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“Facts about the Black vagina — the hardest working vagina in America.”
A few days ago, I watched in awe as activist and legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw read her poem, “The Black Vagina,” at a production of The Vagina Monologues in Harlem, NY. Unfortunately, I did not actually observe from the audience in the infamous Apollo Theatre. Rather, it was featured on V-Day: Until The Violence Stops – a documentary about productions of The Vagina Monologues and other activism to end violence against women around the world (see the trailer here).
Eve Ensler’s play-turned-global-movement impressed me. But, observing Crenshaw – looking fierce in a beautiful red gown ready for some glamorous Hollywood awards show – speak truths to what so many Black women in America know, I went back to my usual place of self-doubt: what am I doing with my life? Here was the scholar who developed the theoretical framework of intersectionality and, today, a scholar-activist at the forefront of #SayHerName movement to end violence against Black women. And, without a hint of doubt, without a word of apology for her presence or explanation for why she wasn’t doing research instead of working in the community, there she was on that Apollo stage singing the praises of the Black vagina.
I spent the rest of the day deep in reflection. “I’m not doing enough as an activist. Why do I even call myself an activist, a scholar-activist, an intellectual activist?” Unfortunately, the question — am I enough — is a commonly occurring one for me. And, I realize not feeling [X] enough — skinny enough, pretty enough, smart enough, rich enough, popular enough, Black enough, gay enough, feminine enough — is not unique to me. But, there is something unique about my sense of being inadequate as an activist — and it’s not just that I simultaneously worry that I’m too much of an activist, that the work that won’t count toward tenure may actually cost me tenure.
The work to which I am referring is this — this blog, the column on Inside Higher Ed, the talks I’ve given, panels I’ve served on and organized, the long-term effort to call attention to and eliminate injustice in academia. Even as I write what sounds impressive, I feel as though I padded the previous sentence to silence the voice that once asked, “so, all you do is blog?” My critics, largely contained in an anonymous wiki for cowardly trolls, accuse me of being overly dramatic, preachy, self-righteous, and whiny; worse, they suggest that my sense of injustice in academia is really just the product of mental illness or even mental disabilities (putting it politely relative to the more offensive language they use). This is a form of gaslighting, and it has proven somewhat successful. But, the trolls aren’t alone in leading me to question my academic justice work. It doesn’t count for tenure (and, realistically, is potentially a liability); and, my graduate training served to “beat the activist out” of me because activism and academia supposedly don’t mix.
In other words, there are two powerful messages that come from my training, the expectations of me for tenure, and my critics. The most obvious is that this work is risky. And, the other is that there really isn’t a problem to address. Academics ask, what injustice? What discrimination? What sexual harassment? What motherhood penalty? What exploitation of grad students and contingent faculty? The latter message has successfully led me to doubt myself. What’s that expression — that if you repeat something enough others will believe it’s true, especially if you talk loudly enough. (It worked for a certain elected official with no political experience and ample experience as a bigot and rapist…)
This work, however, is too important to second-guess myself. So, I’m planting my flag into the ground to declare that I am here to unapologetically fight for justice in the academy. Below, I offer a few reasons why this work is important.
Why Working For Academic Justice Is Important
Because Academic Injustice Exists
Perhaps the most important reason to fight for justice in academia is, well, because there is pervasive injustice in academia. Yes, to my surprise as a first-year graduate student, academia is not immune to systems of oppression. Classism, ableism, fatphobia, xenophobia, racism, cissexism, sexism, heterosexism, and ageism — systems of oppression that are embedded in every social institution — have been at home in every college and university from their creation. These manifest as everyday microaggressions, subtle and overt discrimination, disparities and leaky pipelines, rampant sexual violence, interpersonal and institutional barriers to accessibility for all people, prioritizing profit over justice, prioritizing academic freedom over academic justice, curricula that erase or tokenize or exotify oppressed communities, and so forth. That oppression exists in academia should suffice as enough reason to fight it.
Because Academia Reproduces Social Inequality
Unfortunately, the academy does not merely reflect the aforementioned systems of oppression; it also reproduces them in the larger society. There is ample evidence that education, the supposed “greater equalizer,” actually exacerbates inequality. Think about who goes to college: who performed well enough to get in, who attended a high enough quality school to get in, who can afford to go, who has the cultural capital to know how to apply. Among those who attend college, there are disparities between those who to go community colleges and four-year colleges, between those who go to state schools and those who go to private schools, between those who graduate and those who never do. Even with a degree in hand, there are disparities by academic major, quality in the training received, and additional opportunities like studying abroad and internships. There are some statistics that leave one to wonder what higher education is doing for oppressed groups, if anything positive.
