My brother started his career in the corporate world, moved into human resources, and then made the switch to Legal Aid. Recently he got a job in academic administration. Even though we'd grown up with professor parents, I suspected he had no idea what he was in for.
My best advice to help him understand academe was that he read various Web sites and blogs on higher education. I didn't mean the reported articles, opinion pieces, advice columns, or blog posts, though of course all of those would provide good information and insight. No, I told him, if you want to get a bead on the academy, read the anonymous online comments.
There you can find, in full and flamboyant flower, all that is good about contemporary life in universities. You see people passionate about ideas, thinking on the (electronic) page, responding to and pushing forward the arguments of others. In the comments section you find nuanced critiques: well-written mini-essays that are so smart, and often funny, that you sometimes wish they were longer. You see generous sharing of best practices in the classrooms by teachers who truly care about their students and are looking for ways to improve and to help others.
Read the comments section and you'll come to understand you're not alone if you move for a job to a town that you can't learn to love, or if you sometimes struggle to keep your cool during long and windy committee meetings. You'll find a big and expansive community and think: So this is what it's like to have great colleagues, people who've chosen to forsake money, prestige, and power in order to live in a world where being a nerd is cool.
But that is, unfortunately, not all you will find in the comments. You'll also find the haters.
And they are everywhere. Nasty online comments, cyberbullying, and Twitter wars are a vexing and familiar part of daily life. Even on the comments pages of clothing catalogs and in the help forums for computer woes, you will see people chime in with personal and ugly attacks. Along with the many gifts brought to us by the Web, it has also allowed people who previously had no access to the communicative reins of power to scream from their (still powerless) rooftops.
As an editor at Oxford and Duke University Presses, I encountered few trolls. Maybe that's because nearly everyone I met was in some measure successful. They were doing research and, if they were talking to me, were well on their way to publishing. I saw little of the academic horror stories I read in David Lodge novels and other dysphoric fictional portraits of higher education. Though the reader's reports I commissioned from experts in various fields could be critical, rarely were they unkind or intemperate. The authors didn't know the identity of the readers, but I did. Maybe that kept down the level of nastiness, or maybe the civility was a by-product of using confident reviewers with secure positions, but it seemed amazing that for so little real-world currency, established scholars would devote such intellectual capital toward evaluating the projects of other, often more junior, researchers.
Perhaps my rosy view of academic civility was due to my own naïveté and privileged position as an editor. But now, after working as a faculty foot soldier and writing for publications in higher education, my perception has changed.
Academics are not the only anonymous online bile-spewers, but they may be the most multisyllabically, source-referencingly verbose. Something in me wants people with advanced educations to be better than the lugheads who write the barely intelligible nasty anonymous comments on other sites. I dream, with an innocence I cling to, that academics can be better than the teens who bully each other into depression and suicide. I want our students to see us as examples—not only of how to write and how to argue, but of how to behave.
And in fact, I am frequently struck by how smart and legitimate the critiques are. At times I feel the conversations in the comments are more important than the essay to which they are responding. It can be an arena of real intellectual exchange. I wonder, though, if there's something peculiar about the way academics argue. Someone recently reminded me about an old New Yorker cartoon that shows half a dozen hominids circled around. One says, "This meeting has been called to discuss the meat. It has been pointed out that there is no more meat. A motion has been made to fight over the bones." Online commenters often seem to squabble because they're poised to squabble. They can't help it.
Is it because when resources are scarce in academe, we can expect bitterness to bloat like bread dough?
The "two cultures" of academe used to refer to the sciences and the humanities. Is the great divide now between the haves and the have-nots—those with the T-word in their job description and those who are "contingent"? Many of the most scathing comments seem to be from Ph.D.'s who are unable to get the jobs they want. I don't blame them for being upset; the job market stinks. But I do wish they could find a more productive outlet for their energy and anger than their fellow Ph.D.'s who got lucky enough to find a tenure-track job.
The tone—OMG the tone! If only the literate folks who contribute comments to Web sites, especially academic ones, would keep their criticism sharp and temper the tone. Surely they are more careful when they respond to their students' work. Why be less civil and thoughtful when engaging with colleagues? Why not follow the rhetorical advice we give our apprentices? That is, you need to make a fair and well-reasoned argument if you want anyone to pay attention to you.
Maybe people who post vitriolic comments are those whose careers haven't worked out as they had planned. Maybe the comments section is stacked with graduate students, who, in their overworked, disenfranchised state, can seem perpetually angry and are still learning norms of professional behavior. Maybe more reasonable and less angry readers move along without leaving a trace and thus the discussion can tilt toward those eager to express resentment and outrage. Maybe the anonymous online comments are so ugly because no one has to take responsibility or suffer consequences for what they write.
I understand the reasons behind anonymous readers' reports, but I never write anything unless I'm prepared to sign my name. In order to participate in the peer-review process, you have to have done something that makes you a peer; you have to have verifiable chops in the field. If people had to post under their real names the level of discourse would rise and little of value would be lost. Comments like "Grow up!" or "You need help!" might disappear. Petty, personal battles between commenters might not go on for so many posts. Perhaps the challenge is to write as if your identity will be known, even if you choose to use a pseudonym.
Nearly 10 years ago a computer glitch on Amazon revealed the identity of anonymous reviewers. The results were sadly predictable. Prominent authors were giving themselves five-star reviews, and personal axes were being ground. We might expect bad behavior from those wacky artists. They can be oh-so-flighty and temperamental; they have passions. In an interview about the flap, the author Jonathan Franzen said, "When I've been tempted to write a nasty review online, I have never had attractive motives."
Maybe that's it: It's human, all too human, to hate. In his 1823 essay, "On the Pleasure of Hating," William Hazlitt wrote: "The pleasure of hating, like a poisonous mineral, eats into the heart of religion, and turns it to rankling spleen and bigotry; it makes patriotism an excuse for carrying fire, pestilence, and famine into other lands: it leaves to virtue nothing but the spirit of censoriousness, and a narrow, jealous, inquisitorial watchfulness over the actions and motives of others."
Hazlitt delves deep into his own hatreds. He has many—and many that we all, if we're honest, share—and he explores them in a way that makes me love him. "But so it is, that there is a secret affinity, a hankering after, evil in the human mind," he writes, "and that it takes a perverse, but a fortunate delight in mischief, since it is a never-failing source of satisfaction."
When I think about the haters, about the teen bulliers and the slut-shamers, about the folks for whom someone's byline alone can be enough to provoke venomous online comments, I have to remind myself: They do it because it's fun.