Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Cher Man

Image hosted by

I just wanted to add my two cents about the "man as chair of women's studies department" story . While it did not have a doctoral degree, our women's studies program had a prominent gay historian as its Head for a couple of years, until he stepped down for health reasons. He was as fair and reasonable and kind as you hope your colleagues could ever be. He led job searches for men as well as women candidates, and was more open to queer studies than I have found many, MANY women to be, especially in women's studies, where there seems to be a great deal of fear that queer means men (woman, of course, too often means straight). His presence helped neutralize THAT kind of ongoing homophobia, and as a lesbian trying to make a place for queers in what I found to be a very straight curriculum, I thought he was a blessing. He was efficient about meetings, took the responsibility of power when it was his job to figure things out, and happily left things to the larger group to decide if they were so inclined. He helped make a smooth transition in the program from a "women's" studies focus to one more inclusive of "gender" studies, and I think the program will be stronger for it.

Plus, he wrote me a terrific letter, and that goes a long way.

Was he more fair because he felt less entitled in his role, and felt more, too, the need to accomodate others and make them feel comfortable with his leadership? Maybe so. But while I concede that it worked because of the very real power women held in the program--power that he knew he had to recognize and work with-- it really worked. SO maybe the question is not whether or not men should head women's studies, but rather, how do we make better progress empowering women throughout universities so that when men are Chairs, they experience this same kind of need to cultivate womens' good will as part of their everyday strategy of leadership?

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Her Books

I knew it would be hard to pack up my office. That's why it's the end of July and I'm still putting it off. Every day seems too good to wreck by driving down Lake Shore Drive, taking the Balbo exit and turning right, then left onto Harrison. Down past the post office, past Canal just below the train station, west until the tower of University Hall comes into view, a building that looks like a cardboard shoebox set on end, nibbled by rats. Sprinklers spray the street in a vain attempt to make the campus cheery with green grass. Dazed students scurry from building to building, while maintenance workers move slowly, conserving energy.

My girlfriend angrily accosted me at 2 a.m. the other night, demanding to know when I was going to get my act together. By "act," she meant a host of things starting with but not limited to cleaning out my office. The next day my best friend who teaches in Austin agreed that it was perhaps time. "You must DEAL," he told me severely, blowing cigarette smoke at me through the phone. Even so I dawdled my way through the morning, ran a bath, finished reading every section of the paper, and gathered things I had to drop in the mail. When I couldn't put it off any longer, I put on a bra. Putting on a bra is always the last, the final unpleasant thing I have to do before leaving the house. I hate bras. I hate wearing bras. Hating bras is a good way to put off ever going outside. Still, one must deal.

Driving down, I marvel at how familiar the route is, the timing where one changes from one lane to the next, anticipating the big curve at the Drake Hotel, getting over to the right, but not too far right, at Monroe, at Jackson. I try to remember how I used to feel driving this way, when I first came here. I remember how this drive anchored me with its familiar routine when my life itself started getting rough. It was familiar by time my girlfriend left for Boston for good, and this drive was all that was left of our days together in this city. It was familiar when there were new girlfriends, familiar when I was told I couldn't keep my job. Today driving this way feels a lot like it feels when you visit your childhood home and drive to the high school you couldn't wait to leave. You hate it and feel fond at the same time.

Feeling like a spy, I park and march, head down, across campus. No one around. Up the elevator to my office, key out and ready. My door the same, still with a piece of paper that lists my office hours. My office the same, cool and dark, an Ikea rug on the floor, shelves lined with books.

The books daunt me. Many of them belong to the ex that left town, the ex that just got married, the ex I went to graduate school with and moved here with. I don't know what to tell you about why her books are still in my office-- I work at home and needed my books there, she left academia but remained unsure about her attachment to her work, her books, her former life, me. This spring she emailed me that she would like some of them back, if possible. I look at my shelves. This should be as efficient as possible. But the books menace me with their dark little teeth. I unfold a box. Books to send. Books to keep. Books to give away. The tape squeals as I pull the roll against the box seam. The old guy in the next office, the one who hasn't published anything in years but likes to put in a nine-to-five day every day of the week doing God Knows What in there, clears his throat. Good, I think. Let him hear the sounds of packing as he checks his email for the 50th time.

The books should be dead, or sleeping, but they startle me when I hold them in my hands. Iola Leroy, by Francis Ellen Watkins Harper. She used to say her whole name always, as if careful to show that she wasn't talking about any old Francis Harper. Oh, and this nice old edition of Alcott's Little Women. I remember this. And Our Nig. And a book about the Civil War called The Romance Of Reunion. These books are breathing still, alive.

Does she really need an old Norton edition of The Scarlet Letter? But here's her name and the date--1987. Must have been a college book. And the complete Margaret Fuller. She loved Margaret Fuller.

One hour leads to two, and I can't believe how the time has flown. I have been in a time machine with her books and her dreams and her bitter intellectual disappointments--disappointments I couldn't deal with very well at the time because I was too preoccupied trying to hang on to my own precarious academic identity. You don't have to hate academia just because you're leaving it, I remember telling her. Being an entry-level Book Rep is demeaning and humiliating, but it's just a job, and it doesn't take away who you are and what you've accomplished. You can't imagine what it feels like, she would tell me. I want to move on but I have to visit these horrible professors in their horrible offices, then I have to come home to you and your academic colleagues for dinner, for socializing, and your academic worries and preoccupations. I just want to read books again and be happy. I just want it all to feel ok.

