Gender

Essay on being a junior professor at a campus where sexist traditions are a form of harassment

I have a picture saved in a folder on my laptop. It is a picture of me, and it was provided to me somewhat reluctantly. It’s a photograph of my face, taken from my faculty profile page at the religious college where I used to work, placed onto the body of a scantily clad lingerie model. This Photoshopped image was part of an annual tradition, one that used such manufactured images of many of the faculty and staff members at the institution as part of a presentation designed to “skewer” faculty and staff for humorous effect. Sometimes it was a suggestion that a religion professor who was also a Baptist minister actually wanted to be the pope. Sometimes it was a joke that one of our very tall business professors was secretly an Olympic beach volleyball player. The year that I was on the docket, I was a Vegas showgirl, and thus my head was superimposed upon the body of a midriff-baring, garter stockings-clad lingerie model in a semitransparent bra.

This performance was done during a convocation for students, but it was popular among faculty members and administrators, who made a tradition of attending the annual “roast.” Aside from the general fact that mocking faculty members in front of a group of students already skeptical of us is pedagogically questionable, the sexually suggestive Photoshopped picture of me -- and similar photos of some of my female colleagues -- was a clear case of sexual harassment.

But this had been done for years. It was simply “tradition” and we were supposed to be part of a family -- and what family doesn’t pick on one another just a little bit?

I like to think of myself as a strong woman, one who won’t put up with abusive comments or disrespect. I’ve learned to ignore street harassment; I’ve spent a lot of my life figuring out which battles are the ones to fight, and complaining about the minimal harassment I’ve experienced in the workplace really wasn’t worth the disruption to my life, though I would like to think that if it represented a pattern of behavior -- and others were being harassed as well -- that I would step forward and tell my own story.

But this I was afraid to complain about. I wasn’t present at this convocation, but all the same, it was humiliating -- so humiliating that some of my colleagues who were at the convocation wouldn’t tell me about it and refused to make eye contact when I asked them directly about what had happened. It was several days before someone involved with the program finally acquiesced when I said I wanted to see the image myself and sent me a copy of it. The experience undercut my authority in the classroom, as many of my students were already inclined to believe that women should not have positions of authority over men.

Nevertheless, I was afraid to complain.

I was afraid to complain about it, because the person who did the presentation every year was an administrator, one who, when we had our first mandatory sexual harassment training session for the campus employees, started with a joke: “If these rules had been around when I met my wife, I wouldn’t be happily married today.”

What was I going to do? This was a prominent member of our small-town community. I had seen administrators retaliate against faculty members for asking what I thought were reasonable questions or making reasonable complaints about their treatment, and I was untenured in a work-at-will state. Did I really have any choice? I had the evidence. It was a clear case. Quite likely, it would have simply resulted in administrators apologizing and being embarrassed, but it also like would have resulted in having to hear multiple times that “he’s a part of an earlier generation” for whom such things were different. More importantly, I feared I also risked losing my job, but without any proof that it was retaliation. I’d seen other people at that institution fired (or, more euphemistically, told that their tenure-track contracts were “not being renewed”) under mysterious circumstances. Because there was no record of any discussion -- and the fact that work-at-will means that employers don’t have to give you a reason to let you go -- those people could not prove any discrimination had taken place.

While this is certainly anecdotal and only my own experience, it does color the way that I think about claims of sexual harassment, both by faculty members and by students. When we think about harassment and our approach to it at universities and colleges, we need to remember that they are workplaces, despite all the talk about being members of a family or part of a community, with real disregard for equity. It’s difficult in many environments to come forward with complaints of harassment -- particularly when young scholars are being discouraged from doing so, either through well-meaning but ultimately wrongheaded advice like Alice Huang’s a few weeks ago, or through the outright attack on those who bring complaints about the harassment. It’s also difficult when so many of our institutions have steeped themselves in decades-long traditions that blur the boundary between work and personal lives, particularly when we forget that colleges and universities are not always the bastions of progressivism that the public sometimes thinks we are.

We need to think about these places and their traditions, and consider how an unexamined status quo can contribute to a larger environment that allows sexual harassment to go unchecked for years and that preserves and promotes a culture that thinks of women in positions of authority as merely objects to make fun of, not as leaders of institutions. Academe is part of a larger culture that promotes such objectification constantly, and I think it’s important to hear the voices of women who claim to have been marginalized or discriminated against, when those women are brave enough to come forward, and think about the legitimacy of those complaints. What seems like acceptable “good fun” to some people may seem unacceptable and hurtful to others, and their opinions and insights need to be considered.

Is there potential for abuse of Title IX or sexual harassment statutes as they currently exist? Of course. The potential for abuse of the system exists in any system. But even as we discuss the merits of Title IX complaints, we cannot forget the continuing problems that exist, those continuing problems that gave rise to the need for Title IX and sexual harassment laws in the first place.

These things are still happening, and we do ourselves and our students a grave disservice by cloaking them in the name of tradition and “good fun.”

The author, an assistant professor of English, no longer works at the institution described in this piece.

Editorial Tags: 

Essay on how departments and conferences can welcome transgender academics

Lisa Hager offers advice on how to create an inclusive environment for departmental colleagues and conference attendees.

Job Tags: 
Ad keywords: 
Topic: 
Editorial Tags: 
Show on Jobs site: 
Image Size: 

New study finds men more likely to doubt evidence of gender bias in science fields

Section: 
Smart Title: 

New study on online comments suggests big gap in the way men and women perceive evidence of gender bias in sciences. What does that mean for efforts to diversify STEM?

Amazon's female Ph.D. costume gets low marks from academics

Smart Title: 

Costume company's idea of a female Ph.D. derided as sexist and foolish by real female Ph.D.s.

Essay on the realities of race in academic jobs

While searching for a new job, a white academic is stunned by the way a department interviewing her treated and talked about a black female academic.

Job Tags: 
Ad keywords: 
Topic: 
Editorial Tags: 
Show on Jobs site: 

College settles pregnancy discrimination complaint

Smart Title: 

A college in Missouri updates its absence policies to add pregnancy-related absences as excused in response to a student's federal complaint. 

Sociologists Debate Terminology for Members

Smart Title: 

American Sociological Association tries to figure out the gender choices members should get to categorize themselves -- and the process is far from simple.

Political scientists debate whether women in the field should mimic or change men

Section: 
Smart Title: 

Political scientists consider whether advances for women in the discipline will come from copying questionable male tactics or from changing the nature of values of the field.

Essay on the sexual politics of scholarship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                                                                                                                                            ***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section: 
Editorial Tags: 

OCR official explains harassment policies to skeptical college lawyers

Smart Title: 

U.S. civil rights official seeks to reassure college lawyers that the agency has not altered its sexual harassment standards through recent settlements.

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - Gender
Back to Top