Some lessons I didn’t know I learned at grad school

I am slowly packing my apartment with the oversight of some companionable chaperones. Last week, my benefactor was the first friend I made in grad school more than ten years ago. I poured them a glass of wine, ordered Thai food, and pulled out two crates of notebooks and overstuffed folders that have been languishing in one of my closets since I moved into this apartment five years ago. Enormous staple-bursting single-sided printouts made up a sizeable portion of this cache. In our early graduate school days, we printed out entire chapters and essays to mark up and discuss in class.

There’s no sense in hanging onto them now. Should I wish to chase the ghost of an idea I learned from one of these packets, I could find it online and mark up a digital copy with an ease I could not have imagined when I was budgeting out my computer center print job ration for the semester. Besides, having recently worked at a special collections library and archive, I have a good sense of what is happening on a molecular level to these haphazardly stored files. The mission was to unburden myself of as much moldering old paper as possible.

I saved a few of my own papers with professorial approval scrawled in the margins. I saved one of the official letters sent by my university, informing me that I had been awarded a teaching assistant stipend of $13,994 plus a $6,006 supplement because of my fellowship. “This is a historical document,” I explained to my friend. “Look at you,” they replied, “an extra $667 a month!” I realize how fortunate I was, of course–on my $20K/year I was able to I live alone in the city, just a few blocks from the Reading Terminal Market where I bought cheap groceries I had plenty of time to cook. But I also remember feeling every bit of that financial gift, wondering whether my classroom contributions were worth that extra $667 a month (for nine months).

Most of the rest of the papers went into a box to be recycled, although we read aloud some scraps for nostalgia’s sake–including the first essay I completed as a shiny new grad student.”‘Two Sides of the Same Klein Bottle,'” read my friend incredulously. (In my defense, most academics are very bad at a titles.) They flipped through for marginalia and saw that the professor had highly praised the essay and commented “Let’s talk.” Picking up the next assignment for that class, they read the professor’s suggestion that the paper might become an article, and again “Let’s talk.” My friend made a disgusted noise, then apologized. “Not that this isn’t an impressive performance…” they began. “…except that it definitely was not, not in my first semester of grad school,” I interrupted.

Because the Klein bottle paper was the first academic essay I submitted in my first semester of graduate school, I was very anxious about meeting my professor’s expectations, so I dropped by his office hours to chat. I remember the meeting favorably: we talked through some points of my argument and he reassured me that I was on the right path. As the next assignment approached, he emailed me to inquire whether I needed to meet again to discuss. I was flattered, but did not respond right away. After the next meeting of our weekly class, he called after me as I was on my way out. I paused near the doorway, burning with embarrassment for being singled out in front of my classmates, although I could not put a finger on why. “Did you need to see me about your paper?” the professor asked. I said that I did not need to meet, and had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do. Then I hoofed it.

A soft-spoken second-year PhD student was waiting for me in the hall. Quietly, looking as red-faced as I felt, he gently explained that the professor had a tendency to single out young female students, take them to the ballet, things like that. Did I understand?

I did understand. (And I’ve never forgotten how odd it sounded, the taking of young female students to the ballet, but the implication was clear as ice.) I did not meet with that professor alone again. As it happened, I was already starting to distance myself from Lacan and the whole boy’s club of psychoanalytic literary theory, so I did not take a class from that professor again either. I did not consider it a loss.

Thanks to that mortified but determined young man, there’s no #MeToo story there, at least not for me. (There were other whispers, and about ten years later, this same professor voluntarily resigned from a leadership position as the department underwent an EEOC investigation following allegations of misconduct involving a different faculty member.) But seeing these flattering notes on my naive little essays made my friend and I shudder. I was not acquainted with the term “grooming” at the time, nor had I an inkling that academia was anything less than a paradise of equality and meritocracy. At 24, I did not yet have words to explain the unspoken lesson in the hallway, but I absorbed it anyway.


