Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Gender and the Culture of Academic Philosophy

Rushing, and unfortunately I don’t have time to write on this in detail at the moment, but I wanted to point those who hadn’t yet seen it to Sally Haslanger’s piece “Changing the Ideology and Culture of Philosophy: Not by Reason (Alone)”, which begins:

There is a deep well of rage inside of me. Rage about how I as an individual have been treated in philosophy; rage about how others I know have been treated; and rage about the conditions that I’m sure affect many women and minorities in philosophy, and have caused many others to leave. Most of the time I suppress this rage and keep it sealed away. Until I came to MIT in 1998, I was in a constant dialogue with myself about whether to quit philosophy, even give up tenure, to do something else. In spite of my deep love for philosophy, it just didn’t seem worth it. And I am one of the very lucky ones. One of the ones who has been successful by the dominant standards of the profession. Whatever the numbers say about women and minorities in philosophy, numbers don’t begin to tell the story. Things may be getting better in some contexts, but they are far from acceptable. (from the online version posted here – final published piece in Hypatia Spring 2008)

She continues:

Why there aren’t more women of my cohort in philosophy? Because there were very few of us and there was a lot of outright discrimination. I think a lot of philosophers aren’t aware of what women in the profession deal with, so let me give some examples. In my year at Berkeley and in the two years ahead of me and two years behind me, there was only one woman each year in a class of 8-10. The women in the two years ahead of me and the two years behind me dropped out, so I was the only woman left in five consecutive classes. In graduate school I was told by one of my teachers that he had “never seen a first rate woman philosophy and never expected to because women were incapable of having seminal ideas.” I was the butt of jokes when I received a distinction on my prelims, since it seemed funny to everyone to suggest I should get a blood test to determine if I was really a woman. In a seminar in philosophical logic, I was asked to give a presentation on a historical figure when none of the other (male) students were, later to learn that this was because the professor assumed I’d be writing a thesis on the history of philosophy. When I was at Penn as a junior faculty member and told a senior colleague that I was going to be married (to another philosopher, Stephen Yablo, then at UM), his response was, “Oh, I’m so sorry we’ll be losing you.” This was in 1989.

I’ve written here before about the frank discussions people feel comfortable having in front of me about whether “young women” – especially “young mothers” – can handle this or that position for which I’m being considered. I’ve been getting the “are you really female” jokes (or the simple declarative: “you aren’t really female”) since I was a young child. In my previous program, I found myself continuously having to explain that being female, and having theoretical interests, did not mean that I considered myself a “feminist theorist”: people kept asking whether, instead of working on whatever I was trying to work on, I wouldn’t rather “do something about women” instead. At any rate – not enough time to discuss this properly now, and the topic tends to evoke non-productive fury. I’ll leave it here for the moment: go read the article and the discussions, which will be more useful than what I would rant about right now…

The discussions at Inside Higher Education, Lumpenprofessoriat, and Crooked Timber are also worth a look.

15 responses to “Gender and the Culture of Academic Philosophy

  1. IndieFaith September 14, 2007 at 9:13 pm

    I always assumed there would be a much more “enlightened” environment, especially at a place like Berkeley. My context presently is the church. The church I grew up in still does not allow women to vote on church matters. I am currently in a liberal Mennonite setting which has struggled hard to engage and embrace the role and value of women. My co-pastor is a woman and despite our own environment she still occasionally receives anonymous mail stating her sinful choice of vocation. And good lord what some of the female members in my family have gone through . . . but I am sure you have heard all the stories.
    Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Joseph Kugelmass September 15, 2007 at 12:44 pm

    NP, great post. It’s comforting to me to see this matter, and the controversy surrounding Chemerinsky, being aired out in the blogosphere and dispatched with articulate anger. Even though you write that you didn’t have time to post in detail, what you have written is the sort of thing that gives me hope for the self-correcting tendencies of the academy, alongside all of its worst tendencies.

  3. N Pepperell September 15, 2007 at 6:59 pm

    Thanks for both of your comments (and IndieFaith, I’ll try to comment at some point soon on the beautiful post at your own site). I felt a bit guilty for posting this kind of thing on the run, but the discussions elsewhere have likely dealt with anything substantive I could say.

