Famae Volent: A Personal History

For a few years I have been thinking about an article I would like to read in the New Yorker or the Baffler. It would really be about the desperation of the academic job market and a lost generation of would-be professors across the humanities, but it would tell this story as it is embedded in the digital record of academic wikis and discussion boards. So, it would be a zeitgeisty piece that explored the relationship between the information age’s revolution and the concurrent collapse of the industrial age’s systems of learning.

This imagined article would also explore the interrelationship between the transformation of information, the rise of the internet and the polarization of politics, all the while integrating theories about the narcissism of social media with the solipsism of our individual information bubbles. And it would do all of this without claiming simple causes or clear relationships, without apportioning blame but instead leaving it for the well-informed reader to consider which great ideas were the first of the paving stones to our current hell.

The centerpiece of this discussion? The decades-old Classics water-cooler/cesspool: Famae Volent. Don’t worry, I don’t have the knowledge, the skills, or the time to write this article. I don’t know who the blog administrators are; I don’t know if I would recover from reading the comments in the entirety again; and I don’t actually think the world-at-large would be so terribly interested in what is essentially a minor metonym for a major metamorphosis.

But the past few weeks have made me think a little too much about Famae Volent (FV). I can confess directly now what I was once embarrassed to admit: I have read the comments on FV nearly every day for the past decade. I have commented myself only 6 or 7 times, which qualifies me as some kind of lurker. I write this to try to figure out why I am so drawn to it, to claim hyperbolically that it has been the most important forum in Classics for the past decade, to lament that it has turned a bit darker this year, and to try to make some sense of this darkness. For the regular readers of this blog who don’t know about FV, it might be better not to click the ‘more’ button below. For those who know about the site, I cannot promise to say anything agreeable about it.

FV cannot be understood from the perspective of Classics alone–it is, I think, a product of the intersection of new technologies, old worlds, changing/dying disciplines, the desperation produced by economic upheaval, and the discord produced by current standards of dissent (supercharged by the ‘safety’ afforded by anonymity). But at the same time, FV is a phenomenon within a particular and bounded community. One could argue that it was the only new community mechanism created in classics in over a generation. And, in addition, before the coalescence of classics twitter as a force or the emergence of other online fora FV was arguably the online center of Classics in that it was the only centralized forum available to everyone.

But over the past year the comments have turned darker in a harmful way. There have been more administrator deletions of comments that break community guidelines than ever before. There have been more personal attacks than I can remember. And, this is what really gets me, there has been more polarized language dismissing attempts to address the marginalization of women, people of color, and people from different classes than in previous years.

Almost everyone I talk to in Classics knows of FV and has read it but admits so the way you might admit you did drugs in college or once accidentally shoplifted and didn’t go back to confess your crime. What does it mean for something to be so central and universal yet kept at a distance? Or, more simply, what is FV really and what is it for?

So, to start again, I am trying to figure out what attracts me to something that so thoroughly confuses. Part of it is the garbage-fire warmth: sometimes we just want to watch the chaos and destruction unfold. But I need to know if there is more. I want to know if there is good to FV and, if there is, if it can possibly outweigh the bad. Can I separate its story from my story? Is it really representative of my field or our field?

 Plautus, Fr 10

“I don’t believe that there is anything swifter among humans than rumor”

nullam ego rem citiorem apud homines esse quam famam reor.

Fidens Vigilia

I went on the job market for the first time in 2006-2007 and many of my opinions about academia and Classics were shaped by the fact that I secured a job before the crash of 2007-8 and that my first exposure to the job market was during a period of relative plenty. I had a few good friends from other schools who were lucky enough to have job interviews approaching or in the double digits and multiple campus visits. I say this not to brag at all but to illustrate how different the climate was then. Oh, and the APA meeting was also in San Diego where there was no snow.

I first learned about what would become FV when one of those co-conspirators sent me the link to the wiki. It was a liberating discovery. Even though the information came at a trickle, it still helped to demystify the process. The academic job market is a black box in a cave surrounded by a sensory deprivation chamber. Having access to even a little bit of information can feel (slightly) empowering. While the basic facts of the situation had not changed, being able to observe and update provided me, at least, with some small sense of agency in a cycle that even then served up decent helpings of humiliation, disappointment, and self-loathing.

