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?