Monthly Archives: November 2013

An alternate view on “The Top 5 Mistakes Women Make in Academic Settings”

Last week, RSA blogger syntaxfactory reposted a list from academic advice blog The Professor Is In, entitled ”The Top 5 Mistakes Women Make in Academic Settings.” The five gaffes listed are typical communication “problems” that are frequently trotted out in an effort to assist women in getting ahead in masculine workplace environments.   For example, in 2011 CNN posted a list on ways women can get ahead, and rounding out the list was “number 8. The way you look and talk matters.” While I appreciate the attention to talking about ways women can succeed I object to the idea that the only way that can happen is to “masculinize” themselves, which only serves to support and preserve a system in which difference is punished, undermines new ways of thinking and communicating, and ignores how systems of power and dominance are perpetuated through “advice.” In addition, in begins with the assumption that a “feminine” style of speaking can only undermine female academics. What Karen Kelsky, the professor behind The Professor Is In, ignores however, is the productive ways this communication style contributes to the production and dissemination of knowledge both in the academy and in our classrooms. So I would like to take this opportunity to present my own list:


The Top 5 Ways Women’s Communication Patterns Are Better Than Men’s

1) According to Kelsky women have the habit have of ending sentences on a “a verbal upswing or ‘lilt’” that “communicates self-doubt and deference.” To be sure, ending every sentence on a question mark can be annoying, but it also can have the effect of inviting responses and opening a space for further discussion. In an academic setting this is particularly useful as we use presentational moments as a time to elicit feedback from our fellow professors in hopes of improving our argument. Delivering your research in a declarative tone, as the article tells us to do, closes that space of exploration by presenting yourself as the final word on a topic, and can turn a conversation into a confrontation.


2) Kelsky writes that women tend to “wait their turn to interject their contributions” rather than “diving in assertively.” In essence, we undermine our authority by raising our hands. Not only is this advice ridiculous for disciplining women for being polite and undermine the rules we’ve been teaching our students since kindergarten, it cedes discussion to the loudest voice in the room and discourages respectful dialogue. We’ve all had that encounter with a student or a colleague (or relatives and friends!) who think their opinion is so important they need to interrupt in order to “interject their contributions” and I think I can say with some confidence this rarely leads to productive discussion, and in fact shuts it down. And all it takes is one know-it-all student “diving in assertively” to silence a classroom.


3) When women do finally get called on, we apparently undermine our points by beginning with what we don’t know, for example, “I’m not sure if this is always the case,” or “I’m not an expert, but I think…” etc. While Kelsky doesn’t go into any detail on why this undermines our authority, I argue that it leaves open a space for others to participate and contribute their own expertise. Rather than using definitive statements that ignore the width and breadth of knowledge on any given subject, this communicative habit acknowledges the complicated nature of a topic and that they don’t have all the answers, and instead calls for a dialogue among scholars that encourages multiple views and voices within a conversation.


4) Perhaps the most baffling of the ways women undermine their authority is through their body language—“smiling too much, laughing too often” and “taking up too little space.” I’m unclear how expressing your enjoyment in your work and your colleagues undermine authority, but more importantly, I find great irony in the charge that women take up too little space—as though taking up more in a fat-shaming society will gain women more respect and authority. I’m also curious as to how I might take up more room—spread my legs when sitting? Square my shoulders? Swing my arms as I take long strides? I suggest checking out this excellent tumblr for advice.


5) I come now to the last item on my list in which Kelsky advises women to stop expressing themselves in “a disorganized and emotional manner that muddies their main point and obscures their actual achievements.” While there is merit it asking people to be clear and organized in a comment, I both object to the idea that emotion must be absent from our comments and from our work and the idea that crediting others work obscures our own achievements. Her example is as follows “I think it’s just really, really important to consider the impact of xxx, which, you know, a lot of folks haven’t really done, even though of course Nelson has done some important work on xxx, but still in my own work I try and extend that…” But let’s do an alternative reading, shall we? First the speaker introduces the topic, i.e. “I think it’s just really, really important to consider the impact of xxx.” While Kelsky apparently thinks female academics are as eloquent as our 18-year-old students, this is a decent topic sentence for an off-the-cuff comment. Next, the example comment touches on the importance of the topic (not much work has been done on it) while still acknowledging her colleague who has presumably done some tangential work on the subject and could serve as another voice in the conversation (Nelson has done some important work on xxx). Lastly, the speaker moves on to her own research (still in my own work I try and extend that), giving a verbal nod to the fact that her work was not done in a vacuum but in fact is part of an on-going conversation. Think about your work—if someone else was using your work as a jumping off point wouldn’t you want some credit for all the blood, toil, tears, and sweat that have gone into your scholarship? In the end, this is an example of a fairly clear cut comment that situates itself in on-going conversations, and is not, I would like to point out, “emotional,” though Kelsky listed this as a particular problem women have in her topic sentence—it seems merely being a women speaking is just too “emotional” for academics.


