“The Joke’s Ultimately on Me”: “Diabetic of Enlightenment” on Academic Twitter

When it comes to academia, we live in a moment of heightened contradictions. And yet, graduate students and junior professors are frequently told we mustn’t rock the boat even as it sinks farther and ...

When it comes to academia, we live in a moment of heightened contradictions. And yet, graduate students and junior professors are frequently told we mustn’t rock the boat even as it sinks farther and farther into the neoliberal abyss. The weight of this disconnect was bound to break eventually. Twitter, now regrettably known as X, provided just the platform for such a rupture. As seasoned, elite academics flocked to the platform, they democratized access to some of their cringiest tendencies, narcissistic ticks, and tone-deaf opinions, which came to be colloquially known as “Academic Twitter.”

Younger scholars facing worsening working conditions and narrower futures in their fields—to say nothing of the galvanizing political education gained from working in an era of ascendant global fascism—grew tired of muzzling critiques of academic hypocrisy, abuse, and condescension. Parodic posting and thinly veiled subtweeting ensued, whereby rebellious posters offered direct and immediate critiques of (mostly) tenured scholars’ politics (often mealymouthed) and actions (often cowardly and/or self-involved).

David Hollingshead is a tastemaker of the genre. He is the man behind the popular (or, depending on your view, detested) “Academic Twitter” parody account “Diabetic of Enlightenment,” which frequently crafts tweets that satirize and poke fun at academics’ self-important and out-of-touch posting style. When I was a graduate student, his tweets were a balm for the bullshit I witnessed both as a university worker and as an observer of the frequently embarrassing happenings in my broader field of US history. They remain some of the funniest posts on the godforsaken site. Beyond being extremely amusing, however, his tweets also articulate a cogent indictment of the state of professional academia today: inert in the face of meaningful threats to higher education and the humanities in particular, obsessed with individual prestige and social climbing even as the world burns, and defensive of liberal institutions despite ample evidence of their complicity in racial capitalist violence.

I recently spoke with David about the origins and politics behind his posting, his love of literary criticism, and how he’s been influenced by “funny Canadians.”


Charlotte E. Rosen (CER): Your account offers, to me, the sharpest parody of “Academic Twitter,” particularly how its participants tend to offer cringey, tone-deaf, and/or self-involved advice or commentary about academia.

When and why did you start posting? And what compelled you to take on this specific genre?

 

Diabetic of Enlightenment (DoE): First, though, let me apologize to both the readers and editors of Public Books who have the misfortune of finding me in your publication. However, note that I am not sorry enough to have declined the request.

The academic parody angle never felt intentional. Still, it was probably overdetermined by an interesting set of weird structural conditions.

Ten years ago, the cultural discourse of academia hadn’t yet metabolized the nightmare state the profession was in. So there was this perfect storm: you had hundreds of graduate students (myself included) and sessional faculty getting on social media; because they had been told that to increase their chances on the job market, they needed to promote themselves, network, and establish their intellectual brands. At the same time, many tenured faculty on Twitter were stuck in a time warp from, like, 1973. They were complaining about their home renovations and not being cited enough, talking down to grad students, crowdsourcing their own research, and were just addicted to this archaic tone policing that, to everyone else’s ears, was immensely out of touch with the material conditions of the profession. It soon became clear that all the advice about networking and integrating your online and professional personas was a lie and just another way to individualize the effects of systemic collapse. At that point, there was much less incentive to let a bunch of dorks set the discursive limits of the medium.

It’s a tongue-in-cheek truism on Twitter that “bullying works.” I have absolutely no qualms describing the shift over the last ten years as such. Especially since it now means that we don’t have to see some tenured R1 professor circulating screenshots to their buddies of a grad student who, say, called Kamala Harris a cop.

In retrospect, Twitter was a hilarious place for academics to congregate post-2008, because of its porosity to different interpretive communities. During the worst economic conditions the profession had ever known, hundreds of humorless nerds—with the tedious capacity for unlimited self-importance and unlimited insecurity—aired their bootlicking takes to an audience—i.e., all of Twitter—that included some of the funniest people on the planet. And, consequently, they were literally run off the app for being too embarrassing.

It’s so funny. Good riddance.


CER: One way to read your tweets is a commentary on the fundamentally conservative, punitive, and antilabor politics of many academics, who otherwise position themselves as progressive or left leaning. How do politics inform your posting? What do you hope to achieve in exposing this disconnect?

 

DoE: My personal politics are absolute solidarity with graduate students and contingent and other precarious faculty. I certainly don’t harbor any illusions that my tweets make anyone’s lives materially better. I have unending respect for everyone involved in the cause of labor activism in the profession, while simultaneously trying to stay afloat on this sinking ship.

I do think that the discursive shifts we’re seeing on academic twitter—toward actually funny humor, absurdity, well-directed snark—can have salutary effects that are hard to foresee. I really do take issue with the line of thinking that humor, especially “online” humor, is inherently this defensive, reactionary position that enables constant ironic detachment, edgelordism, et cetera. That position, when assumed by academics, seems to me like itself a defense mechanism: nothing is more “detached,” apolitical, and wishy-washy than serious scholarly calls to “imagine community otherwise” or whatever. And not to sound like a disgusting academic myself, but humor can often work as a productive kind of genre flail in Lauren Berlant’s sense: an attempt to situate oneself in a catastrophe when the standard genres of crisis don’t make sense anymore.

