What Twitter was, what Twitter could have been, what Twitter is

As much as I tried to resist the end, I had a breaking point, and the breaking point was this.

Tweet from Elon Musk: "My pronouns are Prosecute/Fauci" December 11, 2022.

The tweet just had it all – it was a remarkable intersection of bullying, malicious, and callous. Bullying comes first, of course, because any tweet targeting an individual from Twitter’s 44-billion-dollar overlord will have the impact of focusing the masses against that individual. Malicious, because that individual has been the epitome of selfless service in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic, at a time where we need more selfless service and not less; when we attack the public-minded, people’s willingness to think of the public atrophies. And then callous, because trivializing people’s use of pronouns to clarify their identity takes the marginalized and shoves them further to the margins.

Elon Musk is a lot of things. A responsible leader is not one of them.

And if this is what engagement looks like on Musk’s Twitter, then I’m out.

As I’ve struggled with this reflection on the Twitter Era of my life – and make no mistake, it was a pretty extensive and defining era, and it’s now done – I have drawn very little on the very naïve and very rose-colored celebration of what I discovered in mid-2013. That was only halfway through a very fateful year, and I hadn’t yet tapped the power of the networks that wove their way through that very extensive social media website.

I am going to start here instead: if I hadn’t discovered Twitter and the people within it in 2013, I very likely would have been out of academia within a year, maybe two.

When Virginia Intermont failed, I tried to find a position through my tried-and-true methods, and I went 0-for-every-attempt. There is something about the stench of failure attaching itself to you when you leave one (doctrinal, fundamentalist) institutional collapse for another (financial, managerial) institutional collapse. I had a very steep climb to present my CV as representing somebody who was successful at what he did and who could make an institution be successful in kind.

Somehow or another, in my first fitful days of using Twitter seriously, my Twitter feed told another story about me than Shorter’s exodus or Virginia Intermont’s bankruptcy. Somehow, through a connection with an old friend, somebody in the Tennessee Tech physics department followed that Twitter feed, and when the time came, amazed that I was somebody who was available and who could do a job for a place.

Word passed from professor to chair, and I didn’t just have a job, but a teaching experience that changed me and made me more effective in the classroom. And I had an instant positive reputation when I stepped on campus.

When Twitter worked for those of us in higher education, that’s how it worked. It was scholarship that was accessible, it was framing that was positive, it was a presence that connected in ways obvious and subtle. It was the best possible edit on the type of scholar I envisioned myself being; it was a way to bring what I did in the classroom in front of the widest audience.

The years of 2013, 2014 and 2015 were absolutely incredible for me. Even as I lived through the collapse and failure of one institution, I found that I had supporters in places I could never have imagined, cheerleaders of the sort I would have never dreamed. Twitter put those heroes in my life in place. I will forever be grateful.

The reality I’m facing now is that I tried to hang on to a time of ignorant bliss in my use of social media, and I tried to hang on to that for at least six years beyond its sell-by date – if I’m being generous.

It was ignorant bliss because, as in so many things, I had it easy as a straight white dude. I never got the tiniest measure of harassment because of my use of Twitter, and I was able to find my voice on my own terms without being shouted down because of one thing or another.

There are plenty of anecdotes you could choose from, but they all point to the same place: people who are marginalized in academia are likely to experience harassment on platforms like Twitter, and as much as we may want to use those platforms to amplify others’ experience, all they wind up amplifying are the avenues through which they receive hate.

Some people work through that, and I marvel at that. In so many ways, Tressie McMillan Cottom’s continued presence on the platform will keep me from turning away from Twitter entirely; she used the site brilliantly before I showed up, and she may well keep using the site brilliantly after I go. But as I’ve gone through the last few years of my career, I find myself turning more and more away from the voices I see and wondering more and more about the voices that I’m missing.

