So. Or even, Hwæt!
I am on sabbatical. I’ve been on sabbatical since the beginning of term in January, but I am really only counting it since a little over two weeks ago, when I arrived in the UK. That’s when the separation from SLAC began, and I didn’t need to worry about my house, etc. Of course, I did have to find a place to live, get settled there, get my paperwork turned in so I could officially call myself a Visiting Research Fellow at an institution where I never dreamed I might have even an honorary affiliation. I’ve been working, but honestly, it feels like time is slipping away, and I managed to have something close to a meltdown.
Meltdowns don’t really fit my idea of ‘things that one should do on sabbatical.’
So what exactly should I be doing? and how does that relate to said meltdown?
SLAC doesn’t really have a clear policy on the purpose of a sabbatical. We don’t have research leave, other than the sabbatical, which until recently could be taken every eighth year, if approved. The standard load is 24 credit hours per year. Some people have bigger loads than that. Others get a 3-hour release to do research. Add in individual supervisions, etc., though, and it’s never a full course release. Many of us, myself included, teach an incredibly broad range of courses, almost none of which are in our own research areas. So after seven years, we are tired. In my case, it’s been close to thirteen years, i.e., I’ve never had a non-teaching term since I started teaching full-time. Because there are lots of people like me, SLAC’s faculty government, like those at other universities, has kept the regenerative purposes of a sabbatical in the mix. So when planning my sabbatical, I tried to think of non-academic goals in addition to research projects. Basically, I had this weird idea that using the sabbatical and the distance from SLAC to get into healthier habits that would be in the long term beneficial to my health, my teaching and my research. Given that the last approximately four years at SLAC have been hugely stressful and bad for my physical and emotional health, this seemed a good plan. Fortunately, being a productive scholar seems to be important to my well-being, so… yeah.
I started with modest goals:
- I would revise and resubmit an article that I really want and need to expand and finish
- I would do enough research to set up an agenda for the next 2-3 years
- i would finish an overdue translation for colleagues
- I would finish a long-overdue (but still only verbally contracted and no agreed-upon estimate of costs for some specialized web programming) project, if I could, AND
- I would get back into running
- I would blog
- I would read in my field, and maybe even catch up a bit
- I would read fiction, which I haven’t done for about two years
- I would knit, if I wanted
- I would draw, and take photographs
- I would sing
- I would pay attention to my life as it happened, and to my friends and family.
You know, just looking at that looks a bit ambitious. Basically, though, it boils down to this: write a couple of things and get some control over my life.
Then, somehow, there were more projects. Add to the list three presentations and a commissioned article, none of which I could turn down, because they all offered me opportunities to work with people I respect. In many ways, each offer was like a fairy tale come true. I could use my sabbatical to pretend I was a real academic, someone who, if she’d done things differently (i.e., better), might have ended up doing that sort of thing all of the time. By the time I landed, I’d internalised the idea that my sabbatical was an opportunity for make-believe. I was going to have seven months to pretend to be someone I clearly wasn’t, because if I were, I wouldn’t be flailing about trying to figure out how to do a sabbatical, how to pay for it, and how to keep up a pretense for such a long time.
Longtime readers are unlikely to be surprised by this. As the Cranky Professor has said, I have a massive inferiority complex. But you know? even I can look at this and say, “wow. That’s just … kinda fucked up.” And really, that’s not the whole of it. Because at the same time, I was thinking, “Holy Crap. I got a (small, but helpful) grant to help pay for the sabbatical. SLAC chose to nominate me for it. That says something. And I have this kick-ass honorary position and title. Just because it’s honorary doesn’t mean they hand them out like copies of the Evening Standard. People recommended you, idiot. Also? Smart people don’t invite you to present with them just because they need to fill panels. Nor because they want to see you humiliated. They don’t ask you to contribute to volumes as a joke. Aaaand… just like that, by the end of Week One, I wasn’t worried about pretense. I was worried about proving myself.
By the beginning of Week Three, Proving Myself became “OMG I am OLD and have had cancer and this is the only real chance I have to do enough research and publish enough that I can Ever. Apply. For. Another. Job! MY ENTIRE FUTURE RESTS ON THIS SABBATICAL AND ME SHOWING THE WORLD I CAN HACK IT AT A PLACE WITH A 3-2 LOAD AND MAYBE EVEN GRAD STUDENTS!!!! I CAN’T SCREW THIS UP!!!!!! NONE OF MY MEDIEVALIST COLLEAGUES WILL RESPECT ME IF I DON’T DO ALL THE THINGS! SUPERDEAN WILL FEEL LET DOWN!!” No pressure, then.
And then, I stopped.
Just like that. More or less.
