Dark matters of the university


A former university colleague once remarked on his practice of copying emails to an administrative officer to encourage her to feel a sense of ownership for his work. When the officer began to devote increasing time to helping him, he complained that she was getting ahead of herself: from the way she wrote, he said, you’d think that she, rather than he, was the Oxford professor.

The same colleague, with whom I had overlapping duties, also used to email me excessively, including during periods of leave. When I tried to distance myself and remain independent, I was labelled “uncooperative”.

At one level, these are unremarkable stories about nudging co-workers to support one’s work. But at another they are also about co-opting others in the service of one’s agenda.

The ongoing case involving New York University professor Avital Ronell suggests that men don’t have a monopoly on making overbearing claims on others’ time and energies. But in my experience, a sense of entitlement to others’ lives is a strongly gendered phenomenon, and co-opting others in the service of one’s agenda is certainly one aspect of this. When the co-opted person’s own agenda is thereby displaced or overridden, the act is also a form of silencing.

Harvey Weinstein is, among much more serious things, an extreme co-opter, and in a profession that seems close to the academy in the practices it rewards, or at least tolerates. But focusing exclusively on him and similar cases makes it too easy to overlook the wider phenomenon, and ignore the more subtle ways in which the vain and arrogant operate.

Apparently, sex is high on some men’s agenda. But what about the more polite forms of discourse by which men keep women in their place?

Rebecca Solnit has highlighted one example in her essay “Men Explain Things to Me”, and I suspect most female academics can recall with little effort having had something explained down to them. Among my own recollections is serving as a doctoral examiner in a foreign country, where a local colleague explained to me over dinner that my views on the topic of the thesis were a flawed product of the ivory tower privileges I enjoy as an Oxford academic. The following day, he used the public occasion of the doctoral defence to repeat his explanation at length and in a foreign language. Unable to respond, I sat quietly next to him on the dais, allowing myself only the occasional furrowing of the eyebrows at mentions of my name and university.

Using a foreign language to denigrate a woman’s work in her presence is not merely rude; it is also an act of silencing. Symbolic on this occasion was the context: a public gathering to witness a select group of academics admit a (female) student to their community upon completion of her thesis. The scene returned to me on reading the first of two lectures by Mary Beard republished in Women & Power: A Manifesto (2018). Titled “The Public Voice of Women”, this lecture describes men’s exclusion of women from public speech in Roman and Greek antiquity, the parading of that exclusion, and the price paid by women who deigned to speak nonetheless. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Io is denied the power of human speech by being transformed into a cow, and Echo is punished by having her vocal ability limited to repeating the words of others. In a Roman anthologist’s examples from the 1st century CE, women who insisted on talking in public were similarly cast as animals (able only to “bark” or “yap”) and “androgynes” (traitors to their sex).

The dais from which doctoral defences are conducted is a staple of university life, and a modern incarnation of the fora of ancient Rome and Greece. Among other incarnations in collegiate universities is the “high table” at which college fellows dine and talk university politics. Even since their admission to tutorial fellowships in the 1970s, women attend high table less frequently than men, despite occasional attempts to make it more inclusive. (Several years ago, for example, a well-meaning alumnus of my own college offered to cover the costs of babysitting, as if the only reason for women’s absence was their childcare commitments.)

Maintaining physical spaces from which women are excluded or absent themselves perpetuates their silence. But as the importance of physical spaces declines, and digital environments take over as the main fora of academic transaction, email offers even greater opportunities for silencing. Indeed, among the dark matters of the modern university – those ubiquitous but hidden energies of university life – email may be the most powerful. For the co-opter, its value goes beyond the provision of a tool by which to engage others in the service of one’s agenda, by providing also a platform from which those who resist can be punished. Instead of being addressed to her, a man’s emails can now be about her, and since academics enjoy gossip about their colleagues, they are likely to be welcoming recipients and to become willing enablers, cementing the social agreement on which a man’s power depends.

Which brings me back to my purpose in writing this, which is to highlight another under-discussed practice by which men in the academy, and no doubt in other fields, remind women of who they are and of who, without men’s permission, they are not. This is the practice, under cover of “cooperation” and the same “collegiality” that some will tell you formal dining cultures support, of co-opting women in the service of men’s professional agendas. To some extent, I am speaking here about the assignment to women of menial jobs (“office housework”) in support of men’s more important tasks, and the practice of bringing men in to do work formally assigned to women when it transcends the menial: both common occurrences, in my experience. But my real focus is the expectation of some that women allow their time and energies to be used as men direct; and if they do not, that they suffer the consequences.

The phenomenon seems remarkably unchanged from the ancient practices of Rome and Greece. Being denigrated as a dog, some other type of androgyne or gendered incompetent (mad, stupid, incoherent, etc) is only the beginning of a long list of retributions to which “uncooperative” women expose themselves. Among the less prosaic diagnoses of me over 15 years have been that I am “one of those women who find it difficult to get on with typical men”, and that I have “manipulatively sought to occupy the field” of my academic expertise. However imaginative or otherwise such statements may be, the effect of them and similarly coded criticisms is ultimately the same: to ostracise women who pursue an agenda independent of men.

Writing in The New Yorker about the Ronell case, Masha Gessen asked what counts as justice in the #MeToo era. Among other things, the answer depends on what counts as harm, and as harassment specifically. According to my own university, notwithstanding its formal IT and other policies, even the sustained use of email to attack a woman to other members of her academic community does not, since people can’t be harassed by conduct they don’t know about, however extreme or damaging it may be. If a woman later discovers and objects to acts by her colleagues, they can simply be dismissed as “historic”, without considering them cumulatively, and regardless of whether they are part of a course of conduct that is continuing. Having objected, a woman also risks further retribution and criticism; for if you “embarrass” or “frustrate” a man, including by working independently of him (and on the advice of university harassment advisers), you might expect or indeed deserve his response, and be regarded as having been “passive aggressive”. Besides, since academics expect confidentiality in respect of their messaging, men’s use of email can be protected from scrutiny, women’s data access and employment rights notwithstanding.

Here we see the answer to another of Gessen’s questions, about who is served by universities’ confidentiality policies. However, we also see an impact of digital technology on privacy that seems to have been overlooked in the many recent discussions of that issue. This is not the effect of making our private lives public by enabling companies and governments to collect and use information about them, but rather the effect of making our public lives private by enabling employers to cast much of what happens at work as beyond the scope of their regulatory responsibility. The result is to designate a large area of the modern university as a “private” realm in which women are at the mercy of their male colleagues, mirroring the position that exists in other private realms, such as the home, where a similar disavowal of regulatory responsibility has also left women at the mercy of men historically.

Co-opting others in the service of one’s agenda is certainly not new, but when done under cover of cooperation and for a professional agenda rather than for sex, it becomes especially insidious and difficult to address. When the punishment inflicted upon a woman who fails to do as directed involves the sustained use of email to third parties, the difficulty is exacerbated, due in no small part to the ease with which employers are able to put the digital environment beyond their sphere of responsibility. Perhaps paradoxically, in these less extreme instances one sees what lies at the heart of even the Weinstein type of harassment case: power, and a belief that women enter and remain in the public realm at the pleasure of men.

Author Bio: Justine Pila is an official fellow and tutor in law at St Catherine’s College, University of Oxford.