 Martial, 7. 6

“A sure authority is missing, but every voice announces this.
I believe you, Rumor, you usually speak true.

certus abest auctor, sed vox hoc nuntiat omnis:
credo tibi, verum dicere, Fama, soles.

Festinum Vestigium

This sense of agency–the phantom empowerment that was immanent in the rise of the democratized web–was addictive because it compensated somewhat for that very sense of helplessness that is so fundamental in the academic job market. We train for years and produce ‘original scholarship’, prove to the world how smart, well-read and sophisticated we are. Then we realize we are lucky even to make a living wage.

In the following year, the blog and comment section appeared around the wiki. The addition made perfect sense–it kept the wiki simple but allowed participants to share more rumors, advice, and to root out the nasty problems at the core of the field. Various themes developed in the debates that ensued: archaeologists versus philologists! No jobs for classical historians! The APA Placement service sucks! Jobs go to inside candidates! Denizens of other message boards would find few of these tropes surprising.

But it was clear from the beginning that there was a tension between the cooperative ethos of sharing information and the zero-sum game logic of the job market. When one person gets a job, obviously, another cannot have it. Here’s an exchange from that year:

A. On a more dignified note, the economy is bad. Let’s help each other get jobs by sharing helpful information, answering questions, giving constructive advice, etc.

B. You see, I just don’t get this thinking. We’re competing with each other

Theophrastus, Characters 8.10

“I wonder what such people want to gain from their rumor-making. Not only to they tell lies, but they are also worse off because of it.”

τῶν τοιούτων ἀνθρώπων τεθαύμακα, τί ποτε βούλονται λογοποιοῦντες· οὐ γὰρ μόνον ψεύδονται, ἀλλὰ καὶ ἀλυσιτελῶς ἀπαλλάττουσι.

Fallax Vates

If I went to FV for information, I stayed for the drama. I kept returning because of something deeper. What made the first full year of the blog so compelling for me, however, was how it responded to the world around it. For a brief time it seemed that FV was the center of the Classics world. In the absence of any meaningful digital presence from professional organizations and with only a few really active digital classicists (Rogue Classicist was truly rogue then), the FV was the most central place for information online.

But it was also subject to the vicissitudes of an anonymous message board. From my years of lurking, the Wiki has been fairly reliable. The message board itself has unfairly maligned many programs, search committees, and candidates. Even though the moderators have usually taken down offensive or rule-breaking material, I know more than a half-dozen people (most of whom are women and people of color) who have been personally called out over the years.

A lot of the things job wikis fear go on in searches actually do happen. There are inside-candidates; there are search committees that break rules; there are title IX violations; and there are a million micro-aggressions against candidates, search-committee members, administrators etc. every year. Over the past decade I have been on eight search committees in five different departments at two universities. There are shenanigans everywhere. But most of those whispered and then shouted about on FV have not actually been such cases. The information bruited about on the message board can be misleading and downright wrong.

Αποφθέγματα γυναικῶν (Gnom. Vat. 568)

“Evil rumors are pouring over you.”

 κακά τευ κακκέχυται φάμα

Fessa Vanitas

I cannot say that FV is better or worse than any other message board with any real confidence. As general comment section, it lives up to its promise in different ways. The anonymity it grants allows many ugly comments to come out, exposing prejudices, older ideas I would rather presume dead, and a range of childish, churlish, and pedantic sentiments parading as wit or wisdom. It is, like a lot of the anonymous web, the roiling, cancerous, rank id of its community.

But I suspect there is not a one of us who has not been horrified both at the content presented and by the rare occasion (or perhaps not so rare) when we agree with at least part of what someone says on the site. Even more important: there are actually times where the debates are not just compelling because of their salacious content but because they are actually addressing issues that are important to the field. There have been threads nearly every year that have made me think more deeply about my practice as a teacher and a member of the field. I cannot say the same for every conference I have attended.

And there was some fun too. In the early years, people used names like Cato, Catiline and more. There was posturing, there was play, there was quotation from Buffy, Twin Peaks and more. But as the downturn turned into a permanent state of affairs and the job offerings dwindled, the joking about poor Rene Plonski and the whispers about improprieties grew more strident and stopped being ‘fun’.

