Roiling the blogosphere with opinion mostly favoring the Duke University lacrosse team players, the aftermath of the now notorious party has shaken up Duke with charges of sexism and racism on one side and outraged declarations calling for campus administrators to support "our students" on the other. The furor has distracted attention from the misogynist sexual culture on display at the party. Regardless of the outcome of the legal case against the indicted players, the question raised by an administrator regarding whether Duke intentionally or unintentionally promotes "a culture of crassness" remain.
In its coverage a Newsweek reporter wrote: "It is hard to know just how deep the culture of crassness runs at Duke, but one wonders after reading an e-mail sent from one of the lacrosse players' address an hour or so after the party." In this now infamous e-mail the author told his buddies that after the party he wanted to hire some strippers and skin them and kill them while he ejaculated in his Duke-issue spandex.
Leaving aside the question of whether a sexual assault took place at the party or whether the district attorney botched the investigation in ways that may have forever hurt both the accuser and the accused, there are some undisputed facts in the case that do not speak well for gender and racial parity in the Duke student culture. A large group of white male students at a wealthy prestigious university that claims to teach students to respect one another didn't give a moment's thought to hiring two minority "exotic dancers" to perform for them. One of the women attended the historically black college on the other side of town. The degrading e-mail message sent after the performance mirrors an evening of excess and debauchery. Based on my studies of gang rape on college campuses I suspect that there is a grain of truth in the messenger's fantasy about reliving the excitement of the evening.
The eye-witness accounts of campus gang rape I present in Fraternity Gang Rape and A Woman Scorned provide powerful testimony of the depth and breadth of the problem, including the degradation of women, the bragging, and the urge to make a record for future reference. The unfettered expression of male sexual dominance first came to my attention in the winter of 1983 when a student in one of my classes at the University of Pennsylvania who had a drinking problem went to a fraternity party where she was raped by a number of brothers in what they labeled an "express" in the minutes written for their next meeting, playing on the word "train" used for group sexual activity in which males mount a woman sequentially. According to various eyewitness and hearsay accounts of what happened that night, Laurel (pseudonym) was incapable of consent due to her drugged-drunk condition. The next day, based on what she had observed of Laurel's behavior at the party a woman friend of the brothers angrily told them that it was rape when they bragged to her about their sexual escapade the night before. The local DA for sex crimes came to the same conclusion after hearing the facts of the case.
Few of the males involved in this and the other cases that I have studied know or even care to know that legally if a woman cannot consent to sexual intercourse, it is rape. Males who feel sexually entitled see nothing wrong with taking advantage of a woman's physical helplessness or inability to consent. A woman who gets drunk is "asking for it." This is true despite the fact that they may have made the woman's drinks "really strong to loosen up some of those inhibitions." Fraternity brothers have told me that the goal of their parties is to "get em drunk and go for it."
All of this would be classified as a felony in the Pennsylvania rape law, which states that a person who engages in sexual intercourse with a person "who is unconscious" or who "has substantially impaired the complainant's power to appraise or control his or her conduct by administering or employing, without the knowledge of the complainant, drugs, intoxicants or other means for the purpose of preventing resistance," commits a felony of the first degree.
Rape is not necessarily the only offense committed in the group sexual degradation of women. I know of cases in which there was no rape but there was sexual abuse. I am not surprised that the rape charges were dropped in the Duke case in light of the absence of DNA evidence. Indeed they should have been dropped much earlier. While rape is defined exclusively in terms of "vaginal intercourse" a sexual offense refers to everything else including touching, using objects, or anal intercourse. It is noteworthy that the sexual offense and kidnapping counts have not yet been dropped.
Another case I followed closely parallels the charges in the Duke case in that it also involved members of a lacrosse team, a black complainant, alcohol, kidnapping, and sexual offenses short of rape. This case was widely referred to in the news as the "St John's Lacrosse Team Sex Assault Case." Getting a woman drunk to have sex in a show staged for one's buddies was tragically evident in the testimony heard in a Queens courtroom in 1991-2 after indictments were issued against six members of the St. John's University lacrosse team for acts ranging from unlawful imprisonment and sexual abuse to sodomy. A seventh defendant pleaded guilty and agreed to testify for immunity.
The complainant was a young black student. I call her Angela in A Woman Scorned, a book devoted to the legal and cultural history of sexual culture in the United States. She had imigrated to the U.S. with her parents from Jamaica when she was in elementary school. A student at St. John's, she accepted a ride home from school from a male friend, Michael. On the way, he stopped at the house he shared with members of the St. John's lacrosse team, ostensibly to get gas money, and he invited her inside. At first she refused to go in but upon his insistence accepted the invitation. Inside she met his roommates. Left alone in a third floor bedroom, she accepted a drink from Michael. The drink tasted terrible. Based on the symptoms she displayed throughout the evening, many involved with the case suspected that the drink was spiked with ketamine, a drug that other rape cases demonstrated caused a separation of mind and body so that the ability to feel and control one's body is blocked, but this was never proved.
After Michael plied her with three drinks, which she could barely swallow, Angela passed out. Testimony in the courtroom revealed that Michael then proceeded to engage in oral sodomy watched by three house members. After Michael finished, these three took their turns while visitors invited over from another lacrosse team house watched. Angela was unconscious through most of it. When she awoke, it seemed like there were five or more boys in the room. She was propped in a sitting position, but her head wouldn't stay up. The leader, who was addressed as Walter and was later prosecuted as was Michael, held her cheeks to force her mouth open so his friends could slap their penises against her face or put it in her mouth. She tried to get up several times. Once, her nails scratched Walter. He slapped her hands. She passed out again. When she came to, she screamed. When Walter put his hand on her neck, she knew that she had to be careful not to upset him. She didn't know what he might do to her. Dazed she fell back on the couch. She felt Walter pushing her down on the sofa. One of the guys in the room left and she heard someone say, "Her pupils are dilated. She doesn't know what's going on." She was then taken to another lacrosse team house. There, for the first time in the gruesome experience, one of the players challenged the others and told them to stop.
The steps taken by the St. John's administration after Angela went to a trusted member of the administration were unusual at the time. The university turned the matter over to the police and suspended the alleged abusers, pending the legal outcome of the case. At the end of the legal proceedings, which resulted in a number of convictions, St. John's took the additional step of expelling all but one of the students who asked for reinstatement, on the grounds that they had violated the student code and displayed, in the words of the university's president, "a serious lack of respect for others and even one another." The one student whose request for reinstatement was granted had cooperated with the authorities.
Although separated by more than a decade and differing in details the overarching commonality in these cases is the use of a visibly incapacitated woman as a tool for male bonding in a game of sexual dominance. Alcohol played a central role in all three cases. At the Duke lacrosse party both of the exotic dancers were given cups of "a drink" after they arrived at the house while they were in the bathroom getting ready for the strip show. Only one drank the contents. The other dancer gave the cup to her partner who began acting strangely soon after. According to the dancer who did not take the drink the accuser was sober when she arrived at the house. It was when they began their strip show that she "began having trouble," she later told the press.
The scenario is one of privileged males proving their manhood by staging live porno shows for one another involving a wounded young woman. She is the duck or the quail raised and put in place for the hunter. Who she is doesn't matter and she is quickly forgotten after it is all over – sloughed off like a used condom. The event operates to glue the male group as a unified entity; it establishes fraternal bonding and helps boys to make the transition to their vision of a powerful manhood -- in unity against women; one against the world. The patriarchal bonding functions a little like bonding in organized crime circles -- generating a sense of family and establishing mutual aid connections that will last a lifetime.
The gender picture that emerges from these cases mirrors the double standard of the 19th century: Nice women wait to get married and elite males sow their "wild oats" on party girls who are demeaned as the males demean their own sexuality. If the males are prosecuted they defend themselves saying "she asked for it;" "she is a woman scorned;" or "she wants money." Most commentators in the blogosphere, on news programs, and in the media are convinced that the latter motivated the actions of the Duke accuser. I'm not so certain. I am inclined to think that her impaired memory and immobility provides evidence that she was incapacitated.
It is a shame that the commentary focusing on the legal issues and the alleged ethical violations on the part of the DA has obscured the broader cultural issues such as the impact of alcohol in this case and more broadly on college campuses. It is now well known that there is a high correlation between campus rape and alcohol. The 2004 study by the Harvard School of Public Health involving 119 colleges and 23,000 students establishes this beyond a reasonable doubt. Another important finding of this study indicated that the highest rates of rape are found on campuses with a lax alcohol policy.
In its report the faculty panel charged with reviewing the Duke lacrosse culture stated that "alcohol is the single greatest factor involved in the unacceptable behavior of Duke students in general and members of the lacrosse team specifically, both on-and off campus." The report indicated also that "the university's ability to deal fully with the problem of alcohol is undermined by its own ambivalence toward drinking and the conduct it spawns." The report expressed "deep concern" with this finding saying that by its "lack of leadership in this area" the university is "implicated in the alcohol excesses of lacrosse players and of Duke students more generally." This kind of honesty provides the sort of moral leadership that can turn the tide on campus from the culture of crassness into the culture of character and gender parity.
Every time a college drops an athletic team, and every five-year anniversary of the law, the cycle starts up again. Newspapers publish a spate of stories, some praising and some condemning the law. Someone files a lawsuit or a federal complaint. A few Web sites and radio shows weigh in. Right now, we’re just past the 35th anniversary of Title IX, and you need only turn to Google News to see where we are in the cycle.
The points are always the same. Proponents say that Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 -- which bans sex discrimination at educational institutions receiving federal funds -- is written clearly and merely needs to be enforced to ensure equity for women without endangering men. Opponents say the government has created incentives for colleges to drop men’s teams in sports like wrestling and and the regulations for the law are based on unrealistic expectations of women’s interest in athletics.
Proponents say that if colleges just didn’t spend so much money running football teams and hiring high-dollar coaches, a whole raft of sports for men and women would be affordable. Opponents say that the market should dictate what sports colleges offer, and that many more men are interested in varsity sports than women. Proponents respond with the “Field of Dreams” argument -- “if you start teams, women will come.” Opponents want to know why colleges should be forced to dash the dreams of dedicating young men to give hollow opportunities to women who don't really want them.