What was at once powerful, dangerous and ultimately ill-fated about Twitter was its capacity, because of its open nature, to amplify voices the American white male would have otherwise never heard. #BlackTwitter was a total revelation to me because I heard such a different edit on the experience of “Western civilization” from anything I’d ever been taught. I heard hints of experience from other cultures, from other places in the world, from communities I would have never imagined resonance with. If you read, and you were intent, you learned, even in bursts of 140 characters at a time.

One of the fundamental elements of that education is that any step back that the experience of white males in America took would be something that was received as oppression. In retrospect, it is the starkest of coincidences that my experience of Twitter’s ideality aligned with the end of the Obama presidency, and the noxious backlash that was the rise of Trump.

The tempting thing is to say that Trumpism was the poison that ruined Twitter, and the one odious man unleashed powerful forces that ultimately served to undermine healthy dialogue and make the website unusable. But again, if I said that, it would be from a place of privilege, as a person who never experienced the harassment that made the site unusable for so many from the onset. The forces were there all along; they were merely made more visible in 2016.

Tressie called it herself, long before the election, even before a single primary had been contested.

Tweet from Tressie McMillan Cottom: "but it's important, I think, that we know that we always have in us the impulse to elect a President Trump. Always." January 28, 2016.

Connecting the political realities that gave us 2016 to the failures of Twitter is at once a stretch and completely obvious. Those realities made social media a maddening place to engage.

So many of us chose to continue to engage, even when the toxicity emerged above the surface. Most of us who made that choice connected to a time when Twitter worked for us, and Twitter delivered news, networking, and notability in a fashion that other social media simply couldn’t. Twitter was broadcast media at a bite-sized scale, and even when the 5G signal to your phone weakened to 3G or maybe even no-G, when other social media failed, you could still get Twitter updates. The phone app was absolutely killer compared to other social media. When a breaking news event happened, it was the closest thing to monoculture I’ve experienced in adulthood; it felt like the entire world was sharing the happening with you, in real time.

All these little benefits outweighed the toxicity and the undercurrent of racism, prejudice and hate fueling the platform and lurking ever closer to the surface. The connection with the whole world (or at least my little conception of the whole world) was just too attractive to overcome.

I had the option to cut out of Twitter in 2016, when Mastodon began and I discovered like-minded people on that platform (both Twitter castaways and those who could never access Twitter) that I could engage with at length, at a level of depth that I could never achieve on Twitter. Even at 280 characters, there’s only so much depth you can plow. I was able to use the platform and the format of Mastodon to do deeper thinking and deeper connection, but with a smaller range of people.

I engaged fully and fruitfully on Mastodon for about eight months. I never left Twitter. I gave Twitter more and more of my time again. Ultimately, I quit using Mastodon entirely.

The alternate edit to my social media life is what it would look like if I’d broken my ties with Twitter, remained on Mastodon and engaged fully on the networks there – who I might have discovered with the time and patience invested, how my social media practice might have evolved instead of fractured, what I might have invested more fully in. Mastodon, it is clear in retrospect, was fully worthwhile. There are people in moderating roles over the open-source social network who are deeply interested in cooperating with one another to maintain safety in the space, to make room for all voices to engage in a conversation.

As the Musk takeover of Twitter loomed, I found myself taking up a long-forgotten space on Mastodon anew – much more slowly and much more intentionally this time. I had to settle myself that Mastodon was not broadcast media, and never would be. I had to settle myself that I was going to join a smaller community, and take benefit from engaging with that community, rather than using that community to amplify my voice loudly. I had to recognize that the community wasn’t just going to sustain itself on a billionaire’s largesse or Wall Street compromises, and I had to actually put forward resources to sustain that community myself.

Instead of just using somebody else’s space, I had to help make it work for the community.

These are lessons I should have learned long ago.

There is a pipe dream that I still have that Twitter, as a company, long before the fait accompli that was the Musk takeover, would have learned lessons about what excluded people from the platform and made a more safe space for a wider variety of people.

To do that would have required humility from the white men who have been the primary movers behind Silicon Valley from day one. It would have involved admitting that other people can see the problems with Twitter more vividly and more expansively than they could with their own eyes. It would have involved taking real and tangible guidance from people from different cultures, people from literally around the world, who could see a better, healthier way forward.

