Sunday, May 16, 2010

Sunday Radical Roundup: Timeless Questions Edition

Why Aren't There More Women In The STEM Fields? That's Science, Technology and Math, for you girlfriends and girly-men cowering in the liberal arts and life sciences. Go to Historiann to read about hazing rituals at dissertation defenses in the sciences, and everything else the AAUW was afraid to tell you. The full story is at Thus Spake Zuska, a science blog where Zuska tells the story of her own defense. Not only are grad students at many places expected to make elaborate meals for the committee, but they are then supposed to sit there and be ritually insulted --all in good fun, of course.

"The problem with research science is that it operates like little fiefdoms," Zuska writes. "Everybody in their own little kingdom, no oversight over the whole enterprise. Everybody making up their own rules about acceptable behavior and what kinds of douchebaggery will be tolerated in this lab versus that one, this defense versus that one. No one goes around observing what is taking place in each little steaming hellhole. The patriarchy of university labs is structurally much more like families, or church congregations, than like corporations. Abusive practices can be hidden in plain sight, despite clear stated norms against beating the children and having sex with them."

Kudos for moving from a train-wreck of a story to a smart institutional analysis of sexism in action, Zuska. I would add one thing: it's not just science that has little fiefdoms. What is wrong with a lot of departments that have become more or less dysfunctional could be traced to a similar lack of institutional oversight. And the lack of supervision -- even though the university administration will freely acknowledge in private that they know about (and, of course, abhor) the systemic discrimination and abuse that is occurring -- means that the strongest personalities in the department get free rein to run things as they choose. Forever. The result is a kind of Lord of the Flies atmosphere, in which these bullies hand out favors to those who are willing to accede to the dysfunction rather than have their work and careers impeded by kicking at the bricks. The dysfunction thus becomes ingrained across generations, even as administrators reassure you that those perpetuating it are dinosaurs on their way to retirement. No one can ever tell you when those retirements will occur, of course. That they will ever retire, barring a sustained inability to function at all, assumes that staying home and bullying their spouses will be equally satisfying and remunerative.

The best part is this: if you belong to such a department, are drained by watching various indignities and injustices occur, and spend a lot of time figuring out how to defend yourself from the hideous internal dynamics that are sustained by these people, you then get to walk around the university listening to other members of the faculty tell you what horrible people your departmental colleagues are, as if somehow it was your responsibility to fix it.

Why Do We Always Talk About Lesbians At Tenured Radical? Because at Tenured Radical we are just obsessed with lesbianism. Everything lesbian compels us. We have a lesbian Barbie. Although we draw the line at watching Ellen DeGeneres on American Idol, we watched every episode of every season of The L Word, no matter how terrible, no matter how confusing the sex scenes, because we are so about lesbians here.

So we are really curious as to why Katherine Franke, director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law at Columbia, who was quoted extensively in this story about Elena Kagan (strategically placed near the wedding announcements in today's Sunday Styles section of the New York Times) chose to address the SCOTUS lesbian drama in this way:

being single in your 40s or 50s still “remains something that has to be explained.” And until the legal profession makes it easier for women to get ahead while, at the same time, having a family, the attitude will persist.

About six months ago, Ms. Franke said, a group of female graduates of Columbia’s law school gathered to discuss their law careers. One of the questions posed by the older lawyers was whether younger lawyers saw themselves as feminists. Many said they did not. “The older women were aghast,” Ms. Franke said.

The problem, the younger lawyers explained, was that their older peers told them they could easily balance the demands of work and family, but didn’t explain how. “They think there is a glass ceiling,” Ms. Franke said of some of the young students. “They see it as, ‘I have to make a choice not to have a traditional family.’ ” For those who remain single, though, “the reason should not have to be explained.”

It was an utterly reasonable answer, I suppose, under some circumstances. But why didn't Franke point out that being in a non-traditional, lesbian partnership is one viable way to be fully supported in one's emotional, sexual and professional life? I never publish anything without two sources, but with people like you punting on this one, Professor Franke, no wonder ambitious lesbian legal scholars are still in the closet.

Does Maureen Dowd Really Think That This Was Helpful? Enquiring Minds Want To Know. And by the way? My lesbian niece, a future attorney who does not go to an effete Ivy-League law school and would be a terrific candidate for SCOTUS, told me once that the National Enquirer is always right when it comes to printing people's secrets because this gossip rag has been sued so often in the past. My niece was way out ahead of me on the John Edwards love child thing for this reason. So unless Elena Kagan outs herself, there is no lesbian story as far as I am concerned until I see it in the grocery store. I may, however, continue discussing sexism and homophobia until the cows come home.

