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Woolf, the University, and All Sorts of Brutality

Our first official installment of the Orientations blog is a set of linked posts by Erica Gene Delsandro and Carrie Rohman. These pieces are meant to be read dialogically, with each other and with themselves, their voices filling and overspilling the professional spaces—journals, conferences, departments—available to us.  They are simultaneously feminist reflections on disciplinary and institutional violence and calls to intersectional feminist action. They are offered in the spirit of what Orientations hopes to accomplish in this space.

-Janine Utell, editor, Orientations

Erica Delsandro’s galvanizing post about the possibilities and limitations of collective feminist bristling helps signal to us all just how much work, and how much care-ful work, needs to be done around issues of gendered disadvantage, and other forms of institutionalized abuse, in our profession. I want to deliberately evoke the tradition of feminist care ethics at the outset of this discussion, in part because my recent scholarly attentions to gendered experiences of ill-treatment and disadvantage in academia may seem a strange departure from my long-standing commitments in animal studies and performance studies. But in fact, these attentions operate along a clear continuum that is tied together by questions of domination, vulnerability, power, and gendered perceptions of who and what matters. A feminist ethics-of-care is generally understood to resist “hierarchical dominative dualisms, which establish the powerful (humans, men, whites) over the subordinate (animals, women, people of color).”[1] The disquieting truth is that the academy is a highly performative arena in which various endemic abuses exist along a spectrum from the “center stage” to the “behind-the-scenes.” In academia, certain individuals are expected to accept the fact that, to quote a violent animalized metaphor, there is more than one way “to skin a cat,” as they attempt to secure a place in this “prestigious,” patriarchal, white, and cis system.[2]

That disturbing metaphor is deliberately meant to startle us into thinking in more clear-eyed and frank ways about our abusive profession, something that most of us find very difficult to do. It is also meant to shake us out of the complacent acceptance of academic abuse, as what we have to “pay to play.” My recent talk at the 2021 Annual International Virginia Woolf conference, which Erica references in her recommendation that “those of us in the room tear the door off its hinges,” was titled “Still Very Precarious: Reprising Woolf’s ‘Think we must.’” The conference was organized by Benjamin Hagen, and the theme was “Profession and Performance.” The tearing and the skinning in our present posts seem telling “hyperbolic” metaphors, in an academic world where the experiences of women, faculty of color, graduate students, the precariate, the variously abled, queer faculty, and others often reveal an extraordinary disjunction between the idealized profession we have all imagined and the actual profession we inhabit, between what academics say and think they are, and what they actually do to their colleagues. Earlier work by scholars such as Patricia A. Matthew, for example, has shown “how faculty of color always have to do at least two things at the same time as they go about their work: figure out how to cope with (confront, deflect, or absorb) the daily micro-aggressions of the academy while trying to navigate structural obstacles that everyone faces in environments that are either maddeningly indifferent or hostile.”[3]

My plenary talk was inspired by Woolf’s 1938 musings in Three Guineas, where she repeatedly asks us to consider what it will mean for women to follow their educated brothers into the professions. There, Woolf provides a blistering account of the violences of institutions of learning, of colleges and universities; she invokes over and over the image of burning down these hypocritical institutions. In Three Guineas, Woolf writes, “It is true that for the past twenty years we have been admitted to the Civil Service and to the Bar; but our position there is still very precarious and our authority of the slightest” (12). Nearly one hundred years later, this sentiment still resonates. Woolf was more than prescient in warning women about what they would face as they joined the ranks of patriarchal institutions. Our contemporary failures to confront the institutional violences that continue to be reproduced within our profession—that we could argue continue to be central to our profession—exacerbate her prophecies all the more.   