This argument then gets circular or it gets vicious, and either way, I’m tired of it. On the one hand, I’m frustrated at seeing so many of the track teams I raced during my college years dropped. On the other and much more pertinently, my eight-week-old daughter is trying to settle down to sleep in the next room, and I want to know how this debate is going to help her realize the benefits we all know come from participating in sports -- youth sports, high school sports, and perhaps at the college level.
Right now, the situation is getting us nowhere. Ultimately, all we ever talk about is the number of men and women playing sports at a given institution, and whether the women's number is as high as it ought to be. Raw participation numbers occupy a pretty small portion of the U.S. Department of Education's Title IX regulations, but the overwhelming majority of news stories, debates, and lawsuits filed in this area -- as well as recent research published by the Government Accountability Office -- can be reduced to counting ponytails. Meanwhile, disparities between men's revenue sports and all other sports continue to grow, while participation opportunities for women have stagnated.
Enough. Parents, coaches, and athletics administrators need to take a fresh look at what gender equity really means. Rather than focusing on participation statistics, it would be helpful to remember that Title IX forbids denying anyone the benefits of such a program or subjecting them to discrimination on the basis of gender, not merely excluding them from participation. If policy were based on the assessing the benefits of participating in sports -- measuring the quality of participation opportunities, not merely the quantity -- we could move a long way toward fulfilling the promise of Title IX.
We in higher education aren't very good at assessing student outcomes, and we're desperately worried that someone (i.e., the government) is going to make us start. In athletics, though, any institution can take a discrete group of students and test the hypothesis that participating in sports teaches skills and shapes attributes that can be invaluable in later life: teamwork, self-discipline, confidence, and leadership skills, to name a few. I know I learned those traits as a college athlete, as did my teammates.
Nobody has developed, or at least popularized, a credible way of assessing whether a given coach is actually teaching these lessons to his or her athletes, or how well a particular athletics department is doing in this regard. But one of the key issues should be whether women are getting meaningful experiences in athletics, not merely participation opportunities.
To this point, both critics of Title IX and athletics directors note the difficulty in finding women to compete. Women, they say, won't stick with a team if they aren't starting or in key roles, while men are happy to stand on the sidelines as fourth-stringers. Some teams, however, do have success in attracting and keeping women, even those in non-starting roles. I interviewed a coach once who regularly had 30 women or more on a varsity soccer team, and this coach told me about valuing the contributions of each one.
We need to figure out what makes teams successful at providing positive and meaningful experiences for young women--as well as for young men. It may well be that different styles of coaching, different college and departmental environments, or different recruiting methods and philosophies produce more or less successful experiences for athletes. We don't know, because these issues have not been studied systematically on a large scale. There have been some descriptive studies that touch on these issues, notably that published in The Game of Life and Reclaiming the Game, both written by William G. Bowen and his former colleagues at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the unpublished SCORE and GOALS projects conducted by the NCAA.
Where we find differing outcomes for male and female athletes, we will find Title IX issues, and these issues are likely to go beyond head counts of athletes. We would find inferior coaches for women's teams. We would find disparities in equipment budgets, practice schedules, and facilities. In short, we would find the many everyday instances of discrimination that are overlooked in favor of debating ponytails.
More to the point, we also would find what makes the best coaches as good as they are, generating pedagogical research that would benefit other sports and indeed many faculty members, if they would deign to recognize that they have much to learn from their colleagues in athletics.
During research for a book on Title IX a few years ago, I found countless examples of sports becoming a job -- for girls and boys alike. At the high school level, kids compete on school teams, club teams, perhaps in Olympic development programs, and with private coaches, all for a shot at the all-important college scholarship. The time commitment can run to 40 hours a week or more, on top of school, and that doesn't count driving all over town in rush hour.
This does not seem to be the model that best teaches all the skills and traits we want to give young athletes. It may (or may not) be good at developing elite athletes, but we see too many players being run off in favor of the next hot recruit. Too many kids quitting sports cold when they get to college, out of exhaustion or burnout. Too many colleges making decisions on coaches, game schedules, and other athletic operations based on marketing potential rather than athlete welfare.
Higher education needs to learn how to assess student outcomes, and athletics programs need to learn how to assess athlete outcomes. The good part is that some mechanisms in athletics are already in place for this kind of work. First, of course, are graduation rates, which despite the NCAA’s best efforts to obfuscate them are the most obvious measure of collegiate success. Many if not most athletics directors conduct exit interviews with outgoing seniors, and academic tutors and life-skills counselors get to know athletes quite well over the course of an athletic career. What is needed is a way of systematizing this knowledge and using it intentionally to evaluate coaches and operations. This would be a good opportunity for scholars of education and management to work with athletics to improve and document practices.
This is the road to gender equity. The more we base decisions on improving the experiences of individual athletes, the more we come to see men and women as students in different classes in our athletics programs.
This may sound ridiculously naive, but it isn't. Colleges won't stop throwing good money after bad in the quixotic pursuit of prominence in football and men's basketball, and non-revenue sports for both men and women will continue to suffer in the current system. In the short term, my proposal can't address problems like sports being dropped, rosters being capped, and the ongoing disparities for women. In the long run, however, coaches, athletics directors, and college presidents will learn which athletes are benefiting from their experiences and which ones aren't, and hopefully why.
That knowledge can help improve the experiences of current athletes and, over time, cement beliefs the educational value of participating in sports. With an increasingly skeptical public and Congress, the best chance we may have of preserving college sports is to apply rigorous standards for education and equity.
As parents, my wife and I aren’t going to push our daughter into anything. But as athletes ourselves and as students of Title IX, we’re going to make sure that she knows her options and, hopefully, that she can tell the good options from the bad. And that she won't be counted merely as a ponytail.
“Spousework” is my term for a range of tasks that the spouses of college presidents perform or may perform. There is the involuntary role (being seen as an ambassador for the institution the partner leads). Every spouse is stuck with this. There are voluntary roles that could also be delegated to many people other than the spouse -- helping the leader by performing tasks that impact the couple (such as planning events at the official residence, running the leader’s personal errands) or helping with institutional efforts that do not directly impact the leadership couple (such as serving on the recycling committee). There are also voluntary roles that only a select few people could fill -- acting as a confidante, sounding board, extra pair of eyes and ears, source of new ideas and different point of view. And there are voluntary roles that no one other than the leader or the spouse can play, such as lobbying for the needs of the family and of the couple, jointly and individually.
The most fundamental kind of spousework, just like housework, will never go away. It comes with the territory when you share your life with an academic leader. And as long as we spouses are seen as living logos of the institutions our partners serve, we will need to adapt our behavior in certain ways. We are not pledged to serve, but it is, and always will be, incumbent on us to preserve the good name of the institution.
With regard to the other types of spousework -- the artful kind, which implies supporting the leader in a skillful, intelligent way, and the active kind, which implies a significant commitment of time -- the future may not be so secure. Artful, intelligent spousework, for me and for many others, is the good stuff. It is complex and challenging, and the work can become its own reward. It is what some of us instinctively hoped for, even if we couldn’t exactly define it. It is what we searched for until we discovered it, or it discovered us. And that’s the problem. Though this kind of spousework has been around a long time, it remains a quiet, unrecognized achievement. I have no doubt that some people wrap up their years in the spouse’s role without ever suspecting that there was a whole level of spousework they never glimpsed.
In the past spouses were women who were locked into marriage and out of personal careers. They had little choice but to persevere in the spouse role, and I suspect many of them became skilled in giving artful, intelligent support. Today women spouses have more options and can put their energies elsewhere, without ever learning what spousework might have to offer them. As more women are appointed to leadership roles, the number of male spouses is burgeoning. These men are not generally expected to make themselves available. Since a certain level of engagement is almost a prerequisite for intelligent spousework, many male spouses could also miss out on its rich possibilities.
This type of spousework could flourish, I believe, if academia came to recognize what it entails. One welcome byproduct would be that an institution that hires a leader who does not have a spouse would be in a good position to analyze the kind of support it might want to offer that leader.
About active spousework -- taking on tasks that either the couple or the institution needs to get done -- I'm less sanguine. Personal career choices will always impinge on active spousework. Fair enough, I say. More problematic is the lingering culture of expectation. Some decades ago a sociologist named Hanna Papanek, writing in the American Journal of Sociology, coined a phrase, “the two-person single career.” The two-person single career is a “combination of formal and informal institutional demands which is placed on both members of a married couple of whom only the man is employed by the institution.” You would think that the women’s movement would have killed this phenomenon dead by now. Not so. The “formal and informal institutional demands” still lurk in the corners.
At many institutions today, search committees and boards of trustees assure incoming spouses that their active participation will not be taken for granted. But there can be problems with these assurances. Some of us find that expectations are still harbored elsewhere. The word that spouses are free to choose hasn’t yet reached all campus stakeholders; their attitudes are conditioned by their experiences with spouses from the past -- perhaps a very distant past, in the case of older alumni. Recently I have met people, members of one constituency or another, who expressed surprise that I had chosen to be “involved”; they honestly did not expect it. But that liberated attitude, though refreshing, is still exceedingly rare. In addition to the problem of lingering expectations there is the fact that some spouses still feel pressed to take on unwanted tasks. Many leaders find there is simply not enough support staff to help take care of the house and/or the entertaining load that come with the job. They may not have time to run their personal errands or to help with family responsibilities. Spouses step into the gap, sometimes with reluctance; they become actively involved under duress.
Expectations -- the kind that weren’t supposed to be around any more -- can make us feel trapped, particularly if they are ones we really don’t want to fulfill. Quite naturally, we want to escape. Sometimes escape seems too complicated, causing more trouble than it might be worth, so we cave in. I have done this many times, but not so readily now that I recognize that, by doing so, I am helping to perpetuate the culture of expectation. I am only making it harder for the person who might follow me. How we spouses deal with the lingering culture of expectation will have an impact on the future of spouses’ participation.
When unwanted expectations are a problem and saying “no” doesn’t seem to be an option, some spouses find ways of taking themselves off the available list. They take new jobs or throw themselves more completely into their own careers.
