The Thickness of My Skin

It’s an odd “profession” I chose. Or, rather, that chose me. I am, to put it mildly, a woman with an opinion or two about the state of higher education in the US. Many of those opinions are unpopular, as they question the status quo–and this angers folks who have sacrificed, and compromised, and moved to BFE, all to be a part of that status quo, often for the noblest of reasons: because they really care about research and teaching (which I also really care about, so I understand).

At any rate, when I write something that goes viral (an event that gives me an out-of-body experience every time, and I wonder who this Rebecca Schuman doing this crazy shit actually is), I often get a lot of strong criticism for it. Most of it is on blogs or other people’s social media, and so I don’t see it (I stopped Googling myself over a year ago, and will never do so again–as a rule I simply do not seek out opinions about myself, because enough of those opinions come to me directly that I am already overwhelmed by them).

But a lot of the criticism, like I said, comes directly to me. People hunt me down on Twitter. People email me at my blog address (which, thank the fuck Christ, now goes to a random Webmail account I only check twice a week). People troll Facebook until they find a mutual friend and then tag me in to awful, awful threads. And it hurts. And people say: You brought this on yourself. Grow a thicker skin. 

Here’s the thing (or rather, the things).

1. I already have a very thick skin compared to most of you, and a thicker skin than literally anyone who has ever said that to me (everyone I know who has been the subject of attack, such as my friend Suey Park, or my friend Lee Skallerup Bessette, never, ever says that to me). Trust me. If you got criticized as often and as intensely (and as pettily) as I did, I bet you $100 you wouldn’t last a goddamned day. Every single person who has told me to “grow a thicker skin” or “learn to take it” has no experience whatsoever with the level and volume of criticism that I get. “It’s because you put yourself out there,” they say. Yes, it is–but how about YOU put YOURSELF out there and speak truth to power maybe once in your entire life, and then see how people react and how much you like it?

2. I simply decided when Thesis Hatement came out that speaking truth to power was worth the hurt fee-fees, no matter what. There are days when I really regret this decision, trust. This week I have many times wished to un-write that Zizek article, because the torrent of gendered, adolescent mansplaining from condescending grad-school shits has made me pine for the good old days of the End of the Essay (for serious. I would rather have the Comp/Rhet Martyr Squad back on my ass. Cheryl Ball, where are you when I need you?). Wait, I’m digressing.

3. OK, let’s try this again. What I mean is that I should not have to be a thick-skinned toughie to speak my mind and speak truth to power. And I’m glad I’m not: Why do you think my writing has such personality? It is because of, not in spite of, my emotional intensity that I have the voice I do. If I were not as sensitive as I am (which, again, is still tougher than you imagine), I would not care about the things and people I care about, or write the things I do. My vulnerability–the fact that I wear my emotions on the surface of my skin and let everyone see them all the time–is what makes anyone want to hire me to write for them. I rip my own skin off and then let people judge my insides. It is going to hurt sometimes. Usually it’s worth it.

4. You might think that your single piece of “constructive” criticism is merely “engaging” with me and something that I “need” to hear/read/process. Maybe it is. Maybe your intentions are good. Now think of the emotional/psychic bandwidth that a response to your whatever-it-is would require, and multiply it by 100. Getting one piece of critique is like having one glass of water poured over my head. Sure, fine, great. Getting 100 is drowning me.

5. With very rare exceptions, all of my criticism is structural. Yes, my attack on Zizek was personal–but all I did was quote some shit he said on camera, and then subject him to the same withering critique that his ass levels at everyone and everything. Why does he get to do it and I don’t? I can write in crit-theory word-salad too. Subaltern deterritorialization cathexis object critical-making performativity. Does that excuse my behavior now? I assume so.

6. Another reason I felt justified in attacking Zizek is because he is very famous and rich. My “attack” cannot possibly damage him. Tell that to his sweaty little brigade of fanbois, though! I want to tell them all: Talk to me when you’ve actually defended a dissertation and had sexual intercourse, which is  two things I’ve done, btw. But I don’t, because that would be too personal, and I don’t like making personal attacks. But I digress again.

7. OK. What I mean is this: I say something like, “The academic job market is a barren hellscape.” People respond with: “You just weren’t good enough to get a job.” Systemic critique–>personal attack. Because the system is indefensible and they know it. “Academic rejection is all-encompassingly brutal and here are ten people and the heartfelt stories of why they agree.” People respond with: “Stop being such a self-centered idiot; nobody wants to be you; you’re pathetic, etc etc etc.” Systemic critique —> personal attack. “Required essays for non-composition classes are a waste of time for everyone.” Response: “You are a terrible teacher and should die.” “I inflate grades because the system forces me to.” “You’re the problem.” I identify the problem, people respond, again and again, with: You’re the problem. You’re the problem. You’re the problem. Forgive me if that gets a little old.

