Note: The following is an analysis of the contentious debate(?) among higher education professionals (primarily in student affairs) on Twitter, and its greater application to the field. I believe this will serve as a strong case study on the generational differences in higher education professionals, meme culture, and the reactionary techniques utilized to protect white womanhood. Given the intricate and fascinating (to a nerd who enjoys examining how power dynamics in higher ed play out on social media) pieces to this story, I have broken up the essay into two parts. [Part 1] [Part 2]
I disclose that I was very involved in the dialogue and I have strong opinions – hence I’ve provided screenshots so folks can read and form their own opinion alongside my analysis. It’s okay for multiple truths to exist on one topic, for folks to disagree with me, and for folks to tell me I did something wrong (if true, I’ll fix it).
Please note that I am not the only voice on this topic – see threads by Sachet Watson, Dr. D-L Stewart, and (in response to the tweets on blacklisting) Jana.; plus multiple tweets (not all in a thread) by CJ Venable, Sunny, and Lena Tenney (here and here) and SO many others.
Table of Contents:
- I. To Meme or Not to Meme
- II. So…what broke Twitter?
- III. The issue on the table? (#Hamiltonreferences4ever)
- V. And then?
- VI. Are we done yet?
- VII. But the Students!
- VIII. The Next “Hot Take”
- IX. Changing the Narrative
- X. Actually, It’s About Legislators
- XI. Victimization Narrative & Gaslighting Others
- XII. White Woman Victimhood ramps up
- XIII. Gaslighting Continues…
- XIV. Divisive Tactics
- XV. She Didn’t Shame Anyone!
- XVI. Ok and this one is just funny
- XVII. Call Her Khaleesi
- XVIII. Peak White Feminism: Misgendering and Racism
- XIX. Fear Mongering of the “Secret Black List”
- XX. In Conclusion
- XXI. But what’s next?
I. To Meme or Not to Meme
On Monday, May 27th, a meme from the parody student affairs account Humans of Higher Ed (HoHe) run by (I believe) entry-level professionals (see the interview with the creators by Amma Marfo here) [update: Twitter informed me two are director-level folks] posted the following kind of tweet they normally do (link, since its a gif):
This is the standard sort of thing you tend to see from educators, in k-12 or higher ed. In fact, it is quite prevalent in k-12 education – there are plenty of memes by and for teachers celebrating summer (see: google image results); if you have a teacher friend, you’ve probably seen them celebrate summer. Same is true for retail workers around holiday hours, CPAs during tax season, and parents excited to send their kids back to school in September. Some folks like memes like this, other folks just shrug because its not for them.
But for some folks, they couldn’t just shrug it off.
One professor replied to the meme “This is absolutely disgusting and inappropriate.” A Senior Student Affairs Officer (SSAO) took the meme literally to say “<face palm emoji.> <— that feeling when folks who work in higher ed don’t realize many institutions continue to educate and engage students all 12 months. It might be a bit quieter, but I am so glad that our students still show up, get involved, and make progress toward their goals!”. A higher ed consultant with their own HE company called the meme gross and went on a bit about it. (no names b/c its their titles/positionality that matter here)
Why the disconnect?
If we approach this from a sociological perspective, we must first understand how differences in generation, class, and other identities/experiences will lead folks to approach memes differently. Memes are a unique tool of communication based in culture and can be difficult to understand, especially if one is not from that culture (Nissenbaum & Shifman, 2018). They are considered a form of “creativity” in “everyday conversation” (Willmore & Hocking, 2017, p. 140).
In regards to age, millennials love memes and use them as a source of comfort, humor, connection, etc (Urban, 2017; O’Connor, 2018; Milner, 2012). As the parody account creators and most folks interacting with the discourse are millennials, this is relevant. In particular, their usage is often made for humor, and that is a good thing for well-being and society (Taecharungroj, & Nueangjamnong, 2014). Millennial memes have, and continue to have a huge effect on society and organizations (Atay & Ashlock, 2018); it is only natural that they would shake up long-held perspectives in student affairs/higher education (SA/HE).