And, it isn’t just at the undergraduate level. It is also in graduate education, and among staff and faculty. Let me highlight a few examples for faculty. Take the gender and race wage gaps. There are several manifestations of oppression in academia that contribute to these disparities: discrimination against people of color and women (especially those with kids) in hiring, tenure, promotion, and raises; harassment, which undermines a scholars’ productivity and well-being; disproportionate levels of undervalued (and usually unpaid) service, especially “diversity work“; the devaluing of gender studies, women’s studies, racial and ethnic studies, and cultural studies; racial and gender bias in publishing; racial and gender bias in course evaluations; the exclusion of women and people of color from high-status professional networks; the overrepresentation of women and people of color in poorly-paid, overburdened, temporary contingent faculty positions. You know, just to name a few things that exacerbate the broader patterns of wage disadvantages for oppressed folks.
Because Inequality In Academia Compounds Social Inequality
Since scholars from marginalized backgrounds were already oppressed before pursuing an academic career, injustice in academia further compounds the oppression we experience, thereby making the problem worse. Black academics, for example, cannot separate the racism they experience after they leave work from the racism they experienced at work. It doesn’t matter the source, shit is shit, and it stinks all the same.
I study discrimination and health, so the compounding affect on a scholar’s health comes to mind first. Discrimination is a stressful experience. Even just agonizing over whether the negative outcome one has just experienced was the product of discrimination is stressful. In giving privileged others the benefit of the doubt (because, counter to accusations of “crying wolf” or “playing the [fill in the blank marginalized identity] card”, no one wants to acknowledge that they were discriminated against), we only continue to stress over the event in question. This kind of stress raises your blood pressure and heart rate, it impedes your immune system, and it hinders your ability to make healthy choices regarding food, alcohol, drugs, and sexual activity — basically, discrimination kills. The stress of “teaching while Black” compounds the stress of “driving while Black,” and the worry for the safety of one’s Black teen-aged children innocently hanging out with their friends, and the Ben and Jerry’s ice cream or booze one uses to forget the day’s troubles, and the racial bias in the health care one receives, and the worry about what is to come of this country now that a known racist is running it, and on and on.
Together, this means that our oppressed scholars cannot do their best work, and it hurts them in getting hired and tenured and promoted. It means we may be more likely to have to take medical leaves, or retire early, or find a new job, or leave academia all together, or even die earlier. Besides illness and death, the consequences of discrimination and inequality in academia compound other outcomes of social inequality (e.g., wage disparities, discrimination in real estate and mortgage lending, the burden of caregiving and financially supporting relatives also impacted by discrimination, etc.)
Because Academic Injustice Hurts Science And Higher Learning
Addressing injustice in academia is important because, on the whole, we are not doing our best work. Academic injustice is a threat to science and higher learning. Certain voices and perspectives are excluded from conference panels, works cited, journals, and course syllabi due to rampant bias. Entire fields like queer/LGBT/sexuality studies, gender studies, women’s studies, Black studies, Latinx studies, Indigenous studies, fat studies, and disability studies are underresourced, underfunded, and understaffed on college campuses because they make central oppressed communities. As noted above, discrimination and harassment undermine oppressed scholars’ ability to do their best work, to put their work to use, to be taken seriously by their colleagues.
I imagine we routinely experience a brain drain in academia owing to the 50 percent drop-out rate among grad students, and perhaps many oppressed scholars with PhDs who eventually leave academia for the sake of their well-being or because of shitty wages as an adjunct. Diversity in academia is not merely some liberal political project; it is how science advances. Actively excluding oppressed scholars, or failing to prevent such exclusion, is a political project — it’s called white supremacy, misogyny, queerphobia, class oppression, fatphobia, ableism, and ageism.
Because Academic Injustice Undermines Our Ability To Fight For Broader Social Justice
A related reason is that leaving injustice in our ranks unaddressed undermines our ability to address injustice beyond the ivory tower. First of all, we’re hypocrites to pursue research that is critical of the rest of society, including other social institutions like law, the government, medicine, military, the labor market, religion, the and family, while oppression manifests in academic institutions. Yet, somehow, we have the rest of society convinced we’re all a bunch of liberals promoting various social justice agendas; we successfully convince prospective grad students who want to make a difference in the world that academia is the right profession for them.
We are not doing our best work as teachers, mentors, artists, scientists, advocates, and analysts. We uphold tenure-track jobs at Research I universities as the ideal path for every PhD despite the adjunctification of higher education, riding that sinking ship on its way to the bottom of the ocean. We could work in and with the community and partner with organizations outside of the ivory tower to reestablish our importance to society as a whole. Acknowledging my optimism here, I wonder whether that would help to reverse the pattern of drying up government funding for higher education and, in turn, the trend of replacing tenure-track positions with temporary adjunct positions.
Because — Oh, Fuck! — Trump Was Elected President (Fuck!)
Finally, now more than ever before, there is an urgent need for the academy to stand up to bigotry, violence, xenophobia, bullying, surveillance, and other social problems that threaten to get worse under the incoming presidential regime. Academic isolationism is a foolish strategy — just look where it has gotten us thus far (read: declining state and federal funding, adjunctification, exploding student debt, irrelevance to the rest of society). We are perhaps complicit in political rise of a racist rapist with no political experience.
