Me & My Trolls: A Love Story

Yesterday I read a long-form interview with Weird Al (one of my personal heroes), in which he told the interviewer he reads almost everything written about him — good or bad — and all of his @-replies on Twitter. He also said something really true, which is that no matter what you do, there will be people who don’t like you. If Weird Al, actual famous person and national treasure, can realize this, than so can I, non-famous rando.

You might have noticed — or not, I’m not important! — that I get my fair share of really pissed-off people commenting on my Slate stories and reaching out to me on Twitter. (Admission: I also get a smattering of nasty comments on this here blogeroo, but I moderate them all out because this is a blog-tatorship and not a blog-mocracy, and I like to keep at least one tiny corner of the Internet safe for me to peruse without bursting into tears.)

I think all people who Write For the Internet get this (except Gawker’s Caity Weaver, who is quite deservedly the most popular person on Earth) — but I think I get it juuuuuust a tad bit worse than many of my compatriots (not being sarcastic; just a tad), and I’ve got some thoughts as to why, in case anyone is interested, which you are probably not, since I am not important. But still, here goes:

  1. I enjoy pretending to be important. When well-meaning people say that mine is an “important” voice in the higher-ed conversation, that makes me feel good (true or not), and it empowers me to be as honest as possible when I write. Which brings me to…
  2. I write some controversial opinions about academia sometimes. I always express faux-shock that I get so much personal attack in response to the systemic critiques I level. Like, I didn’t attack you personally, medievalist/comp-rhet asshole #53, so why are you wasting an hour of your time writing a whole blog about how bad my choices are and how much I suck, when I never said anything about you? But here’s the thing: Academics who have enjoyed any measure of success — or, and this is important, believe they will — have, in their years of being kicked in the gut in graduate school, internalized the culture of abuse, and become the system. They identify so completely with the system I critique that when I attack the system I am attacking them personally.
  3. I have a bigger audience than I probably deserve, and I get to write about pretty much whatever I want, and people actually read it, and that’s not fair because my voice is not universal and I don’t speak for everyone and how did I even get to and blah blah blah blah blah blah blah sorry I fell asleep. Many academics harbor secret or not-so-secret ambitions to be ‘public intellectuals,’ who write delightful tomes for the mainstream press, in addition to their scholarly brilliance. And yet they’ve had a hard time getting their work published, probably because most academics are not trained to write for a general audience, and so regular-person editors get their stuff and go WHA? I get a fair amount of strangers emailing me to ask them for help placing an article at Slate (hint: I will almost never do this, because I do not have any power at Slate, and I can’t risk whatever wobbly cred I have over there going to the mat for a stranger), and they send me the article unsolicited and I’m like OH NO NO NO NO NONONONONO. No discernible voice, no lede, no quick 1-2-3-4 punch essay structure, a lot of looping back around, and jargon jargon jargon. I was a normal-person writer before I even thought up the dumb-ass idea of getting a PhD — for three years in the early aughts, I even had my own (print! LOL!) magazine column in New York. Writing for a general audience is just something I happened to be trained for years ago, and the specialized knowledge and experience I gained in graduate school now mean I have a “beat” I can cover with some measure of expertise. This is my roundabout way of saying that many of my detractors are probably jealous. To which I say: Go ahead and explode your academic career in public, and have most of the people you thought were your “friends” betray and abandon you completely, and be willing to say things you know will make a bunch of people mad, and then deal with how mad they get, and you, too, can probably have the wondrous accidental fourth career that I do.
  4. I am unapologetically, unusually sensitive to criticism, which I am fully aware is a completely wackadoodle way to be in my chosen career. But I have always been like this — I just want everyone to either like me or leave me alone, and have for my whole life. And yet I will not stop writing things that make people mad. So why do I do this if I know it is just going to hurt me (because make no mistake, it hurts me deeply, often for days on end)? Because, to put it simply, very few people write with total blunt honesty about the current problems in academia, precisely because they’re sensitive and couldn’t take the backlash, or because it would be unwise for their careers (or they believe it would be, deludedly, because they will never have the careers on whose behalf they self-censor every day). The stuff I say — again, to risk sounding like a dick — is better said than unsaid, and somebody’s got to do it, and since I did it once with “Thesis Hatement,” I might as well just keep going, since it hasn’t resulted in my utter ruin yet.
  5. I like attention. Except when I don’t, and promptly want everyone to leave me alone. At which point I poke my head out of my little cave and go “Wait, where is everyone? Troll? Anyone?” and it starts all over again. I’ve been a massive ham for my entire life. I do wish that I could get attention without having to subject myself to internet comments and hate-Tweets, but that is the very price of attention. And when you combine attention + sensitivity, you get me in all sorts of tiffs with people, which results in more attention, which I love until I don’t.
  6. I’m a woman and and adjunct. If I were a tenured male making the same points I do, I’d be lauded as a visionary. AND, it is very worth noting, if I were a person of color, I’d get it many orders of magnitude worse than I currently do. The only reason I can get away with what I do, to the extent that I do, is because I’m a middle-aged white lady.

