No­body is safe in de­bate on gen­der in the academy

It is un­fair that fe­male aca­demics still have to fight for their space in in­sti­tu­tions of higher learn­ing

Daily Nation (Kenya) - - WEEKEND - BY SOLOMON WALI­AULA sat­na­tion@ke.na­tion­media.com

Pa­tri­archy and misog­yny are a sad re­al­ity of our univer­si­ties

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Iread an ar­ti­cle in a sec­tion of the me­dia that ef­fec­tively de­scribed the woes of fe­male work­ers in the academy. The au­thors, Dr Dun­can Omanga and Dr Caro­line Mose, did a good job to ex­pose the plight of the fe­male dons in the academy, the gen­der stereo­types and misog­yny that fe­male dons in the academy have to un­dergo as they labour in the male dom­i­nated space.

While it was not overtly stated, I sensed that the all im­por­tant sub-text was that pa­tri­archy and misog­yny are a sad re­al­ity of our wider so­cial ex­pe­ri­ence, but should not be bla­tantly man­i­fest in the academy; that the academy is the paragon of the lib­eral spirit of our mod­ern times in which the tri­umph of brain over brawn is at the heart of the so­cial ex­pe­ri­ence. In­deed, I thought we could even see this as ‘dirt’, in the sense that the con­cept has been used by an­thro­pol­o­gist Mary Dou­glas: a mat­ter out of place. But I think this dirt is per­va­sively spread out in all so­cial in­sti­tu­tions, even the church, and it is a prob­lem to both men and women. It is just part of what Ju­dith Butler has termed the ‘gen­der trou­ble’. It is ev­ery­where and it hurts ev­ery­one.

I also think that the in­evitably so­cial na­ture of the uni­ver­sity con­text is such that it is not just a place to pro­duce, dis­sem­i­nate and store knowl­edge but also an ac­tive site for the pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion of gen­der iden­ti­ties. The­o­ret­i­cal ab­strac­tions and for­mula could be the mo­tor that run the en­gine of the uni­ver­sity, but pro­duc­tion, trans­mis­sion and con­sump­tion of knowl­edge in­volves close in­ter­ac­tion within and among the sexes — they are no longer two.

The in­ti­macy of the knowl­edge in­dus­try and the chal­lenges it poses to gen­der re­la­tions is an is­sue that has al­ways been here, since the days of Plato’s academy. We all know about the fa­mous pla­tonic love that Plato pre­scribed for gen­der re­la­tions in the academy. I be­lieve that Plato’s pre­scrip­tion was based on the ob­vi­ous fact then that the en­try of women into the pub­lic sphere of the academy that re­quired close team­work and long hours of in­ter-sex co­op­er­a­tion needed a re­con­fig­u­ra­tion of gen­der re­la­tions. In­deed the log­i­cal end of his think­ing was that the academy was es­sen­tially asex­ual, a neuter space of in­tel­lec­tual in­ter­course and fer­men­ta­tion. But in our mod­ern so­cial ex­pe­ri­ence of hu­man rights, where we now even talk of sex­ual iden­tity and ori­en­ta­tion, it is a lot more com­pli­cated. We are not just to cope with how male and fe­male dons re­late to each other but how each re­lates to the ‘third sex’.

More­over, the clas­sic man and woman cat­e­gories no longer have clearly marked scripts that in­form their per­for­mance. For in­stance, we are no longer sure whether mas­cu­line iden­tity in the academy is se­cure with­out a PHD down in your CV. We are no longer cer­tain about the rank­ing of mas­culin­i­ties and fem­i­nini­ties in the con­text of aca­demic ranks and dis­ci­plinary dis­tinc­tion. For in­stance, a male Mas­ter’s holder in so­ci­ol­ogy is no longer sure how to per­form his mas­cu­line iden­tity be­fore a male col­league from Phys­i­cal Chem­istry, or how to per­form his mas­culin­ity be­fore a fe­male pro­fes­sor from that depart­ment of Physics.

I laud the au­thors for delv­ing into the meat of this ‘so­cial prob­lem’ and, draw­ing on fem­i­nist the­o­ret­i­cal con­cepts and first-hand ex­pe­ri­ence. But I also want to ar­gue that this prob­lem is wider and it, maybe, has a lot more to do with the dis­cur­sive space of the uni­ver­sity and its im­pact on the con­struc­tion, per­for­mance and con­sump­tion of gen­der iden­ti­ties: mas­culin­i­ties, fem­i­nini­ties and the queer (I have ac­tu­ally noted that in the Western academy the chal­lenge is cur­rently a lot more man­i­fest in the straight-queer re­la­tions). The so­cial prob­lems are sur­face ap­pear­ances of the dis­cur­sive prac­tice. It is not an aca­demic paper so I stay away from Michel Fou­cault and Stu­art Hall, even though I am in­debted to some of their con­cepts in my ar­gu­ment, par­tic­u­larly the dis­cur­sive prac­tices of iden­tity (Hall) and the me­chan­ics of power in ev­ery­day life (Fou­cault). I am also not even em­pow­ered enough to go into the nu­ances of neo-fem­i­nist the­o­rists of peo­ple like An­gela Mcrob­bie, but I have heard, and partly bought into, one of their core ar­gu­ments; that in our age of lib­er­al­ism the prob­lem that women face in the pub­lic sphere is not that of pa­tri­ar­chal op­pres­sion but the fact that they are sud­denly pre­sented to sit­u­a­tions where they are per­ceived as equal to men and are ex­pected to com­pete at the same level with them.

By join­ing the academy, women lit­er­ally take up Plato’s chal­lenge; they are per­ceived as work­ers whose tool­box has noth­ing but their brain. The small mat­ter of bi­o­log­i­cal dif­fer­ence is treated as a non-is­sue. Let me leave this point here be­cause we know that this has not been the case. Let me re­turn to Fou­cault.

The au­thors also men­tioned — but did not ex­tend — a case where a male lec­turer ‘dis­ci­plined and pun­ished’ his stu­dents that failed to recog­nise his cor­rect aca­demic ti­tle by de­duct­ing five marks from their as­sign­ments. This, in my read­ing, presents the male don as not sure about the po­tency of the power that is ab­stractly vested in the PHD, and which per­haps over­laps his sense of mas­culin­ity, and needs to have it in­scribed be­hind his name by all stu­dents on all their as­sign­ments. He wants to see his power em­bod­ied and dis­played. But in the process, his power is vul­ner­a­ble to the bod­ies of the stu­dents, the hands and pens that may or may not in­scribe the PHD power on the top page of the as­sign­ment.

He has the power to pun­ish them, but what about his col­leagues that de­cline to name and hail his ti­tle? I want to be­lieve all I said here is that this mat­ter of gen­der re­la­tions in the academy sits in a com­plex web of other dis­courses of iden­tity and power and in their cross-cut­ting do­mains, no­body is safe.

The in­ti­macy of the knowl­edge in­dus­try and the chal­lenges it poses to gen­der re­la­tions is an is­sue that has al­ways been here, since the days of Plato’s academy. We all know about the fa­mous pla­tonic love that Plato pre­scribed for gen­der re­la­tions in the academy” Dr Solomon Wali­aula

Dr Solomon Wali­aula is a Se­nior Lec­turer, Lit­er­a­ture and Cul­tural Stud­ies at Maa­sai Mara Uni­ver­sity. He was re­cently an Alexan­der Von Hum­boldt Post­doc Fel­low at the Uni­ver­sity of Mainz, Ger­many

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