Teaching Moments From the ‘Hypatia’ Controversy

Trysh Travis considers the controversy at Hypatia over Rebecca Tuvel’s article on “transracialism” in hopes of extracting some potential teaching moments from it.

June 30, 2017

Maybe I’m a bad feminist, but I was on vacation and away from social media when the controversy at Hypatia blew up. Only when I returned to the office late in May and confronted my overflowing email box did I catch up on Rebecca Tuvel’s controversial article on “transracialism” and the ensuing outcry over it: the open letter to Hypatia calling for its retraction, the mea culpa from some of the journal’s associate editors, the defense of the article by the editor, the gleeful crowings of the mainstream press about the pettiness of the intellectual elite and, finally, a second open letter, from a group of what might be described as materialist progressives, decrying the signatories to the first open letter.

I had to swallow the story whole, rather than a course at a time. As a result, I’m not even sure I can even digest it all. Some points from both sides of the argument seem relevant, others not so much. The decibel level doesn’t help anything. Still, this question of how language may harm by (ostensibly) violating identity claims has become so prominent that I feel obliged to try to reckon with it.

I don’t work in philosophy or in critical race or sexuality studies, so I found my way into the contretemps by extracting a few potential teaching moments from it, focusing on the open letter’s criticisms of Hypatia’s editorial process and its call for changes to the same. Some of those issues are specific to Tuvel’s article, but a couple are technical problems -- with conceptual ramifications -- that every scholar deals with at least occasionally. Thinking about how to walk my graduate students through them, I hoped, would help me engage this controversy without getting bogged down in it.

The Obscured Bread-Crumb Trail

First, and maybe most banal, is a matter of citation practices, an aspect of scholarly knowledge production that I just can’t seem to convince my students is both fascinating and vitally important. Some of the most spectacular attacks on Tuvel’s article center on her use of the name that celebrity transwoman Caitlyn Jenner was assigned at birth, a process known as “deadnaming.” The author of the original open letter argued that by referring to Jenner in this way, Tuvel “uses vocabulary and frameworks not recognized, accepted or adopted by the conventions of the relevant subfields.” Tuvel defended herself by noting that Jenner uses that name in her memoir but admitted that was an insider privilege she’d unthinkingly claimed for herself, thus “perpetuat[ing] harm” to Jenner personally and to the trans community over all.

Reasonable people, both cis and transgender, might disagree about whether and how such a practice does harm. (It could also be argued that celebrities, by definition, sacrifice some rights to privacy that the regular folks retain.) When in doubt, it’s certainly most polite to use a person’s preferred name when referring to them directly.

But what about the more complicated case of referring to a trans author -- and to works that cite them -- prior to their official transition? If citations are a sort of intellectual bread-crumb trail that we leave for our readers to follow, how we name authors and represent other scholars’ engagements with their work is important, lest our own readers get lost in the forest.

For example: sociologist Raewyn Connell’s website notes she is the author of 1987’s Gender and Power (Stanford University Press), which was published under the “gender-neutral name R. W. Connell.” The copyright pages lists “R. W. Connell” as the author, as do WorldCat and the publisher’s website. How should the book appear in a bibliography? Contemporary scholarship that engaged with Gender and Power’s arguments referred to the author with the male name assigned to her at birth, and the Amazon.com page for Gender and Power does the same. Is quoting that scholarship “deadnaming”? If so, should we make a journalistic “silent correction” when we quote? Or selectively edit quoted material so that names never appear? Should the difference between the names across time be explained in a footnote, or does that, too, deadname?

This example is particularly real for me as I have directed many undergrad and grad students to Raewyn Connell’s work on masculinity, only to hear that “our library doesn’t own her book, so can I use this one by R. W. Connell instead?” That’s an easy correction in the classroom context, but it speaks to the problem of the obscured bread-crumb trail. The open letter’s call to Hypatia to “commit to developing best practices for naming trans individuals as authors and subjects of scholarly discussions” acknowledges as much. Systematic practices in this area, consistent across disciplines, would indeed be useful.

The other teaching issue raised in the open letter is more complex. Tuvel’s critics argued vehemently that her work “fail[ed] to seek out and sufficiently engage with scholarly work by those who are most vulnerable to the intersection of racial and gender oppressions (women of color) in its discussion of ‘transracialism.’” It thus fell short of Hypatia’s stated commitment to exploring a diversity of gendered and sexed experiences.

In the public commentary on the controversy, “sufficiency” has featured prominently. On one side are scholars who believe that Tuvel’s inattention to, for example, critical race theory allowed her to make a facile, bad-faith argument. Taking concepts like embodied racism and micropolitics seriously would have complicated or perhaps invalidated her own claims, this logic goes. To get around that problem, she just avoided this body of thought altogether. Compounding that intellectual gaffe is a political one: by not engaging critical race theorists, many of whom are people of color, Tuvel re-marginalized a vulnerable population and reaffirmed her white privilege.

