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Essay on the sexual politics of scholarship

In May, I gave a reading from my contribution to Defiant Daughters: 21 Women on Art, Activism, Animals, and The Sexual Politics of Meat, a book edited by Kara Davis and Wendy Lee.  The text pays homage to Carol J. Adams’s foundational ecofeminist animal studies work The Sexual Politics of Meat, first published in 1990 and in print and much-discussed by scholars ever since.  I read my entry at a local bookstore packed to the rafters with friends and strangers alike, all of whom hung on my every word.  At the end of the reading, people hugged me. They bought the book and asked me to sign it.  In my professional life, I have never given such a reading and, as a result, I have never experienced anything that felt quite as rewarding as what I experienced that evening.

On May 18, Adams posted on Facebook that in reader reviews for a literary criticism article, a scholar was told that her paper "relies too heavily on Carol Adams (a non-academic animal rights writer) for its theorization of animals, women, and oppression." Further, the unnamed writer is instructed to incorporate more scholarly animal studies sources, like the work of Derrida, for example.

I want to talk about what’s going on with the dismissal of Adams’s work in terms of what such dismissal says about women’s invention of new ways of knowing in the academy, and I want to do so because as an academic woman, the omission of Adams’s work from scholarly consideration raises very real and problematic gender-based issues with regard to how we within the academy police and are policed in terms of our scholarly production. I’m using Adams as my example, because she’s the one I know best, and I think that her case offers real historical parallels to the disappearance of women’s writing more broadly.

Adams holds a divinity degree from Yale University and has published dozens of books with both academic and popular presses; she publishes in scholarly journals and in mainstream media, and she speaks regularly on college campuses across the country.  She is prolific, productive, philosophical and, yes, accessible.  She is a public intellectual of the first order, an "independent scholar" of the finest magnitude, and she’s been doing work on animal studies, ecocriticism, women’s studies, and literary analysis (to name a few of her areas of intellectual interest) since the 1970s.

Some scholars in  animal studies and ecocriticism have tried to address the way that the recognized "legitimate" scholarly discourse has essentially written certain foundational female theoreticians right out of existence, as male scholars, one after another, appear to tell us, as if for the first time, what these modes of inquiry mean. For example, in the first edition Ecocriticism: The New Critical Idiom, Greg Garrard failed to include Adams’s concept of the absent referent in his chapter on animals – an oversight he corrected in the book’s second edition in 2011, but only after Adams herself contacted him to ask why he omitted mention of her foundational concept and examined instead "second generation" animal studies literary critics – many of whom have been influenced by Adams’s work.

Greta Gaard takes up the omission of female writers like Adams in a 2010 article in Isle in which she advocates for a more feminist ecocriticism, one that addresses the ecocritical revisionism – by such writers as Garrard and Lawrence Buell – that has rendered a feminist perspective largely absent. She notes that omissions of foundational ecofeminist texts in "ecocritical scholarship are not merely a bibliographic matter of failing to cite feminist scholarship, but signify a more profound conceptual failure to grapple with the issues being raised by that scholarship as feminist, a failure made more egregious when the same ideas are later celebrated when presented via nonfeminist sources."

And in a 2012 essay in Critical Inquiry, Susan Fraiman tracks gender in animal studies, noting that "In 1975, Peter Singer galvanized the modern animal rights movement with Animal Liberation, a work that would be heralded as one of its founding texts. That same year, The Lesbian Reader included an article by Carol Adams entitled “The Sexual Politics of Meat,” inspiration for a book eventually published in 1990. Her scholarship contributed to a growing body of ecofeminist work, emergent in the early 1980s, on women, animals, and the environment."

