Finale Verbum? Who Killed Famae Volent?

Piccolomini, de Educatione Liberorum XXXV

“What then should we say, considering that there is great utility in both silence and in speaking? We would have you hold to the middle course, and find yourself neither always speaking nor always quiet.”

Quid ergo dicemus, cum et silentii et orationis magna utilitas sit? Tenere te medium volumus, neque tacere semper neque loqui semper.

FV screenshot

Fatalis Vetustas? Unanticipated Consequences

When Aristotle was asked what the most burdensome thing in life is he said “staying silent.”

῾Ο αὐτὸς ἐρωτηθείς, τί δυσκολώτατόν ἐστιν ἐν βίῳ, εἶπε· „τὸ σιωπᾶν”. Gnom. Vat. 58

A few months back I posted a personal reflection on the blog and message board related to the Classics Job Market. The resulting piece on Famae Volent was too long, filled with ‘hand-wringing’, and probably more than a little self-indulgent. Apart from a few snide comments on the message board itself, however, I was surprised by the eagerness of people to talk about FV—it is almost as if many of us were just waiting to be given permission to talk about the blog and what it means to us.

But over the next few months, the situation changed. To cut to the chase for those of you who don’t already know, the website has careened to the brink of closure. The turnaround was sudden enough that a student of mine asked me if I was responsible for killing FV!

I really don’t think anything I have written is nearly that important: I was on the crest of a wave. For reasons that will become immediately clear, I have more to say about FV and its imminent demise. In Classics and Higher Ed, we are in the midst of many different clashing tides—I want to give a different perspective (or two) on Famae Volent and make the rather surprising suggestion that it should be saved.

Fusilis Vexatio: Some background

“Silence works as wisdom for a foolish person”

Taciturnitas stulto homini pro sapientia est, Publilius Syrus 692

 One of the many surprises that followed the FV blog post was that the current editors—the Servii—contacted me. I must confess to longstanding curiosity about the identity of the blog moderators—they refer to an ‘ur-Servius’ (the original) and other Servii before them, but it seems that this group has been in control for a few ‘seasons’.

In truth, I was happy both to be contacted and to hear their comments which were both kind and justly critical. From our exchanges, I got the sense of thoughtful people who were trying to do good.. I think we forget that beyond the deletions and clever comments are people who haven’t done this job for money or glory or anything other than their own vision of service to the field.

They started by (1) apologizing for deleting a post that seemed to have come from me or Erik and (2) offering to have a conversation because… “We agree with parts of it, want to push back on other parts, and are more generally interested in hearing your thoughts on whether you think it is possible to improve the climate within the framework of FV’s basic system” [all quotes excerpted from email exchanges].

(They also asked to preserve their anonymity. I have not confirmed their identities beyond observing coordination between the emails and the site. Early on, we discussed possible public methods of confirmation; but after our multiple conversations, I have no doubt that they are who they say they are. The paranoid and conspiracy-minded might think I am making this all up—well, that would be interesting too.)

I was interested both (1) in hearing the moderators’ responses to my post and (2) in just listening to their own reflections on what FV does and what it is for. I must confess that I lost almost all objectivity after reading the following.

“One thing that we thought might be helpful to you from your end is to keep in mind that there’s no one group of Servii — we’ve been running it the past two years, and it was many different groups before us (with whom we have had no contact). So when you see an increased level of moderation over the last few years, what you’re really seeing is that we’re more active in enforcing community standards than past generations have been, not that there’s been any change (necessarily) in content. We’ve been taking a more active role than our predecessors, and have actually had complaints and attempts to out us because of our “fascist” over-moderation — not kidding.”

Even as I re-read this I appreciate their honesty and imagine the difficulty of being in their place: they conceded that “a lot of FV commentary is by nature cowardly” but pushed back a little on my emphasis on morally repugnant material, explaining that while I had sensed “an increasing amount of negativity directed at PoC, women, traditionally underrepresented social classes and people from marginalized groups”, they had tracked more voices objecting to the “dark corners” of FV than a few years back. So, in their words, before they made the decision to close the site, there is “a certain amount of polarization– but it is not exactly because the ideas are somehow new: rather, it is that the actual conversation about them is.” In fact, they insisted that most of the material they deleted (prior to mid-March) was actually aimed toward senior white men. (A pattern not necessarily supported by subsequent events).

Fluxuosum Vallum: A Conversation

 

“The sick need doctors; the unlucky need encouragement from friends.”

Τοῖς μὲν νοσοῦσιν ἰατρούς, τοῖς δ’ ἀτυχοῦσι φίλους δεῖ παραινεῖν. Attr. to Socrates by Stobaeus

 

Throughout our exchanges I could sense their frustration and their questing for some way to make the work easier and the community kinder

At some point early on in our conversations, I posed a series of questions that I fancifully imagined would form the basis for a post they would write for the site or we would pitch to some other venue. I mean, who wants to read more about FV on this blog?