I extracted from the crate an enormous green folder bulging with so many papers that I had to lay it on the ground to dust it off, exclaiming with dismay at my past self for this egregious misuse of materials. When I opened it, I saw that its immense volume included printouts and notes from an introductory course in women’s studies–the course that I often say was the most meaningful class I took in graduate school. The class was attended by students across disciplines (I remember students in philosophy, psychology, media studies, and dance), which gave me a glimpse into how scholarship looked in other departments. The class gave me my first encounter with the concepts of compulsory heterosexuality and feminist epistemology, which for the first time gave me language to describe what has always felt to me like a complicated relationship with my femininity. The class is probably also the first place where I truly reckoned with my white privilege; for a long time, I assumed that being a racial minority in my hometown gave me a special pass, but as we delved deep into discussion on the black feminist writers I already knew and loved, I realized that I had a lot left to learn.

As I reflected on these memories with my friend, they recalled a particular class meeting which culminated in our beloved and respected professor asking them to stop talking. They did not remember that I was also present in class that day and expressed chagrin that I had witnessed what was a mortifying moment, if an instructive one. It’s not my place to tell their story, but that class meeting was mortifying and instructive for me too.

It sounds terrible out of context, so let me try to explain. Many of our conversations in that class were heated. I recall a session when we were discussing This Bridge Called My Back, a collection of writing by women of color. One of my white classmates expressed frustration with the book’s depiction of whites: how was she supposed to learn from this book, she asked, when it clearly had such a low opinion of her? I was struggling too: the place I saw myself most in the book was Audre Lorde’s “Open Letter to Mary Daly,” in which Lorde respectfully but fiercely criticized the white scholar’s erasure of black history in her book, which purported to be a base text for radical feminism. I felt raw and unnerved by this letter: as a white literary scholar who loves and writes about black literature, what erasures and intellectual violence had I unknowingly been perpetrating?  I have never stopped thinking about that question; I’ve been thinking about it again very recently, having learned that Nella Larsen’s Passing (precisely the book I worried about mistreating) is being made into a film by a white female director (with two smart and stellar actors as Claire and Irene, so I remain cautiously optimistic). It was painful, but it is better to ask the question than to never ask it.

The memory I shared with my friend and classmate was a day our class was discussing black feminism and queer feminism–two perspectives that are not opposing sides in any respect, but we were learning and misunderstandings were inevitable. The discussion got loud and agitated quickly. There were raised voices. I think I was quiet; I remember feeling like a child watching their parents fight as our professor tried to give everyone space to be heard while making sure the conversation continued to move forward. That meant that some of the white students were told to stop speaking for a time. It hurt! But it was not wrong.

I knew that I learned in that class that sometimes the most supportive thing I can do, as a white feminist, is to be quiet. (Obviously it’s also important to speak up when it means showing support, but I feel that this is a skill adjacent to knowing when to shut up.) What I didn’t realize I learned at the same time is that sometimes progress looks like conflict. I am a deeply conflict-averse person. I hate arguments, and to be fair, I think many disagreements can be resolved peaceably and respectfully. But tempers flared high in that classroom because what we were discussing mattered so much. It’s not wrong that people got angry, or hurt, or tearful. It was important.


Later that week, I unearthed another set of files–this one in a handy plastic box with clasps and a handle. The papers in it are dated from before my last move, but apparently when I moved I still thought them important enough to keep close at hand. The contents were folders that contained employee handbooks mixed in with printouts of early versions of my dissertation chapters, and spiral notebooks that were filled with job notes from the front and research notes from the back. Handling them gave me a powerful sense memory of the balancing act I was attempting in those days: literally flip-flopping from professional to professorial, carefully notating the responsibilities for jobs I wanted and also ideas from journal articles I printed out to read on the train. Most painful was the notebook I was apparently using for every aspect of my life from winter 2009 to summer 2010.

