Academics love a good dragging of higher education’s broken systems.
Academics got exactly such a dragging when The Chronicle of Higher Education dropped a long-form feature essay on December 5th, 2019. The essay detailed a first-person account written by a recent PhD graduate abandoned, shamed, and harassed by their dissertation advisor. The essay’s author found themselves deserted by their advisor in the early throes of the academic job season. The advisor’s simple abandonment wasn’t good enough. The advisor intentionally, and maliciously, pulled their student’s letters of recommendation from Interfolio, doing so for no other reason than they disagreed with the author’s response to an emergency financial situation.
My summary’s broad strokes fail in addressing all the injustices described in the original piece, but readers likely recognize the story of Mistress Snow. A bomb dropped on academia when Mistress Snow’s essay, “I Told My Mentor I Was a Dominatrix” appeared in CHE. The essay quickly went viral. Mistress Snow’s account on Twitter took off. And we all benefited from one more advocate for the precarious, for grad students, for workers, for the marginalized, for sex workers, and for the ignored. The excellent tweets, humor, shitposting, and Snow’s not-gonna-tolerate-your-shit-attitude helped, too.
We know academia finds itself awash in awful advisor stories, provided one listens to voices outside of the echo chamber. In retrospect, the on-the-surface seemingly seedy, salacious, sexual aspect of Snow’s story likely contributed to the essay taking off as academics circulated the essay on social media. Yes, Snow dragged academia, but surely some of the scintillating appeal for academics, at least, derived from Snow’s work as a dominatrix.
However, Snow’s work as a dominatrix provided much of the appeal for audiences, largely because of how CHE framed and amplified the essay for publication. The attention-snaring title was crafted as click-bait in order to generate responses from CHE readers. Furthermore, the image accompanying Snow’s essay plays up the sexualized elements of the essay. The feature image depicts a nude figure holding a copy of MichelFoucault’s Discipline and Punish. Low-hanging Foucault visuals fit with Snow’s work as a dominatrix, and the theme of an advisor punishing their mentee. However, the copy of Discipline and Punish exists as the image’s secondary prop. The image’s dominant visual feature derives from light and shadow drawing the viewers’ eyes towards a nude figure intricately bound with rope. Specifically, the image showcases the art of Shibari, with its intricate patterning of rope and sophisticated knots. Each visual element contributes towards the heightened sexuality of the image. Of course, Shibari doesn’t appear in Snow’s essay at all. The essay’s header image on the website furthers the Shibari connection (literally and figuratively) with the image’s depiction of rope connected to ceiling hooks, echoing suspension play. And, lastly, with regards to social media, any time a user shares a link to Snow’s essay, Shibari appears again along with a copy of Discipline and Punish ensconced in Shibari bindings, though that image doesn’t appear in the actual essay.
I admit it appears I’m falling into the trap of focusing on the sexual elements of Snow’s essay, like many other academics. However, it’s worth noting how the essay appeared as it circulated online within a viral context. I’m drawing attention to these visual elements in order to highlight how they help readers read past the essay’s ultimate message. Visually, especially in a viral context, the essay lends itself to a sexual focus. That fact isn’t Snow’s fault. The visual design of the essay prompts an easy read past the main point: The contradiction and illusion that the relationship between a dissertation director and their student exists on an even playing field.
When many of us selected a dissertation director we did so with a choice, seemingly so. We can call graduate students junior colleagues, or talk of them as apprentices, or even peers, but semantics aside, when it comes down to it: the relationship between an advisor and mentee is deeply imbalanced, even in the best cases. On the other hand, Snow’s work as a dominatrix, even with its trappings of power, exists as a consensual agreement between her and a client. The work functions within a transactional exchange between two parties, each invested with the authority to revoke the agreement underpinning the consensual partnership. Plus, it’s an economic exchange: payment in exchange for the services of highly trained expert. On the surface, it’s easy seeing a connection between the relationships of a Dom/sub and the advisor/mentee pairing, but that is a surface reading. A mentor/mentee relationship in academia can never compare to a healthy, mutually rewarding, and, consensual power-exchange relationship, regardless if the D/s dynamic comes through a personal relationship or economic exchange.
Honestly, it took nearly a year after the essay’s appearance before Snow’s nuanced arguments clicked with me. At some level I got it, after all, many of us have taken enough college HR required workshops and webinars dedicated to covering consent and mandatory reporting. If one gets caught up in the salacious headline and the framing images of Snow’s essay, then it’s easy tuning out with a response saying: “Oh, isn’t that an interesting connection.” I cannot for certain say that I caught on to the nuances when I first read Snow’s essay. I’m not certain many others caught the distinction.
I get the nuances now because I kept listening to Snow since the essay’s publication. I kept listening to other voices she amplified online. And that brings me the main point of my post: The majority of academics didn’t get Snow’s point. They don’t get Snow now, even if those same academics follow Snow on Twitter. They still don’t listen.