On the other side of a yawning chasm are those who claim that as an untenured member of a philosophy department, writing for a philosophy journal (albeit a feminist one that describes itself as “richly interdisciplinary in orientation”), Tuvel is not beholden to critical race theory. Her article responds primarily to the work of one major figure in her field, feminist philosopher Sally Haslanger, who writes about race and gender from a foundation in epistemology, with attention to philosophies of justice. It is to these branches of philosophy -- not other scholarship, and not the social locations of other scholars -- that Tuvel owes deference. Many academics who have staked out this position seem to be professional philosophers aware of and, to various extents, comfortable with their field’s traditional (some might call it airless) rhetorical and argumentative style.

Could Tuvel have opened up her article to more fully consider and engage with critical race theory’s ideas about power and identity? That is a serious teaching question -- let’s answer it first in a deeply prosaic fashion. To wit: while calls for paradigm-shifting interdisciplinary scholarship have increased over the past few decades, the word limit for a typical journal article has not. Hypatia’s word limit is 8,000. Excluding citations, Tuvel’s piece comes in just at 7,900. Engaging with such ideas would have blown her word count out of the water.

Lurking beneath the language of “sufficiency” is a more troubling question: Should Tuvel have written the article without such engagement? Signatories to the open letter clearly believe she should not have. To write without such engagement is to cause harm.

Here is where the teaching issues of academic genres and audiences come into play. Though it’s not analytic philosophy by a long shot, Tuvel’s article is quite discipline specific -- a straight-up thought experiment that proceeds precisely along philosophy’s traditional “if A, then B; if B, then C or D, but not E” lines.

There’s a reason I’m a cultural historian: the abstractness of the one philosophy class I took as an undergraduate drove me nuts. All the arguments seemed true, but none of them seemed accurate -- at least not to the messy reality that I lived in. This sense came back to me on reading Tuvel, but 30-odd years later, I understand that this is just what philosophers do. Or rather, it’s something they can do.

And for good or ill, it seems it’s the thing Rebecca Tuvel wanted to do in this article. (Although I’d wager she thinks somewhat differently now.) Both her CV and her online presence suggest Tuvel is well read in bodies of scholarship -- like critical race theory -- that could have informed and given shape to an argument about transracialism. Apparently she didn’t want to write that article. For whatever reason, Tuvel seems to have been uninterested in authoring an article that used critical race theory to complicate Sally Haslanger’s claims about the constructed nature of race and gender. If we acknowledge that lack of interest, we can move to ask the real teaching question: Is it wrong?

The Act of Saying “I”

As I mentioned above, I may be a bad feminist: most of my graduate teaching shies away from questions of feminist methodology and focuses instead on writing. Specifically, to quote Joan Didion, I teach students that “writing is the act of saying ‘I.’” Within the context of graduate teaching, this means helping students figure out what they are arguing about complex and multifaceted topics with which they tend to have, in clinical mental health terms, deeply codependent relationships. On the road to determining what they are arguing, they must also decide what they are not arguing.

There’s a feminist dimension to this teaching, obviously: bell hooks calls the process “coming to voice”; it’s a version of “empowerment.” We invite graduate students to leave behind their undergraduate lives as talented assignment completers and become instead genuine authors. We succeed in that task when they lose some of their deference to us and the other clamorous voices they have encountered in their course work. Confidence in their own author-ity allows them to say both “this is my argument” and “that could be my argument, but it is not.”

Making such claims is scary; they entail a lot of responsibility. Traditional feminist pedagogy -- indebted to the ethics of care -- provides an easy jumping-off point for discussing the responsibility an author has to sources and audience. We have theory, we have practices, we have models for how to respect those parties.

But we lack a feminist discourse that grapples with the fact that, as Didion explains, writing is -- must be -- “an aggressive, even a hostile act … an invasion, an imposition of the writer's sensibility on the reader's most private space.” To be clear, that aggression inheres not in the things one says (although one can certainly say aggressive things), but in the act of clearing space (in one’s head, on the page, in the scholarly conversation) for one’s own vision and voice. Writing in standard academic English, “the act of saying ‘I’” always already occurs over and against the voices of others. Writers dialogue with some of those voices, but to most of the others, they must say, “That could be my argument, but it is not.”

I’ve developed a few tried and true practices for shifting students out of assignment-completion mode and into the act of saying “I.” Extreme prejudice against passive-voice writing is one. A relentless classroom focus on “argument literacy” is another: understanding the university as an example of what former Modern Language Association President Gerald Graff calls “an argument culture” trains students in professionalism as well as in rhetoric. Teaching counterexamples -- writers like Didion, or Michelle Cliff, Gloria Anzaldúa and Alison Bechdel, who make their points through rhetorical means disallowed in scholarly discourse (narrative, collage, purposeful ambiguity) -- is one more. But I’ve never had a real-life case study of the costs entailed by saying, “This -- not that -- is my argument.” Tuvel’s piece presents a perfect teaching case, and it will be interesting to try it out in the classroom come fall.

A focus on these teaching issues does not resolve the existential question of “harm.” It doesn’t even shed light on the more mechanistic question of what constitutes “sufficient engagement.” At this stage of the game, those questions may not have answers -- at least not good ones. But I like to think that if anything makes me a good feminist, it’s a stubborn resistance to bad answers. For that reason, I’ll be eager to see if, once the heat of the summer dies down, other commentators on the Hypatia controversy can extract a little light from it all.


Trysh Travis an associate professor at the Center for Gender, Sexualities and Women’s Studies Research at the University of Florida.


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