Making Academia Safe

On Tuesday, Science published a lengthy and detailed article by Michael Balter about “the sexual misconduct case that has rocked anthropology.” The whole thing is worth a read to understand the latest in a series of sexual harassment or assault incidents in academia in general. Just last week molecular biologist Jason Lieb finally resigned amidst accusations of misconduct, and the subject has been gaining more scrutiny as people continue to push for better policies and mechanisms through which victims can seek redress, abusers can be held accountable, and departments can prevent these types of incidents from occurring.

The recent anthropology case stems from a research assistant who has accused paleoanthropologist Brian Richmond of taking advantage of her in his hotel room while she was drunk in late 2014. Richmond, a curator at the American Museum of Natural History (and a former professor at George Washington University), has been placed on leave from the museum while investigations are under way. The entire story is very much worth reading, but I want to highlight one thing that stands out in the article: the decision by some academics to directly respond to the allegations. All of the details below draw from the Science article, linked above.

While the incident with Brian Richmond is still playing out, I want to highlight the article’s focus on the institutional response by GWU. Some people involved have not hesitated to take action to ensure that other targets of harassment can come forward, to signal to students that these issues are a serious matter, and to, as the article puts it, “do battle against sexual misconduct”.

At AMNH a lawyer reached out to anthropologist Rebecca Ackermann to help investigate Richmond’s actions. She found three undergraduates who gave accounts of inappropriate behavior. AMNH is still investigating him (he was placed on leave after the initial investigation, and no other punishment was added when Ackermann submitted the other three accusations).

Richmond had already left GWU, but continued to teach at the GWU-run Koobi Fora Field School in Kenya. According to the Science article, immediately after finding out his former co-worker and pupil was accused of sexual misconduct, GWU professor Bernard Wood decided that he wanted to be sure that Richmond’s presence at GWU was not marked by the same type of activity:

In St. Louis [at the conference where the research assistant first came forward], Wood canvassed younger researchers about their experiences with Richmond. He asked everyone the same question: “Does this alleged behavior come as any surprise to you?” But he didn’t get the “yes” he was expecting. Nearly all said that they were not surprised, and two individuals told Wood that they had been the direct subjects of unwanted sexual advances by Richmond.

Wood continued asking questions back at GWU’s Center for Advanced Study of Human Paleobiology (CASHP) that yielded similar responses. Rebecca Ackermann, an anthropologist asked by AMNH’s lawyer to help investigate Richmond’s history, found three undergraduates who gave accounts of incidents of harassment and unwanted contact that occurred at the field school.

The CASHP faculty informed Richmond that he was “no longer welcome at the Koobi Fora Field School and was no longer part of it.” Wood penned several blog posts and op-eds about about sexual misconduct in academia, one of which was published at the same time that Richmond was vying for a seat at a scholarly association’s governing board, and refused to chair a panel that Richmond was supposed to speak on. In one of the op-eds, Wood sketches out his motivation by saying that “male professors have a special responsibility to be strong allies of the women affected by sexual misconduct [and] we should not wait for traumatized junior colleagues to demonstrate the greatest courage before those with the greatest power show any.” He continued:

At the very least, any scientist should think twice before collaborating with those who use their research reputation to harass female colleagues, and before inviting them to conferences. Why? Because every paper they publish, talk they give, and conference they attend enhances the influence they have abused. If perpetrators are made to pay a professional cost, their influence will wane, depriving them of further opportunities to prey on women. More importantly, male faculty must report concerns to institutional authorities. The more frequently a department head or a dean learns of concerns, the more likely it is that behaviors will be recognized as a pattern of misconduct.

Sexual harassment in the sciences occurs in many circumstances and settings, but the silence of the past must be replaced by action. The untenured are brave to speak out, but powerful male voices must join in to make sure we level this particular playing field. Alpha males are the problem. Alpha males need to be part of the solution.

