Academic Twitter satire goes up a notch in Trump era

Satirical scholars hit overdrive in the era of The Donald

February 14, 2017

Academics are keen observers of the absurd in their professional lives – or so their many ironic, often gallows-humor social media accounts suggest.

From jokes about students not reading the syllabus or the pain of peer review to Mark Wahlberg-inspired research memes, their posts bring smiles and eye rolls. Yet in recent weeks, a number of these often anonymous accounts have taken a serious turn, speaking out against the policies of the Trump administration thus far, Inside Higher Ed reported. 

“I simply couldn't make a joke of what's going on politically, and I think having an academic response is important,” the faculty member who tweets as @AcademicBatgirl said in an interview. The tenured professor, an American teaching at a Canadian university, used to share posts mostly about things such as postholiday “writing amnesia” (not knowing what one’s manuscript is about after too much time away), or the neurosis of the academic creative process. But lately, she’s been posting more things like this:

“I can't ignore the problems that are now escalated given the political situation,” she said. “I couldn't rightly speak for all academics, or give voice to colleagues. Rather, I just want to be courageous enough to say something. I think not saying something would be irresponsible.”

A nearly tenured professor at a public college in the South started his anonymous Twitter account, @ProfessorJaded, several years ago as something of an experiment – to create a literary character and test out story lines. The handle has become more of what he described as “a blended synthesis of my own experiences and snarky quotes, which I would never say aloud in a normal setting”, however.

“The daily grind, ridiculous questions that would annoy me, different aspects of work that I found ridiculous each continued to serve as my inspiration to keep the Twitter account alive,” he added in a Twitter message. Here some representative examples:

The account developed a following based on its observations of academic life, and for that reason, among professional ones, Professor Jaded kept politics out of it – until now. Recent events “became too much for me to keep my hedgerow between academics and state”, he said. 

Professor Jaded has criticised Trump’s controversial immigration ban as well as his nomination of philanthropist Betsy DeVos for education secretary (and her infamous reference to guns as a necessary tool for schools to fight off grizzlies).

Another social media humorist known as Lego Grad Student usually tells of the trials and tribulations of graduate school through the tiny, painted-on eyes of his popular character. His elaborate Lego tableaux, posted on Twitter and elsewhere, can be dark – hinting at the psychological toll graduate school can take, for example – but they used to always be somehow lighthearted.

Yet the graduate student behind the handle, at a West Coast research university, was so affected by the 2016 election that he was “compelled” to express how he felt, he said via email.

“On the morning of Election Day, I had made the flag post to remind people simply to vote,” he said. “That night, once the election was effectively over, I was trying to process how I felt and was even writing a short essay about it, but I just couldn't capture what was going on in my head. Almost instinctively, I turned to that flag I had made and broke it apart, having it crush the grad student underneath.”

It said more than words could, so he posted it, along with several follow-ups.

Like others mentioned here, Lego Grad Student has continued making humorous posts alongside political ones. He also found a way to combine efforts, parodying in a series of non-visual posts his recent dissertation defence and things heard and seen on the campaign trail.

Over all, said Lego Grad Student, “my posts have been a combination of my processing my personal frustrations, trying to remind others that they are not alone, and helping other students wrestle with their own feelings. The more of a positive response I got from people, the more politically charged I think my posts might have become.”

Like your commentary in Lego? The plastic female scientists at @LegoAcademics had this to say about the immigration ban: 

Here are a few more pointed contributions from other accounts:

Professors and students have also flocked to Shit Academics Say (@AcademicsSay on Twitter) over the years to laugh and cringe at various professorisms and obtuse academese, like this classic:

The account, managed by Nathan C. Hall, an associate professor of education and counseling psychology at McGill University in Canada, has always had something of a serious side, offering readers various notes on motivation or messages of support in between the satire. But it’s become more serious lately, too, with posts linking to a searchable index of academics worldwide providing logistical support to scientists unable to enter the US due to travel restrictions, for example, and news about the upcoming March for Science.

Hall said that after taking a recent hiatus from his account, and hearing stories about students unable to attend conferences over the border, US colleagues losing qualified student applicants and more, it became clear that “not providing encouragement or resources to academics who are increasingly struggling with challenges to academic freedom and mental health due to the recent dramatic shift in US politics was not something I could easily justify”.

Given his background in psychology and having developed @AcademicsSay in part to raise awareness of well-being in higher education, he added, “it felt disingenuous to avoid discussion of these issues for fear of being criticised as a non-American interloper or going partisan for the sake of retweets”.

Although it would be easier to stay silent or stick to the sarcastic script for which the account is known, he said, “the very real flip side is leaving an increasingly large community of struggling academics behind and shirking the responsibility of giving back that comes with social media influence”.

Certainly not all humorous higher ed accounts have gone serious since the election. But the trend toward the political raises questions about the role of the academic in what some have called a “resistance”.

Lego Grad Student said he never had any intent to get into politics, because he didn't want to alienate people or "sell" them something they didn't sign up for. But, now, he said, “I can’t help but feel that we've entered new territory where I simply felt irresponsible staying silent or acting as if it didn't matter.”

And while he’s for the most part “preaching to the choir”, he added, “I am generally speaking to issues and events which I believe should be broadly seen as negative, and I think it is important to help people remember that they aren't alone, and to help maintain their attention to what is going on”.

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