Why Is May 16 A Holiday Celebrated By Queer People Everywhere? Pick the most appropriate answer:

a) 14-year old Marie Antoinette married 15-year-old Louis-Auguste who was unable to consummate the marriage for years, but became the King of France anyway. Subsequently, both were beheaded, and Antoinette was dogged by charges of lesbianism ever after.

b) Edgar Allan Poe married his 13-year-old cousin Virginia. This was either queer, illegal, incestuous or just not very nice, depending on your point of view.

c) Pope Benedict XV canonized the transgendered Joan of Arc as a saint.

d) It is the birthday of Liberace, Adrienne Rich, Cheryl Clarke, Tori Spelling and the Tenured Radical.

e) All of the above.


JackDanielsBlack said...

Hmmm--I believe Larry Summers had a different theory as to why there aren't more wimmen in science. And though articulating it got him run out of Harvard, looks like his friend Barack has rescued him and he's not doing too badly at the moment (though one could argue that the country is suffering).

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Dowd is the fucking worst. She doesn't give a single shit about the effect her horrific inane gibbering might have on the polity, and is all prurience all the time. Just consider yourself fortunate she didn't manage to work Clinton's dick into this particular column.

JackDanielsBlack said...

By the way, Edgar Allen Poe marrying his 13-year-old cousin wasn't queer or whatever -- it was just Southern. If memory serves me right, Jerry Lee Lewis did the same. Folks are real big on family in the South!

Ralph Luker said...

Happy birthday, TR!

Historiann said...

Happy Birthday, TR! I agree with your analysis of how bullying departments get their groove on, and that an absence of oversight (and a reluctance to intervene) are absolutely to blame. One more thing might explain why more precisely deans and other administrators don't want to intervene: very frequently, it was they who promoted the bullies by making them Chair (or sanctioning their work with another such appointment), and I have yet to meet the administrator who apologized and removed a clearly destructive leader from said position. In these cases, intervention would be an admission of one's own failures--and of course, the admin bureaucracy can't have that. Others will have to suffer for their mistakes.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Oh, shit! I forgot to wish you a happy birthday, so HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!111!!!!11!ELEBVNTY!!11!!!!W00T!!!11!!!!11121

Brian W. Ogilvie said...

Happy birthday!

Lesboprof said...

TR, that Dowd column would make Molly Ivins roll over in her grave. I thought about trying to channel her voice in an open letter responding to Dowd, but I couldn't do Ivins justice. I am with Comrade PP--I could live without Dowd in my Sunday NYTimes.

Thanks for your wonderful bloggy voice! Enjoy your birthday!

Anonymous said...

That's weird, I'm at Columbia and I have always been pretty sure Franke is a lesbian herself. She says valid things, but they seem to be in such a heteronormative framework. I guess all the lesbian law students are at NYU.

Katherine Franke said...

After the last comment, I guess it's time I entered the discussion here. While my sexual orientation is not really the issue here (though it's not something I hide), nor should be Kagan's necessarily. It strikes me that TR is making the same mistake as that of the homophobic critics of Kagan. Why should we determine, if not overdetermine, un-married adult women who have not had children as a “lesbian issue.” I’m all for “non-traditional lesbian partnerships that are emotionally and sexually satisfying and which enable professional success” (though I’m not sure where the non-traditional part comes in here), but in some respects I think the no-marriage, no-kids thing is much more difficult for straight or celibate women. The enormous social pressures they face to marry and have children is now, and has long been, overwhelming. I've responded more fully to TR here:

Tenured Radical said...

(Also posted back at your blog)

I don't think there is anything about my piece that suggests "a yearning for recognition of a stable kind of lesbian identity" -- whatever *that* means (excuse me while I turn over my Meg Christian LP!!)

Seriously, if you want to have an argument about who is queerer than whom, you can win if you want to. You are definitely more famous, so you might be queerer too for all I know. My point is that the whole national conversation about Kagan is frantically homophobic, particularly among her liberal defenders in the political and scholarly community. You had an opportunity -- as an out lesbian legal scholar -- to make an intervention in a national publication that addressed that homophobia. But you didn't: instead, you redirected it back onto heteronormative anxiety about whether (straight, privileged) female attorneys can have it all. In retrospect, counselor -- that doesn't strike you as a punt?

As a public, we don't *know* that Kagan is in resistance to "the matrimonial industrial complex and its largest subsidiary, repronormativity" any more than we *know* anything about her sexual orientation (or possible lack thereof -- how's that for refusing stable identities?)

But we do know that everyone is running hard from even the possibility Kagan might be confused with a lesbian, or the idea that being a childless lesbian could be good for one's work and career.

JackDanielsBlack said...

Well, well, well. I see from perusing this week's New York magazine that Elena Kagan was elevated to the position of Dean of the Harvard Law School by none other than -- Larry Summers. Maybe he figures that even though women aren't smart enough to be scientists, there is nothing holding them back from success in the field of law. Doesn't say much for lawyers.