Tag Archives: race and gender

Our Exquisitely Sensitive Academic Culture

Mind your Ps and Qs,” Wikipedia tells us, “is an English expression meaning ‘mind your manners,’ ‘mind your language,’ ‘be on your best behavior.’” Recent advice provided in the Chronicle of Higher Education suggests that academic conference goers also need to mind their PC.

The Chronicle’s July 7 “Daily Briefing” to subscribers links to two “Talkers” who draw, unintentionally I am sure, a chilling picture of how brittle and thin-skinned academic culture has become. In one, “April Hathcock, a librarian at New York University, writes about race fatigue after attending an academic conference,” and in the other “Lucy Allen, an English professor at the University of Cambridge, argues in her blog that you shouldn’t fall back on the common question ‘Where are you from, originally?’”

In “‘Otherness’ and Conference Advice,” Professor Allen rejects the advice given in another recent Chronicle piece, Robin Bernstein’s “How to Talk to Famous Professors.” One example Bernstein suggested was “the old standby: Where are you from originally?” I suspect that what Bernstein had in mind — certainly what she could have had in mind — was that a nervous junior convention goer could reasonably assume that famous Professor Whatshisname from the University of Virginia lives in Charlottesville, and thus asking, “Where are you from, originally?” is a perfectly natural, neutral, unloaded conversation silence filler.

Professor Allen, however, no doubt ever attuned to dog whistles, hears something sinister: “There are many ways,” she warns, “to put your foot in it at conferences. But I’m fairly sure that using a phrase that’s stereotypically associated with ingrained racism/xenophobia is one of the more easily avoided ones.”

Just as everything looks like a nail if all you have is a hammer, so, too, everything can look like a micro- or even a macro-aggression if much of your personal and professional life is spent inhaling a miasma of race, gender, and ethnicity. Thus, after spending five days at the American Library Association convention in Chicago, New York University librarian April Hathcock writes, “Race fatigue is a real physical, mental, and emotional condition that people of color experience after spending a considerable amount of time dealing with the micro- and macro-aggressions that inevitably occur when in the presence of white people. The more white people, the longer the time period, the more intense the race fatigue.”

Ms. Hathcock is tired “of being tone-policed and condescended to and ’splained to.” She’s tired “of listening to white men librarians complain about being a ‘minority’ in this 88% white profession – where they consistently hold higher positions with higher pay – because they don’t understand the basics of systemic oppression.”

They’re librarian, she adds disdainfully, “You’d think they’d know how to find and read a sociology reference, but whatever.” She’s tired, in short, of white people, even “well-meaning white people” who want to “‘hear more’ about the microaggressions you’ve suffered and witnessed, not because they want to check in on your fatigue, but because they take a weird pleasure in hearing the horror stories and feeling superior to their ‘less woke’ racial compatriots.”

But “Don’t get me wrong,” she concludes. It wasn’t all bad. “I caught up with friends and colleagues of color and met new ones. These moments kept me going. And I did have some moments of rest with a few absolutely invaluable and genuine white allies.” Who knows? Maybe even some of her best friends are white, though it sounds like whites are at best allies in “this racial battle called life.”

How sad … and depressing since her sentiments are no doubt not unique.

Is “Gender Balance” the New Quota System?

The Chronicle of Higher Education fretted recently about the lack of “gender balance” among college presidents. Women have achieved “gender parity” in the Ivy League, but “the Ivy League, with its eight institutions, is an outlier. Overall in higher education, the share of women presidents has barely budged, remaining at about 25 percent over the past decade.”

Aside from the epistemological challenge of figuring out how to promote “gender balance” in an employment category that has only one employee (the college president), there are other difficult questions: whether “balance” requires “parity”; whether either is necessary for  fairness; and finally whether seeking “gender balance” is even legal. The Supreme Court has repeatedly asserted — by Justice O’Connor in Grutter, for example, citing earlier cases — that “outright racial balancing” is “patently unconstitutional.” If seeking a goal of “gender parity” is not outright balancing, what is?

