First day of classes today!
Gonna need more coffee before I can carry out the appropriate instructed vocal/ambulatory maneuvers.
Also, I’ve been warned that if I don’t keep up, I’ll be eaten alive by a large predator.
I have a shocking confession to make. I’m a nerd. A colossal, boring, asocial nerd, and a homely one at that, and I always have been. You might also be surprised to learn that I totally lack all confidence in myself and my appearance, and it only takes a little bit to impress me.
So I was dating this girl once upon a time…a girl who totally outclassed me in all regards. This was the standard scenario: I was the typical dirt-poor nebbish with the glasses and the weird focus on science, and I had acquired this fascination with this one very attractive, smart, well-dressed, significantly-more-popular-than-me girl, and I had one day decided that I would be bold and ask her out on a date. I’d do it that night.
Another portent of doom: the students are arriving. I’m also at the Lake Itasca Biological Station for our annual Bridge To Biology program, in which a fraction of our incoming new students are taken out into the woods for a weekend of
brainwashing indoctrination fun and education and cohort building activities. We have so many new biology students that they can stretch all the way across the mighty Mississippi.
We also have some returning students acting as peer mentors/wranglers.
Obviously very dangerous. Don’t cross them.
Statues of a naked Donald Trump have appeared in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Seattle, and New York City. I don’t understand why.
They are intended to demean and belittle the guy, I understand that. But does anyone think they’ll be effective? At all? Does anyone think they’re even the slightest bit accurate? Caricature should have a substantive point of some sort — political cartoons, for instance, will exaggerate features to make the subject instantly recognizable, but then the idea is that the caricature is doing something, saying something to illustrate an idea. These statues are just standing there inert, looking unpleasant. It’s content-free mockery.
I have to switch it around. If a statue of a naked Hillary Clinton were erected somewhere, would anyone find it to be a cogent argument?
I’ve personally been the subject of a lot of this sort of thing: I’m regularly sent photoshops, or scrawled, poorly done cartoons, that simply illustrate me as short, fat, and ugly. I don’t see the purpose; if the creators think it stings, I actually do know exactly what I look like, and mainly what I see is that they had to work to make me look uglier, and that what’s most ugly are the minds of the people who think these kinds of garbage portrayals are persuasive or in any way potent.
You called me a mean name. You banned me. You don’t like me. You don’t love me.
It’s striking how often the bitter complaints of unwarrantedly rich fucks like Peter Thiel are little more than the plaintive whines of a neglected toddler…a toddler with gobs of money and lawyers who want to appease him with vindictiveness.
It's striking how "unkind commentary about plutocrats" keeps appearing in the bill of indictment pic.twitter.com/OhnY51HRT3
— Tom Scocca (@tomscocca) August 17, 2016
Peter Thiel, I don’t love you, I don’t like you, and my vocabulary is too feeble to come up with the mean name you deserve. You’re a petty, nasty, poisonous little man, lacking in the strength and confidence to cope with dissent in any way other than by flailing about with lawsuits. May your every drink, no matter how costly, taste of gall, and your fine meals be flavored with wormwood; may your silk sheets have the texture of slime. I hope you live a long life of fruitless floundering for love, and some distant day die alone, attended only by a calculating battery of lawyers.
Buzzfeed has been generating some genuinely informative articles lately — it’s become much more than a clickbait site. This article on Twitter’s colossal failure to police itself is a great example. Twitter has had this ongoing harassment problem practically since its founding, the founders knew it, and they have done nothing about it.
By March 2008, exhausted and disillusioned by a torrent of tweets calling her a “cunt” and a “whore” and publicizing personal information like her email address, Waldman reached out to Twitter again, this time to the company’s CEO, Jack Dorsey. After a series of phone calls to the company went nowhere, Dorsey and Twitter went silent. So in May, Waldman went public, detailing her ordeal in a blog post, which caught fire in media circles.
Twitter, then still a startup, was fresh off a buzzy SXSW debut, and Waldman’s post was an unfamiliar bit of bad press, depicting Dorsey in particular as an unsympathetic, even cowardly, chief executive. “Jack explained that they’re scared to ban someone because they’re scared if it turned into a lawsuit that they are too small of a company to handle it,” Waldman wrote. While Twitter founder Biz Stone issued a formal acknowledgment of the problem, arguing that “Twitter is a communication utility, not a mediator of content,” Dorsey was silent. Co-founder Ev Williams was more critical, posting tweets that cast doubt on Waldman’s claims and halfheartedly apologizing with a simple “our bad.”
