I love Twitter. I love that, on any given day, people on Twitter are discussing basically everything; I'm a little obsessed with the way people livetweet things, like "Scandal." (Olivia Pope!) I even love the way businesses have social media people just waiting to tweet you back because you mentioned Domino's Pizza or Jet Blue.
On the flip side of all that power for amusement is the way some people just do not seem to realize that Twitter is public. And if you talk shit, you are, in fact, starting shit with pretty much everyone who gets linked to the screencap of what you said. A lot of people, from sports figures to musicians (remember when Trent Reznor flounced?) have been faced with this stunning realization: You can shout into the void all you want but sometimes the void shouts back.
Dr. Geoffrey Miller, a visiting professor at NYU, is the most recent person to discover this.
The outrage -- and it does read like outrage on this one instead of just a lot of generalized and conflicting shouting -- has generated a (disappointing) response from NYU and an official response from the University of New Mexico (Dr. Miller's home institution of higher education) that was actually pretty heartening. Many of the academics on Twitter continue to be in an uproar, especially now that Dr. Miller has claimed his remark was part of an experiment involving provocative tweets.
I was ready to blow right by this because, honestly, any given individual instance of people hating on fatties is not a surprise to me. Nor is it shocking to me that PhD programs might be discriminating against people based on their appearance.
Hello, it is 2013. Don't we all know about racism, classism, and general appearance bias? Academia is not, alas and alack, a shining bubble of equality based solely on academic merit.
What caught my attention were the reactions -- usually in these cases, there are a lot of defenders crawling out of the woodwork. People dismiss the upset as being mere Twitter drama caused by people who like to be offended, and everyone (except the offended) forgets what just happened. It's the Twitter Circle of Life, and it moves us all. (Through despair and hope, through faith and love. Sorry. Earworm.)
This time, while Dr. Miller has his defenders, the reaction is overwhelmingly that Dr. Miller screwed the pooch on this one. Some people are taking this as a positive sign that fat studies and fat activism are being taken more seriously across the board. And I'd love to be in that camp, I really would. But there is something cynical poking at me, doubting that this has much at all to do with people really being outraged that he would pick on fat folks.
In the interest of transparency: I don't have a higher degree. I have a Bachelors in Creative Writing. I took the GRE, intended to go on to a Master's program somewhere because I really actively love going to school. (Yeah, I'm that nerd.) But I put off the Masters because of a boy and there you go. Here I sit, with my B.A. and my professional experience, with nary an advanced degree.
I don't have any letters after my own name, but I've witnessed a whole bunch of people navigate the murky waters of today's higher ed ocean. That's one reason I haven't gone back to school, honestly.
The academic game is also changing; women have been making strides in evening up the ratio of who gets higher degrees for the past 30 years. The scale is finally tipping toward women taking home more of the total number of advanced degrees. But the closing of that gender gap doesn't really mean education is equal. Not only are certain degrees (STEM, anyone?) dominated by men, college degrees of any level are still disproportionately awarded to white people. (The National Center for Education Statistics does point out that this percentage is falling, however, as people of color graduate in higher numbers. Progress!)
And then there is the issue of class and the lack of accessibility of higher degrees to poor folks.
I point this out not because I want to be all killjoy over the response to Dr. Miller's tweet but because I think everything happens in a context. And the context here is that colleges and universities are increasingly the targets of litigation by unhappy or scorned students. Some of these suits make me laugh (legacy students who have been denied admission, for example) but it's a very real fact that Dr. Miller's tweet could be considered evidence that he has allowed personal bias to influence him when he weighs in on admissions decisions -- and he has sat on admissions committees before.
That's a golden setup for a lawsuit.
I want to be clear -- I'm not saying that every academic who is grossed out by Dr. Miller's tweet is worrying about litigation. But I do think that's something to consider. Because when you are dealing with institutionalized power, there are often lots of things that are accepted but which are not meant to be SAID.
Dr. Miller said it right out in public and it was screen capped.
And, when his weak apology was not sufficient to calm the response, Dr. Miller locked down his Twitter and hasn't been seen since. In fact, he's deleted other tweets as well -- including ones with a hashtag about how diversity is our weakness. (Twitter seems overwhelmed at the moment but there are a lot of good links in this Atlantic Wire piece, though I quibble with their unexamined repetition of the "Twitter Police" trope.)
He's not speaking for himself -- but the UNM video response reports that he's claiming his tweet was part of an experiment. This claim has reinvigorated the academic response on Twitter. Because if you're going to experiment on human beings, you need the permission of an Institutional Review Board. IRBs determine the ethics of a proposed human experiment. Does Dr. Miller have one? There's no sign of it thus far.
This raises the possibility that he's lying -- I'd even say the probability. Which creates further embarrassment for the academic community. Where's the rigor, academia? I mean, what's the methodology proposed for a Twitter experiment about what happens when people are douchebags?
I find myself lacking in energy to respond to individuals who sling this kind of shit. I felt the same way, by and large, about the Abercrombie + Fitch debacle. I'm tired of Dr. Miller's name already. What I want is for this to serve as a gateway to discussion about bias in higher ed. I want the unspoken things to be spoken so that we can address them.
And I want to support visibility -- because contrary to Dr. Miller's opinion, there is an increasing diversity of people prying open the doors of the Ivory Tower. Some of those people? Are fat. Which is why Dr. Cat Pausé created FuckYeahFatPhDs over on Tumblr. When we are visible, we have more power. (Cat is totally accepting more images, too, so if you're a fat academic, get in touch with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Dr. Miller is just another one in a series of people who thinks it's OK to trash talk people's bodies. Let's not pretend he's the only one in academia who feels this way. Instead, let's make this conversation bigger than him so we can all make something better happen.