    IF – In terms of your comment about being surprised at this happening in university environments, I think the issue is that all institutions or collectivities tend to generate “microenvironments” of various sorts – I’d agree with Joe that the academy offers mechanisms for airing and discussing these sorts of things where they occur. And, partially for this reason, there are openings for progressive change.

    Although sometimes those openings can themselves point in ambivalent directions, though: some of the sorts of open speculation about whether I as a “young woman” can handle specific things, are clearly intended to be supportive – if in a misguided way: the folks who are expressing these sorts of sentiments, seem genuinely to be trying to respond to various initiatives to reduce the exploitation of female staff… Now, personally, I don’t think any of those initiatives were trying to suggest that we reduce exploitation by systematically worrying over whether to place women in particular roles… ;-P But this response is partially an unintended side effect of the attempt to draw attention to such issues (and we need to draw attention to such issues – it’s just that it’s always those interpretations and reactions you don’t foresee that come back to bite you…).

    Joe – One thing I felt guilty about, in posting on the run, is that I don’t entirely share the perspectives presented in the article – in particular, I think the article somewhat does make that elision between “woman doing philosophy” and “feminist philosopher” that I complained about in passing above. Discussions elsewhere have brought out this issue, though, and I doubt I would have expressed the problem with this assumption any more skillfully, had I had the time…

    My current program has actually been very good on this issue – I’ve never, ever, felt any pressure about my research focus or theoretical perspective, which has been quite good. I have had recent experiences attending events elsewhere, though, where I’ve been told that, after I left, there was explicit conversation around what a woman was doing speaking up at particular kinds of events… (One of my (male) friends sarcastically describes this as the, “Shit! A woman spoke!” reaction… ;-P)

    It’s certainly possible to navigate these reactions – and I certainly have no cause for complaint over my ability to obtain work, funding, and other material support. It’s mainly that, like Haslanger, you really can’t help but wonder what kind of impact these sorts of situations have on people who just don’t want to deal with these sorts of problems – but who might actually be more talented in their field than those of us who “survive” because we have the in principle irrelevant orientation that makes us more willing to bracket the bullshit, less prone to search out more hospitable environments, etc…

    At any rate, most of this has already been discussed in detail elsewhere – I was mainly hoping to point any who might originally have missed those conversations…

  4. Joseph Kugelmass September 16, 2007 at 6:17 am


    Very quickly, thanks for your clarifying comments. It’s ridiculous to conflate feminist philosophy with women doing philosophy — in this area, the undercurrent of sexism frequently finds a way. The blogger petitpoussin, who was working on feminist Lacanian theory in London, was treated both as an oddity (look! our token feminist!) and as someone whose gender had determined her ideas.

    The kind of backchannel conversation that you sum up as “Shit! A woman spoke!” seems like one of the ways that what someone says can get distorted or dismissed; in other words, it is a kind of bias that still has effects while being worryingly hard to see. Of course, there are people who claim that these conversations were “driven underground” by the PC movement, when in truth they have just had the easiest time resisting genuinely progressive changes in public discourse.

  5. J Dahm September 18, 2007 at 8:43 am

    It’s interesting to see this played out anywhere. I’m not sure if it’s a product of the historically situated stalwart of the professors in the departments in question or just a product of the scholastic discourse that all women (and men) are subject to moving through while trying to pursue any scholastic interest. I constantly see numbers fly by in the media about the number of economists and business majors looking to get rich quick on Wall Street or in any number of Fortune 500 companies. The underlying message is that to be successful as a college graduate is tied directly to the salary and job position that one takes upon graduation.

    I’m relatively certain that this was not always the case. Higher education once was about the theoretical and philosophical pursuits to which women can be seen as discriminated against (both overtly and subversively). But is this a systematic problem or just the product of the people that you’re surrounded by? I would suggest that it is some of both. Granted that some of the greater and more well known scholars in my field of sociology have been women in the last 50 years anyone who’s taken an introductory course know that the focus is on a handful of (mostly dead) men and their theories. The first time most undergraduate majors are exposed to the theory of these prominent female theorists is usually in the dedicated theory class and not until the end of the semester.

    This could (at least at my university) be a product of the lack of focus theory gets in the program, or it could be because the program is run by subversively bigoted men. I, for as annoying as a lack of theory is, hope that it’s the former. The good news is that many of the women graduate students in the program know their theory and are passionate about it.