More than eight years after Waldman’s ordeal, harassment on Twitter is rampant — so much so that it has become a primary destination for trolls and hate groups. So much so that its CEO declared, “We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we’ve sucked at it for years.” So much so that numerous high-profile users have quit the service, citing it as an unsafe space. Today, Twitter is a well-known hunting ground for women and people of color, who are targeted by neo-Nazis, racists, misogynists, and trolls, often just for showing up. Just this summer, actor Leslie Jones was driven off Twitter after a barrage of racist comments and death threats, only to return after a personal reassurance from Dorsey himself. Last week, Normani Kordei of the pop group Fifth Harmony also stepped away from the service after suffering years of “horrific and racially charged” tweets. Despite its integral role in popular culture and in social justice initiatives from the Arab Spring to Black Lives Matter, Twitter is as infamous today for being as toxic as it is famous for being revolutionary. And unless you’re a celebrity — or, as it turns out, the president of the United States of America — good luck getting help.
Part of this problem is a gross ideological commitment to “free speech” — which isn’t really what anyone means by free speech. It ought to mean a commitment to refusing to favor one political or social position over any other, but instead, it’s become about allowing anyone to vomit shit freely, everywhere, so that raw useless noise dominates over any signal. Dogmatic free speech purists actually diminish the availability of free speech by prioritizing the protection of garbage over information and even friendly discussion. And it clearly is a weird philosophical absolutism by a few of the founders.
This maximalist approach to free speech was integral to Twitter’s rise, but quickly created the conditions for abuse. Unlike Facebook and Instagram, which have always banned content and have never positioned themselves as platforms for free speech, Twitter has made an ideology out of protecting its most objectionable users. That ethos also made it a beacon for the internet’s most vitriolic personalities, who take particular delight in abusing those who use Twitter for their jobs. This spring, the Just Not Sports podcast posted video of sports fans reading a sampling of the hateful tweets that the sportswriters Sarah Spain and Julie DiCaro received while writing and reporting. The video amassed over 3.5 million views on YouTube. Its message: This level of depravity is commonplace on Twitter.
Every useful medium has limitations on what can be said. Your local newspaper will not freely post letters to the editor that contain the kinds of sexual and racist slurs that I get every day on Twitter. There are always limits. They are necessary to maintain the utility of the communication channel. You would think an organization that is solely dedicated to promoting communication would understand this.
But here’s another clue about what makes them so oblivious.
Looking back on Twitter’s early years, multiple former senior employees cite Twitter’s disproportionately white, male leadership — a frequent, factual critique of Silicon Valley’s biggest and most influential tech companies — as creating an environment where building tools to combat harassment was a secondary concern. “The original sin is a homogenous leadership,” one former senior employee told BuzzFeed News. “This is part of what exacerbated the abuse problem for sure — because they were often tone-deaf to the concern of users in the outside world, meaning women and people of color.”
I predict that the white men behind Twitter also have a number of Libertarian twits with a sophomoric, privileged view of the world.
Another revelation is that Twitter has automated filtering tools to block out the worst sorts of trolls, and that these were deployed to the benefit of Barack Obama and Caitlyn Jenner when they did a Q&A on the medium. They aren’t perfect — they never are, and trolls will evolve their behavior to evade filtering — but it isn’t clear why they only provide this benefit for a tiny number of celebrities. I would love to have such a service switched on for me. Ariel Waldman probably would, too.
Waldman, like every single one of the dozen people interviewed for this story, stressed that she loved Twitter; that when it works as it should, it’s empowering, exciting, even life-changing. But, like almost every participant in this story, Waldman’s voice grew tired while making excuses for Twitter’s shortcomings. “I mean, the thing is that it’s just getting to that point where it’s become such an exhausting service to use,” she said with a heavy sigh. “That blocking 20 awful people every day has to be a part of my logistical reality — even when I’m not seeking abuse out. It’s just — it feels like so much work to use Twitter, and that should be a real red flag. They’ve clearly showed they don’t want to make abuse a priority.
“It’s like, who would reasonably want to use a service that does this to you?”
So far today, I’ve only blocked two obnoxious trolls, which is a light day (who knows, though, it’s still early). But she’s asked a good question: why do I have to chop through so much dead wood every day just to use their simple service?
Did you know that classes start up for me in two weeks? I am determined to be better organized this year, so I’ve spent my day assembling my syllabus for one course…and it’s almost done. I’ll be working on the second course after that. I may actually have everything all laid out and ready to go a whole week before I have to teach, which would be quasi-miraculous.
So this Fall I’m teaching cell biology again (I think that one is locked into my schedule every year from now until I die), and also a course in science writing called Biological Communication. I expect y’all to tell me what you’re teaching, if you are, in this coming year.
We’re a little odd at UMM in that we start our school year at the end of August, and most of my fellow teachers probably have until sometime in September to get your act together. Are you better organized than I am? You are allowed to gloat.