If women are believed to be more uniquely different from men than blacks are from whites, I suppose it could be argued that “outright gender balancing” should be allowed even if racial balancing is not. Indeed, the Chronicle quotes Kevin Miller, a senior researcher at the American Association of University Women, coming close to laying the predicate for that argument.

Female presidents bring a different perspective to the job, raise different concerns, and ask different questions than their male counterparts, says Kevin Miller…. Those are useful traits in making decisions.

“At the highest levels, where people have decision-making powers, women still aren’t in the room,” he says. “The things that they would be focused on just aren’t being discussed because they’re not there.”

Really? If that is true, it should be easy for Mr. Miller or someone to provide a list of the different concerns raised, the different questions asked, the different things focused on and discussed at the four Ivies with female presidents that have been ignored at the four male-headed Ivies.

Can someone point me to such a list?

Another Breakthrough in Feminist Mathematics

I have written many pieces over the years about the massive attempt to enroll more women in STEM fields, noting in one essay here that “Readers of the higher education press and literature may be forgiven for supposing that there is more research on why there are not more women in STEM fields than there is actual research in the STEM fields themselves.” Now comes a new book, Inventing the Mathematician: Gender, Race and Our Cultural Understanding of Mathematics (State University of New York Press), by Sara N. Hottinger, interim dean of arts and humanities and a professor of women’s and gender studies at Keene State College, suggesting that the problem may not be with women but with math.

In a revealing, just published interview with Hottinger, “Hidden Figures: Women’s studies meets mathematics in a new book arguing for a more inclusive cultural notion of numeracy,” Inside Higher Ed notes that her book’s “ultimate goal is to deconstruct our individual and cultural ideas about math — then build them back up again in a more inclusive fashion.”

Here are some highlights of that interview in which Prof. Hottinger mounts a vigorous challenge to conventional understandings of women and math. I have numbered these selected nuggets to facilitate later discussion of them.

  1. During my senior year of college, I did an independent study on psychoanalytic theorist and philosopher Jacques Lacan and ended up writing my final paper on the connections between mathematical topology and Lacanian theory. I wrote my women’s studies senior thesis on feminist pedagogies in the mathematics classroom and the ways in which feminist approaches to the teaching of math allowed marginalized students to understand and work with mathematical knowledge in innovative new ways.
  2. … the content of any science is profoundly constrained by the language within which its discourses are formulated; and mainstream Western physical science has, since Galileo, been formulated in the language of mathematics. But whose mathematics? The question is a fundamental one, for, as Aronowitz has observed, “neither logic nor mathematics escapes the ‘contamination’ of the social.” And as feminist thinkers have repeatedly pointed out, in the present culture this contamination is overwhelmingly capitalist, patriarchal and militaristic.
  3. I continued this work in my doctoral dissertation, where I made the epistemological argument that mathematical ways of knowing are shaped within communities…. And, now, in this book, I consider the cultural construction of mathematical subjectivity and argue that mathematics plays a significant role in the construction of normative Western subjectivity and in the constitution of the West itself.
  4. … recently, feminist and poststructuralist critiques have demystified the substantive content of mainstream Western scientific practice, revealing the ideology of domination concealed behind the façade of “objectivity.”
  5. In much the same way that feminist education scholars have shown, via discourse analysis, the incompatibility between femininity and mathematical achievement, both Walker and Stinson show the complex ways successful black mathematics students must accommodate, reconfigure or resist the discursive construction of a normative white, masculine mathematical subjectivity.
  6. The teaching of science and mathematics must be purged of its authoritarian and elitist characteristics, and the content of these subjects enriched by incorporating the insights of the feminist, queer, multiculturalist and ecological critiques.
  7. Because mathematics is understood to be the ultimate manifestation of the human ability to reason, mathematical achievement is a clear marker in the construction of an ideal subjectivity. If these multiple associations — between reason, masculinity, subjectivity and mathematics — are teased apart, we can better understand why mathematical subjectivity and the ability to succeed in mathematics is so difficult to achieve for those in marginalized groups. For example, if mathematical subjectivity and the ability to reason is constructed within Western culture as masculine, then women will continue to find it difficult to see themselves as mathematical subjects. Women will have to choose between being good mathematicians or being “proper” women.
  8. See Ginzberg (1989), Cope-Kasten (1989), Nye (1990) and Plumwood (1993b) for lucid feminist critiques of conventional (masculinist) mathematical logic.

