The Teachable Moment: The Bullying Moment

For academics, twitter is a world of pretend.

Undergraduate students “follow” senior professors; graduate students try to make that elusive “connection” with “stars”; and junior faculty try to impress “influential” people. All of this accords with an idea we’d like to have of education as open, welcoming, friendly. In the absence of bodies and offices and titles, ideas can be judged on their merits no matter where they come from.

It’s a nice fantasy.

It doesn’t work because the power flows remain the same: the gaze is directed upward, the attention directed to those “who matter.” Apart from very few examples I can think of, the illusion of reciprocity is precisely an illusion. A “favorite” is a click of a button; a “rt” is another click of a button; “stars” and “seniors” “favorite” moments when their work is mentioned favorably, scold when it’s mentioned unfavorably, and hector when they believe it’s misunderstood.

And just as in classrooms, in departments, at department meetings, and at conferences, those in subordinate positions sit back, keep quiet, re-learn their place in the hierarchy they thought was done, disengage. Realize, sadly, that it’s dangerous to believe in fantasies. Those of us lucky to have powerful friends and allies rely on them for support. We find, thankfully, that they will defend our ideas, defend our characters, defend our intentions. Not all of us are so lucky.

I write this as someone in the strange between-ness of power and powerlessness: the power of a tenure-track job at a recognizable institution that is not an Ivy. The relative powerlessness of being untenured. The power of masculinity, no matter how threadbare its suit. The relative powerlessness of race. The ambivalent powers of queerness and nationality.

Academic twitter might require a tagline.

Twitter: Tread lightly. Even here there are minefields.