In the wake of the Daily Telegraph’s attack against three members of its academic staff, the University of Sydney released a statement defending the university’s right to intellectual independence and autonomy.
Important as this reminder is, it does not address the misogynistic overtones of the article on several levels. Firstly, the Daily Telegraph’s attack is against an all-female frontline of university lecturers. Not even one male academic staff member is targeted in what the Daily Telegraph characterises as an investigation into ‘modern day teaching.’ Secondly, the newspaper published stolen images of the named and shamed lecturers, plastering both the cover and the inside pages, suggesting that the mere presence of women’s bodies in teaching spaces is a disgrace. Thirdly, the Telegraph’s denunciation of what happens at state-funded universities is predicated on the gendered pitting of a balanced male genius against an excessively soft, and thus degerate(ing), female influence.
One does need to be familiar with gender as a category of analysis to understand how the whole article rests on the historical construction of women as emotional without explicitly saying so. Unfortunately for the Daily Telegraph, the University of Sydney has trained generations of students to examine the work that gender does at the level of politics, this author included.
Descriptors are important vehicles of gendering. The newspaper’s cover title sets the tone for what follows. Describing former ABC journalist and current Sydney University Professor, Fiona Martin, as ‘nutty,’ the writer, Christopher Harris, strips her of her authority as an expert in new media. This description effectively positions Martin as unqualified to occupy the position she does. The article’s critique of her advice to use research engines which do not store search data shows that it is not concerned with students’ wellbeing. Indeed, the university’s overall efforts to improve the quality of the student learning experience are dismissed as ‘madness.’ As Harris states, the undercover ‘investigation’ into teaching at Sydney University was prompted by ‘recent revelations about changes to sexual consent policies and other rules and traditions.’ So, ‘madness’ is equated with ‘softness.’
Retrospectively positioned as ‘bastions of free speech and spirited inquiry,’ ‘top government funded universities’ are described as having become places that coddle students’ fragility. They allegedly treat students like ‘pre-school toddlers’ by encouraging them to speak about sexual consent by avoiding the ‘proper’ name of genitals, learn about racism by patting a fluffy dog, and staying silent in tutorials if they feel shy.
As Sara Ahmed has demonstrated, accusations of madness and fragility are used to characterise women as overly emotional. This characterisation is as old as the very much cherished Enlightenment, during which emotions were dismissed as beneath the faculties of thought and reason. Construed as clouding one’s judgment, emotions are seen as anathema to objective knowledge production. Because of this history of associations, as Elizabeth Spellman reminds us, women are not simply understood as being emotional but also, and more importantly, as always on the verge of overstepping the boundaries of appropriate behavior. On the opposite end of the gender spectrum (or at the top of the race pyramid), (white) men are appositionally construed as always being just; the exemplary embodiment of healthy public behavior: confidence, coherence and rigour. Gendered as male, free speech and rigour are thus proper academic qualities that we have lost to women and other feminised subjects: ‘victim groups’ who advocate for ‘political correctness.’
This gendering explains how Harris can call the lectures he witnessed ‘hilarious’ and oppose them to the toughness of a bygone era when arguments were supposedly fiercely but fairly debated with no fear of reprisal. There is nothing ‘nutty,’ ‘hilarious’ or, as the article repeatedly insinuates, ‘cotton-wool’ about what scholars such as Jane Park and Catherine Driscoll do in their classrooms. On the contrary, it is a lecturer’s duty to convey complex ideas in ways that are accessible and non-threatening, especially when discussing topics such as sexual consent and racism, which can trigger trauma and discomfort. According to Harris, one cannot talk about racism without estranging white students or about rape culture without alienating male students. Lecturers are constantly under pressure to make critical analyses of reality relatively easy to engage with and, more importantly, constructive for all students in the classroom.
Universities must be a safe environment for all students to take an active role in their learning, fully participate in campus life and have their voices heard loud and clear in the public sphere. More, and not less, should be done in this direction, as, for instance, the Change the Course: National Report on Sexual Harassment at Australian Universities reported in 2017.
Ahmed, Sara (First Edition) (2004) The Cultural Politics of Emotions. Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh.
Spelman, Elizabeth V. (1989) Anger and Insubordination, in Ann Garry and Marilyn Pearsall (eds.) Women, Knowledge, and Reality: Explorations in Feminist Philosophy. Unwin Hyman: Winchester, 263–274.