OK. So, that’s why everybody hates me and I am an attention-hog, the end. Hooray?

27 thoughts on “Me & My Trolls: A Love Story

  1. As a tenured white male professor making similar points, sometimes, I definitely have it much easier. It’s not so much that I am lauded as a visionary as I am not usually derided as a fraud. Moreover, when I am derided as a fraud, it doesn’t really hurt me, because … I am a tenured white male professor. I have MOUNTAINS of assumed authority I can mine. It’s not fair. And yet, when I need it, I dig away.

    I don’t agree with everything you write. I hope no one agrees with EVERYTHING you write, as that would mean you aren’t pushing us to rethink our perceptions. But I hope you also know that I DO think you are an important voice in higher-ed today and am glad you’ve broken through.


  2. Totally agree with David Perry. Very much appreciate your brutal — which also necessarily means vulnerable — honesty, Rebecca. One thing you don’t mention above as a reason for people’s vitriol maybe because it’s too obvious or because, if you said it, it would sound too self-justifying: guilt. People who made it in the system are feeling guilty, even as they ramp up the language of being overworked pawns of neoliberalism. Those of us with tenure might keep saying “oh I could have made so much more as a lawyer but I sacrificed for the public good” but life-time job security is looking pretty damn valuable right now. We’re surrounded by exploited adjuncts and indebted students and we are defensive. Which is too bad b/c we have academic freedom so we should be the ones trotting out the inconvenient truths.


  3. Not just all the people who write for the Internet, but all the people who photograph, design, build, release music or whatever. The dude who coded Flappy Bird got TONNES of criticism (that’s why he eventually took it down), and all he did was release a little game that made thousands of people happy FOR FREE.
    I know personal criticism can sting (I’m pretty sensitive, too) but please, whatever you do, don’t stop.


  4. Yeah, I am totally envious of your reach. Not so envious that I don’t encourage others to read you. You definitely say things that people need to hear.


      • Ahh, but I didn’t say I want it. I am envious, yes. If I wanted it, yes, I could do as you suggest – almost did once before. So, I am stuck with trying to influence a smaller number of people. I’ve caused enough trouble and was a disappointment to others long enough.


  5. I’m continually amazed at the vitriolic reactions you get for writing things that should be obvious to anyone with a brain. When did “professors shouldn’t sleep with their students” get controversial? I swear, if you wrote that Josef Stalin was a bad person, the Chronicle trolls would start humming the International and accusing you of being a Nazi sympathizer.