So the next time you want to respond to something I’ve written by hunting me down and lobbing invective, just ask yourself: Have I done anything to personally hurt you personally? If I have, you have every right to defend yourself (and, FWIW, Claire Potter and I get along fine now). If I have not done anything to personally hurt you personally, then ask yourself: Why do you feel it necessary to personally hurt me? And why do you think it’s necessary that I personally be expected/required to withstand all of the criticism in the world, as the price for sharing my feelings with you?

26 thoughts on “The Thickness of My Skin

  1. It is incredible that when one person has the cojones to say what many other folks either fear saying out loud or do not have the platform to say out loud, that all the other folks who already have status or who cling blindly to the hope that they will eventually have status simply pile on. I took a leap of faith last year and offered advice on Inside Higher Ed that perhaps searching nationwide for a job might not be the answer for all PhDs and people piled on big time. Eric Grollman wrote a post about our colleagues abhorrent manners in response to that post on Conditionally Accepted here:

    I know many folks appreciate your perspective. Me included.


  2. Don’t let the fuckers wear you down. Keep on message because you have to know that when you piss off assholes and pricks you’re on to something important. As a one-time academic who was pushed out decades ago and never returned, I can feel your pain and your dedication. I admire a great deal your determination to change the horrific condition into which higher education has morphed.


  3. Such a sad story. Brilliant woman can’t get a full time academic job through no fault of her own in an impossible job market, bravely and brilliantly writes about that job market and related topics, achieves success and starts making a (modest) living by doing so, a talented and lucky phoenix rising from the ashes of today’s wounded academia, speaking truth to power, and what happens? Barrages of personal attacks, many of them sexist. Please know that so many of us are cheering you on, proud of and delighted in your work. The haters are trying to tarnish it, but you keep shining through. Stay tough, stay funny, and know that we’re here.


  4. Zizek complains about American students who ask him personal questions, yet he has published books describing his own dumps.”Living in the End Times” has an especially vivid passage. I don’t know what his in-box looks like, but I would not be surprised to discover that ironically, most academics find the “abject” less threatening to their selfhoods than open discussion about the system they feed on.

    Oh, and Zizek writes pretty much the same book every year. We all know it’s true.


  5. Suddenly, everybody’s a dermatologist. What you really need is compassion: “you poor idiot!” is a fair way to look at ad-hom style critics.


  6. For my part, I always enjoy what you’ve written. Even when I don’t agree, it’s something worthwhile to think about. Of course, I say this as someone who tracked down your blog and e-mail for the purpose of praising your work.

    I do wonder about people who have so much hate that it just comes spilling out onto the internet at random women (it’s usually women) who may or may not be wrong.


  7. People are fucks. And most of the dumb shit people write in your comments sections is because you’ve made them, for one second, think about something differently. And they don’t like it.
    But, on the other hand, I’ve read so much productive commenting in response to your posts — mostly on your fb page — that struggles through problems you raise, i.e., the freedom to be a right-wing dickhead vs. the fierce refusal to allow such speech.
    I’m envy the thickness of your skin and glad that it’s resistant enough to withstand all the foolishness in the world to allow some of the good stuff through.


  8. This is an incredibly powerful post, Rebecca. From structural critique to personal attack? Well, that’s a structural problem too, isn’t it? And your flagging of the affective labour (the fee-fees) and the kind of toughness that it takes to engage in affective labour (because fee-fees makes us vulnerable) is absolutely key. This is a powerful statement of internet feminist practice, over and above a defense of the practice of critiquing the contemporary academy.

    Props to you, lady-friend. And a hug. Because even when I don’t 100% agree with you, I always want to talk to you. Okay, maybe one more hug.


  9. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Projection, pure and simple. Every time they come at you with ‘oh, well, because you didn’t X, I don’t have to pay attention to you’ know that they are saying “there but for the grace of God go I”. And they are scared.


  10. Remember, for every jerk there are thousands of us out here cheering you on. You are doing good work and making people talk/think about things that people would rather ignore. The academy is never going to make any progress on its many problems unless we REALLY talk about them, including all of the ugly little details that you are SO good at bringing to the light of day.


  11. I agree with all the supportive comments here. I’m starting to feel really ashamed of the world in which I live (i.e., academia), a world where people revere assholes and bully the people who try to point out inequities and realities.


  12. Huh. I think you exemplify thick skin (in the good way, I mean). Who would tell you that, in the face of your stellar record of sailing above it all?

    I’ve had my turn in the barrel (Feb. 22, 2006: misquoted in the NYT about professors and email; I received the most recent piece of hate mail on it the day before yesterday), and I do know the cost. And I also have an author friend who goes berserk every time anyone says anything the tiniest bit critical about her book on Amazon — but I would never give her dermatology advice, as M. R. Rhum put it so well up above.

    Gotta wonder about the motives of the self-appointed dermatologists…


    • I definitely don’t sail above it all; I get very hurt a lot of the time–but I’m human. I think that’s –sigh– OK, because I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, etc etc etc. I dread the day I have a book for sale on Amazon and am tempted to read the reviews.


  13. I like your essays and find them extremely useful; I’m sorry so many people are being stupid and rude. Then again, no one ever got a PhD for good manners or psychic stability. One criticism: the Zizek piece could have been much harsher!


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