One of the things that the last few years at SLAC have taught me is how to recognize anxiety. Not worry, mind you, but anxiety of the ‘way too much adrenaline coursing through my body at the wrong time for the wrong reasons’ sort. It’s that fight/flight/freeze thing that can keep a person from accomplishing anything and push a person into a pit of worthlessness and despair. Or so I hear. Recognizing a physical feeling for what it is is a great way of re-setting one’s bullshit detector. So I called bullshit on myself. And then, of course, I verified my analysis with LDW and a couple of other friends, and came to the conclusion that perhaps, just perhaps, I had allowed feeling like I might be an actual medievalist worthy of hanging out with cool medievalists who are scary smart — a good thing — lead to a set of possibly unrealistic, perhaps even unachievable, expectations. In short (ha!), perhaps I was putting pressure on myself where no such pressure existed?
It took me about another hour to take that all in, and to figure out that it had taken me just over two weeks to set myself up to come back from sabbatical as the most stressed-out stress bunny that ever lived. So today, I started again. I’m not thrilled that I didn’t get into the Reading Room. But I did things I wanted to do:
- I sat in a cafe and reviewed my goals
- I read a couple of blog posts
- I let myself appreciate being in one of the coolest cities in the world, and looked at flowers, and street signs, and other such things as I walked its streets
- I took a break from people
- I breathed
- I took care of some mundane things
- I came close to accepting that I know how to translate Latin, since every time I check a translation with someone else, they have the same thing, so maybe I should just stop panicking and finish the bastard thing
- I found some other things I want to read and think about
Because really, if I can’t allow myself to stop and think during my sabbatical, how is it a break, or even a change of pace?
And yes, I just realized I already had a panic about Getting All The Things Done, but that was DIY stuff. Note to self and others: a knack for self-imposed stress is not actually a helpful life skill. Just sayin’.
Next time: Nicholas Kristof needs more Sondheim in his life.
I give you something awesome:
I gather from Twitter that there was a panel on “the most important issue facing our discipline” and hardly anybody came. Reading around the various conversations, it’s easy to see the usual blaming and complaining. Blame the people who scheduled such a panel across from receptions! Blame the gatekeepers for making it hard for people to get in (and by the way, from what I can tell, the person who organizes the MLA badge police is way too into it — sheesh!). Complain that really, there’s no point anymore; people have just given up. Throw in the towel. Infer from the lack of attendance that no one gives a shit.
People new to this blog might not know that I started writing it when I was trying to get my career back together after taking a really, really long time to finish the thesis, during which time I’d taken jobs working outside academia, trying to be a married person with a kid, etc. I started blogging when one of my best friends was also contingent faculty, and when the much-missed Invisible Adjunct blogged regularly. In fact, this blog is in its twelfth year, and a lot has changed in my life. Not much has changed, except for the worse, in terms of the academic labour market and increasing reliance on contingent faculty. It occurred to me this morning that the reason some of us bloggers might seem less sympathetic than we should be to the plight of today’s adjuncts is that we’re well over the shock. In my case, I’m a bit weary of seeing the same old battles being fought over and over again, between the wrong people, in ways that are not likely to do much good. And to be honest, I get tired of inaccurate hyperbole.
Let me be clear on this: the problem of adjunct labour is not an issue facing anyone’s discipline, unless you buy into the idea that adjuncts are less qualified than those who got the brass ring of T-T/’permanence’. It’s a labour issue. It’s one of the three most important issues facing higher ed, in my opinion, along with decreased funding, and the effects of decreases in K-12 spending and NCLB on the current and future generations of students. But it isn’t a disciplinary issue. Moreover, I think treating it as a disciplinary issue is one of the reasons that we haven’t been able to do much about contingent faculty issues. It’s fine for the AHA and the MLA and whatever other professional organizations have done so to issue statements and urge their members to do their best to beat back the tide, but it’s not really very sensible to think that, on any campus, TPTB are going to listen to the faculty in any single discipline, especially if it’s in the Humanities or Social Sciences. It’s a systemic problem, and needs to be treated as such.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about it at professional meetings. But we also need to think about why people attend those meetings and how the system works. The problem with conferences like the MLA and the AHA is that they’re hybrids that don’t necessarily serve everybody in their respective fields very well. They’re pretty good for the modernists, but there isn’t a year that goes by where the pre-modernists don’t mention the dearth of panels that are aimed at them. It’s not surprising that you find medievalists leaders at DH and pedagogy panels — hell, we have to get on the programme somehow. And yes, we tend to be interested in those things, because frankly, it’s hella difficult to get our hands on a lot of our sources, and digitization helps make the playing field hilly, rather than Himalayan. Anyway, for a lot of pre-modernists, it makes a lot more sense to go to specifically Medieval, Med-Ren, and Classics conferences.
I think that how we see our professional meetings, and how we see conference attendance in general, has a lot more to do with lack of attendance at ‘state of the profession’ panels than does a “nobody cares” attitude. In no particular order, here are some perfectly good reasons why a panel on an admittedly important — in fact, vital — issue might not get the attendance it deserves:
- It’s a panel at a huge meeting, and it would be a pretty crap meeting if any single professional panel could draw people away from what might be the only panel that seems really relevant to their research.
