Lisa Cerami

A Wounded Humanist Tries to Read

ISSUE 76 | BAD JOBS | JUN 2017

I am in the process of leaving a bad academic job. But I won’t narrate here how I quit and/or lost my poorly paid part-time contingent position at a regional private college, through administrative bungling and bad-will. Instead I’ll tell another story, a less banal one, maybe.

I am a scholar, a teacher, a humanist, and a feminist, disciplinarily adjacent to the field of philosophy. Some of my best friends are philosophers, and also feminists. Many of my intellectual heroes are also both. So the Hypatia thing went down with a crash and bang among confidants, and in my feed.

I am also committed to labor rights for the untenured, and the structures of power, empowerment and disempowerment within the academy as such in its neoliberal context. The conditions of possibility for academic discourse in light of power – especially the power of capital, especially at the nexus of social and political power and capital – are at the forefront of my mind. Also, a feminist philosopher friend of mine is in the process of losing her academic job because she didn’t smile enough at her chair. So I am situated so as to care about THIS, to sink my intellectual teeth into this scandal at the intersection of academic power, turf, harm, discourse and feminism.

The Hypatia thing becomes “a thing” in the explosion of texts, readily accessible for reading. The texts constitutes the “event” – the site of struggle – not in the struggle for understanding, but in the struggle for power; maximal discursive power that is at the same time social and political power, leveraged against academic gatekeepers benign and malignant, who are themselves at the mercy of institutional prerogative. To maintain face, to accrue capital, in the name of a liberal arts education. All of this notwithstanding, I like to read. And there is always so much to read.

One text that circulated, penned by Ani Dutta, especially caught my attention. Someone I love shared it on Facebook, or in other words, someone who I trust is not a troll, who I trust is human. Entitled “On Tuvel, Adichie, Dolezal and the Privilege-Identity Distinction,” the article sought “to register discomfort with the way in which ‘trans / gender non-conforming’ and ‘people of color’ voices have often been essentialized and homogenized in the wake of the controversy on Rebecca Tuvel’s Hypatia article that defends ‘transracialism’ and makes analogies between ‘transgenderism’ and ‘transracialism’.” Dutta acknowledges this might not be a popular take, and I like unpopular perspectives. My thinking and scholarship are also anti-essentialist, and so, check. I’m ready to read.

Dutta’s essay is structured by five bullet points, and the first begins with a statement of neutrality on question of Dolezal’s identity. Also, check, I’m cool with that. It then makes reference to Chimamanda Adichie and the controversy surrounding the novelist’s statement stipulating a categorical male privilege enjoyed by trans women prior to transition. I read the Adichie interview, and some of the commentary, but because I was not familiar with Adichie’s work beforehand, and not fully consumed by the internet outrage that followed (I think I had the flu?), I couldn’t really remember the details even a few months later. So I sort of skimmed that part of Dutta’s essay. The first bullet ended with the sentence: “All to say that ‘privilege’ and ‘identity’ (social or personal) aren’t linearly correlated in any case, and thus, one can neither adjudicate identity claims based on privilege, nor dismiss mentions or critiques of gender privilege as being transmisogynist in and of themselves (unless one overgeneralizes and gaslights trans experiences of oppression, as Adichie did).”

Whatever argument Dutta might have been making about the non-correlation of privilege and identity, or the properties of critique, was thoroughly lost to me the moment I reached the phrase “gaslights [trans experience of oppression, as Adichie did].”

Adichie did what? What did she do? Does Dutta know what that word means? She is recording her discomfort with the essentialist homogenizing of marginalized voices, but gaslighting? What did Adichie say? The “trans women are trans women” thing? Gaslighting? Gaslighting?

My psychic landscape exploded in red-hot rage.


Something like hate grows, vehement hate for this person, Ani Dutta, who I don’t know, whose article I am a fifth of the way through, and of the first fifth, I might have really and truly only read the words I found palatable within my own ideological – experiential framework. But I hate her. Who is she? I hate her.

Gaslighting is the term I use for what has happened to me at my job, when I was hired to replace a tenured professor at half the pay. When I countered for more money before I signed my contract, I was told all hands were tied: my would-be program was underperforming. Priorities. The college wanted to cut it entirely. The program would be cut, otherwise; if you don’t accept these terms, the major is done.

But I care about the major. It’s under attack, at dozens of institutions, this major and all adjacent majors are being cut, defunded, de-prioritized. And I don’t have any other option. I need a job. I need this job. I need to know that 10 years of graduate school and training were worth it, that I didn’t make an impossibly bad choice. I need to do something besides washing and cleaning and feeding. I need some money. We don’t have enough money. My husband makes all the money. A room of my own and 500 a year; I’m a feminist, I need my own money. This departmental chair, he seems like a nice fellow. I’ll sign.

My chair, a nice fellow, claimed to be my advocate, to want the best for me.

Who also claims that a part-time appointment is much better for a young mother so that I might spend more time with my children. But I work full time, I say. My hands are tied, he says. Very unfortunate, he says. My dean, who initially agreed to hire me in the first place, to whom I appeal my contract, when it becomes clear that I am fulfilling the responsibilities of a full time faculty; who tells me I must be bad at time management, who takes out a legal pad to help me work out the math. A dean who, in the wake of my petition for a more just contract, begins to find ways to undermine my performance, undermine my teaching; begins advocating, secretly, that my classes are canceled, meeting behind closed doors that my position is eliminated. A dean who could have just fired me, but didn’t. Instead, I was supposed to quit.