Wood’s actions, and his thought process behind them, are really important. It is vital for professors to help make campus safe for students. And this means more than passing a resolution or appointing a committee. It also means standing against those guilty of abusing the power and influence they have over their students.

Compare this to the situation that unfolded at Northwestern: in an article ostensibly about her university’s ban on sexual relations between professors and students (and the implicit acknowledgement of the power relations involved in such a relationship), Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis described the misconduct accusations that philosophy professor Peter Ludlow faced as mere “melodrama.” Kipnis ridiculed students and activists for suggesting that a professor-student relationship might carry with it unequal power dynamics, arguing that “it’s just as likely that a student can derail a professor’s career these days as the other way around, which is pretty much what happened in the case of” Ludlow. (For more, see this overview of the Ludlow case).

This was an instance of several failures. Ludlow’s punishment for misconduct was a pay cut and a denied promotion and little else. The graduate student’s information was not kept confidential, and she faced harassment because of her actions. The university failed to protect her or sufficiently deal with the incidents. And Kipnis’ framing of the situation was misleading and the graduate student involved has stated that the article felt like retaliation for filing a complaint against Ludlow. When the university failed to respond, student activists intervened, making it impossible for him to teach and even preventing a job offer, eventually forcing his resignation.

When UC Berkeley astronomy professor Geoff Marcy was accused of repeated harassment and misconduct, his university did very little. His colleagues, however, responded swiftly by punishing him professionally by un-inviting him from conferences, publicly naming him, and pushing for his ouster. He eventually resigned. When the university failed to respond, other astronomers stepped up.

Looking over the current situation with Richmond, I’m glad that George Washington University’s Anthropology Department – a place I currently call home – has taken the actions that it has. It’s critical that faculty stand behind students in such positions, and it’s critical that those who abuse power face consequences.

Conferences, Conferences, Conferences

A few conference-related items of potential interest.

Firstly, I’m issuing my own brief call for any fellow travelers in justice/reconciliation/Africa/intervention studies by anthropologists thinking about attending the American Ethnological Society this March 31-April 2 in Washington, DC. I’m thinking about submitting a newer iteration of the paper I presented at ASA last year, on reconciliation and accountability, the ICC, and Invisible Children. I’m open to ways of framing it, so if anyone wants to help me cobble together a panel, I’d greatly appreciate it. Deadline is Jan. 31, but you can’t submit until after you register (I know, right?). I’ve heard AES is awesome, and I can’t wait to go – hopefully you’ll come with me! Comment, e-mail, tweet, etc. if you’re down to do a panel together on any of the aforementioned subjects.

On a related note, doing my grad-student-Africanist duty and spreading the word of a couple of Calls for Papers to any relevant Africanist scholars-in-training:

Boston University’s African Studies Center will be hosting its annual graduate student conference this March, with the theme of “Mobilizing Africa: Innovation, Syncretism, Appropriation.” Deadline for submission is Jan. 15, and the conference is March 25-26. I’ve never been, but it looks mighty interesting and is geared towards graduate students, so check it out.

At about the same time, Tennessee State University will be hosting its annual Africa Conference March 31-April 1, with the theme of “Africa in the 21st Century: The Promise of Development and Democracy.” Deadline is Dec. 31, and more details are in the CFP here [pdf].

And lastly, it’s almost that time of year again. I’ll be headed to San Diego in two weeks for the African Studies Association’s annual meeting, where I’ll be presenting a chapter from my MA thesis that is also a forthcoming article in African Studies Review. The paper is on the role of come-home messaging in the LRA conflict, focusing on how come-home radio programs began in Gulu, how they fared in neighboring Lira district, and how they have been transplanted into northeastern DRC. Looking forward to presenting, and if you’re headed to ASA, it’s session IX (Saturday morning), panel I-1, vaguely titled “Accounting for Violence.” Hope to see you there!

