accomodation · administration · bad academics · race · slow academy · solidarity · structural solutions · turgid institution

Accomodation: Where We Waver

The Toronto Star reported the story late last week: in the fall term, Sociology professor Paul Grayson received a request for religious accomodation from a student in an online course. The student, referencing an unspecified religious tradition, expressed an unwillingness to do the one (collaborative) on-campus exercise where he would be placed in a group of other students, if that group included women. He asked to be allowed an alternative assignment. Grayson’s impulse was to say ‘no’, on the basis of gender equality. Sensing that this was likely to be a controversial request and decision, he forwarded it up the chain to his dean, and the dean to the in-house human rights committee.

Amazingly, the dean of arts, Martin Singer, while expressing “unwavering commitment to gender equality and sincere regret,” claims to have had “no choice” but to grant the accomodation, as reported in the Globe and Mail. York President Mamdouh Shoukri released a statement on the matter as well, after the matter drew public comment from Conservative MP Peter McKay, Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair of the NDP, and Liberal MPP and Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities Brad Duguid. Shoukri is struck by the “complexities” of such requests while asserting that “We must always safeguard rights such as gender equality, academic freedom and freedom of expression, which form the foundation of any secular post-secondary institution.”

Marina Nemat, an author and educator who fled Iran for Canada because her defense of women’s rights put her in danger, discusses the York issue in an op-ed entitled “I expected this back in Iran, not at York University.” Sheema Khan, a regular columnist at the Globe who served as chair of the Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations in the early 2000s is similarly clear in her dismissal of the York decision, in a piece entitled “What York University Forgot: Gender Equality is Not Negotiable.”

I wanted to flag this controversy here, as well as the particular issues that resonate with me.

First, this is a case study in intersectionality and its supposed discontents. It comes out more like helpless postmodern relativism rather than a clear-eyed balancing of the needs of a diverse population. York’s administrators see competing but somehow equal interests here: various “minority” viewpoint that require “accomodation.” There seems to be as much risk-aversion as ignorance involved. Remember, the student’s particular religious requirements are unknown: it is not allowed to ask a student to identify his or her religion, so the request for accomodation remains vague. Grayson, unsure what to do, consulted researchers at York who worked on both Muslim and Orthodox Jewish questions of faith and practice, trying to guess at the student’s religion from his (redacted) last name: neither scholar could think of any doctrinal or scriptural basis for granting such a request.

York administrators seem to have consulted case law. They are acting in ignorance and fear, which is hardly the point of accomodation. A truly accepting and open (secular) institution could respect and understand its students, all of its students. This legislated accomodation seems more a knee-jerk lawsuit avoiding strategey–particularly since one of the reasons stated for granting it was that a student studying overseas was allowed to opt-out of the on-campus group work. Um, what?

Second, it seems pretty clear that Dean Singer’s commitment to gender equality is not at all unwavering. It wavered, and collapsed, at the very first challenge. If Singer imagines that the accomodation granted is not a significant erosion of women’s rights on campus he seems beyond help. I probably needn’t paint this picture in terrible detail for you: you live it. Women are tainted. Women are to be avoided. Women are a sinful distraction. Riiiiiiiight. How on earth can anyone not see this as an existential threat to women’s right to full participation in public life?

Third, there’s a kind of accomodation poker being played here, with the variously marginalized equity-seeking groups (women! “blacks”! “muslims”!) are each invoked to raise the stakes in the rhetorical game of chicken everyone is playing. The game goes something like this: the student doesn’t want to work with women … but what if it was blacks he requested to be apart from? What then? Or, religious accomodation is very important, but think of the women! Whose rights are paramount to us (this from the Conservative MPs). This game is disingenous. In human rights trump card bingo, only one player out of the marginalized participants can win a zero sum game whose moves are made by the powerful. In many comments I’m reading a strategic defense of women’s rights to demonize “Muslims” and their “beliefs” that makes me profoundly uncomfortable. I’m scare-quoting because, remember, we don’t know what the student’s religion is, or what beliefs the proposed group work contravenes. This rhetorical game pits every one against each other and when the powerful then throw up their hands in the face of its (rigged) unwinnable nature, they even try to accrue bonus points for caring so much to balance rights. Bullshit. You might have heard something about why we are constantly at war with religiously-defined organizations in various parts of Asia; they want to trample women’s rights, you know. The about face is stunning: both word-games are at least as dangerous as they are disingenous.

Fourth, this controversy points up the massive scale of my own ignorance. I know a fair bit about women’s rights. I know something about trauma, about mental health, about medical accomodation. I know very, very little at all about religions other than the one I was raised in. This is shameful. I’m trying to learn more about different faith traditions, different sacred days and sacred practices. Because if as student made a similar accomodation request from me, I might not be able to accurately assess it. Which makes me more like a York administrator than the intersectional feminist I aspire to be. Alas.

