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:


Speaking of dance… Huppenthal dances around accusations of book banning

“All things in common nature should produce

Without sweat or endeavor: treason, felony,

Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine,

Would I not have; but nature should bring forth,

Of its own kind, all foison, all abundance,

To feed my innocent people.”  – William Shakespeare, The Tempest

Most of you have heard by now about the Tucson book ban – the Tucson Unified School District’s removal of seven books from the State’s curriculum.  Among these books are Critical Race Theory, The History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and Rethinking Columbus.  I don’t know about you, but I’ve been openly opposed to book banning since about 9th grade, when I first read Fahrenheit 451.  Even Mein Kampf has literary value as a record of the reasoning behind one of the most evil minds of modern times.

The story of the banning, in a nutshell, is that Arizona Superintendent for Public Instruction, John Huppenthal, “suspended” the books according to state law ARS 15-122, which prohibits teachers from using materials that  “(1) Promote overthrowing the U.S. government; (2) Promote resentment towards a race or class of people; (3) Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic race; and (4) Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”  Shakespeare’s The Tempest is permitted, under the condition that teachers do not mention that the native on the island are “oppressed” or that the enslavers are “oppressors.”  As Susan Shown Harjo, a Cheyenne poet, columnist, and policy advocate claims in her article on the ban in Indian Country Today, “Huppenthal is sensitive about words related to oppressor,” which he traces back to The Communist Manifesto.  Although, as Harjo points out, the word “oppressor” does not date back to The Communist Manifesto, it “is Middle English, deriving from Old French and Latin; in Karl Marx’s German, it’s unterdrucker.” Huppenthal also claims that no books have been banned – “Teachers may continue to use materials in their classroom as appropriate for the course curriculum.  The Tempest and other books approved for the curriculum are still viable for the curriculum.”  Thing is, as of now, those seven not-really-banned books have not been approved by the curriculum police.  “Because words are important,” writes Harjo, “let’s just call the stored books banned.”

See also this video of Noam Chomsky, famed linguist, philosophy, and self-proclaimed anarchist, on the banning.

Animate Education

RSA, or the Royal Society for the encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, defines itself as an enlightenment organization for the 21st century.  Like TED talks, it is an intellectual hub that supports research and debates about “the future prospects of the human race.” Sir Ken Robinson’s Changing Education Paradigms raises many important questions regarding the future of public education across the world (mainly, “How do we educate our children to take place in the economies of the 21st century?”), but its main interest to me is its presentation.  RSAnimate uses a media not generally utilized in academia – animation.  The continual unfolding of Robinson’s narrative, audibly and visually, facilitates memory and understanding, as well as the pleasure of hearing a story as it progresses.

Most of us know that everyone learns differently.  We’ve heard about visual learners and tactile learners, but our education system is nonetheless centered on one type of learning, especially at more advanced levels.  In college, most history professors don’t consider acting out the arrival of the pilgrims in class as I did in elementary school, or having students render the fall of the twin towers in a poem as my 6th grade social studies teacher did shortly after 9/11.  These activities were not only fun – they made me enthusiastic about learning.  RSAnimate brings some of that creativity and enthusiasm into the world of professional academia.  It makes me wonder – could “academic ability,” as Robinson calls it, be more effectively harnessed if lessons were still playful in a college setting?