  6. N Pepperell September 18, 2007 at 1:55 pm

    It’s a complicated issue – certainly the marginality of theory (within so many disciplines…) doesn’t help – among other things because it can create a bit of a zero-sum game, encourage forms of socialisation and training that are perceived as “safer”, make change even more risky…

    In terms of my personal experience, I was never particularly troubled by courses structured around male authors, although this may have been an idiosyncratic thing for me – but I was profoundly irritated by statements that expected me to be more personally interested in female authors, or in work topically related to women. That said, I think it’s a good idea to think a bit more carefully about who is assigned, what sort of theory “wins” when selections have to be made, etc.

    Sometimes these things can be both striking, and yet difficult to get people to perceive. Just to take an example from a course design process I was involved in some time back, where the issue was ethnicity rather than gender: looking over the draft of reading pack for an intro social science course, I noticed that we were planning to assign qualitative ethnographic studies – only qualitative ethnographic studies – when the readings related to social groups that would be positioned as “ethnic”, whereas quantitative or more abstractly theoretical materials were being used when group identity wasn’t being thematised (and groups that would have been positioned as “non-ethnic” were never thematised as groups or presented as having a marked identity).

    I was struck by this pattern, pointed it out, and suggested that it was a bit tacitly “othering”. The pattern hadn’t been intentional – this had apparently just seemed an intuitive way to organise the readings. After some discussion, the response was, “Well, we wanted to show that the social sciences involve more than just quantitative or abstract work – that there are other ways of knowing.” I argued that this was all well and good, but that the tacit message of this structure of readings was that those “other ways of knowing” applied to them – those strange folks that aren’t captured by the more mainstream readings. Perhaps I was having a bad day, but I was completely unable to communicate the point – which is that I think we were tacitly exoticising and marginalising both particular forms of social science methodology and particular social groups, by pairing these things…

    Similar things happen when, say, gender issues become thematised only as special courses, or in the “other week” of a course that doesn’t touch on the issue in any integrated way. They also happen when there is a default assumption that someone who is female is more likely to be interested in the issue of gender – as though only women have a “personal stake” in the issue, or as though having a “personal stake” somehow confers special insight.

    On the issue of whether something might boil down to “bigoted men” – that’s complicated, too, as gender dynamics are often mutually constitutive in certain ways. The Haslanger article certainly mentions some examples of things that would be frankly discriminatory, but much more complicated are the tacit dynamics: assumptions (that may be shared among men and women) about gender roles, “natural” differences in interest, typical forms of communication, etc. Frank discrimination can be thematised more easily…

    (Apologies that this is a bit disjoint – just coming up briefly for air while I’m in the midst of writing something else, and so my thoughts aren’t the most focussed…)

  7. WildlyParenthetical September 22, 2007 at 3:03 am

    Unfocussed, too, thanks to the late hour and the G&Ts I had earlier, but…

    …My undergrad philosophy courses were almost entirely on male authors.

    They also happen when there is a default assumption that someone who is female is more likely to be interested in the issue of gender – as though only women have a “personal stake” in the issue, or as though having a “personal stake” somehow confers special insight.

    In the end, it’s not just this point, though I too am a bit annoyed about it. It’s the other side of this point: the reason it so annoyed/annoys me that my courses were structured this way is because it seems reflective of the refusal of much of philosophy to actually take *seriously* the critiques of philosophy that are regularly dubbed ‘feminist philosophy’ (in an attempt, I think, to suggest it’s a discreet form of philosophy that doesn’t need to affect the rest of the discipline). The other side of saying “Feminism or female theorists only interest women” is “men don’t need to be involved in it at all,” which, er, is kinda the thing that many of these thinkers are critiquing…

    Not only this, but there was in my degree, just as NP says above, a ‘special’ course on ‘gender,’ which was almost entirely on liberal feminism (with the crazy French gals chucked into a single week at the end which wound up being more about Freud anyway…). I don’t think it’s quite coincidence that (especially French) poststructuralism and feminism was marginalised throughout the whole of my degree, really, or that Kristeva and Irigaray were packed into a final week disconnected from the rest of the course which made them practically incomprehensible to people used to reading Okin!