Red door at university building
Fig. 1. Photography by Alexander P. Kapp, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13049290

The book Women Who Make a Fuss: The Unfaithful Daughters of Virginia Woolf has served as another important companion text for my own recent thinking about experiences of gendered abuse in our profession. Written by two Belgian philosophers, Isabelle Stengers and Vinciane Despret, Women Who Make a Fuss similarly takes up Woolf’s injunction, “think we must,” in order to ask if women in academia have changed the form of thought in their respective fields. Their book is largely framed around responses from women academics to a letter the two philosophers sent out, a contemporary version of responding to letters, as in Three Guineas. While the primary authors make it clear that experiences of gendered “discrimination” are not precisely the centerpiece of their project, the disillusioning realities of being a female academic inevitably seep into their powerful volume.

Stengers and Despret highlight the entrapments of academic life, explaining, “We are among those women who have been where Woolf said we must not go, or in any case, not stay, for staying there, seeking to make a career in the university, is to be captured by it (for both young men and women).”[4] Importantly, and as their incorporation of multiple female voices reveals, “Once you are inside, they will look for ways to devitalize you” (Sironi, quoted in Stengers and Despret, 103). “Once you are inside.” This phrase constitutes a powerful nod first to the extraordinary labor that it requires to make it “in” at all, and second to the desperation of the current climate, in which any sort of security in academia seems further and further out of reach, particularly for emerging teacher-scholars. In the discussion portion of the Woolf plenary, which was intended to be as open a response session about our profession as possible, Kristin Czarnecki made the incisive observation that because there are so few positions in the humanities, and because we are therefore always aware of our disposability, we are extra “grateful” to be in our abusive profession. We feel lucky to have a position at all, of any kind, and so we not only take the abuse that is endemic in academic life, but we feel fortunate to be among the abused, to put it bluntly.

Another piquing phrase from the above quotation should get our attention: “They will look for ways.” One of the great ironies of working in the humanities is the extraordinary disjunction between what people in power profess, research, and teach in a public-facing manner and the ways they nonetheless actively abuse their colleagues in deliberate and calculated ways, ways that give the lie to their outward commitments to critiques of power. The abuse of women or other marginalized individuals in our profession often depends upon the “official” narratives being clean, and the unofficial, threatening narratives leaving no trace. An English Department in particular, because of our perceived commitments to progressive views, has to maintain its outward, often false image of supporting female faculty, faculty of color, and other marginalized faculty. And so, the abuse goes underground, in whispered threats that are deliberately off the record. The abuse happens at lunches, in clandestine comments made to you in your office, when no one else can hear, in mechanisms like teaching schedules and course distribution, which can always be explained away as just logistical or utilitarian. In this manner, departments can have it both ways: officially, those who have power appear to champion the progressive work of diverse teachers and scholars, but behind the scenes various attempts to undermine and undercut continue, undetected by the larger community. I had never heard the phrase “academic mobbing” until a wise female colleague and mentor raised it as being common practice in my own department. I encourage everyone to review the scant research on this practice, and to note the fact that competent, successful, and “outspoken” women faculty members are typically the primary targets of this insidious behavior.  In a recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education [paywall], Gillian Marshall describes her tenure denial as a racist form of bullying, motivated by her accomplishments: “They were bullying me to get out. They denied me tenure because I am a Black woman, and I am a successful Black woman.” Academics are smart, and they will indeed find ways to make you feel unwelcome, out of place, devitalized, using various mobbing strategies, which are “polite” and “sophisticated” forms of workplace abuse.

The biggest danger in our profession around abusive practices might be the desire to deliberately reproduce institutionalized abuses, once one has reached a position of relative power and is no longer very vulnerable.  Faculty members in powerful positions can even claim that they “had it worse” twenty or thirty years ago, in order to silence those they are abusing, effectively justifying their reproduction of abusive behavior toward colleagues in more precarious positions.  The cliché that the abused become the next generation of abusers applies all too clearly within our own profession. Another danger, if one becomes relatively secure in this profession, is choosing to forget the abuse that is endemic to academic life, effectively becoming absorbed by the system. In this case, one develops a kind of amnesia or denialism about the profession, pretending that it wasn’t and isn’t “that bad,” once one is less structurally exposed to the violences and abuses that often dominate university life. Another ethical and respected modernist colleague noted, during the Woolf plenary discussion, that one must actively and vigilantly try not to reproduce abuse, if and when one steps in to positions of authority within our profession.