It would have meant forsaking a little bit of engagement, a little bit of venom, for something more vibrant to take root.

But that isn’t the way that this culture works. And Twitter is presently hollowing itself out to become an echo-chamber shell of its former, vital self.

So this famous tweet becomes the epitaph. No other way to end my time on Twitter than repeating this. For just a little bit of humility, the internet could be a better place.

Tweet from @actioncookbook: "USERS: we love twitter but it has problems TWITTER: great we'll fix them USERS: do you want to know what they are TWITTER: absolutely not" January 5, 2016.


Seeing this statement in print is absolutely surreal:

I didn’t set out in this gig to be distinguished anything. There’s only one goal I’ve ever had in doing this stuff that I do at the college level: I want students to be as excited about chemistry and physics as I am, and I want to give them the language to be able to communicate that excitement to others. Anything else is gravy.

And my career isn’t a career that has taken any kind of proper path. I’ve left places repeatedly, for reasons understandable and mystifying, sometimes both at the same time. Somebody check the record books: I am certain I am the only person ever to receive an endowed professorship who has five different full-time faculty jobs on his CV, none of them research-driven, all of them – and let’s be absolutely direct about this – all of them one flavor or another of grunt teacher of chemistry and physics.

People like me don’t get calls from their dean saying “the institution has an endowed professorship, and we want you to hold the title.”

And yet here I am, with a job at this place that calls me “distinguished professor.”

That tells you something about the place.

I’ve said before that I work at a very important place, a place embedded in the Appalachian Mountains, a place that puts its focus on how undergraduates are taught. It’s now twice in a calendar year that this institution has communicated to me, in real and tangible ways, that the things I value are the things that it values – one time when I was promoted to full professor, and now with this endowment of my position.

Places that put the undergraduate student at the center of their mission and support the education of that undergraduate in tangible ways are rare and are becoming rarer. When exploring my options at the point when I applied for this job, the positions that I could find at four-year institutions that didn’t demand some sort of publishable scholarship and that devalued the teaching role of the professor were few and far between. Undergraduate research is important – my colleague in chemistry is an expert at that – but it doesn’t overtake the importance of the work in the classroom.

Choosing somebody with my record and my practice in education sends a message. It’s not enough – it’s not even entirely necessary – to have a robust publication record to be successful at this place. Being successful at this place means doing the work in front of students, day in and day out, and being seriously reflective on the successes and the failures that come with doing that work so that we all can continue to improve at the art and practice of instruction – the very thing that we should be primarily equipped to do at these institutions.

(The press release mentions my work in quizbowl, too! I’m very grateful to be at a place that makes this particular passion of mine not only part of its programming, but part of how I’m valued and something that they can value as well.)

Endowments don’t just fall from the sky. Someone caught the vision to make the substantial sum of money available to feed into the continued success of the institution. In this case, that person was Verna June Meen. Her gift to Tusculum in honor of her husband, who was quite the chemist in his own right, isn’t just responsible for the funding of the position reflected in my title, but the building where I work – the Meen Center for Science and Mathematics. It’s a spectacular facility, the best facility I’ve been able to call a workplace in my career. Frankly, everything about science education at this place is the best kept secret in Tennessee, and I’d like for it to be a little bit less of a secret.

The Meen family will long be remembered at this place for all they’ve done to make a fundamental transformation of science education possible. I taught in that great legacy science building, Tredway Hall, at the start of my time at Tusculum – but there’s only so much modern science that a building constructed in 1928 can support. The Meen funding that made the building possible also supports this endowment and, in turn, will support the maintenance of laboratory equipment in the building and further undergraduate research in chemistry that will go forward. The funding is not just for me; the foresight of how the money is being apportioned means it is for all of us, and that is something that satisfies me deeply.

Between the Meen funding and the USDA and Appalachian Regional Commission support in addition to other private funding that supplemented the costs of construction and the outfitting of the building with lab equipment, we’re confident we can be on the cutting edge of science education – education that isn’t merely rigorous and effective, but accessible, meeting the students of this region at the point of their need.