- It’s across from receptions, and people are just tired. One way of avoiding this is to get the organization to offer a hosted bar with better booze at the end of the session.
- Conferences are relatively short, and big, general meetings are often the only times people can catch up with old friends in different fields. Or network. Or see something in a city they’ve not visited before.
- A lot of the attendees of such meetings are stuck in interview rooms and/or discussions with fellow search committee members, or are prepping for/recovering from interviews.
- After a couple of decades, some people don’t really see the point of discussing contingent labour: they’d rather see something that looks like an action plan.
- Conferences are expensive, duh. That’s not just true for grad students and adjuncts. So we gravitate to the things that are most immediately interesting to us. For some people, conference funding is not only contingent upon presenting, but upon giving some sort of report on the panels in their field that they attended.
The list above is certainly not all-inclusive, nor will every one of those reasons suit every conference. But they do exist, and they are valid reasons why it’s wrong to infer that a lack attendance indicates that no one cares about contingent faculty and the state of higher ed. People care. People who got the brass ring care. They try to change things. They are not the enemy. But honestly, in my own experience looking for jobs while an adjunct and as a ‘tenured’ faculty member, it’s thinking in terms of disciplines that undermines even the best-thought-out attempts to address the contingent labour issue.
Universities are organized by disciplinary groups and disciplines. More importantly, funding and staffing are organized and allocated along these lines. At places like SLAC, of which there are many, the choice is seldom whether or not to add adjuncts or FT lines: the number of FT faculty justified by enrollments is far less than the number of funded positions made available. I can think of a couple of departments at SLAC with FTEs so high that they have to hire a number of adjuncts would seem to justify at least one, and probably two, other permanent faculty, even though there aren’t many students majoring in those fields. But then you look at other departments that not only rely on adjuncts to meet their FTEs, but also have a ratio of 70-90 majors per permanent faculty member. That means a much heavier workload for the faculty in those departments in terms of advising, etc. So who gets the lines, which are never enough? </p?
Some people, like me, are always going to mention, out loud, in front of the administrators and the rest of the faculty, that the number of lines that have been approved is nowhere near what we need, and that over-reliance on contingent faculty and/or overloading courses prevents us from carrying out implied promises of our mission statement. A few others will agree, but we all know that won’t change things this time around — unless some miracle gets people in the professional schools to forego part of their significantly higher salaries. Others are just going to defend their disciplinary turf. More permanent faculty = more money for a department and a more consistent workload for the permanent faculty. It takes milliseconds for a systemic problem to become an issue that directly affects individuals. In other words, an issue that is a real problem for higher ed is, once it hits the ground of any university, is no longer systemic, but personal: faculty have to weigh a general principle against immediate costs to their own lives and careers. No one who is already overloaded is going to give up the possibility of hiring contingent faculty if that’s all they can get. If they’re smart, though, they’ll track the long-term costs and benefits of searching for, interviewing, hiring, and working with adjuncts to justify permanent positions.
That’s just one of the more understandable ways that thinking of contingent labour at a disciplinary level undermines addressing it as a systemic issue. I think that, in many cases, it’s the biggest problem at the level of individual institutions. But it’s a problem that isn’t transparent to most people. For any number of good reasons, we don’t really talk to the outside world about turf wars on our own campuses, or the clashes in departmental or divisional meetings where long-standing feuds may have set patterns that won’t be changed till the dinosaurs are extinct. We can’t talk about parallels to Supreme Court nominations, where faculty desperate for a new line nevertheless pray they don’t get it while certain people might dominate the search process. Take any of those things and add them to other factors, like finding out that the brass ring needs constant polishing in order to keep it, or people who have deluded themselves into believing that academic hiring depends entirely on merit, and thus are entitled to their jobs and somehow better than contingent faculty, or that faculty governance is dying in the face of growing overpaid, non-academic bureaucracies, and it seems clear to me that accusations of not caring, or of academic haves willfully ignoring the have-nots are just too simplistic.
Am I saying that it’s a hopeless situation? No. Am I saying that people with permanent jobs have no ethical obligation to stand up for contingent faculty and try to reverse the tides of the academic labour market? absolutely not. But this situation is not new. And it is less a situation of haves and have-nots than a situation of haves and have-mores. There needs to be national (and probably international, especially in terms of the UK) organization to address the issue. In the US, where accreditation agencies have a lot of clout, faculty need to come up with ways to use their assessment reports to show how a reliance on highly-qualified contingent faculty nevertheless has a negative effect on student learning, e.g., because it’s hard to track consistency in addressing outcomes amongst a constantly changing pool of instructors; because contingent faculty can’t be expected to interact with students at the levels needed to achieve those outcomes, etc. Parents and students need to know that the person whose teaching was instrumental for a student’s changing majors or turning their study habits around might be gone without notice. Government funding agencies should be lobbied to give more funding to those institutions that commit to better hiring policies.
