On Friday Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA) published a new project called Love, Anonymous. The project is collaborative insofar as a CWILA member approached me with the idea of crowd-sourcing anonymous narratives of gender-based discrimination and violence in the Canadian literary community. The aim of the project–of the anonymity of the narratives–was to stand alongside those people who have experienced such violences and not been able to speak up for various reasons. After all, fall 2014 was a season rife with examples of gender-based micro- and macro-aggressions, and with these aggressions came the usual questions: why didn’t you come forward? What took them so long? Indeed, so many people got so fed up with these questions around access to the agency needed to name and claim one’s own experience that #BeenRapedNeverReported went viral and captured the attention of mainstream media (remember the cover of the Huffington Post?)
I am the Chair of the Board of CWILA, and when I was approached with this project it became my responsibility to bring it to the Board for their input and, ultimately, approval. The next phase of the project involved crafting a call for submissions, which we decided to circulate only amongst CWILA members. We limited the exposure of this call because we felt that membership to CWILA entails being a stakeholder in this new organization’s projects and mandates. We wanted to gauge member interest, and to do so while avoiding as much trolling and backlash as possible. Finally, in crafting the call for submissions we decided that it was imperative to build in the possibility for trust which, let me say, I now know is really difficult to earn in an online setting. To build trust we decided there should be a privacy officer–one named person who did all the receiving, correspondence, and redaction of personal details of all submissions. That person was me. This made sense to me, and to the Board, and to the member with whom I was collaborating on the conception of the project, because in my capacity as Chair I correspond regularly with our membership. I already have a responsibility and fidelity to the well-being of the organization.
Between October and November I received submissions, fielded questions and concerns about the project, and logged about thirty hours of correspondence with participants and CWILA members about the project itself. It took me another month to manage to format the project–not because it was technically challenging, but because I hadn’t accounted for the emotional labour required. Silly, isn’t it? I was ready for the emotional labour we were asking people to volunteer–to put into text–yet I didn’t think about the challenge of reading, responding, and holding stories in trust for other people. True to my word, I didn’t speak to anyone about the details of the project beyond the technical details I am relaying now. I never will. I expected that my training as a textual scholar of narrative, of intersectional feminist theory, would translated here. In some ways I expect that it did, but I realize now that I went into my role in the project with a decidedly academic mindset and forgot to leave room for one of the things we talk about most here on the blog: emotional labour.
On Hook & Eye you’ll find posts about the emotional labour involved in teaching, navigating the job market, applying for grants, and dealing with workplace
fuckery challenges. Heck, most of my posts are about emotional labour of one kind or another. As I was working on Love, Anonymous with contributors and concerned members it occurred to me that I tend to write about emotional labour from a position of reporting: Here is how thing X has made me feel. I maintain that this kind of public truth telling is really important, especially for women and other marginalized people working in the academy. Narrative makes things meaningful for other people. (If you don’t believe me, believe Thomas King!) Stories help us navigate our own experiences and relate to, or at least encounter the experiences of others. And, if we work hard and pay close attention, stories can help us see a better way forward.
Here, then, are some observations I have returned to, learned, or been reminded of in the past few months while working on this project:
1) We have taught women not to trust their own experiences. The project has reinforced for me the extraordinary challenge of saying: this happened to me. I was there. This was real.
2) On the whole, we are missing opportunities for sustained intergenerational conversation around Big Issues. I had many people write to me with genuine concern about the project, which you can read about in a bit more detail here. Everyone who wrote to me did so in a spirit of care and generosity and genuineness. They wrote from their own vulnerability and I tried my best to meet them with mine. And almost everyone who took the time to write with concerns identified themselves as being in a generation (or two or three) above mine. Their concerns, generally speaking, had to do with anonymity reifying silence. As I wrote with people of many, many different generations I was struck once again with how generational differences can experience the same public event so dissimilarly. We–and I am speaking very generally about the Hook & Eye readership of people working in the academy when I say “we” here–need to find a way to speak with each other across generations more regularly.