Accepting this title is a spectacular honor – but it’s also a profound responsibility. I have a little bit more of a bully pulpit than I had before, and I feel a very real obligation to communicate anew the importance of constructing our institutions in ways that allow everybody who comes across our path – particularly those who come across our path wanting to study the sciences – the opportunity to succeed, to realize their dreams, and surpass them.

For six and a half years I have been supported in ways large and small by this campus community, by people who have since moved on, by people who have come onto campus, and by people who have stayed. That support has been doubled and redoubled over the course of this brutally difficult year, where professional successes have been wedded with the worst heartache.

The realization strikes me that there are people who are working overtime to make sure that my “Real Professional Development Goal” of April 2016 comes to fruition.

I’m grateful, so grateful to the people who have made Tusculum University my home.

(Thanks to April Lane for the photo.)

One year

I wish I had coherent thoughts to share on the awful anniversary of losing A.

This is a thing that reshapes the calendar. Instead of the arbitrary end of year that we define, now there’s this very definite thing, and here’s one month since this thing, six months since this thing, one year since this thing that totally upended our lives.

I hope you’ll allow me to just share some notes, observations on the year gone by and the realities that have come with it.

What you will never be ready for is the waves.

There was an analogy for grief that I was familiar with even before December 4, 2021. It compared grief to wandering around in a box. Every time you touched the walls of the box, there was searing, unrelenting pain. When the loss first happens, the box is very small, and you can’t help but run into one of the walls. As you get further and further away from the loss, the box expands. The pain is no worse when you run into the wall, but the walls get further and further away, and you have more room to get around without the pain.

The analogy is fair, and it describes life well – except nothing can prepare you for what that pain is like.

The sadness from losing a child is unlike anything you could possibly ever know. It’s unfair even to call it sadness, or melancholy, or any other word. It is this gaping, painful hole, and there is nothing you can do to ever fill it. You can get through some of life without triggering the pain, but there will always be something to trigger it.

Maybe it’s a song that A. loved. Maybe it’s the realization that I haven’t played a game in a year because that was the game A. and I played. Maybe it’s a candy that A. made.

And maybe it’s just the stars at night.

The last night A. was with Kristin, the stars were exceptionally bright. They lingered under the stars, marveled at the beauty of the night sky. It is so odd – I’m the physicist of the family, but I’ve never been able to appreciate the night sky anywhere near like how A. was able to. I lament the experiences we could have shared, and did share in fleeting moments, and never will again.

Any of those experiences, and any of many others, starts the pain.

And when the pain comes, it comes in waves. It’s not one moment of pain, and then it’s gone. It’s surging pain, rising and falling many times in succession, each that follows worse than the last. You can’t bear to stand under the weight. You can simply sit or lie, and lament.

What we miss.

What we have lost, never to return.

What could have been, and never will be.

Sometimes you are able to feel the waves fade while you’re awake, and you can feel other things again. But sometimes the waves just crash and crash and crash, and you just have to be swallowed by them, hope that sleep relieves the pain somehow.

What is at once relieving and frustrating is how little outwardly I’m able to show the signs of this. Depression has been a theme of my life, and I’ve put together tactics to manage the physical symptoms of depression. Those tactics reached the point of second nature in the months before A.‘s death. These have been new sensations, but the time-developed tactics for managing them have worked. I was able to resume functioning in the day-to-day relatively quickly.

But managing isn’t the same as going without feeling. When the waves hit, the pain is no less severe. And there are times when the response is simply the need to stop.

And there is damage that’s been done, in ways that I am only starting to account for. But taking stock of that damage is probably for another time.

One of the ways I have recognized that I manage the pain that comes with grief and depression is simply to continue doing, no matter how difficult that doing feels.

