The male performativity of the graduate seminar

Is this who you're up against in Historical Methods?

Is this who you’re up against in Historical Methods?

Last week, I ran into a faculty member who wanted to share their thoughts on a recent workshop where a graduate student presented a dissertation chapter. “It really felt collegial and friendly, I feel like events like these are really what make this school special – you really get the vibrant exchange of ideas there!”

Just moments earlier, I had been talking to a first-year, who had compared the same event to a pack of hungry wolves descending on defenseless prey during a particularly harsh winter (the approaching Polar Vortex 3: the Electric Boogaloo surely lent the metaphor credence).

The point is that for all the talk of civility, intellectual curiosity, and the marketplace of ideas, for someone looking in on the outside, academic discussion can resemble a war zone. This is not a new insight – George Lakoff and Mark Johnson wondered in Metaphors We Live By what would happen if instead of seeing argument as war (“his position is indefensible”, “he uncovered the weak points in my argument”) we would think of arguments as collaborative dances. Bruno Latour has pretty much made a career out of a military analysis of science.

Yet the idea of argument as war, and the graduate seminar as a battleground is not intuitive – it is one of the many things we call “professionalization”. That’s why the first year of graduate school is often such a shock for peope not comfortable with this mode of discourse.

Which leads me to my point: Clearly, aggressive argumentation does not preclude sincere intellectual curiosity, a free and constructive exchange of ideas or any of these other things that academics hold dear. But it’s not clear that this mode of discourse is the best way of fostering these qualities. In many ways, it can be downright pernicious.

The most obvious problem is that it promotes a performed self-confidence and pointed critique that is demonstrably fake. In most graduate seminars, you are presented with a monograph or a series of articles, which you then proceed to pick apart for analytic flaws and conceptual problems. I remember being extremely surprised my first year in graduate school at the facility with which people in a global history seminar could talk about the concept of “civitas” in ancient Rome. It was only later that I realized that this did not reflect a deep interest in Roman history, but a willingness to basically bullshit.

At the time, however, it was enough to send me into a spiral of anxiety for a week or so – how could I match up to these incredibly intelligent people who had thought through the historiography of a field I had not even consciously thought about until recently?

It’s not just that there is something patently bizarre about a group of people all of whom are faking confidence. If graduate seminars are supposed to be places where people can test-drive ideas, and try out strands of thought that may or may not lead to something more substantial, then having to project confidence in your speech seems like an obvious obstacle to this process. It shuts down people who think they may have an interesting idea but can’t formulate it perfectly well ex tempore. It prevents people from changing course mid-way through their point. It makes people choose safe discussion points over more radical, and potentially more exciting ones (it’s always easier to deliver a well-worn critique instead of a truly novel one – if only I got a dime for every time I heard someone tear down the term “modernity”…)

Secondly, it leads to a very cruel way of treating authors. Some of the best seminars I took were led by faculty who insisted on thinking about how books were put together rather than taking them apart, acknowledging the fact that the gaps our scholarship fills is surrounded by a foundation built by others. The fact that this needs to reminded to doctoral students in the grant proposal phase only goes to show how ingrained the argument-as-war model is in the field.

Finally, there is no way around the gender problem. The argument-as-war performance is a distinctly male performance. Too often have I seen a thoughtful, sophisticated point fly under the radar, only to be picked up moments later when made forcefully by a dude who projects self-confidence (full disclosure: I too am guilty of this, although I hope I have always managed to attribute credit). It’s a particularly messed-up catch-22, because, of course, being too forceful in discourse is seen as an un-feminine trait, while not being aggressive in graduate school means that all too often you just won’t be heard.

So where to from here? One thing to remember is that the hegemony of male performativity is probably a lot weaker in academia than in a lot of other places. Luckily, many people – at least in the humanities and social sciences – are committed to self-reflexivity and thinking critically about privilege, and it’s been my experience that once people realize that a lot of us are going along with the argument-as-war mode of discourse just to blend in, it becomes a lot easier to break that. Often, when you interrupt an impassioned thrashing of a book to say “you know, I really enjoyed how the author did xyz”, you can palpably feel the stress leaving the room. So a part of breaking this cycle has to do with simply remembering that there are a lot more people in the room frustrated with the dominant style of discourse than you think.

The other thing has to do with lessons drawn for one’s future career. I’ve had the best time in seminars where faculty consciously foster an environment of experimentation and congeniality towards authors. This is hard (because it is going against the flow in a lot of ways) – but totally worth it. So I try to emulate this in my own teaching and keep it in mind for future teaching statements etc.

The other day I was telling someone about a college interview where the student expressed an interests in Gandhi and the principle of “kindness” that they wanted to follow in college. “A safe choice for a college interview” commented my colleague. How telling that the focus of their interest was on the performance, rather than the idea, evidently so hard to practice.

Also, this.

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