Unlike Adams, who has written consistently over a period of nearly five decades on the subject of animals, Derrida, on the other hand, had only the slightest interest in animal studies, with a singular sustained commentary “L’Animal que donc je suis (a` suivre),” a lecture given in 1997 and published in 2002 as "The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)” in Critical Inquiry. Fraiman’s work is concerned with the revisionist history that places Derrida at the fore as the father of legitimate animal studies and erases from that discourse the voices of pioneering women – like Adams. What Derrida did was to remove the gendered component from the analysis, to take animal studies away from its at that point established linkages with women’s studies.

So my defense of Adams is not really new, but what’s troubling is that despite such attention to the importance of Adams’s work, she continues to be dismissed over and over again as "non-academic," and I don’t think that this omission is simply because  she doesn’t work in the academy. It’s more about what she’s saying and the way that she says it; it’s more about her unruly feminism and her position that there are linkages with regard to various oppressions – between animals, women, and colonized peoples. It’s about our tendency to cast feminism in a series of "waves" (first, second, and maybe third), and then decide that if feminist thought occurred during a previous wave, it’s now obsolete. And it’s about her impatience with patriarchy and with patriarchal dictates that determine not only what constitutes oppression but also how and when it is or is not appropriate to discuss both oppression and patriarchy.

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If this piece feels like it’s about praising Carol Adams, that’s because it is, but it’s also about the stakes more broadly.  Earlier this year, Pat McCrory, governor of North Carolina, the state in which I live and the state in whose university system I work, commented in a radio interview with Bill Bennett about our system’s offering courses that provide "no chances of getting people jobs." He said, "If you want to take gender studies that's fine. Go to a private school, and take it, but I don't want to subsidize that if that's not going to get someone a job."

At my own university, as the result of an extensive program prioritization process, women’s studies has been recommended for discontinuation, marginalized, as it has been, out of relevant existence. I don’t know that this is necessarily a bad thing, as I’d like to see women’s studies incorporated into and given equal footing within the fields that such a moniker indicates: philosophy, anthropology, and English, but I’m also troubled by the fact that women’s voices, as always when they assert themselves in the service of women, fail to be heard, maintained, and championed.

I’m an academic, an English professor who has published a fair number of academic texts, articles in scholarly journals, books with scholarly presses. I’ve played the game as is appropriate, writing about things that I love only to have them read by very few people because I have chosen, again, as is appropriate, to place my writing in venues that would ensure tenure and promotion even as by and large I’ve relegated my words to inconsequence. I have presented papers at academic conferences numerous times over the years, but I have never had an audience as large or as interested as the one that I had in May, and I don’t know that I ever felt truly heard before then.

My work has shifted over the course of my career from a focus on postcolonial literature – particularly South African literature and, even more particularly, the novels of J.M. Coetzee – to postcolonial environmentalism, to animal studies, to cultural studies explorations of veganism in mainstream media.  But in all of my scholarly endeavors as well as in my lived experience as an ethical vegan, Carol Adams’s work has proven foundational.  Without Adams, I assert, there might not have been a real and sustained focus on animal studies with regard to literature; her work has found its way into pretty much everything I’ve ever written, so I was honored to be asked to contribute to Defiant Daughters, in order to speak about my lived academic and activist experience as someone who writes about and practices an animal advocacy informed by both philosophy and lived experience.

Adams sent me an e-mail after learning for the umpteenth time that she’s not scholarly enough and that Derrida invented the field of animal studies. She said "since the point of [The Sexual Politics of Meat] is its interstitial nature (I guess, not sure that is quite the adjective I want), I know it will always receive criticism. On the other hand, about once a day I get an e-mail or twitter post or Facebook message etc. that says 'your book changed my life.' So I prefer the interstitial!"

In terms of my own scholarship, I want to be influential, to hear that perhaps I’ve changed someone’s life or scholarly focus. But if I publish in the wrong place or if I publish about the wrong subject (or if I publish about the right subject but in the wrong way), then I will be locked out, or forgotten, or called not scholarly or serious enough to warrant consideration.  And the more I consider the equation of what is scholarly and what is not, maybe the less such a designation matters and the more I’m inclined to want to publish with a press like Lantern, whose activist nature drives its mission. But regardless of what I do or don’t do, if those of us in the academy continue to perpetuate an elitism that limits or forgets women’s voices, we are doomed to be duped into believing that men’s narratives are the originary myths of our profession, our passion, and our scholarship. And it’s high time we stopped doing that.