You know what? Grayson told the student his request was unreasonable. The student thanked him for his consideration of the request, and consented to participate, understanding the competing interests at play. There’s a lesson in that human-scale interaction, I think.

academy · mental health · politics · turgid institution

Fatigue and the World University Rankings

SSHRC deadline was yesterday. I submitted the application. I seem to be unable to write in complex sentences as a result. And yet, I am attempting to write a coherent blog post. All week long I thought I wanted to write about fatigue. The students’, my own. Yours, too? Why is it that, no matter how much I work to prevent it, the September freight train always hits me. Always. All ways.

And now, when SSHRC is finally put to rest, fatigue. But not just my own. This year, I was struck by just how tired the students are. The ones in my classes are mostly first-years, so you’d expect more bright-eyed-bushy-tailed than weight-of-the-world-crushing-me types. It’s sad, really, how fast they go from the former to the latter. Two weeks? Three tops. And now, it’s the end of week 5 out of 13, and it seems like we’ve all aged a couple of years.

In seemingly unrelated news, the Times Higher Education World University Rankings came out a couple of days ago. Did you notice? Did you talk about them? Have an opinion on them? Where’s your U on it? The Globe and Mail tells us that, on the whole, Canadian universities are dropping this year. The University of Alberta fell in these Rankings from spot 100 in 2011 to 121 in 2012. This news will undoubtedly cause some soul-searching in the higher levels of the academy this week. Either that or some questioning of the methodologies, as it happened a few years ago, some Canadian universities bowed out of the Maclean’s rankings, because of dissatisfaction with their methods of inquiry.

So, what’s the connection between fatigue and the THE Rankings? I’m not sure, but the links emerged in my head as other questions. Such as, does it have anything to do with the the increasingly precarious positions of teaching staff? Or the rising debt levels students undertake to pay for their education? Or the lack of transparency in decision-making, which is part of the very situation of precarity of the New Faculty Majority? And how does the post-Recession permanent state of exception (it’s recession, so no new hirings, no replacement hirings, no budget) in universities affect this generalized fatigue? What non-quantifiable qualities are lost in the ensuing budget cuts and job losses and generalized austerity?

Ultimately, how can we combat this fatigue?

faculty evaluation · global academy · reform · research · risky writing · turgid institution

Scholarly Publishing is Broken

Scholarly publishing is broken–at least journal publishing, and at least in my experience–and I don’t want to be complicit in this brokenness anymore, just because it serves some of my purposes, some of the time.

Most loftily, we scholars imagine that we are creating new knowledge, and that new knowledge is a good thing, that it can move our collective human project forward, in some small way. It gets moved only once this new knowledge is publicized. Hence, scholarly publishing.

Much less loftily, scholarship is a kind of labour that we exchange for tokens of esteem, power, and reputation, the currency of the academy. The recognized coin of this realm is peer-reviewed, published pages. Hence, scholarly publishing.

I know that I want to create new knowledge, and change the world! And if I can get a full professorship into the bargain, as well as win the disciplinary and institutional pissing contests by which goods are allotted within the Ivory Tower, well, all the better.

These goals can conflict.

And so it is that I find myself in the weird position of having an article scheduled to appear in Women Communication Scholarship (pseudonym) and am ambivalent, even angry, about it. My little story indicates at least one small way that scholarly publication is broken, and how some of it is our own damn fault. Is my fault.

What’s making me angry is that I submitted to this journal because of its high reputation, its high rejection rate, its mass adoption by academic libraries … and it turns out that they have a standing two year delay on publication. Let me be perfectly clear: once you go through the whole year of being reviewed and re-reviewed and your piece is accepted, your publication date will be TWO FURTHER YEARS IN THE FUTURE. I expressed some shock to the editor when she sent me my August 2014 publication date, in April 2012. She is shocked, too, having witnessed the creeping commercialization of this work over a generation of editorship. But this delay is their new standard. They have a perpetual backlog of submissions and accepted papers, because of their impact, and because they are published by a commercial publisher, who will not let them clear this out with some double print issues, they will have a TWO YEAR DELAY FOR THE REST OF THE WORLD.

Now, I work in new media. My article will be about three years old when it finally appears. Older, actually, because it’s based on a survey that took some time to complete. It will be historical by the time it appears. It’s going to be out of the page proofs stage by Labour day of this year, then SIT IN A DIGITAL DRAWER FOR TWO MORE YEARS before it gets printed. As the bemused editor wrote to me, the brave new world of academic editing of commercially-published journals “both requires that we publish scholarship and that we don’t publish scholarship.”

