On Rage, Smarm, and the Academic Labor Debates

In the many posts and tweets about the late-December dust-up between Rebecca (pan kisses kafka) Schuman and Claire (Tenured Radical) Potter, no one, as far as I know, has brought up Tom Scocca’s Gawker manifesto, “On Smarm.” But I see a number of suggestive parallels.

First, though, a recap of the beef. (If you are overfamiliar with this background, feel free to skip the next couple of paragraphs.) On her personal blog, Schuman “named and shamed” a UC Riverside English search committee for deciding to notify applicants about interviews only five days before the MLA Convention. She called this move “elitist and out of touch” and encouraged readers to email the SC chair and express their dismay. In an Inside Higher Ed article, UCR representatives said that the committee had fallen behind on reading  applications. They also promised that applicants unable to attend MLA would be offered Skype interviews (which they did not do until the story blew up).

In the midst of this controversy, Potter posted a rumination on the discourse of anger, using Schuman’s takedown of UCR as an example of “chronic rage” in online academic culture. Potter voiced concern about “the ways that digital media now allows us to express our rage without having to deal with actual people,” and chided Schuman for going public before getting UCR’s version of events. “Anger can be healthy,” Potter concluded, but “it can also be a real problem in a colleague if it is a chronic response to insecurity, or if it is a way to refuse the resolution of past harm.”

Spoiler alert: People got angry at Potter; Potter got angry at them; things fell apart; the center did not hold.

Now, abstractly speaking, I don’t disagree with the thesis of Potter’s post. When anger becomes a default mode, it can cease to be socially useful. A civil society needs occasionally to “go meta” and reflect on itself, to set standards for rational and responsible communication. (As well as to envision under what circumstances it might be kosher to flip the fuck out.)

But December 23, the date of Potter’s post – three days after Schuman’s call to arms, one day after IHE‘s follow-up – was not the time to go meta. There were still plenty of on-topic questions to answer. Is it acceptable to give interviewees less than a week’s notice? What might UCR have done differently? What are the costs and benefits of replacing MLA sit-downs with Skype conversations? How do hiring practices relate to overall labor conditions and structural inequalities in academia? Which organizations would be best equipped to push for job-market reform?

Instead of exploring these possibilities for theorizing and organizing, Potter changed the subject. She went meta very early – too early, I think. Her topic was not the issue, but the manner in which the issue had been discussed.

It reminded me of the phenomenon Tom Scocca described a month ago in “On Smarm.” To be sure, this piece has its problems – it’s overlong and it defines “smarm” too broadly and casually – but it does identify a pervasive cultural tendency:

Smarm is a kind of performance – an assumption of the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance. Smarm is concerned with appropriateness and with tone. Smarm disapproves.

In other words, by “smarm,” Scocca means the habit, inescapable in today’s public discourse, to retreat from difficult debates and engage in bloviations about tone, propriety, courtesy. He characterizes this maneuver as useful to those in power. If the hoi polloi raises a ruckus about an injustice, don’t discuss the injustice itself. Don’t search for solutions. Instead, complain about the noise of the ruckus, the impoliteness of it all. “Talk about something else, smarm says. Talk about anything else.”

Okay. You may have intuited where I’m going with this. But no, I will not call Claire Potter smarmy. This is where Scocca’s argument breaks down: whereas “smarm” is a tone, what he describes is best understood as a rhetorical strategy, often deployed unconsciously. It is a way of circumventing a debate – especially if that debate has stirred people’s passions and begun to turn nasty.

Circumvention is the chief strategy of Potter’s post. And it has been the strategy of many other responses to critiques of the academic labor system.

The examples are legion, but let’s consider a recent one: In the comments section on Rebecca Schuman’s Slate article about the upcoming MLA Subconference, Derrick Miller, a tenure-track professor and a member of the 2013-14 MLA Delegate Assembly, seconds Schuman’s assessment of the profession (“[i]t’s a sinking ship”) but quarrels with her “caricature of the MLA conference,” which he says “leaves the impression that most, if not all, of the tenured and tenure-track members of the MLA are smug hypocrites unconcerned with the plight of the contingent faculty surrounding them.”