Those are all things that can be done without resorting to collegial cannibalism. I’m not sure how, and I’m not offering to lead. I’m just saying that a couple of decades of knowing that there’s a problem, and knowing it’s systemic gives the issue of contingent labour a history. And since I’m a historian and all, it kind of seems like a good idea to try to understand the history, see what’s been done, and what hasn’t and go from there, rather than (to throw in yet another overused metaphor) re-inventing complaints and resentments that keep the focus on the trees rather than the forest.
One of the things I’ve been doing while hiding from reality has been to catch up on various blogfights. I know, right? (or, if you like, inorite?) Two that erupted over the end of the semester and winter break have really managed to hit high on my “What. The. Fuck??” scale. I’m writing about them together, in the order I heard about them, because frankly, I’m irritated and embarrassed by them. The short version, for those of you who want it, is:
White people in the US and Europe have no business claiming to be victims at the institutional level. Feminism as defined by the concerns of (largely upper-middle-class) white women, cannot be claimed to be truly feminist. Co-opting the vocabulary of social justice in a way that implies that contingent faculty are victims of institutional prejudice is offensive, wrong, and just plain disturbing on too many levels.
The first of the social media uproars, blogfights, whatever you wish to call them is one I became aware of through a tweet linking to a site called Hashtag Feminism. I’m not a fan of the site’s layout, but I appreciate the links to this piece at Huffington Post by Adele Wilde-Blavatsky called, I kid you not, “Stop Bashing White Women”, which… seriously? I mean, really? White women are being bashed? Wilde-Blavatsky points to Mikki Kendall’s “dreadful” #solidarityisforwhitewomen Twitter campaign, and to her piece in in The Guardian on Beyonce’s new album as evidence of this so-called bashing. I’m not seeing it.
Before anyone claims I just haven’t seen the worst (although I doubt anyone reading this will), let me say that I’m somewhat familiar with Kendall. In fact, I’ve disagreed with things she’s written under her nom de plume, Karnythia, over the past five or six years. But then I became aware of her in the context of RaceFail 2009. It was an occasion that resulted in some really good posts on social justice, intersectionality, and race; disclosed the levels of rage felt by many people of color; and also presented some nice ironies in intersectionality and privilege, in that far too many of the loudest, most condemnatory voices of self-appointed social justice warriors refused to accept that the definitions and experiences of race in the US (and to a lesser extent, the UK) might not apply equally to all other cultural situations. Many white people, especially well-meaning “allies”, complained that their efforts and good will weren’t properly appreciated. Kendall and others weren’t very sympathetic, and were pretty blunt in saying, “It’s not about you, and if you want to be an ally, don’t keep trying to make it about you.” I should probably make it clear that that’s not where I found cause for disagreement. Places where I disagreed were pretty much what you might expect from me, because they are the same things that cause me to disagree in any discussion, i.e., I hate oversimplification, generalizations drawn from anecdote, and assumptions of bad faith, even when I understand why they exist.
Wilde-Blavatsky’s piece is the sort of thing that makes me cringe, precisely because it reminds me why we need campaigns like #solidarityisforwhitewomen: because white women are still trying to control the discourse. And yes, if you were wondering, I do see the irony in the fact that I am white, a woman, and am writing about what sort of discourse is appropriate. But frankly, #solidarityisforwhitewomen doesn’t make me feel blamed. It doesn’t make me feel guilty. I don’t feel guilty about having white privilege. In fact, I don’t have any white guilt. How can I? I was born this way, and the only thing to feel guilty about would be if I denied my privilege and/or knowingly used it and tried to perpetuate it. I’m nowhere near perfect, and not activist on a grand scale, but I try to be honest and self-reflective and call people on their privilege when I see it. I don’t feel at all threatened the idea that the privilege I enjoy might be extended to others. Having said that, I did sort of hope that change would come in things getting better for everybody, rather than in having our governments abridge everybody’s civil rights. In contrast, I’m embarrassed and offended by Wilde-Blavatsky’s suggestion for Twitter: #stopblamingwhitewomenweneedunity and the Liz Kelly (I think) follow-up: #reclaimintersectionalityin2014. I don’t want anybody to think I think like that. Actually, I just don’t want people to think like that, full stop. It goes to eleven on the colossal appropriation scale.
The other controversy (linking to a heavily linked follow-up by Historiann to save time) that has been making its way through the academic internets may well go to a twelve. Why? Because not only is it a storm caused by accusations of bad faith in Rebecca Schuman’s initial post that then informed people’s reading of Tenured Radical’s responses in the CHE, but it is also one that ends with some appalling applications of Social Justice rhetoric to #whitepeoplesproblems and #firstworldproblems. Dividing people who are T-T or tenured into ‘life boaters’ and ‘allies’ seems to me to be not all that different from trying to “reclaim intersectionality.”