This seems really, really wrong.

I consulted Twitter. My friends and colleagues in digital humanities were appalled. Some suggested pulling the article and submitting it somewhere with a faster turnaround. Some suggested back-door self-publishing–that is, use the citation information from the “forthcoming” journal and put the paper online somewhere so people could read it before it becomes irrelevant. I like this idea of guerrilla self-publishing.

I consulted my chair, who consulted my dean. They, by contrast, congratulated me on having my work “appear” in such a high profile venue, and told me to leave it there. I should not retract the article to publish it elsewhere with a lower impact factor, just to get it into readers’ hands. I could put it on my CV, they said, and it would “count” this year. So I will get a raise for heaving my work into a deep well. I must confess I like this idea, too, of appearing successful and important among my peers, and getting a raise, to boot.

To summarize: I get lots of chest-beating institutional credit for this “publication.” But no one actually gets to read my scholarship. It all leaves a very bad taste in my mouth.

This current publishing system is broken. It pits our desires for reputation and stature against a true public good, and removes the whole thing from academic hands to place it into commercial ones who have been quite canny at exploiting our desires for status and our lack of desire for detail work in marketing, bean counting, and publication.

As for me, I’m leaving the article where it is: this is the third journal I’ve submitted it to (it’s interdisciplinary and I have had the misfortune of getting one glowing and one damning review every where else it’s travelled) and I really want this work stamped with approval and circulating, however distant the future in which that happens. As a compromise between my ambitions and my scruples, I asked the editor if I could put a “pre-print” online, and she said it’s technically not allowed but that she understands, informally, that many other people do it. Nudge-nudge, wink-wink.

I ask you: if an article falls into the Taylor and Francis journal system and no one gets to read it, is any new knowledge created? If we’re all circulating these papers “pre-print” why are we bothering with these commercial publications at all, except for personal professional gain? And what should we do?

academic reorganization · job notes · slow academy · turgid institution

The social scholar

How much of the life of the mind is solitary, and how much is social?

I got incensed yesterday by an article by William Pannapacker in the Chronicle of Higher Education on introversion and extraversion and the contemporary university. I admire Pannapacker: he’s a great writer, and pulls no punches, and it’s been interesting to watch him describe what’s happening in one of my fields, digital humanities, in which he’s an interested beginner. I have, in fact, written him fan emails years ago when he was still writing under a pseudonym there. So I was dismayed to see this particular piece, and the comments it engendered: it’s introverts versus extraverts, with some name calling.

I said my piece in the comments there, and even I got derailed into some essentialist arguments. What I want to think about today is a little different, distinct from who has what personality and such. I want to think structurally.

We refer, often, to the profession of professor as dedicated to the life of the mind. But what exactly does that mean? What picture does that call up in your mind? For me, I usually see some American looking Ivy League style library, or a well-appointed faculty office lit by an incandescent bulb ensconced in a tasteful table lamp, and sitting there is a man in a tweed jacket, reading a book. (Really, I am a professor, but my mental image of the idealized case of the life of the mind is some dude from the cliché). If I stretch, I see someone leading a small seminar with a dozen students, or lecturing to a big hall.

So the life of the mind in my imagination doesn’t actually match my experience or my own ideals, really.

Most of our reward structures in higher education are geared toward rewarding the fruits of solitary endeavour: peer-reviewed articles and scholarly monographs are the primary currency of faculty assessment from “R1” universities and increasingly on down to community colleges. Plaques and pats on the head are awarded for good or excellent teaching, and teaching ostensibly constitutes 40% of what we are assessed on at year end. But it’s telling that there’s no prescribed format on a CV for documenting teaching, but Victorianesque gradations and hierarchies of research output and its documentation. And when’s the last time anyone but a student evaluated your teaching, by actually witnessing it? And it is significant to note that when a university wants to be taken more seriously on the world stage one way it does so is by reducing the number of courses that faculty members have to teach. Service work, I think we can all agree, is something that matters–in the assessment sense, which is where the rubber hits the road–barely at all, unless one takes on a major administrative post where suits and regular business hours are required.

So the life of the mind that the university promotes and rewards looks pretty solitary, too: most important is solo-authored writing projects, less teaching is better for everyone, and being good at meetings matters hardly at all.

Let me reframe: in the way the university generally rewards (and thus seeks to shape) faculty behaviour, it pushes us away from the collective or the interpersonal and towards isolation and solitary work.