But, it is not too late. We can stop clinging to the myths of meritocracy and objectivity that only serve to distract us to the rampant inequality within our ranks. We can stop prioritizing academic freedom, which merely tolerates academics’ controversial work while also enabling bigoted scholars oppressive antics; instead, we can bravely prioritize academic justice — an intentional effort to use academic work to promote justice.
I hope that I have convinced some readers why we can no longer delude ourselves into thinking inequality in academia isn’t that bad, or perhaps that addressing it is no better than “navel-gazing.” Even if not, I find myself more firm in my commitment to fight academic injustice and to promote academic justice. We’re wasting our time here if we continue to allow oppression to manifest in our profession.
The racism that ran rampant through my graduate program was like a swift, hard punch to the gut for me as a naïve, first-year graduate student. I had not even attended my first official graduate course before a cohortmate had marked by body as “ghetto,” despite growing up in the suburbs. I was devastated to find a self-proclaimed scholar of immigration saw no issue with her research assistant’s instruction to fellow students to avoid “talking Black” while conducting interviews. I was annoyed, but no longer surprised, that the faculty failed to see the problems with the ethnic theme of the annual department party.
My college days reside in my memory as a generally wonderful time of self-discovery, activism, and a willingness to have difficult conversations. My alma matter, University of Maryland Baltimore County, is where the seeds of my intellectual activism began to blossom. Undergrad did not, however, prepare me for the reality of oppression in higher education. The funny thing is, when I contacted my two main undergrad advisors halfway through my first-year of grad school, neither professor was surprised that I had been smacked in the face by racism in academe; in fact, they kind of alluded that I was naive to expect otherwise.
Whatever the reason for being surprised by the racism that I experienced and observed in my graduate program, I say with some reticence that my time in grad school has provided me with some insights that may be useful to others.
For Black prospective graduate students, I recommend, as a starting point, to be aware that racism is the norm in academe. Even if you are generally shielded from microaggressions, racism is deeply entrenched in the operation of graduate departments, universities, disciplines, and professional organizations. It affects who and what gets funded, who and what gets published where, who gets hired and tenured, who gets admitted, who graduates, and so forth.
As you select a graduate department, I’m afraid it is simply a matter of how much racism you will experience, not whether you will experience it. Weigh your options carefully. The supportive bubble of a program at an HBCU may come at the expense of your job prospects, yet the prestige of a top-ranked historically white college or university may come at the cost of your mental health and happiness. Don’t assume the presence of a few token Black faculty members or race scholars will be enough to overcome an otherwise racist department. And, given the devaluing of interdisciplinarity in the academy, don’t assume the presence of other, critical programs (e.g., African American Studies) will compensate for lack of diversity or race consciousness in your own (more traditional) PhD program (e.g., sociology).
Do your homework on each program you are considering. Contact multiple current students to ask about their personal and professional experiences — with coursework, support from and availability of faculty, with the university, with funding opportunities, with publishing, with teaching, with the surrounding city, etc. If you are interested in studying race, ethnicity, or immigration, ask whether that kind of work is supported by the faculty, reflected in the course work, and funded. You might do well with a few concrete questions that you email, and offer to talk to them by phone if they are available. Contact faculty to ask similar questions. Take note not only of the number of Black faculty, but also whether any are tenured associate or full professors; if you actually visit the department, use your budding ethnographer skills to observe how central Black faculty and students are in the department’s functions.
As you prepare to begin your graduate program, I recommend setting up your support network ahead of time. Your grad program is not in the business of looking after your personal well-being, so do not rely on it to feel your personal, social, spiritual, and sexual/romantic needs. I highly, highly recommend that you have a community outside of your program; I’d even recommend avoiding dating a fellow student (and professors are off limits). Get involved with a graduate student group, set up a Meetup account and your choice of dating app (if you’re looking), find a church, and look for an off-campus gym, doctor, and therapist if your finances allow them. My point is, do not center your entire life around your graduate program. When school gets tough, it’s nice to have other places to go to unwind without fear of your actions or words getting back to your colleagues.
I wish I could say this concretely — but navigating racism in a supposedly anti-racist or at least race-neutral environment is a messy affair. Find a balance between “playing the game” to succeed in graduate school (by mainstream standards) and authenticity. I made the mistake of “souling out” to such a high level that my mental health suffered. But, I saw others in my program who embraced authenticity so strongly that some faculty did not want to work with them or did not take them seriously, who struggled to advance through departmental milestones, and/or struggled to do the things that made them a strong candidate for the academic job market.
It is an awful catch-22 that Black scholars must choose between advancing their careers or advancing their communities. I am not sure that a happy medium exists, but I believe you can be successful on your terms and be able to sleep at night while making as few concessions as possible. It’s never too early to read The Black Academic’s Guide to Winning Tenure — Without Losing Your Soul.
