Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Sexual Politics (in the Discipline of English, in Academe, etc.)

I'm not entirely sure how to go about this post, but it's been something that's been on my mind for a while, and I do want to write it. The problem is that I'm not sure how to write about these things without being identifying - either of myself or of others. My point in this post is not to do some kind of expose (anybody know how to make an accent mark in blogger? 'Cause I sure don't....) about the behavior of particular individuals or organizations/institutions or even the profession.

As you all know (or if you don't know you're not very careful readers - for shame!) my discipline is English. Now, English is a feminized discipline, just as many disciplines in the humanities are. It is also a discipline that pays a lot of attention (in the classroom, in the scholarship) to issues surrounding gender and sexuality (in literature). In fact, when I came to the discipline as an undergraduate, this was one of the things that attracted me. I was intrigued by a course of study that allowed me to explore my identity as a woman and that honored my burgeoning feminism.

The truth is, I didn't have much contact with male faculty during my undergraduate coursework. For one thing, I was minoring in women's studies and - surprise, surprise - most people who teach women's studies courses are women. For another, I did have a few male faculty in lower-division classes, but most were adjuncts (and thus oppressed by the system and thus not particularly invested in exerting certain kinds of authority over me, the nubile and brainy undergraduate) and one was a professor on the verge (like days away from) of retirement, and so was less interested in exerting authority than in having us all do shots of Ouzo in class (I kid you not). And so, I had a very skewed vision of what the discipline of literary studies looks like and of what my future as an academic in English would look like when I decided, as a junior in college, that I wanted to be a professor when I grew up.

Of course, though, this idyllic period of ignorance was short-lived.

From the ages of 21-22 the following things happened:
  • A male professor, whom I liked very much, agreed to write a letter of recommendation for me. In this letter, he declared that I would be an "ornament" (direct quote) to any program that accepted me. I know, I know - he was just trying to indicate how great I was right? Yeah, except I doubt that he indicated the greatness of male students with words like "ornament."
  • At the first conference I attended, a conference that is primarily attended by women, I was chatting along happily with a male scholar - about my work, about my interest in the conference, about going to grad school - but when someone interrupted to tell him goodbye, I turned back to my mentor. She said, "Don't talk to me! Keep talking to him! Don't you know who that is?!?!" and she turned her back on me. When we left, my mentor revealed that the man to whom I'd been talking was Very Important and that all of the other women (academics and feminists, mind you) were in a snit over the fact that I monopolized him and that he was so interested in talking to me (i.e., that his attention was diverted by a pretty young thing). I could tell you more stories in this vein, but this I think is illustrative enough.
  • I chose as a reader for my MA thesis a male professor, who proceeded to, in a conference with me, with his office door closed and with only a little light on, to go on and on about a particular passage that I was analyzing - and only that passage - which was incredibly sexually explicit. He then loaned me his copy of a book by Norman Mailer, complete with his marginal notes. I felt incredibly uncomfortable.
What I learned from these experiences:
  • In each of these contexts, I was a woman first and my ideas came second. I either had to accept the benefits I could get from this (thus being complicit in being objectified) or I had stridently to refuse any such attentions. At the end of the day, I'm not the sort to stand up for what's right if it's going to get in the way of my ambition, so I've attempted to walk the fine line of letting the fact that I'm a woman work for me without ever becoming involved in anything that I feel is truly inappropriate.
  • More prestigious/advanced male scholars can be fantastic and influential on one's work, but not all of them are true mentors. If a guy is looking at your boobs while you talk about your research, he is not your mentor.
  • Even your female, feminist mentors may pimp you out at the first opportunity.
In graduate school, I became more and more aware of the way that theories about sex and gender in my discipline don't necessarily translate into greater equality between male and female faculty in departments. Sure, in our work we're interested in looking at power dynamics and all that jazz, but in real life? Fewer women make it to full professor. Fewer women attain tenure. Fewer women are invited to speak on certain kinds of panels at certain kinds of conferences. And, at the end of the day, when I interact with male colleagues of a certain generation, those interactions are always colored by the power differential that exists between us because of my relative newness to the profession and because of the fact that I'm a woman. Unlike with my male peers, whom the Old Male Guard initiate into the Club, I, as a female junior faculty member, need constantly to be aware of my position in relation to the OMG and the choices that I make about how to behave both with the OMG as well as with female colleagues more advanced than myself. Because even the female colleagues are constantly aware of their relation to the OMG, and many will drop you like that if association with you means that the OMG doesn't pay attention to them. Similarly, if the OMG blesses you with their esteem, some of the female colleagues will flock to you, because you have the OMG seal of approval.