Is that how universities actually best function? I would put teaching at the centre of what a university is for, and teaching is among the least solitary activities I can imagine. Teaching, for me, is trying to win the hearts and minds of 40 individuals, while pushing them hard to conquer difficult material. Teaching is about figuring out the audience and plotting how to get them where I need to know: I have the knowledge, but if they don’t get on board, the ship of knowledge I’m trying to pilot is a ghost vessel. And service work. I don’t want to talk about meetings (much less go to them) but it’s hard to overstate how much the conditions of our work are debated and set in committees: curriculum, policy, new programs, new buildings, discipline. Pretty much all of it.

And this work is all social. You need to work with other people to get it done.

What I really wanted to write about today is the sociality of scholarship and the opportunities presented by social media. But just reading my (really long) setup above, I begin to see why many, many in the profession look askance at professorial blogging and tweeting and even conference-going or workshop attending. It’s of a piece with the more general elevation of solitary scholarly production and the deprecation of anything taking place in rooms (virtual or otherwise) with more than one person in them.

Hm. Maybe I’ll have to come back to this. But for now, I mostly think the idea that the institution discriminates in some meaningful way against solitary practices is bunkus: it looks like there’s a lot of teaching and meetings and events that we’re all supposed to go to, but at base these are all secondary or tertiary to the main thing.

hiring · history · research · teaching · turgid institution

Specialist? Or expert?

What makes a specialist?  What makes an expert? These are the questions that haunt me on Sunday afternoons, apparently.

If you were to look me up on my fancy new website you would see that I do most of my teaching in the contemporary period, and, if I’m lucky, in either Canadian poetry or Canadian literary and cultural topics more generally. If you were to look at my Dalhousie faculty page you can see a different presentation of my specializations. However, if you were to ask me whether I was an expert in something or other I wouldn’t immediately know what to say.

Take, for example, a typical Saturday: for me involves writing several of my lectures for the upcoming week. Though I have now been teaching more or less full time since I finished my PhD in 2008 it has only been in the last year or so that I have been able to teach a class for the second or third time. Inevitably, every semester I am teaching at least one new course. Now, while the courses I teach are in my areas of specialization–albeit sometimes broadly speaking–I certainly can’t profess to be an expert in Canadian Gothic Revival Architecture or Jeremy Bentham or Charles G.D. Roberts, for that matter. Can I lecture on these topics and figures? Of course I can, and I can say with some confidence that I do so fairly well. Indeed, two of the three topics I listed even fall under one or more of the categories of my  candidacy exams (which were 19th and 20th century women’s writing in English, contemporary critical theory, and contemporary Canadian poetry). However, expert I am not.

Certainly, part of my broad specialization comes from my extensive teaching experience. As a limited term appointment I teach between 6-9 courses a year (that’s including spring term). Though I am amused by the (fallacious) assumption that because I am an ‘expert in literature’ I am good at things like Scrabble, I am mostly happy with my specializations being broad and my interests being many. Further, I should say that while I have broad specializations I am categorizable when it comes to the terms set out by job advertisements. Nonetheless, I found myself wondering, are the pressures of the current job market as well as the increasing focus on graduate student professionalization changing scholars from experts to specialists? From specialists to experts? Or are experts endangered? Or is the difference between the two terms merely a difference in approach? Am I just creating false dichotomies? And, so long as the teaching and research is solid, does it matter?

When I asked two colleagues what they thought of my question about the difference between specialists and experts they were both of the general opinion that the difference between the two has always existed. One colleague related that she had seen a compelling talk by an expert in the music and culture of 1934. When asked what his next book would be, he replied ‘1935!’ I am awed by the ability to think, research, and write in such a systematic way. Such expertise and depth of knowledge reminds me of my first Romantic literature professor who could recite not only the Wordsworth’s poems, but also revisions, and letters referencing revisions. From memory! But I’m equally awed by the ability of a scholar who can pull together diverse references, time periods, and approaches to unpack a set of questions.

What do you think, readers? Is there a difference between an expert and a specialist? Do you call yourself one or the other?

equity · global academy · slow academy · turgid institution

Guest Post: Academic hierarchies

Here is a guest post from Linda Warley, associate professor of English at the University of Waterloo, about her experiences abroad this term.

Academic hierarchies: women and status in different contexts

I am currently a visiting professor at the University of Zagreb, Croatia. A year before I came here, soon after the initial contact was made and I expressed interest in this position, a member of the English department—let’s call her Natasha—was “assigned” to be my contact person. I assumed that she was an Assistant Professor (I knew that she had recently defended her PhD), but it turns out that she is what we call a CLA. (Big shout out to all CLAs who read this blog!) I was somewhat surprised that a sessional instructor would be given the responsibility of looking after me—answering my million questions, arranging for the flat I live in, scheduling my course, getting me set up with a mobile phone, a transit pass, keys to my office, access to the internet, and so on. Natasha has been there for me at every moment. She picked me up at the airport; she showed me where and how to get around; she’s sitting in on my course and is invaluable if I have questions about how things are done at their university, what students need to know or what they can expect. Heck, her husband even fixed a broken cupboard door in my flat. I asked her why she had been “assigned” to me (one would have thought this was a chair’s job, or at least another member of the regular faculty’s job). The answer: because she teaches a course in my area. Ohhhhkay…? It had nothing—and everything—to do with her status.