  6. I agree with Jennifer. I think guilt is a big problem for tenured & TT faculty. One of the most bizarre and surprising (at the time) aspects of working as an adjunct was working side-by-side with tenured faculty who couldn’t bring themselves to look at me in the hall. I felt they wanted more than anything for me to disappear because they didn’t like what I represented. You have given the issue a much more public face, forcing tenured faculty to acknowledge the problem There is no way to justify the terrible conditions of adjunct labor. In my experience, people get the most nasty and defensive when they know they’re wrong. Self-righteous indignation becomes the last defense. For those people who act that way, I think it’s embarrassingly transparent.

    As for your sensitivity to criticism, I think it’s a rare person who doesn’t feel stung by criticism. I remember my first negative internet feedback. Someone tweeted me: “bitch” Just one word and I was horrified! Just keep on doing what you’re doing. The vitriol actually brings attention to your writing which exposes more people to these issues. So your suffering is for a good cause!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Rebecca, I enjoy your insightful and entertaining writing. You are, hands down, my absolute favorite writer with a PhD in German lit.

    I’m chuckling now as I think about you with your German philosopher “beat” sitting at a lunch table talking about work with other journalists whose beat is the local sports team, state politics and weekend entertainment (excluding German philosophers, of course).


    • Thanks Ben! You have a choice of many providers of nonacademic Germanists to read (obviously) and you choose me! You’re the best curator of mystifying student tweets around!


  8. I guess this article has no (direct) mention of Michael Berube trolling you on social media, these comments, and elsewhere. What a shame. He is on a slow sockpuppetty, passive aggressive, subtweet campaign against you that borders on consummate e-bullying. The headline made me excited for your take on the subject–actually I’ve been hoping for an entire post about for some time. Berube has been so severely and humourously owned on blogs/comments/facebook/Leftist mags the past, I am sure you’d have some memorable remarks to contribute to that body of literature.

    This is old but still pretty funny– “One can readily imagine the…Berube…equivalents of the 1850s explaining to the abolitionists that they must tone down their message and alter or even drop their anti-racist and anti-slavery message given the ‘political realities’ and public sentiment.”

    You could take apart his dinosaur, tenurplainy defense of the MLA and ad hominem attacks on you… would love it.

    By the way, some small internets gossip about Michael Berube the troll– if you hadn’t seen it, there’s a catfight beginning on his wikipedia page. It’s pretty amusing to see someone so self-absorbed as to troll their own wikipedia in real time—oh, I mean some “random” person. For some DH scholar out there writing about e-narcissism, it’s primary source material.

    This is the page Berube–oh, I mean the wikipedia editor–doesn’t like:

    And the remarks on the talk page:


    • As flattering as this is, I believe that Berube’s slow, sockpuppety beef is actually with Marc Bousquet–who, after all, is another tenured white male and thus worthy adversary (I am a less-than-nobody who is not–or should not–be worth the amount of time it takes to do something like that; if that stuff really *is* about me, I guess I have a hell of a lot more power than everyone thought, for no reason I can think of!). At any rate, Marc can hold his own against Berube and anyone.


    • I just re-read Berube’s TL—there’s nothing on there about me. I have never complained about Rosemary Feal’s salary, for example. He also has many of the same enemies I do: Trent Kays, Steven Krause, etc. Berube trying to lessen my “credibility” is more funny than anything else, because only by trying to hack away at credibility can you admit that anyone has any (something I, for example, have never even begun to argue).


      • That’s probably right about Berube-Bousquet. Berube, though, does some characteristic Rebecca trolling on his 2 June fb post. He scolds you for citing from an email he sent to you and even mentions the sockpuppet comment he posted on this blog. He calls you a troll in the comments in that post, and he made some similar remarks a few other places on fb as well. I just can’t remember where. I thought you’d have seen all those, the internets guru that is RS. Anyway, the June 2 post is public if you aren’t fb bffs with him.

