If You Can’t Say Anything Nice

Folks, we need to have a conversation. About Twitter. And generosity. And public shaming.

First let me note that I have been as guilty of what I’m about to describe as anyone. You get irritated by something — something someone said or didn’t say, something that doesn’t work the way you want it to — you toss off a quick complaint, and you link to the offender so that they see it. You’re in a hurry, you’ve only got so much space, and (if you’re being honest with yourself) you’re hoping that your followers will agree with your complaint, or find it funny, or that it will otherwise catch their attention enough to be RT’d.

I’ve done this, probably more times than I want to admit, without even thinking about it. But I’ve also been on the receiving end of this kind of public insult a few times, and I’m here to tell you, it sucks.

I am not going to suggest in what follows that there’s no room for critique, even on Twitter, and that we all ought to just join hands and express our wish for the ability to teach the world to sing. But I do want to argue that there is a significant difference between thoughtful public critique and thoughtless public shaming. And if we don’t know the difference, we — as a community of scholars working together online, whose goals are ostensibly trying to make the world a more thoughtful place — need to figure it out, and fast.

There are two problems working in confluence here, as far as I can tell. One is about technological affordances: Twitter’s odd mixture of intimacy and openness — the feeling that you’re talking to your friends when (usually, at least) anyone could be listening in — combined with the flippancy that often results from enforced, performative brevity too frequently produces a kind of critique that veers toward the snippy, the rude, the ad hominem.

The other problem is academia. As David Damrosch has pointed out in another context, “In anthropological terms, academia is more of a shame culture than a guilt culture.” Damrosch means to indicate that academics are more likely to respond to shame, or the suggestion that they are a bad person, than to guilt, or the indication that they have done a bad thing. And he’s not wrong: we all live with guilt — about blown deadlines or dropped promises — all the time, and we so we eventually become a bit inured to it. But shame — being publicly shown up as having failed, in a way that makes evident that we are failures — gets our attention. That, as Damrosch notes, is something we’ll work to avoid.

And yet, it’s also something that we’re more than willing to dole out to one another. There’s a significant body of research out there — some of my favorite of it comes from BrenĂ© Brown — that demonstrates the profound damage that shame does not only to the individual but to all of the kinds of relationships that make up our culture. Not least among that damage is that, while a person who feels guilty often tries to avoid the behavior that produced the feeling, a person who feels shame too often responds by shaming others.

So, we’ve got on the one hand a technology that allows us, if we’re not mindful of how we’re using it, to lash out hastily — and publicly — at other people, for the amusement or derision of our followers, and on the other hand, a culture that too often encourages us to throw off whatever shame we feel by shaming others.

Frankly, I’ve grown a little tired of it. I’ve been withdrawing from Twitter a bit over the last several months, and it’s taken me a while to figure out that this is why. I am feeling frayed by the in-group snark, by the use of Twitter as a first line of often incredibly rude complaints about products or services, by the one-upsmanship and the put-downs. But on the other hand, I find myself missing all of the many positive aspects of the community there — the real generosity, the great sense of humor, the support, the engagement, the liveliness. Those are all way more predominant than the negative stuff, and yet the negative stuff has disproportional impact, looming way larger than it should.

So what I’m hoping is to start a conversation about how we might maximize those positive aspects of Twitter, and move away from the shame culture that it’s gotten tied to. How can we begin to consider whether there are better means of addressing complaints than airing them in public? How can we develop modes of public critique that are rigorous and yet respectful? How can we remain aware that there are people on the other end of those @mentions who are deserving of the same kinds of treatment — and subject to the same kinds of pain — that we are?

“Neoliberal”

I have come to despise the term “neoliberal,” to the extent that I’d really like to see it stricken from academic vocabularies everywhere. It’s less that I have a problem with the actual critique that the term is meant to levy than with the utterly sloppy and nearly always casually derisive way in which the term is of late being thrown about.1 “Neoliberal” is hardly ever used these days to point to instances of the elevation of market values above all others — it’s used to tar anything that has anything to do with any market realities whatsoever. Which, hello, United States, 2012. Welcome.

