New Year Navel-gazing

I’ve been in school one way or another as long as I can remember, so September always feels like my real New Year. There are hints of a change in the weather, new clothes and pencils, a return to routine. It’s a time for taking stock, making plans, setting goals. And I realized a few things . . . .

Outrage Fatigue

Like a lot of people, I experienced outrage burnout this week. Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin’s comments about how “legitimate rape” victims are unlikely to get pregnant had this Jezebel piece on “rape fatigue” making the rounds. In back-to-school news, Iran, which has one of the highest rates of female post-secondary education participation in the world, is moving to exclude women from many degree programs. And then, of course, there was yet another author-reviewer blowup (if you really want a link, start here).

I realized that I have outrage fatigue partly because I’ve been spending too much time on the internet this summer. At the end of the last school year I had real life burnout and fatigue. And so I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few months on Twitter, blogs and websites, busy not thinking about my real life. I hope this problem will pretty much solve itself now that a new academic year is firing up. But if not, I’ll need to impose a partial Twitter fast. I can’t care about All The Things, and for my own sanity I need to focus more on Things I can actually do something about.

But. I’m not saying that people who care about “minor” things like best-selling authors more or less encouraging their fans to attack negative Amazon reviews need to get a life, or that those things don’t really matter, or that we shouldn’t care about them because there are more serious problems in the world like politicians in Iran and the US and everywhere else in the world who want to limit women’s rights and opportunities. I don’t think that (and I’m annoyed by tweets and blog posts suggesting those things), but I don’t want to read every link about and comment myself on every meltdown that occurs. I don’t have enough emotional energy to spend so much of it online.

That said, I see connections between all these points of outrage. Yes, attacks on online reader-reviewers are not as significant as banning women from university education or limiting their reproductive choices. But they are all attempts to control behavior and silence (mostly) women, a point Robin made back in July. In a few cases, the attacks on reviewers appear to have extended to threatening phone calls (which is why I no longer want to use the term “kerfuffle” to describe these things; it downplays them too much).

Nice Girls

I was particularly struck by the gender dynamics in the latest incident. Many fans thought it was cute and charming that the author’s husband “defended her honor” (what century is this?) by calling a reader who left a negative review a “psycho.” There were a number of references to fans and reviewers as “girls,” though these people are clearly adult women. That may be a Southern culture thing, but it’s also an infantilizing thing. Then there was a lot of discussion about how “sweet” and “nice” the author is. And indeed, her Facebook posts didn’t actually tell fans to go attack negative reviews. They couched the suggestion in “nice girl” language (isn’t it funny what my husband is doing; I won’t look, but you all can; thank you, nice assistant, for attacking reviewers for me).

I see this “nice girl” culture as really poisonous. It prevents women from taking adult responsibility, from owning up and apologizing in a meaningful way when they do something Not Nice. Nice is not like Mr. Darcy’s good opinion, once lost it’s lost forever. Good, decent people do crappy things sometimes. They also own up to their mistakes and make amends. Nice Girls, on the other hand, stab you in the back while trying to maintain plausible deniability and a façade of perfection. Kind of like politicians. Well, I’m tired. Fuck Nice Girl. How about some responsible, respectful women instead? Respect allows for honest criticism, something Nice precludes. And judging by this New York Times article on buying reviews, honest criticism is in short supply.

On Being Reviewed

Here’s the other thing I realized today: I have been reviewed online. And I learned years ago not to look at those reviews. (Since I decided recently to link my real name to this blog, I guess you can check them out. Don’t leave rebuttals or tell me what they say, though). I’ve also been reviewed in class (anonymously) by my students many times.

You may think student evaluations aren’t like book reviews. You’re right. They’re worse. (I do think student feedback can be useful, though it’s notorious for being largely grade-driven. I prefer to design my own course-specific forms and get at the measures I think matter). Teacher evaluations are always partly about you as a person, your personality. The popular online professor-rating site includes “hotness” as one of its categories.

Colleges and universities don’t ask about that on their own evaluation forms, of course, but students will volunteer it. Once a student felt the need to say which movie stars she thought I looked most like (I think it was Jennifer Grey and Bridget Fonda. If only). Students will tell you you’re boring. Not “your book” or “your lecture” or “the assignment.” YOU. Early in my career, a student wrote that I must be racist, because I never looked him/her in the eye. Uh, I’m shy. I have trouble looking everyone in the eye. I’ve gotten better. But thanks for that!

I’m not special. Most of us deal with performance reviews of one kind or another in our work lives. And most of us manage to do it like responsible women and men. The best aid for author-reviewer outrage fatigue? Remembering that most authors do too. I have no sympathy for the few who don’t.

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One Response to New Year Navel-gazing

  1. Very well said. This post sums up nicely some of the things that have had my nose wrinkling over recent events, especially that whole niceness/infantilising thing.

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