Vergil, Aeneid 4.174

“Rumor, no other evil can grow more quickly..”

Fama, malum qua non aliud velocius ullum

Fervida Verba

For a period, FV was central to my weekly reading about academia which included daily doses of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, and the now defunct Rate Your Students and its successor College Misery. Even though I was a ‘winner’ on the job market, I was miserable in my job. Our PhD programs are great at training us to write dissertations; some give us lots of practice teaching and some good advice there; some help us learn how to publish articles and go to conferences. None that I know prepare you for the intensity of teaching and service that most actual jobs–tenure track or not–require. There is a real disconnect between the life of the faculty at many PhD institutions and the lives their students will go on to lead.

For me, FV was part of a stable of work that made me feel like I was (1) not insane and (2) not alone. I knew it was filled with bile and that I could not believe everything on it, but I knew that for some reason, I needed it. I also think that others needed it to. Even though I think the strategy was a bit cruel, when students came to me and said they were interested in going to graduate school, I would hand them copies of William Pannapacker’s “The Big Lie of the Life of the Mind” or “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go” and then write a few websites down on a post-it note. I always warned them that FV was filled with bile and horror, but that it was bile and horror they would ultimately face.

Historia Augusta, Verus IX

“Open truth was not proving this, secret rumor planted it.”

non aperta veritas indicabat, sed occultus rumor inseverat.

Fames Ventri

“I know things are bad for all of us, and I don’t mean to complain, I mean, I chose this path, but is there any other field where one can spend 4 years for a BA, 2 years for an MA, and 6 years for a PhD, have built up a pile of debt and postponed many aspects of life (starting a family, etc..) and, at the end of the day when you have degree in hand and have done all of the things advisors tell you to only to find no job? And not only that, but the only outlet for work happens in a 2-3 month season where 200+ folks are putting in for the same 5-7 jobs?”

from this year’s comments

This comment from this year’s blog echoes the conversational back-and-forth about the job market and its consequences across several years. Part of what makes FV attractive–and maybe even therapeutic?–is that it provides a forum for a group of people similarly affected by a major economic and cultural shift to try to cope with the new reality. You could selectively pick bits of conversation over the years as discussants came to terms with the fact that (1) luck plays a huge role in jobs, (2) that there are fewer jobs because of small and big market forces (small: corporatization and adjunctification of the university; big: rapid automation, cultural attitudinal shifts toward education, political divestment, climate change), and (3) many of us have dedicated the best (earning, health, attractiveness) years of our life to a questionable pursuit. Many of the readers and posters are really suffering economic and personal collapse.

At times, the laments have been moving and the empathy in response has been real. It is really, really hard to see oneself as detritus in a churning whorl, incapable of changing direction even though we have been trained and taught that our own effort and merit can write our stories. It is harder to see the bigger picture, to know that this is not just Classics, but also History, English, modern languages. The sadness of the message board over the years broke me at times. But it also made me work maybe hundreds–of candidates as good or better than me. Reading FV made me feel that I needed to earn my position every day.

Macrobius, 5.32

“Maro said the same thing of rumor that does not fit. Strife and rumor are not grown equally, even if strife gets to the point of common destruction in war, it is yet strife and remains itself however much it grows. Rumor, once grown to monstrous size, ceases to be rumor and instead is knowledge of known fact.”

hoc idem Maro de Fama dixit, sed incongrue. neque enim aequa sunt augmenta contentionis et fame, quia contentio etsi usque ad mutuas vastationes ac bella processerit, adhuc contentio est, et manet ipsa quae crevit; fama vero cum in immensum prodit, fama esse iam desinit et fit notio rei iam cognitae.

Furor Valens

“Classics and the Humanities are dying, poisoned by leftists and post-modernists. I think we deserve it honestly.” The Board

But the sadness, as sadness often does, transforms often on FV to a man-slaying rage that sends myriad job candidates to their doom. One of the most frustrating things about FV is the myopia that often emerges. I know it is next to impossible for plankton in a rising and warming sea to understand that the ocean really is warming, becoming more basic, and rising to dangerous levels for the global ecosystem. How many of us actually have the time to learn about other disciplines and the economics and politics of university hiring when we need to finish dissertations on Plotinus or Ennius’ fragments?

