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The Trolls of Academe

Scholarly misadventures on the internet

On the occasion of the 54th International Congress on Medieval Studies, which convened last May on the campus of Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Richard Utz, president of the International Society for the Study of Medievalism and chair of the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology, told the New York Times in response to the supposed “politicization” of his field by white nationalists on the right and minority scholars on the left, “People don’t become medievalists because they want to be political. . . . Most are monkish creatures who just want to live in their cells and write their manuscripts.” The density of this statement must not have been lost on Dorothy Kim, an assistant professor of English at Brandeis and member of Medievalists of Color, who had become the target of trolls in September 2017, when Rachel Fulton Brown, an associate professor of history at the University of Chicago, incited harassment against Kim by tagging alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos in a Facebook post about her.

This was in the context of Gamergate, and Fulton Brown is a bit of a troll herself. As Kim recounted the experience in Inside Higher Ed, she wrote a blog post titled “Teaching Medieval Studies in a Time of White Supremacy,” to which Fulton Brown—“Christian, American, professor of medieval European history, fiddler, fencer, blogger, wife,” as her Twitter bio reads—responded with her own post, “How to Signal You Are Not a White Supremacist.” Once word of the feud spread to Yiannopoulos’s website, Kim became the subject of Breitbart comment threads and more direct online harrassment; her office location was doxxed, leading her to seek out the help of her colleagues, campus security, and the Center for Solutions to Online Violence. For women and scholars of color, especially, Utz’s apolitical fantasy of monks and manuscripts distorts a dangerous reality: “Those of us from marginal, targeted groups have no choice,” Kim told the Times. “This is about our own survival in the field.”

Survival is a prominent theme in contemporary scholarship: in the sciences, which have been more effective in predicting our certain doom than staving it off, but also the humanities, where one or more states of “crisis” have seized the status quo since at least the 1990s. The disappearance of tenure-track jobs, the excesses of the student loan industry, the ongoing corporatization of university administrations and scholarly publishing, and the unabashed philistinism of mainstream discourse are only a few of the problems with which today’s academics have been forced to contend. For many, the solution has been to “go public,” redirecting some of the effort previously devoted to peer-reviewed journals, monographs, and professional organizations toward engagement with a broader audience via the popular press; blogs; online editorial collectives; para-academic publications like the Los Angeles Review of Books, Public Books, and Contingent Magazine; podcasts; and social media, where a handful of them have gained influencer-sized platforms.

On the internet—a means of communication largely invented, developed, and theorized on university campuses in concert with academia’s most loyal benefactor, the military-industrial complex—members of the professoriate and the academic underclass find themselves in ambivalent coexistence, as IRL. But the rules are different online, primarily because there are none. Nothing poses more of a threat than anarchy to an institution so byzantinely hierarchical that its employees cannot, in some cases, be fired without having committed a felony. Academic freedoms are both more and less secure online, where the bar for admission is low, illuminating and at times upsetting uncomfortable disparities, old boy networks, and waning signifiers of prestige more loyal to “stakeholders,” “deliverables,” and “consumer accountability” than to the production of knowledge.

Glass Half Theorized

On July 2, 2018, conservative propagandist Dinesh D’Souza quote-tweeted a post by Richard Jones, an account with few followers, making the historically valid claim that a large number of Southern Democrats left their party to become Republicans following the Civil Rights Act. D’Souza, attempting to call Jones on his apparent bluff, contributed to the conversation a direct challenge: “Okay let’s see a list of the 200 or so racist Dixiecrats who switched parties and became Republicans. Put up or shut up.” Hours later, Kevin M. Kruse, a historian at Princeton, took the bait, launching into a twenty-eight-tweet thread definitively refuting D’Souza’s cry of “fake news.” Citing newspaper clippings and Eric Schickler’s Racial Realignment: The Transformation of American Liberalism, 1932–1965, Kruse shows that while there were not two hundred politicians who changed parties (“that’s a laughably high bar”), there were at least thirty, and more importantly, he notes, “looking at elected officials is the worst way to measure these changes,” as the partisan shift of ordinary voters made a much more significant impact, but “of course, that’s why D’Souza insists on doing it that way.”

