HEWN, No. 281

The new boss same as the old boss

Welcome to the new HEWN, same as the old HEWN, just delivered to you via a different company — in this case, Substack. As I noted in last week’s newsletter, I am making the shift because I like the features of Substack. (I think it looks nicer, if nothing else.) That being said, I’m always a little nervous about adopting a new product as I know what short lifespans technology startups and their services typically have. Indeed, that’s what’s happened to Tinyletter, which I started using because I loved its simplicity (and how it was so unabashedly uninterested in making an email “look nice”). Then it was acquired by Mailchimp… and well, you know the rest of the story.

Speaking of email, The Verge republished The Internet of Garbage this week, Sarah Jeong’s brilliant book about online harassment, “free speech,” and the techno-political infrastructure of the Internet — a book about why solving the problem of erectile dysfunction medication-related span was a priority for engineers and IT while other kinds of unsolicited messages still seem to be a-okay. (Right, @Jack?)

And speaking of infrastructure — the design of systems and the practices built up around them that protect the powerful — do read this article by Andrea Long Chu about harassment in academia: “I Worked with Avital Ronell. I Believe Her Accuser.”

Structural problems are problems because real people hurt real people. You cannot have a cycle of abuse without existing abusers. That sounds simple, which is why so many academics hate it. When scholars defend Avital — or “complicate the narrative,” as we like to say — in part this is because we cannot stand believing what most people believe. The need to feel smarter is deep. Intelligence is a hungry god.

In this way, Avital’s case has become a strange referendum on literary study. Generations of scholars have been suckled at the teat of interpretation: We spend our days parsing commas and decoding metaphors. We get high on finding meaning others can’t. We hoard it, like dragons. We would be intellectually humiliated to learn that the truth was plain: that Avital quite simply sexually harassed her student, just as described. Sometimes analysis is simply denial with more words. Sometimes, as a frustrated student in a first-year literature course always mutters, the text just means what it says it means.

In related news, I’m currently trying to convince an incoming high school senior that, as she applies to colleges this fall, she should consider a major in the humanities — despite all the narratives she’s inundated with that she needs to pick a path (and a school) that is “career-focused.” You needn’t become an English professor just because you majored in English, I tried to tell her (leaving out all my opinions on and experiences in grad school in the process). But my goodness (and I know I am biased), look what you can do with a Comp Lit degree: “The John McCain Phenomenon” by Patrick Blanchfield.

Speaking of college, according to The New York Times, “online brand promoter” is a “hot college gig.” This seems like just the kind of story that could use some critical analysis from humanities or social sciences types — you know, some questions about race and class and gender, or about the economics and the ethics of this sort of digital labor, or about who gets to be a “brand promoter,” and so on. The same could most certainly be said for this story in Buzzfeed on teacher Instagram.

Back-to-school on teacher Instagram — a corporate hellscape of carefully staged photos of colorful classroom supplies and bulletin boards hashtag hashtag hashtag — reminds me of Natasha Singer’s story in The New York Times last fall on ed-tech and “teacher-influencers,” a designation that only seems to be acceptable to administrators when it’s white educators doing the sales pitch. And almost exclusively white women at that.

One of the teachers in that NYT article, incidentally, penned a story arguing that the future of the classroom should look something like a Starbucks. (The future of education is big brands, the education reformers and education investors keep repeating.) Again, it’s one of those allusions that I think is supposed to be inspirational but I find just utterly terrifying. Is this classroom the Starbucks where the white lady manager calls the cops on young Black men who make her uncomfortable?

The path to educational equality will not come from product placement on social media (or from graduate-level literary studies at NYU or elsewhere). In fact, that path seems to be pointing us in a very different direction.

So in closing, a pigeon:

Image credits

Yours in struggle,