A Southward Move

This  is my 500th blog post, apparently. While I admit that a quarter of that is probably link round-ups, nonetheless I’m going to use this occasion to make a small announcement:

This fall I’ll be moving to the DC area to begin the doctoral program in anthropology at The George Washington University. It’s a small program and I’m excited to be formally continuing on with academic scholarship. I’ve spent the last year teaching at a high school in Fairfield County, Conn., which I absolutely loved, but if I’m ever going to go through the grad school tribulations and make it out alive it’s now.

I will continue to focus on the LRA conflict, though I’m not 100% sure in what form. This means that I’ll continue writing about it here, and it’s probably a safe bet that you can find me in Uganda or its neighbors infrequently over the next few years.

The summer has been spent writing (or attempting to), so you’ll see a few things up here soon, and probably elsewhere as well (fingers crossed). This site itself will probably undergo some changes as well, as it hasn’t had a facelift in several years. Thanks for sticking around – I’ll keep writing if you keep reading (and even if you don’t, probably).

Content Notes on Course Syllabi

A lot of people have been writing about (not) including content notes/trigger warnings on their class syllabi. An inordinately large number of writers have come out against the idea, and the issue has reached headlines as student groups have pushed for their use and administrations grapple with whether or not to implement such guidelines. This hubbub, and the pushback, was surprising to me – especially given how small the request is. I’m amenable to their use, and I see no reason to not use them – they don’t have to impinge on academic freedom, change course material, or feature prominently – but they could help students deal with sensitive material.

That’s why I was very happy to see Angus Johnston’s piece in Inside Higher Ed address how he plans to use content notes in his courses from now on. I appreciated not only his direct demonstration of how he planned to use them, but his effort to move beyond merely avoiding triggering post-traumatic episodes and towards creating a safer space for learning – something all educators should want to do. He writes:

These warnings prepare the reader for what’s coming, so their attention isn’t hijacked when it arrives. Even a pleasant surprise can be distracting, and if the surprise is unpleasant the distraction will be that much more severe.

Shortly after reading this, I wrote on social media about my own miniature experience with this type of warning. When I was student teaching a few years ago, I showed my students Atomic Cafe, a documentary about the nuclear age. It includes a scene showing footage of victims of the atomic bombings in Japan, and I had forgotten how graphic it was. Some students in my first class were caught off-guard by the footage, and I don’t think they got much out of the rest of the film. I gave my subsequent classes notice, both at the beginning of the video and right before the scene, and I think that helped prepare them.

This is a small example, but is exactly the kind of thing that can help make students aware of the course material without constraining the curriculum at all. Be sure to read all of Johnston’s piece, as I think it’s a good contribution to the ongoing debate, as well this follow-up post from his friend on disability and access in education.

Thesis: Complete

Dear readers, the time has come.

Yesterday, I handed in the final draft of my M.A. thesis in accordance with my degree requirements. I then promptly went home and fiddled with the headers and added an acknowledgements section, so really it’s doubly finished.

I didn’t have a senior thesis in college, just a slightly longer class paper. I also spent all of my senior spring in a high school classroom student teaching. Therefore, this is the first time I’ve had the just-finished-a-giant-project-and-am-about-to-graduate-what-do-I-do feeling. It’s kind of weird.

I first drafted grant proposals for my thesis in October/November 2012. I went to Uganda and the Congo in June 2013. I read a lot for my project between then and now, and talked about it a lot too. And here I am, May 2014, handing in a 150 page declaration that I think I know what I’m talking about.

I haven’t decided what to do with it just yet. I’ve spent the last six months stitching a bunch of disparate parts together, but I will inevitably crack it like an egg and try to make some scholarly omelettes out of it.

As for now, I have some papers to grade, and then I will busy myself with other kinds of tinkering since thesis-tinkering is a now fruitless hobby. But, I leave you with one common artifacts: the abstract. Hopefully it’ll pique your interest for things to come.

