Gin Lane, Gilligan's Island, and timewasting in the modern era

I’m a few months late with this, but my across-the-street neighbor forwarded it to me just last week (h/t Del!), and I thought it was thought-provoking.  In an essay called “Gin, Television, and Social Surplus,” Clay Shirky writes about the parallels between the trauma induced by the Industrial Revolution in England in the eighteenth century, and the anxiety provoked by the surplus of time that fossil fuels, labor unions, and the Welfare State brought us in the mid- to late Twentieth Century in the West.  In eighteenth-century Britain, he writes,

The transformation from rural to urban life was so sudden, and so wrenching, that the only thing society could do to manage was to drink itself into a stupor for a generation. The stories from that era are amazing– there were gin pushcarts working their way through the streets of London.

And it wasn’t until society woke up from that collective bender that we actually started to get the institutional structures that we associate with the industrial revolution today. Things like public libraries and museums, increasingly broad education for children, elected leaders–a lot of things we like–didn’t happen until having all of those people together stopped seeming like a crisis and started seeming like an asset.

He then goes on to argue that for the past 60 years, TV, like gin, has served as a pain-killing distraction for a few generations until people woke up and figured out what to do with the possibilities of this new era.  It’s a provocative essay about the possibilities of Web 2.0 and other interactive media, and proposes that we’re on the cusp of taking advantage finally of “cognitive surplus.”  He relates a conversation with a TV producer, who is attached to the Old Media model of We Produce/You Consume, and who was resistant to hearing his ideas about the possibilities of interactivity.  About on-line gamers, she asks, “where do they find the time?”  Of course they have the time, Shirky writes, because they’re not watching television!

So that’s the answer to the question, “Where do they find the time?” Or, rather, that’s the numerical answer. But beneath that question was another thought, this one not a question but an observation. In this same conversation with the TV producer I was talking about World of Warcraft guilds, and as I was talking, I could sort of see what she was thinking: “Losers. Grown men sitting in their basement pretending to be elves.”


At least they’re doing something.


Did you ever see that episode of Gilligan’s Island where they almost get off the island and then Gilligan messes up and then they don’t? I saw that one. I saw that one a lot when I was growing up. And every half-hour that I watched that was a half an hour I wasn’t posting at my blog or editing Wikipedia or contributing to a mailing list. Now I had an ironclad excuse for not doing those things, which is none of those things existed then. I was forced into the channel of media the way it was because it was the only option. Now it’s not, and that’s the big surprise. However lousy it is to sit in your basement and pretend to be an elf, I can tell you from personal experience it’s worse to sit in your basement and try to figure if Ginger or Mary Ann is cuter.

Well, Historiann always had a thing for the Professor herself, but then he didn’t really have a lot of male competition on the island now, did he?  (Mr. Howell?  The Captain?  Gilligan?)  And, I sure spent long afternoons after school with my brother watching old episodes of Gilligan’s Island, Lost in Space, and then usually a M*A*S*H* re-run.  And we both have advanced degrees!

I think he’s got an interesting argument, but here’s my question for you, dear readers:  I’ve looked for books or articles about eighteenth-century England that makes the argument outlined above, and I can’t find it.  It’s now been 17 years since I read intensively in British history, and my readings were more on the seventeenth-century, pre-industrial side of things rather than on the later end of the long eighteenth-century and the proto-industrial revolution side of things.  Can you European historians help me out?  I assume it would have been published in the 1970s or 1980s, given how old I think Shirky must be with all of those Gilligan’s Island references.  I may have been casting my search net too narrowly, as it looks like cultural histories of gin and gin consumption are more of a 1990s and 2000s kind of thing.  What book is Shirky thinking of?  What do you think of his comparison of historical eras?  Is he onto something, or is he all wet?

Academic workplace bullying: run away, indeed!

Every time I post on bullies, I get linked to by national blogs (thanks Chronicle of Higher Education, Suburban Guerrila, and Inside Higher Ed!) and the outpouring of misery is disturbing and sobering.  The hair-raising stories recounted in the comments here, here, and here have really touched me, and I hope all of you are on to better jobs and much happier lives, and if not, that you will be very soon.  For the rest of you, my wish is that you’ll all be on the lookout for incipient bullying in your workplaces, and that you’ll intervene on someone else’s behalf to preserve the collegiality and mental health that are the bedrock of all functional academic workplaces.

