Online Madness and the academic mind
This week there was a massive dust up among medievalists on twitter. I won't get into all the details because it’s complicated, but involves a spiked book review, accusations of racism, and a broader discussion of who gets to write about what. (It was covered by the Blocked and Reported podcast and even made it to the New York Times). The contentious review essay is here.
It’s hardly the first digital slap fight among academics, but it reflects the way Twitter has become the sphere for scholars to hash out disputes and also to lash out with abuse. These disputes are often the wedge for cancel-culture campaigns, with public denunciations and disavowals from third parties (the current fight contained all of these, plus at least one non-apology apology, an actually-sorry apology that wasn’t enough, blaming people for who follows them on twitter, and some pretty nasty insults thrown around).
And all these academic brouhahas fit the description Jesse Singal gave here
But really, a lot of the time (though certainly not always), these dumb blowups are just about intraelite squabbling, about people who are already in privileged situations in life jockeying to improve their position and take down their enemies.
Of course academic disputes have always been intra-elite affairs. What’s changed is that they’re now among people who don't feel elite, who feel underpaid and overlooked and for whom social media is the best way to get some affirmation. They’re so intense because we’re fighting over scraps, the job market is moribund, and it really is a zero sum game. The intensity of the contest results in some people scamming their way to the top of the identity pile, it also motivates rivals to sniff out these cases and expose them.
If I have a grievance against someone else, I could write a carefully sourced article shredding their scholarship, submit it to a journal, go through multiple rounds of revision and wait for it to come out in three years.
Or I could go on twitter and say that my rival is a scumbag right now. Just writing Professor Whomever is a shitheel would get me some immediate likes and retweets: because it's funny and people like to see other people swear on twitter. Many of those engaging wouldn’t be invested beyond watching the latest social media sideshow.
But these fights give the impression of academics on twitter as a bunch of prigs and scolds. Hashtag posturing and snide takedowns are the currency. Depressingly, it’s revealed how many of our colleagues really are self-righteous and dickish. These twitter pile-ons usually involve people I've never met, and having seen their online antics, never wish to.
The nature of online discourse is that it involves people charging onto FB or twitter after their second Chardonnay and saying things they wouldn’t say to someone’s face. That’s hardly limited to academia, but the challenges of being an academic wanting to communicate with the public (or loftily position oneself as a “public intellectual”) is that twitter or Medium ends up being the venue.
A few years ago I reviewed Erika Milam’s Creatures of Cain, a book about debates in human and societal evolution in the 1960s. As I noted then, those scholars were operating in public in a way few of us do now.
Their books were published by commercial presses; they appeared on TV; the debate played out not just in Nature but in the letters page of Playboy.
Academia’s evolving relationship with mainstream publishing is part of the problem. In my field, modern history, big names of decades ago would publish their magnum opus with a mainstream press, and an expected public readership (while many tenured scholars didn’t write books at all).
Today’s promotion/tenure/grant committees are ambivalent about trade presses, especially for first books, even as the pressure to publish overall has ratcheted ever upwards. The medievalist dispute related to precisely this boundary policing: that a book for general audiences could be criticized for not being an academic book with footnotes—and not engaging at a scholarly level in a book not intended for scholars.
So we must write for each other, in academic books with a press run of 300, to have any chance of employment. While also eyeing enviously the bestseller list and hoping that our next book might be with Penguin—even believing that building a profile through social media threads might be the way to get there.