The New Republic summarized the dispute later that week, describing Kruse’s thread as “an expert class in how to marshal scholarly evidence in a popular debate,” but also pointing out that “D’Souza is unteachable”: again, on Twitter, D’Souza shrugged off Kruse’s evidence as “obscure quibbles,” dismissing the tenured author of White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism and two other books as “too wimpy to publicly debate me on which is the party of fascism & racism.” That this was, in fact, a public debate might have suggested to Kruse that his truths fell on deaf ears, but nevertheless, he persisted, and today enjoys a reputation as a defender of the historical record online, counting more than three hundred thousand Twitter followers. While Kruse used to share the attitude that engaging with trolls runs the risk of validating them, he has come to believe that it is vital for historians to fight the dissemination of inaccuracy and lies: “As much as scientists have a duty to engage with climate change–denialists or doctors have a duty to dispel the anti-vaccine arguments, I think historians have a duty to engage with people who are spreading misinformation about history. We have an expertise others lack, and our silence amounts to complicity.”

Kruse is only one combatant in a guerrilla force of #twitterstorians that also includes “public intellectuals” like Cambridge classicist Mary Beard, who sees online engagement as part of her job: “If you want the public to support your work, you have to tell them why they should.” Jodi Dean, a political theorist at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, finds this position “completely naive.” In Blog Theory: Feedback and Capture in the Circuit of Drives, Dean uses the term “communicative capitalism” to describe “that economic-ideological form wherein reflexivity captures creativity and resistance so as to enrich the few as it diverts and placates the many.” Communicative capitalism relies on the exploitation of communication, just as industrial capitalism depends on the exploitation of labor, by means of “intensive and extensive networks of enjoyment, production, and surveillance.” Because it is shareability, rather than use value or meaning, that determines the circulation of an utterance online, “social media is not a terrain for the verification of truth claims or anything like that. It’s for the circulation of outrage.”

While it is obvious that the characteristics of scholarship that set it apart from other forms of content creation—nuance, complexity, dissensus, scrupulousness—play poorly on social media, the internet has already transformed higher ed in ways that would make it unrecognizable to Nabokov’s Pnin, John Williams’s Stoner, or Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim. The twenty-first-century professor must be an adept emailer, like all white-collar workers, but also a user of learning management systems and a keen navigator of databases and library catalogs, which in more and more universities exist exclusively online. Though the initial zeitgeist of massive open online courses (MOOCs) has mostly passed, the internet has enabled CUNY geographer David Harvey’s open-access “Reading Capital” video lecture series to become the best way to learn Marx even as a growing cottage industry of academic grift cashes in on the precarity of students and the academic workforce alike: from term paper ghostwriters and unaccredited degree mills eagerly siphoning loan dollars to thirsty emails from notifying desperate job seekers that “Someone just searched for you on Google” (an identity that can only be revealed, presumably, by upgrading to a “Premium” account at $8.25/month), delivery fees from dossier services like Interfolio that can easily amount to hundreds of dollars in a single application season, and “live webinars” from “career advisers” like Karen “The Professor Is In” Kelsky, who cynically offer advice on how to succeed in an academic market that no longer subscribes to meritocracy, if it ever did.

A subgenre of technopessimism has flourished in The Chronicle of Higher Education, whose location at the axis of two dying industries renders its role in the discourse occasionally unhinged: “The Rise of the Promotional Intellectual,” “The Twitterization of the Academic Mind,” and “How Social Media Imperils Scholarship” are all opinions the ivory tower’s trade rag has deemed publishable within the last two years. Unsurprisingly, each of these editorials was penned by a white man, and the two with tenure reek the most of privilege and nostalgia. While Jeffrey J. Williams, an English professor at Carnegie Mellon, pretends that self-promotion wasn’t always one of academics’ foremost priorities, Justin E. H. Smith, a philosophy professor at the University of Paris, bemoans the effect that the dystopian “Tinderization of scholarship” will have on researchers’ “loving devotion” to their object of study. They are all correct, however, to warn that the uncritical acceptance of and participation in social media represents yet another stage in the corporatization of the university. As Gordon Fraser, who teaches American studies at the University of Manchester, puts it: “I am concerned that our participation in Twitter is tacitly endorsing a commercial platform that subverts democratic discourse and collapses the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate forms of debate. Scholarship demands cultivated habits of mind, considered distance, and the unfolding of time. Twitter does not.”

Survival is a prominent theme in contemporary scholarship.