When I titled my posts on bullying earlier this week “Don’t sue–run for your lives!” I did so somewhat prankishly (as in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, with King Arthur and his army always screaming, “run away! run away!”)  Some commenters here and over at the Chronicle here thought that I was giving blanket advice–that people should not try to improve things and that they should just resign from a bad job.  Of course, everyone has to make hir own calculations about whether to stay and fight, or whether just to “run away” as fast as possible.  But, I was disturbed by the judgmental tone of some of the comments that implied that “running away” was irresponsible, and your stories have convinced me that “running away” is not such bad advice after all.  (At least, you should consider putting it near the top of your list of options if you’re currently being bullied at work.)

I didn’t say this in my initial post, but it took me four years to “run away” from my bad job–four years of telling allies about the aggressive things that people said to me, four years of confronting one chair and then another when they said demeaning and hostile things to me, two years of having one chair either blow up at me or give me unsolicited advice about my personal life, two years of another chair telling me that “you need to teach more broadly,” because of three student evaluation forms that complained that all I ever talked about was “blacks, women, and Indians, not American history,” two years of that chair threatening my tenure, two years of meeting with the dean, only to be told that “you have to understand, Historiann, that you’re a very intimidating person.”  That’s right:  Historiann, the youngest and most junior person in that department was told that she was intimidating to tenured professors a decade, or two, or three older than she!  I was told that my self-confidence and (very modest!) successes made my senior colleagues uncomfortable, so maybe I should try inviting them out to lunch to make nice!  What did I get for my four years of trying to draw attention to the problems in that department?  Like most of you have testified, the only thing most of us get for following the faculty manual and reporting bullying behavior is retaliation!  At that point, I started to photocopy my Vita and send out letters of application.  Thank goodness someone wanted me–so I packed my wagon and drove it west as fast as my horses could run!  (That’s me pictured above!)

As enraging as my story is, the comments many of you have left (here, here, and here) were filled with truly hair-raising stories much worse than my own.  While I still think that everyone has to make hir own decision about what to do about an abusive workplace, because of all of your comments, I now believe that “run away” is actually pretty good advice, especially for untenured people.  Because I lived in a household with a second income, because I had wonderful friends at another local university who were my sounding board and refuge, because I am a highly self-confident person, and because I was still an Assistant Professor, I had a lot more options than many other victims of bullying have.  (I’ve noticed the tendency for bullies–male and female alike–to prey on unmarried/un-partnered women, women who don’t have the back-up plan of another household income, and who therefore are perceived as economically and emotionally vulnerable.  My second household income gave me the liberty to resign even if I hadn’t found another job.)  Given the lack of support from department chairs and deans reported by so many of you in your experiences of being bullied, it seems that leaving sooner rather than later, before you lose sleep, sanity, and good health, before you’re committed to a lifetime of happy pills and therapy, before you jeopardize (or lose) your relationship, your family, and the rest of your career, is not such bad advice after all.

I understand people’s concerns that if bullied people just go away, that workplaces will never reform themselves, but criticizing victims for throwing in the towel is monstrously unfair.  There is a big industry now selling advice about how to deal with workplace bullies–and the people in that industry can’t sell as many books as they’d like to if their advice boils down to “get out as fast as you can.”  They’re selling hope to people in a bad situation, and some of their ideas for combating bullies may prove useful to many people.  But suggesting that the victims of bullies have the primary responsibility of cleaning up the mess after suffering the bullying seems, well, bullying!  Bullies are the ones who need to change, and their enabling co-workers are the ones who need to force those changes on the bullies and in themselves.  What do you think a victim of bullying owes the department or institution that is bullying hir?  (Hint:  that’s a rhetorical question!)  My answer?  Jack crap

Workplaces that tolerate bullies and do little if anything to assist the victims don’t tend to generate a great deal of loyalty or affection.  (My bad job was at a religiously affiliated university, which loved to deploy the rhetoric of family and community when it came to extracting unpaid work from staff and faculty.  But somehow, we weren’t all “family” or “community” when staff and faculty needed redress, or when students were raped on campus.)  If victims want to assist in a Great Reformation, then by all means they should.  But of all people in abusive workplaces, victims are the ones with the least responsibility for making changes.  Most of us tried.  Most of us were repaid with  more abuse.  So, I think it’s more than OK for most of us to resign and say, “happy trails!”  (Or, you could write a book about your experiences in a bullying environment like this guy!)