Continue reading

Yale Tries to Sneak Kissinger on Campus

Yale’s Jackson Institute of International Affairs is hosting Henry Kissinger on campus Friday for a ‘private,’ ‘invite-only’ address. Students in select departments received invitations via email that explicitly stated that the event would not be publicized and asked that the invitees keep the event confidential. (I was not invited, c’est la vie).

Kissinger is, of course, everyone’s favorite combination Nobel Peace Prize laureate and war criminal. His presence in campus is itself all sorts of disappointing. No institution that seeks to improve the world should be giving such a person a platform from which to speak. But it is even more disappointing that the event is to be exclusive and therefore limit any sort of protest or honest dialog about Kissinger’s record.

Of course, this isn’t exactly a sudden misstep of Yale’s. The monstrosity that is the Jackson Institute is the current employer of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the man behind JSOC during much of the GWOT. So, really, this is just more Yale being Yale.

Are Grad Students “Doing What They Love”?

A few weeks ago I was in a room in which people were debating the pros and cons of forming a graduate student union. News of NYU’s victory vote was still fairly fresh, and many Yale students were eager to step up the push for union recognition. The Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO) at Yale has been spending recent months on laying the groundwork: recruiting more graduate student members, promoting the idea of a union as a worthy goal, etc. but hasn’t gone much into what it will do with such status.

I’m for a graduate student union. Scores of public universities have them, and private universities should have them too. Obviously, Yale is one of the more better off universities when it comes to graduate student wages and working conditions, but there’s always room for improvement. On a more fundamental level, it would be great if graduate student labor was acknowledged as labor – especially since graduate students teach the discussion sections, writing-intensive sections, and some full courses as well as conduct research and undertake all sorts of other projects as a part of their time at the university.

But the conversation I heard wasn’t even about the nitty-gritty stuff. Some had mentioned questions about tax issues that arise from calling grad student work “work.” Others had talked about the importance of a union for bargaining, while others were skeptical of what a union could do that student government or department-level organizing could not. All fine points, I suppose. But one person asked how similar a graduate student contract would be to the unions already operating on campus (technical and clerical workers, for example), and whether that was a good thing or not. Another fair point, but then the speaker ended it with this:

Presumably I’m a graduate student and I love what I do, and would be doing it regardless of the money if financially possible, while a janitor is not really interested in his job.

I was struck by such a framing. I was struck even more by the response, which was circuitous and ended with:

I would say that that maybe that custodian does love his work.


Labor is labor. There’s not really any way around it, but work in the classroom is work in the factory is work in the call center. There are different types of labor, but they are still labor. The idea that loving your work means that that work is suddenly priceless in some way just doesn’t make sense. If you love your work, you fight for your work. You protect it for all it’s worth – demanding that its worth be acknowledged. At the same time, judging what you love based on what the market says it’s worth gets at a whole other issue. Either way, I couldn’t believe my ears when both the critic and the proponent of unionization decided to couch labor in terms of loving what you do.

It just so happened that Miya Tokumitsu’s essay on the ‘Do What You Love’ mantra had just been published a couple of weeks prior to this discussion. In it, Tokumitsu explains that such a motto creates a divide between “that which is lovable (creative, intellectual, socially prestigious) and that which is not (repetitive, unintellectual, undistinguished).” She turns her pen to academia, writing that:

There are many factors that keep PhDs providing such high-skilled labor for such extremely low wages, including path dependency and the sunk costs of earning a PhD, but one of the strongest is how pervasively the DWYL [‘Do What You Love’] doctrine is embedded in academia. Few other professions fuse the personal identity of their workers so intimately with the work output. This intense identification partly explains why so many proudly left-leaning faculty remain oddly silent about the working conditions of their peers. Because academic research should be done out of pure love, the actual conditions of and compensation for this labor become afterthoughts, if they are considered at all.

