The Inevitable?: Abuse of Power and Sexism in Current Academia

Trigger warnings: abuse of power, sexual abuse, rape

If we agree with Foucault’s suggestion that knowledge is shaped by power, and that power maintains itself through knowledge, then it is not surprising that the academe, the site of knowledge production, is also a site prone to the abuse of power. The surprise is that the problematic power imbalance inherent in institutions of education is not foregrounded when we try to tackle issues of sexual violence on college campuses. While the discourse around sexual harassment is often precipitated by individual cases of sexual violation, and focuses on repercussion and punishment, it is also necessary to look preemptively at the entangled state of knowledge, power and their relationship to sexual violence and gender-based discrimination.

In the case of individual instances of gender-based intimidation and sexual violence, the community’s attention expires quickly, even though the pain and trauma stay with those affected long after the event. Discussions about sexual violence on campus often culminate in an unsatisfactory end when the perpetuator exits the school community, either as a faculty member who retires, or a student who completes the natural course of graduation. Without detracting from the discussion around pursuing justified punishment, this article asks the reader to trace the root of sexual violence embedded in systems of knowledge production, by referring to two article published in the Chronicles of Higher Education.

Written shortly after the Harvey Weinstein reports, K.A. Amienne’s article speaks of the difficulty to speak up against faculty members who abuse their power in the hierarchical sphere of the academe. The author highlights the drastic power imbalance between a professor and a student, especially in the case of a female working-class student like herself, as the foremost cause of abusive relationships that hinder a student’s work and life.

“Anytime you have a highly competitive system in which a single person has the power to make or break someone else’s career — whether it’s the crowded, greasy pole of Hollywood or a flooded Ph.D. pipeline — you will have abuse. Not only rape and overt sexual aggression, but also the many complicated and twisted forms of abuse that can sink a woman’s chances of succeeding in an already biased business.”

It is not enough to pay attention to extreme cases of sexual abuse. These infuriating and heartbreaking cases are only a manifestation of the “systemic, sexist dysfunction in academe,” which is too often felt and yet tolerated. Gender-based abuse, as a result of power imbalance, affects more widely and frequently the marginalized identities who find themselves in the power-saturated world that is the academe. To clarify the operation of this problem, Amienne names four facets that enable the culture of abuse:

  1. Abuse is normalized.
  2. Abusers destabilize their targets.
  3. Abuse thrives because co-workers enable it.
  4. It’s easier to blame the victim than change the system.

To find out about her suggestions for establishing an enabling environment on university campuses, read the full article here:

Mingwei Huang, an anthropology PhD student, emphasizes the importance of recognizing the production of knowledge as entangled with the conditions that enable sexual assaults.

While conducting ethonographic fieldwork in South Africa, Huang experiences rape by someone related to her main interlocutor and host. Huang’s experience poses a challenge to simplistically viewing the university campus as the site of knowledge production. As the researcher’s work takes her off campus, and as the ethonographer’s body, voluntarily or involuntarily, becomes inseparable from her research process, how do we rethink the spaces in/through which knowledge is produced? Her narrative further shows that female students remain especially vulnerable to layered structures of violence and injustice, despite the apparent vitality of liberal discourses in the academe.

When she returns to her university in the US, Huang’s writing about her being raped as an ethnographer is met with doubt by professors who are unaware and unsympathetic of the vulnerability experienced by those who are not normative white males. Speaking of their implicit and explicit reading of her decision to speak about her experience as careerism, the author says,

“The recasting of rape as a desirable career event serves only to silence and shame, and provides yet another example (if indeed we needed one) that academe has not escaped the insidiousness of rape culture.”

I encourage you to read Mingwei Huang’s sincere and poised article “Vulnerable Observers: Notes on Fieldwork and Rape” by following this link:


Stereotype Threat

“We believe in elevating the experiences and leadership of the most marginalized Black people, including but not limited to those who are women, queer, trans, femmes, gender nonconforming, Muslim.…” There it was, the descriptive characteristic that labeled me as a minority and ultimately bridged the gap between me and the Black Lives Matter movement. As a Muslim myself, I beamed at the fact that marginalized black Muslims are outspokenly included in the platform. I have finally found the tangible thread that defiantly connects me with a movement so dedicated to equality and giving a voice to those who struggle to speak for themselves.