Laura Wright is associate professor and department head of English at Western Carolina University.

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Georgia Tech sophomore gives an amazing welcome to new students

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Have you forgotten the convocation speech that welcomed you to college? This year's Georgia Tech freshmen are sure to remember the "sophomore welcome" that they received.

Pomona Sued Over Tenure Denial

MALDEF, the Latino civil rights organization, on Tuesday announced a suit against Pomona College over the tenure denial of Alma Martinez, who had taught in the theater and dance department. The suit says that the college discriminated against Martinez on the basis of her gender and national origin. While details of the alleged discrimination were not provided, the MALDEF statement said that Martinez had unanimous backing for tenure from her department. A college spokesman told The Los Angeles Times that there was no bias involved in the decision, but that he could not discuss the case because it is in litigation.

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Penn State Faculty Form AAUP Chapter

Citing concerns about shared governance, faculty members at Pennsylvania State University have formed an advocacy chapter of the American Association of University Professors. The association has two kinds of chapters: advocacy, for non-unionized faculty, and union. It’s unclear whether Penn State’s unique public-private status (it’s state-supported but privately chartered) would prevent future attempts to unionize, given current restrictions on tenure-track faculty unions at private institutions.

Brian Curran, president of the new chapter and professor of art history, said he couldn’t comment on any intent to unionize “at this time.” But through the advocacy chapter, he said he hoped to bring to Penn State a kind of transparency and shared governance that is lacking through the Faculty Senate. For example, he said, the body has no means of sending out mass e-mails to faculty to alert them of decisions.

The Faculty Senate president did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the matter.

Penn State faculty expressed outrage this summer at the university's new “Take Care of Your Health” wellness initiative, which requires that all faculty complete biometric screenings and online wellness profiles that include questions some faculty have said are invasive, such as those pertaining to mental health and frequency of testicular self-exams. Faculty who don’t complete the annual screenings will have to pay a $100 monthly surcharge.

Additional surcharges have been announced for smokers and for coverage for spouses and domestic partners eligible for insurance through their own employers.

The university has said that attempts to control its skyrocketing health care costs through voluntary measures proved unsuccessful. Susan Basso, vice president for human resources, has said the university's new program complies with health care privacy laws and that personal information will be used for health promotion only.

In an e-mail, a university spokesman said Penn State values shared governance "because we do encourage participation in many aspects of decision-making. We balance this with our need for administrative accountability." To that end, members of the faculty and staff were consulted on the health care plan as early as 2011, he said.

In other Penn State news, Harvard Business Review dedicated a blog post to the wellness initiative Tuesday called “The Danger of Wellness Programs: Don’t Become the Next Penn State.”

The post’s authors, well-known benefits experts Tom Emerick and Al Lewis, wrote that “Wellness is supposed to 'empower' employees but instead did just the opposite at Penn State. Ironically, the only thing that has empowered Penn State employees has been fighting back against this misdirected wellness tyranny.” Instead of a “‘culture of wellness,’ Penn State has created a culture of resentment,” they wrote, arguing that “Take Care of Your Health” may not save the university much money after all.

Basic calculations “would have told them that their 43,000 covered lives probably incurred a total of only about 100 wellness-sensitive medical inpatient events, like heart attacks, of which a few might have taken place in people who were not previously diagnosed and were therefore at least theoretically avoidable, saving the tiniest fraction of their healthcare spending. But we'll never know because they embarked on a prevention jihad against their employees without knowing the value of what they were trying to prevent.”