        There’s this, too, from June 24 post comments. Pretty standard of his passive and underhanded approach to trolling RS:

        Michael Bérubé Points taken, Dana, and the quibble about the quibble about “confines” is really just a quibble. Thanks also for remarking that some “alt”-esque careers happen on campus. As for U-Know-Who, two things. One, she is right to claim that she made all the points you made, except that you made them with 100 percent less WHY THE FOCK WOULD ANYONE EVER GET A PHD UNLESS THEY WANTED TO BE A PROFESSOR LIKE I WANTED TO BE BECAUSE PROFESSORS ARE LAZY AND STUPID AND TEACH FIVE STUDENTS IN GRADUATE SEMINARS ON THINGS NOBODY CARES ABOUT and 100 percent fewer internet temper tantrums. Also, there’s a subtle difference between your work and hers in the sense that your critique was smart, careful, and well-written. Two, that now-deleted blog post was occasioned by this thoughtful essay that had almost nothing to do with her– — which is pretty stunning, even by the standards of internet temper tantrums. For those who are curious, the blog post in question is preserved for posterity in the comment thread of this (also thoughtful) followup:


      • Oh pffft he just had his fee-fees hurt about that MLA report thing. I quoted his email to my ultra- private FB list, but there is an MLA toady on it (I keep forgetting to kick her off) who probably blabbed to him.

        It is, however, very, very fun that I am apparently the Lord Voldemort of academia and so powerful my name cannot be spoken aloud. My response to that MLA report must have REALLY scared the shit out of them. That says quite a bit more about the sorry state of the MLA and the literary humanities in general than it does about me. Also, all of the “temper tantrums” he refers to happened between my, like, 4th and 7th weeks of pregnancy, when the hormones started kicking in and I lived most days terrified that I would go the MD for my first prenatal appointment only to see another empty gestational sac and await another miscarriage. Obviously I couldn’t let anyone know that and it wasn’t anyone’s job to know I had Serious Other Things Going On, but it does give me some joy to know that those folks were all going balls to the wall against a sick, terrified, hormonal pregnant lady.

        It’s a funny situation, though. Whatever “power” I have comes from the fact that I have no power whatsoever. Any freaking-out to or about me simply lends me credibility because it makes you seem threatened by me. Which I find HILARIOUS because I am and have always been a total nobody. Again, the fact that anyone listens to me enough for the great Berube to have to “take me down” is incredibly shocking, and proves simply that the state of academia is busted beyond repair.


  9. I love your candid posting here. It strikes me, though, that a few phrases remind me of the “impostor syndrome” that you have written about earlier – and I don’t mean where you are being sarcastic or mimicking someone else’s criticism of you. The example of being sensitive to criticism belongs in that impostor syndrome, I think – Think of how others respond to criticism and post to you (feeling hurt, outraged, etc.) and they are not apologizing for first having the reaction in the first place. Do most WMTP need to apologizing for freaking out when they (as people have mentioned here) get their guilt buttons pushed? No, of course not. They just react. It’s your show and your rules, so flaunt them.


  10. I follow very few sites and am not on FB or twitter but just want to say, for the record, that the above comment about Michael Berube stalking Rebecca seems very implausible. He and I are co-writing a book and, in the course of working on it, I’ve sung Rebecca’s praises to him and he’s sung Marc Bousquet’s praises to me so I don’t think he’s overtly or covertly at war with either.


    • Yeah, if it’s not MB he’s allegedly at war with, then maybe it’s RCB? At any rate, he sends me a snippy email now and then but generally in the spirit of dialogue. I don’t see him attempting to Take Me Down (largely because…how much lower could I go?).


  11. Dude (as my students say)— this is so entirely true, and thank you for diagnosing cycle of abuse as it exists in an academic culture supposedly devoted to the ethic of critique! “But here’s the thing: Academics who have enjoyed any measure of success — or, and this is important, believe they will — have, in their years of being kicked in the gut in graduate school, internalized the culture of abuse, and become the system. They identify so completely with the system I critique that when I attack the system I am attacking them personally.” My only proviso: for some of the attackers, no space exists between the “systeM” and the so-called self, so you’re still quite kind!


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