Whose Academy Is It Anyway?

16 May 2016, 1938 EDT

Recently there has been a lot of talk about one of those issues academics (at least in the U.S.) obsess about: how to get tenure and the job security as well as license to (supposedly) speak truth to power that comes with it.

This round of conversations started when Stephen Walt gave some, rather generic, advice in his Foreign Policy piece “How to Get Tenure“. As a long-time professor at Harvard, Walt certainly has experience – but with a very particular kind of (highly privileged) institution and hence, while not wrong per se, his advice certainly is limited in a number of ways. One such limitation, that Walt’s  imaginary assistant professor on the tenure-track is supposedly gender-less (aka male), was subsequently picked up by Erica Chenoweth, Page Fortina, Sara Mitchell, Burcu Savun, Jessica Weeks and Kathleen Cunningham. Their piece “How to Get Tenure (If You’re a Woman)” has been widely discussed among women in Political Science/ IR (and beyond) in the past weeks. In the piece, Chenoweth et al. offer “seven peer reviewed strategies female faculty can use” – and there is some good  advice for those who want “to climb the academic ladder” (as is) here. What is more, they also note that other intersecting oppressions mean that “these issues also (and often more so) affect faculty of color and other underrepresented groups and are doubly difficult for women of color” (unfortunately they fall short of specifically addressing these issues).

There were many discussions on the facebook feed of the Women’s Caucus in International Studies (WCIS) and that of the Feminist Theory and Gender Studies (FTGS) section of ISA. Laura Sjoberg provides a useful summary of the gist of these conversations – that “Women Shouldn’t Need Different Guidelines for Achieving Tenure” – and you should really read them, as they also include a number of “Other Observations on Gendered Academe” and concrete suggestions as to what each of us might do, individually, to help out.  She ends her piece with the lament voiced by many – that the system, with its deep gender, race, class, heterosexist, and ableist bias (to name just a few axes of oppression), is essentially broken. Much of the advice given is only a way to get by; it rarely allows us to thrive if we cannot figure out a way to become “the ideal worker… someone who is always able to work” (Williams, 2001).

One question remains, however: Is the system really broken?

What if the system is actually working as it was intended?

I’ve been reading a lot of think pieces on these issues over the last decade and one thing that always helps me is to remember that we (that is, all Others that are not white, privileged men) were never meant to survive here (yes, I am loosely paraphrasing Audre Lorde). Indeed, this struck me again, when I read Emily van Duyne’s article last week:

It bears remembering that the university descended from an institution designed to train monks. Women had, for the better part of a millennia, literally nothing to do with it. The American university, which has adapted the original model to exist within the capitalist mode of production and dissemination, exists to perpetuate itself.”

Indeed, it is not just the U.S. academy that is grappling with these issues – we have Sheryl Sandberg giving us advice to Lean In in the business world (she now admitted at least some of her own privilege) and Anne-Marie Slaughter recently followed up on her Atlantic article on “Why Women Can’t Have it All” with a book: Unfinished Business.  Like Chenoweth et al.’s suggestions (and even Sjoberg’s, to an extent) – it is not that their analyses are entirely misguided, but that they are specific to the particular patriarchal bargain (Kandiyoti, 1988) that they’ve struck within the institutions they find themselves in. As Deniz Kandiyoti points out,

“women strategize within a set of concrete constraints that reveal and define the… patriarchal bargain of any given society [exerting] a powerful influence on the shaping of women’s gendered subjectivity.”

This is forcefully pointed out in a series of Short Takes on Slaughter’s new book in Signs, where a variety of authors note shortcomings in Slaughter’s approach, mostly revealing privilege mentioned but unaccounted for as far as the analysis is concerned. As Nancy Folbre notes, her analysis is “smart. Its enlightened. It’s progressive. But it is also… incomplete” and, like much of the genre, it remains too focused on how women can adapt when “it’s the workplace that needs to change” (Geier). Given that “a significant amount of the gender pay gap stems not from discrimination against women per se but from discrimination against caregivers,” as Stephanie Coontz summarizes (did you know that childless women now earn 96% of what men with comparable experience, hours and jobs make? I didn’t – clearly, if you can be the ideal worker, you’re mostly fine),  the question is how how does the workplace (and society, really) need to change that care-work (not just of children either) is no longer a private matter?

Many countries have figured this out – and even the U.S. has a precedent: “The only large-scale success in making work-life policies available to American workers of every economic, racial and ethnic background has been that run by the military – the biggest and best-funded arm of the government” (Coontz). As is, however, most suggestions to empower women within the existing patriarchal bargain of the U.S. Academy, rely not on massive government investment (see Williams) but on the privatization of care and the outsourcing of that labor to a “paid care economy [which] has created a class of vulnerable super-exploited workers, a disproportionate number of whom are women” (Nadasen). These ‘disposable’ workers (Chang, 2000) are often women of color and/ or recent immigrants and perceived and treated as easily replaceable. It is on their backs that the advancement of a certain group of privileged women became possible – empowerment became something for women to buy. As such, Tressie McMillan Cottom’s skepticism is more than warranted – and it should be our starting point for our conversation:

“I am skeptical that elite white women will do anything for brown women, poor women, queer people, and differently able-bodied women than would elite white men. [Indeed], given the political economy of mate competition, interpersonal gendered aggression, and greater intimate contact, elite white women may actually be more intimately violent to nonwhite women than elite white men are.”

Why? Let’s consider the academy’s patriarchal bargain(s) once again. Analyzing the situation of women in the academy, the business world and elsewhere as such, would allow us “to capture the nature of patriarchal systems in their cultural, class-specific, and temporal concreteness and reveal how men and women resist, accommodate, adapt, and conflict with each other of resources, rights and responsibilities” (Kandiyoti, 1988). Tracing  the shifting nature of who is doing the (well-paid and abysmally-paid) work and how the advancement of some too often is build on the backs of others, is key to addressing it.

How? By doing what critical feminists do well – starting from the everyday and focusing on the lives of all those identified as women; engaging in feminist consciousness raising specific to the academy; and working in solidarity across movements, based on the recognition that our struggles are connected (Collins, 2000). I mean, seriously: Why do we keep focusing on getting tenure when most junior academics will never be on the tenure track? Fighting adjunctification in the U.S. academy should be as much as part of the struggle as supporting paid maternity leave and affordable childcare; demanding an end to the school-to-prison pipeline with Black Lives Matter activists and fixing the leaky pipeline by addressing routinized Everyday Sexism in Academia are equally part of the puzzle. Since the academy was not designed for us, the only way we can thrive in it is by taking power (& making power) to create space(s)  … together. “Individual change will help individuals. Systemic change will help everybody” (Nadasen).