So to say, for instance, that the university-in-general is a neoliberal institution is to say precisely nothing. Name me one contemporary institution — seriously, an actual institution — that isn’t. Including every last one of us. None of us got to live in the places we live or study in the places we study or read on the freaking internet without market realities giving us the wherewithal to do so.2

To say, on the other hand, that some universities are more beholden to market values than others — that some have made a value of the market, to the extent that they bear only the market in mind, and precious little else — and have therefore acquiesced all too willingly to the pressures of neoliberalism, actually might mean something. As it might to say that, for instance, having marketability as our only indicator of the value of scholarship or a scholar’s work represents a neoliberal corruption of the critical project in which we as scholars are ostensibly engaged. But that’s no longer how “neoliberal” is being used, at least in my hearing. It’s instead become a blanket term of dismissal, often aimed at institutions that do not have means of fixing the inequities by which we’re beset, inequities that are way larger than any university, even the university-in-general, can take on without serious support coming from somewhere.

So no more. “Neoliberal” is henceforth dead to me. I will take seriously no more casual statements that toss it around like popcorn, no further arguments that rely on it without any sense of specificity or grounding.

(And as for the tendency to associate anything that involves a computer automatically and of necessity with neoliberalism? Don’t even get me started.3)

Moving On

I somewhat inadvertently made a big announcement via Twitter last night, and in so doing, as my friend Julie pointed out, sorta buried the lede. So here’s the story, a bit better presented:

Effective the end of this academic year, I’ve resigned my professorship at Pomona College.

This came out last night when @atrubek tweeted a query, seeking professors who’ve given up tenure. My friend @wynkenhimself mentioned me in response, but noted that she wasn’t sure if I was on leave or not. So I clarified.

In fact, I resigned a couple of weeks ago (the day Sandy hit, to be precise, but that’s another story), though I’d made the decision a while before. It wasn’t an easy choice to make — and it was even harder to communicate — but I’m convinced that it was the right one.

I was promoted to full professor at Pomona in Spring 2010, and so was pretty much set. I had amazing students, fabulous colleagues, a fantastic environment, and all the support I needed. I had a low teaching load in a dynamic, exciting department, and I was able to do roughly what I wanted within it. I could very easily have retired from Pomona, some years hence, and have been more or less perfectly happy.

But then this opportunity came along, to take the things I’d been imagining and help make them happen, to take the things I’d been trying on a small scale and test them out on a much, much larger one. That opportunity, however, required a bit of risk; risk somewhat carefully managed, to be sure — Pomona generously offered me a two-year leave of absence in order to test the waters — but risk nonetheless. I knew that at some moment, if I took this path, I was likely to have to consider what it would mean to give up tenure.

When the opportunity first floated my way about a year and a half ago, I found myself a bit overwhelmed by the implications of the choice. Tenure is, after all, the brass ring of academia, the thing so many of us put so much energy into getting — and I had it, right in my hand. Not just tenure, but a reasonably cushy, reasonably compensated full professorship at a top institution. And what I was being offered was extremely compelling, but it bore some significant risks. How do you even begin to ponder the pros-and-cons list that helps you make a decision like this?

I called a friend, who sat down with me and listened to my story. This was a friend who’d recently left the tenure track, for a very different set of reasons, but who nonetheless knew what it all meant. And I sketched out the possibilities for her, and asked where to start. What things should I be thinking about?

And she looked at me and said, “I don’t know. Do you want to change the world?”

And I think the choice was sealed, right there.

This is of course not to say that one can’t change the world from inside the protections of tenure. But I do think that those protections often encourage a certain kind of caution — certainly in the process of obtaining them, and frequently continuing long after — that works against the kinds of calculated risk that a chance like this requires.

So I’ve done the calculation, and I’ve taken the leap. And so far, it’s been absolutely exhilarating. Working with my wonderful colleagues at the MLA has been an important growth experience, and it continues to teach me new things. And it’s allowed me to focus on the aspects of my work that have always been about outreach. We’ve accomplished a lot here in the last year-plus, but there’s so much more left to be done; I’m thrilled to have the chance — and to be able to take the chance — to do it.

My somewhat subterranean announcement last night — or at least so I thought it — produced a pretty astonishing response, an overflow of cheers and congratulations rippling out from the friends who follow both me and @atrubek to others who saw those tweets and offered their good wishes, too. It was a lovely moment of confirmation that I’ve done the right thing, and a vote of confidence in a future filled with productive risk.

I will miss Pomona tremendously, and my many wonderful colleagues there. But I look forward to seeing what comes next — and honestly, not knowing may well be the best part.