What disturbs me is not what Miller says (I concur that most full-time faculty are capable of indignation on behalf of adjuncts) but what he emphasizes. He had an opportunity to flesh out the critique of adjunctification and corporatization, to make recommendations for improvement, but instead he focuses on whether he and other winners of the academic lottery have been portrayed fairly. Again, the issue has become Schuman’s ‘tude.

Which is a shame, because Miller seems inclined to be an ally of MLA Subconferencers and other critics of inequality in academia. Moreover, he occupies a position of influence in an organization that could make a difference. Yet he claims that “most of us (me included) are unsure of what immediate, practical steps we can take.”

Perhaps if he spent more time thinking about the big problem of structural injustice than about the small problem of how Rebecca Schuman depicts successful language professors, he could scare up a few ideas. Or maybe he could read this choice bit from Cary Nelson’s preface to Marc Bousquet’s How the University Works:

To theorize the contemporary university is to recognize that there was nothing inevitable about its formation. It did not have to be, and it can still be dismantled. Set a $200,000 limit to faculty salaries and a $300,000 limit to upper administrative salaries. Limit coaches to $300,000 as well…. Redirect the money saved to hiring assistant professors, raising part-timer salaries to parity and graduate student employee wages to the cost of living, and eliminating all tuition payments for poor and lower-middle-class students. Deny administrators the right to fund gratuitous pet projects at the expense of a principled campus salary schedule. If administrators refuse to comply, sit in their offices, sit in front of their cars, block campus streets, block access to buildings, picket their houses…. Or, if that seems too confrontational, form a union and negotiate these matters at the bargaining table.

In order to force these kinds of changes, tenured and tenure-track faculty have to get involved. They need to organize unions at their own universities and, whether they can reasonably hope for success or not, put pressure on administrators.

If unionization and resistance seem too pie-in-the-sky, professors could at least stay on subject when they speak about academic labor in public. They could engage directly with protests from marginalized scholars rather than fixate on the tonal side-effects of those protests. This might require growing a thick skin.

I hope that, in the unlikely event that Claire Potter and Derrick Miller stumble upon this post, they don’t think I’m questioning their personal virtue or their political commitment. I will take it on faith that they are smart and ethical people, and I would love to hear, in detail, how Potter would reform the job market, or how Miller would address adjunctification, locally and systemically. Both would say useful and enlightening things, I’m certain. They would be potent on the picket lines. So far, though, they have wasted too much time in their offices, typing about the rage of others.

20 Comments

  1. Oh they’ll stumble upon it. They’ll stumble. I hadn’t seen that comment because like most Slate writers I know to stay away from the comments there, but it doesn’t surprise me. This is an extraordinarily written post. And not just because I come off looking pretty good ;).

  2. Is criticizing the examples Schuman uses in support of her argument about what is wrong in her argument (e.g., the straw man of the Marxist in the $1200 suit) the same as criticizing tone? I am not clear which specific aspects of Miller’s comments are considered tone-shaming and which are substantive.

  3. Why is it okay for Schuman to erupt at people, but not okay when other people disagree with her approach?

    Her method seems to be scorch and burn. What incentive is there to engage with her? What is she trying to do besides build her own brand?

    • Hi digitaldunes: Yes, this is what Potter (and Miller?) might say in response to my post. It’s true that Schuman uses disruptive hyperbole, often in ways that I myself find disconcerting. And Potter and Miller might justifiably feel that they are being held to a different standard.

      But what I’m critiquing here is the quick recourse to changing the subject, to going meta about communicative etiquette when a really important topic is on the table. That last part is key: when a really important topic is on the table.

      I think Schuman was right that UCR’s search committee had behaved irresponsibly, and that academic hiring practices in general need reforming. And I think she was right that the MLA Subconference will bring to the surface issues – especially adjunctification – that the MLA tends to sidestep.

      But whether you agree with her basic positions or not, you have to admit that both articles brought up topics that deserved to be discussed in a serious, focused, thorough way. Particularly in the UCR case, however, the debate shifted very quickly to matters of “tone” and “professionalism.” The Tenured Radical’s influence, conscious or not, made this happen.

      I merely hope that folks involved in the discussion of higher education will be more aware of this dynamic in the future.