Here are some questions I asked and highlights from their responses. Originally, I think these answers were the beginning of a conversation and were not meant to be final statements—but I have included them here because I think they attest well to the thought and care the moderators put into their actions.

Who is the audience and the targets for the blog?

“Our impression is that users come from a background that resembles the field, but skewed young….  When the bad stuff comes out, I think people in power get the worst of it. There is a lot of bitterness toward successful (often but not always male) baby boomers. Including resentment toward those who are very successful in placing students, presumably in contrast with the bitter posters’ own advisers. Just in the last few weeks, we’ve had to remove an attack on quite a number of senior Ivy scholars. ..”

Who are the moderators and why are they anonymous?

“This generation of Servii are younger people but not graduate students. We’re anonymous largely because of the somewhat justified and somewhat unjustified antipathy toward FV among many senior scholars…[some possibly identifying material redacted]. You can see from the attempt to punish us for “overmoderating” by doxing us that other junior scholars also see being Servius as presenting that kind of a risk.” 

What do you think the purpose of FV is? Who does it serve?

“First, it is a kind of mental health outlet. Every year, we hear from people who just want to express their grief and have it heard and understood in a way that e.g. family cannot.

Second, it counters bad advice. Just as one thing that semi-regularly comes up, some people’s graduate programs are still unaware of the realities of the academic job market and will deliver advice that might have been good for an ivy graduate student 30 years ago but will not fly today, for example that graduate students should not get teaching experience or should not publish.

It is also a place where people can offer advice about and support for transitioning to a different field. Finally, FV is a space where we as a field can discuss field-relevant issues, like the recent discussion of how we can attract more students of color.

Academics were supposed to be able to have the freedom to debate challenging ideas, and FV can allow that in a way that tenure never will for most of the younger generation. Just for another example, there was the question raised this year of whether it is harder to get a job as a man. Someone pulled up the numbers, and indeed, women proportionally got more TT jobs last year than men did. But then someone else chimed in to observe that by the time they get through graduate school, women may already have faced a harder road, and therefore a stronger population of women may have made it through grad school than men. I think it was healthier for us as a field to allow the space for this conversation, but I imagine it would be unthinkable for the original poster to have made (presumably) his comment in any kind of real-life context.”

How can the community help make FV better?

“… more active participation by senior scholars. I can certainly understand why they normally don’t identify themselves individually, but just identifying themselves as a senior voice would be nice, and would go a long way toward making the tone of the conversation more balanced. One thing we pointed out in our last exchange is that we have noticed that FV has become markedly more willing to call out inappropriate ideas, and quickly, than it was in the past, and we hope people continue both to debate serious problems, including expressing unpopular opinions, but also to call out those whose ideas are unacceptable, because this shows the advocate of objectionable ideas that there is no ‘silent majority’ of classicists who believe hateful things. In a sense, then, the best fix would be for the discipline/ user base to take a bit more active ownership of FV– the question is how to encourage that.”

Fututa Valentia: The Coming of the End

“Philoxenos said that peoples’ ears get worn out by a tongue for they are eager to tell people what they don’t know before listening well.”

Φιλόξενος ἔφησε τῶν ἀνθρώπων τὰς ἀκοὰς τῇ γλώσσῃ συντετρῆσθαι· πρὶν γὰρ ἢ καλῶς ἀκοῦσαι, σπουδάζειν αὐτοὺς ἅπερ οὐκ ἐπίστανται πρὸς ἄλλους λέγειν. Gnom Vat. 547

At some point in our conversations, I described FV as “Hamsterdam”: in Season 3 of HBO’s The Wire, a rogue police colonel essentially legalizes drugs in one neighborhood. His logic is this: people are going to buy and sell drugs, but if the activity is centralized, authorities can limit the effect of all the other crimes that go along with them. By tolerating some vice—the argument goes—we can keep track of it and keep it from growing into something worse.

Not too far into our exchanges, it became clear that my fantasy of a guest post by the editors of FV would never be realized. The debates and deleted posts on the site got more frequent, and the intensity of the arguments increased. One of the things I think we all forget is that the people who monitor these sites feel stress and anxiety even if the complaints are not directed at them personally. If you have 40 extra hours or so, read the comment histories at now shuttered academic blogs like Rate Your Students or College Misery. Whatever anyone says about the content or tone of these sites, their moderators tried to serve their communities and it was just too much to handle.

 Foeda Viscera: Death Throes

“Bad conversations corrupt good characters”

corrumpunt bonos mores colloquia mala. Latin Vulgate Bible

Over the next few months, FV got worse: the attacks on women and people of color actually did materialize (and were justly deleted); there were a series of reprehensible comments on public figures which were not deleted; and the ideologue or class-clown (or clowns) who kept posting about “Making Classics Great Again” would not shut up. There was a lot of noise, and it was painful.

