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“Been feeling pretty glum about academia recently,” a colleague tweeted recently. “Can be so toxic.”

University faculty don’t have to worry about a lot of workplace hazards: for example, the physical costs of toiling in a factory, and or the risks of being exposed to COVID-19 on the job, like front-line workers.

Still, academia can be a cruel and unforgiving place. We suffer political attacks from the right, exemplified by the recent bans on critical race theory. Yet while we’re fighting to protect ourselves from governors, state legislatures, and conservative media attacks, let us also reflect on the ways we demean one another—and what we can do about it.

I’m not talking about spirited criticism. Scholars in the social sciences and humanities are trained to be critical thinkers, and disagreeing is one way of advancing knowledge. As graduate students, we learn our craft by reading the work of others and learning to dissect the work of those who came before us. We define ourselves as intellectuals by making arguments that draw upon existing scholarship (otherwise known as “the literature”) and then we move beyond it, offering new ways of understanding the world.

To be successful, a scholar must develop a thick skin. The pressures to produce are unrelenting, and rejections (by funding agencies, conference gatekeepers, journal editors, and the like) are more common than not. And then there is the intellectual jousting, the quest to make a name and differentiate oneself by plunging into arguments, disagreement, and controversy.

This is all fair. And while academic debates can get heated, scholarly norms have long functioned to tamp down nastiness. Book reviews in academic journals tend to shy away from attack mode, often bending over backward to praise, even as they slip in a few criticisms along the way. Anonymous peer reviews can be brutal at times, something that particularly affects younger faculty who must publish or perish. Yet, most of us are pretty good about keeping personal vendettas out of our evaluations of others.

However, the growing use of social media by academics has, for some time, profoundly altered scholarly culture and challenged these norms. Yes, it has democratized academic networks, and made it easier for anyone to promote their ideas. In our book Going Public: A Guide for Social Scientists, Jessie Daniels and I sing the praises of social media for academics who wish to join new intellectual conversations and promote their work.

But there are a variety of recognizable tensions that are normally controlled in a campus setting that erupt in the digital sphere. Your Facebook friends’ continuous reminder of all the books they’ve published, and the fellowships they’ve secured, can be a bit off-putting when they pop up in your feed (particularly if you are a disappointed applicant!)

Much more egregious, however, is the growing tendency of academics to use the internet to weaponize, and personalize, their criticism of one another. For example, a recent social media review of my book Unbound: Transgender Men and the Remaking of Identity (2018) proclaims that “This book is a dated analysis. Upon reading, I had to double-check the publication to make sure this wasn’t published in the 1960s (it was published in 2018),” my critic mused; “it reads like a novice who just started talking to trans people as she was writing the book.”

Ouch. Even the hardiest among us will have trouble navigating the thickets of online reviews such as this—not to mention fears that such statements may turn off other potential readers.

Social media puts a premium on the well-constructed snark: taking someone down is the goal, and when it is done right on a platform like Twitter, virality can make an unknown person instantly famous. The ability to toss off an attack without immediate consequences has created an environment that is less like academic criticism than a hit-and-run blood sport.

Those who write about certain groups are at greater risk for what literary critic Eve Sedgwick called “paranoid readings” of our work. In this “hermeneutics of suspicion,” Sedgwick argued, critics anticipate that a text will perpetuate, for example, racism, sexism, or transphobia, and then attempt to “unmask” those oppressive subtexts. 

Personally, I write because I want to be a part of broader conversations, because I want to learn new things, and because I want to help make a place in intellectual life for underrepresented groups. I don’t expect others to genuflect in my direction because of my seniority as a sociologist, and I don’t expect all readers to love everything I write. I’m happy to engage different perspectives—but I also don’t want my history as a scholar and my expertise to be considered a strike against me.

In the case of my book, the “reviewer” is a second-year graduate student in sociology, studying in the very department I taught in for seven years during my early career. If we met in the classroom, I imagine we might be able to have a reasonable discussion about the book, and even agree to disagree about aspects of my approach.

But in online book reviews, there’s rarely if ever an opportunity for authors to be a part of the discussion—and when we are, it seems defensive and equally cruel.

Yes, social media democratizes intellectual discussion, but it also tends to flatten it, making all voices equivalent. It elevates new voices. But it also makes one’s accomplishments, track record, and prior work suddenly matter very little. And when the old norms and guardrails no longer moderate debate, people can easily use the internet to shame, intimidate and ostracize others in the name of criticism. Asserting authority by taking down others is even a form of branding.

This dynamic is not unique to scholarly circles, of course. Natalie Wynn, a video essayist, activist, and outspoken advocate for trans rights, became the subject of a campaign to cancel her when she used a voice-over from Buck Angel, a transgender man who often questions trans orthodoxies. Social media, Wynn says, has spawned a kind of purism in which communities are encouraged to “detect the signs of heresy” and mobilize public opinion to root them out.

It’s worth noting that this is the kind of thing that can also happen in person, although usually without drawing outsiders to the community into a debate that they know nothing about. Before the Internet, and cancel culture, we used to call this “trashing.” Trashing,  feminist activist Jo Freeman once wrote, “is not done to expose disagreements or resolve differences. It is done to disparage and destroy.” Shulamith Firestone coined the phrase “sisterhood is powerful.” But as Firestone’s friend, Ti-Grace Atkinson, once quipped: “Sisterhood is powerful. It kills sisters. In fact, we fight because we’re not powerful enough.”

Second-wave feminists may have been prone to trashing one another because they lacked power. Similarly, today’s feminists, queer theorists and activists, although more likely to be situated in universities than their feminist foremothers were, may nevertheless also feel just as marginalized. The academic job market is pretty miserable, it is getting worse, and its cruelties disproportionately affect women and minoritized groups.

Those anxieties are increasing. In a post-Covid America where universities are cutting back, and tenured positions are more and more difficult to land, graduate students and younger scholars are staring into the unknown. They often see those of us who are riding into our golden years with security as privileged in ways they will never be, and those resentments spill out into the digital public sphere.

Though the insecurities are real, the anger is misplaced. Could senior scholars be doing more to resist academic restructuring and the destruction of tenure, and to protect nontenured faculty? Absolutely. But we also need a frank discussion about how to create an atmosphere of mutual respect at a time when old norms are being challenged.

So where to start? On an individual level, we could all practice a little more empathy. Before you press “send” on that academic take-down, think to yourself: how would you feel if you were on the receiving end of that review or snarky jab?

After the colleague whose words inspired this essay tweeted about rising toxicity, he posed a question to the Twittersphere: “Can y’all remind me of the good stuff?” A stream of suggestions followed. “Doing research that one is passionate about,” one colleague wrote. “Watching students learn and grow and be recognized for their awesomeness,” said another. A third offered: “Creativity, inspiration, autonomy, teaching, flexibility, lifelong learning!”

But also, senior scholars might consider engaging, encouraging, and making spontaneous connections to younger scholars. If you don’t already do so, think about sending notes to someone who has given a particularly nice conference presentation; and to those whose books you’ve read and appreciated—even if you’ve never met them.

While this doesn’t address the structural issues that contribute to toxicity– for that we need to build strong faculty unions–it models a less combative mode of exchange, one that might, in turn, help us create a culture of solidarity to support the difficult work we all do.

Arlene Stein is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University, where she directs the Institute for Research on Women.


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