Saturday, June 07, 2008

What To Do When Surrounded By the Patriarchy? Or, Rethinking Conference Hell

A reader who I will descriptively dub "Feminist Guy" (as sie has not given permission to use hir name) writes:

Dear TR:

Thanks for the post on AHA tips and tricks--- the AHA has been one of the major Old Boys' Clubs, but feminists (female and otherwise) have found their own ways to network there, and this is a great development. But there are still plenty of smaller subfield conferences where this isn't the case -- with attendance being dramatically tilted towards Old White Straight Guys. (In fact, I'm attending one as we speak--- let's call it Little Patriarchy Conference.) If you've never been to a particular conference before, you might not even realize this imbalance until you're already checked
into the hotel.

What's a junior, feminist-trained scholar to do when blindsided by a conference like this? How can/should women who find themselves at LPC react, and how do they/we build connections or scholarly community in an alienating environment? How can/should feminist guys work to undermine or counteract the patriarchal social dynamics of LPC? When at LPC, surrounded by senior scholars who don't use gender, race, and class as basic analytical methods, how do you know when to yank their testicles and when to save your breath? Most importantly, how does one find the pre/post-conference-day feminist network-and-critique sessions that must be going on somewhere?

Sadly, I'm sure that LPC 2008 won't be the last example of this sort of event. Thanks for any suggestions you can provide about how to handle the next one.

Dear Feminist Guy,

Well -- my first response is utterly churlish, which I acknowledge because you are a delightful person and limited contact suggests we will be friends despite my age and your youth: if you were where I think you were when you sent this question, what conference did you think you were signing on to when you decided to attend a meeting sponsored by a history association formed by a pair of notorious lapsed Marxist neo-cons, one of whom became explicitly anti-feminist in her old age? A couple who formed said association because they thought the American Historical Association had pandered to liberals long enough? I'm not saying this prominent power couple weren't smart and important, but progressive they had ceased to be, and the association has become, for the time being at least, a refuge for others in despair that political history will every recover from the discovery of race, gender and sexuality as categories of analysis.

Now this is not to say that one should only go to the places where like-minded people can be found; quite the opposite in fact. I would argue, for example, that a variety of politicized conflicts I have gotten into in the blogosphere have put me in dialogue (however difficult dialogue sometimes is to achieve with people who are trying to toss you under the nearest bus) with conservative academics and conservative non-academics, dialogue that has opened new paths for thought as I continue work on a project about late twentieth century politics. Dialogue with the patriarchy forces you to explain yourself. It can be fun, productive and sometimes produce moments of recognition with a person unlike yourself that can be thought provoking. This doesn't address the complexity of what you are describing, or the complexity of the intellectual interventions you are committed to, but consider it a bracketed plea for the benefits of intellectual difference, even when the people you are dealing with seem to be noxiously unreconstructed. I wouldn't recommend an unrelieved diet of it by any means, but two or three days a year is something to really take advantage of in my book. And really -- consider it training for engaging with your conservative students, many of whom will not be persuaded by your intellectual commitments but might be persuaded to engage constructuvely with you.

I would also say that one can often be surprised in a good way as organizations change over time and as your self-confidence grows: several years ago I gave a paper at the Southern Historical Association annual meeting, and found it to be a very different environment than the one I had experienced a decade earlier. There were more African-American scholars than at any other history conference I had been to; there were three queer panels; there was a fair amount of interdisciplinary work; and there was a lot of mingling between constituencies. At one queer panel I realized beatedly that I had sat down next to Eminent Elderly White Patriarchal Political History Man (with whom I had interviewed a great many years before when on the job market.) After reintroducing myself, I said, "EWPPHM, what are you doing here?" and he said brightly, "Well, I don't know anything about this field and I thought I should attend the panel."

In retrospect, I would say two things: the Southern has always had a progressive element that was somewhat obscure to me at an earlier stage of my career, so I think part of feeling less out of place was that I was older, more established and felt more secure in my capacity to recognize allies and engage differences on an equal basis. But I also think the Southern changed: as an organization, it made a huge effort to recruit more diverse scholars over time, and that was a process that was at least begun by people who were very much in the minority when they began that project. And they found each other by challenging themselves to go to the conference in the first place.

Finally, although I empathize with your sense of alienation, I think it is important to be where you are in any academic environment, even one that collides with things you believe very deeply as a feminist. It isn't always your responsibility to make interventions, and it isn't always necessary. If it is an environment that you are wedded to -- a department, for example -- you will need to decide what you are willing to invest in change, when that enhances your work, and when (as it unfortunately can) such efforts sap your energy and hinder your work. But I think listening to others rather than forcing them to listen to you is a good start for finding allies at a conference; I also think that making an intervention in a way that represents what you are opposing accurately and non-judgementally both notifies others that you are listening (and should be listened to) and allows potential allies who are impressed by you to want to be associated with you. But let me underline the following: allies can be found among the patriarchy too, even if those alliances are limited by inevitable disagreements. I have found over the past year that some people with whom I have had bitter political disagreements are extraordinarily likeable, often generous, people; and I have found over the course of a career that many scholars who don't privilege the intellectual categories I think are crucial can be good readers and interesting colleagues.