Incan Barbie, Arequipa

Many people find there way here by googling “academic workplace” or “academic bullying,” but every day dozens of people come to after googling “Barbie,” “Barbies,” or the word “Barbie” modified by several different adjectives.  (“Eccentric barbie outfits,” or “Barbie wedding dress” are two popular iterations.)  Weirdly, on Tuesday someone googled “sean (sic) cassidy doll,” and it led them here!  Was there ever such a thing?  I mean, my brother and I had the Six Million Dollar Man doll, the Bionic Woman doll, the 1970s-era G.I. Joe with the fuzzy hair and beard, and the Cher doll, but I’ve never heard of a Shaun Cassidy doll.  (If I had heard of it back in 1977, I’m sure I would have wanted it!)

Anyway, Barbie fans and other doll-watchers, the picture to the right is all for you!  She was photographed in Arequipa, Peru, the second largest city after Lima.  H/t to Historiann commenter Homostorian Americanist, who writes:  “It was in a souvenir shop on the Plaza de Armas, . . . . and was being used to display what they called ‘traditional Incan clothing.’  The photos were actually taken by my friend, Emily F.  And we went back a second day (no camera when we first saw it) to snap it.  The owner looked at us a little oddly.”  Thanks, Homostorian Americanist and Emily, for spending the shoe leather just for this photo, and for sharing it with Historiann!

If you want to lighten things up in your mind, please just enjoy the new Barbie photo.  If you want to continue the heavier conversations below, by all means, let the consciousness raising continue!  (No one has yet written in with answers to my “million dollar question”–how can faculty of goodwill turn a bad department good again?  If you’ve got any ideas or success stories, please don’t keep them all to yourself!)

Don't sue–run for your lives! (Part II)


This post is a follow-up to yesterday’s post, which was about workplace bullies and the ways in which they can come to dominate a work environment by driving away some people while turning those who remain into bullies themselves.  According to Robert Sutton, “[R]esearch on emotional contagion, and on abusive supervision in particular, finds that if you work with or around a bunch of nasty and demeaning people, odds are you will become one of them.”  This describes many of the people I worked with in my first tenure-track job, which I resigned seven years ago.

My major foe at my former university was someone who was tenured but simultaneously (and humiliatingly) denied her promotion to Associate Professor.  She had published a book after all in a department that didn’t require a book, whereas men in the department had recently been promoted to Associate Professor before tenure and, in one case, without a book at all.  (That’s right:  men without books?  Can’t wait to promote you!  Women with books?  Wait a year or two, then apply again.)  There was a whole class of women assistant professors who got that treatment right around the time I was hired, either within their department or at the college review level.  Need I point out that the curious creature known as the tenured Assistant Professor was a pink-collar only rank?  Unfortunately, this individual’s experience resulted not in anger and radicalization, but in shame and internalization, which was then directed outward not at the people who caused her misery, but at other targets below her on the hierarchy. 

This was a pattern that repeated itself many times in that department.  People were filled with ressentiment about the way they were treated, and most of them either became bullies or apologists, explaining that “don’t worry, you’ll still be tenured.  That’s just the way we do things.  Everyone goes through it, so you’ll just have to suck it up.”  There were a few good people who tried to make changes–but they have been easily defeated by the others.  Those who were my friends and allies were valiant in their optimism and their commitment to change, but in the meantime, what a life:  stomping out flaming bags of poop that someone else is leaving on yet someone else’s doorstep. 