    And whilst we might like to suggest that this has nothing to do with how open philosophers (or perhaps more generally people involved in theoretical engagements) are/can be to women *and* feminist critiques, I’m not sure about this, either. I was thoroughly marginalised in my department for doing an honours thesis on feminist theorists, for example, and the raising of, say, a public/private distinction as *problematic* was treated as an issue to note and then move on past, usually without any discussion and certainly without consideration of the ramifications of this distinction for the theory at hand. In the end, it wasn’t just *content* that was being dismissed, it was a particular set of concerns; and whilst no one would dare to have been too openly dismissive of me, I’ve had men raise concepts that have been ignored when I raised them, and watched a reconsideration of an entire theory take place… But of course, as with most of these things, it’s all to easy to think ‘it could just be me.’

    Cultural studies makes my life easier in this regard, and lets me feel like I’m not just an irritating bug the department wish they could swat (but can only wave away)… 😉 Sorry to rant on!

  8. N Pepperell September 22, 2007 at 11:51 am

    On this:

    the reason it so annoyed/annoys me that my courses were structured this way is because it seems reflective of the refusal of much of philosophy to actually take *seriously* the critiques of philosophy that are regularly dubbed ‘feminist philosophy’ (in an attempt, I think, to suggest it’s a discreet form of philosophy that doesn’t need to affect the rest of the discipline)

    Yes – absolutely. And it leads to extremely complex situations – one reason, of course, the Haslanger article should highlight the issue of feminist philosophy, is that the marginalisation and, therefore, exoticisation of feminist writing feeds massively into the problem. And so, of course, it’s completely reasonable to try to tackle this exoticisation and assert the mainstream relevance of feminist writing – and yet this very act is double-edged, because, of course, to do this, you intrinsically have to thematise the differences between the concerns or the methodologies of feminist and existing mainstream work. This is, of course, how any field gets itself established – but since gender is multiply marked on so many different levels of practice… It’s just very difficult to work out a path of contestation that doesn’t get wrapped back into what it’s trying to contest (the example above, of people trying to contest the exploitation of female staff, and this then leading to open discussions of whether it is appropriate to hire female staff for certain roles, is an example of a perfectly reasonable form of contestation, then having completely unanticipated impacts as it comes to be refracted in the vast swirls of other grooves in thinking on gender – it becomes maddening to figure out how to address the issue effectively)…

    And I think there can sometimes be a choice between stepping into the recognised, but marginalised and othered, space of being a female student or staff member who works on gender, or stepping into the othered and exotic space of being a female student or staff member who works on a mainstream issue… The available choices will all, for the time being at least, be marked.

    On this:

    I’ve had men raise concepts that have been ignored when I raised them, and watched a reconsideration of an entire theory take place… But of course, as with most of these things, it’s all to easy to think ‘it could just be me.’

    Yes – this is the kind of situation that prompted the “Shit! A woman spoke!” example above. Relatively speaking, I have an easy time asserting myself in a public space – certainly there are guys who would have more trouble. Nevertheless, I tend to need to assert myself multiple times, and often to shake off what are probably “objectively” offensive initial reactions (people trying to “educate” me on basic issues that it should be clear I already know), several times, in order to get the person to stop lecturing, start listening, and realise that I am making a complex point that they might need to address. Unless. If a guy happens to pick up on my point, and reinforce it – and then a conversation erupts.

    Now, this happens, and you think: maybe I wasn’t being clear; maybe I’m not sufficiently assertive; maybe they treat anyone new this way; maybe my disciplinary background is unusual, and so what I meant wasn’t coming across; maybe my point actually was really stupid, and deserved this response; etc., etc. – there are always individual, idiosyncratic circumstances like this, and you sort of end up assuming it’s one of these things, trying to work to improve whatever you think it might have been, etc. But you wonder. Because the effects just don’t seem consistent – you notice situations in which your ideas are suddenly fantastic when someone else mentions them, or in which your presence is suddenly more valued when a guy has made clear to other people that your ideas are worth listening to, etc. But it’s only in situations like the one above, where someone who gets to be a fly on the wall in situations you would never personally see, that you actually know… So there’s a perpetual oscillation and uncertainty over how much is just some kind of personal deficit, and how much might be structural…

    Again, this isn’t getting into the sorts of frank discriminatory situations Haslanger was describing, and which I’ve also run into in various places.