I suspect Minding The Campus has few readers who will be persuaded by this deconstructionist argument. Indeed, many readers may find it disconcertingly familiar while others will suspect I’m perpetrating some sort of hoax.

Right on both counts!

Paragraphs 1, 3, 5, and 7 are, as I claimed, from Prof. Hottinger’s interview with Inside Higher Ed. But paragraphs 2, 4, 6, and 8 are quoted from NYU Physicist Alan Sokal’s famous 1996 hoax published in Social Text, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” which claimed that “physical ‘reality’ … is at bottom a social and linguistic construct.”

Sokal’s “Ridicule Didn’t Work,” James Piereson and Naomi Schaefer Riley wrote recently in the Weekly Standard. “The trends that Sokal spoofed remain trendy in academic liberal arts. “‘You might have thought that humanities scholars, and particularly those working in subfields of cultural studies, would have been mortified with embarrassment, like a pretentious man who got caught mistaking his son’s finger-paintings for Jackson Pollock originals,’ says intellectual historian Wilfred McClay. ‘But they weren’t much embarrassed, and those fields have not suffered noticeably.’” In fact, their influence is even greater than before, “because highly ideological fields such as gender and race studies have broken out of the academic hothouse and into the mainstream of American life and politics.”

Thus what Sokal spoofed remains true of much of contemporary social science, especially cultural studies attempting to deconstruct, reconstruct, or otherwise transform our understanding or race, gender, sex, etc.: it’s often hard to tell the parodies from the real thing.

THE NORMALIZATION OF BAD IDEAS

By Daphne Patai

While American education goes further down the tubes, lame-brained notions are raised to levels of respectability in academe that should shock any halfway reasonable person. What has happened is the normalization of bad ideas, thanks mostly to identity politics. We constantly hear that we live in a hopelessly racist and sexist society, but the truth is that we live in such a liberal atmosphere that identity-based complaints are always taken seriously. And rarely does a student shouting obscenities at a professor or administrator get told to just “shut up and study.”

It’s worth considering how we got from there to here. Below are a few highlights from my own decades in academe, during which identity politics have spread like a contagious disease.

Remaking the World of Sex

In response to the increasing publicity over date rape, Antioch College in 1993 adopted an oddball policy requiring verbal consent at every stage of sexual activities. After a slow start, such policies, perhaps owing to absurd claims about the high rate of sexual assault on campus, are now gaining traction throughout the country.

Underlying this demand are some disturbing implications that have trickled down from radical feminists decades ago: that women don’t really want (hetero)sex, that “consent” itself is manufactured by heteronormativity, that intercourse and rape are often indistinguishable, and that sexual harassment and assault (both having undergone ever expanding definitions) are what men routinely do to women.

Let’s call these ideas the MacKinnon-Dworkinite axis. When I wrote about this problem in a 1998 book called Heterophobia: Sexual Harassment and the Future of Feminism, the notion that heterosexual relations required verbal consent was still a marginal idea. Now a negative view of heterosex seems to be everywhere, resuscitating traditional views of women as needing constant protection from predatory males.

But that protection, these days, is to be provided by the state and its eager institutions, not by individual men.  It’s as if women have totally cornered the sexual market: they’re the providers (mostly reluctant), men the consumers (avidly hungry), and the entire interaction has to be orchestrated by administrators, following the guidelines of feminists. See Cathy Young’s column, in The Washington Post.

While feminists have used the term “rape culture” for years to characterize the United States, they rarely criticize or even comment on the high incidence of rape of black women by black men. The same silence surrounds the growing incidence of rape and sexual assault in European cities with large numbers of Muslim immigrants.

Race: Concentrating on Grievance

The grievance industries have taken control of the popular discourse on race, to the point that merely to call attention to this phenomenon is to expose oneself to nasty labels. It was in the early 1990s, at a meeting of the Women’s Studies faculty (which I had joined voluntarily a couple of years after receiving tenure in the Spanish and Portuguese Department), that I first heard a colleague bluntly state:  When Blacks say they have experienced racism, they are not to be challenged.

