Thin Margins

A bearded tightrope walker carries another man high above raging water

There’s good news, in the first place. This academic year is much better than last year was at the same point. For me, anyway. And for most of my students and friends.

We may be living every day under apocalyptic headlines about the world at large, but the apocalypse isn’t happening inside my classrooms. Not this time. Not as far as I know. Though everybody has their own struggle.

With mask mandates lifted almost everywhere, newly matriculated college students now get to see each others’ faces on campus. For most students and most professors, that’s been a great thing for morale and probably, on the whole, for learning, whatever it means for physical health. (I’m not going to deny the tradeoffs—in either direction.)

But everybody’s working on thin margins. Teachers and students alike. There’s less room for error than there was at this time three years ago. We have lower reserves of energy, creativity, health, wealth, and patience.

Patience is the problem that’s really on my mind lately.

For me, the problem of patience has been brought into clearer focus by what’s happening on Twitter.

Last week, Twitter was purchased by the current richest person—not to say one of the most annoying and irresponsible rich people—in the world. Many academics, even longtime power users, have announced that they plan to quit the site, or that they are seriously considering that step, despite what would often amount to a substantial professional sacrifice. A few have already left.

Here’s what this has to do with patience.

My own discomfort with Twitter has grown dramatically over the last year or so. To me, it seems almost impossible to use responsibly now.

That has a lot to do with the way I’ve seen many of my fellow teachers—and also many other people involved in public discussions of history—get drawn, all the time, into casually but incessantly brutal behavior toward other educators. Sometimes for important reasons. But often simply because Twitter distills every complex thought, mix of feelings, or commentary on an inherently imperfect situation into some form of virally transmissible rage.

There’s nothing new about that. I know this; I’ve been on Twitter for more than a decade. I know how valuable (and joyful) it can be as well as how depressing it can be. But just since mid-2021, in my circles and communities of interest, it’s almost certainly gotten worse than it had been before. Not in how bad it can be—its worst moments were always life-ruiningly bad, especially for people who don’t look like me—but in how unremitting the background radiation of rage and paranoia is.

What’s worst of all is that I suspect Twitter makes me a worse person on a regular basis.

In any case, it’s gotten hard to participate in any major Twitter conversation, about any serious topic, without some loss of self-respect.

I think Twitter today is often a machine for generating impatience in people who need patience to survive as professionals. Patience is not incidental to the work of an educator, especially in history; it is a core virtue. Without it, we’re nothing.

The problem is not one social media site.

It’s what that social media site represents as just one part of an entire economic and social and cultural landscape, as we try to slog our way out of a global emergency while facing new global emergencies.

I’m using Twitter as an example, not identifying it as the culprit. Stay or go: whatever makes sense for you.

What matters is that we have to find ways to give ourselves—and, every bit as importantly, each other—better margins for error.


Image: George Holley, engraving of Charles Blondin and his manager crossing the Niagara River on a tightrope, 1883, public domain