I'm going to end with two stories.

Story #1
Once upon a time, Dr. Crazy attended a conference, and at that conference, she attended a discussion-oriented session in which the audience was expected to participate. The room was pretty full, and Dr. Crazy had to sit toward the front. Dr. Crazy hadn't planned on contributing to the discussion, actually, because it was filled with the OMG and she was tired and she just didn't want to deal. The problem was, at one point in the discussion, she couldn't stop herself from speaking up about something that she had some expertise about. When Dr. Crazy speaks up once, it's pretty much Goodnight, Nurse and she'll be speaking until the discussion is over. So she spoke. And she made some good comments, or at least she felt that she did, and the couple of other women in the room had come up to her afterward to say that they enjoyed what she had to say.

So during the coffee break, Dr. Crazy was talking with another woman, and she was interrupted by a Very Especially Grand Member of the OMG. He didn't introduce himself. (Not that he needed to do so, as he had preyed upon Dr. Crazy at a previous conference.) Rather, he told Dr. Crazy that if she wanted to participate in the discussion, she should have chosen to sit in another location in the room. (Mind you, many men were sitting in the front of the room as well, and they were talking, and he wasn't giving them advice about where to sit.) And then he walked away, having quite literally put Dr. Crazy in her place. Dr. Crazy attended a similar discussion-oriented session, and she took VEGM's advice. And she actively participated. (Incidentally, again, men were sitting in front and they were talking and the VEGM didn't have a problem with it. However, because VEGM was sitting on the side, and facing the back of the room, Dr. Crazy was now in his line of sight.) And all of a sudden VEGM was all, "I don't think I introduced myself," and "I'm interested in your ideas."

People like VEGM are not mentors. No matter how affable they become when you do what you're told, they will not mentor you as a professional. That is the bottom line.

Story #2
Once upon a time, Dr. Crazy attended a conference, and at that conference, she gave a paper on a new research project, thinking that she could "try out" her ideas here (it was a non-specialized conference) and that it would be safe because nobody familiar with what she was working on was likely to be in the audience. Well, the president of the society dealing with this very topic was in the audience. (Incidentally, so too was the guy from bullet-point #1, and that was sure weird, given the topic of my paper, but I digress.) And she loved what I was thinking about. And she wanted to get a drink and a meal. And she suggested I submit a proposal for the society's MLA panel that was upcoming. In the following years, she has helped me get publications, a guest editing gig, and to become an officer in the society. And she's one of my recommenders. No, she's not a VEGM of anything. No, she's not at a fancy institution, nor is she part of the OMG. But she is a mentor. She treats me as a colleague.

The same is true of more prestigious female scholars whom I know. And isn't it interesting that I "know" them - have an acquaintanceship with them and have had good conversations with them, etc. - whereas those members of the OMG who like to show up at my side at drinks receptions don't even know my name? I certainly think it is.

I guess all of this is a long way of getting to the point that this is something that I struggle with. I struggle with the fact that I want to be well regarded by the OMG while at the same time I repulsed by the fact that I participate in a system that allows such a thing to exist. I'm not saying that every man in the profession behaves in the ways that I've described above, but I do think that both men and women allow for this to exist in the profession. We look the other way. We turn it into a joke. We pretend it doesn't exist or that it's not harmful.

