Last week, I seemed to hit a nerve on Twitter. I had recently read, with despair, some stuff on Academic Twitter (TM) that propagandized some of the most problematic ideologies circulating today about academic work, secure employment and boot-strapping productivity. Namely, that if we work hard enough, long enough, we will triumph against precarity and enter the land of milk and honey that is permanent academic employment. That it is a choice, to sink or to swim, to fail like so many stones dropping to the bottom of muddy ponds or to win, to skate along the water’s surface with nary a care in the world. Or so the latter seems. But, to quote the poet Stevie Smith, ultimately the skaters - and their winningly winning forebears and colleagues - are “not waving” the onlookers on. Instead, they are, inevitably, “drowning” in a culture of overwork, underpay and exponentially increasing metrics of productivity levied against all staff, even permanent staff, in the neoliberal Academy.
It’s a loaded term, “propagandized”, and one I use to underscore that this shit is political. Yes, even in a casual-ish venue like Twitter. Yes, even when we are sharing bits and pieces from our own lives. The myth of meritocracy, supported by the rhetoric of hyper-productivity, does real-world damage to all scholars, and especially to those of us marginalized along intersectional axes. The Twitter thread which hit such a nerve, embedded below, has my thoughts on the matter in detail.
When writing the tweets, I knew I was laying out some Real Talk, speaking the truth that orients the lives of so many of us, and yet which seems - at times, mostly - unspeakable in the Academy, or perhaps unintelligible to the institutional Powers That Be. I was not prepared by the response to my tweets, though. In the blunt metrics of RTs and likes, and citations of the thread, and in the way people reached out to me personally. The nerve I hit, it runs through the collective body that is the Academy, composed of the bundle of fibers - of individual bodies - of the Academy’s subjects, of scholars with bodies and lives that so often stray outside of the lines of what is deemed a coherent academic blueprint. The nerve lies in my body, your body, the diverse body of our communities. That my tweets caused our nerve(s) to fire so sharply is a sign of our body(ies) reacting to stimulus, of our body(ies) communicating.
Pain can be protective: nerves fire in response to a damaging stimulus, warning us of its destructive nature. The hand arcs away from the hot plate, pre-reflexively, as soon as the brain registers the blistering heat, before our reasoning kicks in. This is “good” pain, acute pain. But there’s also the “bad” kind of pain, the chronic pain that just is, the sensory misfiring which becomes the incurable status quo. The response to my tweets, then, I hope it is the “good” kind of pain. One which, when voiced, demonstrates how widespread the systemic dysfunction of the Academy is, how emphatically that dysfunction harms scholars. A pain which we can alleviate, together, by acknowledging and then removing the damaging stimuli, thereby remaking the Academy anew.