However, let’s get one thing straight. I have never experienced segregated schools. I have never been denied the right to vote. I have never been stopped and frisked. I have never been told by my mother how to act if stopped by a police officer. I have never been questioned by a police officer when I visit black neighborhoods. I have never been judged differently by my peers because of my skin color. Yes, I identify with two marginalized and majorly discriminated groups being a Muslim female and have experienced the devastating impacts of implicit bias in school and in my developing career. Despite that, I will never be able to fully comprehend or grasp what it is like to be black or gain access to that perspective. I have come to recognize and acknowledge this privilege more as I sat through each lecture of that class.

I desired to learn. I planned to educate myself further about the Black Lives Matter movement and really digest what my professor was teaching me throughout the semester. The semester has been rich with information about the struggles of achieving racial justice, from its economic aspects to the exploitation of race, and I’ve gained much more insight than I started off with. Despite my previous expectations, I realized that it is neither a black person’s job nor duty to educate me on their own oppression, but rather I should seek out resources on institutionalized and societal racism against the black community. The readings assigned to us as a part of The Profits of Race class have been nothing but thought-provoking and invigorating, allowing me to step outside of my comfort zone and learn information that I subconsciously was trying to avoid or internalize. The fact that I even have the option to avoid information about an oppressed mass is indicative of the privilege I have but did nothing to earn.

So why, then, was it so hard for me to voice my opinion during our discussion section? Why did I opt to keep my participation to a minimum? Why was it that when the TA asked us how we could work against the American dream that has been so ingrained in our culture, I couldn’t raise my hand and respond, even though I knew very well from what I learned and through personal experience how and why the American dream has devastating impacts? How much did my identity have to do with my reservation to voice my opinions in The Profits of Race? What does it mean to have an identity that evokes devaluation in the very setting that one learns, and how do we combat this?

Stereotype threat has been one of the most studied concepts in academic psychology for the past two decades. Its effects are important because they speak directly to a social issue of immense importance. I am aware that both are stereotypes imposed upon us by society––that only black people have the tools to speak on black oppression and that white people have the open-ended freedom to say whatever, whenever without fear of negative repercussions. Yet as I sat there once a week in my discussion class, the threat of possibly satisfying or confirming a negative stereotype attached to any part of my identity––whether it be cultural, religious, or gender-related––halted my courage to participate and interfered with my academic performance. I disidentified with that class and had lower self-esteem, causing me to underperform in that class according to my personal standards. I allowed myself to be implicitly grouped with an identity stereotype that I did not want to comply with, and I gave in to a stereotype threat.

When a student enters the classroom, they enter as a whole human being. They carry with them their multiple identities, making their backpacks heavier than they appear to be. To strip one’s brain of these identities and the stereotypes that come with each one is a feat much easier said than done. While there are many theoretical solutions published about how to make a classroom more inclusive, I believe part of the solution lies in empowering students through education so to build a community where self-empowerment is not only a teacher’s responsibility but the students’ as well. With the considerable negative impact of stereotype threats on performance, it is obvious to see the implications for efforts to promote an inclusive society. At every level of the educational system, stereotype threat can literally change who we are, who we aspire to be and who we become. I am privileged enough to have several platforms that, when used appropriately, will allow me to help disband the stereotype threat in Barnard classrooms. I should be able to support and even propel the Black Lives Matter movement forward with my classroom contributions, despite my domain identity. In my eyes, the movement does not have an isolated mission. Rather, it gathers a spectrum of minorities within black communities and brings them to the front line of the movement, making it inclusive and liberating. This includes black Muslims. The Black Lives Matter movement is an encouraging movement made to empower all those who are its allies. To be an ally for Black Lives Matter is to be an ally for equality for all––black, white, and everything in between.

Introducing the Speak Easy!

Last night, Speaking Fellows unveiled their new podcast, “The Speakeasy” at a launch party / spoken word event / listening session. The event was covered by Writing Fellow and BWOG Editor Betsy Ladyzhets:

“Last night, the Speaking Fellows drew people into Altschul 903 with a fun atmosphere and free food, but then challenged us to consider the value of speech and its intersections in our lives. The launch event was, in a way, a physical reflection of the podcast itself – it draws you in with funky jazz music and then causes you to really stop and think about your position as a speaker and listener. All four episodes are free on iTunes, and I would definitely recommend that anyone at Columbia/Barnard should take a listen.”