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Beloit releases annual 'mindset' list -- and two professors try to kill it

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As Beloit releases annual compilation of what this year's freshmen know and don't, two anonymous professors from other colleges unveil a website designed to mock and destroy the list.

Colleges start new programs

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Prof Dismissed for Alleged Public Sex With Student

A tenured art professor at the University of Georgia has been terminated for allegedly having sex in a public place with a student on a study abroad program he was leading in Costa Rica, the Augusta Chronicle reported. A faculty panel had split on the appropriate sanctions for James Barsness, with two recommending revocation of tenure and three arguing for less serious sanctions, citing Barsness's strong record of teaching and research, undisclosed medical issues, and his evident remorse. But former UGA President Michael Adams overrode the panel's recommendation, writing in a May 13 letter to Barsness that “Upon review I have determined that public sex with a student under one’s direction and control in a UGA program merits termination. It is my judgment that the charges were sustained and that your employment relationship with UGA, including tenure, should be terminated as of this date.” The Board of Regents upheld Adams’s judgment at its meeting on Wednesday. Barsness could not immediately be reached for comment.

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The History Book Mitch Daniels Loves

An Associated Press inquiry into e-mail messages by Mitch Daniels when he was governor of Indiana have revealed he was not a fan of the late historian Howard Zinn, and talked of trying to block his book from being used in schools or in teacher preparation programs. A new AP article on Sunday, based on additional e-mail messages obtained under open records laws, reveals that Daniels (now president of Purdue University) had another history book that he wanted in Indiana's schools. That book is America: The Last Best Hope, by William J. Bennett, a historian who was education secretary in the Reagan administration. E-mail messages show Daniels pushing to get the book distributed and praising it.

Courtesy of Amazon, here's the Publishers Weekly review: "Bennett, a secretary of education under President Reagan and author of The Book of Virtues, offers a new, improved history of America, one, he says, that will respark hope and a 'conviction about American greatness and purpose' in readers. He believes current offerings do not 'give Americans an opportunity to enjoy the story of their country, to take pleasure and pride in what we have done and become.' To this end, Bennett methodically hits the expected patriotic high points (Lewis & Clark, the Gettysburg Address) and even, to its credit, a few low ones (Woodrow Wilson's racism, Teddy Roosevelt's unjust dismissal of black soldiers in the Brownsville judgment). America is best suited for a high school or home-schooled audience searching for a general, conservative-minded textbook. More discerning adult readers will find that the lack of originality and the over-reliance on a restricted number of dated sources (Samuel Eliot Morison, Daniel Boorstin, Henry Steele Commager) make the book a retread of previous popular histories (such as Boorstin's The Americans). This is history put to use as inspiration rather than serving to enlighten or explain, but Bennett does succeed in shaping the material into a coherent, readable narrative."

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Essay on big data

A long walk through the English countryside and the current flap over the government surveillance of cell phone records touched off my deeply held and unreasoned Luddite reaction to "big data." Like most over-hyped trends, the surge of interest in big data and its application provokes ennui among those of us with some mileage on our sneakers. Gary King of Harvard says that with all the available "big data" students in their freshman year can be given a personalized plan to achieve their lifetime career goals. Harvard Business Review claims that data science is the sexiest new profession. Every day brings us the media hyperbole of the application of big data to commercial, political, and scientific enterprises. While some skeptics have surfaced, the mainstream press continues its love affair with big data.  

The long walk I recently took through the English countryside (200 miles in two weeks) reminded me of the value of limited information and gave me unencumbered space to think about my oddly blinkered view of big data. Collecting and analyzing data is after all, how I have made a living for 30 years. Data remain to me the only icon of science left largely unsullied by politics, ego, and money.  Perhaps I am just jealous, as HBR suggested the old guard of statisticians, survey methodologists, and data analysts are not equipped to join the brave new world of big data.