By now, probably everyone has read that strange moan of anxiety about social media titled “I’m a serious academic, not a professional Instagrammer” — or at least, if you’re an academic who enjoys a good eye-roll over someone with a massive 2×4 rammed up his butt, you’ve read it. It’s the one where an anonymous young Ph.D. student whines about people on Twitter or taking selfies or using instagram or writing blogs…in an anonymous blog post. They make a lot of silly complaints about people using hashtags at conferences and how the powers-that-be keep telling them how important their social media presence is to their career (which is really weird: my experience has been that administrators dread the fact that professors are speaking publicly about their experiences at their institution, and would love to be able to bottle that genie back up). There has been a flood of rebuttals to the fundamental wrongness of the “serious academic”, and I’ll just mention The Tattooed Professor, Meny Snoweballes, and Dean Burnett as good examples.
I want to take a different tack. I feel for this person.
It’s a really tough time to be a starting academic — it’s always a tough time. We get so many demands. Publish. Publish lots. Write grants. Write many grants, because almost all of them will be rejected. Teach. Every course is a challenge, and some of us have to teach multiple courses per term. Serve on committees. Attend meetings. Review papers. Dance, monkey, dance, or you’ll never get an academic job (you probably won’t anyway), you’ll never get tenure, you’ll never get promoted.
And then all those voluble assholes on the internet are adding pressure to tweet or write blogs or get out of the lab and talk to the public? Oh, hell no. Let me just fill up my lab notebook with numbers and gel photos and data, and pay me to do that. I’m running as fast as I can to just keep up without throwing these damned social obligations on my back.
I sympathize. Really, I do. There are lots of things I don’t like about my job (die, committee meetings, die), but I’m obligated to do them, so I do them. No matter what your job, there are always inevitable requirements to occasionally shovel out the stables. Academia in particular is rife with an excess of expectations, and everyone knows it.
But the first thing I have to point out is that social media isn’t one of them. You won’t get tenure for your Twitter activity, and in fact there is an academic bias against outreach and social activity and public engagement. “Serious academic’s” bleat is less an act of rebellion than a performative act of solidarity with staid traditional academics. It’s a person looking in terror at the chaos and uncertainty ahead of them in academia, and picking what they think is the side of the establishment…and they aren’t even certain that that is the right side to pick, witness the fact that their essay is anonymous.
But the most important thing I have to say is that they’re doing it wrong. They’re focusing on the obstacles and forgetting about the purpose. Nobody goes into academia for a love of grant writing and committee meetings. We don’t even go into it over the thrilling prospect of tweeting to a conference hashtag.
We go into it for the joy of the discipline. Remember that?
Personally, I signed on to this life because of some great experiences in science. I was lucky and was employed in a lot of extracurricular science stuff through college, and it was that that was more influential than my classes, I’m sad to say. I was doing animal care and assisting in animal surgeries in the department of physiology and biophysics — lowering electrodes into a living brain was enthralling. I worked with Johnny Palka on fly pupae, watching nerves grow into the developing wing. I did mouse brain histology in the psychology department with Geoff Clarke. I was Golgi staining fetal tissue with Jenny Lund and counting dendritic spines. These were the events that convinced me that I wanted to do more.
I went off to graduate school with Chuck Kimmel and discovered zebrafish embryos. Do you people even know how beautiful an embryo is? Exploring how cells behave in the complex environment of the organism is what kept me going.
I did a post-doc with Mike Bastiani and saw that grasshopper embryos are just as beautiful.
Then my first job at Temple University, where I had teaching obligations for the first time, showed me that I really enjoyed teaching. So I’ve followed that star, too. It all works. At every step, pursue the joy, while never forgetting to also do the duties. Some people don’t enjoy the teaching, so they focus more on the research. Some people, believe it or not, have a talent for management, so they move into administration, or into running large labs.
And some people write books. Or make videos. Or compose music or poetry about esoteric subjects. Or write blogs. It’s all good. You don’t have to do it all. You just have to always keep your attention focused on what brings you to your bliss.
Don’t let other people tell you what you must do with your life, and avoid the temptation to lecture others on what is the one, true, proper way to be an academic. If you find deep satisfaction in grinding out data, do it. If you enjoy teaching, do it. If you enjoy communicating to the public about that weird stuff you’re doing, do it.
I feel sad for “Serious Academic”. So young, and so certain of the one true path for all. He reminds me of someone.
“You are fettered,” said Scrooge, trembling. “Tell me why?”
“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”
Try being the “Joyful Academic” for a while. It can be hard, especially in the current climate, but if nothing else, being true to yourself is more rewarding than trying to be true to someone else’s ideal.