But the rage over the past few years has verged on libelous and hateful. In the past cycle, it has targeted prominent (young and non-tenured) voices in Classics because they are prominent voices. From a distanced perspective, I can imagine some of the hate anonymous commenters on FV are throwing at new(ish) online publications and prominent lone voices is a systems-reaction. FV has been the apex predator of online Classics opinions. Now there are new voices!

The rage on FV is not that different from the rage that appears on message boards and in comments all over the internet. If anything, it is more restrained, slightly more genteel, and less frequent than similar outbursts. And even the repeated Trump comments from the past year are, I suspect, in large part meant “ironically” or placed with the intention just of riling people up. What makes the anger unsettling for me, however, is that I still have this romantic expectation that people in my field are in some way more enlightened and in control of their emotions. I believe, probably wrongly, that we should conduct ourselves better than this.

And when the anger is directed at individuals it crosses lines.

Catullus, Carm. 5

“Let us count the rumors of rather mean old men as worth only a penny”

rumoresque senum severiorum
omnes unius aestimemus assis!

Favilla Vacua

For a few years in a row the annual ‘re-boot’ of the blog with its clever titles and new wiki came late enough that some community voices worried that the moderators had checked out, lost the job market roulette, or just grew out of needing FV. Some new names appeared, the comments continued. For a few years prior to this, I really believed that FV may have outlived its usefulness because its demographic was shrinking (I had the wild idea that maybe there were fewer job candidates out there because there were fewer PhDs) or maybe the younger generation had different outlets.

At the same time, those years saw the rise of Classics twitter in earnest, the emergence of new voices in Classics like those on Eidolon, and a steady embrace of social media by Classics organizations and departments. But rather than decreasing the attractiveness of something like Classics, I suspect that it may have actually helped lead to this year’s superabundance of comments.

(Disclosure: I will mention Eidolon vel sim. multiple times. I have never written for the publication, but I have chatted at times with a view of its editors. Erik, who runs this blog with me, has written for it once in the past. Otherwise, there are no connections between this site and theirs).

 Homer, Odyssey 24.412-414

“So they toiled over dinner in their home.
But rumor went as a swift messenger through the whole city,
Singing of the hateful death and fate of the suitors.”

ὣς οἱ μὲν περὶ δεῖπνον ἐνὶ μεγάροισι πένοντο·
Ὄσσα δ᾿ ἄρ᾿ ἄγγελος ὦκα κατὰ πτόλιν ᾤχετο πάντῃ,
μνηστήρων στυγερὸν θάνατον καὶ κῆρ᾿ ἐνέπουσα.

Fragilitas Volucris

One of the most recognizable features of the current social media climate is its call-out culture. If I were to try to say something positive about it, I would claim that it breaks down established hierarchies and allows us to call out anyone for offensive content. Think of how powerful this has been in giving voice and authority to the marginalized, especially in helping amplify the message of Black Lives Matter or the #MeToo movement.

The problem is that calling-out seems to be addictive and regressive. And to the skeptical and cynical, the voices coming together can sound like a mob, giving the mildly educated reasons to think about Bourdieu’s symbolic violence. There is a clear parallel (and likely kinship) between anti-politically correct voices across the spectrum in the current social-media era and some of the contrary voices rising in classics. Note: I am not claiming their politics are identical, but rather that there is a culture-wide backlash against what some might see as left-leaning groupthink. The problem with the ‘principled’ people who often voice such opinions is that (1) if such opinions are not the result of unrecognized internalized structural racism genderism etc. then (2) the voicing of these opinions gives comfort and support and are at times indistinguishable from the words of those who actually do oppose racial, gender, and identity justice.

For me, one connection we must make is between the anonymous backlash and the expression of public statements contra Trump (or any of the cultural dead-ends he has promoted) made in various forms by organizations like the SCS and CAMWS. In short, as the organizations gave voice to the politically shaped majority opinion, a disaffected minority (and a certain percentage of rabble-rousers) began to use the anonymous forum to criticize a perceived groupthink. And, as social justice organizations within these groups have become more active and more vocal, the critical response has gone anonymous.