For the post to which this reader is referring, "The AHA for Dummies," click here.


Anonymous said...

I have a question.I have a son who is quite "special"-I have been told to try to understand this-and that he has essentially "unlimited" capacity intellectually. He is also very sensitive to other people. He studies Latin and Greek at a prominent University. When tested as to his Latin level for translation as a Freshman he placed with the Doctoral candidates. All his Latin grades are quite high but for the one that he just completed that was taught by a young woman brought in for just one year to teach a required course in Horace or something-which he loves. He was quite frustrated because the class was very slow and tedious for him so he went to speak to her about it and she told him to "suck it up", she was teaching to the level of the other seven people in the class.Five of these were women.
She liked to make remarks in class such as "we all know that people with scrotums have smaller brains"
which got a giggle from the girls.
Many other such jovial remarks were made. He stopped going to some of her classes. My friend the psychiatrist said when Duncan can't communicate
with a techer he can't produce, he goes all internal or something from frustration. He nevertheless got above a 95% on every quiz, a 99% on the mid-term and an unknown grade on the final as she left and didn't return. She gave him a c for the course as she retained a 25% subjective portion for her grading as participation.
My question is this - how is a very cerebral but sensitive white male with a sense of justice supposed to react when his genitals and brain are mocked in class? Is this the price he is expected to pay for being part of the white male patriarchy? He was used to this in other situations but never in the Classics Department. It was only a generation ago his family lived in poverty and before that his great grandfather was destroyed for being a labor union activist, his five great uncles were killed in the first world war as privates and his other great grandfather was run out of Ireland for fighting the British.My question is this: Could some people be applying the race/sex/class analysis in an inappropriate and destructive manner? Are all white men to be subjected to harassment at any time? Can these men not be given any peace at all? He has a very subtle mind and this type of hamfisted non-thought has turned him away from the University as a source of education. I like to write you this real life stuff because I believe History comprises real life and those who live it, no to offend you.

Tenured Radical said...

Dear anonymous 9:33,

What you describe sounds like profoundly unprofessional behavior on the part of an inexperienced teacher who needs some mentoring, and won't get it unless this is brought to someone's attention. Angry as a parent or student has a right to be at such demeaning behavior, as a program chair, I would want to know that one of my teachers was out of control. And you don't know if no one tells you -- or you know so far after the fact that it is as good as not knowing.

Here's the advice I would give Duncan, given what you say:

1. He needs to act, or learn how to do so, rather than retreat. I would suggest he seek out an ally --another member of the faculty, a class dean, or his advisor. I would start with the grade: even with 25% participation, I don't see how that grade is a C if what you say about the rest of his grades is true, so if I were Duncan I would challenge the grade and use it as an opportunity to document what he experienced in the class.

2. If Duncan is capable of working at the graduate level, he should talk to the department chair about taking graduate courses: this is usually possible, and i would start now in case some special appeal needs to be made over the summer. Although the teacher handled the diverse achievement level of her students poorly, it's really hard to teach the same class to students working at very different levels I would have pulled him out of the class and taught him in tutorial if he was bored, but if the teacher was a grad sudent or an adjunct this is an unlikely outcome.) In addition, he deserves to be challenged, and I can't imagine that there aren't lots of other people in the department who would be overjoyed to work with him if he is so talented.

3. If what you mean by "special" is that Duncan is on the Asperger's spectrum, or has some kind of diagnosis that also presents as genius, Duncan would do well to check into the office for students with special needs: he could get some good coaching about how to stand up for himself and get what n=he needs out of school, and his teachers (at his request) could be notified of any special needs, which by law must be accomodated (for example, being admitted to graduate classes or being held accountable for not showing up before a final grade is given, if that is his pattern.) What you describe sounds like bullying to me, which the teaching profession is not immune from, but otherwise well-meaniing faculty might need to know that Duncan takes things hard and withdraws. The wise faculty member might then be aware that what might seem like a spoof, a joke, or an attempt to be funny to make a pedagogical impact (although frankly, why anyone would find the need to use the word scrotum in a class on Horace is beyond me), could hurt him very deeply even when the other students laughed it off and got hte joke. Duncan, in turn, needs to learn not to occupy a middle ground when faced with a difficult emotional situation: dropping the class would have been a better option than not showing up, and going to see the department chair when he was origially told to "suck it up" an even better option. I would also encourage Duncan to contact one of the of ther students in the class and compare what happened, prefacing it by saying: "All these things really hurt my feelings, and I want to know if you felt the teacher was mocking me." By doing this, he would get another person's perspective, and give that person a chance to reach out to him -- which in turn, might leave him less alienated, and ultimately less damaged by the experience over the long term.