For Ian Bogost, a professor of media studies and interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, social media isn’t the only thing to worry about. “Computing is one of the most ahistorical disciplines in the sciences,” which has emboldened the amnesiac in all of us as our culture has become more digitally oriented: an eternal “series of ongoing failed lessons, where instead of building on knowledge of successes and failures past, we just trace the same steps in a kind of random walk with whatever is contemporary and thrust upon us by virtue of habit or some mighty deal that gets done at your institution.”

Though billionaire dropouts like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs have cast academia as a square villain in Silicon Valley’s bootstrap self-mythology to the point that, for many, the object of a Stanford education is a startup rather than a diploma, Jeffrey Epstein’s ties to the MIT Media Lab confirmed that when universities and Big Tech profess that they want to make the world a better place, they usually mean the same thing, which is the opposite. The homogenization of experience online can extend to the classroom, where the nature of what constitutes a “course” is being altered by software faculty are often required to use, which can be maliciously deployed as surveillance, and necessarily affect what it means to “learn.” By creating efficiencies, Bogost says, technology “violently disrupts the quirks and changes that give life texture,” but also facilitates a more “bureaucratized version of everything that we do.” These reservations notwithstanding, Bogost looks forward to the day when academics “close the door on this idea that we can hole ourselves up in these institutions and pretend as though the world outside is really outside at all.”

In some ways, the inside isn’t even inside anymore. According to Ted Underwood, a “digital humanist” (though he resists the term) who teaches English and information science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the “blurring between academic and corporate spaces” threatens not only the autonomy but the function of universities, as researchers in fields like computer science are easily lured away from the academy by the likes of Facebook and Google, making it “hard to do certain kinds of research outside of the big tech companies.” While it is no longer clear that academia takes “the intellectual lead” in some disciplines, Underwood would not be able to do his work without digital libraries, data mining, and machine learning, which have allowed him to pose questions about his primary specialization—British literature of the long eighteenth century—that were inconceivable thirty years ago. The whole of the web, and not only Twitter, appears to the twenty-first-century scholar as a Hieronymus Bosch painting: “There are people eating strawberries in the foreground,” as Underwood describes what is jokingly referred to as “the discourse,” but “also people in the background being devoured by a bird-headed creature.”

To Catch a Professor

One of those people in the background is Adam Kotsko, a theologian at the Shimer Great Books School at North Central College outside of Chicago, who still uses Twitter despite suffering two such devourings, with residual nibbles that continue today. Kotsko credits his initial vulnerability to online harassment to his name being included in the Professor Watchlist, a project launched by Turning Point USA in 2016 to “expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” Explicitly political work (Kotsko’s most recent book is Neoliberalism’s Demons: On the Political Theology of Late Capital) can be a risky move for an academic, and nowhere so dramatically as online, where the culture wars of the 1990s have evolved into what Jodi Dean is not shy about calling “a situation of civil war.”

In contrast to conservative caricatures of the “libtard” professor and the truth’s well-known progressive bias, even scholars as intellectually radical as Judith Butler can be found donating to Kamala Harris. Universities tend toward centrism when they are not caving to the pressure of donors and consequently working for the right, as was the case when the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign withdrew its offer of a professorship in American Indian Studies to Steven Salaita in 2014 over a series of tweets critical of Zionism that were disingenuously characterized as anti-Semitic by pro-Israel students and alumni. Though a lawsuit against the university led to the resignation of Chancellor Phyllis M. Wise, an open letter from faculty calling for Salaita’s reinstatement, a censure from the American Association of University Professors, and a settlement exceeding $800,000 in damages, Salaita currently drives a school bus for a living.

Drawn in a medieval style, a man standing in the foreground wears a peculiar religious looking cloak with a funny little hat.
Habit de procureur, Nicolas I de Larmessin, ca. 1690

Kotsko’s own Twitter drama was not career-ending, but only because he had the support of his school. An ill-considered reaction to the Charlie Hebdo attacks was what first brought Kotsko to the attention of the trolletariat: although he deleted the tweet after a few minutes, The Daily Caller saw it, and reposted Kotsko’s take as evidence that he was “America’s stupidest college professor.” This time, the harassment dissipated after a few days, but several months later, Kotsko responded to a reply guy in a Twitter thread about race, ironically suggesting that white people should commit mass suicide. The irony was, of course, lost on the right-wing media (those who observed the contradiction in terms attempted to resolve it by assuming that Kotsko is Jewish; he is not), and within days, Kotsko was the subject of a Rush Limbaugh rant and the subsequent indignation it was intended to inspire. The threats he reported on Facebook and Twitter were, according to moderators, not in violation of community standards, and white supremacists began to flood the admissions line of his college, which was answered, most unfortunately, by a gay black man. Kotsko’s awareness of that experience was a turning point in the episode, causing him to take any means he could to make it go away. So he deleted his account.