I objected that this made actual discussion of a problem or a charge impossible. Colleagues who agreed with me behind the scenes were nonetheless unwilling to say so publicly. At the same time, racial politics were so thoroughly gripping the program that when two graduate students presented a proposal for a new course they wished to teach on indigenous women, my colleagues accepted it despite the fact that the proposal was nothing but a list of indigenous identities of North and South America. I argued that the proposal needed to be a real proposal, not merely a list. My colleagues responded, “We can’t afford not to accept it,” by which they meant that with charges of racism flying thick and fast, they dared not insist on normal academic procedures.  These were among the episodes that led to my leaving Women’s Studies not long thereafter.

The Cult of Identity 

Clearly, identity politics had become a hydra, so out of control that Women’s Studies itself was in danger of seeming parochial for concentrating on “women.”  The first thing it did to bolster its position was, as described above, embrace a stance of mea culpa in relation to white identity.

So widespread is this today that we have such innovations as whiteness studies (i.e., studies of “white privilege” and its inherent racism), which have some up-to-the-minute incarnations, as in Whiteness History Month at Portland Community College, scheduled for April 2016.  And identity programs devoted to every conceivable variation of sexual and gender identity now abound. Acronyms are de rigueur.

And Let’s Not Forget ‘Class’

Early in the days of Women’s Studies, claims about “classism” were added to charges of racism and sexism, and “white middle-class women” were denounced as the illegitimate dominatrices of academic feminism.  The imperative was clear: adapt or die. As identities multiplied, the accompanying demand for appropriate “theorizing”  took the form of what academic feminists claimed was a new “integrated analysis,” by which various supposedly oppressed identities had to be incorporated into one package.

More recently, this has been renamed “intersectional analysis” (borrowing Kimberlé Crenshaw’s use in a 1989 essay of the term “intersectionality”).  This is now an obligatory approach in Women’s Studies and other identity fields, designed to address the special marginalization suffered by people with multiple oppressed identities. Such an approach has the great advantage that new categories can always be added as they are discovered.

The Compulsion to Reinvent Oneself

Along with this came a change in the very name of Women’s Studies programs.  All over the country in the past decade these programs and departments retitled themselves as some variation of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.  And indeed, sexuality – that is, the critique of heterosexuality and promotion of alternatives – became, along with racism and anti-capitalism, the predominant focus of academic feminism, as is evident today in course offerings and programmatic statements.

Befitting a postmodernist age, redefinitions of all categories prevailed:  Where originally gender identity was seen as socially constructed, and sexual identity was viewed as biological, biology itself came increasingly, if inconsistently, under attack.  Noretta Koertge and I called this development “biodenial” (see Professing Feminism: Education and Indoctrination in Women’s Studies), and noted how opportunistically the technique was used.

In a fascinating more recent development, it has become clear that while minority racial identity is so treasured that fraudulent claims (on grounds of biology, i.e., racial heritage!) are denounced, sexual identity has moved in an opposite direction, toward ever greater fluidity. Thus, for example, Smith College announced in May 2015 that, though reaffirming its “unwavering mission and identity as a women’s college,” its commitment to access and diversity required recognition that “concepts of female identity have evolved.”

Henceforth, Smith will consider applicants who “self-identify” as female, even if they “were assigned male at birth” — but not the reverse.  Thoughtfully, this policy “does not affect students who transition during their time at Smith.” Is this an abandonment or an intensification of identititis?

Firmly Stamping out Unwanted Speech

Of course, none of the above shifts could occur successfully without policing of everyday language. And as the very notion of discrimination (which was initially the legal basis for criminalizing “sexual harassment”) underwent extensive concept-stretching, demands for verbal conformity have intensified, proscribing certain terms and prescribing others.

Schools have sometimes tried to create lists of offensive and impermissible terms, and though these have no legal standing, such details don’t seem to have dissuaded many colleges.  But even where certain terms are not officially prohibited, conformity has been expected for decades now.