The faculty advisors whom you select can either help or hinder your success and well-being. Before you jump to making a list of names, I recommend that you identify your needs, as there are many. In the words of Dr. Kerry Ann Rockquemore, avoid the pitfall of attempting to find a mentor guru who will serve all of your needs; not only does such a person not exist, but it is perhaps unhealthy to rely on a single person for everything. You will likely have a main mentor who serves as your primary guide through department milestones and helps you to get a job. But, I strongly encourage a second mentor who perhaps isn’t as accessible, but whose insight is just as important as your main mentor. You can have mentors who are more of a sounding board for professional and/or personal matters, but may have little say over your progress in the department.
Your own preferences and actual availability will determine whether these mentors are Black or some other race. A Black professor may be more supportive by virtue of their shared experiences with racism in the academy. But, there is evidence that white men professors may lead to better job prospects in academe, perhaps owing to their wider, higher status professional networks, cultural capital, and other resources that are unequally distributed in the academy. Keep in mind that being Black doesn’t necessarily make one a good, reliable, or trustworthy professor; unfortunately, you cannot assume a shared Black identity is an automatic sign of solidarity. And, I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the white faculty as potential resources; maybe they won’t be sounding boards for the racist crap you’ve dealt with (and might even contribute to it), but they may have other means to help you excel in your career.
Whatever you do, remember that graduate school is a means to an end. This is not the rest of your life. There will be times you simply have to suck it up and do something that feels crappy, or feels irrelevant to your goals to survive and thrive as a Black intellectual. But, you’ve just got to do it to get that PhD and then do whatever you want. These professors are mere gatekeepers. They can grant you a PhD, but they can never validate your worth or value.
Objectivity — a scholar’s supposed ability to remain impartial about the subjects she studies — is a myth. Like the myths of meritocracy and color-blindness, objectivity sounds good in theory, but it is impossible to use it in practice. Simply put, researchers are not immune to bias. While in many instances such bias can be dangerous, bias is not bad, per se.
Objectivity Precludes Certain Areas Of Inquiry
I am a sociologist in training, perspective, and practice. (Un)fortunately, in the process of recovering from the trauma of my graduate training, my consciousness about my discipline has grown, as well. It recently hit me that it would be more accurate to say that my degree is in “white sociology” or “Eurocentric sociology,” not sociology. The training I received pushed objective research as the only true form of research. But, being detached was not enough; it was not enough to naively attempt to leave my anti-racist politics and Black racial identity at home when I left for school.
Rather, objectivity also implied that research on race — more specifically, research that made central the lives of Black people — was inferior to more mainstream areas. I was told that a true sociologist takes on a subfield — typically a social institution like education or medicine — and, in the process, she might just happen to focus on a particular (marginalized) population. But, no one should be a sociologist of race, and certainly not an anti-racist sociologist. Sadly, for me, “just happens to study [X population]” did not extend to LGBTQ people. In my case, to be objective meant to move away from studying the very community I went to grad school to study. It has taken a couple of years post-grad school to finally return to topics I wanted to pursue back in 2007.
As a powerful and seductive ideology, objectivity serves as a tool for (privileged) gatekeepers of the discipline to devalue research on oppression and oppressed communities. To be objective, one cannot be too eager to study trans people, or Latino fathers, or women with disabilities. To study these populations whom the academy finds suspect or, at worse, unimportant, is to compromise one’s credibility as a true researcher.
Objectivity Is A Privilege
Early in grad school, a fellow student criticized my interest in the intersections among racism, heterosexism, sexism, and classism as “narrow.” In the years since, others have implied or explicitly said that my research constitutes “me-search.” That is, my scholarship is suspect because I am a fat Black queer non-binary sociologist who does research on multiply disadvantaged individuals (e.g., queer people of color), trans people, queer people, people of color, and fat people. In my case, this suspicion is heightened because my anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-cissexist, and anti-heterosexist activism is visible and publicly accessible. Mind you, my research is quantitative, rarely includes “I” or other first person references, speaks to mainstream sociology audiences, is published in mainstream sociology journals, and probably appeases the demand of objective research. My sins, however, are being fat Black queer and non-binary, and caring about the communities that I study.
My white cisgender heterosexual “normal weight” men colleagues are not suspected of bias. They are seen as the gold standard of objectivity. Their interest in topics that seem most interesting to other white dudes is somehow devoid of the influence of their social location. Their uncritical or, on rare occasion, critical perspective on a topic is seen as expertise, not bias. Even when these privileged scholars study marginal topics and/or marginalized communities, their work is taken seriously and remains unquestioned. I have yet to see a privileged scholar accused of having “narrow” interests or doing “me-search.” That is because objectivity serves as a device to police, devalue, and exclude the research of marginalized scholars.