In the current polarized climate, one cannot question the values intrinsic to various movements without appearing to align oneself with the worst elements of the opposite camp. So, if you are not speaking in favor of affirmative action, you are speaking in favor of Nazis. Again, my politics have been exposed on this blog before. I feel fortunate to live in a world where we are so much more sensitive to issues of race, gender, gender identity and ability than we were in the world I grew up in. I am so happy my children–who are biracial and interfaith–will find communities that embrace them and will be able to live in a world where they are mostly safe.

But in public and especially online, our discourse is essentially broken. Ideas cannot really be debated. Instead, we develop sophisticated arguments to support what we already believe. (Note: I think this is the case online and in politics; in the classroom and in our communities, I think we actually do much better. The problem with online discourse is we are reduced to pre-packaged ideas and affinities. There is no room for discussion and growth).

Much of what I have written in the last two paragraphs is also an attempt to try to understand the frustration and anger that must be felt by many to make the comments they do on FV. Classics is mostly white and though not mostly male I think a patriarchal view is largely internalized. Just as certain political movements in this country have developed as an unconscious emotional response to the rise of diversity in the public sphere, so too is the Classics backlash about “Classical Fragility”. The community of FV is, I suspect, largely white, disproportionately male, and almost wholly disappointed by the economic situation. In a way, we could argue that they are the kinder, gentler version of the middle-class white communities that voted in disturbing numbers for Trump.

Now, let me clarify: I am not saying these groups are the same or even that the people posting are middle-class and actually, necessarily white. I suspect many of them probably identify as ‘liberal’ in some way. But they are analogical to Trump voters in that we are talking about groups that feel marginalized by changing demographics and denied economic opportunities by tumultuous job markets.

This brings me, finally, to what made me think that something needs to change–essentially, why I wrote this piece. This year the anonymous voices have been attacking individuals who have prominent online profiles. While the social capital of these individuals seems impressive from their profiles, their actual place in the traditional academy remains marginal because of employment status, gender, etc. What really pisses me off about this is that mostly younger women are doing all the heavy lifting to try to make classics a juster place. (I am happy they are doing it, but pissed that many others are failing to take any action at all.) Maybe all of their initiatives are not those everyone would choose, but the writers at Eidolon, the organizers of the Classics and Social Justice initiative, and a few others I don’t want to name directly are taking huge risks and making themselves targets when they don’t have the protection of tenure or anything else.

Those who call them out on FV are cowards. They are perhaps jealous of the attention which others attract; or hurt that their ideas are not out in the world. To those who can honestly identify with this, I give you a challenge and a promise. Make your own online magazine or build your own blog. Or, if you can, submit your ideas for publication. That is my challenge, my promise is this: email me and I will personally tell you everything I have learned in building this site and twitter feed from scratch over the past six years. Come out of the shadows. Let’s have a real conversation.

Plautus

“One eyewitness is better than ten men who have heard”

pluris est oculatus testis unus quam auriti decem

Familia Versicolor

When students ask me about graduate school now, I don’t always tell them about Pannapacker or direct them to FV. I want my students to be happy, and I don’t think discovering the dark recesses of Classics online will help. At the same time, I am not ready to see the end of our discipline. There are conversations we should have–they need to be informed by the greater trends in which they share–and we should have as many voices involved as possible.

When I think of what ‘Classics’ is, I think past the academy to the Latin teacher who trained me, to the kids who are passionate about mythology, and to the independent scholars who may one day decipher Linear A (ok, that might not happen). Academic Classicists tend toward the myopia that sees our Discipline as being one housed in Universities and Colleges. This is partly true, but for many centuries Classics lived in the libraries of aristocrats, in monasteries, and literal cloisters. Before our modern era, those we would now call businessmen, politicians, or amateurs re-lit the flames of Classical knowledge and made Latin, Greek and Mediterranean cultures their own.

Our culture is changing and I for one will not lament such change. It may be the case that our University system collapses over the next generation and I will be one of the last professors of Ancient Greek (again, something I doubt, but who knows). I want my legacy to be manifold: I am going to stand fighting for the place of Classics in higher education until I die; but I am also going to work tirelessly to make sure people from all backgrounds have access to it; I will build bridges between academic and non academic worlds (one of the purposes of this blog) and I will never stop trying to listen to the all the voices who care enough about Classics to make a sound. We can’t respond in horror at every new use of the classics or try to smother those who would popularize and expand the field.