At the University of Zagreb the department promises recent PhDs three years of sessional teaching, after which their contracts may or may not be renewed. Since there are so few faculty jobs available in a small country like Croatia, this is a lifeline for the newly PhD’d academic. However, unlike at our Canadian universities (at least those that I know), here sessional instructors do not seem to be considered peers. I don’t want to overstate the case at Canadian universities but I would say that we treat sessionals as professional, independent academics. But here it seems that the sessional instructor’s labour is still available to her former PhD supervisor. My colleague refers to her former supervisor as her “boss” (perhaps jokingly) and she tells me that the boss can get her to do all sorts of things, through assumed loyalty and through asserted power. Teach a class while the boss is away. Look up references in the library that the boss was too lazy to track down herself. Proofread the boss’s article. Set and mark an exam for the boss’s course—a course that the sessional herself has not taught. Now, we might get our graduate students to do this kind of thing (except the exam setting bit) BUT WE WOULD PAY THEM FOR THEIR WORK. Moreover, CLAs are not only expected to do administrative work it is often dumped on them. Wow. I would say no full time job means no responsibility for administration—unless I chose to involve myself, which some CLAs in Canada do.

The academic hierarchy here is very Austro-Hungarian. Formal, trenchant. The older members of the department do not have much to do with the younger ones, certainly not socially. And even professionally there is a boundary that is not easily crossed. Most troublingly, the older women professors do not seem to support the younger women in the department. Any male—professor, CLA, visiting professor—is held in higher esteem than their own female colleagues. I have been treated with respect (after all, I am a tenured professor) but also with a certain aloofness. So I’ve been hanging out with the younger women in the department. They are my kind. They are also fun. Being here has taught me a lot about my own context. It makes me realize how much status I do have. I hope that I am using that status partly to foster the careers of my younger colleagues. I was certainly lucky to have been mentored by my senior colleagues, especially the women. After all, isn’t that what women do?

Linda Warley
University of Waterloo

equity · turgid institution

Gender Pay Gap Narrows! (er….)

If you subscribe to Ken Steele’s Academica list, you will have been heartened, Monday morning, to read the following:  

Gender pay gap for academic staff narrows, CAUT study finds: According to a new report from the Canadian Association of University Teachers, the gender pay gap for academic staff in the country narrowed significantly. According to the data, the overall gender pay difference was just less than 11% in 2006, down from nearly 19% in 1986.


But wait a second. If you trouble to click through to the report itself, you might want to hold that buoyancy in check. While the report does say, “The male-female salary differential amongst university teachers, when adjusted for academic rank and age, has narrowed slightly in the last twenty years,” it goes on to say, “However, a persistent gap remains, one that cannot be explained by rank or age.”

[Sidebar: Academica apologized “for suggesting anything different than what was outlined in CAUT’s study. We had based our summary on the Bulletin article, not the full report. We have edited the item on our website to include further information contained in the full report. We are considering issuing a postscript in the Top Ten on the report’s conclusion.”]

Connect this to the story in last week’s New York Times about the ambivalent consequences of MIT’s about-face, or to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s recent anemic coverage of women in academic leadership, and it feels like we may never win: as Erin said on Monday, it’s one step forward, two steps back.

The CAUT report, available here, is worth reading in its 8-page entirety. It is significant for adjusting StatsCan data to control differences in academic rank and age. The review finds that salary differentials between men and women are smallest at the lecturer levels, highest at the full professor level, and that salary inequity grows as a cohort moves through the rank. (The study compares women to men only; there is no analysis of race, national origin, sexual orientation, or disability. There is some disciplinary and regional breakdown.)

What is most interesting, if also unsettling, is the review’s (short) discussion of why salary inequity persists: 

Overt discrimination may play a role, but it is more likely that the remaining salary differential between men and women is a by-product of university salary structures and procedures which have the effect of disadvantaging women on average. Differences in negotiated starting salaries, though small at first, accumulate over time and generate greater gaps in later years. Most university salary structures also include market supplements and merit awards. It may be that women face discrimination in decisions taken with respect to supplements and merit pay.

Women may also be disadvantaged by the traditional academic salary grid system with the numerous progress through the ranks (PTE) steps. The steep lifetime compensation curve characteristic of such systems tends to reward those with significant occupational tenure. Since women are more likely to experience career interruptions related to childbearing, their progress through the salary grid may be slower and may result in lower earnings compared to their male colleagues.