    But one impact is that people tend to move – whether by literally shifting to a friendlier field, or by leaving academia, or by accepting some sort of exoticisation within their field… [edited – initially meant to say this, and somehow lost the point in transit… ;-P: This movement can then further reinforce the existing dynamics in those who, for whatever reason, don’t follow this path. Some elements of academic training involve frank hazing – and many people unfortunately come through hazing thinking, not, “This was really unpleasant and unjust and I’ll try to make sure no one else ever goes through this,” but rather, “This made me who I am today” (because, of course, it will – these experiences always inevitably transform us) “and therefore everyone should go through such a transformative process”.]

    (Sorry for the randomness of my comments here – for some reason, I always seem to hit this thread when I’m very tired – that, or thinking about this just always manages to make me very tired… ;-P)

  9. WildlyParenthetical September 22, 2007 at 1:36 pm

    Mmmm – I’m definitely a ‘high theory’ cultural studies person, which… erm… is often deployed as an insult. All disciplines have their horrible border policing; I just prefer one that’s based on disliking philosophy’s privileging of itself to one that’s based on being dismissive, again! of women and what gets cast as ‘women’s issues’. But yes, exoticism and movement seem to be key.

    It is, I think, interesting to see how *some* of the thorough-going challenges posed by *some*, usually male poststructuralists can be taken up and considered by male philosophers far more quickly than those of female philosophers. One of the few mentions of a feminist thinker in the context of phenomenology and existentialism was LeDoeuff, who engages with the deployment of feminine imagery as demonstrating the extent to which the whole gender binary is used to shore up philosophy. Yet the way it was taught, and the *reason* she was taken vaguely seriously was that the teacher implied that what we really need to do is avoid feminised references like Sartre’s ‘slimy hole’s and ‘untouched white body of truth’. Yes, dear, it’s just that the *language* is *inaccurate*. That’s the whole of LeDoeuff’s point, apparently: “please cosmetically alter philosophy.” That, it would seem, is all that ‘women’s work’ is good for. Interesting – I hadn’t thought of that in a while, but it seems indicative of the whole thing…

    I’ve thought about the whole individual vs structural thing before on my site a little, but this just reinforces what I tend to think about it: those who aren’t carrying the privilege in a particular situation *do* tend to assume that it’s just them, and I think that often (though obviously not always) it blocks the recognition of structural… asymmetries, shall we call them?

    As far as movement is concerned (just to come back to that…); yeah, these kinds of considerations always wind up reminding me of ‘Women in the Beehive’ (I think that’s what it’s called) which is a Derrida piece about Women’s Studies, and about how it needs to be both within and without the ‘proper’ university. I agree with this, on the one hand, but I also think that Derrida misses something I think he usually does, which is that requiring women to be robust, to laugh off ‘objectively rude’ comments, to continue to challenge and refuse to shut up in the end reinforces the same old stuff: let’s make those who are *already* vulnerable (to, say, being ignored) responsible for people *not* ignoring them and at the same moment permit those who do the ignoring to be cast as innocent… And academic hazing… or hazing full stop does tend to be about requiring people to be *particular kinds* of people, and unfortunately, that tends to reinforce the elistist, sexist, racist and classist kinds of structures that already shape the university. I, uh, don’t like it; can you tell? 😉

    Speaking of LeDoeuff, I’m posting her breathtaking account over at mine to avoid taking up too much more space here…

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  11. N Pepperell September 23, 2007 at 11:18 am

    Sorry to take so long to reply – I’ve been so busy writing deleting things I start to write, that I haven’t been letting myself post… ;-P

    On this:

    I also think that Derrida misses something I think he usually does, which is that requiring women to be robust, to laugh off ‘objectively rude’ comments, to continue to challenge and refuse to shut up in the end reinforces the same old stuff: let’s make those who are *already* vulnerable (to, say, being ignored) responsible for people *not* ignoring them and at the same moment permit those who do the ignoring to be cast as innocent…

    Again, it’s one of these situations that’s enormously difficult – and here, I’m not trying to make a comment about Derrida specifically, but about the more general dilemma of how, for example, do we advise female students or supervisees? How, on a practical level, do we navigate, and suggest that others navigate, these situations?