3) The backchannel is alive and well, and until we manage to genuinely address and eradicate inequity it is the most trustworthy way to convey information about safety. This last one gives me such pause for so many reasons. I don’t want to need the backchannel. Talking about it in a public forum makes me worry that I’ll be misunderstood to mean ‘vicious gossip’ rather than ‘careful information sharing.’ And I might be misunderstood, but it needs to be said again: until we deal with systemic inequity the backchannel is a feminist tool.
I’ll leave you with the opening questions of the Love, Anonymous project:
How does a community—one that is dispersed across a country, one that comprises diverse people and experiences—come together to express solidarity? What do solidarity and support look like when the galvanizing issues are so deeply rooted in personal experience as well as systemic injustice? And what can words do to support those people who need it, even or especially when they haven’t been able to ask for support?
Any thoughts, readers?
But sometimes, the pettiness and rules of the bureaucracy are an equity-seeking device.
Last year when I taught our graduate professionalization class to the second-year PhD cohort, we had as a guest lecturer a departmental colleague who was chair for a long time, and was hired in the 1980s. He was talking about the academic job market now and then. Now, as we all know, it’s a paper-heavy bureacractic mess. But then, it was a phone call between two dudes, exchanging grad students and privilege. No application, just backchannel.
In this vein, Sydni Dunn in Chronicle Vitae just reported on Jonathan Goodwin’s work with vintage MLA job ads (building on prior work by Jim Ridolfo). Here’s an ad that really stuck with me:
This is a marvel of insider-clubbiness. There might be an opening, and it doesn’t matter what field you’re in, but we’d like your degree from somewhere good and you should be able to play tennis and engage in repartee about same. The vague requirements leave the position completely open to whim; the emphasis on the rank of the school tends to reproduce privilege. The only real metric you could use to distinguish among candidates is actually tennis: publications are “helpful” but not required, so you can’t compare candidates on research record. You can’t distinguish by specialization, because none is required. You could in fact not hire at all. I can just imagine the deliberations. Oh wait: there wouldn’t be any. Because this was before committee-based hiring. Shudder. I’ll take Interfolio any day, frankly.
In my Facebook feed, then, in 2015, I was surprised to see a link to this ad from MIT. It starts out okay, or at least standard:
The MIT Media Lab (www.media.mit.edu) is seeking candidates to fill two tenure-track positions. Appointments will be within the Media Arts and Sciences academic program, principally at the Assistant Professor level.
Successful candidates for either position will be expected to: establish and lead their own research group within the Media Lab; pursue creative work of the highest international standard; engage in collaborative projects with industrial sponsors and other Media Lab research groups; supervise master’s and doctoral students; and participate in the Media Arts and Sciences academic program. Send questions to faculty-search [at] media.mit.edu.
MIT is committed to building a culturally diverse educational environment; women and minorities are strongly encouraged to apply. EOE.
Yes, that sounds like a job ad. Job type, job rank, job duties, number of jobs available, contact information, assessment criteria. Also, equity statement.
Good. Then the two available positions are listed out. One, in climate change and environment, is pretty standard, too. But then, this, in “undefined discipline”:
The Media Lab is a cross-disciplinary research organization focusing on the invention of new media technologies that radically improve the ways people live, learn, work, and play.
We are seeking a new kind of early career faculty member, not defined by discipline, rather by his or her unique and iconoclastic experience, style, and points of view. You can be a designer, inventor, scientist, or scholar – any combination – as long as you make things that matter. Impact is key.
This means somebody with at least these three sets of characteristics:
- Being deeply versed in a minimum of two fields, preferably not ones normally juxtaposed;
- Being an orthogonal and counter-intuitive thinker, even a misfit within normal structures;
- Having a fearless personality, boundless optimism, and desire to change the world.
Any disciplines apply as long as their confluence shows promise of solving big, difficult, and long-term problems. And, most importantly, candidates must explain why their work really can only be done at the Media Lab. We prefer candidates not be similar to our existing faculty. We welcome applicants who have never considered academic careers. If you fit into typical academia, this is probably not the job for you.
