idea that I have to disclose my salary in order to “discuss working conditions for adjuncts” is a little strange, especially when the proposal on the table is to improve working conditions for adjuncts. And the idea that I have “demeaned” someone by not disclosing my salary to them is a little stranger. And the outrage that I referred to random people on the internet as “random people on the internet” is just a sprinkling of nuts on top.

But what’s most remarkable about Tmesis’s outrage--to which, of course, Mr. Conroy does not respond (one imagines him walking quietly backwards out of the room, whistling softly)--is that it stems from an IHE comment thread from May 2015 (the first of the links Tmesis provides). That’s right, poor Tmesis has been carrying around this rage about my deplorable internet manners for over two years, trying to persuade anyone who mentions our book that I bullied some pseudonymous commenter by not telling her (if Jemina is her real name) my salary.

More than two years. This makes my heart hurt.

Now, look, I know it takes every kind of people to make the internet go round, and some of them are totally unhinged. In fact, as I type, there are people who are outraged beyond measure that Tina Fey told people to stay home and not go see thoughtful movies with two female leads. (The nerve of that woman! Scriptwriters and actresses should mount a petition against her. Only then will we be free.) But even by the standards of trolls and cranks, this seems a bit excessive.

I’ll leave aside the obvious point that in the course of those two years, I used my position in the Penn State Faculty Senate to propose and pass a sweeping overhaul of Penn State policy for fixed-term faculty, creating fixed-term review committees consisting of and elected by fixed-term faculty; creating a third tier of promotion beyond that of senior lecturer; and granting fixed-term faculty professorial titles. I know I did all that because I am constantly demeaning nontenured colleagues less fortunate than I. I’m just wondering what kind of life this Tmesis leads.

One of my friends insists that Tmesis must be one of my colleagues, on the grounds that no one carries around this much incandescent anger for so long unless they are reminded of my existence on a regular basis. But I don’t care who this person is. I just wish them health and a better life, one that does not involve me in any way.

So, back to the good news. As I’ve remarked before, responses to our book have been few and far between, and unfortunately, some of them have done little more than to remind me and Jennifer that (for understandable reasons) some NTT faculty will distrust anything that comes from a member of the tenured ranks. (I’ve even seen this happen to Seth Kahn in an IHE thread, and you won’t find a better tenured ally of NTT faculty than Seth.) Mr. Conroy, for his part, has his own distrust of the tenured ranks– but it didn’t stop him from writing a smart, thorough, and challenging review essay. For that, and for his followups via email, Jennifer and I thank him.


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