It made me feel a little sad for 2010 Sara, to see how much she was trying to do while having so little to go on. The prospectus notes preceded the oral exam notes in the notebook even though the oral exam preceded an entire semester of prospectus research and writing–how badly I wanted to get ahead of the game! There were notes and lists from early informational interviews I had with publishing professionals, when I knew little about that industry and even less about what job opportunities besides teaching and editing there might be for an English PhD candidate. Let us not speak of the poems.

On the other hand, how amazing it was to see all of those turning points laid out side-by-side. The methodical way I researched and annotated every step of my academic and professional journeys, all in the same notebook because that’s the tool I was most confident using. The gusto with which I chewed up my broken heart and spat out furious verse and purple prose. The to-do lists and shopping lists which aren’t mentioned in the tweet: supplies to lay in and steps to take to host parties and writing groups where we drank too much wine and co-wrote absurd poems on index cards, which helped me momentarily set aside the pain of losing two potential futures I had once cherished.

I’m not sure what the lesson is there, but I kept the pink notebook.

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On strong being the “new” pretty

I drafted this post months ago when the posts linked below were posted; just now got around to fleshing out the text I wanted to quote.

At The Daily Dot, Anne Thériault addressed the implications of hashtags like #StrongIsTheNewPretty and #StrongIsTheNewSkinny in the context of current media depictions of so-called Strong Female Characters (with a shout-out to this essay by Tasha Robinson which I loved). Thériault’s argument is that the new boss is pretty much the same as the old boss–same old racist, ablist, oppressive beauty norms dressed up as “inspiration” or “empowerment.”

….We don’t need updated standards for how women look or act—we need to scrap those standards altogether. We need characters and memes that reflect the diversity of women’s lives.

Melissa McEwan of Shakesville (where I first saw the above link) adds that this supposed celebration of strong women rings a bit hollow because when women exhibit strength and fortitude in ways that challenge oppressive norms, they are definitively not celebrated.

Never is that more clear than when a woman actually exhibits strength in her own defense. When she draws boundaries. When she physically harms a man who is trying to harm her. When she engages in self-care. When she categorically refuses to put up with splaining or harassment or catcalling or whatever other horseshit variation of misogyny to which some dude is trying to subject her. . . . That’s how the Strong Woman becomes the weak bitch, when a woman is strong for herself and for the pleasure of nobody else.

Both of these posts are brief but thoughtful and worth a quick read. To this, I wanted to add that not only is fitspo just another shade of thinspo, it’s not anywhere near a new shade. The athletic, fit, toned female body has been celebrated as the ideal female body for several decades. I’ll let Susan Bordo, author of Unbearable Weight, do the talking. My notes are from this edition: Bordo, Susan.  Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. For those of you following along at home, a .pdf of the relevant chapter, “Reading the Slender Body,” is currently hosted by Middlebury. This essay was first published in 1989; the 10th anniversary edition is largely unchanged, and yet its argument is still relevant to this conversation we are having in 2015.

The stated purpose of “Reading the Slender Body” is to explore how diet and exercise are encoded and normalized in culture, and to define the ideal of slenderness that dominates contemporary visual imagery of bodies (particularly women’s bodies). Bordo begins by discussing how bodies can function as symbols in two contrasting ways: body shape is sometimes interpreted to indicate the individual’s position in the social hierarchy, and sometimes it is read as an expression of the internal state of the individual (187). She gives a few historical examples to illustrate: in the early 19th century, successful tradesmen might flaunt a bulging stomach, considered by themselves and their peers to be an outward symbol of material wealth; in the same era, aristocrats favored a slender form that seemed distant and aloof from base hunger or bourgeois grasping. Eventually the bourgeois too came to embrace a genteel slenderness, and around that time excess weight gradually accrued the connotation of moral laxity. The late 19th century is when doctors and what I suppose you might call lifestyle experts started advocating weight loss to the general public, although this would go in and out of vogue over the next century. In a similar fashion, the symbolic function of muscular bodies has shifted: where visible muscles were once associated with manual labor, animality, and weak mental faculties, we now sometimes read muscularity as a sign of self-control and self-discipline (191,193).