They may decide to live separately. Other kinds of difficulty can also cause spouses to veer away from active involvement in their partners’ careers. An official residence that affords little comfort or privacy, the realization that their partners are not going to have much time to share with them in the foreseeable future, feelings of isolation -- these things also drive spouses to look for solutions that, in the end, take them away from active involvement. Some of these coping mechanisms, while helpful, are Band-Aids applied to problems that need to be addressed. Even worse, a particular solution may address one problem while it creates another, and in the final analysis it is not always clear that there has been any net gain. And when spouses make deliberate efforts to distance themselves from institutional life because of some discomfort with the situation in which they find themselves, the institutions themselves are diminished.
Personally, I remain committed to an active role. I help with the entertaining and the management of the residence. I show up at all kinds of functions on campus and accompany my husband on some of his travels. I do my homework before I meet new members of the various constituencies. I stay involved in these ways even though it cuts into the time I might devote to my own interests. I stay involved even though I am an introvert who would rather curl up with a good book than attend an event. I stay involved even though it irritates me when I am treated like a non-entity or a figurehead. I do it to help my husband. I do it so we will be closer as a couple. Somewhere in my brain the pros and cons, with regard to my own well-being, are under continual, if unconscious, assessment. The positive experiences that have accrued from active spousework continue to outweigh the tedious and unpleasant ones. I know that if I had dropped out years ago, as I once was sorely tempted to do, I would have missed many wonderful friendships, many memorable experiences. I believe that dropping out would have, in the long run, damaged my marriage.
I am continually amazed by the slowness with which the culture of expectation is changing. Conditioned attitudes are part of the problem, but I think there is something else that is less innocent. From the institution’s point of view, those of us who cooperate willingly in the “two-person single career” model of academic leadership, who take up the tasks that leaders simply can’t manage, are handy folks to have around. It may appear that the academy has a good deal going, and why, then, should the impetus for change come from that quarter? I would argue, however, that it could have an even better deal going, that institutions are not profiting as much as they might. The spouses are a talented group, and in many places their talents are being squandered on mundane things, their energy depleted by the exasperation they feel when their partners aren’t provided with the support staff that is needed. Since the academy is the biggest loser when spouses drop out or never get involved in the first place, it might well start looking at how to keep them engaged.
Institutional Care for the Spouse. Some spouses love their situation, some are passably comfortable and others put up a good front. Some are, for career or family reasons or purely as a matter of choice, completely out of the picture. There will probably always be a mix of this sort. The spouse group is, as I said at the start, a very mixed bag. But boards of trustees need to realize that spouses can start out with friendly feelings toward the institution and end up exasperated, resentful, even hostile. That is not a healthy state of affairs for institution, leader or spouse. Boards must be truly attentive to the spouses, as opposed to merely courteous; real effort is required. Spouses will not be openly candid in response to a casual “How’s it going?” Like the leaders, they quickly learn to say what they think the constituent wants to hear. They will be more patient and trusting with interlocutors who can exhibit some understanding of the issues that spouses face.
Early intervention is always the best, and in this regard institutions can get off to a good start by developing a direct relationship with the spouse. In The President’s Spouse, David Riesman suggested that, when a new leader is coming from outside the institution, the search committee should work with the incoming spouse until after the leader has been installed, usually a period of some months. Alternatively, a special transition team might be given this responsibility. I think that’s a terrific idea; I wish I knew how to foster its implementation!
Spouses who are brand new to their roles should receive special attention. From the start they are one huge step behind. Their partners, the leadership candidates, become well-acquainted with the institution’s history, its hopes and its needs during the interview stage. They develop a good understanding of what the job is going to entail. They have been building the requisite skills for years, if not decades. The spouses, on the other hand, have probably not been prepping themselves for the new life that now looms before them. Their personalities may suit them well for the role of leader’s spouse -- or perhaps not. As job candidates are interviewed their spouses may be kept on the sidelines, with little opportunity to learn about the institution and the job at hand. If the search committee brings them into the negotiations at all, it is usually in the final stages of the search.
I have often thought that trustees should offer to assign one of their body to act as a liaison to the spouse during the transition period, especially if he or she has no prior experience as the leader’s spouse. Personally, I would have welcomed that sort of connection, especially if the trustee was someone who, through experience or study, had a good understanding of the impact of an academic leader’s job on his or her family. A little sensitivity toward the spouse’s unique situation and the sizeable adjustment that is involved would, I believe, go a long way toward keeping spouses engaged in positive ways.
Identifying the Needs. Another way for the institution to get off to a good start with the spouse is to analyze what the leadership position might require in the way of support staff. Some institutions have begun to supply their leaders with extra support staff to help manage the residence and the entertaining, and they should be congratulated. But others are still leaning heavily on the spouses in these areas, perhaps not realizing it. When a married leader is set to retire or leave an institution, the trustees might ask that leader’s spouse to list any tasks that he or she performed on the leader’s behalf. These will generally be tasks that could just as easily be handled by hired staff.
This exercise would highlight the areas where the institution might need to provide increased support to ensure that both office and residence function smoothly under the new administration. It is the only way I can think of to overcome the persistent problem of expectations being passed along from one spouse to another. It would also alert the board to the special plight of a new leader who does not have a spouse who is able or willing to task-share. Perhaps a house manager would be needed, to oversee the maintenance and frequent repairs that a larger, older residence might require. Perhaps an events manager should be provided, someone who will remember to notify the gardener ahead of time when an event is scheduled at the residence, someone who can be on the spot when the flowers or the folding tables or the bar supplies are delivered. A spouse who doesn’t want to take on these responsibilities will benefit from this kind of help, as will a leader who has no one else to whom they can be delegated. From personal experience I can honestly say that having staff available to help keep matters at the official residence organized is priceless.
Spouse to Spouse. When I think of the many leaders’ spouses I have met over the years, it strikes me that, as a group, we do not give ourselves much credit. The reason is, perhaps, not far to seek. We are a shadowy bunch, doing some of our best work out of sight, behind closed doors. Also, some of our work is, or soon becomes, second nature. It is tied to our marriage vows. The bottom line is that we are simply supporting the ones we love, and perhaps it strikes us as unseemly to congratulate ourselves for doing that. But I would argue that good spousework is hard-won and an effort in which we should all take pride.
If we who have already accrued some experience in the spouse role can begin to give ourselves a little more credit, benefit will accrue to those who are just entering this role. Spousework is complex and unsung; there is an art to doing it well, and it is an art which we all must teach ourselves. It is like parenting -- the pay-off for good parenting, as opposed to careless parenting, is huge. The same is true for spousework. Partners of newly-appointed leaders need to know all this. They need to be supported in the early days so that they don’t turn away in frustration and disappointment before even giving spousework a chance. Before the new leader takes up office, before the family moves into the official residence, these people need some preparation, some insight into the changes and challenges they are going to face. By and large, they are not getting it.
The National Association of Independent Schools and the Council of Independent Colleges are among a handful of organizations that are reaching out to spouses and helping them connect with one another. However, many of us are at institutions that do not belong to any national organization that recognizes spouse issues. While I laud those groups that show some concern for spouses, I feel that much more could, and perhaps should, be done, considering the impact that the leader’s career has on his or her family.
What a delight it would be if a network of spouses was available to all of us. Is it too ambitious to suggest that there should be an organization for spouses alone, no matter what groups their institutions or their partners belong to -- an organization that is designed primarily for us, rather than the academic leaders? Imagine typing “supportingspouses.org” on the computer and coming up with texts of a dozen discussions of pertinent issues or the names of spouses around the country who are interested in networking. Domestic partners, gay and straight, could connect with each other and share their concerns. Spouses who are blazing new trails, finding new ways to make worthwhile contributions, could share their stories. I think the time has come for something of that sort.
Society is largely ignorant of the way spouses contribute, the problems they tackle and the changes they accept. We are not the only group about which one could make such a statement, and I don’t make it because I want to label us as suffering victims. But this is not a healthy situation for us, our partners or the academy. It is because of this lack of understanding that search committees and boards of trustees are making promises on which they cannot deliver. Spouses are not, and perhaps never can be, entirely free to behave as they like. They have implicit responsibilities toward their partners and the institutions their partners serve. And while, strictly speaking, they may be free to choose their own level of involvement, they might have to fight for the right to choose, over and over again.
In many places and in many ways the spouses of academic leaders are still expected to pour tea, and some of us continue to allow ourselves to be pressed into service. The era of “no expectations” will never come if the spouses sit and wait. Spouses need to make their institutions aware of the problem, if unwanted tasks are falling to them because there is no one else at hand. Somehow members of all constituencies should be given to understand that when we spouses are actively involved, whether it is planning events, caring for official residences, or standing in receiving lines, it is by our own choice -- that we might at any time say “no” and do so with the board’s blessing. There is some risk in this; we might be considered selfish, unpleasant, demanding, even unsupportive. But nothing risked, nothing gained. Our freedom to engage in spousework on our own terms will never be real until we make it so.
Teresa Oden has been engaged in active spousework since 1989 at the Hotchkiss School, Kenyon College and currently at Carleton College. This essay is adapted from her forthcoming book, Spousework: Partners Supporting Academic Leaders.
"I can never lay eyes on the boy without wanting to give his face a good going-over with a hot flannel." So speaks the voice of sexual repression in the person of Barbara Covett, the narrator of Zoe Heller's novel, Notes on a Scandal. (Judi Dench plays the role with such authority in the movie she was nominated for an Academy Award.)
Not so Barbara's fellow teacher, subsequent friend, and finally tragic victim, Sheba Hart. (These symbolic names!) Sheba finds the same 15 year-old boy alluringly fresh and clean. She proceeds to have sex with him.
As readers, we ally ourselves most uncomfortably with Barbara, sublimely unaware of her existence as a sexual being. Which is worse for a teacher, the novel asks: to hate students or to desire them? As adult readers in higher education, does the question get more comfortable for us since the students are older, and therefore have more agency? (Such agency is usually the case in academic novels, ranging from J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace to Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections.) Or does Heller's narrative pose the question of sex with students -- any students -- so bluntly that our official mandates against it seem evasive, joyless, and disingenuous?