Here’s the thing: the tone argument, and the whinges about silencing, etc., just don’t work. Being a working academic is a choice. Pursuing a PhD is a choice. Both are choices made by people who, by and large, have a shitload of inherent privilege. In order to get to the job market, a person has to have had the sort of background that gets her to, and through, the university, as well as the sort of attitude towards it that gets her noticed by people in the system who will then back her efforts to continue. Some people will have worked far harder to get to, and through, an undergraduate education, but it’s something that confers a sort of privilege on all. I’m not denying that effort and merit are involved, but having an undergraduate degree puts the holder into a different social category. Likewise, the very act of pursuing a PhD is a sign of certain types of privilege.
In order to pursue a PhD, a person has to have more than the skills and smarts for admission to a program. Even if fully funded, grad school costs money. Fellowships don’t pay for setting up a household, for example, or visiting family at holidays. Families, especially those of non-traditional students, don’t necessarily pick up the slack when it comes to a grad student’s family commitments. Working partners (a luxury!) don’t give student partners a pass. Being a grad student (in the US, at least) means having access to good credit and some sort of support network of people willing and able to make sacrifices to help you out. These are things that indicate a certain level of social and economic privilege.
Tangential Disclaimer: I have a university degree because the aspirational members of my working-class family expected it of me. It wasn’t a conscious choice. Most of them freaked out when I said I was going to grad school, because their aspirations were “get the paper, get a good job, get married, have kids.” I only attended because of the Cal and Pell grant programs that paid for much of it, and the fact that I worked 25-35 hours a week for most of the time I was an undergrad AND was lucky enough to have family and friends who rented rooms out to me for well under the going rate. I couldn’t have gone to grad school without a full ride, which I got. Those who know me know that most of my first year of grad school my furniture consisted of a futon on the floor, a table made of a salvaged glass top on two wine crates, four folding chairs and a flat-pack table from Target, and a comfortable chair from my advisor’s basement. It was not luxurious, but it was a choice. I could easily have gone to work and would be in a much better economic situation than I am now. It sucked. My current financial situation is comparatively sucky for someone with my skills and education. I have no hopes of retiring in any comfort, period. But that’s not entirely the fault of the so-called academic system.
So anyway, I find it offensive that anyone who has had the comparative luxury of being able to pursue a PhD should write about the hardships faced by some members of the group within the context of the group using rhetoric adopted from Social Justice and Critical Race Theory. Does it suck that the system relies on too many contingent faculty? Yes. Does the system work against lowercase social justice? absolutely. Should faculty who have managed to get T-T and tenured jobs try to improve the system? Of course. But FFS, fighting for better working conditions for people with PhDs is NOT the same as fighting for LGBTQ rights, or trying to eliminate racial bias. And people who are lucky enough to get jobs — and no matter how good a person is, luck comes into it — should not be demonized for having them, nor for trying to keep them, even if it means they don’t spend their waking hours trying to improve the system.
The truth is that the system is broken to such a degree that no amount of faculty effort, individual or collective, can fix it. The truth is that many of us are working damned hard to keep our jobs, tenure or not. An awful lot of currently employed faculty are, like me, people who spent several years as contingent faculty. We know lots of excellent people who haven’t managed to get permanent jobs, and we probably know some people who have permanent jobs who aren’t as well-qualified as people who don’t. That doesn’t mean, by the way, that they aren’t every bit as good at their jobs, once they have them. And sometimes they aren’t. Life isn’t fair. So Schuman’s implication that those of us who lucked out are somehow complicit in the bad fortune of those who haven’t just doesn’t work for me. Neither does her assertion that people in my position expect to be treated with deference by contingent faculty. The fact that some people behave like assholes, and worse, that they behave that way because they can’t be bothered to look around them and see what’s going on, doesn’t mean that the majority of people act that way.
I get that Schuman exaggerates to make her points, but it’s just tiring. So, for example, her tirade here, the title of which makes no sense, by the way. The sorts of professional things she mentions are not permanent vs. contingent differences. They are ‘people who behave like jerks’ vs ‘people who are thoughtful and responsible’ differences. Show me any institution of higher education where these things don’t come up, and where some faculty end up carrying more of the administrative, teaching, one-on-one-time-with-students load than others, please. Because it happens everywhere. Doesn’t make it right, and it’s definitely a part of the academic ‘system’, but it’s not a Social Justice issue. Nor is someone telling her she should change her tone, or that perhaps it’s her tone that explains why she doesn’t have an academic job. Nor, for that matter, is it sycophantic cowardice to choose to speak out against the injustices (and stupidities) in academia without resorting to shouting and accusing people of being bastards. The system, right or wrong, is inhabited by people who invest a lot in their work, and often feel overworked, underpaid, and under appreciated. Academics in general are fairly insecure: is creating an emotional environment where they feel even less secure going to make things better? It never does.