An hour has passed. The clock on the wall that needs a battery ticks, its long hand beating feebly against the short hand, yearning up towards twelve. The room is strange, and the thin light filtering through the barred windows is late afternoon light. All her books are in boxes. My books are on the shelves still, and the books I don't want are on the floor in a big pile. My labor is done for today; I can come back and carry stuff out without thinking about it too much. I flee this room, this building, this campus, this part of town, this late afternoon. Her books are closed again, and soon these bits of her life will be on their way back to her. I can almost hear them in their boxes, circling around and around again before settling down, like little dogs.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The Greatest of These

Image hosted by

The plight of a gay boy named Zach whose blog told the world about his parents' decision to force him into "reparative therapy" has spawned lots of talk about Christianity, anti-gay and ex-gay programs, and the contemporary war on gay culture. Salon has a story about a reporter who pretends to be gay so he can experience a session with a conversion "therapist." Kind of interesting that Salon couldn't find an actual gay or lesbian person to write this. Was it because this guy stepped forward? Because no gay or lesbian journalist felt like putting themselves through the horror of even one hour with these types of people? Or because there just aren't that many queers affiliated with Salon? I'd love to know. This reminds me a bit of the straight female reporters who signed up for male makeovers in the early 90's; you could practically hear them scream "Eew!" during the part of the workshop on packing and sock-stuffing. You had to be a strong butch or tranny not to feel shame (or disassociation from your packin' sisters/brothers) when you read thier "normal" reaction to female masculine drag. This guy isn't quite so bad, though he keeps reminding us that he's married and that he's a father and that he's LYING about having homosexual feelings. Are you sure? Eew.

Anyway, there's quite a heated discussion going on in Salon about Christianity and it's role in all of this, with some blaming religion wholesale and others defending it. All I know is that I am haunted by a story I read on page 16 in the July 19th issue of the Advocate called "Dying to Oppose Robinson." It appears to have been taken from a longer piece in the July 8 Washington Times reporting how "many Anglican bishops in Africa are refusing life-supporting donations from the American church" because they oppose the consecration of openly gay bishop Gene Robinson. It quotes a man named Bill Atwood, who "met with some archbishops [in May], and they were saying how painful it was, with people starving to death, to make these choices." So it's painful to watch people starve to death all day every day, and as you watch them getting last rites, with flies buzzing in their eyes and their chests heaving, their hearts so weakened by starvation that every breath is a labor, you repeat over and over in your head how much better it is to hear death roaring in their throats than it would be to fill their bodies with bread from a church with gay bishops. Then you get in your car and go home to your fat wife and your fat children and your nice house and your warm supper. And right before you slide into your clean sheets you thank God for making you such a righteous and compassionate man.


Saturday, July 16, 2005

Tribble Trouble

Image hosted by

Just got back from a short vacation to find the news awash in information hysteria. A journalist goes to prison for a story she never wrote, police swoop down on unwary consumers whose crime is that they purchased the new Harry Potter before its official release, and a supercilious midwestern academic writes a maddening column (even by Chronicle of Higher Ed standards) smugly defending his department's right to eliminate bloggers as job search candidates, based on the things they say in their entries. And we like to point the finger at China for controlling information? "Ivan Tribble"'s Chronicle column is getting a lot of attention in the academic blogs right now, but I wonder if his column might not serve as a lovely object lesson about the naivete with which even academic readers approach the blogosphere. "Tribble"'s argument is that blogs too often reveal objectionable opinions, enthusiasms and personality quirks best left to private obscurity in the job candidates who write them. Once you see the "real" personality of a blogger, his argument goes, you might strike them from your short list of tenure-track candidates. "Tribble" doesn't give his real name, which further ratifies his sneaky ethos.

I like "Tribble"'s column. I like it a lot. It is either the stupidest thing I have ever seen the exceedingly-stupid Chronicle print, or it is one of the subtlest satires exposing the totalitarianism of tenure-track academe to come along in a while. Let us suspend the idea of authorial intention for a moment, and give this piece of writing it's performative due. The fact that "Tribble" has written under a persona radically deconstructs the argument he seems to be making about the "realness" of blogger personality. Is he too real to sign his real name, or does his "Tribble" persona point to the necessary impersonality of all good writing? How can this foregrounding of authorial masking not call attention to the strategic positioning of any authorial address? By posing as the cowardly man behind the curtain operating the sadistic and intimidating Wizard-machine, doesn't he expose the cowardly hypocrisy of an academia that on the one hand defends tenure as that last bastion of free speech, while on the other uses the gruelling job market, periodic review, and tenure processes to regularly screen, study, and eliminate nonconformists and freethinkers from its ranks?

Then there's the lovely choice of his name. Tribbles, as any Star Trek fan knows, are the most innocuous of creatures--that is, until they multiply like rabbits and clog up your ship's ventilation shafts. Ivan Tribble may be the small-time gate-keeping, standards-bearing dweeb you hope never to have to work with, but "Ivan Tribble" is an academic everyman, one who serves as an eloquent warning to all of us of the darker side of tweedy, self-replicating mild-mannered professors.