Interestingly, Barbara will have none of "any sentimental notion about the innocence of everyone under the arbitrarily age bar of 16 years." Although she has no quarrel with the law, she maintains that students who become involved with their teachers "possess some instinct, some natural talent for sexual power play," and in this case she supposes that the boy actually wielded more power than his teacher. Usually such wisdom is dramatized rather than argued in academic novels where students and teachers have sex. Notes on a Scandal sits rather oddly alongside these novels, because simply the fact that it is set in a secondary school makes a college setting appear more adult.
Furthermore, the student-teacher sex in a college setting appears more, if not consensual, at least less in need of "sentimental notions," either about the innocence of students or the mysteries of sex. Sheba herself is married to a former professor. "But you were 20!" he exclaims, after she attempts to ally the affair the two of them once had with the one she has been having now. No further argument. Compared to 15, 20 seems a lot older. Notes on a Scandal makes us realize that the narratives of academic novels where the "innocent" is 20 are strangely implicated in quite other narratives where the same student is in fact 15, or younger.
Have the explicit sexual harassment rules and sexual conduct codes of recent years in higher education come about at least in part because of their incomparably less elaboration in secondary education? Probably not. And yet, in fictional terms, we know far less about what is going on between students and teachers in high school than we do between them in college. Heller's narrative is cleverly situated, looking down to a period of life when students are presumed to be "innocent" and when sex by an adult with them is a criminal offense, while at the same time glancing up to the next period of life when students are not so innocent and when, legally, they are adults.
Why in the first place is Sheba married to her former professor? So that Heller can include a bit of mockery derived from the behavior of his friends, most of whom, according to Barbara, are "academic types ... all terrified at the thought of being 'cheesy' or insensitive.... Even if they told you that your dress was nice, they put it in quotation marks in case you took offense and slapped their aces." We poor academics! We have been so careful during the past decade or two not to get our faces slapped! (We males, that is. Barbara speculates on how different the public reception of Sheba's affair would have been had she been a man and the boy a girl. "In the end, I suspect, being female will do nothing for Sheba, except deny her the grandeur of genuine villainy.") Result: our sexuality -- at least on the evidence of fiction -- gets displaced onto students, where in the end we only get variously slapped anew.
Notes on a Scandal is set in an England no different in its sexual mores or gender dispensations than the United States. How different in other countries! I chanced to read the novel while teaching in Spain. One day a young Spanish colleague wore a particularly attractive dress. "Maybe I can say that's a nice dress,"? I hazarded. "But you know that if you were an American woman I'd be afraid you might accuse me of sexual harassment." She laughed. "You don't have to worry about that here. Have you ever heard of piropeando?" I hadn't. It seems the male practice of "throwing compliments" extends from mild remarks on dress to more emphatic catcalls. To this woman, and to many Spanish women to this day, the practice is not pejorative.
Back home, we are only allowed quotation marks. And so it's no surprise that Notes on a Scandal can be understood as the latest in a stream of academic novels where an affair between student and teacher is at the center. The affair never comes to any good. Indeed, it's a scandal, each time. However, since Heller's narrative is set in secondary school, its difference from narratives set in college is that the scandal gets to be public, complete with vulgar television reporters and sensational newspaper headlines. We are, through Barbara, revolted. Trouble is, given her own severe sexual repression, on what clear basis can we distance ourselves from the scandal?
Academic novels don't put the question this way. And yet if we read these novels from the perspective of Heller's we can understand why: There abides in them the presumption that sex between students and teachers is exciting, transgressive, liberating. Of course this is why it must ultimately be punished. But first the sex can be explored, and not only through irony. (For an irony-only example, see Francine Prose's novel, Blue Angel.) Heller, on the other hand, can't really explore the sex between the boy and Sheba. (Mediated through Barbara in the novel, not mediated through her in the movie.) So Heller becomes finally complicitous with her narrator.
That is, the sex between student and teacher in Notes on a Scandal is too scandalous -- which is almost the same as being left with no other position than the following one: sex itself is scandalous. This would be Barbara's position. We can't see around her enough to be able to form another, although we certainly can see through her enough to be able to understand the sexual repression that drives Barbara into her own "sentimental" relation with Sheba. And if we insist upon having another view of sex? In the novel, we have only one alternative space available: the quotation marks of Sheba's husband and his friends.
These, in turn, have one especially ironic consequence, which the setting of academic novels explores in more detail: the sex between students and teachers may in fact be caused by the very codes that aim to police it! Far from being a imperious, irrational force, these codes comprehend sex as a negotiable, rational behavior. The excitement of sex? It has to transpire exclusively within legal boundaries. The power of sex? It must be equal, and take place only between- -- or among -- equals. Never mind that to much of the rest of the world such notions about sex are fatuous. (How many other countries have produced even a handful of novels about affairs between students and teachers?) These notions are what our own social and political sexual history has given to us.
Sheba's affair is a product of this history, especially, I would argue, its development within the academic culture whose end result is the quotation marks of her husband and his friends. The novel never clarifies such an explanation. But it suggests it (and is arguably more provocative for only doing so). The foundation of Sheba's affair has to do with something that threatens to burn quotation marks away: passion. Compare when at one point Sheba tells of one of her husband's colleagues -- from Finland -- who once made a "fairly unambiguous" pass at her. At her failure to respond, the man becomes nasty and accuses Sheba of being a "tease." How well feminism has taught us to know this male ruse! As Heller writes, it was "as if he begrudged her for having the power to attract him."
I take the author rather than her narrator to be making the point because the narrator is blind to the possibility of her own placement (later made manifest) in this same dynamic. In any case, we're not blind. We know all about the ruses of sexual power -- including how women act to efface the ruses as well as how men act to condemn them. We know it's better to hate students than to desire them if the choice comes to that, although we have the considerable resources of our irony to forestall such a painful choice. Indeed, we know everything about sexual power -- “ours as well as theirs -- except, well, its power, which is of course the very thing that Notes on a Scandal is all about.
No male, Finnish, or academic nonsense about Sheba's 15-year-old, who is in thrall with his own sexuality and feels no need to be apologetic about it. He was, Barbara reports Sheba as maintaining, "either too young or too obtuse to appreciate the outrageous of his ambition." Moreover, she continues, "he didn't tie himself in rhetorical knots trying to be equal to her beauty. When he looked at her, it was as if he were gobbling her up," Barbara reports Sheba as adding "like a peach." We might ask: how dare he? Or: how dare she? But it seems to me we might also ask: how dare we ignore the human cost being exacted each time we ourselves look at our own students and, if we look with desire, reach instead for a rhetorical hot flannel?
For at least a decade, universities and federal agencies alike have been engaged in an interdisciplinary arms race, competing to expand interdisciplinary programs and opportunities at ever faster rates in the hopes of achieving that transformational breakthrough in research. At the same time, federal and local programs have been working against the clock, seeking to broaden participation of women and members of minority groups in science, mathematics, and engineering before the U.S. loses its competitive edge.
While research and policy have been concerned with each of these trends often in parallel, surprisingly few efforts have considered them together, to ask whether and how interdisciplinary science might at once not only stimulate discovery across but also attract diversity to the scientific enterprise.
Despite the lack of empirical evidence there seems to be a tacit expectation, if not widespread assumption, on the part of many policy reformers, administrators and researchers that women may have a stronger preference or predisposition for interdisciplinary over disciplinary work as compared to their male colleagues. For example, reform efforts designed to recruit and retain women to science courses and careers often direct universities to: rely more on integrative methods, provide cooperative learning and working environments, use less competitive models of teaching and more flexible models of tenure, frame science in its social context, present practical applications along with theoretical motivations from the outset, and undertake problems with a "holistic" or "global" scope.
Moreover, as researchers interested in interdisciplinarity as an object of study, we have both been asked repeatedly about gender as predictor of participation in or success with interdisciplinary practices. We have also been confronted by scientists telling us that we should not encourage junior women to conduct interdisciplinary research because "women have a hard enough time as it is, you need to keep them focused on rigorous science or they’ll never be taken seriously." After a growing store of anecdotal data to the point, we started to ask ourselves why we weren’t looking at gender and began listening to our peers and readers.
Given we could find only two empirical analyses explicitly tackling the question of gender and interdisciplinarity, we began by recoding our data to see if we had any evidence to support these broader expectations and then proceeded with reviewing different schools of thought to see what theories might best explain the observations.
Of course, over-generalizing and over-essentializing differences between women and men is a common pitfall, and one we do not wish to stumble into here by arguing for simple generic categories. Using gender as a lens, the purpose is to develop an awareness of how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and socio-structural factors may contribute to decisions about interdisciplinary research and how such actions might then affect individual careers and institutional strategies. In fact, though we focus here on women in academic research, we believe that the arguments we propose may, in some cases, also resonate with men as well as with scholars in minority groups.
Admittedly, our approach is exploratory, and our data are sparse. But, even with these limitations, we see this as an important first step toward understanding the preferences women might have for interdisciplinarity and why. We also see this as a critical point in the policy process to identify what consequences -- both intended and unintended -- might come from twinning the goals of expanding interdisciplinary science with those of increasing scientific diversity, and what they could pose for the individuals, their institutions, and the larger enterprise. Our hope is to catalyze research science practice and policy discussions about the subject of diversity and interdisciplinarity; thus, we intentionally set out to raise more questions than we answer. We want to examine the proposition, not start with an assumption.
We found only one large-scale empirical study concerned with the connection between gender and interdisciplinarity. In 1998, Evaluation Associates Ltd, a consulting firm, conducted an assessment of interdisciplinary research in higher education institutions in Britatin. The analysis of responses from 5,505 researchers in British higher education institutions indicates that greater percentages of women than men report participating in interdisciplinary research at almost every age and discipline. The differences in rates of participation for junior faculty are particularly significant as British women report spending approximately half of their time on interdisciplinary research and men spend only a third.
Another study, published in Gender and Society by Erin Leahey in 2006, used a sample of 196 sociology and 222 linguistics faculty members to examine a related issue of specialization. She found with statistical significance that those who specialize tend to produce more publications, and that women tend to specialize less than men. While researchers could theoretically specialize in an interdisciplinary area or interdiscipline, Alan Porter and colleagues found in their 2007 paper that interdisciplinary researchers also tend to be less specialized: single interdiscipline specialists are rare.