Scholars like Sara Ahmed continue to challenge us to speak of abuse and harassment in the institution. And to put a finer point on it, Ahmed suggests that “we need to damage institutions.”[5]  Again, the tearing and skinning seem extreme metaphors; but they are apt. Ahmed’s work on complaint in the university, for instance, shows how devastating, how gutting, how destructive university culture often is for female and female-identified academics, for academics of color, and for others.[6]

My own road into the academy was filled with false idealism. I likely over-idealized the intellectual life, because it was not a life I had any connection to in my personal history, in my family history. I genuinely believed that academia, particularly the humanities disciplines, were relatively progressive and “just” enclaves. Poor dear, Virginia Woolf might say of me. We need to learn to talk about our own hypocrisies, as humanities workers. We are better off when we begin with a clear-eyed view of the institutionalized exploitation in our profession, even though it will take decades at minimum to begin to change it. I believe that all of us, but perhaps especially early-career teacher-scholars, graduate students, those in precarious positions, are better off when we all have a more honest view of the institutions we are captured by.

This post is therefore my way of concurring with the sentiment, “The university is not what you think it is” (Stengers and Despret, Women Who Make a Fuss, 137).  The content of this sort of post is not typically published or given in conference lectures. Indeed, this content is usually exchanged between women and other marginalized faculty members in private, over texts and telephone calls, in hallways, offices, or in bathrooms, on long walks, and after hours. One anecdotal reality from these exchanges seems worth mentioning here. I personally know multiple women and queer folks across all phases of their careers in academia who want to leave the profession, some of them full professors, some of them outside of the tenure system altogether. I don’t personally know a single cis-gendered man who has made it “inside” our profession, who actively wants to leave the profession. That is anecdotal, but I think it is very telling. And what does it say about scholarly and intellectual production, about how our students are being taught, about the character of academia itself, that it is mainly white cis men who feel at home in the university, even in 2022? No wonder Woolf was so concerned. How sad that she was so prescient.

Documentation is a feminist project, according to Ahmed (Living, 26). In order to bolster documenting gendered abuse in academia, with hopes for a more just, equitable, and productive system in future, I will be co-editing a volume of essays about gendered abuse in academia with Mary K. Holland (SUNY—New Paltz, co-editor of #MeToo and Literary Studies: Reading, Writing, and Teaching about Sexual Violence and Rape Culture). Our volume aims to feature diverse personal narratives from teacher-scholars across all academic disciplines, in order to witness and learn from their accounts. Our call for abstracts, due by April 1, is here.

The personal is structural, the personal is theoretical, the personal is professional. Again, Ahmed gives us the energy and wisdom to keep working: “Documentation is a feminist project; a life project. . . . When did you put the pieces back together? Perhaps when you put the pieces back together you are putting yourself back together. We assemble something. Feminism is DIY: a form of self-assembly” (Living, 26–27). As Erica rightly notes, bristles as praxis “can tear down as well as build up.” Let’s witness and honor the moments of feminist snap in academia. Let’s challenge the reproduction of gendered abuse in our profession, together. Let’s speak up, let’s speak out, and let’s try to make our profession less damaging.



[1] See the introduction in Josephine Donovan and Carol J. Adams, eds. The Feminist Care Tradition in Animal Ethics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).

[2] Woolf is explicit about these violences in Three Guineas. See, for instance, her discussion of the “iniquity of dictatorship, whether in Oxford or Cambridge, in Whitehall or Downing Street, against Jews or against women” in Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1966), 103.

[3] Patricia A. Matthew, Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2016), xv–xvi. 

[4] Isabelle Stengers and Vinciane Despret, and collective, Women Who Make a Fuss: The Unfaithful Daughters of Virginia Woolf, trans. April Knutson (Minneapolis: Univocal Publishing, 2014), 52.

[5] Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), 140.

[6] See Sara Ahmed, Complaint! (Durham: Duke University Press, 2021).