I believe that the privilege of objectivity also includes the freedom from any sense of obligation to do work that matters, to do work that will liberate one’s people. “One could not be a calm, cool, and detached scientist while Negroes were lynched, murdered and starved,” DuBois remarked in his 1940 autobiography, Dusk of Dawn. Like DuBois, I wrestle so frequently with feeling that my publications that lie behind paywalls, only to be read by a handful of people in my subfield, are a complete waste of time while Black trans and cis people are being murdered by the dozens. Our privileged colleagues are not faced with the urgency of death, oppression, violence, invisibility, illness, and poverty of their people, so I can only imagine how much easier it is for them to (pretend to?) be objective, detached, and removed – experts on problems of the world, not of or in them.
Objectivity Perpetuates The Erasure Of Marginalized Scholars
Though my grad school coursework included 3 semesters of professional seminars, I have subsequently found it is neither enough professional development nor relevant to the primary concerns of many marginalized scholars. Instead of talking about how to select a qualifying exam area, I would have benefited from a reflexive discussion about the myth of objectivity in our discipline. Perhaps a less critical, and thus more palpable, topic would be “debates in the profession.” Indeed, whether objectivity exists and — to the extent that it exists — whether it is a good thing has been debated from the very start of the discipline of sociology. So, too, is whether sociologists should concern themselves exclusively with empiricism or also with making a difference in the world, or at least one’s communities.
To further raise my consciousness about my profession, I have started reading pieces by respected sociologists that have long been raising the concerns I have been struggling with privately. For example, Dr. Joe Feagin devoted his American Sociological Association presidential address (2001) to “Social Justice and Sociology.” Feagin raised a point that floored me. The rise of objective research by white men sociologists coincided with the erasure of the work and contributions of sociologists like Anna Julia Cooper, W. E. B. DuBois, Jane Addams — women and people of color in the discipline. Due to racist and sexist discrimination, these scholars’ work was already devalued; but, the shift toward “value-free” sociology further undermined their contributions in the discipline. Recovering their work, which in objective terms is simply a matter of good science, is an inherently anti-racist and feminist act.
Each instance of embracing objectivity, then, reinforces the erasure of women scholars and scholars of color. Each time I have taught the obligatory theory section in my introductory sociology courses, focusing on “the big three” — Weber, Marx, and Durkheim — I have been complicit in the erasure of W.E.B. DuBois, Harriet Martineau, and Patricia Hill Collins, and others who are not dead white men. The professor of my grad school theory course is complicit, too, by excluding any discussion of critical race theory, Black feminist theory, or queer theory; we focused, instead, on “classical” sociological theory. Each time I unquestioningly cited the (W. I.) Thomas theorem — what people perceive to be real is real in its consequences — I was complicit in the erasure of Dorothy Swaine Thomas, who was a co-author on the text from which this theorem comes.
To question whose perspective and scholarship is respected as central to the discipline would be suspected as activism; and, it requires additional work to learn and advance the perspectives and scholarship of marginalized scholars that one was denied in one’s own training. But, to consume and teach classical and mainstream sociological material without question is to reinforce the racist and sexist status quo.
I conclude by asking that scholars be brave enough to reject the myth of objectivity, and be willing to own subjective and scholar-activist work. But, a revolution of sorts in academe is necessary for this to happen. We must stop celebrating and so fiercely defending “objectivity” in graduate training, in publications, in grants, and in tenure and promotion. We do society and ourselves a disservice by standing on the political sidelines, complicit in our own irrelevance.
“I always feel like somebody’s watching me //
and I have no privacy.”
~Rockwell, “Somebody’s Watching Me“
Thanks to the growth and increased visibility of this blog, we simply have too many posts in line to be published to devote any time to fleeting current events. That’s why you haven’t seen any posts about reactions to the election of a known sexual predator, misogynist, racist, xenophobic bigot. And, for the same reason, I held off writing about that damn Professor Watchlist. But, then I read George Yancy’s New York Times op-ed, “I Am A Dangerous Professor,” and another NYT article on how this list threatens academic freedom. As many scholars – particularly scholars of marginalized backgrounds – know, this list is nothing new; or, maybe it’s just a new, more organized way of continuing to watch us.
That’s right – we were already being watched, damn it.
In case you’ve missed news of this new surveillance effort, let me provide a brief overview. The new Turning Point USA project aims to “expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” The organization claims to “fight for free speech and the right for professors to say whatever they wish.” But, they continue, “students, parents, and alumni deserve to know the specific incidents and names of professors that advance a radical agenda in lecture halls.” These individuals are invited to submit a tip (as though reporting a crime), but the site appears to be revised to focus just on “incidents” of anti-conservative bias and radicalism that make it to news headlines.
I have so many thoughts. Where to begin? Perhaps something more articulate than, “the fuck?”
First, let me continue my point that this isn’t new. Organizations like Turning Point USA and sites like Professor Watchlist are becoming a dime a dozen these days. Two conservative student news sites, SoCawlege.com and CampusReform.com, have been attempting to expose the supposed liberal bias across US college campuses for some time. The latter is a project of the Leadership Institute – another organization that sets out to train the next crop of conservative activists; it has ties with the Heritage Foundation – a hate group disguised as a conservative think tank. I’m sure if I had more time, I would find other troubling links, and probably other well-funded and well-organized conservative organizations set on infiltrating politics and higher education.
