I had a long talk with a colleague of mine yesterday about the state of our department. At one point in our conversation, he told me he read a post on my blog a couple years ago about him. In the post, I made fun of the language he used in a birthday party invitation. The specifics aren’t important, what IS important is that what I said was mean and it continues to have measurable effects. This person is still hurt by it and as a result, so am I.
When I redesigned my blog, I rediscovered the offending post in my archive and it made me feel gross. I promptly deleted it, hoping no one would notice, especially the person I mocked. But maybe this isn’t such a bad thing? While I never knew his feelings were hurt until now, he called me out and he graciously gave me the opportunity to apologize to his face. A little piece of the past that I thought I had erased, stuck with me and I dunno, maybe I learned something?
The thing that kills me is that this person has never been anything but nice to me. We can toss barbs at each other, sure, but nothing that’s ever flat out mean-spirited. So why did I do it?
After having a baby, I had some time to reflect on my grad school experience. I thought about my relationships with people. How so many were built on bratty, whiny rants and complaints. We bitched about classes, the faculty, and each other. My department can be down right toxic. We don’t share ideas and to say we’re highly competitive is an understatement. I was mean because I wanted to fit in. Plain and simple. I was afraid of not seeming “fierce” enough, or invested in a kind of academic celebrity joie de vivre that involves lots of bragging about being an “activist” and doing lines with faculty “Stars” all night.
And this is not to shit on folks who do, but it’s the investment in appearances for appearances sake that makes me anxious and sweaty . I was and am part of it and I wish we could all come down to earth and talk to each other like people. This is starting to sound super hippy, but I’m fucking serious. How cool would it be if you weren’t afraid that your colleagues were going to make fun of you and your work behind your back? Or that someone wasn’t going to try and sabotage your relationship with your advisor? Or fuck, not return library books because you might encroach on someone else’s scholarly domain?* Basically, what if we didn’t worry that other people’s judgments made us who we are?
I don’t think we’re all sociopaths, but I do think that our academic system is pushing us toward sociopathic behavior. The job pool is limited, intellectualism is under attack, and honestly, queers of color can be the meanest to each other because the stakes are high and the opportunities are slim. So, can/should I intervene in a toxic academic culture or just lock myself in my office and write? What say you?
*These are real examples, by the way. Fucked, right?