Applications should consist of one URL—the web site can be designed in whatever manner best characterizes the candidate’s unique qualifications. Web site should include a CV or link to a CV.
So. Not a real application. Make a website, any kind of website, but unique, and submit that as your application! Also, there’s a personality-based assessment–be orthogonal as well as polymathic! We want you to be young (early career) and iconoclastic! This is a professor job, but if you fit into academia, you’re not the right fit. Except you’ll still need a PhD and do the work of a professor. The ad seems to be asking for a set of personal traits–and personal traits that seem to inhere in a very particular kind of applicant:
Venture-capital tech-dude types who skipped college and traveled to India (not to see family, but to experience life, man) and who have foregone the scholarly article in favor of something showier because they like attention and feel they deserve it and they have rebellious haircuts and gender-bending accessories.
Look. I regularly lobby to have my media appearances and blog work count on my CV. I get “iconoclastic”–and I get weird haircuts and gender-bending accessories. I wear My Little Pony swag to teach. But this kind of ad, in its emphasis on personality and attitude, feels insulting to all the hard, verifiable, assessable work that academics do to become trained and competitive for professorships. And it will lead to bad candidate assessment.
The ability to receive a serve on the backhand side is not named, but implied. Again, how on God’s Green Earth can you sensibly sort a candidate pool? I’ll tell you right now it’ll be like an American Idol open tryout, except many of the sensible people will just not even go.
Once more: in many ways, I’m all about thinking outside the academic box: I take Facebook seriously as life-writing and I refuse to call everyday social media users naive or thoughtless. I’m lobbying hard to change a lot about the PhD at my institution. What is killing me about this job ad is that it gets loosey-goosey about all the wrong things in ways that are going to disadvantage applicants who’ve just barely got a toe-hold into the academy. By removing assessable metrics and by opening the ad so widely, it’s nearly guaranteed that a very narrow set of possible winners is going to emerge.
You can bet your backhand on it.
Why doesn’t it surprise me that all of the stock photos of people negotiating are of men?
As of yesterday, I’m on an adjusted schedule at work that sees me coming in an hour later in the morning. It doesn’t sound like a big difference, starting at 9:30 rather than 8:30. It feels big, not working the same standard hours as everyone else in my highly unionized office. But it gives me a full two hours in the morning to write, two hours in which I can get a heck of a lot accomplished. And it represents one of my more successful attempts at workplace negotiation. I wanted, I asked, and I got.
Negotiating in the academy, especially for women, is a fraught activity. I think we all know the story of W., who had her tenure-track job offer at Nazareth College revoked after she tried to negotiate a higher salary and a few other amendments to the job offer. Karen Kelsky, the former faculty member behind The Professor is In, offers advice on how to stop negotiating like a girl. And it’s not just that women tend not to negotiate, although some studies show that only 7% of us do, as compared to 57% of men. It’s that the social cost of negotiating, of facing negative repercussions for being seen as pushy, grasping, not “nice,” is so high for us that we instinctively know (or are explicitly told) not to ask for more than is offered.
All of this chafes, a lot. And so I keep trying to figure out ways to meet what many, including Margaret Neale (professor of negotiation at Standford) and Sheryl Sandberg (CEO of Facebook), call the need for women to “think personally, act communally,” and still get what we want. Importantly, asking for what I want is always backed up by information and a persuasive argument, a key component Neale notes is missing from many women’s negotiation repertoires. So this time around, I found language in my collective agreement that would let me negotiate an adjusted schedule in collaboration with my manager. I ensured that the hours I chose wouldn’t negatively impact anyone I work closely with. I’ll admit that some people didn’t need much convincing–I work with lots of people with PhDs who can see the value of the degree beyond just the tenure track. But I had to get five people to sign off on my plan, and for to those who needed convincing, I made the case for the ways in which providing some accommodations so that I can finish my dissertation quickly was to everyone’s benefit, not just mine: that having the PhD in hand would increase my credibility among the graduate community (and therefore the work of our office), that it would enhance my ability to fill whatever role the Deacanal team needs filled, and that it would facilitate the deepening of the ways in which the Dean is linking the work we do about graduate reform and professional development to an active (and hopefully funded!) research practice that will bring the university money and a reputation as a leader. I made it not about me, but about the good of our Faculty.