In order to examine what might be behind these differences, we broke down the concept of interdisciplinarity into four modes of practice. For each, we briefly consider theoretical arguments and empirical data related to gender-based participation in these different interdisciplinary ways of working. We start with a model of individual interdisciplinarity, and proceed through three different collaborative models which involve in step other individual researchers, other intellectual fields, and other institutional communities.
The first category of interdisciplinarity occurs when individuals make cognitive connections among disciplines, and thus "cross-fertilize." Researchers who use this approach single-handedly knit together ideas, approaches and information from different fields and/or disciplines. In the UK study, women clearly pursue independent lines of interdisciplinary inquiry more readily than men: women who operate as lone scientists (as opposed to working in formal or ad hoc teams) reported spending 44 percent of their time on interdisciplinary research, while male lone scientists only reported spending 33 percent. Although these data do not indicate definitively why women would have a greater tendency to cross-fertilize, other research suggests possible avenues of explanation. Cross-fertilization requires the processing of the languages and epistemologies of other fields as well as establishing connections among them. Recent studies in cognitive psychology have shown that whereas males tend to look for abstract and theoretical arguments, dissociating it from any distracting information, females are more apt to make connections between language, ideas and the larger context.
The second category of interdisciplinary work -- "team-collaboration" -- occurs by virtue of several individuals working together. Here researchers collaborate in formal or informal teams or networks that span across fields and/or disciplines. Evaluation Associates found that most interdisciplinary research occurred in ad hoc teams (53 percent), with lower levels conducted by formal teams (29 percent) and by lone researchers (18 percent). Beyond some preliminary findings from research by one of us (Rhoten) that suggest that females -- particularly younger females -- may have on average slightly more interdisciplinary collaborators than men, we have not found any other empirical data relating to the role of gender in the composition of interdisciplinary research teams. Potential lines of reasoning for why women might be expected to have a proclivity for teamwork come from the psychology of gender literature, which portrays females as being more inclined toward group work and males more likely to prefer independent work.
The third category -- "field creation" -- involves the bridging of existing research domains to form new disciplines, subdisciplines or “interdisciplines” at their intersections. Early data from a study by Rhoten and other colleagues of Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training (IGERT) programs indicate that enrollment rates of female students in new interdisciplines tend to be higher than the enrollment rates of female students in cognate disciplines. For example, in 2003, female students represented 45 percent of the total graduate enrollment across all earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences; 55 percent across biological sciences; and, 22 percent across engineering. By comparison, the ratio of female students averages 57 percent and climbs as high as 80 percent for this sample of IGERT programs concentrating on emerging interdisciplines in the area of environmental systems (e.g., those focused on the intersection of earth systems, ecosystem management, and environmental science and engineering). Later stage career data from the University of California at Berkeley also suggest that a great proportion of female versus male faculty may be bridging fields to build new areas of research: 26 percent of female faculty in STEM fields as opposed to 15 percent of males hold joint appointments, according to the National Research Council. Some scholars of gender and science studies proffer that female scientists may be attracted to new fields because they are less established in their status, hierarchical and competitive structure than older disciplines, allowing for greater flexibility and opportunity for intellectual exploration and knowledge revaluation.
The fourth category -- "problem orientation" -- entails interdisciplinary research that is oriented toward problem solving, especially "real world" questions that confront society. Researchers with an interdisciplinary problem-orientation engage in topics that not only draw on multiple fields but also serve multiple stakeholders and broader missions outside of academe. Literature from both psychology as well as women studies documents consistent differences in the concerns that appeal to males versus females, with the former generally tending to be more interested in things and theories one might associate with basic science and the latter in people and problems often aligned with applied research. Currently, beyond personal narratives, there is no real systematic evidence to test the relationship of gender to this category of interdisciplinarity. At best, we can glean from the aforementioned sample of IGERTs that only those programs self-classified as "problem-oriented" (versus "tool-oriented" or "vision-oriented") are majority female enrolled. Likewise, and again at a later career stage, we know that the joint appointments that STEM women hold at Berkeley tend to be in "business, biology, law, city and regional planning, economics, and environmental science" -- mostly fields that connect directly with society.
While more research is needed to reject or support the hypothesis, these preliminary observations and summary explanations point to the possibility that women might have a predilection for interdisciplinarity in each of these four categories of activity and for different reasons. However, even if the proposition were right and interdisciplinary research presents a promising angle by which to engage women and diversify the scientific enterprise, can it or will it be a rewarding career trajectory for women and other underrepresented minorities to follow in the current academic environment? Can and will interdisciplinary work lead those who choose it to find and retain productive and innovative positions? We are concerned by findings such as those reported by Leahey about the lower productivity of non-specialists, and by the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where faculty who described their research as "non-mainstream" responded more negatively to all questions about the quality of their workplace than their colleagues doing "mainstream" research.
On the one hand, National Academies reports like "Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future" emphasize the importance of interdisciplinary research to scientific development and national competitiveness. On the other hand, reports such as "Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research," also coming out of the National Academies, identify "promotion criteria" as the top impediment to the future of interdisciplinarity research, pointing first and foremost to the problem that the potentially unique contributions of a researcher’s interdisciplinary work may not be sufficient enough to compensate for what is likely to be his/her lower output of disciplinary research. Good interdisciplinary work requires not only depth but also breadth of knowledge across different disciplines, the pursuit of which inevitably takes time away from the (re)production of the type of narrowly focused research in subdisciplines favored by the contemporary tenure system.
We recognize that tenure prospects can be uncertain for all young professors. Yet, we also believe that, far from fully restructuring the system, there are additional steps around scientific risk, review and reward that can be (and in a few cases, have been) taken so as to move beyond interdisciplinary revolution into interdisciplinary reform, and thereby not just attract but actually retain women in the interdisciplinary programs for which they seem to demonstrate preference and our institutions report to be invested. As an example of progress in this area, one might look to the Guidance for Interdisciplinary Hiring and Career Development recently released by the Council for Environmental Deans and Directors. Despite the hype and hope for interdisciplinary research, it cannot be considered ethical or even practical to draw women into science using interdisciplinary research as the lure, if simultaneously systems of work, evaluation and promotion are not reformed to reward them for taking up the challenge.
Diana Rhoten and Stephanie Pfirman
Diana Rhoten is founder and director of the Knowledge Institutions program at the Social Science Research Council. Her current research interests include the social and technical conditions as well as the individual and organizational implications of different approaches to knowledge production and dissemination. Rhoten is principal investigator of a National Science Foundation-sponsored study of Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training programs.
Stephanie Pfirman is Alena Wels Hirschorn '58 and Martin Hirschorn Professor in Environmental and Applied Sciences Professor and chair of environmental science at Barnard College, and co-principal investigator of the NSF-sponsored Advancing Women in the Sciences initiative of the Columbia Earth Institute.
In Talking Out of School: Memoir of an Educated Woman(Dalkey Archive Press), Kass Fleisher reviews her education and her career in college teaching -- without holding back criticism of herself or academe. Sexual politics, class politics and academic politics all figure prominently. The following excerpt is from a section in which she recalls her years as an adjunct. Spoiler alert/warning: There is explicit language throughout the book -- including a few choice words in the excerpt that follows.
1998. I’m adjuncting, and have precisely one friend on the faculty, the guy who got me the gig. We have lunch together every week and we’ve had precisely one argument in the entire span of all our lunches, about a relationship he had with a student once. He tells it as a personal horror story. She’d been bright, talented, precocious -- and ultimately unstable. She filed harassment charges against him, he spent good money to hire a lawyer, he was forced to detail to his department chair some embarrassingly intimate details...
... and the chair let it go. When the university affirmative action officer agreed that the relationship had been consensual that the relationship made sense given consent the charges were dropped.
He comes to my office one day, disturbed. One of his older-women graduate students has written an angry letter, distributed to the chair, the vice-president and the president -- by way of demanding her tuition money back -- complaining that he swears too much in class shitpissfuckcuntcocksuckermotherfuckertits. The chair of the department does not inform him that he and the big boys have received said letter. The chair sits on the letter for a week or two and then, without conferring with the instructor, conducting a hearing, or even remembering (apparently) that grievance procedures have been established and printed in the faculty handbook, he writes my friend a formal letter of reprimand, stating that he’ll be subject to “disciplinary action” if ever another such complaint arises.
“She may, with some justification,” the chair writes, “formally bring a charge of harassment against you.
“Copies of this and the student’s letter will be placed in your personnel file.”
To sabotage your tenure review next year, the letter does not say.
Unlike the chair (apparently), my friend and I consult the faculty handbook and find that this letter indeed violates multiple personnel procedures...
... and further, that the only “disciplinary action” listed is termination.
Fuck, man. You mean you can lose your job for saying “fuck”? You call that fucking “ harassment”?
A month later, when the instructor’s student evaluations come back from the students who remained in the tech writing course after the complaining student left -- 40 percent of whom are women -- he will get a solid 5.0 on a 5-point scale—unanimous enthusiasm.
The chair will never comment on this....
1998. “I will no longer tolerate,” the chair writes in his letter to my friend, “what can only be described as your insensitive, vulgar, and obscene language in the classroom.”
The colleague’s intent in a graduate-level, academic tech writing class (i.e., not a vocational training workshop) is not just to teach students how to type memos, but rather to challenge students to consider how they know what they know as tech writers. This can be achieved while they expand their knowledge of their field, which exists right in the oily hinge, right in the fishy craw of the intersection of higher education and the corporation. Given the mess such a collision must be, he and I agree, some form of institutional critique is vital, and this sort of three-dimensional, reflexive analysis can, over time, only make students better tech writers. To know your context is to know your work.
Like many of his grad students, the complainant is his age, and already works as a tech writer. For much more than his salary.
From the first class meeting, she’s been unwilling to question herself in this manner. She’s uninterested in engaging his “message.” She pronounces the first assignment “a waste of time.” She simply wants to be told what she needs to “know” in order to cough up a master’s degree and presto! get a still higher salary.