Listen on iTunes or SoundCloud to the first four episodes!

Repetition and the Transient Self

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by Ella Bartlett, Writing Fellow ’19

I watched this Spoken Word performance by Phil Kaye recently, but I first discovered it back in middle school. Watching it now and remembering how it affected me when I watched it 6 years ago was a meta-exercise for me. The poem itself is about repetition: how when you experience the same thing in two different points in your life (even if that is milliseconds later, like a repeated word), the experience changes.

Phil Kaye addresses his parent’s divorce:

“My mother taught me this trick: if you repeat something over and over again it loses its meaning. This became my favorite game, it made the sting of words evaporate–separation separation separation–see? Nothing.”

For Phil Kaye, repetition of this very heavy word made it more bearable for him, because, colloquially, it took away the punch. The word itself did not change, just his experience of it. I wonder what the word means to him, as a poet, now, 8 years after he wrote this poem. He– a listener/reader, the one who is experiencing the word— has changed states, ever so slightly, and that is what makes the meaning different.

In The Writer’s’ Process, we read Roland Barthes, who wrote about the dynamic between the author and the reader. He argues, “[The reader] is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted” (from Death of the Author, 1977). The author is dead, the words simply exist on the page, and the meaning arises from the reader.

When thinking about repetition, then, what does it mean for the same reader to experience the same thing over and over again? “Apart/apart/apart/apart” speaks Phil Kaye. To experience the word “apart” right now, and then experience it after three years and loneliness and straddling one’s self between two worlds of two parents—this is where the meaning of repetition comes from.

This is why I am going to make a point to reread books I haven’t read in a long time this summer, to hear poetry now that I haven’t heard since high school or experienced at a time in my life where I know I was a different person than I am now. The self is transient, and because it is, so is the meaning of a work of art.

Life as a Barnard Writing Fellow: Razia Sultana

Recently, one of the Writing Fellows, Razia Sultana, was featured on Her Campus talking about her experience in the Fellows program. Please check out this beautifully-written, inspiring account of why she chose to become a Fellow.

“I mean, critically thinking, empowering students, and fighting the patriarchy, are only a few of the many reasons of why someone should become a Writing Fellow, but for those of you who want a more substantial reason, it’s because you matter.

That’s right. I became a Writing Fellow because of all of you.

As a student at this premier liberal arts college, I am always fascinated by my fellow Barnard students who I come into contact with every day. Every student here has a unique story, an interesting perspective, and a different way of thinking. And so, I became a Writing Fellow because I wanted to learn more about Barnard students, from the Barnard students themselves.”


Debate Barnard’s Future


Two weeks ago, on Thursday, April 13th, the Speaking Center hosted a debate to discuss the resolve, “Barnard’s next president should have experience in the corporate world.” The event featured two teams, each comprised of two debaters, discussing the values and background experience they hope to see in the next Barnard president. Hannah Seymour and Joanne Kim argued on behalf of the affirmative against Rosie Flatt and Talisa Jasmin Ramos on behalf of the negative. The affirmative team advocated for a president with corporate experience who would build on President Spar’s successful fundraising strategies, bolster our endowment, and propel Barnard towards a financially secure future. The negative team respectfully disagreed, espousing the idea that a president  of Barnard should come from the academic world in order to represent a comprehensive portrait of the school’s student body and its aspirations to increase diversity and inclusiveness on campus. Ultimately, the debaters and the spectators in the audience faced the question: should the president of Barnard be a “face” of the school, reflective of the students and ideas that bring life to our campus? Or, does the job seek someone who will operate behind the scenes and ensure that Barnard’s resources continue growing in the future? The event was not about the emergence of a single winning idea or argument, but rather the cultivation of skills that help women debate, discuss, argue, think critically, and express these thoughts. We hope that all those who attended the event enjoyed the opportunity to watch and participate in this exercise and look forward to similar events in the future!

If you would like to read more about the event, please check out the piece Bwog did on the debate.