On the surface, what seems like concerned students and concern for students is actually a front for a calculated effort to silence, threaten, terrorize, and eliminate seemingly liberal academics. I’ve written about this formula before. Take one conservative white man student reporter who aims to expose “liberal bias and abuses at Texas colleges.” Have him write an article criticizing a Black woman pre-tenure professor at a different university, located in a different state. Then, he can take to Twitter to try to make her “a thing,” stirring up conservative (read: racist and sexist) rage with an appropriate Twitter hashtag thread. If successful, he will have initiated a conservative media assault on the professor, her reputation, her scholarship, her politics, her identities, and her menstrual cycle. And, he will have kick-started an internal process at her university that could ultimately lead to her termination – yes, simply by tweeting the president of her university.
Zandria F. Robinson. Saida Grundy. Steven Salaita. Shannon Gibney. Larycia Hawkins. Anthea Butler. Brittney Cooper. Perhaps others whose names I don’t know because the conservative assault launched against them did not reach national news. But, that’s why we have the watchlist now, right?
A second point that I want to make is that this attack on presumably liberal and radical professors is particularly targeted at those who speak and teach about and do research on Islamophobia, xenophobia, racism, and sexism, and perhaps other systems of oppression. By extension, that means that scholars of color, women scholars, Muslim scholars, and immigrant scholars are particularly vulnerable to this surveillance. Of course, there is the issue of numbers; marginalized scholars are overrepresented in fields that study oppression and marginalization. But, conservative scrutiny appears to be heightened when you have, for example, a Black woman scholar speaking openly about racism and sexism relative to what her white man colleague would experience.
The external “watching” by conservative activists, working through conservative students, is actually secondary to surveillance that occurs within the academy. Every instructor does their work in public, so to speak, under the gaze of their students, their colleagues, and their administrators. We (including our presumed political leanings) are regularly evaluated by students through course evaluations. Students also take to sites like RateMyProfessor.com, which already offered a form of “watch list” for instructors of color, women instructors, Muslim instructors, LGBTQ instructors, and others assumed to be promoting a radical agenda. Our departmental colleagues and university administration evaluate our teaching, scholarship, grant activity, and service, in turn making decisions about pay-raises, tenure, and promotion. These supposedly meritocratic forms of evaluation severely disadvantage marginalized scholars, especially those who do critical or radical work on oppression. Implicitly, they serve as a way of watching us to ensure that we are conforming to standards that arguably reinforce the status quo in academe and beyond.
The site’s implied goal – I assume to be to create McCarthy-era fear among academics – will likely be achieved for many in the profession. But, a substantial number of us were already living in fear. We have had little reason to assume these racist, sexist, heterosexist, Islamophobic, cissexist, and xenophobic sentiments disguised as anti-intellectualism disguised as anti-liberalism do not exist inside of the Ivory Tower, too. So, they have created another website. Am I in any less danger than I was a month ago? It’s not a new problem, just a new manifestation of the ongoing problem.
Finally, in case it isn’t obvious, what these conservative activists are framing as bias against conservative students is the cry of the dominant group as its privilege is threatened. For example, I can count on a reliable one-third of my introductory sociology students to accuse me of being biased or at least spending too much time on sex and gender, sexuality, and race. These classes of students who are overwhelmingly wealthy, white, cisgender, and heterosexual are not used to critical discussions of racism, heterosexism, cissexism, classism, and sexism. The students complain of feeling uncomfortable. They feel a pinch of discomfort – a mere 75 minutes of not hearing about themselves for a change – and complain of a calculated assault against them and their interests. Conservative activists have successfully advanced a zero-sum game framework for conceiving of diversity and inclusion in higher education; any minor advancement for oppressed students is described as a full-out assault on privileged students. The dismantling of oppressive ideologies in the classroom is deemed discrimination against individual conservative students.
Similarly, there is a not-so-subtle anti-science rhetoric underneath the accusations of the advancement of a radical agenda. Teaching, for example, on race as a social (rather than biological) fact and racism as a fundamental organizing principle of society is characterized as an anti-white agenda. The decades, if not centuries, of critical race scholarship upon which these ideas are founded are dismissed as nothing more than an ideological, or perhaps political, agenda. With this, the battle has moved into an arena wherein laypeople are deciding what constitutes knowledge and what doesn’t. This would explain why every one of my lectures on race feels like a defense, often spilling into a plea for my own life. (Black Lives Matter, please believe me my precious 18-year-old white students!)
