Interview by Aimee Levitt
Photos by Lucy Hewett
I guess I would say I’m a writer/professor or professor/writer. So those are two different enterprises that are sometimes in conflict with one another. Well, I got in a bit of conflict last year over this essay I had written. I was approaching it as a writer and it was received on campus by students as a professor that had written things that they found I guess in some cases upsetting. So that was an interesting situation where the two roles came into conflict. Because I don’t think that before that I had thought of those roles as such a conflict.
I’m not one of those people who wants to malign students and student activists, because there’s been so much of that. I’m in a lot of ways really sympathetic to a lot of the activism, but this issue about vulnerability and also offense I think has to be thought through a lot more than it is.
There’s a confusion between being offended by something and being endangered by it. And I think that’s something that has not been discussed or thought through, and you see it emerging now in this discussion about trigger warnings and this concept of trauma that comes up as a sort of basis for that, but I still think these concepts are so mushy. There needs to be a more substantive kind of working through these ideas. I do think that—you can say what the date is, December of 2015—and in the last three months or so it’s just been in the headlines, particularly in the last few weeks, student protests calling for faculty to be fired or to resign their post. And in some cases I think that’s been justified, like with the Missouri president. But I think there’s this precipitousness about shutting down discussion before there’s been discussion.
I hadn’t really thought about academia as my subject. I guess as a writer I’m someone who’s always looked at my immediate surroundings, but I have to say, I thought of myself as a bit of an outsider in academia, so it’s not something I ever thought about writing about as a subject because—yeah, I always thought of myself as having a foot in and a foot out. But now I see, especially at the moment, that it’s a contradiction-laden place and I suppose, as a writer, that’s the thing I veer towards, and the subjects I’ve always written about are the sorts of contradictions that people don’t seem to be talking about that there seem to be things to say about.
“Academia is a contradiction-laden place and, as a writer, that’s the thing I veer towards.”
There was a lot of bemoaning the quiescence, if that’s the word, of students and I had really, up until recently, thought of the students here as fairly placid. So, you know, don’t complain, I guess. And again, it’s not like I’m not decrying—I’m not a person who wants to say all of this is without merit. I thought the protests at Missouri were incredibly rousing. I thought that the football team forcing a president who wasn’t doing his job to resign was an incredibly great spectacle, in the good sense. I do think there is room for people like intellectuals, professors, writers to try to be more nuanced about this stuff and not let the campus protesters’ slogans have the last word or set the agenda. You’ve got to look closely at each situation.
I think it’s almost impossible to write at this moment and not use the first person. It’s like the necessary idiom of the moment, it seems to me. The easy answer is the narcissism. There’s something that almost seems too dry now or too distant about writing without the first person. So it’s something I’ve kind of struggled with, because I always did think of it as sort of selling out to this imperative that I had wanted to resist. But I have definitely moved toward it. What I’ve found is that once you start writing in the first person, it’s impossible to stop. You just want to write about yourself more and more.
There’s this problem putting yourself in as a participant, falling into a self-congratulatory mode, and I was a little bit worried about that with the Title IX piece, because I think it’s easy to fall into that mode of—well, in that case, lone warrior for campus justice or whatever. So I guess that’s one of the problems of becoming part of the story. I, for the most part, got a lot of positive feedback, if that’s the right term, for having gone public with the Title IX story because, in fact, to my knowledge, no one else has written about getting brought up on Title IX charges, partly because you’re threatened with all sorts of reprisals if you do. And what’s happened since I wrote that thing is that I’ve gotten this endless amount of e-mails from people all over the country who’ve been brought up on Title IX charges in shocking, shocking ways. Shocking lack of due process, made up sorts of both accusations and procedures. And it’s scary and disheartening.
Ellen [Willis] is a person, as I’m writing more about this campus stuff, and the different strands of feminism that have taken hold on campus, “injury feminism” or whatever you want to call it—Janet Halley calls it “governance feminism”—Ellen’s version of feminism, the emancipatory version of feminism, is the version that seems to have been underdeveloped, left behind. It’s something I want to go back and read about. There’s a great book by Alice Echols called Daring to Be Bad, which is about the early splits in the feminist movement between the so-called radical feminists who actually became the more conservative feminists, the antiporn wing, Catharine MacKinnon and [Andrea] Dworkin, versus the left-leaning feminists, and Ellen was part of that contingent. That group, the left feminists, are not really represented in the current campus discourse. I came of age at that moment. It is exactly what I want to write about next.
I’ll tell you what I’m working on. It’s a book tentatively titled Higher Ed/Stupid Sex. It’s kind of about the contradictions of campuses at the moment. I have a thing about Ellen Willis’s example. There’s a certain contingent on campus who would call themselves “prosex feminists.” It exists, but it exists in the context of this sense of endangerment as well. It does seem to be all over the place. I think there’s a movement toward asking for more paternalist kinds of protections from the administrators. And I think that is a kind of contradiction for sure, that asking the administrators to intervene invites a kind of paternalism that feminists of previous generations spent a lot of effort trying to dismantle. v