Advice on Academic Blogging, Tweeting, Whatever

Over the weekend, something hashtagged as #twittergate was making the rounds among the tweeps. I haven’t dug into the full history (though Adeline storyfied it), but the debate has raised questions about a range of forms of conference reporting, and as a result, posts and columns both old and new exploring the risks and rewards of scholarly blogging have been making the rounds. Last night sometime, Adeline asked me what advice I have for junior faculty who get caught in conference blogging kerfuffles – which I take as standing in for a range of conflicts that can arise between those who are active users of various kinds of social media and those who are less familiar and less comfortable with the new modes of communicating.

This was far too big a question to take on in 140 characters, and I didn’t want to issue a knee-jerk response. I’m still piecing together my thoughts, so this post will no doubt evolve, either in the comments or in future posts. But here are a few initial thoughts:

1. Do not let dust-ups such as these stop you from blogging/tweeting/whatever. These modes of direct scholar-to-scholar communication are increasingly important, and if you’ve found community in them, you should work to maintain it. (And if you’re looking for better connections to the folks in your field or better visibility for your work and you aren’t using these channels, you should seriously consider them.)

2. Listen carefully to these debates, though, as they will tell you something important about your field and the folks in it. If there are folks on Twitter who are saying that they are less than comfortable with some of its uses, or if there are blog posts exploring the ups and downs of blogging, you might want to pay attention. There’s a lot to be learned from these points of tension in any community.

3. Use your blog/twitter/whatever professionally. This ought to be completely obvious, of course, but the key here is to really think through what professional use means in an academic context. In our more formal writing, we’re extremely careful to distinguish between our own arguments and the ideas of others — between our interpretation of what someone else has said and the conclusions that we go on to draw — and we have clear textual signals that mark those distinctions. Such distinctions can and should exist in social media as well: if you’re live-tweeting a presentation, you should attribute ideas to the speaker but simultaneously make clear that the tweets are your interpretation of what’s being said. The same for blogging. The point is that none of these channels are unmediated by human perspective. They’re not directly transmitting what the speaker is saying to a broader audience. And the possibilities for misunderstanding — is this something the speaker said, or your response to it? — are high. Bringing the same kinds of scrupulousness to blogging and tweeting that we bring to formal writing are is key. [Edited 12.55pm. Bad English professor!]

4. Make your tweets and blog posts your own. As I understand it, some of the concern about the tweeting and blogging of conference papers has to do with intellectual property concerns; does a blog post about a presentation undermine the claims of the speaker to the material? The answer is of course not, but if you want to avoid conflict around such IP issues, ensure that your posts focus on your carefully signalled responses to the talk, rather than on the text of the talk itself. This is the same mode in which we do all of our work — taking in and responding to the arguments of others — and it should be recognizable as such.

5. If somebody says they’d prefer not to be tweeted or blogged, respect that. Whatever your feelings about the value of openness — and openness ranks very high among my academic values — not everyone shares them. While I have a hard time imagining giving a talk that I didn’t wish more people could hear, I know there are other scholars who are less comfortable with the broadcast of in-process material. And while I might like to nudge them toward more openness, it’s neither my place nor is it worth the potential bad feeling to do so.

And finally:

6. Relax. People are going to freak out about the things they’re going to freak out about. If you’re working in a new field, or in alternative forms — if you’re really pushing at the boundaries of scholarly work in the ways that you should — somebody’s not going to like it. Always. The thing to do is to make your argument as professionally as you can, to demonstrate the value of the ways that you’re working — and then to get back to work. Doing your work well, and being able to show how your work is paying off, are the point.

That’s what I’ve got at the moment. What am I missing?

Two Things

One super-depressing (not least for how close to home it hits):

Imagine a small, developing country of perhaps 3 million people. Like many other small developing countries, our imaginary nation is rich in natural resources, its economy has prospered on the export of agricultural crops and benefited from the revenue generated by petroleum production, refining, and support services. Its history, like some of its counterparts in the developing world, reflects a constant structural economic weakness covered by a colorful culture, truly creative and charming people, and an often dramatic sequence of past events. Civil wars, civilian uprisings, and the failure to compete with more dynamic and successful nations have left our country with a small, wealthy, interbred, and interconnected elite, a growing entrepreneurial middle class, and a large much less prosperous population of rural residents and urban poor.