I have made this point before, but I’ll conclude with it here again: academic institutions are complicit in this surveillance and assaults on individual (marginalized) professors. We have armed students with evaluation instruments in order to participate in our surveillance. But, that’s not enough, so they’ve created websites and rely on word-of-mouth to discredit certain professors deemed too radical. We buckle to alumni and donors’ threats to withhold money if a certain undesirable (read: radical scholar of color) is not terminated immediately. We treat academic freedom policies as a pesky obligation to tolerate what our colleagues do and say, yet still don’t go far enough to protect them from public backlash. We delude ourselves into believing meritocracy is law despite consistent evidence of disparities in tenure, promotion, pay, grants, publications, student evaluations, and admissions. We worship objectivity as the ultimate scientific paradigm, which simply treats privileged scholars’ work as truth and marginalized scholars’ work as “me-search,” opinion, or political agenda.
Yes, I am arguing that we have allowed conservatives to feel empowered enough to up their surveillance efforts. Every time a university took seriously a challenge to one of its faculty members’ work, we gave more and more power to outsiders to dictate what we can do as scholars. And now that the country has elected a racist rapist who leads like a petty toddler with no self-control, I imagine we will only continue to lose the battle against outside surveillance.
Fuck you, and fuck your stupid watch list.
Please don’t be fooled by the surprisingly firm assertion made in this post’s title. I prefer to pose it as a question because I do not actually know for certain. You see, I decided to stay out of the debates over the use of “trigger warnings” in college classrooms since first reading an argument against them. I know too little about the experience of being emotionally or physiologically triggered, as my training is not in psychology and I have very little personal experience with sexual violence; so, I have remained silent on the issue, assuming it was a fad to discuss it in academic circles that would ultimately pass. (Aren’t there more pressing matters, like access to college, diversity, sexual violence on campuses, making curricula accessible, etc.?)
Trigger Warnings Are A Threat To Academic Freedom???
I am making an exception to my self-imposed silence about trigger warnings today. Alice Dreger’s Aeon essay, “Without tenure, professors become terrified sheep,” caught my eye, with an obvious, yet bold claim in her title, and an associated picture of a University of Wisconsin building — subtly pointing to state’s decision to do away with tenure in the traditional sense. Dreger makes important points, most significantly that academic freedom goes out the door when faculty lose job security — something of urgent concern, considering the adjunctification of the academy. But, she mentioned examples of threats to academic freedom that not only surprised me, but also greatly concern me:
Meanwhile, on the left, identity-politics activists are using devices like ‘safe spaces’ and ‘trigger warnings’ to shut down speech they believe to be offensive and dangerous. In my campus visits around the US – aimed at emboldening the students, faculty, and administrators to push for academic freedom – I’ve been told time and time again about staff being reported by left-leaning students for teaching ‘uncomfortable’ ideas that have been taught for generations.
For example, one faculty member at a prestigious liberal arts college told me about a colleague who was reported for teaching the ancient Greek tale Leda and the Swan. The alleged discriminatory offence? Not first warning students that the story includes a symbolic rape. Others at public universities described being reported for stumbling over students’ preferred pronouns. Some historic women’s colleges have given up trying to produce The Vagina Monologues because of complaints that the 1996 play doesn’t reflect the breadth of transgender experiences. (It doesn’t; it wasn’t written for that purpose any more than The Federalist Papers were.)
I want to note that these examples seem out of line with Dreger’s argument about tenure. Are tenured faculty freed from the pressures to create safe spaces for oppressed students? From offering preemptive warnings that some content covered in their courses may be triggering? Are tenured faculty no longer expected to make efforts to include transgender students in campus events, as well as their classes and curricula?
One could infer from these comments that Dreger’s version of tenure grants faculty freedom to practice discrimination, or at least to ignore oppressed student groups’ demands for equality, inclusion, and safety. And, tenured faculty can stop being concerned about the well-being of survivors of sexual violence — as though there was an institutional mandate to care while they were pre-tenure. It’s problematic to conceptualize these examples as mere politics (i.e., left-leaning versus right-leaning students); survivors demanding a safe classroom environment and trans students demanding inclusion is not the stuff of political games — it’s about their survival and well-being.
Faculty Are Clueless
I will grant Dreger and others who have taken the time to publicly oppose trigger warnings this. The responsibility falls on faculty to appropriately warn students of potentially triggering material. And, the responsibility to articulate the need for such a warning falls on students. Thus, I understand the concern about how far we should go to offer trigger warnings.
On a few occasions, I have had a student approach me to express concern about material that was triggering for them. “Will the [research methods] textbook keep using examples of research on domestic violence?” “Can we avoid talking about suicide today? Today is the anniversary of my friend’s death.” Initially, I was annoyed by these students’ comments, as they came just moments before class started; textbooks were already assigned, lectures were already prepped. Besides the last-minute nature of the concerns, I wondered whether the students’ triggered reactions were enough to change my classes to accommodate them; indeed, I felt the implied or actual requests that I change my classes in a major way were imposing, if not inappropriate. What I offered instead was that the students could continue to advocate for themselves — they could drop the class (since there were no alternative textbooks, and coming up with alternative material seemed too demanding of my time) or skip the classes they felt would be triggering.