The problem is, it's obviously harmful. And it obviously goes against much of what we talk about as feminists. But there we are, allowing it to continue. And I do it, too, so it's not like I'm blaming other people for this. I'm part of it.

12 comments:

Wiccachicky said...

I don't think you are alone here - this happens a lot in my discipline too, and I have, on more than one occassion, been "put in my place" as a result. Perhaps I will add this to my list of topics to explore in my new little blog series.

negativecapability said...

Strangely enough, although I have experienced the "pretty young thing" attack at various faculty parties and conferences, I have excellent male mentors. There don't happen to be any female faculty members here working on my field/subfield (although they do exist, they're not here), so my committee is all male. No one ever fails to comment on this, assuming that I must either a) feel threatened or b) be giving one or more of them some kind of sexual favors. Both of these offend me quite a bit. At a recent conference I attended, many members of the OMG were in attendance at my panel and I received some compliments and some suggestions, but no unwarranted flirtiness. I have never had that horrifying "being put into my place" conference experience, gender related or not.

For a long time this led me to believe that everyone else was creating a problem that wasn't there, but in recent years I have become more and more aware that the problem you identify is very real and very present. I've just been lucky. It also might have something to do with what I study and how I approach it - I don't really venture into issues of gender at all, for instance. I have more to say about this, but maybe it belongs on my own blog :)

Flavia said...

It's interesting, but although I've heard enough such stories to believe, utterly, that this phenomenon exists--and although I've certainly had older male scholars seem unexpectedly & excessively fascinated by my work, or look up with great interest when I walk into the room--I've really never experienced much else of what you note.

My particular areas of specialization are very male-dominated, but they're also rather small, and the work I do is (for lack of a better word) pretty "masculine"--so maybe no one has yet felt a need to put me in my place, because they're so glad someone in the younger generation is actually interested in continuing to work in the field?

Or perhaps it's that my (female) dissertation director is both better-known and more fearsome than 98% of the male academics in our field, and so her name has, thus far, worked as a sort of force field. I've sometimes gotten this impression, anyway, based upon how quickly a cocktail-reception interlocutor will either end the conversation or immediately want to know what she's *really* like or trade gossip as soon as her name comes up.

Dunno. But I'm interested in seeing if this changes as I become less associated with her and with my grad institution.

BikeProf said...

Very interesting and thought-provoking post. I come at this from a different angle, as a male in a female-dominated subspecialty. I was on a panel once, all female, with an almost entirely female audience, and I was asked how it felt to be the token male. I didn't know quite what to say, since (a) there are literally no more than 12 people in the country in my sub-sub-specialty and (b) I didn't think my maleness had anything to do with the topic at hand. As a man, though, I know that I don't face the same sort of problems you and other women in junior academic positions face. I frequently get some antagonism but nothing of that sexually predatory nature (well, almost nothing, but that's another story). I wonder if part of the problem is the Old part of your equation--the older male faculty just refuse to learn how to treat female colleagues with the respect that is due to their position. My male dissertation director is youngish, and he seems far removed from the oppressive OMG you describe. Of course, since I'm not a female, I might be missing things here.

Dr. Crazy said...

Thanks for the comments, everybody. I just want to make it clear that I _do_ have male mentors who have been great, and I'm not saying that this is all men, or even all men of a certain generation. (Though now that I think about it, of the male mentors I've had, many have been gay, so that does affect things.)

I think that part of the reason that this has been an issue for me is that my work very specifically focuses on sexuality, and so that often directs the course of conversations from the get-go. When I'm in my own little research hole, it all seems very abstract and technical, but when I get into conversations about my work - or sometimes when I'm teaching, too - it becomes clear that what seems so abstract and technical when I'm in my head is actually pretty concrete and, well, titillating. Combine this with my age and the fact that I'm not hideous, and the fact that I'm a pretty sociable person, and I think I feel like I don't have control over how people respond to me.

