When Academic Twitter Puts You in the Crosshairs
After Tanya Golash-Boza tweeted about the work habits that make her so productive, she got hammered for exhibiting privilege. But what did her critics miss?
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Here’s a post I’ve been saving for you. As I discussed briefly on Friday, back in 2006, I launched a blogging career with the academic blog Tenured Radical, archived here and here. Most commentary on and advice-giving about academic life has moved to social media where, particularly on Twitter, the unwary can run into a chainsaw of irony, cruel humor, and rage. That’s what we are talking about today.
On April 11, 2021, Tanya Golash-Boza, a professor of sociology at the University of California-Merced, launched a short Twitter thread about her philosophy of work with this tweet:
The tweets blew up. While they picked up a fair number of likes for a little more than a day, Golash-Boza also drew nasty criticisms and subtweets accusing her of being privileged, insensitive to others, and building her resumé at the expense of exploited labor. A few days later, I reached out to her to talk about being in the eye of a Twitterstorm, about why her productivity freaks out so many faculty, and about writing itself.
Claire Potter: Tanya, it can be disturbing to become Twitter-famous in such a sudden way. So I wanted to get your perspective on why you put that Twitter thread out there and what, in your view, went wrong.
Tanya Roth: I was listening to a podcast, and the people on it were saying that a lot of us think that if we work more and sleep less, we will be more productive. People think that about me. I'll be giving a talk, or I'll meet someone that I don't know, and they'll say: "Wow, you publish a lot. I'm sure you don't sleep that much." They say it as a joke, but—not really. Or they say, "You must work all the time."
Initially, I was going to post that I sleep, but then I thought about it, and I was like, "I should also probably say that I write regularly." The last line of the initial tweet--"I don't get in my own way"--was an attempt to articulate something I haven't figured out how to talk about yet.
Someone gave me advice 15 years ago to write every day. So I just did it. For me, it was never hard. That sounds like I'm bragging, but it's just reality that it's not hard for me, although I know it is hard for other people.
There's also a thing in academia where people only want to hear that everything sucks…
CP: …And not how you might fix it by working on yourself, right? There's so much anxiety out there. There are structural inequalities that are real, but there is also envy: "Other people are doing better than I am, and it's not fair." But your tweet was getting at a couple of important things that many in the ensuing pile-on overlooked. People really do need to rest. Trying to write is not the same thing as writing. Could you play out the "I don't get in my own way" statement?
TR: What I meant was that sometimes I sit down to write, and I might think, "Oh, this is not going anywhere." And then I say, "Well, do it anyway." That's what I meant.
CP: You don't let negative thoughts intrude.
So this might've been a throwaway as the Twitter pile-on was starting to escalate—but you also said: I don't do social media while I'm supposed to be writing. Was that a kind of “F-you” as things were blowing up?
TR: No, it was actually to let people know that I would not be reading or responding for the next 18 hours because I also protect my time by not going on social media.
CP: Knowing that I've been in the barrel now and then too, how did it make you feel that people attacked you so cruelly?
TR: It's not the first time, and there’s a consistent pattern. The tweet first gets positive reactions from people that know me. Then other people start asking questions, and when it starts to escalate--and this actually has happened--my daughter says: "Why are your tweets showing up in my feed?" She doesn't follow me, but whenever my tweets start to get a lot of attention, it shows up on her feed.
That means that my tweet is now spontaneously reaching audiences beyond the ones I normally talk to. So that's when I knew it was going downhill. Over the years, I've learned to ignore the straight-up mean responses. The ones that bother me are the ones from people I know: the biggest challenge is looking away.
CP: One of the things that seemed to trigger folks is that you publish a lot, and you seem very proud of it, as you should be. Is it that people look at someone successful and say, "You don't really deserve it, so you shouldn't be bragging?"
I didn't take it as a brag, by the way. I understood you to be saying: "This is an empirical number that demonstrates that I know what I'm doing." But how do you understand that kind of hostility?
TR: As you said, I'm just trying to establish credibility. The funny thing is, my university requires me to quantify these things: every time you publish, you get a reward. It's a very structured system. So the only reason that I happen to know how many things I've published is I had to count them recently.
That probably gets internalized, and I don't necessarily think it's great. It offers a moment for reflection about how I operate within a bean-counting system. I thrive in it, and that does give me pause about what that means. But it also wasn't as if, 15 years ago, I said, "I want to publish 75 things." It's just that when you work consistently, that's what happens.
CP: What about the hostility, though, and the need to put other people’s achievements in the category of "privilege" when you can’t know what another person’s challenges or advantages may be?
TR: Part of it is that the academy is more stratified than it used to be, and inequalities are more visible. But I also think that I do have a privileged position in comparison with many other academic workers. Universities have gotten worse for a lot of people. There are campuses where labor conditions are terrible: more adjunct labor, more people in much more precarious positions, and many who have worse jobs than they did ten years ago.
Part of it is that people are rightly mad at the system but then take it out on me. It's easier to punch up, and online interaction is a depersonalized way to express that anger.
CP: Although punching down is such a taboo, even if you aren’t aware of someone’s status. If you're snarky, then it's like, "Oh my God, you're punching down. You're a horrible person." I don't even actually know how I feel about that. It seems to me that if we're on Twitter, and not on a faculty meeting, on a certain level, everybody's the same.
