How are you all doing? The terrible news across the globe has me low, but then I think about the people directly affected by all the news and how they must be doing. I’ve asked many times here on the blog how much lower we will have to go before we can effect true change, and I sincerely wish I knew the answer. For this week’s blog, I’m just writing about local events because I don’t know yet how to tackle the national and international ones.
I’ve been wondering: When you’re in hot water, and things get more dire, is the water hotter or deeper, or both?
As you likely know, the Gender Shrapnel Blog emerged from my book, Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace (Palgrave, 2016). The university where I work has predictably had a conflicted relationship with this book, which critiques colleges and universities for not fixing problems of gender (and race, class, parental status, among other intersectional categories) and, in some cases, for exacerbating these problems. I understand my university’s relationship with Gender Shrapnel (after all, I wrote a book about it) and am wholly unsurprised by the book’s reception on campus. Nevertheless, since the job of the book and this blog is to provide information about, analyze, and suggest remedies for cases of gender and intersectional shrapnel, I am compelled at this moment to take a look at the book’s reception and to link the reception to other lukewarm (or maybe lukecold) responses to local shrapnel incidents.
Although folks might bristle at my calling out my institution on gender shrapnel, I hope they know that I’m speaking again of accumulated incidents over several years’ time. The incidents demonstrate that intersectional shrapnel still flies and lessons aren’t learned. Codes of civility (*addressed in this post) might have me silence these facts, but silence doesn’t get us where we need to be. The driving force of the status quo makes any person, comment, question, or protest who/that challenges it seem “uncivil,” and this silencing moves us backwards. Some readers might suggest that, if I don’t like where I teach, I should get out. Please know that, for the most part, I actually do like where I teach. I like what I teach, whom I teach, where I teach. (I do like green eggs and ham. I do like them, Sam I Am.) Twenty years at one place can create deep ties and affectionate sentiments, and also a long-term perspective about the need and potential for real change.
At the university where I teach, professors’ books are usually highlighted on the university webpage and in the Alumni Magazine. Many kind people in our publications office made sure to include mention of Gender Shrapnel in these venues last year when the book came out. Instead of being interviewed about the content of the book for the website piece, though, I was asked to focus on the advising work I do with students. The book was certainly mentioned in the piece, no problem, but it wasn’t supposed to be the centerpiece. I should have rejected this approach, but didn’t. It is hard to reject these approaches when they are suggested by people you have liked and respected for two decades. I never saw the piece actually featured on the website, even though I check the site daily. It must have flown in and out rather quickly.
More recently, an excerpted section of this blog post about Mark Lilla and campus politics was published as a letter to the editor in The Chronicle of Higher Education. The blog post and excerpted letter defend contemporary college students from Lilla’s accusations that they are overprotected and disengaged from the communities around them. This is the kind of piece (a letter to the editor on a higher education issue) usually posted somewhere on our website, even if a few layers deep, but it never made it on. I can’t tell if it’s because it doesn’t rate or is linked to the blog itself. A link to the blog, which mentions university unmentionables, is likely to be avoided at all costs. I get that the university website serves to sell the university to its many constituencies, but I don’t understand why we don’t actually celebrate our ability to engage in disagreement and be richer for it. I’ve heard myself say several times lately that the university (not just mine; probably all) gives and then takes away. University officials assure us that we are addressing diversity issues head on, and then we slow things down. I can’t imagine how presidents can balance pleasing all constituencies with making real change, but I can imagine how presidents actually make change.
I am not certain what I think about the representation of people of color on our website. Students of color are featured somewhat often, I think, but I rarely see notices about staff and faculty of color. We have trouble hiring and retaining people of color for a host of reasons. We recognize many of these reasons (our name and heritage; homogeneity; rural Virginia; KKK leaflets on front lawns; flaggers marching down Main Street; and a long etcetera), but seem to have trouble grappling with them in forthright conversations and calls for transformation.