“Withdraw me from this class, and do not charge my account.”
My “vulgar, obscene” colleague has been working with a search committee all fall. The chair calls him the week of Thanksgiving break and tells him that he’s being removed from the committee.
When my friend asks why, the chair explains that it’s political. A colleague with opposing pedagogical values has demanded to be included equal time on the committee.
The work’s almost done.
“He’s making this demand three weeks before we interview candidates at the MLA convention?” my friend says.
The chair nods.
“He just up and got pissed off at this late date?”
The chair has no real answer for this.
“At this late date?”
“It’s about fairness,” the chair says. “It’s about making sure both sides are represented.”
The only added perk for taking on all the added work of reading 300 application files is that you get reimbursed for the trip to the hiring conference, the Modern Language Association convention that meets annually between Christmas and New Year’s. So aside from losing all the work he’s put into this search so far no credit = no merit raise, teeny as that would be the instructor will have to pay his own way to MLA, where he has naturally two interviews himself.
“Is this your way of punishing me for the problem with the student who doesn’t like fucking cursewords?” the instructor asks.
“Certainly not,” the chair says.
Students will blame the discomfort of a learning transition on anything they can find. My friend’s experience illustrates clearly that in academe, it’s OK for instructors to fuck students...
... you just can’t say “fuck.”
Kass Fleisher is an assistant professor of English and creative writing at Illinois State University.
Sexual harassment has been and continues to be a real phenomenon. The evidence is clear. The destructive effects are also clear, sometimes for all the individual parties concerned. And the adverse effects are evident for the profession as a whole.
What is much less clear is what can be done to reduce, if not eliminate altogether this phenomenon. Some institutions have adopted mandatory training about sexual harassment for all department heads and/or for all faculty members. Last year, for example, the University of Iowa instituted such a requirement in the wake of a high profile sexual harassment case.
Such required training was at the heart of a dispute between a University of California at Irvine professor, Alexander McPherson, and his university. In response to Professor McPherson’s refusal to undergo the training, the university relieved him of supervision of the employees in his lab and threatened to withhold his salary. McPherson, who was never accused of harassment, indicated that he was offended by the requirement, that it was a violation of his principles, and that such training was called for only in the event that demonstrated problems had been found in a unit. In his words, “There is no more reason that I need to take sex harassment training than I need to take training on avoiding grand theft auto or murder or any other crime. The state is imposing this based on politics and that can’t be allowed.”
Writing as a scholar of higher education, and not as the new general secretary of the American Association of University Professors (a post I assumed January 1), I would offer three observations on this issue.
First is that there are other realms of activity in which faculty members must undergo required training, without any presumption of an offense having been committed. In research universities (where professors’ work routinely involves human subjects, though even there literary and some other scholars are not required to undergo such training), perhaps the most obvious example of this is the human subjects training surrounding research grants and activity. Prior to getting grants approved by the sponsored projects division of a university, an investigator must have undergone human subjects training. Although the training varies by university, there are common patterns nationally. Typically, for example, such training is online, and is not particularly rigorous, to put it mildly. Indeed, the format involves investigators taking an exam by reading some written passages and then answering questions about them. After each section or module the person finds out whether he or she missed too many questions in a section, and proceeds. If they have missed too many questions in a section they simply backtrack, get the same questions in a different order, and retake the quiz, until they pass. A widely used set of exams (which are specified to social/behavioral and biomedical research) are those offered by the Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative, which over 830 institutions and facilities (including a very large number of research universities, and indeed including the University of California at Irvine) utilize. The modules for the CITI quiz typically include three to six questions.
For the most part, although faculty complain about the inconvenience and irrelevance of the training, I do not know of anyone who would suggest that such training should be required only of investigators found to have violated the rights of human subjects. The more important questions of process and principle surround the institutional review board activities that regulate the approval of an investigator’s proposal. Here, serious questions have been raised about compromising investigators’ academic freedom to engage in certain types of research and to research certain subject matter. But the controversy is not, for the most part, about the human subjects training per se. Indeed, I would venture to say that for colleagues in the social and behavioral sciences, among the most common comments and complaints about human subjects training are that it is ineffective, that it does little by way of actually protecting human subjects and seems to be geared more to protecting the institution. The same might be said with regard to sexual harassment training, or any other “public” program of “training” that a college or university requires of its employees, including faculty members.
This leads to my second observation about the issue of institutions requiring sexual harassment training for faculty. What purpose does it serve? As Professor McPherson says of the requirement, “I have never heard the university advance a reasonable and convincing explanation.” In fact, there is no evidence that such one-time training is effective in reducing the activity in questions. Here, I would agree with Professor McPherson’s questioning of the rigor and effectiveness of such training. Thus, he notes that some of his colleagues log in to the online training, wait for a period of time, and then give random answers to questions. He also notes the regular distribution of materials to employees providing information regarding the rules and regulations surrounding sexual harassment, rendering in his view the online training unnecessary.
Whatever the nature of the online training, and the behavior of the participants, there is ample reason to question the impact of a single experience on behavior. Perhaps there is even greater reason to questions the behavioral impact of such an intervention when it is “virtual.” However, such formal training may nevertheless serve an important function for the organization, by providing legal and external “cover” for the college or university in question.
Here, it is worth noting that in 1995 the AAUP adopted a report (revised from a 1984 report that had been adopted) on this matter (“Sexual Harassment: Suggested Policy and Procedures for Handling Complaints”) that noted the incentive for institutions to adopt not only policies but also educational programs due to some Supreme Court decisions. As a scholar in the field of higher education, and as one who studies and writes about higher education organizations, I would go a step further. There is a large body of organizational research, known as institutional theory, which suggests that one of the main reasons for the emergence in organizations of such formal structures as required training programs is that it is a response to external concerns about a domain of activity and an effort to maintain or (re)establish the organization’s legitimacy in the eyes of the external world.
This need not be a cynical view, suggesting that neither institutional leaders nor the professionals engaged in developing and delivering formal training programs (whether in sexual harassment, human subjects, or in the area of teaching) are actually committed to affecting and improving behavior in the college or university. Rather, it is a view about the predominant and ultimate effects of such formal structures. It is much easier to publicly establish an office or an educational program to address some area of concern (such as sexual harassment) than it is to affect the private behaviors of professionals. Thus, when confronted with a potential challenge to an institution’s external legitimacy, because it is seen as violating some prevailing norms in the broader society, it makes sense for a president to support the creation of public, yet “virtual” structures such as online training modules in sexual harassment. It makes sense because at the very least it is a way of publicly demonstrating that the organization is trying to do something to prevent behavior that violates society’s norms and/or laws.
Given the above, and given the premise that sexual harassment has been and continues to be a phenomenon that we need to address and reduce, if not eliminate, how can such change be effected?
This question leads to my third observation, which is that the change we seek requires an exercise of political will and an excising of cultural ills. With regard to the former, the policies and laws are in place to enable supervisors to act fairly yet aggressively when sexual harassment takes place. If we provide and cultivate the mechanisms to enable the reporting of what research suggests is an underreported behavior, then the structures are in place if academic (and other) administrators at various levels will systematically and appropriately be receptive to reports of harassment, forcefully pursue those cases, and perhaps most important of all, be evaluated by their own supervisors according to whether they do so. With regard to the excising of cultural ills, we must all take responsibility to embed in our daily lives a pattern of interaction that clarifies, monitors, and maintains boundaries of appropriate behavior. Among the cultural ills we need to address head on is not only sexual harassment (and a range of hostile and chilly climate issues), but also the academic cultural norm of not confronting the bad behavior of peers. An argument could be made that as a profession academics are much better at disputing colleagues’ scholarly positions and ideas than we are at sanctioning the behaviors of peers.
Deeply embedded in the consciousness of most academics in the U.S. is a sense of the profound value of and right to due process involving review by one’s faculty peers, and to academic freedom. Both of these are not only found in the AAUP report noted above (as well as in its 1994 report on “Due Process in Sexual Harassment Complaints”), they arguably can be traced to the AAUP’s important work over the past century to establish and defend these rights. The association’s report on sexual harassment identifies harassment (based on gender, or on race/ethnicity, or other considerations, to which I would add sexual orientation) as being unethical and as “inconsistent with the maintenance of academic freedom on campus.” It is our responsibility as a profession, to embed in our consciousness and in our daily practice a vigorous commitment to and promotion of a profession free from sexual (and other forms of) harassment. Fulfilling that responsibility (which runs much deeper than public but relatively superficial, virtual steps like requiring everyone to undergo training) will better enable us as a profession to benefit and learn from increasingly diverse populations of colleagues and students, thereby more fully realizing our potential as an academy and as a society.
Gary Rhoades is general secretary of the American Association of University Professors.
Submitted by Karine Moe on September 29, 2009 - 3:00am
Educated women’s relationship with work today is located at the crosscurrents of some significant demographic and societal shifts. Perhaps the most important of these changes, the stunning educational achievements of women during the past 50 years, opened doors to a wide variety of interesting and well-paid careers, including academe. Women, and married women in particular, increasingly entered fields that had long been considered male bastions. Given the opportunity to prove themselves academically and professionally, educated women marched headlong into the workforce. After a century of increasing female labor force participation, then, many were surprised when at the turn of the 21st century increases in the labor force participation of women stalled -- and in some cases, such as college-educated mothers of infants, declined dramatically.
While women have always moved in and out of the labor force, these most recent movements seemed different. The press began to identify women who, after investing considerable time and money in their educations, decided to leave prestigious and highly-paid careers. While the actual number of college-educated women who quit their jobs to tend to their children constituted a small fraction of working women, the phenomenon nevertheless fueled a heated public debate.
Arguments about the size of the phenomenon aside, the important part of this story is the valuable lessons about work and family to be learned from those who walked away from careers, high powered and otherwise. Our research on these women revealed issues faced by all mothers who seek to combine paid work and childrearing. While our sample was broad and included women from many different fields, academics were well-represented in our study, and so our findings have direct relevance for academic employers.
