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I am not Patti Adler, and Sojourner Truth is a Woman

17 December, 2013

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:

  1. 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 customers students
  2. Clearly the professor has been screwed over, because all of her students support her and say she’s magnificent
  3. 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). 
  4. 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? 
  5. 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. 
  6. 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.
  7. The process was too quick, so there was no due process.
  8. The university must be lying.
  9. 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?


8 Comments leave one →
  1. 18 December, 2013 4:50 pm

    Wow. Extremely thoughtful and powerful stuff here, and yes, I immediately thought about the problematic nature of this exercise, and that it would be possible to do safely, but that this didn’t seem to be it. Thanks for writing this.

    • 18 December, 2013 6:25 pm

      Thanks for taking the time to read it and comment. I thing TR is right in that an FOI request would help a lot. I think the reactions so far say more about how little trust faculty and students have in the administrations of their institutions than they tell us about faculty, but that gets lost in the traffic.

  2. sophylou permalink
    22 December, 2013 7:37 am

    I really appreciate this. The situation has seemed very murky to me, and I do think some consideration needs to be given to the dynamics you mentioned. This definitely had potential to be a triggering assignment, and I wonder if students would be able to recognize that for themselves, or on behalf of others.

    Also, I agree that the response to this shows how little trust we’ve come to have in our institutions.

  3. 25 December, 2013 1:01 am

    Sorry. I can’t agree. Power dynamics? Rape Culture? “Shiver.” We’ve gone too far down the “representation is reproduction” road.

  4. Jan Whitt permalink
    28 December, 2013 8:40 pm

    Please don’t write anything until you know the facts. What a leap: “We don’t know. I don’t know. . . How is this exercise NOT problematic??” You don’t know if there were any complainants. You don’t know how many. You don’t know if they were women. There are 500+ students in this class every semester, and students fight to get in. Please leave this issue to the AAUP and the American Sociological Association and others who follow it closely. Don’t victimize a professor who has won the university teaching and research awards and (with her husband) the George Mead award. It’s possible to do damage when you have little accurate information and precipitously publish your impressions.

    • 1 January, 2014 8:52 pm

      Professor Whitt,

      I appreciate your sentiments, but honestly, you’re missing, and even helping to prove, my point. I’m also stumped by your last comment, especially given your own area of expertise. It’s not as if I’m some irresponsible journalist digging up rumors and trying to trash someone’s reputation. The first reports of these events to hit the internet came because Patti Adler made an announcement to her class of 500+, which almost immediately resulted in a Facebook support group, articles in the Daily Camera, and then IHE. “Little accurate information” and “precipitous” are phrases that better describe those reports than they do my essay. Moreover, I have not victimized Professor Adler: in fact, I said several times that this was not my intention. Questioning a situation and the wisdom of a classroom exercise are not the same as victimizing someone.

      However, to answer your specific points:

      1) “How is this exercise NOT problematic?” is not a leap. It is also NOT a conclusion premised on anything other than what Patti Adler, her students, TAs, and other commenters have said about the exercise, i.e., that TAs take on the roles of sex workers, pimps, etc. You may not think it’s problematic, but I and many other people do, and would in any circumstances.

      2) “You don’t know if there were any complainants.” Whether or not there were complainants has no bearing on the issues I discuss, e.g., the power dynamics at play and the tendency of those who have power and privilege not to recognize it.

      3) “You don’t know how many.” Does that matter? really?

      4) “You don’t know if they were women.” Again, does that matter? I did assume that the complainants were women because descriptions of the exercise implied that most of those involved in the role-play were women, and because statistically, women and girls are the people most common to be the objects of some form of sexual harassment, abuse, and/or violence over the course of their lives. But really, it doesn’t matter. I’m white and straight, but if I worked in a place where people casually made homophobic or racist comments, I’d consider that a hostile environment.

      5) “There are 500+ students in this class every semester, and students fight to get in.” This is proof that the course and Professor Adler are popular. It doesn’t undermine any point I’ve made, and in fact, supports my point that a student who felt uncomfortable with the exercise might feel under more pressure not to complain.

      6) Read the essay again. I’m not questioning anybody’s academic freedom. In fact, I support the AAUP’s definition of academic freedom, and what I say is consistent with it.

      7) University teaching awards, etc., don’t guarantee that the person who received them should henceforth be free from peer critique.

      And still, and again, none of those things are what the essay is about. The essay is about:

      1) Questioning blind acceptance of the first version of a story and the assumptions made because of it, in part by offering alternative explanations.

      2) Pointing out that academic freedom does not trump legal and contractual requirements.

      3) Most importantly, reminding people that those who have very little power and agency in a situation like this often get sacrificed for those with comparatively more power, agency, and privilege.

  5. 2 January, 2014 7:20 pm

    This seems like a very thoughtful set of observations. Thanks.


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