When Does an Academic Become a Whore?
That’s a question weighing heavily on me today after biologist Danielle Lee was called a whore when she declined to write an essay for a science blog. Danielle does things with rats in labs. I do not always understand it but I read her blog at Scientific American where she translates the scientific process for people like me. That is why Biology Online, an online science resource, asked her to write an essay for them. She declined. Someone representing the blog responded by calling her an “urban whore”. When Danielle wrote a post about the experience, Scientific American removed it. Full disclosure, I have followed DN Lee on twitter for quite some time. I read her work and happily shared news of her various engagements with bringing science to black media outlets and African American children. But even if I did not know DN Lee in the general way that we know anyone from social media spaces, I would know the story of how an accomplished scientist becomes an “urban whore”.
We’ve got a gender problem in academia. Despite the impressive gains women have made relative to men at every level of educational attainment we remain a minority in academic leadership roles and overrepresented the least prestigious, most precarious roles in higher education. Feminized academic work like teaching and service work (advising student groups or serving on committees) is considered less important than research. Even within research there’s a hierarchy that seems designed to undervalue the work of women scholars: quantitative research is considered more rational and valuable. It could be that the theory of the innate math deficiency of women, famously proffered by former Harvard president and director of the National Economic Council Larry Summers, is to blame. The leadership gap isn’t a problem if women are simply incapable of doing the work most valued by serious academics. Women should just do real work you say? Great idea except studies show that even when women leave all that touchy-feely gendered stuff alone and focus on “real” research, they are less cited than men. And in the world of real research citations are currency. They say that your work is valued by your peers, the experts best qualified to judge its merits. If your peers don’t think enough of your work to cite it, well, then you should do better work. There are many problems with that solution but the main problem is that “better” is subjective. So is “real”, “research”, and quiet as its kept, “science”. All of those designations are defined by people who have the authority to do the defining. Again, I mention that gender leadership problem. With so few women defining the terms, the terms seem most often to be defined to exclude the work women do. It’s like magic only its sexism.
We’ve got a race problem in academia. Despite the impressive gains that African Americans and Latino groups have made relative to their historical marginalization in academia, were it not for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and community colleges, we’d barely register in the university leadership ranks. Many academics consider research that examines the experiences of racial and ethnic minorities as unscientific and less rigorous than research that focuses on politics, war, philosophy, the Higgs particle and the like. Even when that research in those domains intersect with the experiences of minorities with politics, war, philosophy or natural science it is often considered a pet interest with little relevance to real science. The academy, like much of America, is weary of the culture wars that raged in the 1960s and 1970s. It was a time when traditional canons of official knowledge across the academia were challenged for their exclusion of voices that were not white and male. Many academics are ready to leave all of that contentious debate behind. But the reality for minorities hasn’t changed much. Those that go to graduate school are often doing so with fewer economic and social resources than their white peers. Should they survive the gauntlet of prestige, hazing, structural change and monastic cultism that pervades the production of academics, they are less likely to achieve tenure or lead universities. It’s like a coincidence only it’s racism.
We’ve got a crisis of public faith problem in academia. In “The Twilight of the Elites” Chris Hayes charts the demise of public trust in institutions and the elites that lead them. To many the spectacular economic, social and political collapses of recent memory represent how, as Hayes says, “ all the smart people fucked up.” As Professional Smart People, lots of academics are included. By and large people do not envy the good fortune or abilities of the most charmed. They distrust that the highly favored are concerned with using their favor to benefit the masses. Universities require the public’s trust to do the work we are charged with doing. Public funding, though on the decline, still funds our research and teaching. Every grant application a researcher makes to a public agency asking for money to chase some discovery must usually include a statement of its impact on the greater good. When the public cannot see those statements or feel them in their daily lives, we have to hope mightily that they trust we are being good stewards of their faith and investment. When the public doesn’t trust us we find that they are less likely to support funding public higher education and research. It’s a vicious cycle: we cannot show our work of their faith in good action and their faith in our good action cannot be shown.
Into all of these problems academics like Danielle Lee arrive. They exist at the intersection of two major problems in academia: sexism and racism. They believe in the public trust and they want the public to trust the work we do. So they travel to public conferences and translate science into English for general audiences. They see the bridges that brought them across divides that swallowed many of their peers on the way to an elite degree at an elite institution and they want to reinforce that bridge. So they use hip-hop music and culture like a Rosetta stone to bring poor kids, black kids, hispanic kids into the scientific discourse. When we consider the demographic projections in this country in relation to our clamor to lead the world in scientific discovery, scholars like Danielle are providing a national service. We can’t win the future of STEM without winning it through black and brown girls and boys. Travel, research, speaking, planning, and writing are resource intensive actions. Scholars like Danielle are usually doing this with fewer resources, institutional authority and support than white male scholars often enjoy. They do it in public spaces where there are few sanctions for stalking women who dare say things someone thinks are better left unsaid. Most take this work on without the economic security of being on the white side of generational wealth inequality. Many are taking on debt and delaying income hoping the investment pays off with a job, of which there are fewer every year.
So when Danielle decided that she could not afford to write for Biology Online for free at that point in time, she did so within a context of many of academia’s most pressing and vexing problems. If she is a whore for doing that then so are many of us doing the work we believe in without the assumed authority of being white and male. I am that kind of whore and trust me, if you think its hard out there for a pimp wait until you hear from a woman working the tracks.
Elite institutions that do not look like the future of America might be concerned about this. Or, they might choose to ignore it. Either way, we’ve got some problems.