Readers often find the concluding section of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tales, titled “Historical Notes,” somewhat disjointed—if readers continue to the section at all.
While these final pages are important to helping readers understand many of the nuances of the narrative constituting most of the novel, “Historical Notes” is also a brutal satire on academia, spurred by Atwood’s own troubling experiences with graduate school that exposed to her a stunning level of patriarchy and misogyny common in universities in the early 1960s.
Nearly five decades later, Roxane Gay, novelist and author of Bad Feminist, details her own experiences of being marginalized, of feeling as the Other in higher education, first as a graduate student, like Atwood:
At both my master’s and doctoral institutions, I was the only black student. Any success I achieved only spurred me to work harder and harder so I might outrun whispers of affirmative action and the arrogant assumptions that I could not possibly belong in those institutions of supposedly higher learning.
Like many students of color, I spent a frustrating amount of time educating white people, my professors included, about their ignorance, or gritting my teeth when I did not have the energy. When race entered class discussions, all eyes turned to me as the expert on blackness or the designated spokesperson for my people. When racist “jokes” were made, I was supposed to either grin and bear it or turn the awkward incident into a teachable moment about difference, tolerance, and humor. When a doctoral classmate, who didn’t realize I was in hearing range, told a group of our peers I was clearly the affirmative-action student, I had to pretend I felt nothing when no one contradicted her. Unfortunately, these anecdotes are dreadfully common, banal even, for people of color. Lest you think this is ancient history, I graduated with my Ph.D. in December 2010.
And then as faculty:
Today, I teach at Purdue University, where in the semester I write this, I have no students in either of my classes who look like me. I have yet to see another black faculty member in the halls of my building, though I know some exist. I previously taught at Eastern Illinois University, where, in my department, I was one of two black faculty members, one of only five faculty of color in all. The more things change, the more they stay the same. This is the price of exceptionalism—you will always be the only one or one of a few. There are no safe harbors. There are no reflections of your experience.
While Gay highlights racial inequity and Atwood has confronted gender inequity, these experiences reflect systemic failures in higher education—ones that impact those of us who come from working class backgrounds as well.
So when I read Curt Rice’s Why women leave academia and why universities should be worried, I had multiple response to his opening claim:
Young women scientists leave academia in far greater numbers than men for three reasons. During their time as PhD candidates, large numbers of women conclude that (i) the characteristics of academic careers are unappealing, (ii) the impediments they will encounter are disproportionate, and (iii) the sacrifices they will have to make are great.
First, since my own university is currently conducting a gender equity study spurred in part because a disproportionate number of women faculty have left over the last few years, I strongly agree with the premise that women faculty are justifiably rejecting higher education, notably for the three points identified by Rice
Further, however, the recognition of the gender problem and then the likely responses to that problem both remind me of the recent thirty-year cycle of public school reform.
In both contexts, the problem is misidentified and then the solutions remain trapped within marginal policy tinkering.
Education reform, for example, has focused mostly on the achievement gap (occasionally acknowledging the relationship between poverty and measurable academic achievement, but primarily in order to note poverty is not an excuse) and then has addressed that problem by a recurring cycle of the same types of reform—accountability based on new standards and new high-stakes tests.
That process fails because the core problem, poverty, is marginalized by both how the problem is defined and what steps are taken as solutions; the process ultimately fails because we refuse to identify systemic problems and refuse to offer systemic solutions directly confronting those weaknesses.
This, of course, is the same critique I have of now (belatedly) recognizing the gender problem (or race problem, or class problem) in academia and the likely response: how do we hire more women, how do we insure equitable pay and promotion for women, etc.
Now to be clear, those policy issues must be addressed, but I suspect when and if they are, the consequence will be that systemic problems in academia will be left untouched.
As a tenured white and male faculty member now submitting my dossier for full professorship, I recognize that academia is too often a glorified fraternity, steeped in secrecy and academic hazing.
The structures remain hierarchical, the policies continue to be cryptic, and the entire process for hiring, evaluation, tenure, and promotion appear capricious—and often are capricious—despite there being very formalized steps, mountains of paperwork (literally paper), and arcane systems of titles, committees, and traditional norms of scholarship.
As just one example, high education functions under an unwritten (although often expressed in veiled ways) “know your place” policy aimed at junior faculty. For people who already live in marginalized situations due to gender, race, or class, this dynamic is especially corrosive.
It is not surprising that women are rejecting the Social Darwinism and hierarchical silencing in academia; what is surprising is that not everyone is rejecting these norms.
Just as education reform is committed to a flawed hope that reforming schools will eradicate crippling inequity, poverty, racism, and sexism in the U.S., addressing gender inequity in academia will too fail if we see the solutions as only policy reform—if we point to more women hired, higher salaries and more promotions for female faculty without taking any real steps to dismantle and then rebuild an enlightened and equitable academy.
Again, as with education reform, let’s address inequity at the policy level in academia—inequity related to gender, race, class, and any marginalized status—but let’s also not allow those reforms to replace the greater need to confront the systemic failures of academia that manifest themselves as gender, race, and class inequities.
Atwood’s novel ends with a keynote speech by Professor James Darcy Pieixoto of Cambridge University. His final words are grand, and empty in the way scholars often are: “As all historians know, the past is a great darkness, and filled with echoes,” for example.
But the most powerful aspect of this talk is possibly the most subtle—Pieixoto ends his talk with a question, one that rings as mere rhetoric as no one responds, no one is likely allowed to respond: “Are there any questions?”
If we are serious about gender equity, for example, in academia, we must ask women academics and scholars what the academia should look like, not simply give them raises and promotions in hopes that we have solved the problem.
We must ask, we must listen, and then we must act. Otherwise, we are saying that we really do not take gender inequity seriously (again).