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Maybe I Need to Be Less "Sensitive"
March 11, 2014 - 11:13am

There was a lovely piece here on IHE about the very real mental toll that “failing” on the academic job market year after year can have on someone. The author is in a very similar situation as I am, with two young kids and a non-tenure-track position, not to mention the fading dream of ever attaining a tenure-track job. The piece resonated with me, and obviously resonated with a lot of readers because the comments were all sympathetic, supportive, and critical of the systematic dismantling of the tenure-track.

The day before that, this powerful piece appeared, with two adjuncts discussing their realities and daily struggles. Both also have families to support, and sought their graduate degrees in order to try and provide a better life for themselves and their children. Same issue, different perspectives, but in this case, the comments attacked the women for their “choices,” in terms of getting a degree, having children, or their gender identities and sexuality.

So, when you say that “being a white male” doesn’t matter, may I point to the divergent sets of comments on these two pieces. IT MATTERS. I know it matters because when I write about these same issues, I also get attacked for my life choices, my ambition (no one told the first author that he should just be happy he has a job), and my willingness to speak up and out about it. Being a white male (who also happens to be teaching at a more prestigious institution) has EVERYTHING to do with it. He gets support and respect. We get ... trolls.

I’m tired. There are lots of reasons why I haven’t been blogging (or tweeting) much lately, but it is in no small part because I am exhausted from the attacks, both implicit and explicit, being made because of my gender, my position within higher education, my family status… All of it begins to weigh, even with the incredible support I know I have.

I’ve been able to ignore it, or deny it, or even carry it for too long. But I can’t anymore. Recently, a young student leader at the University of Ottawa had “lewd threats” (fantastic euphemism for sexual assault threats) made against her by a group of male students she had defeated in a recent election. She spoke out against them, and they sued her. She kept speaking out, thankfully, and the legal action against her has been dropped. But she is still dealing with the pressure to keep silent and to “stop blowing things out of proportion.”

When I was president of the Graduate Students’ Association during my PhD, I was confronted at the end of a board meeting by an angry undergraduate student who threatened me, that he “knew people” and that I would “pay” for the way I had voted that day. He ambushed me as I was coming out of the meeting and cornered me, using his larger size to try and intimidate me. It worked. The student was quite involved in student government and had a fairly high profile on campus. I never reported the threat. While I never changed my vote or position on that issue, I also never quite recovered, either. My office that semester was also broken into and all my books stolen. I never saw them, but I was also told that there had been “discussions” about me on the online student union forums (this was pre-Facebook).

I dismissed this as being the cost of stepping up and being a woman leader, the cost of the increased visibility I myself had courted. I didn’t even know I could complain, or file a report, or speak up. Tough it out, just ignore it, it doesn’t mean anything, stop being so sensitive. Don’t blow things out of proportion. They’re just undergrads being irrational, ignore them.

I did, or at least I tried to do just that. But I can’t anymore. And I'm not dealing with undergrads anymore, I'm dealing with "peers" and "colleagues." I’m tired of being dismissed, minimized, blamed, or shamed by people who should (or at least claim) to know better. I’m tired of watching my colleagues suffer through the same things or worse. You can tell me to suck it up and tell me, that’s life, but I see elsewhere that it doesn’t have to be this way, comments that can be supportive and not dismissive or even hateful within a similar situation and circumstance. 

 

 

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