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.”
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.