This kind of low-stakes negotiation was great practice for the future, when I transition into a management role, am no longer bound to the terms of a collective agreement, and have some room to ask for something more, or something different. Is it frustrating not just be able to ask for a higher salary, no questions asked? Yes. Is it terrifying to think that those you’ve negotiated with now think worse of you, before you’ve even started the job? Yes. And we all know now that it’s possible for negotiations to backfire to the point that the job no longer exists. But you don’t get what you don’t ask for. Sometimes it does hurt to ask, but I’m going to keep doing it anyway. And on that note, back to dissertation writing.
Last week, Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA) launched our third annual Count. I say “we” because though I have had the privilege of working with the organization for two and a half years, this is the first time I have participated in the Count launch as the Chair of the Board. In the month leading up to the Count launch things were very busy. Last week, they were very intense. Emails were flying back and forth, my phone was a-buzz with text messages from Board members and people on the editorial teams. I was working to finish my essay on the risk of writing about and as a woman in a public forum. I zipped around Halifax on my bicycle rushing from task to task–teaching, grading, freelance work, regular life things–feeling a state of exhilaration.
I also felt really alone.
One of the things that I have realized about my own work–and here I mean that work that is in addition to academic work and the work that (doesn’t really) pay the bills–is that it is contradictory. Almost everything I do, from writing with the fine folks at Hook & Eye to chairing the board of a national non-profit with more than four hundred members, is collaborative. It is also incredibly solitary. Take, for instance, the fact that Aimée and I wrote together for this blog for two years before we met in person. Similarly, I have never met a few CWILA Board members in person, though we do meet via Skype on a monthly basis. But this isn’t a post about the ways in which social media and technology isolate us. There are plenty of those around. Technology can be phenomenal, of course. CWILA couldn’t function without access to software that allows the Board to meet despite the fact we are located in Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto, Halifax, and Innsbruck. No, what I was thinking about as we launched the CWILA Count and I looked around for people to celebrate with in person, feels a bit more complicated than simple isolation.
As I watched CWILA’s Count circulate (but not go viral… flagging inequity in a generative way isn’t trendy enough to trend, I guess) I was also watching the Internet unleash wrath against women again. Tanya Tagaq. Emma Watson. Emily Gould. These are all very different women who have experienced disproportionate and public backlash for their taking their own public stances. And that was just in the last few days. What I found myself thinking is this: how does one strike a balance between the hyper-useful publicness of web-based writing and collaboration and the ways in which, when it comes down to it, one is still alone. I don’t mean in the knock-Virginia-Woolf’s-room-and-a-salary alone, I mean something much more pernicious.
Let me try and get at it this way: when Hook & Eye first launched in 2009 we had a monthly column entitled “This Month in Sexism.” It is still one of our most-viewedpages, despite the fact that we had to pull it after only a month. Why? Not for lack of submissions, I can assure you. No, rather we received scads of submissions that began with the caveat “do not publish.” The submissions were coming, but the people sending them in didn’t want them published because they feared being recognized. It seemed to me that what we were providing was a safe space in which to articulate “this happened to me,” but that there wasn’t a safe space to publicly say “this happened. These things are happening.” And that’s one of the thorny problems with microaggressions, isn’t it? It is usually easier to absorb, ignore (is that really possible?), and get on with the work than it is to call out the issue.
Chairing the Board of CWILA and writing with Hook & Eye affords me the forums in which to think about how to usefully address microaggressions against women and other others. But that thinking can only get activated together.
I guess the administration at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign takes as dim a view of the dangers of wind chill as does the University of Waterloo. Students there complained much as students did here, only a significant number of UIUC students organized themselves into racist, sexist Twitter campaign under the hashtag “#fuckphyllis,” Phyllis M. Wise being the Chancellor who made the decision in question. Scott Jaschik reports on this in Inside Higher Ed; you can look up the hashtag yourself if you want but I’m not going to link it. Buzzfeed has screencapped some, and put together an overview.