It never does. Schuman’s rants, and TR’s responses, hold true for any profession, and for society in general. This is another reason I find using the rhetoric of Social Justice in this case offensive: it’s not a clear case of the academic haves trying to silence the have-nots. TR and others are not trying to silence the leader of a national movement to reform university employment practices, let alone someone working against some sort of institutionalized bigotry and prejudice. I am not saying that there’s not a place for angry (sometimes even violent, although preferably not), rhetoric employed to effect changes that lead to a more just society, or to end the oppression of an othered minority at the hands of a privileged majority and its adherents. But by using the rhetoric of Social Justice to discuss academia, Schuman grants contingent faculty the status of an othered minority. It’s appropriating issues of real, lasting societal injustice and applying them to a situation experienced only amongst a relatively small group of people with privilege. By doing so, she shows no more empathy with those who suffer real injustice than do the creators and users of hashtags like #stopblamingwhitewomenweneedunity and #retakeintersectionalityin2014.
It’s only the third, right? Not bad for beginning the New Year with the plan of Blogging More. That is, I’m blogging a bit. Today. Now. Because I told myself I would. Because I’m on sabbatical as of next week. Because I need to be in the habit of writing. And today particularly, because I have a block. There’s no good reason for it. All indications since November, if not a bit earlier, are that I might just be worthy of hanging out with the smart kids. It’s a damned good thing, too, because frankly, last semester I sucked at teaching. At the same time, I felt teaching sucking the life out of me, but that’s another post to write. Today’s post is about Latin.
I like Latin. Well, that is to say, I like it as much as any other language I have to think about. Having said that, I tend to think I’m crap at Latin. If recent theories are right, it might have something to do with being told all my life that I have some better-than-average innate skill with languages, and perhaps with the assumption of family and teachers that it was only my brains that saved me from my laziness. In any case, I have difficulties in measuring my own effort, except when physical labor with some sort of tangible result is involved. Add to that a real (also apparently inherited) talent for faffing about (which I admit may have something to do with ADHD, anxiety, and any number of other too-easily dismissible excuses), as well as a solid upper-working-to-lower-middle-class background and a bunch of friends who are hugely productive … anyway.
Over the years that I’ve been blogging, I’ve met an awful lot of people who have made heroic efforts to convince me that the smart, cool, brainy, witty people I love to hang out with are not just being nice. A lot of you have given me very welcome opportunities to convince myself that no one just handed me a PhD and a job. Now that I’ve got an Actual Publication in my field, and somehow managed to fill what was supposed to have been a sabbatical of partial recovery and rest into The Sabbatical Of Massive Commitment (to date, an R&R of an article, an old (huge) project that really needs to be gone, two papers to present in May, a paper in July, a draft of another (very new) paper by the end of the summer, and probably another paper in August, not to mention prepping a new course properly for the fall), I may be a bit overwhelmed, but it feels right. I’m starting to associate all of this with actual effort on my part. It’s a good feeling.
So why am I blogcrastinating? Because I have a difficult relationship with Latin, and with languages. Translating Latin encapsulates everything about the weird inability to gauge the skill-effort-imposter syndrome relationship. When I translate, I alternate between writing out something that feels right, and then going back and checking every single word, parsing every sentence, reading up on every possible usage, all to make sure I’m not totally off-base. And then I check with colleagues, especially the Toronto and Oxbridge types. Most of the time, my translations are pretty close to theirs. Occasionally, I make a really dumb error — something like misreading an ending of something I’d translated correctly earlier — which I almost always catch. But every one of those little stupid errors convinces me that I have no clue about what I’m doing. This is in spite of all evidence to the contrary. It’s in spite of knowing that one of the reasons I was not only accepted for postgraduate study, but also given (that word again) a rather nice fellowship at Grad U. So why am I so damned anxious about this translation?
It’s for, and with, people whose skills I respect. It’s public. It will be open to criticism. But that’s every conference paper, too. I think what it is, is knowing that this is somewhere where I really can slip up. I want to go through and translate idiomatically, and my experience tells me that there’s a better than ninety percent chance that my first read through will be pretty close. Except when it isn’t. And when it isn’t, it’s almost always a rookie error that a first-year Latin student would be embarrassed at making. If I don’t translate, I can’t make stupid errors, right? There’s a certain logic in that. Really.
But now that I’ve written all about my little trauma, I think I’ve figured something out. I don’t worry about whether or not things are hard to do. So what? I give it my best shot, and that’s all I can do. What scares me is the idea that I’m having to work very hard at something and not knowing if that’s normal or not. I’m starting to question the assumption that having a degree and a job indicate knowing as much as one needs. It’s like I’ll never learn everything I need to know. What about you, patient and collegial readers? Have you reached the point where you feel like you know enough? How do you know if what you’re doing is generally reckoned difficult or easy? Does it matter?
The possibility that Person A is a victim of unjust treatment by Person B does not negate the possibility that Person A may have unintentionally given Person C reason to complain. Defenders of Person A should carry on wholeheartedly, but should not do so by silencing Person C or denying Person C’s existence.