In hindsight, offering for them to just leave feels insensitive; but, my limited teaching training left me with no other appropriate courses of action. Rather than leaving it to faculty to decide whether and how to use trigger warnings, an ideal approach would be to teach graduate students how to handle these issues. To me, accommodating the needs of survivors of sexual violence and other traumatic events fits within the broader initiative to make classrooms accessible. Colleges and universities might expand their sexual violence prevention work and disability services to include resources for survivors to avoid or at least cope with triggering classroom material. These offices, as well as teaching and learning centers and professional development centers could offer training for faculty to support survivors of sexual violence, and other students who have experienced trauma. That is, one way to ease the burden on students to speak up for themselves (risking some ill-informed faculty member of dismissing them as overly sensitive), and the burden on faculty to devise proper warnings for triggering material, is to make it an institutional effort. (And, by that, I don’t mean an institution-wide ban on trigger warnings, and a letter to students to toughen up.)
Opposition To Trigger Warnings Is A Defense Of The Status Quo
But, I want to return to my title’s claim — that the opposition to trigger warnings reinforces the status quo in higher education. I believe the rise of trigger warnings reflects success of survivors and their allies to call attention to the ways in which college classrooms may be a part of the problem of rape culture in higher education. And, like Dreger’s dismissal of students’ demand for the use of correct pronouns, those in the mainstream — or specifically members of the dominant group — often react to change with anger. They dismiss the demands for change by saying things like Vagina Monologues need not include transgender people (not even trans women) because “it wasn’t written for that purpose any more than The Federalist Papers were.” In this case, trans people have no right to demand inclusion because it has always been that way. They resort to mocking the group demanding change — how silly these trans people, demanding that we use pronouns in an inclusive way. I suspect that is what we are seeing in the opposition against trigger warnings; there is a knee-jerk reaction to defend the way it has always been, to ignore that a sizeable minority of students have been raped, sexually assaulted, sexually harassed, or experienced other forms of violence. Generation after generation of students has been reading [X “classic” text that includes triggering material], so why should we eliminate it or assign it with a warning now?
I would argue that the opposition to trigger warnings is part of a larger trend of belittling college students, particularly their political efforts. The flip side of concerns about entitlement and helicopter parenting is critiques of students who challenge the status quo on their campuses. We now have the term “crybullies,” dismissing contemporary forms of protest as a mere demand to protect one’s feelings and presumably fragile ego. The following cartoon perfectly captures this patronizing sentiment:
The supposed consequences of these “crybullies” — that logic, reason, actual education, and academic freedom go up in flames — is captured in this more damning cartoon:
Wow. The underlying logic is that women, queer students, students of color, and others who have demanded safety, protection, and inclusion are the equivalent of overly sensitive babies — pampered babies, if you see the noticeably tan child holding the social justice sword and “racist!!” rattle. Clearly, these groups have no right to challenge the status quo because, well, these must not be serious problems.
Some of this strikes me as the tired “us vs. them” generational divide — in this case, a war waged against millennials by… well… every other generation. These babies are pierced, tattooed, and have colored hair. Eventually they’ll grow up and have real concerns! Maybe I haven’t resorted to this kind of finger wagging because, by some accounts, I am a millennial myself. I’m pierced and tattooed and have carried the sword of social justice and demanded safe spaces and leaned into my “special slowflake” identity. But, I haven’t chosen a side because it’s played out. The hippies pictured in the first cartoon were criticized in their day, too. Their political demands were mocked and criticized by older generations. Suddenly, their demands for peace and love seem reasonable compared to demands for safety from violence and triggering material, and for inclusion and equal treatment.
Can we pause for a moment on the trigger warning debates? Even well-intentioned liberal professors who have taken issue with these warnings are merely echoing the larger conservative opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement, efforts to identify and eliminate microaggressions, to demands for justice survivors of sexual violence, to demands for safe spaces for queer students, to recognition of and access to facilities for trans students, and so on.
At this moment, we — as faculty — have a choice. We can choose to be dinosaurs and old-farts who mock students who are advocating for themselves, who are following the tradition of protest on college campuses for greater inclusion. Or, we can actually listen to what the students are saying, we can find ways to support them and navigate around (and dismantle) institutional constraints. Too few of us understand trauma to adequately decide how to support traumatized students; so, we should be figuring out how to support them rather than dismissing or mocking their concerns.
- “A Quick Lesson On What Trigger Warnings Actually Do” at HuffingtonPost
- “What, Why, When, Where, and How?: 5 Common Questions About Trigger Warnings Answered” at Everyday Feminism
- “Warning: This course may cause emotional distress” at the American Psychological Association
- “10 Things Psychologists Want You To Know About Trigger Warnings” at Buzzfeed
- “Hey, University of Chicago: I am an academic. I am a survivor. I use trigger warnings in my classes. Here’s why.” by Erika D. Pricelet
- “Here Are 6 Reasons Why Trigger Warnings Aren’t Bullshit” at The Stranger