Academe in the Age of Trump


This is the third week of an effort to turn over this blog completely to the circulation of work by women and especially women of color. Calling this “reading out,” I’ve laid out the rationale for this redirection here and here.

This week, a special brief edition on academe in the age of Trump.

The election of a serial sexual predator and white supremacist took universities by surprise, and ran counter to the modest reforms begun over the past few years. It also helped to consolidate a range of ideas and thoughts about how to confront both “racism without racists” (to borrow from Eduardo Bonilla-Silva) and also bomb-throwing white supremacists increasingly papering the universities with recruitment materials and much worse. Or how to confront, in turn, the most caddish manifestations of patriarchy, the catch-all of “rape culture,” and the most horrific and graphic sexual predations.

The work starts with new data. For me, one defining piece of writing in this moment is Chronicle commentator and mentor-for-hire Karen Kelsky’s piece explaining her use of an informal survey (a public google spreadsheet) to capture anonymous data about sexual harassment and abuse in and out of the classroom. Every workplace is a danger zone, but tenure, rank, and other forms of institutionalized privilege make the university’s expression of patriarchy and racism more durable and more troubling. So, too, does an absolutist conviction that “free expression” of any sort must be protected. Kelsky knows all of this, and has been talking about it for a long time. What I like about this particular piece, though, isn’t her outrage and her anger, but her reflection, in passages like this one, on the root of the problem: “Part of being socialized in a patriarchal society is a mechanism of internalized gaslighting in which women are conditioned to second-guess themselves, to doubt, to minimize, to do the emotional labor of both defusing situations and reinterpreting them in such a way as to exculpate their harassers — by squinting in just the right way to make plausible deniability, well, plausible.” This is an amazing bit of research – a collaborative effort by hundreds of women in academe to comment and email – but it is also Kelsky’s central question that should haunt us: why do sexual predators continue to be hired and promoted in academe?

Kelsky’s survey results are grim. So, too, is Silke-Maria Weineck’s appalling – and entirely unsurprising – story of having her co-authored book be profiled with a gold-standard interview on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” only to learn that her own contributions to the interview had been erased. And that she’d been whited-out, as well, as the book’s co-author. Weineck’s account of her professional vanishing by the “University of the Airwaves” is glib, funny, and deadly serious. And, in a turn that will remind readers of Rebecca Solnit’s foundational, “Men Explain Things to Me,” it seems like NPR worked extra hard to pack the segment with men with British accents, so that Weineck had to repeatedly listen to some guys tell and re-tell the conclusions of her own book.

The story reminded me of how important it is to actually collaborate equitably, to be fair to your writing and research partner, so that there is never a moment where one’s myriad significations – the markings of race, gender, sex, and class that render some bodies hyper-visible and privileged – are working against that principle of equity and shared collegiality. Weineck’s partner stood by her, but NPR didn’t care. She made me think about my own writing partner – the extraordinary, Caroline Field Levander – and our ongoing efforts to be honest with each other and (this is the hardest part) to keep the world honest, too.

Weineck’s piece also put me in mind of this older bit by Darnell Moore and Monica Casper, who insist that these partnerships reflect a kind of political determination worth celebrating. Togetherness, they confess, is dangerous and powerful. “Lovelessness,” they write, “is the epicenter of oppression, and from it emerges the various tremors and tsunamis that devastate our shared world, which move in the form of state-sanctioned violence, settler colonialism, bloated prison industries, rape culture, genocide, xenophobia, and so much else. And yet, we believe that love in the time of racism is a radical act that can lead to broader political/social formations and solidarities where “difference” is not policed or expunged, but acknowledged and celebrated.”

Cross-gendered writing partnerships, Casper and Moore remind us, are acts of radical love. The very practice of writing, thinking, and dreaming together can be revolutionary. Especially when it happens outside of the fantasy of color-blindness and gender-blindness.

And though we love the romantic duet as an art form, that love can have major consequences. And what emerges from the position of radical collegiality, as Kyla Wazana Tompkins and Tavia Nyong’o note, can be fierce, and fiery, and on point. I love this piece on incivility for its elegant construction, its 11 point structure, but also for its muscular commitment to making trouble, to opening doors, to leveling floors, to blowing through ceilings and walls, and to imagining a better house for all of us to live in.

Of course, within the walls, there are still familiar challenges and possibilities. One thinks of the Harvard and Stanford historian who hosted an entire conference at the Hoover Institute with scarcely a woman on any panel. “Flaps like the recent conference,” write historians Allyson Hobbs and Priya Satia, in their Washington Post rebuttal, “damage Stanford’s efforts to recruit women and people of color and sabotage earnest efforts elsewhere on campus to fulfill the university’s larger commitment to greater inclusivity and equity.” Indeed they do. But even more than that, by showcasing the need for more “Great Man history” the conference blew dust onto the ongoing effort of two generations to change history itself, to include voices lost or forgotten, voices of women, people of color, refugees and migrants and criminals. It justified a retrofitting of a tired old philosophy of history – the nineteenth century narrative of Great Men making change – that is pitched to the MAGA crowd, whose disorienting historical confabulations provide a symbolic backdrop for Trump’s galactic-sized, sociopathoic egoism.

It takes scholarship to poke holes in all the lies; it takes something more than scholarship to do more than just spotlight the truth. Women Also Know History, a crowd-sourced database of expertise, is a different sort of response to the patriarchal shenanigans at the Hoover Institute. It is meant to be a clearinghouse of scholars who should be first-read, first-called, and first-quoted in this moment. Like Kelsky’s database, the site is a reminder that we just can’t completely op-ed our way out of this problem, and that organization is going to be a part of the solution.  Let’s hope the next British dude who gets a call for a quote from NPR merely passes the phone to a better scholar.


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