For a subset of millennials, specifically people of color, memes are used as method to thrive in an oppressive world. The college newspaper The McGill Daily discusses this in their article “What it memes to heal: Memes as a tool for healing for POC” (Dahanayake, 2018). The Digital Sociology Magazine at Virginia Commonwealth University also wrote “memes as racialized discourse” (tabi, 2017). This applies to many other marginalized groups as well, including women, LGBTQ+ folks, etc (Highfield, 2016; Westfall, 2018).
And on humor – well, good memes often utilize the comedic device of hyperbole. Clearly, I don’t know of any Student Affairs professionals (and I know many) who actually run, jump, and cheer when the summer session starts. Of course many of us still have some students, albeit a much reduced caseload.
II. So…what broke Twitter?
Well-known researcher, faculty member, and administrator Sara Goldrick-Rab (SGR, per her website branding; see list of media appearances). She founded the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University and does very strong work supporting first generation and low-income college students via research and advocacy. Her background is in sociology but focuses on higher ed research; she claims to have worked in student affairs at one point but it is not listed on her CV (but then again, nothing is before 2004), so I cannot confirm her actual experience in this area. She’s enough of a public figure that she is verified on Twitter with over 32k followers.
In response to critique of the HoHE original tweet, entry-level Student Affairs professional Kimberly explained the tweet to the critics, and asked to not be shamed.
So what does SGR do? Shame her.
Now, SGR has (rightfully) critiqued oppressive ‘jokes’ that do punch down on students – the faculty who joke about all the dead grandmothers, etc. Those are excellent critiques because they have real world implications for students who actually do experience a crisis and then faculty may not care because of the trope that students lie to get out of exams.
III. The issue on the table? (#Hamiltonreferences4ever)
This initial critique is not based in logic.
- “The idea that staff wellbeing requires distance from students, dependent on “summer break,” is privilege itself and ignores the hard work of staff and faculty educating year round.”
- The folks who were initially responding are indeed staff who work educating year round. Very few colleges actually have 0 students during the summer – it just means educators have a reduced workload.
- A summer break is a privilege? Uh…she appears not to be aware of the inequities that entry-level student affairs professionals face. The long hours, the low pay, the older professionals who expect younger folks to make work their #1 priority even if the institution considers them easily replacable? The immense workload of supporting student needs on top of program planning and other administrative tasks – never feeling like they can manage it all and thus look forward to the respite of summer? This is a common discussion topic in multiple student affairs spaces, especially among millennials
- “If you need a “break” from students, take a vacation. If you find they sap you then you might need @Jessifer and others to help you learn how to be more effective. And let’s remember- there is no higher education without students.”
- Sara doesn’t seem to understand the realities of student affairs work. I have learned from my colleagues in facebook groups that they often cannot take vacations because they may not earn that much PTO, or have oppressive supervisors who literally will not allow them to take off time or only allow one day at a time during certain time periods. This is a classist statement, and not one we would expect from someone who studies class. Apparently she only cares about folks while they are college students, much like how Republicans only care about fetuses.
- She tagged Jesse Stommel, a Verfied Twitter account and Director of an office of Teaching and Learning Technologies. With over 23k followers, Jesse seems a deliberate tag in order to advance her Thoughts(™) to a wider audience. To be fair, Sara defended tagging him with the rationale that he’s her writing partner on the topic of “student shaming”. This can indeed be true. But the impact of her action makes it appear much differently from folks who do not have blue checkmarks.
- She insults the entry-level professional by indicating that the person is not effective with her time, and that a leader in teaching could aid her. Sara appears to say that if the SAPro were more efficient, she wouldn’t miss the downtime of summer….
- Finally, she mentions the students piece. This is a truth. Another truth is the the discourse among millennial student affairs professionals on social media is that they/we are very tired of institutions espousing that they prioritize students (even though they often don’t for students at the margins) but don’t prioritize staff support and care. Entry-level professionals are disposable because there are so many student affairs graduate programs that there are more candidates than jobs. For example, I know a white middle-aged male director who is never worried about high staff turnover because there are always so many applicants for any opening. That’s the toxicity of our environment. That is our reality for many folks. And as with any person in under-appreciated and low-paying roles (teachers, social workers, etc), research tells us that if we support staff wellness that the students will greatly benefit.
