My Funniest Micro-aggressions

Academic culture can brim with sexism at times, often presenting the same flawed thinking of non-academic misogyny except more subtle, and yet (paradoxically) more vicious because men take aim at the intellect and not just the body or face. There’s no shortage of research to back up this point, but after a while numbers and even case studies and compelling narratives seem futile. Chronicle Vitae columnist Kelly Baker recently published an evocative piece on her experiences that sum up what it’s like for many women writers, and she even admits that others have had it worse.

Not only do I continue to encounter sexism almost everywhere I go on any campus, but sometimes I wonder why I even bother trying to call people out in a serious way. Doing so often just entrenches the opposing view. In academia, the sexist move of choice is the micro-aggression: a series of comments or behaviors that are motivated by sexism, but hard to pin down, easy to deny.

So here’s my newfound philosophy: mock sexists, embarrass them, whenever possible. (Except when they become violent and start making threats, then just leave them the hell alone.) I don’t mean always to their face, but indirectly, to other people. Give them a bad reputation. A supplemental strategy I’ve developed is to just quietly let sexists fall on their face. More often than not, they undo themselves. And then you can mock them.

After all, over the years I’ve found that “victims” of sexism are usually smarter and funnier than their opponents anyway. I’ve also learned that most sexists happen to be assholes in many aspects of their lives: they’re not good teachers, they’re not especially responsible parents, they don’t support the rights of other marginalized groups, even if they pretend to sometimes in order to appear progressive. The worst sexists I’ve met are generally miserable people. Not even other men like them.

My goals have changed when it comes to combating sexism. I’m no longer interested in changing their minds, showing them that woman can be intelligent, funny, and of general value to society. These days, I’m just happy if I can get them to shut up. With that in mind, here’s a list of times I’ve learned to look back on and laugh. (Disclaimer, these are inspired by actual events, details slightly fictionalized):

  1. Poor Loser:

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As a first-year PhD student, I was awarded a $600 travel grant from a national organization to attend a conference, much to the dismay of a couple of complete male strangers from other universities (much older), whom I’d apparently beaten. The conference planners presented the award to me during the preamble leading up to the keynote event. When these two older men found out who I was, they stalked me for the rest of the day, asking questions about my research and my proposal and how long I’d been teaching. Finally, late in the afternoon, one of them asked to see a draft of the proposal I’d sent in. There was this smug look on his face, which eventually turned to ash when I pulled it right out of my bag and let him skim over it. Sighing as if someone had just died, he handed the paper back and said, “Okay, I guess you earned your award.”

2. The Trifecta: Sexist, Alcoholic, Public Disturbance

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My last year of graduate school, my university made a huge mistake and hired a VAP (visiting assistant professor) who was also an alcoholic and a sexist. I’ve worked with recovering alcoholics who were great teachers, but this guy was a train wreck. Not only did he show up increasingly drunk throughout the semester, he kept asking women out for drinks after class and often tried to tag along with us on the occasional weekend outing. He frequently gave us career advice that was just wrong, and more than once emailed us copies of the two articles he’d published along with an invitation for coffee to “talk publication strategies.” I had also published 2 articles, which he never asked for or even knew about. We reported him multiple times, but the department did nothing. Finally, about 11 weeks in, he showed up 20 minutes late to one seminar and declared we should just all go to his favorite pub. There were only two guys in the class of nine, so when we protested, he slurred through a barrage of insults, including the phrase “pretentious cunts,” and then stumbled out into the hallway. Someone later reported that he tripped down the stairs, and eventually was interviewed by campus police. In academia, you don’t get “fired.” You get “non-renewed.”

3. Email Debacle

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Also near the end of graduate school, I became the subject of gossip during some email exchanges with other students whom I was working with to plan a conference. Behind my back, they emailed each other jokes about whether I was an 8 or a 9, but “not quite a 10. Her boobs are too small.” How do I know this? Because one of them got his emails all befuddled and accidentally copied me on a response to that thread, thinking it was about the actual conference. I replied to the email, “So…if I’m not a 10, who the fuck is?” Oh, the apologies were hilarious. So was the collective insistence that they were just messing around; it wasn’t serious.

4. The Interview

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Who doesn’t have a story about sexism during a job interview? During one campus visit, I had lunch with some faculty after a research presentation. After a few minutes of polite conversation, an esteemed professor tried to address a point that I had missed during my talk, reminding me that “Toni Morrison wasn’t writing in a vacuum. Her influences included William Faulkner, for one. How much of his work have you read?” This is a classic set up question, because there’s no way I can answer it without sounding like an unread buffoon or, by contrast, an arrogant bitch. I’ve seen this kind of question many times since. So I explained: “I didn’t say Toni Morrison was writing in a vacuum. I was quoting her in an interview where she said she felt like she was.” When I tried to explain I loved Faulkner, the esteemed professor went out of his way to spin my words as praise from an Oprah Book Club member, saying something like “But what’s your critical opinion of Faulkner? Of course everyone loves him.” Yeah, I didn’t get that job, but I got another one, and another one.

5. Asshole Lecture

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Sometimes, the line between sexism and general douchery is blurred. As first-year faculty, I invited professors from other departments at my new university to speak to my class about their research. The first three speakers (all men) were fantastic and respectful. The last one showed up late, corrected me on the difference between genotype and phenotype, and then asked, “So what am I supposed to talk about again?” Mind you, I’d sent every speaker a detailed list of talking points, and I’d had coffee with them all to discuss their plans. This guy rambled helplessly for the first two minutes until I prompted him through the talking points. He wound up doing fine, until the last ten minutes where he took the opportunity to smash my discipline to bits in front of my class and then offer a “sorry about my rant there at the end.” The silver lining here is that he treats everyone like this, even men to some extent, and it means he will probably never make full professor.

 

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