This is part of the reason I love Tim Robinson’s comedy so much. I read I Think You Should Leave as a show about genre flailing, particularly in the context of work. There’s one sketch where office workers start to goof around when their boss is out of the room—“imagining the world otherwise” if you will—by transforming the office space into a beach party scenario: the desk becomes a surfboard, chairs become whirlpools, cracking LaCroix becomes the ocean spray, et cetera. They’re enacting this managerial script to revitalize productivity by making labor fun again. And one guy gets too into the fantasy and yells “Here comes a big wave!,” aggressively upending the tables, and everyone gets really badly injured. The fantasy of reprise has real violence built into it, and I try to do that with the most common academic scripts: the job application, the announcement tweet, the humblebrag, the pedagogy advice solicitation, et cetera.

Everywhere you can see how out of touch the dominant culture is vis-à-vis this profession. Hollywood has been jacking off for thirty years to the idea of a depressed but charismatic English professor whose personal life is a bit of a mess. It’s such a weird conceit because it’s so symptomatically preoccupied with an inscrutable interiority, when, in fact, nothing in our professional academic lives is actually dependent on how we feel. It’s a genre script that doesn’t make sense anymore!

Instead, I say, What if I scurried around in the vents of your campus after hours like a Smeagol-type creature? What if you saw me in the vents one night and decided to hunt me? What if I design an “adjuncts only” waterslide at the College Park Marriott, where poor wet singles can get whiplash on a slide called White Lightning? What if my TA doesn’t strap me into my flying teaching harness properly and my Castle of Otranto lecture is ruined in front of my goth son who is also my Chair? Then what?

Obviously, I have read enough bad ecocriticism to be skeptical about claims for what effects texts can precipitate in the real world. But I also have no doubt that the discursive norms ten years ago were actively hostile to solidarity in the profession: it was like fucking Gradcafé moderated by 48-year-olds. Alternatively, everyone’s welcome in the campus vents after dark.

 

CER: Has your posting changed over time? What is your favorite “bit” that you do (mine is your recurring riff on butlers…).

 

DoE: It changes all the time because it’s fundamentally imitative. All I do is rip off people funnier than me.

I really do believe in Twitter as a place for comedy. Every day I see the funniest post I’ve ever seen. What people do with language on this site is really incredible. The butler thing may have been partially cribbed from Brooks Otterlake, maybe James (recently booted from Twitter). Both Canadians, incidentally. Big fan of @gloomfather but he’s quieted down lately—probably a sign of improving mental health. Don Hughes, too. All funny Canadians.

I don’t really have a favorite bit. The truth is all my bits are teetering on the edge of cringe at every moment.

CER: You are yourself a professor and literature scholar. What is your research on? Does it inform your posting? 

 

DoE: Unfortunately, yes, I am also a scholar. But I haven’t written much in years because I teach too much now. I wrote quite a bad dissertation on turn-of-the-20th-century science and literature stuff, which a number of people much smarter than me—Kyla Schuller, Zakiyyah Jackson, Erica Fretwell—were articulating around the same time with much more precise and convincing framings, but it was basically a project on naturalism and racial biopolitics. I’m “working” on a potentially more interesting project about 19th-century domestic ecology—basically, visions of the home as a space of so-called “rewilding”—that may or may not go anywhere. If anyone has any tips, read these two articles and tell me what I should do next.

The truth is I love literary criticism. I never want to be confused with some type of guy that’s all anti-theory, “humanities jargon is meaningless,” “let’s get back to philology.” I love academic arguments. And if I make fun of something scholarly online, I’ve almost certainly spent hours and hours reading and thinking about it, so the joke’s ultimately on me.

Judith Butler writing about Alan Sokal was so right: good parody requires deep intimacy with the object. You can never truly hate the thing you’re mocking. And really, for every three academic books or trends I poke fun at, there are 50 I envy and admire. If anything, I’m too in the weeds with literary criticism. My favorite critics—Jennifer Fleissner, Jennifer Nash, Patricia Stuelke—are the kind who don’t treat criticism as a secondary object, something you tuck away in footnotes, but as constitutive of how we read our primary sources. I really do interpret the refusal to engage with secondary sources clearly and explicitly as a form of intellectual cowardice.

And that’s one thing that Academic Twitter is really bad at, but where the rest of Twitter excels: naming names. I love a good academic dunk; it would be so flattering to be the object of a good academic dunk. It would mean someone actually read my work! But everyone’s too scared, and no one actually reads anything.

CER: Has your tweeting ever gotten you into trouble? If so, how have you handled it?

 

DoE: This question is very much related to what I was just describing. The answer is I’ve never gotten in trouble in a way that matters. It’s not a bad question; people ask me this all the time. But it is a question that is linked to a vision of the profession that is no longer really operative.

There’s a fantasy of strong agency that still pervades the way we talk about this job. We like the idea that individuals get into trouble, or screw up, or harm our reputations, et cetera. But mostly we just disappear, are forced out of the profession. And the people who are genuine confirmed sex pests in their field are just out there tweeting away. It’s like the Brecht quote, “What is the robbing of a bank compared with founding a bank?” What trouble could I get in from tweeting that is worse than just being in this profession?

I’m sure you can relate to this: 95 percent of the academics I know are very poor, very exhausted, and very sick; hardly anyone is thriving. And so I think: Because I make fun of a conference’s CFP I might not be invited on someone’s panel? I might get ignored at MLA? I already get ignored at MLA! These are not real problems.

 

CER: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

 

DoE: I have already overstayed my welcome. Thank you, Charlotte. [Canadianly] Sorry to everyone. icon

Featured image: Photograph of David Hollingshead courtesy of the author.