What troubles me here is the rock and the hard place: on the one hand, the corporate-university model of free-market entrepreneurship (“market supplements and merit awards”) where women apparently don’t promote themselves sufficiently as individuals; on the other, the noble tradition of faculty associations and unions (“the traditional academic salary grid system”) that leaves women disadvantaged as a group. This double bind reminds me why I am always skeptical of critiques of the corporate university (Stanley Aronowitz, Cary Nelson, Randy Martin, e.g.): agreed, the free-enterprise model is dangerous for teaching and learning, but is it really worse, as a workplace, than the old boys’ network? Just think about the actually-existing organization, work style, recent decisions and executive membership of the union or faculty association at your university, and tell me it’s unequivocally good for women. (Really: if yours is good for women, let’s hear about it.)

The CAUT report is at its weakest in suggesting what is to be done:

First, universities should provide for greater gender equity in hiring… Secondly, universities and academic staff associations must … address the fact that … the gender salary gap rises with years of experience and progress through the ranks. Further, institutions and faculty associations will need to assess how current merit awards and salary grid systems may be contributing to the gender pay gap, particularly in later years.

It concludes, “Ultimately, the academic community may need to explore alternative salary systems that will ensure greater parity.”

What would those look like?

For me, answering that question should follow some imaginative feminist thinking about what our universities should be like as a whole. How do we imagine our citizenship in the academy? What should collegial governance look like? What kind of structures do we want to build? What is the right pace for academic life: fast feminism / slow academe, as this blog purports, or something different? What do we want to reward, and how?

And then, of course, the biggest question: how do we get there from here?

bad academics · bad news · broken heart · femimenace · righteous feminist anger · sexist fail · solidarity · turgid institution

How we’re ‘celebrating’ International Women’s Day at the University of Waterloo

Today is International Women’s Day. While we have much to celebrate–and indeed, have taken to celebrating here on this blog–it remains true that women do not enjoy the full complement of human rights in much of the world. Here at the University of Waterloo, a recent spate of incidents on campus and online demonstrate that even on the campus of a research university in Canada, women are still the targets of hate for some, and, perhaps, not taken fully seriously by others.

This is a guest post by Shannon Dea, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, and Associate Chair of Undergraduate Studies in Philosophy, here at UW.


For just under a month, women at University of Waterloo have been terrorized by an anonymous propagandist who claims that women’s “defective moral intelligence” poses a serious risk to the planet. Starting on February 7, when student election posters for female candidates were covered by misogynistic flyers, there have been three waves of flyers (two of them attached to eccentric and disturbing email messages) and two Facebook messages disseminated by an author who has variously referred to himself as Lord Irwin, nath007, Feridun Hamdullahpur (University of Waterloo’s president), and Sylvester J. Pussycat. The rustic and syntactically idiosyncratic communications, the most recent of which was emailed to assorted students, staff and faculty members late March 1, have bit by bit advanced the thesis that women should not be educated as highly as men, and that universities should not teach gender equity, because woman’s deceptively weak exterior hides her evil interior. When women are educated and treated as equals, according to the propagandist, they pose a real danger to the planet. The poster girl for this campaign is Marie Curie, who figures prominently in all of the flyers, and is characterized by their author as the “mother of the Nuclear bomb,” as the “evil” woman responsible for the deaths at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and as the Eve leading a hapless Adam-Pierre Curie toward the apple of Nuclear weaponry.

Understandably, women at UW are frightened. The day after the first Marie Curie email was sent out, the student government (the Federation of Students) closed the university’s volunteer-run Women’s Centre and LGBT student centre (GLOW), out of concern for volunteers’ safety. And, rightly so. Both centres are obvious targets. And, while the propagandist’s misogynistic ambitions may not extend beyond distributing his paranoid ramblings, no one’s willing to rule out the terrible possibility UW might join the ranks of Polytéchnique Montréal or Virginia Tech.

Well, no one but the University, that is.

Throughout this business, the administration has had remarkably little to say about UW women’s fears that the flyers may be warning signs of a misogynist who poses a real danger to them. At first, the University’s newsletter, the Daily Bulletin, didn’t discuss the flyers, with at least one staffer there dismissing them as a “prank”. Then, when the propagandist sent an email in which he impersonated Hamdullahpur, the Daily Bulletin reprinted an official letter from the president deploring the offensive message conveyed by the flyers and assuring readers that the president wasn’t really the email’s author. Of course, no one had ever taken seriously the idea that Hamdullahpur might really have sent the offending email. This wasn’t the message the university community needed to hear. We needed to hear that senior administrators and campus police were concerned about our safety and knew that the only way to secure it was to devote all of their resources to apprehending “Lord Irwin.” However, in the various official communications since this all began, the university has remained limp.