There might be a debate to be had over unionization. But that debate shouldn’t be about how much we love our discipline versus how much others love their jobs. It should be about how, if we love our work, we’ll fight for it. The adjunctification of higher education, the shrinking budgets of colleges, and the eagerness of universities to push out graduate students demand more of emerging scholars. Those scholars should demand more in return.

Shameless Self-Promotion: At Yale

The blog has lain dormant this month, but it’s because I’ve been keeping rather busy. While the site has hibernated in the cold, I’ve been working on coursework and the thesis, and preparing for another talk as part of the African Studies Brown Bag series. If you’re in the New Haven area, I hope you’ll swing by. The talk will cover the come-home messaging programs in the LRA conflict, looking at how they “work” and how they differ from each other, with some exploratory talk about the transference of reconciliation across communities. See below for more details:

Come Home Messaging: Radio and Forgiveness in Uganda and Congo

Wednesday, February 26 | Luce Hall 202 | 12:00pm

In response to intense violence that included conscription of civilians into rebel ranks and atrocities on a mass scale, some civilians in northern Uganda have tried to end the war through reconciliation in the form of forgiveness, amnesty, and peace negotiations. One means of promoting these ideas has been various types of radio messages. This talk will focus on radio messages that encourage abducted rebels to surrender and come home and will look at how the radio messages – and notions of reconciliation – have traveled across borders.

Who is Funding African Studies Research?

Aili Mari Tripp, political scientist and former president of the African Studies Association, has drafted a report on funding challenges and opportunities in African Studies research. In the report she sheds on the recent changes that international (and specifically African) research support has encountered as sources of funding shift. She starts by looking at the nearly nonexistent support for international research by private foundations (which used to provide large amounts of support) and the drastic reduction in funding from the federal government. Title VI and Fulbright-Hayes were both cut nearly in half, which has and will continue to completely reshape area studies as a field. Tripp quotes one report that found that cuts in 2011 led to

 a reduction or cancellation of over 400 less commonly-taught language and area studies classes, affecting over 6,300 students; reductions in international business programs with 10,000 fewer business professionals trained; and reductions in language resources and research, which has resulted in over 5,900 fewer language teachers trained, involving 29 languages.  It is not clear that the universities are stepping in to fill the gaps.

Indeed, most are either unable to unwilling to. When I looked into Yale’s African Studies program it was made clear that federal budget cuts played a central role in the program’s downsizing, but that the university was also either failing to step in or was proactively tightening belts in anticipation of more cuts (or in the interest of shuttling money towards other focuses). But that’s just one case – across the country international and area studies are shrinking at an alarming rate as they lose financial and academic support. As current ASA President James A. Pritchett, anthropologist at Michigan State and director of that school’s African Studies Center, has said that funding cuts are “are unraveling, brick-by-brick, the national African studies edifice that it took 50 years to build up.”

The biggest shift we’re seeing today as Department of Education funds dry up is the arrival of State and Defense Departments’ renewed (and fairly robust) interest in international and area studies. Things like the Critical Languages program and the Minerva Project aim to train scholars to do work that supports and reinforces U.S. goals abroad. Although Tripp says some Africa-focused scholars involved with Minerva say that they feel independent in their work, I know Southeast Asia-focused work at Arizona State was centered on Muslim discourse and identifying “good” Muslims in the region to spread moderate Islam over extremism (yes, I’m simplifying).

This shift isn’t an accident. DoE’s Title VI foreign language funding is being reduced while DoD’s language programs and institutes get bigger and bigger.  As Pritchett says, “The Defense Language Institute, Foreign Language Center (DLIFLC) in Monterey, California receives nearly $345 million annually, over four times the funding provided to the 125 Title VI Centers combined.” Study of the world around us is becoming increasingly directed by the military, and this is something scholars should be aware or and worried about.