When we have the choice to support one another or tear one another down, why not abstain if you feel compelled only to do the latter?

An Abbreviated Overview of FV

There’s no natural end to this post because there is no natural end as yet to FV. When I first decided to try to write something about FV, I imagined I had to go back through and read all of the comments for every year–but who has the time or the emotional stability for that? I have long thought about each year of the comments as its own discrete unit nevertheless related to the whole in some complex fashion. (I will steal from someone on Facebook who called the first year Season 1).

In my memory, I am nostalgic for the first season and I overestimate how good it was–just like I overestimate Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 1. Season 1 (of FV) is not that great–the final season (so far) is disturbing. Below I have selected just a few plot points from each season that stand out to me.

2017: 2000+

Dear FV,

Based on the tone of a conversation from about a week ago, we are instituting a new rule. Henceforth, ad hominem attacks on any member of the Classics community, regardless of seniority, will not be tolerated. Universities, SCs, the SCS are all fair game for critique, but attacks against specific individuals based on their (perceived) personal characteristics are not. This has not been an issue here previously, and we don’t mean to distract from the current conversation: the vast majority of users can simply continue as usual.

Diversity Statements (Cont’d from 2016)

Hatred for W&M, Trinity and Academia.edu

Kardashian’ Emerges as a Thinly Veiled Insult

Some Hate for Stony Brook

Ranking Classics Journals

Some Hate for Georgetown Followed by a Faculty Cameo

Ranking Graduate Schools by Job Placement

Hate For Furman

Hatred For Eidolon

2016: 1146

Self-promotion

Debating U of Chicago

Common Application debate

2015: 1321

Daddy Cruel and Crisis in Cincinnati

2014: 731

Debating Classics Courses

PhD Programs:
2013: 695

People Get Angry:

Disconnect between VAP and TT

2012: 1279

Regular Hate for the SCS

Searching for Jobs Outside Classics

A Debate on Powerpoint

The Great Placement Service Hate

 

2011: 431

Typical Pedantry

Initial Hatement
2010: 1432

Humanities Dying A Slow/Fast Death

Teach, Publish, do What to Get a Job

 

2009: 937

Sabretooths and Other Bad Dudes

What is Classics for
2008: 1772

Princeford and the Usual Suspects

The Beatus of Facundus (1047 manuscript) | Beasts from Book of Revelations

The Beatus of Facundus (1047 manuscript) | Beasts from Book of Revelations

Post-Script

I think no one has really written about FV because we are embarrassed to admit we read it and because of some anxiety about the response of the chorus of anonymous voices. In one potential future, FV community responds to this post by discussing if in fact the tone have changed, what FV should be for, and ways to make the discussion more productive and kind. But I know that in this less-than-perfect world, there is probably some hate coming my way. Please don’t confuse me with my partner Erik (though he too welcomes horseshit from the haters). And don’t hassle anyone name din the blog directly or indirectly.  If you need to @ someone, come @ me. So let me get you started:

I am a hack who went to a third-tier PhD program

Much of my so-called scholarship is mediocre at best.

The blog I run is rife with errors and typos. When it isn’t, it verges on juvenile and stupid.

My support for social justice issues cannot be sincere or meaningful because I do so from the protection and privilege of my race and gender.

For this and many other reasons, I have often been hypocritical.

I don’t really know German. Or French

I don’t know Greek as well as I should.

My Latin is crappy.

My English prose is stilted and unpleasant, suffering from unevenly applied affectations.

4 responses

  1. Fantastic read and quite fresh your style. I have a few followers who would thoroughly enjoy this. I just this week read an exciting post uploaded by a member of academia who seems to be sniffing similar winds. (Reminds me of Fiver from Watership Down). Thanks!

  2. Pingback: Four Things on a Wednesday Morning | The Archaeology of the Mediterranean World

  3. Pingback: Finale Verbum? Who Killed Famae Volent? « SENTENTIAE ANTIQUAE

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