Riven by cultural conflicts generations old and struggling with an archaic political system, the country periodically falls into the hands of populist demagogues and petty tyrants. In between, often when prosperity strikes, the country’s significant group of responsible leaders seeks to enhance legal and institutional structures to improve its ability to attract and retain internationally competitive economic enterprises, but the periods of responsible leadership fade fast, and the nation reverts to a pattern of clientele government, backroom deals, and populist rhetoric.

Over all, its population remains significantly less educated relative to its peers in nearby nations, although a structure of incentives and subsidies support good education for the children of the growing middle class and the political and economic elite. Other groups of citizens struggle through underfunded and inadequate schools, and those who survive often find themselves excluded from post-secondary opportunities by weak academic preparation and high cost….

One which gives me hope:

We believe in the power of the Internet to foster innovation, research, and education. Requiring the published results of taxpayer-funded research to be posted on the Internet in human and machine readable form would provide access to patients and caregivers, students and their teachers, researchers, entrepreneurs, and other taxpayers who paid for the research. Expanding access would speed the research process and increase the return on our investment in scientific research…

Go sign onto the latter. And if you live in the “small, developing country” of the former, speak up, and prevent the populist demagogues and petty tyrants from undoing the programs and services its people deserve.

Open Access at 10

I’m really happy (if mildly tired) to be writing from Budapest, where (like Cameron) I’m honored to participate in a meeting on the tenth anniversary of the Budapest Open Access Initiative. It was this gathering, ten years ago, that gave a name to the growing sense that the content produced as a result of scholarly research can and should circulate freely in the age of the Internet. We’ve come together to discuss what’s been learned over the last decade, as well as the directions for the next decade.

As I told someone yesterday, I’m simultaneously surprised that it’s already been ten years and that it’s only been ten years; the discussions that took place in Budapest a decade ago have had such an impact that it seems at one and the same time as if their ideas have always been in circulation and as if they have only just been introduced.

Needless to say, it’s auspicious that this anniversary meeting is taking place at a moment of widespread discussion about the value of public access to the products of scholarly research. Personally, I’m also thrilled that this discussion broadly recognizes the value of such open circulation of the products of humanities research as well as that of the sciences, and that there is serious consideration being given to the particular challenges that different subsets of the academy face in the transition toward more open models of communication.

I’ll hope to report more thoughts as the meeting progresses, and will look forward to bringing what I learn back with me, as we continue thinking through the future of scholarly communication in the humanities.

Response to Stanley Fish

I’ve just posted the following response to Stanley Fish’s comments about my book; they should be up once they’re moderated through. In the interim, and for the sake of keeping this comment visible long after it’s drowned in a sea of commenter crankiness, here’s what I said:

This is a fascinating discussion of the shifts taking place in scholarly communication today; thanks to Prof. Fish for his exploration of new digital modes of scholarship. I’m honored that he’s engaged with my book so avidly and want to add a few brief thoughts to this conversation.

First, as several have noted, the project went through an open peer review process, and remains available online. The print version serves a key role, however, as a form of reverse compatibility with those in the academy who have not yet made the transition to networked reading.

But I want to note that I don’t entirely believe that “long-form scholarship… needs the interdependent notions of author, text, and originality.” Rather, I believe that scholarship circulates through a particular interpretive community, a concept I draw from Prof. Fish’s important intervention into assumptions about the fixed nature of texts and meanings. To this point, that interpretive community has relied on notions like originality to give meaning to its communications. I do not argue that these things are going away in the digital age, only that they are changing, as the interpretive community of scholars changes.

There is much resistance to such change from those in established interpretive communities. But changes are underway, and it is crucial for all scholars today — not just those working in new forms, but also those hiring and promoting them — to understand how new forms create new kinds of engagement.

Hey, Why the Silence?

So, you may have noticed that there’s a significant gap in the archives here, roughly corresponding with the summer. And you may have asked yourself, gee, is kfitz on vacation?

Not exactly.

The period of my absence roughly corresponds to the period during which:

1. I flew from New York to California, and began the process of weeding out my stuff, getting rid of about half of it, packing up the other half, and shipping it to New York, while also figuring out how to get two cats moved, selling my car, and preparing my condo to be rented out. And then flying back to New York and packing up my sabbatical studio and moving that stuff into my new apartment, and then waiting for the California stuff to arrive and unpacking and settling in.

