The Impossibility of Response

A recent blog post by Erin Bartram has been drawing a lot of attention, as it’s both an example of “quit lit” (essays about why a person is leaving a particular field) and a critique of same. It’s a really good piece, far better than most “quit lit” essays, and says some thought-provoking things about academia and relationships within academia.

It’s also, as I noted on Twitter, kind of impossible to write a response to, for reasons nicely summed up in the last two bullet points of the screen shot that heads the IHE article:

  • Yeah, this is a highly emotional piece of writing and paints with a broad brush and you might disagree with a lot of the ways I’ve characterized academia.
  • No, I don’t care that you disagree. My feelings, thank heavens, are not subject to peer-review.

It’s a very raw and emotional piece, and that raw emotion makes it feel like it would be rude to even attempt any response that isn’t just total agreement. Even partial agreement necessarily involves disagreement on some points, which would feel like disparaging or denigrating an honest statement of feelings, saying that the author is wrong to feel that way. And that’s Just Not Done.

This is a thing I see happening a lot of late, with pretty much any emotionally charged topic. If anything, this is a more genteel example than most, in that she acknowledges the likely existence of disagreement and just states that she’s not interested in hearing about it. In many cases, any expression of disagreement is treated as an outrage.

That reaction seems to be a nearly inevitable consequence of the ever-increasing entanglement of personal and political. Every thinkpiece about an issue of broad importance is also a statement of personal feelings and experience. In which case even a “Yes, but…” response looks like an attempt to gainsay those feelings and experience. And you’d need to be an asshole to do that.

So, the very pieces that ought to generate the most discussion by their nature also preclude responses, save by assholes, or those willing to be seen to be acting like an asshole, which may be a distinction with little difference. And, of course, those responses are generally the least useful responses imaginable.

I don’t have any idea what can be done about this, but it seems like a major obstacle to any sort of productive policy-making. Systematic change is undoubtedly necessary in academia and many other sectors of society, but making that change will necessarily involve bringing together people who are not in total agreement about everything, and hammering out some sort of policy that’s acceptable to a wide range of people. And when even “Yes, but…” is rude, it’s almost impossible to craft a compromise.

At the same time, it’s unrealistic to expect people to be completely dispassionate about policies that affect them in a deep and personal way. These are emotional issues, and individual responses will inevitably have an emotional component.

(And please note that I’m not claiming to be personally brave in writing this– you’ll note that I’m very carefully avoiding saying anything about the content of the original essay. If you’re reading along and thinking that I’m doing the exact better-part-of-valor thing that I’m saying is part of the problem, yep, that’s a fair cop. I don’t have a particularly coherent “Yes, but…” response to that piece to share, in large part because I know that generating one would be a waste of effort because I doubt I’d dare to share it.)

Anyway, this seems like an intractable problem. It also seems like a problem that ought to get more thought and discussion than it does. How can we both accept and validate the strong emotion that comes from personal involvement while also channeling that in a way that allows and even drives the crafting of policies that will be broadly acceptable, without requiring complete agreement?

One thought on “The Impossibility of Response”

  1. What I’ve been thinking about recently is the extent to which we should consider physics, or history, or any academic discipline, to be akin to areas widely acknowledged to be the domain of expert performance, such as athletics or music. Things where success usually involves a huge chunk of one’s youth, in an obsessive, immersive environment. Where there are more with aspirations than there are jobs. And where there’s a distribution of talent that spans orders of magnitude from the most talented and famous to vanishingly nothing for those who haven’t studied. In physics, at least, I think of the thousands of physicists who are better than I am, many by orders of magnitude (as in Landau’s scale), but also that I am better at physics than billions of people, also by many orders of magnitude.

    As a society, we have do have some sympathy for, say, the minor league ballplayer who never makes it to the majors, or the cellist who never gets a job in an orchestra. But it’s limited sympathy, because everyone knows the odds.

    A big categorical difference between academics and athletics or music is that the moment of reckoning comes about a decade later in life.

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