The following is a guest post from Mary Ellen Lennon, a new member of S-USIH and a chair and commentator for the 2011 conference.
The email heralded the auspicious news: the reception of my 40.00 check makes me an official dues-paying (if not card carrying) member of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History. Coupled with a welcoming email from Delta confirming my flight to NYC, it looks like I am just one unpacked bag away from throwing myself into your community of scholars. But I find myself pausing—a pair of socks in hand—in the wake of the 42 message string commenting on the “Where are all the women?” post. As someone deeply interested in issues of gender equality, I am discouraged by the string of comments. It wasn’t a conversation; it was a bunch of comments hastily splattered on the wall. I know a blog isn’t a polished academic paper. Someone once described it as “rigorous chatting with friends at a bar when you grab a sleeve and cry, ‘Hey, I have this thought that is not fully coherent yet…can I lay it on you?’ and then two hours of animated conversation later you finally realize what you really want to say.” But if this counts as “rigorous chatting with friends at a bar,” I would have left for the dance floor hours ago.
I am struggling with the blog string because important issues have been raised with grave implications, yet 42 messages later, there are no conclusions or, as I will argue here, no clear instructive questions that could lead to thoughtful conclusions. Issues of gender and diversity demand clearly articulated questions and rigorous analysis. This is not some patriarchal, antiquated or “male-discourse”-driven bar positioned to keep “feminine-minded” academics out of the conversation. Clear questions followed by focused conversation demand accountability with a rigor that inexact expressions of feelings (unaccompanied by evidence or even the suggestion that evidence is needed) do not. Let me be clear: questions concerning gender representation and diversity of content are essential to the health and legitimacy of this Society. As a new member who studies African American and gender history and teaches intellectual history surveys, I am invested in hearing an accounting of the strengths and weaknesses of this group that I have just joined. Serious accusations have been leveled: does the Society prove unwelcoming to women? Does the Society ignore gender analysis in its blog and in the content of its annual meeting? These are specific questions that are clearly welcomed by the organizers. But the “mushiness” of the blog string undermines this investigation before it has even begun. This is why I feel compelled to voice my criticism of the blog string: I am arguing that this moment provides a test of whether S-USIH can carry out academic discussions regarding gender. I don’t want the Society of the blog to fail this test. It is too important.
I am arguing that the blog string’s continual reference to “feelings,” “unproven senses of things” and continual retractions of anything that remotely sounds like a clear and focused critique prevents the kind of valuable self-reflection and true collaborative conversation that furthers the academic, political and personal project of equality. In the original post and in many of the replies and “re-explanations” of “what I meant” there are too many important questions asked, yet never addressed; too many accusations veiled by self-effacing apologies, yet never honestly argued; too many important words like “gender,” “masculine,” “feminist,” “essentialism,” and yep, “argument” and “collaboration” that are carelessly tossed about without reference to the many intellectual conversations that precede this blog and could, I argue, provide coherent lifebuoys of discrete, specific questions in this stormy sea of inchoate emotion. A “feeling” is a legitimate place to begin academic inquiry but it is not enough. Until we can articulate what is amiss, we can’t act to fix it.
Before I can even think about the blog string, then, I need to understand what the original blogger is asking. She does not feel she belongs in this group and this blog entry asks why. She argues that her feeling is tied to her gender and her subject of study (African American intellectual history.) Therefore this is a critique (yes it is, despite apologies, self-doubt and compliments to the organizers.) No apologies needed! A critique is a good thing for the self-assessment of an organization but it is useless without a careful measuring of evidence. Yet, starting with this original post and continuing throughout the string of comments, I could not find a careful consideration of whether any of these accusations of gender bias and rejection of diversity are true or not.
For example, in paragraph 5 Lauren Kientz Anderson argues “my people are not your people.” Reading this, especially as a fellow scholar of African American history, I am concerned. But she drops the point immediately. Is she asserting that fellow S-USIH readers and/or the Society’s organizers dismiss or discourage scholars who study women and issues of gender and African American history? If Anderson has raised something worthy of an investigation, let’s hear how we should go about investigating it. I know that there was a plenary session on African American history in last year’s conference and this year there seems to be a focus on Women and Intellectual History, but is there a larger lack of diversity in the content of the blog? This is a hugely important accusation that must be asked and answered with rigor. Is the subject matter of the blog not “diverse enough”? Or is there a categorical rejection of race and gender as a category of analysis in the academic work of the organizers? Say it…and I will engage and evaluate.
It seems to be said…sort of: “I have an unproven sense that intellectual history can be the bastion for men who reject gender and race analysis.” Let’s tackle this. But let’s be specific. No matter how “nice” the organizers may be, this is an important critique that deserves a thoughtful evaluation. To say this without a careful evaluation of the conference panels and the blog posts ends the conversation before it has begun; vague comments paralyze. The paragraph’s last sentence warning that S-USIH members might turn (or have already turned) “insular and angry” (without a careful accounting) is simply irresponsible. Did Anderson mean to suggest that the Society, its officers and its members are turning insular and angry? No one in the blog stream countered this concern; yet as I sit here contemplating this new organization I have joined, I wonder if is this an accurate description? How do we investigate if her instincts accurately describe the blog, the Society and the field of intellectual history? Let me be clear: to reject gender and race analysis in the study of intellectual history would be impoverished work indeed. Yet, this posting and the blog stream that follows never tries to even suggest concrete ways to evaluate if this “sense” about the disposition of the Society and the field is true. So, without any critical examination offered, I am simply left looking at the published program for November where I find myself excited about the diversity of panels featured, including the work of very talented female scholars I am eager to hear.
What is my argument here? By the blog stream and the dichotomy of “styles” set up by the original post, I can imagine many of you are defining me as clearly “combative,” or as a woman “comfortable” with a so-called “masculine” discussion style. But I reject this. Academic discourse—civil conversation where thesis-driven arguments and evidence are required—serves the feminist agenda…in addition, I would argue, to aiding in the realization of a more democratic society. Questions of representation and gender analysis are extremely important. I take them seriously. The ultimate goal should be to strengthen the Society, its blog and its conference. But what I am arguing is that the informal style of blog writing can actually serve to damper diverse collaboration and dialogue. A retreat to feelings and “unproven” senses actually makes the conversation uninviting to others who also really care about these issues. By the sheer number of polite “thank you”s it is clear that respecting everyone’s feelings is of utmost importance to all. But I wanted to join the Society because of the excellent academic work of many of the organizers, the excellence of so many of the papers at the annual meeting and because I not only saw the blog as open and inviting to all but rigorous in its analysis of the world in which we live. If its not, let’s fix it. But let’s be clear on what is broken.
Let me end on a question: How could this conversational blog string have gone differently? I would suggest sticking with specific questions and contemplating ways to evaluate our concerns. Such specific questions popped up in the string: Andrew Hartman asked why intellectual history attracts more men and women and Michelle Moravec offered a working hypothesis about structural elements of blog community membership that could be explored further. What is to be done? can be asked after an evaluation of what was originally queried by David Watt: “I am simply trying to figure out the situation in which we find ourselves.” Finally, I would sincerely suggest that there be a more careful discussion about words and phrases like: “gendered ways of speaking,” “essentialism,” “innate” tendencies, and “hyper-rational” “masculine” academics. In another community to which I belong, a thoughtful discussion (yes, with intellectually stimulating disagreements) occurred over several recent books on “brain organization theories” and the science of sex differences. Such a conversation I think could help us more thoughtfully explore the suggestion that female academics might write, talk and are therefore received differently than men.