I remember a speaker in the early 1990s, at a Women’s Studies brown-bag lunch, in passing using the expression “to see” in the sense of “to understand.” A student in the audience interrupted her to say this was “ablest.” The speaker apologized.  As categories of oppression have multiplied, so, obviously, are the terms that must be avoided.  For several decades now, students and faculty have gotten into serious trouble for saying something perceived as offensive.

This creeping censorship was highlighted in the indispensable book by Alan Charles Kors and Harvey A. Silverglate, The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses (1998). Initially inspired by the famous “water buffalo” case at the University of Pennsylvania in 1993, the book tracked the rapid multiplication of such instances throughout the 1990s.

The avalanche of cases Kors and Silverglate heard about in response to their book led them in 1999 to found FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (on whose Board I have served ever since).  FIRE has been instrumental in combatting speech codes on American campuses by insisting on reason and actual adherence to the First Amendment, and by holding universities to account.

The cases on the website, thefire.org, read like a parody of academic inanities – but the consequences to those charged with speech infractions have been all too real – thanks to the Departments of Education’s and Justice’s 2013 “blueprint” invoking unconstitutionally broad definitions of sexual harassment. For students and faculty, this usually means absence of due process.

FIRE has had to pursue free speech on a case-by-case basis, preferring suasion to lawsuits wherever possible.  But despite their numerous successes, the general atmosphere on campus has not improved. On the contrary, university administrators, as we have seen again in recent months, have become ever more craven conformists.

Recently, I received a mailing from FIRE about the case of a Colorado College student who was suspended and banned from campus for two years for having posted a six-word comment on Yik Yak.  FIRE’s intervention got the ban reduced to six months, and they are still fighting on his behalf.

And the struggle continues: On Jan 20, 2016, supported by FIRE, Professor Teresa Buchanan filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Louisiana State University for infringement of her rights by firing her for profanity she used in class.

Creeping Totalitarianism

Over the past few decades, then, we have seen a massive normalization of bad ideas that were first promoted by identity programs such as Women’s Studies and Black Studies. This could not have been accomplished without academic institutions willingly, and by now enthusiastically, embracing what Lawrence Summers (and he should know) recently called academe’s “creeping totalitarianism.”  Far from embracing free debate of challenging ideas and the free speech necessary to pursue them, university life today is characterized by policies governing every aspect of college life, in the classroom and out, and offices to enforce them.

At the macro level, universities have adopted “social justice” as a supposed core mission, in the name of which policing of speech and behavior has become ever more intense.  Education itself may be more debased and less demanding, yet universities focus not on this extremely serious problem but on the level of comfort of those supersensitive souls who are empowered by identity politics.

With intrusive training and orientation sessions, often obligatory, along with endless expansion of administrative fiefdoms devoted to supposed justice, inclusivity, and equality, schools augment the problem by embracing and imposing rules and regulations, however blatantly unconstitutional and in defiance of their own stated commitments to free speech and academic freedom.

Instead, in the new world in which “oppression studies” (to use Alan Kors’ prescient phrase) rule, we find ever more hysterical searches for grievances, to the point that students now need to be protected from offenses or mere upset feelings yet to come, and thus demand “trigger warnings” about class material.  They learn how to apply the concept of “bullying,” the latest catch-all offense to watch for in the new kindergarten that the university has become.

It’s as if universities have been transformed from institutions dedicated to learning into holding tanks for fragile and shattered selves – not so fragile, however, that they’re unable to mobilize and scream until they get their way, all the while claiming to be silenced and abused.

We have reached the point today where the erosion of civil rights, along with the evaporation of common sense, is not only taken for granted but actively encouraged by many college administrators eager to demonstrate their commitment to a better (that is, more minutely controlled) society.  Or perhaps they are just eager to keep their jobs — a futile endeavor since, as they are learning the hard way, no one has an unassailable identity once identitarians get busy.

Meanwhile, universities recklessly follow the spread of inventive concepts such as “micro-aggression.” This term was coined in 1970 by professor and psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce, but was not widely used until the last few years. Why might that be? Perhaps because there were more important battles to be fought then.  But, let’s face it, micro-aggression is becoming hackneyed, for it is only the more overt form of those ubiquitous and diabolical — because ever less visible — offenses that so plague our society.  No one should be content to stop there.