As women’s commitment to the workforce rose dramatically in the late 1900s, at the same time, marital patterns began to shift. Paraphrasing Gloria Steinem, these highly educated women were becoming the men they wanted to marry. Instead of the professor marrying the department secretary, who then quit work to raise the family, now the professor is likely to marry another professor, or lawyer, or financial analyst. This dynamic gave rise to something we call “the 100-hour couple,” or a couple who works extremely long hours for a combined total of more than 100 hours per week. At the same time as these highly educated women began to compete for academic, professional and managerial positions (along with their husbands), we began to see a surge in the work hours expected by employers. The expectations of employers for complete commitment to work -- with many expecting employees to be available on a 24/7 basis -- has risen substantially over the past few decades, as technology has made it increasingly possible for workers to be reached at all hours.
These changes coincided with cultural shifts in expectations for parenthood. While fathers certainly spend more time with their children than ever before, they still do not spend nearly as much time as do mothers. Today's mothers describe an intensification of motherhood that can be felt in the pressure to provide “mama time” for their kids by arranging play dates, driving them to activities, monitoring piano practice and homework, etc.
Compounded by ongoing expectations for women to manage household responsibilities, these cultural and demographic shifts came together to create a perfect storm of social forces that has led women to reevaluate their relationship with work. Aside from the trends described above, certain structural characteristics of the workplace inhibit women’s ability to excel in their careers while creating the home life they desire. By addressing some of these structural barriers, employers can help to create a workplace that will attract and retain highly qualified women. The implications of our research for academic employers are myriad.
Most jobs and workplace norms, including those in academe, were structured originally for men who had wives devoted full-time to managing the home life. Typically designed by and for men, few careers offer alternatives to combine work and motherhood, without invoking a significant penalty in terms of advancement and pay. In the case of academe, for example, those stressful years leading up to tenure coincide exactly with a woman’s prime childbearing years. Instances of a part-time tenure track are extremely rare, and if a woman gives up a tenure track job to take time to attend to family matters, it is highly unlikely that she will be able to secure another tenure track job. These constraints lead many qualified women to give up a chance at tenure in return for a lifetime of adjunct positions. Creating an alternative model in which parents can reduce their time commitment at work while still remaining on the tenure track (albeit delayed) would be a major step that colleges and universities could take to retain highly qualified women.
Pregnancy, childbirth, and adoption can present major stumbling blocks, even to women who want to continue to work full-time. Institutions can take great strides to improve the lives of their female faculty and staff by creating and legitimizing pregnancy, childbearing, and adoption leave policies. The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) ensured that colleges offer employees at least 12 weeks within a 12 month period for unpaid leave for birth, adoption, or to care for themselves or their family members. Many institutions have expanded their parenting leave policies beyond those required by the FMLA, by providing some weeks of paid leave or a course reduction. Others provide a semester off with reduced pay. Unfortunately, the nature of academic work does not lend itself easily to taking a six-week leave, if that leave cuts into the academic calendar year. However, it can be done, especially when administrators provide support in terms of hiring replacement faculty or creatively configuring course loads.
Perhaps more important, however, is that even when these types of policies, generous as they may seem, are “on the books,” women faculty may feel that they can’t avail themselves without making it seem that they are uncommitted to their careers. Indeed many female faculty engage directly in actions to minimize even the appearance of allowing family obligations to interfere with work commitments. Typical strategies to avoid bias include returning to work too soon after childbirth, not requesting reduced teaching loads when necessary, or even missing important events in their children’s lives. Ensuring that women are not punished for taking advantage of flexible work options, then, becomes a significant step that administrators can take to retain these women.
A dearth of high quality childcare presents another significant structural barrier to mothers’ employment. High quality, affordable childcare is often unattainable for many families. In some cases the care is available, but expensive. In Minneapolis-St. Paul, for example, a family can expect to pay $24,000 per year to enroll an infant and a toddler in a full-time, center-based child care facility. And even when quality care is available and affordable, the inflexibility of opening and closing times, with most child care centers charging by the minute for late pick-ups, do not mesh with employer demands outside of the traditional 9 to 5 workday.
Of course, care responsibilities are not limited to children. Elder care is becoming an increasingly important drain on workers, and will only worsen as the nation’s baby boomers age. And since women are having children at increasingly older ages, we can expect to see a rise in the numbers of workers who have child and elder care responsibilities at the same time.
Studies have shown that employers who assist their workers with child care see improvements in productivity and morale. By providing and/or subsidizing child care for their employees, universities and colleges can expect to see improved worker performance and reduced turnover and absenteeism. As an added bonus, employers do not pay employment taxes on benefits, and so institutions can reduce their tax burden by casting some of an employee’s compensation as a child care subsidy.
Some believe that the women who left their jobs did so because they were not successful, didn’t like the work, or lacked ambition, all ideas contradicted by our research. Many of the women we interviewed had been phenomenally successful and loved their careers, but they also felt that workplace structures limited their capacity both to raise their families and to continue in those careers. And this was particularly true for academics. One national study of highly educated women who had left their careers, found that only doctors seemed happier in their work than professors, with lawyers and M.B.A.'s being far more likely to report job dissatisfaction as a major reason for leaving their careers. It was not job satisfaction that drove the professors to leave their careers, but rather the structure of the job. Therefore, academic employers who are interested in recruiting and retaining talented women should direct their attention to making structural changes in their institutions, such as increasing flexibility in terms of the tenure clock, allowing women (and men) to reduce teaching loads and take parenting leaves as needed, as well as improving other benefits such as child care assistance.
Avatar harassment and sexual assault remain controversial issues because institutions hosting virtual worlds are not accustomed to dealing with — or even discussing — digital forms of these distressing behaviors.
Harassment and assault are frequent infractions in virtual environs, including those frequented by students and professors. London journalist Tim Guest, author of Second Lives: a Journey Through Virtual Worlds, estimated that "about 6.5 percent of logged-in residents" have filed one or more abuse reports in Second Life. By the end of 2006, he writes, Linden Lab, creator of Second Life, "was receiving close to 2,000 abuse reports a day."
Current statistics are unavailable. But you can monitor the types of offenses and where they occurred in Second Life by accessing its community incident report chronicling the 25 most recent infractions and resulting penalties. On Dec. 28, 2009, five of the 25 infractions concerned "indecency: broadly offensive content or conduct"; three, sexual harassment; and two, intolerance. Most penalties included warnings with four one-day suspensions and one three-day suspension. (In fairness, Linden Lab has tried to crack down on these community infractions, hosting guides such as this to inform users about abuse and how to file reports about repeat offenders.)
Educational institutions with a presence in or that introduced students to virtual worlds might want to analyze the phenomenon of avatar rape, which presents a unique challenge to traditional jurisprudence. Rape is assumed to be both physical and geographical, as in a crime scene. Both dimensions are missing on the Web. Nevertheless, avatars are symbols of the self. As such, it behooves us to investigate:
How avatar rape happens in virtual worlds.
What concepts and theories apply when the act is neither physical nor geographical.
Why the discussion is even necessary.
Before delving into avatar rape, I should note that such a discussion could have the unintended consequence of desensitizing the topic of real rape, whose ramifications, physical and psychological, are extreme. However, silence about virtual assault also has consequences in that many colleges and universities view virtual worlds as learning environments and may not know how to resolve issues when infractions occur.
Those unfamiliar with virtual worlds may wonder how avatar rape even happens. (You can access a short bibliography of online content devoted in part or in whole to issues involving virtual assault.) Typically, users encounter the act through three scenarios: You can lure others or be lured into it yourself. You can purchase or role-play it. You can “grief” it — a term that means to cause grief — or suffer it because of a griefer.
I became interested in avatar rape after I read an account in Gawker Media, titled “Second Life: Rape for Sale.” The post noted how users could indulge in rape fantasies (options: Rape victim, Get raped, or Hold victim) "for a trifling 220 Linden dollar things." Diana Allandale (not her real name) shared her experience with avatar rape in response to an online article, “How exactly does ‘virtual rape’ even occur in Second Life?” Her incident happened on a beach — a typical landscape as avatars interact with each other on "islands" — when another avatar invited her to go skinny-dipping.
"Being the newbie I was, I didn’t understand that the word ‘love’ hovering over the top meant ‘intercourse.’ "
When the rape began, she recalled, "my first thought was — ‘Hey! I didn’t consent to this!’ " Allandale rebuffed her attacker, dressed her avatar and left, "feeling ticked off that someone would take advantage of my newbie-ness, but having learned a little about human nature."
Allandale is no prude, by the way. She’s a high school teacher and author of erotic novels under the byline of Diana Hunter.
Then there are griefers who have haunted multiuser domains for years. In 1993, Julian Dibble published “A Rape in Cyberspace” in the Village Voice, narrating the deeds of one Mr. Bungle in the text-based virtual world, LambdaMOO:
They say he raped them that night. They say he did it with a cunning little doll, fashioned in their image and imbued with the power to make them do whatever he desired. They say that by manipulating the doll he forced them to have sex with him, and with each other, and to do horrible, brutal things to their own bodies.
Like many in academe, all I knew about avatar rape was what I had read about it. Then I witnessed an online sexual assault — and had a witness, too.
Tom Beell, a journalism professor at Iowa State, asked me about Second Life, knowing I had researched and written about it. He had never heard of the virtual world, so I opted to show rather than explain it to him using my office desktop.
I logged on and teleported to a beach. Within the first few minutes, we observed one nude male avatar violently rape another clothed male avatar drinking a pixelated martini at a boardwalk bar.
"What’s going on?" Beell asked. He looked startled. Thankfully, he couldn’t read the chat in the text bar of my monitor. In 30 years in academe, I have encountered homophobia in an inappropriate joke or offhand remark about lesbians, gays or transsexuals. Now I was reading hate speech so vile that I cannot summarize it here.
The incident occurred in 2007. I was thankful that audio was not available on my desktop at the time. If a student or staff member walked into my office and heard what I read that day on the chat bar, that person would have been exposed to hate speech in addition to avatar rape.
In researching the phenomenon, I sought viewpoints from directors of information technology and women’s studies at Big XII and other peer institutions. My research assistant Sam Berbano and I spent two months working with our Institutional Review Board, seeking approval to post our survey online.