And then:

2. I started a new job, at the Modern Language Association, leading the new office of scholarly communication.

Anyone who has started a new job recently, much less one that’s actually a pretty serious change of career path in disguise, will recognize that though item 1 sounds more exhausting, item 2 has been much bigger and more stressful. The vast majority of that stress has been of a very positive sort: I’m in a fantastic new environment, learning amazing new things and getting to work in really productive, collaborative ways with wonderfully supportive colleagues. Nonetheless, I go home at the end of the day with my brain stuffed to bursting with new thoughts and possibilities, daunted by the need to figure out what’s been going on in the organization for the last 40 years (and why) and by the enormous, exciting, important charge I’ve been given in thinking about its future.

Part of what’s kept me so quiet, both here and (to some extent) on Twitter has, in other words, been a little bit of exhaustion; most of the time when I haven’t been actively working, I’ve found myself lying on my sofa, recharging in preparation for the next day’s work. It’s fantastic work, but this much learning takes a lot of energy. And while it’s true that I probably spend fewer total hours working than I did as a professor, almost all of those hours are spent in my office, dressed like a grownup, at minimum available to talk with other dressed-like-grownups people and a seriously high percentage of the time in actual meetings with them. The change from spending a huge number of my working hours alone in my home, not having to talk to anyone, cannot be underestimated. All that learning, and all that collaboration, has left me feeling as though I’ve done all the communicating I need to do.

But there’s been another change, one that’s more subtle but perhaps more important, one that I’m still trying to sort out how to manage. As a tenured professor, I operated wholly protected by principles of academic freedom. Not only was I able to speak my mind, but I was expected to do so. And the costs of expressing a controversial or — heaven forfend — incorrect opinion were fairly low: somebody would pipe up in the comments and tell me I’m full of beans; I would either agree or not; life would march on. Because, as a faculty member, it was understood that I never spoke for anyone other than myself.

Now, however, that line is blurred. When I write here, or post on Twitter, or speak at a conference, am I writing or posting or speaking for myself, or for the MLA? Even if I issue a disclaimer, can my own position ever be fully separated from that of the organization? The risks involved in my expressing an obnoxious or wrong opinion are just that much higher: someone, somewhere, will note my title and will pass on that the MLA has taken that position.

It’s an extraordinary benefit and a huge responsibility: when I speak, I am supported by the weight of an enormous and important organization. But I also carry that weight, and every time I open my mouth, it has seemed to me, I run the risk of creating trouble for the organization. I am, in ways I have not previously had to be, responsible for something larger than myself.

After having given it a lot of thought, however, I’ve decided that I need to relaunch my public presence; the benefits to the MLA of having my voice out here, arguing on behalf of change in scholarly communication, are far too important to let slip — even when I’m wrong; even when I float an idea that everyone hates. Maybe even especially then, because I need to hear back why I’m wrong, why everyone hates my idea, what alternative directions I should consider.

So, with the blessings of my awesome boss (hi, rgfeal!), I’m starting back up here again. And I hope that I’ll be able to post (way) more frequently than I have lately, to think through some of the things that I’m learning and the questions that the organization is facing as we move increasingly into the digital.

So that it’s been said: Opinions expressed on this blog are my own, and no one else’s but my own. I’m entirely responsible for them, for better or for worse.

That having been said: the move is done, and the transition has settled down. Let the communication resume.

Moves and Updates

The news is starting to make its way out there: I’m thrilled to announce that I’ll be joining the Modern Language Association this July as the Director of Scholarly Communication. In this role, I’ll be leading a new office that will expand upon the existing book publications program, exploring new modes of publishing and exchange in order to support the changing needs of MLA members in the twenty-first century.

Pomona College, where I’ve been a member of the faculty for the last thirteen years, has generously granted me a leave of absence in order to explore this opportunity. My feeling is that it’s an extraordinary opportunity not just for me but for the profession at large — the MLA, which has been a leader in addressing the changes facing the academy today, will be thinking head-on about the future of scholarly publishing, supporting member initiatives and experiments and helping to shape the vibrant and creative ways that scholars will be communicating in the coming years.

There’s lots to be done before I get started — not least, moving to New York early this summer — but I’ll look forward to exploring the possibilities for this new office and its programs as we go forward.