Two things I would add as a caveat. Although this situation seems to be about race and gender prejudice in a graphic way, I don't think it is.
I think it is about an inexperienced teacher who "played to the crowd" in a very cheap and mean way to cover up her own insecurities about feeling out of control. On a final note: be very sure that what Duncan says happened actually happened before you take some kind of definitve institutional action beyond asking for mediation. If you want a grade challenge, ask to see Duncan's graded work first. Ask him to write down, to the best of his ability, when he missed classes and what proximity that had to the incidents you describe. Good kids -- bright kids, who don't want to disappoint their parents -- sometimes come up with explanations for bad grades that shift the blame to otohers, when in fact bad grades are often a symptom of a more complex and difficult adjustment to college that needs to be addressed.

If you want to ask me more about this, drop a note to my gmail account -- this treads the line of my ethical statement and I don't want to write more about a student I don't know. But I would be happy to elaborate on any of these points privately by email.

Good luck,


Anonymous said...

I am both stunned and touched by your response.I am almost speechless. He gets his feelings hurt and withdraws.
He takes things really hard. Of course. So simple.

He is appealing this grade as he is very angry and considers it a grudge grade. Anyway,
Apparently the Romans weren't too classy (and had an inferiority complex with regard to the Greeks )and were not above indulging in some very basic material.What he was translating to me was some story about a bunch of slaves and a rich ex-slave at a party he had thrown and all the goings on. It was quite low life and amusing. My
kid apparently thinks the Romans didn't appreciate themselves and the chip on their shoulders vis a vis the Greeks was ill considered.
I thought it was Horace but it was quite bawdy-maybe someone else. I will ask him.
This was very generous of you.Not that I intend to impose, but what is gmail?

Tenured Radical said...


Glad I could help. If you click on my profile, you can send me an email through the Google account linked to this blog -- that's "gmail."



GayProf said...

Wow -- There is whole other post happening in the comments section.

On the original entry, I would say one of the most important things that I learned from my advisor was how to engage professionally with historians on the conservative side (which is a bigger percentage of the population than we like to pretend). Making it all about being "right" and their being "wrong" ends in frustration for both sides. It can also inadvertently stall a junior career.

As you suggest, there are ways to engage, find common ground, and keep the conversation moving. It also makes you much better at explaining your own thoughts outside of an academic bubble of like-minded people.

Randall said...

Thanks for the posts. I know that the Historical Society Conference per se was not mentioned in the original letter, but I thought I'd address this anyhow. I'm associate editor of Historically Speaking, the bulletin of the society, and was involved in planning the meeting. What TR suggests about the SHA and other organizations, a political/ideological widening out with time, has happened with THS. The society includes historians on the right and the left. It’s not a bastion of patriarchy. It’s not a collection of regressive, fossilized, malcontents, as the letter and the response would suggest. Nor is it a collection of misogynistic brown shirts. In fact, and this is only based on the premise that the letter was about the Baltimore meeting, the 2008 conference hosted a broad range of scholars and sessions. Look at the panels, and papers, on-line at I think that the conference was as diverse, with regards to the race and gender of presenters, as either the SHA or the AHA. One of the best sessions I attended, “What Public Historians Can Teach Academic Historians,” featured Heather Cox Richardson; University of Massachusetts, Amherst; Jill Ogline, Washington College; Lisa Adams, The Garamond Agency; Denise D. Meringolo, University of Maryland, Baltimore County. How that squares with the idea of a Little Patriarchy Conference is beyond me. Franklin Knight, JHU, and Eric Arnesen, UIC, did much to widen the scope of the conference. Indeed, the general topic of the meeting, “Migration, Diaspora, Ethnicity, & Nationalism in History,” is hardly “Deeds of Dead White Men,” or “Guns and Ammo.”

I agree with TR. A historian can learn much from those who don’t think like he or she does. We’ve tried to foster a real sense of debate in Historically Speaking. We actually publish opposing viewpoints in our pages, something often missing in the academy as whole.

123 said...

Tiffany Key Rings annular precious stones bolt the ablaze and accomplish it dance. Drop earrings in platinum with annular ablaze diamonds, for broken ears. Acclaimed Precious stones by the Yard accumulating is Elsa Peretti’s absolute selection. So a lot of acclaimed stars aswell like cutting them.