Given the sensitive nature of the topic, the IRB asked us to warn survey participants about possible harm to their reputations should their responses be published. To lessen risk, the IRB also required signed copies of consent to anyone responding to our survey. So we opted for a snail mail version with a disclaimer: “A risk of participation in this survey may arise if some may find your opinions in the free-response section at variance with their own.”
My research assistant wondered how a survey measuring opinion about avatar rape could have more potential for harm than participation in a virtual environment in which such a digital act could occur.
As it turned out, only one respondent out of 43 provided comments for this essay. Jean Van Delinder at the time was chair of the Faculty Council at Oklahoma State University, where she is an associate professor of sociology. Van Delinder believed discussions like this raise awareness. "Since as a sociologist I view rape as an act of dominance and power," she states, "virtual reality would be a setting conducive to this type of attack and students need to be made aware of it."
Van Delinder also believed that "assault, even virtual assault, has a psychological and emotional component. It is more than just physical because the victim or target continuously replays in the mind what has happened and, in a sense, experiences it over and over again."
One of the best articles citing material affirming that view is “Virtual Rape,” published by Richard MacKinnon in the March 1997 issue of Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. In one section, MacKinnon introduces a feminist definition of rape that involves damage to the self that may be physical, emotional, psychological or material. "In this way," he writes, "rape becomes an assault not against a persona, but against the person behind the persona."
Tim Guest, author of Second Lives, believes sexual assault in virtual worlds is real and imaginary. "As the saying goes, the thought is written in water, and the deed is written in stone. Events that take place in virtual worlds seem to lie somewhere in between, a kind of water with memory."
He compares rape in a virtual realm to flashing in a real one.
Second Life advocates often note that avatar assault is easily avoided; you can teleport away, they say. Linden Lab recommends muting voice during verbal assaults. "Click! Problem solved," it states.
Walking away from hate speech on campus doesn't mean damage was circumvented or an epithet excusable or that charges cannot be filed against a person making slurs. Why should virtual reality be different when users assume liability for what happens there?
Guest agrees. Verbal assaults are just that, no matter where they happen. "The only difference being again no threat of violent escalation. Being able to teleport away is of little relevance, just another way to say you can't be trapped or hurt."
In most cases, he is correct. Many assume that crossover violence from virtual to real environs is unlikely because operators of avatars are in different locales. That is not always the case when people on residential campuses meet on an island operated by their residential institution.
The Lantern, campus newspaper at the Ohio State University, reported in a 2008 crime summary that a staff member contacted police about harassing phone calls at work. The harasser purportedly "knew the staff member through the Web site Second Life, and was under the impression they had been corresponding through the site for six months. … The staff member told the caller to stop calling after the caller said she had a package for the staff member and knew her address."
Guest believes cases like this may constitute harassment and recommends that institutions transfer any existing policies in student handbooks to the virtual world. "The only danger," he warns, "is to over-legislate the territory of sexuality, which needs a kind of animalistic disregard for propriety in order to thrive.
"Universities are probably not the place for this in SL, however."
Some legal counsels have told me if institutions support or fund virtual worlds, they also have an obligation to inform learners through curriculums or workshops about virtual rape, harassment and other assaults on the psyche.
Diana Allendale aka Diana Hunter, who wrote about being lured into avatar rape, reminded me that online harassment happens daily to students in all manner of new media venues, not just virtual worlds. Text messages insult, she says. MySpace comments intimidate. Institutions not only need policies to deal with the fallout of these incidents, she says, but also have to educate students on how to handle them.
"It's not a case of ‘if you are attacked,’ " she adds, "but ‘when you are attacked.’ "
Unlike harassing text messages or intimidating chat on social networks, the concern here involves terms of service that transfer liability to users — yet another reason that educators need to raise awareness about avatar rape and other forms of harassment in virtual worlds used as learning environments.
Michael Bugeja is author of the Oxford University Press books Interpersonal Divide: The Search for Community in a Technological Age and Living Ethics across Media Platforms. He directs the journalism school at Iowa State University.
Fiction writers were not yet using the term “stream of consciousness” when Charlotte Perkins Gilman published “The Yellow Wall-Paper” in 1892. The phrase itself first appeared in print that same year, when William James used it while preparing an abridged edition of his Principles of Psychology (1890), where he’d coined a similar expression, “stream of thought.” I do not know if Gilman ever studied James’s work. It’s clear from Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz’s Wild Unrest, published by Oxford University Press, that Gilman was as voracious and au courant a reader as any American thinker of her day. And she certainly took exception to the unflattering portrait of the suffragists drawn by the philosopher’s brother Henry in The Bostonians, which she read as it was being serialized in 1885. (By 1898, Gilman’s internationally famous book Women and Economics made her not just one of the most prominent adherents of that movement, but arguably its most tough-minded public intellectual.)
Either way, Gilman had her own reasons for wanting to convey the flow of awareness in a piece of fiction. Her narrator is a woman who, following childbirth, has been prescribed bed rest and virtual isolation by her husband, who is a physician. Her sister-in-law keeps an eye on the new baby, and she also seems charged with task of making sure the narrator stays in her room. Even jotting down a few lines in her diary feels like a violation of her husband’s commands. With nothing else to occupy her attention, the narrator stares at the ugly, crumbling wallpaper in her room. Her attention sinks into the pattern of swirls. She begins to notice the image of a woman who is trapped in the design, but who is somehow able to sneak out into the real world without others noticing. Boredom and depression give way to psychosis.
“Every definite image in the mind is steeped and dyed in the free water that flows round it,” writes William James. “With it goes the sense of its relations, near and remote, the dying echo of whence it came to us, the dawning sense of whither it is to lead.” The image Gilman’s narrator finds in the shabby yellow wallpaper is “steeped and dyed” in the well-meaning oppressiveness of her circumstances. Trapped in domesticity and then rendered completely passive, her stream of consciousness turns brackish. But it’s the social norms that are deranged, at least as much as her mind.
The value of Horowitz’s book -- subtitled “Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Making of ‘The Yellow Wall-Paper’ ” -- is not that it reveals an autobiographical element in the story. The author herself made that clear in an essay from 1913. Gilman indicated that she had been subjected to a similar course of treatment following a period of postpartum depression. In 1887, a doctor gave her “solemn advice to ‘live as domestic a life as far as possible,’ to ‘have but two hours' intellectual life a day,’ and ‘never to touch pen, brush, or pencil again’ as long as I lived.” For a woman who had earned a modest living by painting and writing in her 20s, this must have felt like a kind of death sentence.
But Horowitz, a professor emerita of history at Smith College, has excavated parts of the record that go far beyond Gilman’s account of patriarchal malpractice. The doctor in question was one S. Weir Mitchell, then at the height of his fame; his reputation had been secured during the Civil War when he published a book on the neurological effect of gunshot wounds. He claimed great success in treating what were thought of then as female nervous conditions – though it’s not as if Mitchell made that sharp a distinction between mental health and mental illness with women. Horowitz quotes him commenting on “how near to disorder and how close to misfortune [a woman] is brought by the very peculiarities of her nature.”
So, yes, a sexist pig, pretty much. But Horowitz determines from the available evidence that the treatment Mitchell prescribed for his female patients wasn’t quite the nightmare of sensory deprivation portrayed in “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” While known for his “rest cure,” this didn't involve putting them under the command of their husbands. Indeed, he wanted his patients to recuperate away from their families, just to get them away from influences that might be wearing them down. Mitchell believed in the therapeutic effects of exercise, and he also encouraged women to open up to him about their unhappiness – a Yankee approximation of the “talking cure” later associated with Vienna.
The feeling of being trapped and helpless evoked by “The Yellow Wall-Paper” must be traced back to other sources, then. Horowitz suggests that the story embodies “its author’s experiences of love, ambition, and depression in her 20s.” They can be reconstructed from both Gilman’s own writings and the extensive diary kept by Charles Walter Stetson, her first husband. (They divorced in the 1890s.)
“In the late 19th century,” Horowitz writes, “a time when roughly 10 percent of American women did not marry, almost half of all women with a B.A. remained single.” While Gilman was largely self-educated, her situation was comparable. She took it as a given that having a career would mean forgoing wedlock. And vice versa, as far as Stetson was concerned. A painter of some promise if no great worldly success, he seems to have thought Charlotte ought to be content with serving as his own personal Pre-Raphaelite muse. Her desire to have any other career baffled him.
The possibility that these two people might make each other happy was not great. But that’s not to say that the husband, rather than the doctor, was the real villain. This isn’t a melodrama. Stetson wasn’t brutal or vicious, just obtuse. In Gilman's autobiography, notes Horowitz, she "lavished praise on her first husband," and seems to have directed any lingering rage at the figure of Dr. Mitchell.
Someone more imaginative and less conventional than Stetson might have made her a good spouse, though New England in the 1880s was not full of such men. Reading about their courtship is like watching a tragedy. You want to intervene and warn her, but it’s too late, of course. The feeling is especially painful as you watch Gilman persuade herself to ignore her own misgivings. The most extreme case comes when, after meeting Stetson and beginning to pitch woo with him, Gilman sat down to read Herbert Spencer’s opus The Data of Ethics. It was Spencer, not Darwin, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” and he remained an immensely influential thinker well into the early 20th century. (From my perspective, here in the 21st, this is quite an enigma, since Spencer's writings often seem like something Thomas Friedman might produce after being hit on the head and deciding that he was Hegel.)
“The instincts and sentiments which so overpoweringly prompt marriage,” wrote Spencer, “and those which find their gratification in the fostering of offspring, work out an immense surplus of benefit after deducting all evils.” Gilman took this to heart, and in an unpublished poem she vowed to follow the Spencerian injunction to marry and so become "a perfect woman / worth the gladness superhuman." It did not work out that way. She ended up like the narrator of “The Yellow Wall-Paper” -- a prisoner of social expectations that left no room for argument.
But Wild Unrest, by contrast, has a happy ending. Gilman managed to escape. She reinvented herself as a writer and speaker. And then, in 1900, she married a man (her cousin George Houghton Gilman) who, Horowitz says, “relished her professional attainments and growing reputation.” I’d like to think that she found in life what Spencer had advertised: “an immense surplus of benefit after deducting all evils.”