There is always academic work that needs to be done. I was a year into my appointment as department chair when this reality took hold. We’ve moved through this year as positively as we could. I can’t express enough gratitude to my department, my fellow chairs in Science, Technology and Mathematics, and to my academic administration for the support they’ve given me as this year has moved forward.

I’ve been the best professor I could be while dealing with the weight. I always have my own standards for my work in the classroom and in the lab, and what actually winds up happening as the term goes forward is never good enough compared to those standards. Somehow I wind up building connection with students anyway, and I’m able to have some positive influence in their lives. I’m grateful to those students.

But, inevitably, I find other things to stuff my days full with. And that’s where the conversation turns to quizbowl.

With the easing of the pandemic conditions, as we’ve moved into the fall, we’ve been in position to restart face-to-face competition in the places I care about the most. I can’t talk about quizbowl without talking about the faithfulness of friends in East Tennessee, including Dren Rollins, who was literally at my side the instant I heard the news about A. Many of us who care about academic competition in East Tennessee have been working to rebuild a competitive circuit almost from scratch, and we’ve run a couple of tournaments in the fall and look to run a regional championship as a prototype come the spring. I look forward to the fruition of the quizbowl game in the place I call home.

But I dove most heavily into high school quizbowl when I started at Virginia Intermont, and the schools of Southwest Virginia still hold my heart.

This fall’s restart of the Southwest Virginia Academic Team Alliance (SWATA) circuit is the quizbowl outreach work I’m proudest of. With those schools, the coaches had a clear vision of what kind of competitive structure they needed, and they were able to communicate that to me; I’ve spent much of my time this fall implementing their vision and rebuilding with them the competition we had before the pandemic hit.

There were online competitions in the state scholastic bowl format that ran during the pandemic – one of our SWATA schools won a state championship online, even – but online competition has a very real disconnection, and we lose the community that is generated when our small, rural schools can come together in one place and celebrate the excellence in learning they’ve achieved.

I’ve found that I’ve missed that community throughout the pandemic, and I’ve needed that community now more than ever.

The day before this one year anniversary, I spent in Castlewood, VA helping their small high school run their first ever Saturday tournament. I spent it with the high school teachers, students, and families that I care about most in this region, taking the next steps in establishing and developing this community. I spent it getting very real support, in ways visible and invisible, possibly in ways that the people feeding into me weren’t even aware of.

I can’t emphasize enough how grateful I am to SWATA for letting me support them in building their competitive community, and how much I’ve needed them caring for me this fall. They have honestly become my church family, in all the ways I need a church family. I can’t list all the people who deserve thanks for their consistent fellowship.

All the support of all the people who have fed me the good things in this year can’t fill the hole, and can’t keep the pain from showing up when it is expected and when it is least expected.

The magnitude of the loss in our family can’t be overstated. I’ve mentioned before that A. was our stabilizing force. At times when others were hard to talk to, A. was always very easy to talk to, and the snark that inevitably turned up was forever good-natured and made the conversations inevitably funny. The image that will stick with me from the last days of A.’s life will be the child and their mother seated on the loveseat, trading library stories and commiserating on the difficulty that comes with working with the public. We miss those conversations more than we can bear.

A. had her own means of support – with cooking, with decorating, with all kinds of little actions that made a holiday even more alive. I will confess to not sharing A.’s affinity for Halloween, and taking the joy from the spooky. But A. found ways to bring joy to every holiday. It was very easy to decorate a Christmas tree with A. around. It’s obviously not the same now.

There are very few traditions in our family that are meaningful now; without A. around, the weight of the missing person dwarfs any benefit that we might get from continuing the same thing. I never really understood why the holidays were so difficult for the grieving before going through this. But the holidays can bring reminders everywhere, and the waves begin to crash anew.

Today, as much as any day this year, I really felt an obligation to write through the waves. I’m grateful for A.’s life, and I’m grateful for all that A. created in this world. But as I find a way to navigate a world without A. – as surreal a thought as that still remains, one year on – I’m finding gratitude for all the family, friends, and loved ones who help me navigate.

Gratitude doesn’t change how much I despise navigating this path.