But I also know what you mean. It is a general belief that if you're punching up, anything you say is fair game, no matter how hurtful or inaccurate, and you’re right—it’s depersonalized.
TR: Oh yes. Some people were tweeting who I kind of know, and I've never done anything bad to them as far as I know. But it’s an interesting game. This time, and the last time I had a tweet go viral in this negative way, I also got many new followers. So I think there's also this hope that their tweet will also get a lot of attention. There's a perverse incentive to troll: not to engage or even criticize constructively, but to get more likes, retweets, and followers.
CP: And to emphasize what you said: we're in a period where things are genuinely getting worse for most people who teach in universities, a big restructuring that the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated. But there's also a pervasive belief among people on the margins of academic labor that if we who had tenure-stream positions cared enough to do something, it would change their lives.
TR: It depends, obviously, on the institution, but in the University of California, I think tenured faculty actually do have a significant amount of power. In my department, we've all been on the same page—we do not want to rely on adjunct labor. We do use what we call "unit 18 lecturers," but as they're intended: to replace faculty on sabbatical and in administrative appointments and have them be people who recently got a degree to use the job as a stepping stone. Many of our unit 18 lecturers have done that. We don't have any long-term adjunct faculty at all.
Our university, like all others, does want to rely on adjunct labor, but we also have a great financial officer who is an honest numbers guy. He likes to say, "Okay, look, you need to teach this many classes to maintain your budget in the green. And you can do this however you want." We decided to hire additional tenure-line teaching faculty, who teach five classes a year, not a huge load in the grand scheme of things. They have lowered research expectations, but they're faculty with full rights.
I personally feel like that is a good compromise. The people we hired for these positions indicated that they want to teach, and they want to have a smaller research agenda.
Within the context of a university that gives faculty a governance role, and where the provost and the chief financial officer both understand that adjunct labor is a problem, we have created a situation where we rely on it less than other, similarly positioned departments. So when people say that tenured faculty can do something, I think they're sometimes right. But anyone outside of your university is going to have trouble understanding the constraints and the opportunities.
CP: So part of the problem is that people tend to generalize on Twitter and are very certain about their analysis of how power works everywhere.
I thought that you handled this with a lot of dignity. Did you suspect the tweet would blow up and plan your response, or is it just your personality to be a dignified and restrained person?
TR: I did not intend for it to blow up: it was an off-the-cuff tweet I made on a Sunday afternoon. But like I said, I've been here before, and I've watched other people go through this. So I've developed strategies. What works for me is responding only to thoughtful comments. If someone says to me, "Obviously, you rely on adjunct labor," I'm not going to explain to them what I just explained to you. It just sounds defensive, and I don't have the time and space for it.
Someone else said, "You rely on the labor of grad students." Well, yes, I do. But I also co-author with my graduate students, and they get something out of it. Again, that sounds super defensive, so I don't respond to those. But when someone asks a thoughtful question like, "What is your teaching load?" or "What did you mean by item number three?" then I can answer that.
CP: And you were able to do that? You weren’t lying in bed Sunday night thinking, "Oh, I want to knock that person off?"
TR: I think a lot of things, but there's no use in saying them. One of the things I thought was: "My job is 50% research, so I guess people are mad that that's my job."
CP: Somebody I actually know, because he's in my threads all the time, said: "Why would you even want to write that much?" And I thought, well, here's a real cultural divide. One possible response is: why wouldn’t you? I also write and publish constantly. Other people may think that's messed up, but I'm not altogether sure why.
TR: Yeah. I'm not trying to tell anyone else to write 75 books and articles. It's just--that's what happens when you sit down every day, and you write for two hours. You will publish lots of things. And also, it is my job to publish.
CP: I think item number three, about getting in your own way, really triggered people, perhaps because we do get in our own way. There are lots of reasons for that: people make certain kinds of choices, they have fears, they have burdens, they can't stay off Twitter.
TR: That's true. The other thing I've been thinking about is that I wake up in the morning, have my coffee, meditate, don't check social media, and then write for two hours. I can just set all the other stuff aside and write, and I don't know why I can do that. I do understand that many people can't, but for me, it's a survival strategy.
I think people are also upset, like: "How can you focus and write when there's a global pandemic and a racial justice crisis?"And I did spend the first month of Covid-19 completely absorbed, but me sitting at home, consumed by police violence and pandemics, wasn’t helping anyone either. It wasn't helping me, and it wasn't helping me maintain relationships either. My ability to be calm and composed is super important to those relationships, and writing helps me do that.
I guess I shouldn't talk about that because it makes people mad.
CP: Yet, if we don't talk about it, say if you and I don't share what we're doing to get our writing done, or how writing calms us down, how will struggling people even know what the choices and strategies are?
TR: It’s interesting. People prefer to think that writing is this mysterious thing that's going on or an innate talent when it is actually only the ability to focus for two hours a day.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).
What I’m reading:
I can see the case going to the Supreme Court now: four states seek to regulate Big Tech in the absence of any federal effort. (David McCabe and Cecilia Kang, The New York Times, May 14, 2021)
The Washington Post appointed its first female executive editor, Sally Buzbee, from the Associated Press. But why were so few women at the paper poised to take the job? (Paul Volpe, Politico, May 14, 2021)
One of my favorite literary scholars, Imani Perry, suggests that we revisit author Richard Wright with “fresh eyes.” (The Atlantic, May 7, 2021)