I also feel like I should note that each of the instances I note - with perhaps the exception of the incident with being told where to sit - have been incredibly subtle, and only after the fact when I realized I felt weird about them did it occur to me that perhaps the reason I felt weird was because of the gender dynamic. Since that is the case, sometimes I wonder if this is my problem and not something "real" that I'm identifying. But then, especially when I associate with a particular group of people in my specialty, I realize that I'm not just imagining things - that there are some really fucked up dynamics in play.

History Geek said...

I've yet to have any experiences similar to yours, but I did find it rather uncomfortable at the K'zoo dance when I had several men I didn't know trying to buy me drinks. One woman gave me the advise to just let them, and that if I did it right I'd never have to pay for drinks ever at this things.

I still can't decided if she was joking or not.

Dr. Crazy said...

HG - I feel like your experience with that woman is a lot like the experience I had with my undergrad mentor at my first ever conference. I think that her response - the whole, "charm the dude" thing, was the thing that made me feel like talking to that guy wasn't about my ideas but about the fact that I'm a woman. Maybe part of the thing here is very much how we as women react to this sort of thing....

negativecapability said...

The problem I have with the whol "charm the dude" thing is this - I have no problem charming the dudes when I'm back in Sunny Delight dancing and having a good time with my college friends because...I'm never going to see that dude again, and if his ultimate goal was to take me home with him after buying me a few drinks, well, he got schooled. When the dude is someone in my field, my profession, even if he may be someone I never have contact with directly...well, he still lives in my professional orbit. There's a time and a place for everything.

I've been offered the whole "hey, lets give the cute young thing drinks" routine at conferences in my field, and I sometimes I take the drinks, and then I act like I'm one of the guys (and this is where I say that there is a gender dynamic where I hadn't thought to see one immediately, but upon looking at it, realized that I worked it to my advantage). If they treat me otherwise, I take off. Then again, being able to drink more than most men pays off in this situation, as it catches them off-gaurd sometimes. Then again, sometimes it's just a guy that liked my talk offering a beer in fellowship. I never know until I accept it and start talking.

Terminaldegree said...

What a great post. Thanks for writing it.

At my old university, I had OMG colleagues who *thought* that they are mentoring me. But they were actually just tried to be fatherly.

It drove me crazy. I already have a father. One is plenty. At work I wanted colleagues, not a daddy.

But it beats getting hit on, I suppose.

Dr. Crazy said...

To Liz Ferszt:
I have deleted your comment because, frankly, I am entirely sick of being insulted by you. You are a mean-spirited person who needs to get a life. If you don't like how "full of myself" I am, then please, for the love of God, refrain from reading my blog - or at the very least from commenting on it. I've asked you this before, and yet you persist. Obviously, this is a public medium and you can do what you wish, but I find it hard to understand what the benefit is for you in reading someone you so clearly despise. At any rate, though, that is not my thing to figure out. But let me just say that from this point forward I will not tolerate your insulting comments, and I will delete them immediately so that my readers don't have to put up with them either.

The point of this post was not to talk about how hot I am. The fact of the matter is, HOTNESS ISN'T THE POINT. I'm talking about systemic problems that have to do with power dynamics between the sexes that continue to color how things work in this profession, and in certain corners of my field specifically. Perhaps this isn't your experience, but don't act as if my experience, and the experience of some of the commenters here, isn't legitimate.

So that's it. I'm done responding to you. Find another ax to grind, and another person to insult. I'm done with you.

Terri Porter said...

I never saw the post you deleted, but your reaction to it is awfully strong. As a loyal reader here, am I to assume that comments need to be supportive of you in order to stay up? I must confess that I enjoy reading this site, but not at that kind of price.

Dr. Crazy said...

No, I don't think that comments need to be supportive of me to stay up, but I do think that they need to be respectful and civil. I'm not going to be insulted, nor am I going to let my other commentors be insulted. I don't think that's too much to ask. I don't mean to alienate readers by this decision: I mean, rather, to create a tone in comments that fosters mutual respect.