Sunday, February 01, 2009

A Larger Peeve

I've realized this week that I've developed a peeve slightly too large to keep as a pet, a specific peeve about the business of academia.

Every so often in a university setting, one meets an older white man who speaks and carries himself with great authority although he hasn't earned the academic credentials that the people whom he's addressing have earned. He may not have published any scholarship; he may not have gotten a doctorate; he may never have been to a major professional conference, let alone given a paper or gotten a job there; but that's okay. He's still perfectly comfortable giving the benefit of his wisdom to junior colleagues who have done all of those things and who might, in some technical sense, outrank him. How else are the youngsters going to learn?

These types seldom hassle me. I'm male and I'm loud and someday I'll probably have nice white patriarchal facial hair. So at least some of these people, alas, tend to decide that I'm their kind of guy, and treat me with more collegial respect than they extend, for example, to women.

That doesn't make the behavior any less appalling to watch, or less insulting. It was one thing in the bad old days, when most of the women in the profession were, of necessity, new to it, and therefore junior to various patronizing graybearded colleagues. The condescension offered to younger female scholars in those days was ugly, and the world could always do with less of that, but it could travel under the color of genuine seniority. But when an older man with limited credentials pays no respect to a scholar's achievements simply because she's a younger than he, when he feels entitled to talk to women who hold degrees that he himself does not as if they were his students, what he's saying is that a white-haired man, indeed any white-haired man, will always have authority over younger women, no matter how much they know, no matter how much he does not. There can be no excuse for that. It's not only a profound insult to women, but a denial of the very project of learning. If knowledge matters less than gender, if a woman's learning counts for less than a man's years, then what on earth is a university for?

And yes, these characters are typically marginal figures, and relatively (albeit insufficiently) rare, and their behavior is transparently asinine. Few people accord them the kind of authority they accord themselves. But they get on my nerves anyway.
To them I say, horsefeathers!


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. I wasn't sure if anyone else noticed this, which still happens more than one might expect.

Anonymous said...

First, a more general comment about your blog, rather than this post: I hope you have time to keep posting. I found you on TPM, and as delighted to read someone who is living in my old home of Cleveland and making such sense.

As for this post: For what it's worth, I taught English at a university in Cleveland myself, albeit as one of its many adjuncts, and reading this made me call up visions of at least two of these grayhairs humbugging their way to offices where, no doubt, an article they meant to publish in 1978 still languished in a file drawer, or perhaps even on a typewriter. Their sexism was subtle and deplorable, and because they had come up in a time when tenure was much, much easier to come by, it was backed with an indolence and entitlement that made it all the more detestable.

Anyway, good fun.