Monday, April 11, 2011

Higher Learning

About a month ago readers were outraged to learn about the hate campaign targeting women at the University of Waterloo. A good deal of my own shock came from a naive assumption--proven wrong on a regular basis, mind you--that the university is a bastion of enlightenment. Or at least a place that people come to work towards higher learning. But what does "higher learning" mean? According to he UN International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, "higher education" is education that "shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education."

The term "higher learning" conjures two images for me, and they are both spatially-oriented. Firstly I imagine it as a place that facilitates the coming together of people from diverse backgrounds and experiences for the purpose of thinking in an open, discursive fashion. Secondly, I think of the 1995
film of the same name. If you haven't seen it the film depicts a year in the lives of students at an unidentified American university. It didn't shy away from depicting the insidious sides of a university. Rape, racism, homophobia, violence, and harassment were all depicted plainly. Not the subtlety required of great film making, perhaps, but the film made an impression on me. The spaces of higher learning need constant work, self-reflexivity, and care.

Still, the overwhelming and popular imagination (based on my experience and not research) is that the academy is a space of higher learning in the first sense. And when it isn't working, it is--or should be--a place where due process is upheld, right?

Wrong. I admit I don't generally keep track of what is happening at the Ivies, but the goings on at Yale over the past few weeks and, really, years, have caught my attention. Here's a few highlights: In 2004 Naomi Wolf wrote an article for New York Magazine about her sexual harassment by the infamous H.B. While I certainly don't agree with a lot of what Wolf writes, I am grateful for her very public consideration of what harassment did to her self confidence as a student. Just this past week the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights went public with its intent to open an investigation into Yale's "its failure to eliminate a hostile sexual environment on campus, in violation of Title IX." According to several news sources the legal complaint includes

The complaint includes personal accounts from five students, along with descriptions of these well-publicized incidents:

  • Delta Kappa Epsilon pledges chanting "No means yes! Yes means anal!" on campus in October 2010.
  • A September 2009 "Preseason Scouting Report" email, which was written and circulated by a group of male students. The email ranked 53 freshman women in the order of how many beers it would take to have sex with them.
  • Pledges from Zeta Psi surrounding the entrance to the Yale Women's Center in January 2008 with signs that said "We Love Yale Sluts."
  • Fraternity members stealing t-shirts inscribed with accounts of sexual assaults from the Clothesline Project in 2005.
What can we learn about one example of what is clearly a decades-long failure at only one space for higher learning? We can keep lists, and for the record I mean all of us because women are by no means the only group subject to harassment and violence. Further, since Heather's pithy post on the ways in which jargon obscures meaning I've found myself thinking about some of the terms that circulate in the academy. Some of the news articles circulating refer to the "alleged misogyny" that occurred on campus. Alleged? We can create space for frank dialogue about systemic injustice. Finally, though I hold on to the hope that the spaces and places of higher learning will become the 'equally accessible' spaces of rigorous intellectual exchange they can be--and often are--we need to take note of examples like the current issues happening south of the border, and remain mindful that there is still much work to be done for all of us.

5 comments:

  1. Amen!

    In this context I also want to harp (again) about The Social Network - also set at Yale, right? - in which sociability is predicated on the objectification of women. While Mark and co's overt sexism is subject to some critique in the movie, the second half of TSN suggests technology is created by smart inventive men and elicits nothing but oohing/aahing from women (for the technology? for its inventors?) I'm really tired so this is coming out garbled and verbose, but what I want to say is: yes, Yale has lots of shocking obvious misogyny on the surface - which just makes you wonder what kind of structural systems are making it work. Skull and Bones Club, anyone?

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  2. Read this post after deleting yes another Security Bulletin from my inbox, reminding me just have many attacks/assaults occur on and around the Dalhousie campus. This one did not contain the same advice of "be safe, don't walk alone, use Tiger Patrol" (the campus safewalk program that only runs until midnight and barely extends off campus, not helpful when exams have students in the library as late as 3 am). I'm not sure if there is a rational solution to these attacks, but being told to be on my guard even in mid-afternoon, even on a major street doesn't feel like enough. And thought the night watcher has fallen off the radar (for now), I still find it incredibly shocking that we are to be on our guard even at night, even when we are asleep in our own beds. Misogyny never sleeps.

    This isn't quite the same institutionalized misogyny you discussed, but it is certainly related, and walking late at night through Halifax streets or through my supposedly safe campus I can't help thinking about it.

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  3. Those of us who happen to go to a school with a less "hostile" environment are lucky, I suppose. But it still never ceases to amaze me how the onus is always implicitly on us to not get raped, not get attacked, not walk alone, not send mixed signals when we mean "no" - instead of it being on predators to not rape, to not decide that "no" or silence is the same as "yes" or "anal."

    (And the idea of some places being less hostile than others can still be a bit of a trap, I find. At King's, at least, sometimes I feel like we get so caught up in our view of ourselves as artsy free-thinking liberals that we overlook problems that still exist. Discrimination doesn't disappear automatically simply by virtue of being well-read...)

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  4. Kaarina, Jacqueline: It is a fine line, isn't it, between being aware and constantly policing one's self. I remember when similar "assaults with sexual intent" were happening on the University of Calgary campus--the advice from the YYC police was just as you say Kaarina: police yourself.

    My constant questions are how to reopen conversations about inequality in a time and space where lived reality doesn't match up with the ideology taught in these spaces... (or, as you say Jacqueline, "artsy free-thinking" ;)

    Thanks to you all for your thoughtful commentary!

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  5. One of the major issues with reporting, or bringing to light, incidents of racism, misogyny, or homophobia, in academic institutions is the threat to the victims. Victims may find that should they decide to come forward, and besmirch the university's reputation they jeopardize their lives and at least their careers. Threats are made, especially to students and young academics, that they will be barred from the institution and from other institutions (I had a university administrator blame me for sexual assault and harassment, terrorize me along with her colleagues, and then threaten to release false and inflammatory information about me to all future universities I apply to or attend). Conspiracies were launched against me to terrorize me into submission. I had to threaten to sue and talk to lawyers to even get my degree--a degree I worked hard to earn. The lesson I learned from my years of hell was that you either have to be prepared to fight and lose everything else in your life just to win something you should have had in the first place, or you have to keep your mouth shut and focus on your career. I wish more people could come forward, but honestly there is still too much risk of backlash. I love being an academic and I look forward to working to advance my career--I do not want to fight again.

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