  4. I’ve been writing about this at length on my blog. I think the issue of smarm is actually very useful, although perhaps not in the way that you intend: smarm is bad, but snark accomplishes nothing. Neither does rage, in and of itself. I understand that tone policing is bad, and I try not to do it myself. What I do criticize, though, is the fact that so many of these “rage of the contingent” essays actually include no coherent political theory, expression of an alternative, and a meaningful way to achieve that alternative. You say that people like Potter and Miller have to express material alternatives to the current exploitative situation. I agree– but so do Potter and Miller’s critics. So does Schuman. And that has been almost completely absent from their critiques. I can tell you from personal experience that if you ask the people writing these essays for their theory of politics and their material alternatives, you’re accused of being a collaborater.

    It’s also the case that people react to Schuman’s emotions in large part because she has herself put her emotions on the table again and again. Look at her own work: that first Slate piece did not say, “here is a structural critique of the labor practices of the university.” It said, “I was made an emotional basket case by the academic job market and you will be, too.” Again and again, her work has focused on how she feels about academic labor standards, and how she insists others will feel. That is par for the course, here. When you yourself put your emotions out there as the substance of your argument, you invite others to critique them. And I find that people think the only way you can be an ally is if you allow them to rage in a directionless and unproductive way. In fact, real allies counsel people to make structural, material critiques rather than emotional ones.

    I accept, believe in, and support these criticisms of the academic labor market. But as I keep insisting, you have to have a plan. I’m not interested in tone policing; the feelings of the tenured don’t need to be spared. But people claiming to engage in material critiques actually have to present material arguments, and the insistence that they have no obligation to do so only makes it less likely that we achieve positive change.

    • Hi Freddie: Thanks for this intelligent comment and for alerting me to your blog, which I now follow.

      It seems to me that we don’t differ on the crucial points. We both deplore the conditions of the academic labor market. And we’re both invested in formulating specific programs for change. That’s enough for us to be friends! (Or comrades?)

      But if I understand you accurately, you object that I have not balanced my critique of Potter’s and Miller’s rhetorical strategies with a parallel critique of Schuman’s. Fair.

      My first response would be that this post is not about the argumentative tactics of the group we might call the Rageful Adjuncts. It’s about the tactics of another group: the Exasperated Tenured. The rage of contingent professors – especially when it is, as almost no one denies, an understandable response to exploitation – does not require from tenured professors an immediate discussion of the utility or propriety of that rage.

      “When you yourself put your emotions out there as the substance of your argument, you invite others to critique them.” Maybe so. But is it good or productive to take up that invitation right away? I’d say no.

      My second response would be that we wouldn’t be discussing these issues in such a large forum if Schuman and others hadn’t used emotional hyperbole as a disruptive rhetorical strategy. This isn’t a defense of emotional hyperbole itself. (And it’s not my intention to insist that some people are free from the “obligation” “to present material critiques.”) It’s just a practical recognition that restrained, rational explorations of fixes for the academic job market don’t get published on Slate, don’t go viral on Twitter and Facebook, don’t get covered on IHE, and don’t jump-start profession-wide discussions.

      What we do with this rare opportunity – a profession-wide discussion of the academic labor system – is the subject of my post. And my argument is that we waste that opportunity when we make an early shift to a debate about tone, professionalism, and whether MLAers deserve to be depicted as smug and complacent.

  5. Thank you for the thoughtful post. I would like to point out two things: 1) Anger is culturally specific. I find that the academy’s general distaste for any expression of emotion that doesn’t conform to the upper-class western cultural codes is at odds with its valorization of multiculturalism.
    2) Anger has always been a weapon of the oppressed. Adjuncts and graduate students who also have to suffer ludicrous hiring practices have a right to be angry. I think that if more people owned their anger at the institution we might actually have a chance to change things. A comfortably tenured academic getting miffed at something someone said online is something quite different… On the other hand, maybe Potter’s anger is a good thing too–at least it shows that tenured profs are paying attention, and maybe feeling threatened by writers like Schumann who aren’t afraid to tell the truth.

  6. I agree with you that tone arguments and meta discussions are less important than actual plans of action. But is anybody interested in the latter? I’ve been trying to start a discussion on the relevance of accreditation agencies on every blog I can find that addresses the topic, and nobody even bothers to refute my idea.

    Almost all of criterion 3.C at the Higher Learning Commission’s web site (http://www.ncahlc.org/Information-for-Institutions/criteria-and-core-components.html) can be interpreted as condemning reliance on ill-paid and poorly supervised adjuncts. Both full-time faculty and the general public can submit third-party comments pointing this out through pages such as http://www.ncahlc.org/Information-for-the-Public/visit-list.html. What would happen to the visibility of this issue if accreditors routinely received third-party comments condemning the use of adjuncts?