These aggressions are even more commonplace for scholars whose racial, gender, and sexual identities are similarly contemptuous to the right. Melissa Fabello, a queer scholar with a PhD in human sexuality studies, has “gotten used to how quickly something seemingly innocuous that you say can land death threats in your inbox.” For her, safety and boundaries are key, but so are reflection and integrity, such that logging off is only a temporary solution: “At some point, you have to recognize that the extreme feelings—whether hate or love—that strangers on the internet have for you are a lot more about them and their projections than your own humanity. It’s important to hear (and address) valid criticism.” No matter the potential cost to one’s career or sanity, an overwhelming number of younger and contingent scholars emphasize the incomparable benefits that social media can provide. Kotsko, who like many extremely online academics came up during the “heroic era” of blogging, returned to Twitter because he missed the “fourteen levels of self-referentiality,” a kind of humor “that you can’t find elsewhere.” Others insist that the opportunities for expansion of network, community, archive, and audience are too valuable to dismiss.

The rules are different online, primarily because there are none.

Anna Kornbluh, an associate professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago who, along with several other scholars, tweets on behalf of the V21 Collective, a democratic “open platform” for nineteenth-century scholars whose primary aim (“to advance theses, to risk hypotheses, to catalyze debates”) recognizes that there are “multiple modalities of scholarship and collectivity”: “I’ve seen the best critics and theorists of my generation use platforms like the informality of blogging to foment what become really commanding arguments that then are published in traditional scholarly ways.” While researchers in the hard and soft sciences have the advantage of scholarly repositories like the Social Science Research Network, which was acquired by profit-driven Dutch publisher Elsevier in 2016, unscalable paywalls and a predominant culture of single authorship—not to mention the attendant problems of labor—enforce a sense of isolation in the humanities that scholars are mostly left to overcome on their own, though networks like Humanities Commons, which Michigan State English professor Kathleen Fitzpatrick developed as director of scholarly communication for the Modern Language Association, are attempting to bridge the gap.

Patricia A. Matthew, an associate professor of English at Montclair State University, has written extensively about the isolation she has experienced as a black woman in the academy, a demographic that makes up only three percent of full-time faculty. In a 2016 article for the journal of the College Language Association, Matthew writes that social media “connects academics of color to one another and offers an opportunity for scholars, activists, and writers to discuss and debate issues from their respective vantage points.” For better or worse, Matthew argues, “people of color sharing their experiences on social media can make their experiences legible to a broader audience, and this can lead to productive conversations as academics try to build community.” Though Matthew admits that she is an “anomaly” as a scholar of color who has not faced significant harassment online, the utility of social media in the crossover success of scholars like Roxane Gay, an associate professor of English at Purdue, and Tressie McMillan Cottom, a sociologist at Virginia Commonwealth University with whom Gay co-hosts the black feminist podcast Hear to Slay, is immense. For all of the critical aversion to Facebook and Twitter, particularly in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, it is important to remember the roles that social media have played in resistance movements from Occupy and the Arab Spring to #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo, the latter two of which were founded by black women activists. While Matthew does not believe that the conditions are yet in place for black women to occupy the subject position required to be considered a “public intellectual,” it is largely through social media that she has come to see so many black women doing the “groundbreaking work that should have them distinguished” as such.

A Tale of Comorbidity

The more favorable candidates for public intellectual in the twenty-first century, it turns out, are the most likely to reject the title, while those parading their eligibility are more often middlebrow conmen, has-been self-parodies, or cryptofascist shills for the “intellectual dark web” capitalizing on the obsolescence of the concept. The public intellectual requires a public, and as Michael Warner argues in Publics and Counterpublics, the idea of a single public is a historical fiction, as the word itself implies at least three different things: an ideological “social totality,” a concrete audience “assembled in common visibility” and action, and a “public that comes into being only in relation to texts and their circulation.” While the corporate-sponsored monoculture aims to flatten these publics into an individual, Orwellian abstraction, there is as yet no way to speak to us all at the same time, or at least to be heard, and the presumed universality of figures from the past adored for the finesse with which they addressed the crowds who would listen is contradicted by the narrowness and sameness of those very audiences, be they viewers of The Dick Cavett Show or readers of The New York Review of Books.