I’m appalled but not surprised that the perhaps legitimate beef about the closure rapidly turned to to gender- and race-based expressions of hate. I’d like to compartmentalize that feeling and direct it at “American schools,” nice and far away from me, but I can’t. Because Waterloo has its own casual racism problem, it’s own casual sexism problem.
Did you know that a common nickname for my instutition among students is “Waterwoo”? I’ve had teenagers as well as adults reply with a laugh when I tell them where I work: “Oh! You’re at Waterwoo?” Har har. It’s got an entry in the Urban Dictionary. There is hashtag activity on Instagram, and on Twitter. This has mostly flown under the radar, but we could easily have a UIUC social media blowup on our hands, and in any case, shouldn’t we call this out as the structural issue it is, rather than wait for a crisis to tut-tut about, where we can satisfy ourselves by disciplining the more egregious outliers?
We should probably talk about “Waterwoo.”
There’s some complicated intersectionality at play: gender imbalance, racial sorting, privileging of some fields of study over others. Waterloo is considered to be a STEM powerhouse: mostly, math, computer science, engineering. These fields draw a lot of really smart kids, kids who work very hard all through high school. This includes many Canadian-born and international “Asian” kids whose parents place a premium on academic achievement, and particularly in these fields. The entrance grades are very high: “Asian students” are more likely to earn these kinds of grades. These fields, too, are more likely to draw male students, which also leads to the well-known fact that Waterloo is among the very few Canadian universities where male undergraduates outnumber female undergraduates.
You can see all these elements bubbling around the edges of a controversial piece by Macleans a few years ago. Originally titled “Too Asian?” but renamed “The enrolment controversy” after heavy social media panicking, this piece describes white, Canadian-born high school students picking their universities on grounds both explicitly and implicitly about race: lower entry requirements, better parties, which some come out and say means fewer hard-studying Asian students. Waterloo features prominently in the Macleans “Too Asian” article–indeed, we have a dour and studious reputation among our own students, who both mock the more fun-loving (and white) university 500m down the road from us, and try to attend their parties. They made a video. Then the engineers made a video. Our public relations department also made a video, responding to prominent PayPal co-founder Elon Musk, an engineer who chose Queens over Waterloo, because it had more women. For him to date, presumably, rather than to provide a more diverse and concomitantly richer set of study partners. The Macleans article references American conversations about high grades and the “model minority”–see also this article from Inside Higher Ed about how white subjects in one research study tie themselves into knots to maintain their own privilege in merit-based admission.
This usually simmers below the surface: the videos get respectable numbers of views but don’t go viral; the hashtags stay in use but never trend; the magazine retreats from actually having the conversation it started; coded language reframes issues of race around “study habits” or “party schools.”
How can we talk about this, taking everything into account? I’m not sure.
I wrote a piece about the no-win situation for women in engineering. That piece addressed gender and field of study, but not race. We have more serious issues of threatened violence against women as well, that Shannon Dea wrote about here. And in the fall I also wrote about the constant stream of men whose reasearch was featured on the university home page. I did again make explicit that they were all in the engineering, comp-sci and math fields. I didn’t note that they were mostly of Asian or South-east Asian descent. The preponderance of STEM research is what struck me as salient, while the race issue totally did not. But of course, it’s all linked in one messy intersectional soup: the neighbourhood where I live is overwhelmingly white, while campus is much more racially, ethnically, and culturally divers in ways I appreciate, but which are probably owing to our STEM dominance as much as our proximity to major immigrant diasporas in Toronto, Mississauga, and Brampton paricularly. What the (white) students complain about are inflated entry averages and a too-studious atmosphere and “accented” teachers they link to race. I am concerned about the humanities being devalued, and about the gender imbalances. It’s hard, ultimately, to tease all these issues apart.