Back when Gender Shrapnel was published, the library staff generously asked me to do an author talk, and there was not even a whiff of censorship in that venue. Librarians like books, and I believe they like information and respectful debate. Several administrators, some staff members, and many faculty members have read, thought about, and encouraged the work on gender shrapnel. I am not writing this post because I feel the book has been wholly neglected. I’m writing it because I believe the areas in which the book has been neglected are precisely the areas in which our university needs to do the hard work of recognizing a racist and misogynistic past in order to make smarter decisions about the current state of the school.
At that same time, over at the university bookstore, in the faculty publications section, I noticed that Gender Shrapnel still had not appeared and that books that were a decade old were still featured front and center. Even though it’s embarrassing to have to ask your own bookstore to pay attention to your publication, I mentioned to the managers that I would appreciate if they could include my new book in the faculty publications section. They kindly agreed. A few weeks later, I saw the bookstore’s special exhibit on banned books. The bookstore had one or two shelves dedicated to Catcher in the Rye, The Call of the Wild, Catch-22, and Beloved, all books that had at some point been banned. At that point, when I looked for Gender Shrapnel, I found it on the bottom-most shelf of the faculty section, in the left-hand corner, alongside a co-edited volume of mine from six years before. It was hard to find the co-edited volume or the new book because placed in front of them was a large hat rack with men’s straw hats with the school’s ribboned insignia. The university has found ingenious ways to comply with equitable treatment without actually complying with equitable treatment. (*See photos.)
Like many of us, each morning I visit about six websites (banking, news, you know the drill), and one of them is my university’s website. This summer the website featured the same white men for three months. I like these men and respect their work very much. I want to see them and their work featured on the website. But I also want the institution to understand the message it sends, day after day for at least 90 days. It is telling us that white men’s work matters and is to be featured. The absence of features on the accomplishments of people of color and women just seems to communicate that people of color and women don’t do work that matters. The omission reminds many of us that what we read about bias in student evaluations (*see this report; this one; this one; and this one, for example) is easily reinforced through broad institutional messages. Women are “helpful,” and men are “brilliant.” Men are the doers; women and people of color are the helpers.
I strongly believe that some of these actions are deliberate—carefully protected messaging to a high-traffic site—and some are accidental—a constant forgetting that women and people of color actually exist and achieve. In Gender Shrapnel, I say over and over that, in the end, intention or lack of intention matters not. The effect is the same. This is exactly what Dr. Wornie Reed said in his talk here in Lexington when he gave statistics on unequal policing across the races on Virginia highways.
Invisibility and visibility were themes of this Gender Shrapnel Blog post about a year ago. Invisibility reigns when people of color and women accomplish big things. People of color and women gain visibility when seen as appendages to others or when they/we are criticized for stepping out of line, for calling racism and sexism what they are, for protesting centuries of injustice. (*See this blog post that briefly discusses Colin Kaepernick’s case.) While Gender Shrapnel has been somewhat invisible in some campus and electronic locations, the blog has been visible enough to get me in hot water. This post and this one must not have sat well with somebody, somewhere, because I was called in to an administrator’s office for a conversation about them. This revealed the institution’s uneasiness on some level with frank discussion of the problematic history and recent events of our institution and our area. I worry, too, that this action was an attempt to “manage,” or control, conversations that seem too out of tightly controlled bounds.
At the same time, individuals and groups from many corners of the institution where I work seem sincerely committed to understanding legacies of slavery, racism, and white supremacism. This heightened awareness is to be embraced, but it is not enough, and it is not intersectional enough. As demonstrated in this NPR piece of 2014, the institution already knew it had work to do three years ago, and we/it has a long way to go. The formation of a commission to examine all the issues proves an excellent step, but we have to be careful not to give with one hand and take away with ten. Citing Robert E. Lee at big events, celebrating alumni who use traditional women’s garb and Confederate flags as “just a joke,” and reinforcing millennia-old gender scripts through published materials detract from the good work and good words being done elsewhere.