Goodbye Collegiality, Hello Spineless Bullying

Sasha Waters offers a pointed reply to her colleague Stephen Bloom's essay last week on journalism and academe.

May 10, 2005

Writing in the journalistic tradition of an O’Reilly or a Limbaugh, Stephen Bloom’s vituperative and bizarrely personal attack on “sniveling” academics, especially the snarling, spitting, sneering, "dopey" assistant professor mauled in his article “Hello Sy Hershman, Goodbye Bob Woodward,” is highly instructive -- although not perhaps in the way our ersatz Woody-Allen-of-the-Plains here at the University of Iowa intends.What it reveals most is the ease with which male professors can still abuse with impunity the power and privilege of their gender and rank.

 A brief recap of the facts: Stephen Bloom walks into a meeting that took place in November of 2004, not “recently” as he fallaciously claims, that was intended as an exploratory brainstorming discussion of possible panelists to be invited to a possible conference celebrating the new building on campus dedicated to the departments of Journalism and Cinema & Comparative Literature.No one likes his ideas. The other four people in the room suggest names like Bill Moyers, Gwen Ifill, Bob Edwards and Amy Goodman, among other -- many names were bandied about. Stephen doesn’t like these ideas, but what can he do?It’s four against one.

Well, one thing he can do is vent his anger and frustration by publicly humiliating the only two women present at the meeting, especially the untenured woman who is the least likely to fight back. In fact Mr. Bloom is so brazen in his flouting of the University’s Professional Code of Ethics ­-- which states that members of the faculty are obligated to show each other “due respect” and “refrain from personal vilification” -- that he merrily provides a link to his toxic screed from his faculty biography Web site. The real message of Bloom’s hard-hitting investigation into the corridors of minor-conference-planning power is that junior women faculty better break out the floppy hats, giggle and make nice -- especially to their senior “Woodys” -- if they want to get ahead in the Academy ­-- “of the Overrated” or otherwise.

My understanding of this proposed conference was that it should ideally be about fomenting productive dialogue between and among students, practitioners and theoreticians of Hollywood, "independent" and documentary film, the U.S. and international news media and print and broadcast journalism. And far from being the bastion of “elitism” that Bloom decries, the “hybrid” (you mean, like, we teach classes in more than one discipline?) Department of Cinema & Comparative Literature at the University of Iowa fully engages with popular culture and popular media. A quick review of courses on offer for the upcoming fall 2005 semester lists Contemporary Cinema, U.S. Film, Chicano Cinema and Film & Literature, plus extremely popular hands-on courses in 16mm film, video and sound production, among many others, which encourage in our students the production and critical study of these areas.

Mr. Bloom’s imaginative assertions that anyone suggested we “lock the doors” and “pummel the propagandists” in a “bloodbath” are outright lies. How do I know? Because I am the female assistant professor Bloom vilifies in his rant. Although he does not name me, I am easily identifiable in our small academic community (there are only three female assistant professors in my department).

I may be from the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Stephen, but I for one won’t play Diane to your Woody. I do, however, confess admiration for the display of creativity in the colorful language you use to describe me -- a person, a professional colleague with whom you have never made any effort to speak outside of this 45-minute meeting. I wonder if your mouth is still "forming an o-shape"? Because I think your list of all white-hot “luminaries” looks suspiciously like men in power -- Washington Post CEO Graham; New York Times Public Editor Okrent; fawning Presidential biographer Woodward -- to whom you would like to ingratiate yourself, not like people who would be appropriate speakers for a conference of journalism, film and media students alike. I also think that if this kind of mean-spirited name-calling is what passes for “journalism” in your classes, our students are in trouble.

In short, this daring man of letters Mr. Bloom has used his academic and journalistic freedom and the safety of tenure for the noble aim of publicly berating and ridiculing a junior colleague whom he encountered once in a meeting that took place six months ago. The real lesson about the halls of higher learning we can glean from Stephen Bloom’s piece is, quite sadly, that junior women of the academy should think twice before voicing opinions contrary to those of swaggering bullies who out-rank them.  

Oh yeah, that Seymour Hersh thing -- whom I never claimed to be “chummy” with, that’s yet another irresponsible misrepresentation -- did I stumble over his name? I guess it’s possible, although given the many falsehoods in Bloom’s diatribe, I kind of doubt it. Bloom’s “Judas”-like colleague told me today that she couldn’t recall, and quite frankly I could have called the guy “Sidney Hula Hoop” for all I remember. This meeting was, as I’ve said, six months ago and I attended it shortly after the birth of my first child in the hopes of forging greater professional and social links with my new co-habitants of our new building.

So much for high ideals….


Sasha Waters is a documentary filmmaker and educator at the University of Iowa.Her award-winning documentary film , Razing Appalachia, was broadcast on the national PBS series Independent Lens in 2003, and she is currently editing a feature-length documentary, directed by Sarah Price, on the international aid worker community in Afghanistan.


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