What convinced me otherwise was the way my husband and I recently managed to mostly not get lost on the famous yet poorly marked coast-to-coast walk through the English Lake District and Yorkshire Moors. We used a $1.50 plastic compass, survey ordinance maps, a highly schematic guidebook and each other.  No GPS, no Google Maps, no iPad or iPhone, no turn-by-turn directions.  The simple tools of "compass, map, and thou" are based on substantial abstractions of geographic reality subject to errors of judgment and interpretation. More detailed information would have overwhelmed us as we walked while trying to avoid deep bogs, animal excrement, and slippery precipices in the fog and rain. Decisions made with paper maps, trust, and a little visual triangulation kept us true to our course 90 percent of the time.

And so to big data…  The history of science is actually one of reverse engineering.  In the beginning, our measurement tools for the physical and social world were so crude that the combination of substantial abstraction and painstaking taxonomic description were the only choices. The grand theories of natural selection and relativity emerged at a time when the data were very sparse and poorly collected. To have any reasoned explanation of the world, scientists of earlier eras had to accept that the empirical world they could observe was quite limited and distorted. Improvements in our tools have allowed us over time to anchor and refine those grand abstractions with a reality closer to what is observed. Still, the world comes to us through a glass, darkly. Until very recently, we have continued to use substantial abstraction to see and understand natural and social phenomena.

The problem with big data is that it is like trying to take a sip of water from a fire hose.  "Big" data is really a euphemism for all of the data thrown off by the digital engines that drive our economic and social transactions. Electronic medical records, arrest and conviction records, loyalty card data from the grocery store, all of the stuff you tell OkCupid and Match.com, Google search histories, insurance claims, cell phone calls and even the digital things we create like tweets and blog posts.

Any transaction, business process, or social engagement that uses a machine that records, counts and stores stuff in a digital format generates data. Now people and institutions leave digital footprints everywhere. We used to have to ask questions or collect paper records. Now, it is like slapping a universal bar code on the back of every person and business in the world. Every time they do something, the big barcode scanner in the sky records it and stores it. Data are no longer representing reality but rather are the reality.

The problem of course is that we have almost come full circle. Rather than too little data, poorly measured, we now have too much data, precisely measured. Our ability to use data effectively to make decisions or understand the world depends on our ability to see patterns and abstract from those patterns. Big data is, in many ways, an exact replica of reality. Using big data to make decisions is like using every square inch of soil, landscape, and sky in my 200-mile walk across England to figure out how to get around the corner in the next small village. It feels to me as if we need to return to the time of Linnaeus, the famous Swedish botanist whose pioneering classification of the natural world gave us the concept of the "species," to classify the intersecting and complexly nuanced world thrown off by our digital engines before we start making decisions using this unknown commodity.  We need to rebuild those high level abstractions from the ground up to make sense of this new reality.

My difficulty with at least the political and commercial applications of big data is that our tools of abstraction and decision-making are decidedly underdeveloped when faced with this type of data. As long as Netflix doesn’t understand that when I share my account with my early 20-something daughters, their big data application will continue to recommend "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Gossip Girl" to me when my real preferences run to "Masterpiece Theater" and subtitled films. On a more serious note, our real fear of the use of cell phone transaction data to understand the social networks of individuals is not necessarily about the invasion of privacy but the possibility that the wrong person will be identified as a threat because his or her data are taken out of context. It is no longer whether our data are adequate to support our theories but rather whether we have developed adequate theories to explain our highly nuanced data.    

Or maybe I am just jealous that Google hasn’t come looking for me…. yet.

Felicia B. LeClere is a senior fellow with NORC at the University of Chicago, where she works as research coordinator on multiple projects. She has 20 years of experience in survey design and practice, with particular interest in data dissemination and the support of scientific research through the development of scientific infrastructure.

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University of Michigan offers new invitation to Alice Walker

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In wake of rescinded offer, U. of Michigan extends new invitation and pledges commitment to free speech.

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