Kimberly responded to SGR and said “no need to be demeaning.” Instead of a response like “I’m sorry – I didn’t mean to be demeaning”, she responded thusly:
It is interesting that SGR took a neoliberal pro-capitalist approach to the tweet (and in another), instead of recognizing the humanity of an entry-level pro, she doubled down on how she does all of the things, works 80 hours, and is clearly just a better person. (note: does she count all her time on Twitter as work? 80 hours is v unhealthy, girl).
In the above tweet, SGR assures that she is not bragging about her hours, but it is my interpretation – and many others – that she did weaponize her ‘work ethic’ in the original tweet to the entry-level pro.
I can see the point about her viewing the original meme as a destructive trope and why she, from her position, may see that. Her entire research and perspective on higher ed creates such a lens that it is logical how she would place that judgement on a meme like this. But again, she (and many other higher-level HE folks) inflated the meme to great importance – the meme (and its defenders) never said SA folks get a summer break or that students are people we need to get away from (in the narrative that she is wrapping – again, it is normal to enjoy time periods with a smaller caseload). They would not listen to other perspectives.
As one SAPro said – it’s a meme, not a minfesto.
Finally, she made statements several times that her earlier tweet did not glorify long work hours:
V. And then?
Again, Kimberly defended herself from the high-profile researcher. SGR’s response is condescending and rude to the extreme.
VI. Are we done yet?
Sadly, no. SGR starts retweeting her followers who also issue critiques of the meme. Then she says something that is so hyperbolic, one must imagine she understands comedic devices:
A reminder: It is still Kimberly, the entry-level SAPro, who is still connected to all these tweets, but also a few other student affairs folks (mostly entry level, some mid-level, mostly white, diverse along LGBTQ+ and class backgrounds) who have now critiqued SGR’s critique of the defense of the critique (tired yet?).
Amazingly, SGR has connected the college retention problem to a meme and the desire for student affairs professionals (note: she is not a member of that community and holds a higher position in the hierarchy of the Academy) to enjoy a quiet summer. Either this is comedy or I question her research methods.
VII. But the Students!
While SGR kept saying the meme was about shaming students, she could only find one ‘student’ who found it shaming. And to be fair, they were a college administrator who graduated undergrad in 1995 and said “if they were a student” they would have been offended. That did not stop SGR from repeatedly quote-tweeting this person as a student in order to prove her point.
Somehow an undergraduate student studying history did find their way to the conversation…but SGR dismissed their concern.
Although, again, no actual students spoke up, SGR continued to force the narrative to say that students did speak up and no one listened. Perhaps she was including herself as a student of the world, for we all never stop learning?
VIII. The Next “Hot Take”
After multiple critiques from higher education professionals (again, many hold a marginalized identity and are critiquing SGR’s capitalist perspective on higher ed), she then has the audacity to redirect the narrative around how it is the folks critiquing her who are privileged – not the nice cis white woman making a nice salary with national recognition….
This is where the narrative starts to turn. Despite multiple student affairs professionals (again, the community in which SGR has inserted herself to tone police their lived experiences) describing the negative impact of her tweets, SGR has positioned herself to be the “Good Person” in this dialogue. Worse, she is taking a systemic issue of political support for higher education and placing the blame on the folks with lesser privilege than most who work on the front lines of colleges each day. And the ultimate insult? Stating that students struggle because entry-level folks are advocating for themselves…many of whom were just recently a struggling student and now work to support struggling students.
I tweet at her, because I believe she is coming from a great deal of privilege on the matter.
Fun fact, but running a university center and saying you oversee 11 staff is an administrator role; it is common for some faculty to have dual roles. But identifying as an admin doesn’t fit with the narrative, so she rejected it in two tweets. She also never addressed her privilege or that there are multiple ways of understanding so she should listen.
IX. Changing the Narrative
By Tuesday night, SGR stopped responding to (most) SAPro critics and posted that she muted folks. Interestingly enough, she posted a quote from Brené Brown “If you’re not in the arena also getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback.”
This implies that SGR is the one doing the ‘real work’ and that these entry-level Student Affairs professionals are not. You know, the ones supporting sexual assault survivors living in their residence hall, holding conduct hearings for students who make minor and major mistakes, advisors who connect their students to food pantries, coordinators who help their first-generation students navigate the complexity of the institution. You know, those people.