By mid-March, the Servii were starting to reflect on the “dark turn” the site had taken and were clearly trying to figure out if (1) they could continue to be a part of FV or (2) if they thought FV should continue to be a part of the world. They warned us all of it with a message where they declared “it unconscionable that our colleagues are the subject of thinly veiled attacks with such regularity.”

Then came the statement. The site was closing in June. The moderators were willing to talk about what might come next, but they were closing up shop and shutting the lights off behind them. (Confession: they told me shortly before they announced it to the world).

When I first read the email about this, I was a little shocked. Of course, the narcissist in me wanted to write about it, but Eidolon beat me to it (and even plucked the low-hanging fruit I had in mind with their title! I wanted to say “FV is Dead, Long Live FV” damn it!). Eidolon’s piece did a fine job of covering many reasons why the site is not working (and did an admirable job as well of not engaging with the pitiful and pathetic attacks on the site and its editor).

But the responses on the site exerted a pull on my opinion. There was the expected dismissiveness to the moderators’ honest statement (“And that, folks, is the definition of fragility”) while others were both more specifically critical and disappointed. Just when I was ready to dismiss everything, some of the comments had to get insightful. One describes the site as a “safety valve that serves to keep the nastiness confined.” The site, according to this commenter, might be imperfect, but it is an imperfection we know. The commenter closes by saying, “I, for one, do not want to see what new blog will arise if FV goes away. It will be far worse than anything we have now… far worse. ”

Fragilis Vita: A Change of Heart

“To a youth talking nonsense, he said “We have two ears, but one mouth so that we may hear more but speak less.”

πρὸς τὸ φλυαροῦν μειράκιον, “διὰ τοῦτο,” εἶπε, “δύο ὦτα ἔχομεν, στόμα δὲ ἕν, ἵνα πλείονα μὲν ἀκούωμεν, ἥττονα δὲ λέγωμεν.” Zeno in Diogenes Laertius

It would be disingenuous if I were to claim that I started out writing about FV with no hope that it would change. Part of me wanted to shine a light on the darker corner of our discipline; part of me wanted to try to understand my own deep devotion to the site. I didn’t want FV to exist; I didn’t want it to not exist.

Then, there was this post [my emphasis]:

“Most posters that speak ill of schools or scholars are simply angry and jealous that they were passed on. I understand their frustration, and I have no problem admitting that I, too, found myself at times enraged and at times in tears at the news that a job that I felt I was perfect for didn’t even ask me for a first-round interview.

I can also admit that I lashed out here on occasion, rather unfairly, at the person who did get the job or at the institution on account of my emotions. I’m not proud of it, and in fact, I am extremely embarrassed that I have said some of the things that I have said on here out of (unjustified) anger. Fortunately, many of my horrible posts were deleted swiftly.

…It’s very hard to face the reality that, even though you may have a chain of amazing pedigrees, PhD from a top-5 in hand, 15+ fellowships/scholarships/grants, 5-6 publications, presented at 12+ international conferences, have 5-6 years of teaching experience, been awarded teaching awards (numerous times), and have the field’s most recognizable LOR writers, you can still end up with zero interviews, zero prospects.

…Is it unfair ? It sure is. But, life is unfair. Though I’m now facing a summer with no job, no prospects for the fall, and a mountain of bills and a family to take care of to boot, I can look at how I handled this particular job year as a year that I learned a very valuable (and honestly, very needed) lesson in humility.

So, let me say, for as much of a part in FV’s downfall as I feel responsible for: I am sorry to all of you. I am sorry that I was one of the posters here who was particularly venomous. Hopefully, since this is an anonymous forum, since I have no obligation to say anything, and that nobody will ever know who I am, my fellow FV-ers will take my apology as sincere.”

This is the voice that changed my mind. Here, I think, is someone who had learned something deep, had felt something publicly, and was repenting from harmful behavior. The poster learned something and changed. If we do not believe that everyone of us has this capacity, then at some level we do not truly believe in education. In a world where information divides and isolates us, so many of us lash out just to get some reaction, to have some sense that we matter.

I am not qualified to declare that our current culture is in the midst of a mental health crisis. But it certainly feels that way. People seem so unhappy and alone. Most of us on this hamster wheel of a ‘career’ feel too ashamed to even begin to talk about our disappointments and the fact that no amount of success will ever counter the fear of failure. I have lost students and friends to suicide and substance abuse—would I not tolerate a nearly infinite string of offenses to have them still alive today?

Flagitiosa Voluntas: What Next?

“When Demosthenes was asked what kind of thing is the greatest weapon, he said “speech”.