In a discussion panel concerning the flyer campaign, audience members were disappointed to hear that the UW Police were pursuing the mystery man for charges of impersonation (of the president) and posting prohibited flyers. If they had any leads, they didn’t let on. Of course, I hope that the reason the UW Police are investigating misdemeanour charges against the perpetrator is that they know it’s important to catch him before he hurts someone and these misdemeanour charges are the best mechanism currently available to catch him. That is, I hope that the police are taking the incidents and the investigation more seriously than the charges they’re investigating would, in themselves, warrant. I hope that these charges are to the author of the posters as tax evasion charges were to Al Capone. While I hope all of these things to be true, no communication we’ve yet received from the University has warranted any confidence in these hopes. Instead, we get periodic reassurances that police are taking “appropriate action” and that all members of the UW community have the right to be safe and to feel safe.

Well, sure we do, but what I need right now isn’t a university administrator telling me “I really want you to feel safe.” What I need is a crack team of computer scientists – this is University of Waterloo, after all! – quickly tracing the emails and Facebook messages back to their author before he hurts someone.

Emblematic of administrators’ blindness to women’s fears was Associate Provost Bud Walker’s advice to audience members at the discussion panel that “You probably think everyone here is on our side, but there might be people walking through this room right now who don’t understand that women have a right to equitable treatment.” [Ok. Full disclosure: Walker has never in his life, so far as I know, uttered the sentence “Women have a right to equitable treatment.” But the foregoing is a plausible, if charitable, paraphrase of what he actually did say.] This shows just how wide the gap is between Walker’s experience and that of women at UW. No UW woman ever enters a public space on campus and assumes that everyone there agrees that she has a right to be there, and to be treated as an equal. As one after another audience member revealed in the Q & A following the panel, the climate for UW women is a chilly one at best, and sometimes it gets downright cold.

How cold is it? Well, cold enough that weekly flyers railing against the evil that is woman have become a thing here. And cold enough that, within days of the scariest of these flyers, the following remarks about the matter were posted on Bill’s Portfolio, a blog authored by a self-described UW student: “Yeah, the campus is full of big bad scary monsters…. Now, most UW students that I know are intelligent enough to know that this shit is wrong…. Yes, it is wrong, yes, it is inappropriate, but get a life if you are going to fuss and cry over stupid shit like this. Because if you do, you must be living in a sheltered bubble.”

Now that’s cold.

teaching · turgid institution · work

You’re on …. whose side?

Some time ago, an external evaluator turned me down for something, and it fell to my Chair – a wonderful administrator, a compassionate person and a good feminist – to explain it. “This person is working with you,” said my Chair. “There are lots of excellent suggestions for how to improve. This evaluator is on your side.”

My eyebrows flew into my hairline, the universal sign for BULLSHIT.

If you caught Madeleine Li’s sickening story about being awarded for teaching excellence while being denied tenure, you’ll recognize the pattern. Explaining why she didn’t chop her book manuscript into stand-alone articles, she writes, “I really wanted the book contract, and was felled by a supportive letter asking me to revise and resubmit. The letter was encouraging but not what I needed.”

I bring this up in connection with Erin’s Monday post about reading teaching evaluations in a context that recognizes systemic prejudicial assumptions about gender, race, sexual orientation, age, authority, and competence. It’s not just students who evaluate professors. We evaluate each other all the time, too. The question behind this post is, how do we reconcile rigor (or quality, or excellence, or competence) with all of the gendered and raced inequities that we know structure academic work?

The answer is not obvious. On the one hand, of course we care about rigor: we are academics, nobody wants to give the nod to shoddy work. We are probably all familiar with the research on blind auditions for symphony positions. (Simply put: blind auditions resulted in more chairs for women musicians.) We want scholarship to stand on its own, and we would bristle at the suggestion that women academics be held to different standards than men.

On the other hand, we know that women, immigrants, Aboriginals, queers and visible minorities (some of us fit more than one category here, obviously) labour under differential conditions than our male, white, middle-aged, conventionally gendered colleagues. The demands to mentor and model, to lend a helping hand, whether that be to the next generation of scholars or to the community, are greater for some than for others, and these differential workloads result in women taking longer than men to be tenured and, especially, promoted. Don’t take my word for it; here’s a gem from the latest AAUP publication, The Ivory Ceiling of Service Work:

Men [associate professors] spent seven and a half hours more a week on their research than did women. Even if these differences in research time occurred only during semesters, not during summer or holiday breaks, this would mean that men spent in excess of two hundred more hours on their research each year than women. On the other hand, women associate professors taught an hour more each week than men, mentored an additional two hours a week, and spent nearly five hours more a week on service. This translates to women spending roughly 220 more hours on teaching, mentoring, and service over two semesters than men at that rank.