It’s important to note (and Tripp gives it a passing mention) that the ASA has long stood against DoD funding, passing several resolutions against it in the past.  These resolutions were passed specifically to reject U.S. policy in Africa, which supported apartheid and oppressed revolutionaries in decolonization struggles at the time. Today, U.S. policy in Africa centers on counter-terrorism efforts that have resulted in militarization and Islamophobia across the continent. I wrote a little about that African Studies’ refusal to work with the military here, but I think David Wiley’s recent work [gated, ASR] addresses the biggest worry:

In this time of austerity, especially at public universities, there is a growing sense that civilian agency funding is collapsing and military and intelligence funding increasingly is the “only game in town.” As a result, two university African centers and linguists in two other universities that have Title VI Africa centers (with the dissent of their African center faculty), have taken funding for African language instruction programs from the DOD’s NSEP [National Security Education Program].

The other increase in funding is from the State Department, concentrated mostly on aid and development or the promotion of democracy and human rights. These also come with lots of baggage, although probably less so than military funding.

The bright side of the story is Tripp’s focus on private foundation funding for African higher education through grants, scholarships, fellowships, and collaborations with universities. This is much-needed, greatly impacting news for higher education across Africa.

Both Tripp’s and Pritchett’s posts are worth reading in full. The takeaway is that area studies in general is losing big. Both of them offer ways forwards, engaging with Africa directly, departing from government support in favor of foundation or corporation support, etc. The key will be to continue forwards with a heightened consciousness. There are a lot of ways forwards, we just need to ensure that we navigate properly as Africanists.

Strengths and Weaknesses on Africa at Yale

It’s been a few weeks since my article on the Yale Africa Project went up. I tried to make it as comprehensive as possible in discussing Yale’s African Studies program and what has gone into it, but I also had a word limit that I had thoroughly destroyed already. Since I have a blog and that’s what blogs are for, I’m going to dig a little deeper into what’s going to happen at Yale moving forwards.

One promising point in Yale’s future is the creation a senior faculty position in the English Department that will be focused on African literature. Yale has one professor who specializes in Francophone African literature and has never had anyone in English – this new position will rectify that. Yale has a pretty conservative English department overall, something I don’t know enough about to talk about at length, but it’s clear that this position – which has been in the works for many years and included encouragement from the Council on African Studies – will be the department’s foray into world literatures. Hopefully it’s a change that they will continue to expand into.

It’s important to note that this position – which will make a huge mark on African humanities at Yale – is not part of the Yale Africa Project. That initiative, which is in its nascent stages but which has not (and will not, according to those familiar with it) prioritize faculty hiring, has a clear focus on Yale’s strengths. When it comes to Africa, Yale has huge strengths in three sectors: development economics, corruption and good governance, and public health. The Project aims to reinforce those strengths rather than build up new ones. In the front page of a fancy booklet that is being given to potential donors, Ian Shapiro writes:

Focusing on the pivotal areas of governance, development, and public health, we are interested in understanding and contributing to the ways in which business, the public, and the nonprofit sectors respond to Africa’s challenges and opportunities.

In regards to Africa, Yale has a small faculty in general. The humanities in particular need more focus on Africa. Music, art, theater, and literature are all barely represented. The anthropology department’s focus on Africa is currently very low. The language program won’t be able to offer three levels of language instruction without more support. The library collection is great but has been facing budget constraints that make the future more bleak. The Forestry School has one person working in Africa.

Yale has three pillars of specialization in Africa, and that is where the bulk of this new project is headed. While they are important, I see no reason why Yale shouldn’t put resources in parts of Africa where support is needed the most. Africa is the home of vibrant arts, prize-winning literature, diverse languages, endangered ecosystems, and innovative technologies. I can’t figure out why you wouldn’t want to encourage work on these topics.

The new English position will be a welcome addition to Yale because he or she will help support the humanities in African Studies, but also to work to fill a gap in English’s understanding of different literature. The Africa Project should take a note from this and seek to build up new foundations if it really wants to focus on Africa.