    Because, of course, in situations where an individual has very little control over overarching dynamics, they might have some ability to influence outcomes for themselves and others by developing sort of an “above the call” capacity to manage their own reactions. I commented to Joe above that, among other consequences, of course, this strategy tends to advantage people who have a particular skillset that isn’t required of everyone, and that may have very little to do with the explicit requirements of particular professional positions. I’ve written a number of times previously here about being advantaged by a certain habit of reaction that I actually don’t “control” myself – the tendency to bracket things and process them later. It’s functional on a personal level – but arguably damaging on a collective one… At least, I can’t avoid the sinking sensation that it’s damaging…

    There’s an awful line to be walked, on a personal level, but also on the level of how we prepare our female students for navigating their professional environment, between wanting certain structural situations to be transformed, and coaching people to navigate situations they may be powerless in any immediate sense to change…

    None of which takes away from the critique you’re suggesting above (one of the things I think that troubles me the most about myself, is that people who have some sense of my background, then tend to use the “against-the-odds” character of it, to draw out some cheerful “look what the individual spirit can overcome with hard work and determination!” message – it makes me feel like a walking piece of ideology, even though I don’t at all endorse this interpretation of “me” and, every time I hear someone saying something like this in a professional space, I’m basically thinking, “You know, given the choice, I think I’d have opted for fewer ‘opportunities’ to show how it’s possible to ‘overcome’ things, thanks…” ;-P)

  12. WildlyParenthetical September 23, 2007 at 6:17 pm

    This is often the problem with various forms of ‘difference,’ I think, although it plays out, of course, in specific ways in relation to different differences; on the one hand, yes, giving female students/supervisees etc suggestions about how to negotiate the complex terrain that is current sexual politics in the academy is a good thing—after all, they’re not responsible for the difficulties they’re going to face!—but on the other hand, this strategy winds up affirming the status quo by requiring that people adhere to a very particular mode of operating, or be tenacious (at which point tenacity becomes ‘a necessary attribute of academic women,’ as you’re concerned about, NP). If women ‘move’, as you put it above, by changing their modes of engaging, or by developing ‘better techniques’, this requires a flexibility of *women* that negotiates with the realities of, but also excuses and unfortunately also *affirms* the inflexibility of the sexual politics of the academy.
    In the end, I think this is why my frustration with often ‘liberal’/progressive male staff members who continue to leave women, ‘women’s issues’ and gender to one side: they don’t seem to understand that the reason they can do this has to do with bigger structural issues; issues which have repercussions all the way down the line, and which they would claim to be concerned about. I hate to use the line because it’s so cliche these days, but the denial of male privilege is both ludicrous and endemic to philosophy, in my experience. The problem with this denial (aside from its wilfulness!) is that those whose openness to change might have the potential to *alter* these problematic structures (which if you asked, they would usually tell you they absolutely rejected) are refusing to see it as their responsibility…

    That said, the kind of advice I have had during my time at uni has been interesting. At one point during undergrad, I had an issue with a philosophy lecturer of the ‘he’ll engage with the points the boys raise, but not with mine’ variety. A female member of staff from another department, when I asked about it, said that yes, I could lodge an official complaint, but it probably wouldn’t do a whole lot, and probably would piss off the philosophy department, and… well, her advice in the end was just to let it go and move on. Another mentor, also feminist, advised pretty much the same. Even then, I had problems with the individualism of this kind of pragmatics (even though they are also regularly necessary). Given that there were structures in place to deal with these kinds of inequalities, and I was in a space that meant I was willing and able to pursue it, where others might not be, I decided Ishould do something about it. The meeting that ensued involved the denial I knew it would: ‘No! I’m careful about that kind of thing.’ I’d have more resources to come back at that these days, (uh, intention’s not enough, midear!) but not then… so it was raised, not really dealt with, and nothing really changed (well, not that I saw; I can hope otherwise, but who knows?).

    The system, in other words, is remarkably resistant to alteration, especially to the extent that so many men refuse to see that there’s an issue, and refuse to see that their refusal to see it as the responsibility of *all* is actually part of the function of the system they wouldn’t explicitly condone. Or, you know, so I hope… 🙂
    (Phew! And I rant… ! Sorry, apparently being concise ain’t a strength of mine!)

  13. N Pepperell September 24, 2007 at 7:28 pm

    Yeah, I’ve been involved with some situations related to official complaints – not in the university system, but when working for private organisations – some where I was the person bringing the complaint, and some in the capacity of a staff representative. These situations are extremely difficult – there unfortunately often are negative consequences for the staff who bring complaints, and the results are also sometimes very bad.