One of the effects of this kind of work culture is that it stifles new ideas, fresh methodologies, and innovative research and pedagogy, because of the rate of turnover among those who leave, and the inner turmoil suffered by those who stay.  (Bullying academic departments tend not to allow Assistant Professors to follow their own bliss, either in the classroom or in their research agendas.  This is sometimes the very motive for the bullying:  many departments really don’t want anything–or anyone–new or innovative around.  And, scrutinizing other people’s work to belittle it is one of the pleasures of academic bullying!)  Unsurprisingly, women’s history and histories of other not-dominant groups and historically marginalized perspectives have a hard time gaining purchase in an environment like that.  For example:  Historiann was hired to be the American women’s historian in that department, a position that had been a tenure track line for thirteen years but one that had never seen anyone progress to tenure.  (Historiann was number five in the long line of historians who had held that position.)  And guess what, girls and boys?  Twenty-four years later, no one yet has been tenured in that line!  That’s right:  success beyond anyone’s wildest antifeminist dreams in 1984, when the position was first established.  Of course, the fact that that position was the only line dedicated to women’s history was doubtless a major factor behind the abuse and harassment suffered by all of the historians who hopped on and off that merry-go-round.

So, who says cheaters never prosper?  Bullies may not be happy people, but it seems to me that they get what they want, and that really sucks.  (The woman described above is probably one of the unhappiest people I’ve ever had the misfortune to know–a truly wretched creature.)  But what might suck more is staying in an abusive job because you’re determined to be SuperProf who’s going to vindicate herself and save her department of its destructive culture.  We don’t encourage people in abusive relationships to believe they can make the abuser change–why should we expect people in bullying work environments to stick around and try to change the culture, when they have little if any power or influence to force reform?

The million-dollar question is, of course, how can anyone turn a bad department into a good one?  Who can get control over bullying work environments and force change upon them?  My sense is that it takes a strong-willed dean who’s not afraid of the bullies and who’s got a healthy budget to clean house with brutal post-tenure reviews (including perhaps buyouts), and to support lots of new hires.  But–in the arts and humanities–what deans have that kind of time or money, outside of elite universities and SLACs, where the humanities are central rather than marginal to the identity of the institution?  My guess is that most departments have to shift for themselves, so how do good people leverage their goodness to isolate, marginalize, and/or drive out the bad?



Don't sue–run for your lives! (Part I)


Robert Sutton, author of The No A$$hole Rule (which has been mentioned previously at, offers some interesting commentary on proposed anti-bullying legislation being considered now in New Jersey and New York (h/t to Bullied Academics.)  He writes, “[e]ssentially, the idea of these bills is to punish employers that allow ‘equal opportunity a$$holes’ to get away with doing their dirty work, thus going beyond current laws against race and gender-based workplace abuse.”  What’s not to like?

Well, the problem is the way that lawsuits work in real life, where institutions and corporations have infinitely more time and money than individuals.  As Sutton points out, the more damage you can show, the better your case will be.  And the more damage you suffer, the more damaged you are!  This is hardly a recipe for health and happiness.  Sutton explains: 

So, the more you lose – – the deeper your depression, your anxiety, and your financial losses, and the more physical ailments you suffer –- the better your case. The implication for me is WHY NOT GET OUT BEFORE YOU SUFFER TANGIBLE DAMAGES IN THE FIRST PLACE?  Or at least why not  get out  with as little damage as possible, and get on with your life?

He also notes that a lawsuit means reliving the abuse and damage.  I hate to admit it, because it offends my sense of justice, but bullying work environments aren’t the playground, and there are no recess supervisors or hall monitors to appeal to who will ensure that the bullies get their comeuppance.  Grown-ups have to make the best lives for themselves and their loved ones they possibly can, and staying in an abusive job (like staying in other abusive relationships) to make a stronger legal case seems like a risky plan.  Prof. Zero made this point more eloquently than I in a post last spring, asking why we’re so judgmental when victims of domestic violence don’t leave immediately, whereas victims of a toxic work environment are counseled to work on the bullying relationships:  if only they’re nicer to their colleagues, if only they’d invite their colleagues out to lunch more often, if only they worked a little harder, they’d be able to fix the abusive environment.