As a corollary:
Whether Person C actually exists or is an invention of Person B, Person A should take seriously the idea that such a person and the harm done them is feasible.
My apologies in advance if this is a bit long and rambling. What with massive piles of marking and grades due Real Soon Now, I haven’t got time to be as eloquent as I’d like. Frankly, I’m only writing this because I’m starting to worry that I’m going to lose my Official Feminist Card (TM), just as I am getting ready to apply for a fellowship that might require one. The worry is rooted in the difference between my response to the situation at CU-Boulder and the responses of many feminist colleagues for whom I have a lot of respect. The title, in case you haven’t guessed, refers to both this post at The Brain That Wouldn’t Die and to Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” speech. It’s also informed by discussions on intersectionality like this one here at NPR, here, and here. You’ve probably noticed that only one of these things refers to Adler’s situation directly, but the rest are integral to my understanding of the situation. That understanding, by the way, is probably the same as most people’s, i.e., there’s a lot out there that’s nebulous and much is supposition. It’s just that my suppositions seem to be somewhat unpopular. I should therefor make it very clear that I have no knowledge of the case other than what’s been available on the net. I’m not here to speculate on guilt or innocence. I’m just offering some alternative readings of what’s been published.
I first became aware of the situation when a colleague drew my attention to a link and asked some of us whether we thought this was an assault on the tenure system. These seem to be the general inferences drawn from, and comments about the article, which I’ve now seen all over the internet and my Facebook page:
- well-loved, well-known professor in a field known for pushing the boundaries is being forced out for teaching things that prudish university administrators hate, in part because they don’t want to lose
- Clearly the professor has been screwed over, because all of her students support her and say she’s magnificent
- The undergraduate TAs and graduate TAs in her current class all claim that none of them were offended by, nor did any of them feel pressured to participate in, a role-playing teaching demonstration (I am not going to call it a skit, because it’s just not the right word).
- The role-play exercise, in which students take on the personas and experiences of different sorts of sex workers (although she describes them as “whores” and “prostitutes”), has been going on for twenty years, so why are there complaints now?
- The role-play exercise has been used for twenty years and is famous on campus: these students must have known what they signed up for; if they knew it would make them uncomfortable, they shouldn’t have signed up and/or applied to be ATAs.
- The process was too quick, therefore the university admin must have been planning the ouster for a long time and didn’t do a thorough investigation, especially since the TAs and ATAs claim not to have been questioned.
- The process was too quick, so there was no due process.
- The university must be lying.
- Maybe the exercise is a little problematic, but dammit, this is a threat to academic freedom.
I have no evidence that any or all of these things are untrue. Having said that, here’s why I find assumptions that the whole thing is a clear-cut case of a popular professor being forced out problematic:
The first thing that hit me when I read the story in the Daily Camera, was that Adler broke the news to her students — a class of about 500, I believe — by telling them “she was being forced into retirement because the administration thought her lecture on prostitution was inappropriate, degrading to women and offensive to some minority communities.” The story also claims, “Students said Adler told them the administration heard a complaint about the skit.” It was clear from the article that there were undergraduate TAs and graduate TAs involved. It was also clear that Adler has the admiration and support of her students, so much so that there is competition for and prestige in getting one of the undergrad TA positions. At least one of the students interviewed claimed that participating in the role-play (or skit, if you must — more on that below) was one of the things that attracted her to the course. Despite this, the university claimed, in a legal boilerplate response, that Adler was neither fired nor being forced out. Instead, there was the non-confirmation that the Office of Discrimination and Harassment was involved.
Imagine for a moment that the faculty member in question is not Adler. Imagine, perhaps, that it’s the 21st C version of Morris Zapp. Or any male (especially white male) full professor. Even better, try to remove gender from the equation. When I do that, the pertinent facts as reported are these:
- well-known, well-loved charismatic professor announces they are victim of unfair dismissal to semi-captive, largely supportive audience, rather than quietly hiring a lawyer and giving press release.
- Early reports are framed by this announcement, the students’ anger and outrage, and a bland denial from the university
- But… well, both sides allude to accusations of some sort of discrimination or sexual harassment having to do with a well-known classroom exercise
- The exercise relies on students, primarily undergraduate female TAs, to dress up and role play as different sorts of whores to help illustrate hierarchies of deviance. Since one of the students interviewed was a freshman hoping to be a TA the following year, we can assume that some of the TAs are sophomores.