Can nano-aggression be far behind?


 

Daphne Patai is a professor in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Progressives Shoot at Shakespeare

Dana Dusbiber’s statement in The Washington Post deploring the teaching of Shakespeare in high school English courses evoked universal scorn and laughter. Her thesis is simple: Shakespeare is too old, white, male, and European for 21st-century American students, especially those of color.  His language is dense and unfamiliar, enough so that Dusbiber herself can’t always understand it.  He is the result of white people’s tastes.  He’s a routine, not a fresh discovery.

The Common Core English Language Arts standards (quoted by Dusbiber) require a play by Shakespeare in high school, but she treats the rule as a hidebound imposition.  It makes for a boring and alien class experience.  When are bureaucrats going to realize that the student population needs something else?  When will they stop peddling old-time, non-diverse classics to youths who don’t like them—and with good reason?  We need to assign words, images, and ideas closer to their real lives.

Commentators jumped on Dusbiber for anti-intellectualism, low standards, and incompetence. But why attack Dusbiber for voicing standard progressive premises? Her opinions are not the complaints of a narrow-minded and eccentric individual. They are entirely in keeping with multiculturalist notions.  True, she delivers a blunt and inexpert expression of them, but her conclusions and practices follow logically from the race and gender focus of reigning education theory of the progressive kind.  She says nothing that gainsays the following truisms about the English class:

  • Students need “representation”—black students need to see black authors and black characters (humanely portrayed), and it’s best if they are presented by a black teacher.
  • The past is irrelevant or worse—history evolves and mankind improves (if steered in the right social-justice directions); to emphasize the past is to preserve all the injustices and misconceptions of former times.
  • Contemporary literature is better—it’s more diverse and more real.
  •  Classics are authoritarian—they deny teachers and students the freedom to chart their own curriculum and take ownership of their learning.

Dusbiber adopts all of these assumptions.  Her error lay not in her ideas but in her inarticulate version of them.  A more sophisticated rendition would have blocked much of the hostile response, but reached the same conclusions.  We should aim criticism not at her, but at progressive education in general.  Everything she said she heard before in teacher training programs.  Shakespeare can’t survive hack teachers, and he can’t survive progressive principles, either.

One particular response recognized the threat progressivist to the Bard and aimed to dispel it on progressivist grounds.  Written by Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, “The Progressive Case for Teaching Shakespeare” appeared in The New Republic. For Bruenig, Shakespeare is defensible even in the non-white urban American classroom for two reasons.

One, his distance from us compels us to reflect upon our own condition.  As we enter the world of Hamlet and Henry V, we must imagine a world of different values and beliefs and mores. This in turn excites in youths a “political imagination,” Bruenig says, that makes us regard our own time more critically.

The second rationale has a political meaning, too, but a concrete one.  Politicians often invoke historical references to bolster their positions.  It is crucial, then, for youths to know these references in order for them to assess their political uses and abuses.

It is hardly necessary to note that if this is the best progressive argument for Shakespeare, he hasn’t a prayer.  One doesn’t need to read a whole Shakespeare play in order to pick up historical allusions in contemporary politics.  A Wikipedia entry will do.  The same goes for encountering the strangeness of the past.  Why struggle through the scenes of King Lear in order to understand the situation of the poor in Renaissance Europe?  (Bruenig chooses the poor as her example.)  You could do the same by choosing more accessible materials such as paintings and videos and museum artifacts.  Nothing Bruenig contends justifies Shakespeare over anything else.

The problem is that progressivism can’t make the argument. Shakespeare endures in the classroom on aesthetic and cultural grounds that progressivism refuses.  It casts aesthetic excellence as a political tool, the imposition of one group’s tastes upon everyone else.  And it marks the culture at whose pinnacle Shakespeare stands (the English literary-historical canon) as an outdated authority.

To say that Shakespeare is central to our cultural inheritance—beloved by audiences in the 19th-century American west, quoted by presidents, source of countless American idioms—is to dispel the multiculturalist breakthrough of the mid-20th century.  If progressivism reigns in secondary and higher education, Shakespeare, Pope, and Wordsworth are doomed.