Sutton also points out one overlooked risk of staying in an abusive work environment:  you will be assimilated.  “[R]esearch on emotional contagion, and on abusive supervision in particular, finds that if you work with or around a bunch of nasty and demeaning people, odds are you will become one of them.”  This rings true–how else do some academic departments get reputations for being abusive environments?  They’re very good at spitting out or driving away those who won’t conform, so that those who stay by definition become abusers (or enablers) who will do unto others as they were done unto.  Historiann has seen this happen–so that, in her former job, the people who behaved the worst to her had themselves been abused as junior faculty (or, in fact, were still being abused by others themselves!)

Historiann will enlarge on this point about adopting the corrupt values of an abusive work environment more tomorrow, in Part II.

Public history round-up: Museum Studies edition

As we here in Potterville pull on our boots and get ready for the big rodeo and “western celebration” coming to town, I’m happy to report that a few of you are getting out of your towns to attend conferences and conduct some research.  Here are some interesting museums featured on a few blogs I read regularly:

  • Anxious Black Woman is just back from the National Women’s Studies Association annual meeting in Cincinnati, and gives us a great report on the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, a new museum there.  I’m particularly grateful for her review, because Historiann lived in southwestern Ohio when this museum was being planned a decade ago, and she was a little skeptical of the concept.  (White people in and around Cincinnati are really into the Underground Railroad, and every little town has at least two or three mythological sites or houses that people commemorate as alleged stops on the UGRR.  Historiann was always suspicious that this was a means for white people to re-write the history of slavery and to cast their ancestors in heroic roles as slavery resisters, rather than in the much more likely role of slavery enablers, especially because African Americans were enslaved in southwestern Ohio, contrary to the provisions of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.  I lived in a town near the Ohio-Indiana border I’ll call “Boxford,” which likes to pretend that its proximity to the authentic Quaker town of Richmond, Indiana somehow retroactively turns all nineteenth-century Boxfordians into abolitionists.)  ABW’s verdict on the museum?  Disappointing in its interest more in masters than enslaved people and in its erasure of women, although the introductory movie was good.  (But go read her more thorough treatment yourself!)  The good news is that the NWSA itself was a great experience–I’m envious that I wasn’t there!
  • If your summer travel plans take you to Cincinnati, the Cincinnati area has all kinds of new museums–for example, the Creation Museum of Hebron, Kentucky, just a few exits down the road from the Cincinnati airport, is another museum that was just under construction when Historiann lived nearby.  It’s a creationist extravaganza of imaginary natural history–tell them Bing McGhandi sent you!  Here’s a reality-based review of the CM.
  • Professor Zero is in Lima (Peru, not Ohio!), and went to the Museo de Pedro Osma, which sounds like an interesting palace filled with colonial as well as twentieth-century art.
  • Do any of you have recommendations for interesting fine arts, history, or other museums in your home towns (or that you’ve encountered on your travels) for summer vacationers? 
  • Finally, for those of you in the academy who are public historians, or work with public historians, what’s your sense of public history’s relationship to non-public history (frequently referred to somewhat condescendingly as “academic history,” as though public history is an inferior intellectual pursuit)?  My sense is that there used to be more conflict or resentment among “academic” historians, but that these distinctions (well, snobberies, actually) are fading.  Is Historiann (who is not a public Historiann) overly optimistic?

Scenes from a small-town rodeo

This rodeo is mostly kids-only competitors and was a benefit for Cystic Fibrosis research, although apparently after dark they do “open bull riding,” which means that anyone can give it a whirl.  (Not recommended!  Hint:  there’s a good reason why most pro Rodeo bull riders retire at twenty or twenty-one!)  These rodeos run every Saturday night in summertime, 4 to 11 p.m., and none of those children are watching TV, playing video games, or getting bored.  School-aged children participated in calf-riding and “mutton busting,” while teenagers rode the bulls.

At one of the first rodeos Historiann ever attended, my friends and I saw a nineteen year-old young man get absolutely stomped by a bull.  We had ringside seats, and the distraught mother ran down in front of us to see her son carried off by the paramedics.  The boy was hospitalized, but thankfully suffered no brain injuries or anything else irrevocable.  It’s a hard living, but those who do it look forward to “cowboy Christmas.”  Potterville boasts the World’s Largest 4th of July Rodeo.  Giddyup!