    The first time I was involved in a situation like this, I was a young teenager working for a newspaper – a male staff member was engaging in some very predatory behaviour (he had trapped me in a room and was threatening not to let me leave unless I allowed him to do various things – I got out of the situation because a security guard was going by on their rounds, and I called out for help…). This had apparently been going on for some time; other women had talked with a female security guard about the issue, but wouldn’t make formal complaints (I didn’t find out about any of this broader context until after I had agreed to speak with a manager formally).

    At any rate: so I bring this complaint, and the management decision was to suspend the guy for three days without pay. ;-P The guy reacted to the news by telling his manager to fuck off. Trying to sexually assault a teenage girl gets you a three-day suspension; telling your manager to fuck off gets you fired. ;-P Of course, I was then responsible for getting the guy fired, and had to deal with a scary situation where the guy was hanging around outside the workplace for several weeks, waiting for me to get off work – the security guard fortunately noticed, and so I was having to be escorted between the building and my car…

    Sorry – a bit over-literal, compared to what you were trying to thematise… ;-P And actually that can be part of the problem, as well: the assumption that things have to be so physically confrontational for there to be a problem… Although I’m still finding myself surprised by how overt things can still often be…

  14. Carl May 19, 2008 at 9:48 am

    NP, I read all this with great interest and I’m struggling with some stuff I want to say about it. I’ll try to get my thoughts functional. In the meantime, I wonder if you’d be interested in collating this post with your remarks in the “Practice of Theory” post. The two are about the same things but at quite a different scale of ‘personality’, and the point of arrival is also quite different. For one thing, I don’t see any of the ambivalence about strategizing the habitus that animates this piece in the PoT one; there’s an ‘idealism’ in play here that you explicitly and convincingly reject there and elsewhere.

    Scale changes the rules of consistency, so I don’t have a criticism. I’m just wondering how you’ve got these two moments of your thought and practice balanced.

  15. N Pepperell May 19, 2008 at 12:40 pm

    Hey Carl – I’ll have to apologise for not being able to respond properly, perhaps not for some days, as I’m heading out of the country today, and don’t know what the net access situation will be. After I posted my quick response to Tom’s question the other day, and then decided to lift the issue up into a post, I was very conscious that my own comment was made with a very specific sort of target in mind – if the week had been less hectic, I might have found time to go back and clarify this a bit. What I had in mind, in responding to Tom’s question, were more blanket sorts of discussions (which, from his comment, I gather was something like rob’s association, as well – not to assimilate his position to my own): I very often (and, unlike rob, not simply in online settings) find myself needing to deal with very blanket assumptions that intellectual work somehow isn’t “real” – it was that particulat sort of objection I was thinking of, when I wrote the more recent comment. It’s that position – posed in a sort of hypertrophic way – that strikes me as tacitly idealist (and I’m not suggesting that Tom was coming from there – my immediate association was to this, mainly because it seems to come up fairly often in local contexts, in a way where the effect is to delegitimise abstract forms of analysis – to me, this suggests that all meaningful objects of analysis are concrete, or else that some sort of pre-analytical practice is some sort of ideal: I would reject both of these positions very strongly).

    In a somewhat indirect way, some of what I was writing in this post, experientially actually ties together with this issue: the can be a sort of gendering around levels of abstraction of theoretical work – certainly the folks at my previous university who were encouraging me to explore my feminine side ;-P, would often also articulate that I might “as a woman” be well-positioned to grasp more concrete things… *sigh* 😉

    But none of this is intended to deny that academic spaces can generate their own instutional dynamics that should be subject to criticism. I don’t think that academic spaces are uniquely “removed” as institutions, but I wouldn’t, by the same token, expect them to have less distinctiveness that other sorts of institutional spaces – I don’t see an analysis of academic discourse and its institutionalisation per se as “idealist” – I just think the exceptionalisation of academic discourse can point in an idealist direction, if this makes sense? It’s where the real/unreal articulation of the specific institutional space starts being mobilised to express the distinctiveness of academic cultures, that I start worrying over whether this is how we should be articulating this problem.

    Apologies for writing this in such a rush – no time today. And apologies in advance if I now need to leave things hanging for some time…

    Take care

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