Those at the Chronicle might take this as a peg to defend the sanctity of scholarship, and so would Jodi Dean, who maintains the responsibility of the traditional mechanisms for the publication of research (journals and monographs) to cut through the noise when “the capacity for our so-called newspaper of record to function that way” is in doubt, while others whose careers might remind us of a Sontag or an Arendt see their contributions to nonacademic publications as extracurricular. The mandate to “publish or perish” applies now more than ever, but still refers exclusively, at most institutions, to the standard of peer review, limited though its immediate impact may be. Merve Emre, an associate professor of English at Oxford and critic for The New Yorker, Harper’s, and other legacy magazines (including this one), considers these to be different, if complementary, jobs, as does Ian Bogost, a contributing writer at The Atlantic, for whom “scholars are sort of like stewards of things. It’s not like the Fourth Estate, where your responsibility is to the citizens and to their ability to make decisions in their democracy. That’s not the responsibility of the scholar. The responsibility of the scholar is to unearth and contextualize and disseminate new knowledge.”

Still, few in the media, an industry dying from the same disease, are qualified to do the essential work of translation, and it can be disconcerting to see the intelligentsia engage in groupthink, adding “PhD” and “Dr.” to handles en masse in empty protest, reposting fake news, or replicating the same cliquish power imbalances upheld offline. As ever greater numbers of talented scholars are denied access to the privilege of steady employment, the necessity of the modern university in its current, broken form must be called into question, and online spaces have fostered an unprecedented venue for institutional critique. “Quit lit” is another subgenre of academic op-ed that has metastasized in recent years, but even a cursory survey of #AcademicTwitter suggests that the barrage of casualties to adjunctification is only the harbinger of a historic brain drain from higher education.

The whole of the web, and not only Twitter, appears to the twenty-first-century scholar as a Hieronymus Bosch painting.

For Trevor Strunk, an adjunct writing instructor at DeSales University, outside of Philadelphia, and host of No Cartridge, a podcast that marries video game criticism with leftist politics, online discourse is more inclusive, stimulating, and generative than the “professionalized humorlessness” and “false veritas” of academic discussion, to say nothing of honesty and rigor. The practices of glossing, hand-waving, and “framing” customary in academia don’t fly online, he says, where the demand to innovate is even stronger, the politics of citation more complicated, and anonymity produces its own code of ethics, if not a sustainable economic model (Strunk advertises a Patreon in his bio, and among contingent scholars on Twitter, he’s far from the only one). “The internet is a place where you get the strange, bastardized, self-published academics,” the “weird cranks” who sometimes appeal to “ironic ex- or current 4chan people,” but also “sad brain kids who are using online to deal with gender or sexuality stuff.” The hyperspecialization of research required to get noticed on the academic job market resembles nothing so closely as the hot take, but that’s only one level in a gamified career with a “clear RPG-style progression.”

The tenure system that was conceived to protect intellectual independence has more often served to keep sycophants in deans’ offices and endowed chairs, a pattern that concessions to private industry have only managed to exacerbate. In Engines of Anxiety: Academic Rankings, Reputation, and Accountability, Michael Sauder and Wendy Nelson Espeland paint a portrait of law school administrators living “in dread of the inevitable day” that new U.S. News and World Report rankings “would come out showing that their school had dropped to a worse number or tier, and many of the changes caused by the rankings can be directly tied to this fear.” The metrical logic of retweets, likes, impressions, and reach already guides the work of today’s scholars, who enter graduate school “caring about wisdom,” as C. Thi Nguyen, an associate professor of philosophy at Utah Valley University, puts it, and “leave caring about citation rates.” From the sidelines, adjuncts like Strunk laugh with a sigh. “Have you ever seen any academic have a good take on Trump?”

Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach states that “the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it,” an idea likely more true in 2020 than it was in 1845. The Sanskrit root of pundit denotes a “learned man,” and while distinguished experts argue amongst themselves whether the revolution will be televised or will ever come at all, those who labor in begrudging support of the academic bourgeoisie are shitposting the struggle into existence.