At this point, I should tell all of you that I know Snow. We’ve never met in person, but our friendship goes back over a year before the appearance of her CHE essay. Believe you me, I was fucking shocked when Snow first slid into my DMs on the Twitter Dot Com. So, yes, I know Snow; I know Snow’s identity. You’ll never pry that information out of my hands.
Snow and I interact frequently on Twitter. We discuss mundane topics, personal topics, and, of course, academic subjects. One topic we discuss frequently is the long-term legacy of her CHE piece. Long time PALS readers and social media followers know that I enjoy diving deeply into online engagement metrics. In early November 2020, I asked Snow about her sense of how her Twitter engagement breaks down between her audience of academics, sex workers, and other followers. Our discussion didn’t lead to a concrete sense of the breakdown. I put on my social media metrics cap, told Snow what I was about to do, then took a dive into the public end of Snow’s Twitter feed.
Originally, I planned to document Snow’s engagement across three categories of users: academics, sex workers (very broadly defined), and other users (very broadly defined). I intended to look at retweets, likes, and replies. I would also make a record of each tweet’s content: academic, sex work, academic/sex work hybrid, and other/shitposts. I wasn’t relying on access to Snow’s account and the metrics Twitter provides. I knew Snow would likely have high clicks and views, but I wasn’t interested in those hard numbers because such numbers reveal little about meaningful engagement. Snow had nearly 14,000 users at the time of my November survey. I started going through Snow’s Twitter account with my target metrics in mind, just a quick run through checking if I picked the correct breakdown for my future spreadsheet.
I quickly realized I wouldn’t need a spreadsheet for tabulating Snow’s metrics. I immediately saw a pattern, one I was familiar with because it mirrors the engagement from followers of PALS. Here are the general characteristics I saw in Snow’s engagements, with users (minus academics) generally falling into one or more categories:
- General Twitter users, of course
- Sex workers
- Graduate students
- Precarious academics
- Members of marginalized groups (broadly defined)
The majority of Snow’s user engagements came from a combination of the above groups. However, engagement from academics presented a very different picture, one with less overall engagement with Snow. An academic engaging with Snow on Twitter likely fit within the following categories:
- PhD in sociology
- PhD in any field, with a research focus on gender, sexuality, and other closely related topics
- PhD in any field, with a personal/advocating interest in gender, sexuality, and other closely related topic
Again, academics aren’t leading the charge in Snow’s Twitter engagements.
Why does my review of Snow’s metrics matter and what does it reveal? My metrics survey shows what Snow knew: regardless of her essay’s online circulation, regardless of her Twitter followers: Snow existed on academia’s margins.
In the fall of 2020, Snow was thrown to the wolves when she called out a scholar on Twitter for falsely and misleadingly representing as Jewish and playing up an inconsistent family history. Snow brought receipts. Snow walked her audience through evidence. Snow highlighted every inconsistency. The result? Snow became the victim of a sustained orchestrated online harassment campaign. Who offered the most support? Her core engagement audience. Who was noticeably silent? Academics, especially established academics.
Snow called out the lack of support for what it was: whorephobia. Snow and her circle (including those who listened) all knew it existed in academia. Snow’s essay was an engaging drag of academia, yes, but the outfall of her harassment campaign shows, more than any social media metrics, that whorephobia is rife in academia. And academia’s whorephobia matters. Snow used her platform for amplifying various voices. Many of those voices tell us that Snow isn’t alone as an academic and a sex worker. More academics than we acknowledge are getting by through sex work. And it’s especially true of those on academia’s precarious edges.
When Snow was the victim of an orchestrated attack by scholars punching down? Many ignored her. People ignored Snow when she became the victim of Anti-Semitic attacks. Sure, be silent when Snow shares calls for mutual aid drives for sex workers. Be silent when Snow highlights the plight of sex workers. Sure, LOL when Snow shitposts. But when Snow needed support, especially from academics, the majority of people let their whorephobia show.
There was a bigger red flag showing academia’s whorephobia. When the harassment of Snow morphed into an orchestrated doxing campaign, then most people stayed silent. Sure, more academic voices than usual supported Snow. Snow’s core audience cared, including precarious academics, when Snow’s physical safety was under threat. But most didn’t care.
Snow wasn’t met with silence alone. Instead, countless users unfollowed Snow. I saw it on the PALS Twitter account. The PALS Twitter follower count dropped when we posted in support of Snow.
In the end, for most academics, Snow wrote a scintillating essay. People read it. People circulated it. Most people didn’t really listen. And, they continued not listening in the year after the essay’s publication.
In academia we often call for people to listen. We call for centering marginalized voices. Shut up, listen, and give up control so marginalized voices have the microphone. Then amplify those voices from the fringes of power.
Most of the time academics are cool with amplifying marginalized voices. Provided those voices are respectable. But if you’re a “whore”? Then it’s sit down, shut up, and let me publicly clutch my pearls. Academics showed their asses in their lack of support for Snow.
You don’t need metrics to see that.