I wanted to mark these issues, here and now, on the hook of an American controvery, before something blows up here. Maybe we can have a conversation oriented to structural, simmering resentments, exclusions, and stereotypes in a more programmatic and wide-ranging way. Before something goes viral, before something terrible happens.
I’m an English professor, right? And it frustrates me to no end that very few people seem to see the value of an English degree. We’ve all heard it from our relatives and colleagues in the real world: “So, are you going to be a teacher?” Or, “I’d better watch what I say around the grammar police!” Or, “Do you want fries with that?” Or, “How are you ever going to get a real job with no training?” Etc.
What’s even worse, for me, is hearing people who’ve completed English degrees (I’m looking at you, Margaret Wente, and also, distressingly, a lot of people I myself went to school with) bemoaning the “fact” that they have no discernible skills to show for it.
That hurts. I can maybe wrap my head around why people who have no experience of university-level training in English to maybe wonder how many poetry repair shoppes its graduates can reasonable expect to sustain. But our own grads? Failing to see what excellent writers and thinkers they are?
People, this week I learned about the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is basically that most people are really really bad at assessing their own level of competence in a given field of endeavour both in absolute terms, and relative to others. Go read the link. Go. It’s mindblowing, yet somehow obvious, work. This line of thinking has been crucial to totally reframing my understanding of why people in general and even people who should know better, are so eager to bash the humanities.
In brief, students who really don’t get the material don’t get it at such a level that they don’t even know how little they get. Got it? So, a student in the bottom quartile of a class might tell a researcher with perfect guilelessness that she’s a B- student. The idea is that there are some degrees of unknowing that are so deep that the unknower can’t even see the difference between their own (bottom quartile) efforts and an example paper from the top-achieving student. The research suggests that showing these student an exemplar paper does not help them learn: they think that’s what they already did.
To me, this explains how some quite skilled and smart people who don’t have English degrees somehow cannot see the differences between what they write, and what skilled and trained writers write. They literally cannot see the difference, and so to them, their skills are equal to the trained writers. So it’s not nastiness, it’s a metacognitive thing.
More amazing to me still was the corollary finding that top performers also consistently misrate … their relative level of skill. So an 85 student might say she thinks she has a roughly 85-level understanding, but where she makes her error is in thinking that most other students are probably getting 83 or 84. When in fact, they are getting 70. So the skilled student also falls into the error not of misrating her own knowledge, but of failing to recognize this skilled performace as skilled. So she is likely to downplay her talents as a baseline level of accomplishment that most people have. When they don’t.
So where this led me was to at least beginning to think I understand why the world at large, and even, heart-breakingly, our own graduates, undervalue skills in writing, and critical thinking, and analysis that we work so hard to foster. They can’t see the difference.
Now. How to fix?
As you’ve probably heard, there are still professors out there who say things like this:
“I don’t love women writers enough to teach them. That’s all I’m saying. What I teach are guys. If you want women writers, you go down the hall.” (David Gilmour)
“I got this job six or seven years ago, usually the University of Toronto doesn’t allow people to become professors without a doctorate. You have to have a doctorate to teach here, but they asked if I would teach a course, and I said I would. I’m a natural teacher, I was trained in television for many years. I know how to talk to a camera, therefore I know how to talk to a room of students.” (David Gilmour)
“But I can only teach stuff I love. I can’t teach stuff that I don’t, and I haven’t encountered any Canadian writers yet that I love enough to teach.I’m not interested in teaching books by women. Virginia Woolf is the only writer that interests me as a woman writer, so I do teach one of her short stories. But once again, when I was given this job I said I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love. Unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese, or women.” (David Gilmour)
And then blame any offense on misinterpretation, or bad intent, or being distracted by a Frenchman:
“And this is a young woman who kind of wanted to make a little name for herself, or something…” (David Gilmour)
“I’m sorry for hurting your sensibilities…” (David Gilmour)
“Quite frankly, I was speaking to a Frenchman, so I was more concerned with my French than I was with what I was saying to this young woman. But I think anybody who teaches Truman Capote cannot be attacked for being an anti-anything.” (David Gilmour)
But provide opportunities for smart and open-minded critics to say things like this:
“I’ve got a dare for you, David Gilmour. I dare you – I fucking dare you – to spend six months reading nothing but writers who aren’t white cis males. Read female writers. Read Chinese writers. Read queer and trans and disabled writers. Read something that’s difficult for you to love, then take a deep breath and try harder to love it. Immerse yourself in worlds and thoughts and perspectives that are incredibly different from your own. Find a book that can change you and then let yourself be changed.” (Anne Thériault)
“I now believe that professors have an ethical responsibility to show their students the world, as best they can. I’m not calling for quotas, and I’m not saying bad books should be taught through affirmative action. I am calling for those in positions to influence the understanding and discussion of literature to think bigger and better, to see farther and wider. To, quite simply, do better. We’ll all benefit.” (Jared Bland)
I really enjoyed reading Aimée Morrison’s Wednesday post on the importance of participating in public discussions of our work. I think many of us shy away from this kind of engagement because our graduate programmes do not offer much in the way of media training, and so the world of the mainstream media (despite being a regular object of study for some of us) also remains an intimidating place.