I don’t know about you, but here are the things that crossed my mind (after, WTF?):
Famous professor, very charismatic, huge classes, competition to be one of the Chosen. That looks like some imbalanced power dynamics to me. On the one hand, you have young female students, who are not usually the most empowered people on a university campus, and who have pretty good odds of becoming members of the “I’m a survivor of sexual abuse/assault/rape” club — if they aren’t already. Young adult females, the people most likely to have body image issues. On the other, you’ve got a professor who is dynamic, attractive, influential, and generally considered cool. In the middle, you have the professor’s supporters and minions — and there are lots of them. But, people argue, there are no negative repercussions for people who don’t want to participate. That may be true in some ways, but overall, that’s just not the case. Think about how not participating plays out in this situation. Do people really imagine that the student who declines won’t have to explain her decision to the other TAs and to other students? Am I the only one who thinks that for the student, the only apparent choices may be to justify her decision by giving personal information or to tell people it’s none of their business and be labeled unfriendly, weird, or too uptight to be studying something like deviance? If the choice is to do something that makes you uncomfortable or live with consequences that might make your daily interactions more difficult, I’m not seeing how the atmosphere might be construed as coercive. At the very least, it’s a situation where the potential for the misuse of power and influence is not given as much recognition as it should.
But it’s just an exercise. It’s just role play. Acting students have to do things that make them uncomfortable…
Yes, yes they do. Because if they want to get jobs, they need to be able to play a wide range of parts, and learn to project an image of someone else. Sociology students don’t. It’s not part of the curriculum. And frankly, even if it sounds cool at first, it might be far less cool once a student finds out which kind of whore she’s supposed to be, and what costume she needs to wear, in front of a full auditorium of people. But she can’t back out now. As a matter of curiosity, who gets to be what kind of whore? How are they assigned? What do the students look like? are they all fairly pretty? are they thin? are there women of color amongst them? How do those characteristics factor into the “which whore am I” quiz-o-matic? Are there guys playing gigolos? homeless boys who are straight but give blow jobs so they can eat? Tranny divas who cater to a certain clientele? Hell, are there dominatrices who don’t sell sex at all — just bondage, beating, and humiliation? Are girls from Eastern Europe or Southeast Asia automatically cast as the sex slaves for verisimilitude? Who gets to play the crack whore? What are the racial dynamics for casting pimps? And why are these students characterized as ‘whores’, rather than the more neutral ‘sex worker’? Does that reinforce the stigma? is it something that’s addressed? Is it intentional, meant to make the entire construction of deviance more questionable (which to me doesn’t work at all, but then I also can’t see how prostitution is all that deviant except in a very narrow context).
We don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t even know that these things are issues in this case, but for fuck’s sake, they ARE issues that immediately come to my mind, and I think should come to every responsible faculty member’s mind — and to the minds of students who have taken any halfway decent class that deals with issues of privilege, power, race, and gender. How is this exercise NOT problematic??
Oh, I hear people say, it’s problematic, and we wouldn’t do it, but … Da-da-daaaaaaa “academic freedom!!”
Maybe. Except that most universities, CU amongst them, have pretty clear policies on sexual harassment and discrimination. Most of them allow for observers to report things they find troubling. Most of them allow for the idea that people not directly involved in an exercise or conversation can still be adversely affected by an atmosphere or culture created by others, especially when they also feel they have no choice but to observe. What I observed from video clip from the local news was a young woman who really didn’t look all that comfortable in her part, although perhaps she was supposed to look uncomfortable.
In any case, given the nature of the exercise, why is it so hard to believe that someone, or a few someones, might have questioned it? Why is it so hard to believe that might just be a case where the system worked to prevent someone with little or no perceived power from having to deal with a hostile environment?? In fact, why is it so hard to buy the idea that, having undergone some serious scandal and public outrage when it became clear that CU was a hotbed for misogyny and a very strong rape culture, CUs administration is starting to take this shit seriously? And if you don’t think that it’s still a problem, I suggest you go to the Fb page and read through threads like this one. Tell me that CU is a safe place for students whose opinions deviate from the norm (see what I did there?)
I know. It sounds far-fetched, even to me. And there is still a part of me that thinks that maybe that culture is so deeply embedded that it’s far easier to go after a woman than after the entire athletics organization.
Most of me thinks that the suppositions so far about identifying with a faculty member who works with touchy subjects and our own fear that we, too, could be targets. Adler’s statements touch on our own experiences of misogyny, of anti-intellectualism, of losing our jobs. But what they don’t do is show a recognition of our own privilege, that is, the privilege of the well-educated, mostly white, employed and middle-class faculty (or professional women in general) feminist. If we are to be feminists, real feminists, then we cannot build strength by denying the experiences of women who have far less privilege, nor can we permit the othering of women whose lack of privilege makes our look minor.
I don’t know if Patti Adler is being forced out. I certainly hope not. I know some people might suggest I’m engaging in victim-blaming. That’s not my intention. Whether Adler is a victim herself, or whether she was aware that students were not comfortable, but didn’t think it merited concern, or whether, as one rumour would have it, someone seized on this incident as an excuse to settle personal grudges — those aren’t my concern. My concern is for the sex workers whose voices are mediated through an academic and her students. My concern is for the students and staff who may very well have felt that the exercise, as well as a general atmosphere of what seems to be almost unquestioning support for something that is just so damned problematic and perhaps triggery, created a hostile environment for them. Presuming they indeed exist, it seems to me those are the victims who are being blamed. Ain’t they women?