Of course, the interpretation of the body is very dependent on other intersecting signifiers of race, class, gender, and so forth. To return to the example of muscles, it’s important to observe that lower class men and men of color with bulging muscles still risk being depicted or viewed as animalistic. And since muscles continue to be associated with masculinity, the muscles of women are expected to be sleek and toned, not bulging. Combined with the specific expectations of female physicality, the slender body is particularly “overdetermined” as the ideal for women, causing women to grapple with it to a greater degree than most men (187, 205).

So what is a “slender” body? One that is not only shed of excess weight, but has smooth lines and taut surfaces. “Until the 1980s, excess weight was the target of most ads for diet products,” Bordo writes; “today, one is much more likely to find the enemy constructed as bulge, fat, or flab” (189). A slender body can be visibly muscled, but not to the point of disrupting a sleek, spare silhouette. A slender female body may have prominent breasts or buttocks, but those attributes should only set off the contrast of a trim waistline and toned limbs. The slender ideal is not necessarily a small body but a “contained” body, with firm flesh that doesn’t wiggle. Bordo considers the slender ideal of the 1980s and the more waifish ideal of the 1960s as more alike than different:

This perspective helps illuminate an important continuity of meaning in our culture between compulsive dieting and body-building, and it reveals why it has been so easy for contemporary images of female attractiveness to oscillate between a spare, “minimalist” look and a solid, muscular, athletic look. . . The two ideas, thought superficially very different, are united in battle against a common enemy: the soft, the loose, unsolid, excess flesh. (191).

In other words, Bordo would almost certainly see “strong is the new pretty” as mere repackaging, another rotation of fashion’s wheel. Sometimes the “it” girl is a waif, sometimes a bombshell, sometimes a sporty Cool Girl, but in late capitalism she is always a fit girl.

Bordo cites one reason for this–and perhaps one key difference between weight loss obsession today versus the 19th century–from another theorist named Robert Crawford: contemporary capitalism puts two simultaneous and conflicting burdens on its constituents. We are supposed to be producers and providers in this economy, and so we must suppress our desires in order to be productive workers. We are also supposed to be consumers, and as consumers we are continually barraged with products meant to incite desire. “The regulation of desire thus becomes an ongoing problem, as we find ourselves continually besieged by temptation, while socially condemned for overindulgence” (199). The ideal of the slender body emerges out of that hostility toward uncontrolled indulgence, or perhaps the anxiety of our lack of control in general:

The firm, developed body has become a symbol of correct attitude; it means that one ‘cares’ about oneself and how one appears to others, suggesting willpower, energy, control over infantile impulse, the ability to “shape your life” (195).

On the flip side, if a body is not firm and contained, it may be read as undisciplined, uncontrolled, willful, careless—a bias that is has been shown again and again in studies of workplaces, medical services, or social relationships. (Here’s a recent one.) Weight bias demonstrates both of the symbolic functions of body shape: in a great deal of media, journalism, and social research, fat on a body is viewed as an outward symbol of inward lack of control. Not coincidentally, fat on a body is also frequently read as a lower-class indicator, or at the very least “absence of all those ‘managerial’ abilities that, according to the dominant ideology, confer upward mobility” (195). The ideology of the slender body feeds into existent biases against nonconforming, bulging, soft bodies. (Which is, after all, most bodies!)

Insert unfortunately necessary disclaimers here: this is not an essay against slenderness! There is nothing wrong with being fit or toned or what have you. Bordo’s essay is a criticism of the ideology of the slender body, a complicated system of ideas and images that elevate the status of slenderness at the expense of other body shapes. The ideology of the slender body is the violent, militaristic language of “targeting” bulges and “burning” fat; the near uniformity of slenderness in the world’s most visible women, who are nonetheless Photoshopped free of their creases and curves; the ubiquity of fat bias; and in a thousand other cultural artifacts.