When I decided to join the Hook and Eye team, I knew that the first blog post I wanted to write would be about my own (failed) attempt to disseminate my research in the mainstream media. While at congress in Waterloo this past spring, a paper that I presented at the Canadian Women’s Studies Association discussing gender inequality in the Canadian comedy industry was picked up by the National Post to be featured as part of their “Oh the Humanities” series. I was genuinely excited about this opportunity, and really enjoyed speaking to the reporter about my work. The day that the story was published, my excitement very quickly turned to dread and trauma as violently negative reactions to my scholarship began filling the comments sections of the article. Not only had the story been generally poorly received, but actual female stand-up comedians – the subjects of my research – were chiming in to angrily explain how completely, utterly offensive were all of my claims. It was a moment of extreme academic vulnerability, in which I had to reckon with the terrifying possibility that I had gotten it all wrong.
Through much reflection, and a major appeal for support from my academic network, I came to the decision that I had not been wrong. The claims that I made about the gendered nature of humour, specifically the way that we are socialized to experience humour as gendered, and the long term effects that this has on the numbers and types of female comedians currently working in the industry were well reasoned, supported with field observations, and align with similar research findings about humour and gender in other disciplines and contexts.
What I had gotten wrong, was my articulation of this research in a non-academic context. It is difficult to explain theories of social construction, and having not done it justice, the potential for massive misinterpretation of my work as being a reinforcement of gender division (rather than a critique of it) was fully realized. My research was taken up as part of the problem, not as part of the solution. My work was hated by the very research subjects that I cared about, and whose continued success I wanted to ensure by better understanding the conditions of the reception of their humour.
I wanted to write about this experience because it reinforced for me one of the most important aspects of feminist scholarship: sometimes our research has to be unpopular. As a popular culture scholar, I had become accustomed to advice from my peers which claimed that mine was a fortunate area of study because it has a mass audience. I would be more likely to get media attention and, since everyone is familiar with my subject, the “public” would be more likely to take an interest in it. This gave me a false sense of security. I somehow believed that my research would be easily explained, that my critiques of the inequalities that I had observed would be accepted, and that my research would be considered valuable. I was not expecting such a wholesale rejection.
As feminist scholars, however, we should all be accustomed to our research findings being, at times, resisted and rejected. This is a consequence of doing political work, but it is absolutely no reason to stop pushing for its dissemination. At a time when academics are increasingly being pressured to create industry partnerships in order to bolster the practical applications of their scholarship, it is difficult to maintain an unpopular research agenda. As feminist scholars, we need to continue to make bold claims, to ask difficult questions, and to be willing to face criticisms on the road to realizing the social change that we are all pushing for.
Although I consider my first foray into the role of “expert” to have been an unmitigated failure, I absolutely agree with Aimée, we need more female scholars offering their expertise in the media. This isn’t always easy, but it is definitely always worthwhile.