῾Ο αὐτὸς ἐρωτηθεὶς ποῖον μέγιστον ὅπλον εἶπε· „λόγος”. Gnom. Vat. 219

So I come down to this: FV fills a need. It helps some people and hurts others. Is the net good of the help greater than the net evil of the pain? Is there any way to introduce a better balance?

I must admit that I am torn here. I find many of the comments reprehensible and the general environment toxic. I hear and feel the anger of every person mocked or humiliated in public by unnamed cowards. But, what if my puritanical desire to rid the world of evil is not merely impossible but is also harmful? Our discipline is struggling and our economy as a whole is undergoing a massive transformation. Our future places in the world are uncertain; the promises of technology are turning out false in many ways; we face endless political and environmental challenges not a one of us can impact on our own. Who does not at times feel desperate, small-hearted, and alone?

The ills of FV are not idiopathic. They are those shared by most commenting fora, by most disciplines, and, to make a broader claim, our species at large. Shutting down the site makes sense because a small group of people bear an undue and uncompensated burden for our collective psychic demons. If nothing replaces it, I will accept it with resignation: we had something we needed; we were not good enough to keep it.

If we could be better, if we wanted to be better—here are some basic rules I think we’d need to follow.

  1. Preserve anonymity of commenters to protect those who are not in power
  2. Preserve anonymity of moderators
  3. Encourage and institutionalize active and thoughtful moderation
  4. Embargo comments for approval and/or mandate pseudonymous (or not) IDs
  5. Provide site with an overseer/ephor/Roman emperor
  6. Allow the isolation and banning of problematic posters

If it were to continue in this form or another, I think we would have to follow the pattern of other sites that deny anonymous posting (pseudonyms are ok). We could also change the posting parameters and require posts to be approved by a moderator before going public. These sensible solutions, however, would still put emotional burdens on the anonymous moderators who would continue to be hassled.

The only solution I can think of—and I don’t even know if I believe in this one—is that we need a named public figurehead who is someone established in the field.(In a slightly different adjacent world, like one in Fringe, I could imagine the SCS overseeing this, provided it could hold its nose and apply a light touch.) This figurehead would not moderate posts but instead would choose three anonymous moderators to serve for a fixed period (one year) and then replace them. All complaints could go to the princeps; the princeps would have the power to ban posters and replace moderators. The moderators would never be known. [This last part is heavily influenced by the Masonic Roman Emperor who appears in Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota series…really good books].

The advantage to this is that the philosopher-king in charge of the blog would be a lightning rod and a public figure who can present some accountability. The decisions on content, however, would fall to a protected group.

(And, just to state this with absolute clarity: I am not suggesting this because I see myself in any of these roles. I would not accept these roles on the ethical assertion that I am not emotionally fit for it and the practical assertion that I have somehow gotten too involved.)

*           *           *           *           *

“[Kratês] the Cynic used to say that it is better to slip with your foot than your tongue.”

῾Ο αὐτὸς ἔφη κρεῖττον εἶναι τῷ ποδὶ ὀλισθῆσαι ἢ τῇ γλώττῃ. Gnom. Vat. 382

After so many words, if I were a better writer, I’d loop back to the beginning—I could marshal some kind of ‘just-so’ point to bring all this together and to inspire anyone compulsive enough to read to this sentence to act. But that’s not who I am and that’s not what this situation needs.We need to continue a difficult conversation about the state of our field, the choices we make that exacerbate it, and the health of all participants. We need to break taboos against speaking about class, race, and mental health. We need to care about each other.

I want to thank all of the moderators over the years for the unrecognized service they have done. I will buy you all beers (vel sim.) if I ever meet you. For the field, I apologize to all those who were hurt because we as individuals and a group could not be better.

And to all the scholars young and old hurting and struggling to make it from one season to the next, I know that it is mostly luck that put me where I am and you where you are. Sorry is not a word with enough syllables, magnitude, or history, to help.

Fuck it. Here’s some Latin and Greek to get back on brand:

Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 1.15.1

“But still you may see certain men who toss around words without any semblance of judgment, but instead with a certainty so great and profound that even while they are speaking they do not seem to understand that they speak.”

Sed enim videas quosdam scatere verbis sine ullo iudicii negotio cum securitate multa et profunda, ut loquentes plerumque videantur loqui sese nescire.

Menander (fr. 591 K.).

“The man who is sick in the body needs a doctor;
someone who is sick in the mind needs a friend
For a well-meaning friend knows how to treat grief.”

Τῷ μὲν τὸ σῶμα † διατεθειμένῳ κακῶς
χρεία ‘στ’ ἰατροῦ, τῷ δὲ τὴν ψυχὴν φίλου·
λύπην γὰρ εὔνους οἶδε θεραπεύειν φίλος.

Image result for roman inscription dis manibus

 

 

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