And this is also not to say that it is wrong to enjoy or admire physical strength, to find one’s own strength empowering, or to work to become stronger. Being strong feels great! And as Bordo emphasizes throughout her chapters, women should not be thought of as “dupes” to certain ideologies of beauty; if women pursue the bodily ideal, it may well be because we desire the privileges that supposedly come with it. Or, perhaps for some, to reject the full-figured curviness of a Victorian or postwar ideal may be a way to embrace “liberation from a domestic, reproductive destiny” (206).

But the aim of “Reading the Slender Body” is to draw out some of the encoded meanings of this body type as it is depicted and reproduced in culture, and that includes shedding light on the ways it operates as a vehicle of oppression. Strength is a privilege enjoyed by the temporarily able-bodied, and being strong does not always correlate to appearing fit or strong; bodies that do not visually meet fitspo goals are not less valuable bodies. And I wish to tie Bordo’s essay back to the links that introduced this post, which remind us that the expressions of strength we value in women are still severely curtailed by cultural demands to be supportive, available, and accommodating. If anything, trying to squeeze “X” (strong, fit) into the framework of “Y” (pretty, skinny) only emphasizes that containment.

Feminist Epistemology and #YesAllWomen

I’ve been reading #YesAllWomen and related media cautiously–I’m the choir, and while it can be comforting to hear the preaching, it can also take an emotional toll. But this Slate headline–Men were surprised by #YesAllWomen because men don’t see what women experience–reminded me of a great online resource I stumbled across last weekend. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has great, comprehensive entries for Feminist Epistemology and Philosophy of Science as well as Feminist Social Epistemology. They are lengthy, but important. You don’t need to be familiar with feminist theory to practice feminism, but theory (in whatever form it takes) can be incredibly clarifying and constructive in shaping how you make sense of and interact with the realities of sexism and other oppression. This theory is free on the internet and available for you to peruse and digest at your leisure.

Here is the gist of what’s relevant to this hashtag:

  • Epistemology is the study of knowledge.
  • Feminist epistemology focuses on the ways in which gender affects how we make, understand, acquire, and transmit knowledge.
  • An important precept here is that knowledge can be affected by things like gender. Feminist epistemology questions the concept of objectivity.
  • Because what you know depends on where you stand. Your gender, your class, your race, and your body can give or restrict your access to certain kinds of knowledge. Who you are makes certain kinds of information more salient to you, and may cause you to interpret information in a certain way.
  • In regard to social injustice, standpoint theory proposes that oppressed classes have an epistemically privileged knowledge of oppression relative to those who are not subjected to that particular social injustice. In this case, women have epistemically privileged knowledge of sexism, sexual harassment, and sexual violence relative to men, because women have direct, embodied contact with these forms of social injustice as well as an investment in ending it, while people who are not women may not have access to that knowledge  (through first- or third-person experience) and may be instead invested in preserving status quo or. . . something, I don’t know what.

The point of #YesAllWomen is testify to the forms of sexist oppression that many women experience because of being women. [Side note: The phrasing #YesAllWomen is a response to the #NotAllMen hashtag–as in “#NotAllMen perpetrate violence but #YesAllWomen live with the threat of it”–but obviously not all women experience this threat in the same degree and the same way. Other life circumstances or identities make certain populations of women more vulnerable to certain kinds of threats than others.] The effect is a cascade of individual experiences that add up to a sweeping portrait of social and systemic oppression, a spectrum that includes both #EverydaySexism and terrifying violence. #YesAllWomen testifies that the extreme act of violence  of last weekend doesn’t exist in a vacuum and that its perpetrator nurtured his virulent misogyny in a culture of misogyny, because no small number of people agreed with him. Still agree, some.

And because women are better positioned to have knowledge of sexist oppression, the epistemically savvy thing to do here is listen.