Whenever I am asked to review a file, I am uncomfortably aware of inequities like these. Uncomfortably aware – yet not at all sure what to do.

bad academics · grad school · ideas for change · turgid institution

So you want to get a funded PhD in the humanities?

By Matt Schneider, PhD Candidate

Over the past week, this blog has been abuzz with insightful and well-considered responses to the now-infamous “So You Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities” video. The conversation has unearthed a number of important concerns, and has identified some worrisome trends that have emerged in scholarship in the humanities, especially concerning the teleological assumption that PhD students are working towards employment in the academy. These concerns highlight the facts that the humanities in general function on the basis of a number of unexamined assumptions, and that these assumptions are damaging both to PhD students at any stage of their programme and to the public’s perception of the humanities in general.

One thing I think I’d like to add to the conversation is the way that departments tend to avoid dealing with students who want to work in what essentially amount to “unproven” fields. In my programme, I’ve noticed a lot of students finding themselves having to fight with their departments to varying degrees in order to be able to do the work they want to do, simply because some aspect of their work—be it comics/graphic novels, digital texts, children’s literature, romance novels, speculative fiction, etc—has not yet become a Proper Field and as such the university is unsure whether that work is Serious and Important. And to make matters worse, these projects are almost always SSHRC funded, normally with a CGS, and every one of these projects was accepted by the department when the PhD students applied.

It is frustrating that the government is willing to fund these projects (and well, too), and that the university is willing to accept them (at least initially), but when it comes time for the student to get to work, the university (or key figures in it) would then express doubt as to the feasibility/hire-ability/validity of this same work. This contradictory behaviour is especially frustrating because many of the students working in these unproven fields are especially well-suited to work in them, having great personal interest in an area that is either misunderstood or ignored by most scholars. Essentially, some of the brilliant students who could well one day be the stars of these new and emerging fields are being told that their work is interesting and could hold great potential (so much so that the government was willing to pick up the tab), but that they’re not allowed to do it until the field is better established.

This attitude is detrimental to those emerging fields, too. Several of my fellow students have had to change their projects drastically, often times cutting out the very interests and elements that made their work so valuable and unique. A student studying affect in the non-fiction comics of Joe Sacco, Art Spiegelman, and Marjane Satrapi, for example, quickly shifts focus, with supervisors and faculty asking the student to include more novels or biographies that aren’t comics until, by the time the student hands in her dissertation proposal, the comics have moved from the position of primary text to secondary, at best, or entirely absent, at worst. This is not to say that dissertations in new fields wouldn’t benefit from a grounding in canonical (that word!) texts and methodologies—I, for example, just recently discovered a connection between the work of Jonathan Swift and Unicode (for those interested, search for the words “bigendian” and “smallendian”)—but rather that these canonical works should simply enrich our studies into new fields, rather than authorise or rationalise these studies. If we insist that students spend the majority of their time studying the tried and true, we effectively stunt the developing fields by forcing students to wait until they’ve become established in a “traditional” field before shifting their scholarly focus back to their passions.

Perhaps most frustrating is the fact that many of these fields could well make the humanities more serious in the eyes of the public. Sure, the public may at first find it amusing that Intellectuals are Studying something like romance novels, comics, and videogames, but ultimately these are works the public can connect with. There’s a reason books like The Philosophy of Buffy the Vampire Slayer sell better than your average scholarly anthology. The latest collection of post-Lacanian psychoanalytic explorations of the works of Djuna Barnes may well be stunningly insightful and invaluable to scholars studying that amazing writer (I meant Barnes, but you can pick your favourite of the two), but much of the public is simply not in a position to connect with this work. By contrast, a dissertation examining the intersections between religion, gender, and politics in the Twilight series has the potential to reach a much broader, non-academic audience—the series has sold over one hundred million copies according to Publishers Weekly. If a scholar were to connect with even a fraction of a percent of this audience, she would, by academic standards, be a best-seller dozens of times over. When we discourage scholars from studying these popular works, we are wilfully distancing ourselves from the public at large.

Perhaps if we in the humanities want to be taken more seriously, we should encourage bright up-and-comers to prove themselves in these new or obscure fields. Not only would this attitude prevent students who were accepted for proposals in these areas from feeling like they fell for the old bait-and-switch, but it would also open up new avenues for the scholarly community to engage with the public. If we want others to take the humanities seriously, perhaps we should first ensure that we take the humanities seriously ourselves.