But I am a good teacher, all I want to do is teach. But I want to be paid for my work. I don’t care if this is a shitty school with a terrible reputation. I’m not an elitist. I am proud of myself; my dad never went to college, I went to a state school. I liked reading. I went to grad school to become a literature professor. I am a literature professor. But I can’t teach here. I have to teach, that’s what I am good at. If I don’t do it, they will cancel the program, the major. The discipline is in shambles, no one cares about the students. But I love my students, my students, they are caught, they must enroll in my classes for the classes to be allowed to run. If they enroll in my classes they are caught in the crossfire of an institutional war that should have nothing to do with them.

I’ll rewrite the curriculum. I’ll show them, it is a good major, it is important even by objective measures. There is research on that; I’ll read it. I’ll show them. I’ll rewrite my syllabi, I’ll accept the arbitrary student-faculty ratio conditions by creating stellar courses, interdisciplinary ones, attractive and important for students of all majors. I’ll create massive documents considering a strategy of re-direction within my discipline, which adapts to the contemporary conditions of higher education, and the conditions at the college. I will submit these documents to everyone: my chair, the dean, the provost.

No one read them.

No one cares that I care.

Not the provost, who will not answer my emails, will not tell me why my contract is being manipulated, who says to someone else, not to me, that if I don’t like what I am paid they can find someone who does. Not by the chair of our AAUP chapter, who tells me that I must not understand my contract, or the machinations within my department, or I do, but that departmental machinations are no one else’s business. By the faculty executive committee members, to whom I try to appeal for help in negotiating what is becoming untenable in my job, the dean’s private campaign, the provost’s cruel disinterest. They tell me, Lisa, sorry, that’s too bad. The provost is terrible no? She will retire soon. The dean, yeah, this happened last year to someone else. She left. It’s terrible. She’s retire soon. Then maybe someone can do something. And this was three semesters in.

Gaslighting is the term I give to the thing that was happening to me when I sat in my office on a Friday afternoon in 2015, unable to move, unable to cry, unable to go home.

I have to go home, I have to leave. This is a bad place. I can’t leave. I don’t want to go home. I want to die.

My husband doesn’t get it. He says it’s a bad job. He says that it’s beneath my dignity, that worrying about what people are saying about me all the time, about the cc’d and bcc’d emails that accuse me of failures or malfeasance, that suggest there is yet another meeting about me or my program that I am not invited to attend. He says that it is beneath me to continue working on a contingent and temporary contract, about which I have no certainty each year until after the spring semester ends, until after I had designed courses for the next year, written budgets, written reports, held symposia, advised honors theses, directed student projects, managed my student club. And I think he thinks that insofar as it is beneath me, and I still care (and I care, I care) I must be less dignified. He knows I can’t get any other job, he knows my field is in shambles, and he knows my colleagues are assholes. But I think he thinks I am doing this to myself. I can’t go home. I want to die.

My husband doesn’t get it. Everyone loves him. His work has always been praised, since we were much younger, since graduate school. He defended his dissertation first. He got an award, and another. His work is topical, people care. He doesn’t write about 19th century esoterica. He writes about real lives. People care. He’s a good teacher, his students tell him, his chair tells him. He gets another award. I have our baby. He publishes his book, people love it. I love it. He gets a job at an R1. My book never comes out, my publisher won’t write me back. I follow him to his new job. I have another baby. I don’t have a good job. I only have this one. He thinks it is beneath me. I can’t go home. I want to die.

I sat in my office on that Friday, immobile. I haven’t been in therapy since I moved to this new city, since grad school, where I shifted from being a high-functioning depressive to hospitalized. But I got better. I finished my dissertation. I got a PhD. I got married. I had children. I wrote. I taught.

I don’t have anyone here to call. I’ll call my midwife. I have no other doctor I see regularly. My midwife is a kind person. She’s not a therapist, or an MD. She promises to help me find both. I’ll go home now.

I went back to therapy. I went back on meds. I got better.

I stayed at my job for another 2 years. The mobbing continued, the circulation of rumor, the indeterminacy of my contract, non-payment of my unfailing and meaningful service. I knew I had to leave, but I knew it wouldn’t be through death, and it wouldn’t be the end of me. It took a long time to resign, to think that it would be ok to walk away from the only faculty position I have ever held, in a geographic region where most institutions don’t support instruction in my field. I had to accept that it would probably mean looking for non-academic work, and that this wouldn’t be the end of me either. In those two years I was ignored, humiliated, and dehumanized, but I was never fired. I was finally this fall granted a single interview with the provost, who told me, finally to my face, that she suspected that I was being paid too much, not too little, and there was no evidence of my value otherwise. I protested, she retaliated, and my contract was changed from temporary to terminal. Part of my program was then stripped from me, though no one told me. It was communicated to various others, and I found out from a student.

When that happened, I finally resigned, and in the end, the death of my major was said to be owed to the fact that I quit. That I stopped caring. That everyone’s hands were tired. Priorities. Miscommunication. And I guess I will eventually be ok with this version of my story as well, though I know it isn’t true. In the end it didn’t work, the gaslighting. I still know I’m all right.

That’s what gaslighting means, to me. I guess it must not mean that to Ani Dutta.

I returned to Dutta’s essay, and read it to the end. It was pretty good, especially bullet points 4 and 5. I liked it on Facebook.

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