Kelly J. Baker:
Almost all of my scholarly life, I’ve focused my research, writing, and teaching on depressing topics: the Ku Klux Klan, white supremacy, doomsday prophets, misogyny, apocalypticism, religious hatred, horror, racism, and now zombies. I spent more than six years of my life analyzing Klan newspapers, and countless hours on the construction, deployment, and privilege of white supremacy.
Friends and acquaintances ask how I manage to write about people who unsettle and terrify us. Generally, I shrug the question off with a smile and offer a flip comment about my inflated sense of optimism. Sometimes I say with conviction and a weary sigh: “I write about these topics, these people, because someone has to.”
The burdens of doing this sort of scholarship became a way to demonstrate its significance. Yes, the research was more unpleasant than not, but it was also intellectually stimulating. I needed to figure out why the Klan appealed to white men and women. I wanted to document the desire for doomsday. All I had to do was bracket my own discomfort for the sake of my research. That sounds easy, right?
My students often wondered about my mental health because of my research. “You’re so pleasant and friendly,” more than one of them noted. How could someone who seemed so cheerful spend her life on topics that were so depressing? I explained to my students: Scholars shouldn’t just study what comforts us; we need to examine what unsettles us, and why. Much of my pedagogy relied upon confronting students with things, topics, and people they find unseemly and disturbing, not just to shock them but to show that history and religious studies are as much about horror, violence, depravity, and harm as they are about anything else. Sometimes, we can’t find our better natures, and we can’t fix our world unless we confront what haunts and horrifies. Looking away, unfortunately, doesn’t solve any problems.
My niche, I guess, is depressing topics.
It is not terribly surprising, then, that I now regularly write about sexism in academia for Vitae. By pointing out gender bias (explicit and implicit) and enlightened sexism in higher education, I hoped I could do something to make academia a kinder place for women. I might have bitten off more than I could chew.
When I started this column, I wondered how much data I would actually find on the topic. Yet I found myself overwhelmed by the evidence of bias against women in higher education. Sexism and harassment are insidiously common in daily life outside of academia, as The Everyday Sexism Project makes abundantly clear. I keep hoping that academia will be better but my hopes are often dashed. For months, stacks of articles, studies, and opinion pieces covered every inch of my dining room table until I cleared them all off because I couldn’t bear to look at them anymore. Yes, looking away doesn’t help but looking at all of that evidence too long can crush your spirit.
In my research for my Sexism Ed column, I learned about the variety of gender gaps in academia including pay, representation, and citation. From a 2012 Yale study, I learned that a feminine name on a job dossier meant being rated as less competent and being paid less than applicants with a male name. Female candidates with the same qualifications as men are less likely to receive mentoring or job offers. Instantly, I regretted that my name was not more gender neutral.
Family life could be a respite, except that we now know that children are a career killerfor female scholars. (I’m familiar with this line of reasoning though I don’t blame children but rampant bias against mommies.) If that wasn’t enough to present a bleak portrait of women in academia, there are also many allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault. There are accusations of sexual harassment against Colin McGinn and the broader field of philosophy. Reading the American Philosophical Association’s report on inappropriate sexual behavior and harassment in the philosophy department at the University of Colorado at Boulder is harrowing at best. The #ripplesofdoubt project documents the presence of gender bias and sexual harassment in science and science writing. Additionally, 64 universities and colleges face Title IX investigations by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights about how the institutions (mis)handled allegations of sexual assault. Vitae’s own Katie Rose Guest Pryal recounts her experiences reporting a rape that happened when she was a student to one of the schools now under investigation.
Writing the above paragraphs makes me profoundly weary and sad. Originally, I feared my column would run dry of ideas after six months. Now I fear the opposite: It might never end. I couldn’t truly comprehend the extent of sexism in academia before I started this column. I sit in front of my laptop feeling overwhelmed. There is too much to cover. Too much to dwell on. Too much that makes me want to sob.
Do Babies Matter? proved to be my tipping point. That book broke me. I couldn’t read it without reflecting upon my stalled academic career. My life appeared to be just another data point about how marriage and children affect the careers of women academics. In a particularly low moment, I became convinced that I had been doomed from the start of graduate school; I just hadn’t realized it. I read that book and cried, and cried and read. I found myself depressed, so I tucked the book away. Out of sight, out of mind.
My visceral response startled me. I chided myself: I write about depressing topics all the time without becoming a sniveling mess. What was wrong with me? Shouldn’t my reaction to sexism have been no different than my reaction to white supremacy? I thought my superpower was that no topic ruffles me. I was very wrong.
Sexism in academia hits too close to home. I don’t have the luxury of distance from my topic. I see myself in every damn study. This research feels like salt in a raw wound. It stings, burns, and irritates. Writing about sexism forces me to think about some of my most unpleasant experiences in higher ed. I relive things I would rather forget every time I work on a column. I find myself pondering how lucky I am that I’ve only encountered mild harassment. Let that sink in. I consider myself lucky that I faced mild harassment. It could have been worse. I know how much worse it could have been.
Yet I can’t stop myself from writing about this issue. My old refrain feels familiar on my lips. I keep writing even if it hurts. Some of us keep writing because we feel like we have to, but mostly we write and write in the hopes that academia could be a better place. I write from places of hurt and hope, and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone.
Kelly J. Baker is the editor of Women in Higher Education. She has a Ph.D. in Religion and regularly writes about gender in higher ed, contingent labor, religious studies, and post-academic life.