    • Great idea, Pat. Thanks for the links; I’ll be using those. And yes, it does sometimes seem as though the general academic public (not to mention the general public) seems more interested in flamewars about tone than plans of action. Only thing to do, I guess, is to remain persistent.

  7. Nice post. Where I disagree with Schuman’s take, on the UCR thing for example, is that it is so limited. The problem is not that a few universities make late decisions on whom to interview at the MLA and therefore, will probably only see those who planned to attend regardless. It is much, much larger.

    (As a sidenote, I would hardly recommend anyone not going to the convention, to suddenly spend hundreds to get there for just one interview; UCR may only have offered Skype publicly after Schuman’s post came out but I have in the past asked for similar or same on my own and gotten it, and even gotten to the next stage of interviewing as a result of it. But I’ve said these things already, elsewhere.)

    So I thought the Schuman thing was tail wagging dog somehow, even more accepting of status quo somehow (accepting of the idea that one would have to suddenly rush off to Chicago for one interview) than is even necessary.

    TR’s response was incredibly officious, though, and TR is establishment. I do not mean always wrong or always uninformed by that, but TR never seems to get any of the reasons why people in less good situations do what they do. Why people go into debt, for instance (well, if they are to go to conventions, as she also wants them to do, they have to). Why they commute to a one-year job if they can, rather than move there (moving is another way to get into debt, which she is against). And so on, and so forth.

    • Hi Z – This is a smart, balanced comment. You’re right that the structural problems of academia are much larger than UCR’s botching of a job search, and that we should consistently challenge our rabble-rousers (Schuman included) to articulate as broad a view as possible.

      But I still think there is utility in expressing outrage over the abuses in the interviewing process. Basically for as long as Skype has existed, graduate students and contingent faculty have been calling on humanities departments to stop conducting preliminary interviews at the MLA. It would be SUCH an easy fix, and it would save academic subalterns a lot of money and pain. And yet it hasn’t happened. For no good reason.

      This specific refusal to make a small, easy change to the status quo is not in itself the most significant problem in academia today. Obviously. But it is suggestive, symbolic: if we can’t put an end to the MLA interview, how are we supposed to eradicate other, larger injustices in the academic labor system? The bottom line is that we need more buy-in, more awareness from tenured professors like the ones on the UCR search committee. They should know better.

      • I’d rather unionize, and raise salaries and conference funding. But I guess I can say this because we’ve been interviewing by phone and Skype since the late 1990s. I like the convention and in my better days, liked interviewing and being interviewed there, the chance to see books/editors and friends, the fact that everything was happening, and I’d love, now, to be able to actually meet some of the candidates who turn down or blow off our non convention interviews, and not have campus visits be the shot in the dark they are when you have only met the person by phone-Skype (although Skype is a big improvement over the phone).

        I can also remember going to the MLA for only 3 interviews when I was depressed, and yes I had a paper, but it was only so I had cover for interviewing on the sly, and I was just not up for the experience, and did better with phone interviews that year. So I see the point about Skype from the candidate point of view and as I say, have been doing phone/Skype for over 15 years.

        But here is the thing: profession is really hierarchical. I truly doubt anyone who does not have multiple convention interviews is going to get that UCR job. So the idea that they would interview different people if they interviewed by Skype is unrealistic, I think.

        And I don’t think we are going to get around the hierarchical, elitist, etc. nature of the profession very easily, not given its history and not given that it has been created within capitalism, and not give the fact that inequality is growing. So sure, interview-by-Skype is fine, but I DON’T know that to do so would be symbolic of greater commitments to bigger things (like unionization).

        Here’s my question: the anti-conference is a good thing (I’d love to be able to start going to the MLA again, so I could go to that too) and some of the adjunct buzz is promising but I can remember organizing TAs (for a union that yes, now finally does exist) and most wouldn’t go for it, thought they did not need it. Right now I can’t get anyone under 45 to even join AAUP. Do the masses themselves actually want systemic change, or do they just want into the hierarchy, is my big question.

  8. Pingback: What I was thinking this morning | coldhearted scientist وداد

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