Towards the end of the ongoing Twitter dialogue on May 30th, SGR attempted to change the narrative even further by…outright lying. Once again, the energy was directed at the newer professional that originally was quote-tweeted by SGR. Carefully read Kimberly’s post…
Now see what SGR said when she quoted Kimberly’s tweet…
If I was the New York Times writing about this like they write about Trump, I’d say something vague like “she said a falsehood”. Since I’m not, I’ll just say: this is an actual lie. Which is very odd and I cannot understand her behavior here, except to make the narrative about mean student affairs professionals who hate nasty little students like our names are Gollum and she’s the White Wizard (but surprise! definitely Saruman).
X. Actually, It’s About Legislators
Apparently, the new concern is legislators. What if they see this? *hand-wringing ensues*
Now, not only is the meme responsible for student retention, but also our own working conditions. See Chloe with the swell response above.
I explained in a Twitter thread using my knowledge in this area on how how SGR has really created a strawman argument around legislators and this meme.
XI. Victimization Narrative & Gaslighting Others
We often see this in conversations on social justice topics involving white women – they cry and play the victim (see: When White Women Cry: How White Women’s Tears Oppress People of Color by Dr. Accapadi) as a defensive tactic when someone points out they did something wrong. Although majority of SGR’s critics were white (many SAPros of color stated that they already knew how this would play out; whiteness is predictable), there were still a number of folks of color, especially women of color, and especially Black women who critiqued SGR.
Despite all the evidence to the contrary, as has been painstakingly detailed above…SGR doesn’t believe she shamed anyone. In fact, she is a hero to stand up to such a hurtful meme. These silly SAPros decided to make it about themselves.
Further, she keeps retweeting her supporters (just a few, and all seemed to be faculty with no connection to student affairs) who honestly misrepresent the issue and the student affairs professionals who are frustrated at the tone policing and inability to have their full humanity exist.
Again, they all play into the narrative that SGR is a wonderful person/expert and truly the victim in this dialogue so she retweets them.
Repeatedly, SGR played the victim. Her earlier tweets conveyed her sense of superiority as she was rude and insulting to the original entry-level pro she responded to – she demonstrated quite carefully how she believed she cared more.
As @itsmewhiteman and others pointed out, folks were just repeating her previous statements back to her.
Again, she maintains the narrative that folks are lying about what she said (when they only repeat her statements) and plays the smallest fiddle in the world that she cannot share her reality…despite not allowing folks with much less privilege than her be able to share their own truths.
Then when someone questioned how/why she does 80 hours of week per week, again she maintained the victim narrative and does not hold the self-awareness to see how she has committed baseless attacks against quite a few folks in the conversation.
Her perception of what took place was very different from almost everyone else. Take note of the words she uses in the next set of tweets: “dragged me”, “mob scene”, she didn’t “hit no one”, and “punching bag”:
This is just one tweet from a very good thread, with great work done by Jennifer to engage SGR and help her understand the difference between intention v. impact. Unfortunately, Sara was unwilling to learn or admit she did wrong. Instead, she once again painted herself the victim of a violent scenario.
Then, when another scholar held SGR accountable on her maintenance of power structures, she acted like she had no idea what was going on. It is a tough leap of logic to believe that SGR missed the repeated statements of folks mentioning they were younger professionals and that she did not make assumptions about profile photos considering she later misgendered someone. But, this ‘playing dumb’ response works to uplift her as a victim and not an instigator:
Finally, it all comes back to the original newer Student Affairs professional that SR quote-tweeted at the beginning of this dialogue:
SGR fundamentally doesn’t understand the purpose of the #sachat hashtag, which is community building and drawing attention to interesting or hot topics in student affairs and higher education. To say that Kimberly, who had politely engaged with SGR while the latter was rude, instigated a mob is…well, quite inaccurate.
Finally, Kimberly responds:
But SGR did not respond to this.
To continue reading, please see Part 2. The latter half of the essays explores the reactionary tactics to protect white womanhood and how the dialogue went into a downward spiral that included transphobic and racist actions.