Kelsky ends her post arguing that the result of these patterns are that women students and faculty suffer both academically and professionally, accruing “less status and fewer rewards at each stage in their career within the academic institution.” Ignoring the specious cause-and-effect argument being made here, I would argue that the disciplining of women who communicate like this has led to an atmosphere of competitiveness, selfishness, and a lack of dialogue between colleagues and departments, which does nothing but stifle creativity and collaboration. Instead of scolding and punishing women who talk this way how about we turn the spotlight around and write articles telling men how their communication habits hurt the academy.

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Guerillas in the Mist: The Power of Images in the Penokee Hills Mining Controversy

A picture, they say, is worth a thousand words. There was a time when rhetorical studies may not have heeded the old maxim, but following the work of Lucaites and Hariman, Finnegan, and countless others over the years, image rhetoric has become an increasingly rich focus of attention—especially in a digital age when more and more folks get their news in ten second chunks of tweets, links, and screen caps and when digital cameras upload instant reports from the cell phones of tens of thousands of people every day.

In the ongoing debate over iron-ore mining in Wisconsin’s Penokee Hills—a debate to which politicians and PR firms, tribal leaders and grass roots ecologists have all added a thousand words or so —a simple handheld camera has become a central figure, swaying public opinion in multiple directions.

Mining operations in the Penokees, along the Gogebic Iron Range, have stirred controversy from the moment they were first proposed. Gogebic Taconite, LLC, the Florida-based company currently testing the range and potentially developing the largest mine in the state of Wisconsin, has fallen under harsh criticism from the towns and tribes surrounding the site, along with several Democratic state politicians and ecologists. All are concerned that the mine will damage fragile ecosystems, infringe on public use of the nearby land, and harm waterways with acid drainage.

These protests did little to sway public opinion, though, or to halt the progress of the mine’s development. Gogebic Taconite moved forward with initial testing and desperate opponents of the mine flocked to the Penokee Hills to demonstrate and disrupt operations. Those sympathetic to the mine saw the demonstrators as hippies and hooligans. Those sympathetic to the protests struggled to sway opinion in a broader, largely indifferent or undecided public.


Bulletproof guard at Penokee Hills

Bulletproof guard at Penokee Hills

Then, in early July, an image hit the airwaves, taken by a visitor to the woods around the testing site. Gogebic Taconite had hired out the services of the Arizona-based private security firm Bulletproof to protect its workers and equipment from unruly protestors and protestors had, in return, captured one of these guards on camera. In a stretch of state-owned land previously open to public use, the image showed a camouflaged man, with his face partially covered and toting an assault rifle. The Bulletproof agent looked more like a special ops solider than a security guard in a publicly accessible place. Suddenly, the opposition to the mine had an opportunity.

The image of the soldier acted as an image vernacular—a visual enthymeme—for those who saw it on their television and computer screens. The striking figure, like something out of a Hollywood movie, played well on the evening news as it garnered more immediate attention than long-winded reports about the complexities of geological survey. This G.I. Joe, this skulking guerilla, found camouflaged and hidden in the simple Wisconsin woods made Gogebic Taconite’s actions seem aggressive and hyperbolic. It was scary for many to see the image and imagine that they, too, might be stalked by a trained soldier with an assault rifle the next time they took a walk in the forest. Suddenly, those indifferent and undecided audiences had a reason to be suspicious of the mine and its motives.

Initially, Gogebic Taconite defended its actions and claimed the Bulletproof guards would remain. However, as the image replayed on TV and computer screens and more and more voices—like that of Democratic Senator Bob Jauch—cried out that the Upper Midwest was no place for mercenaries, the guards were removed. The Arizona-based firm, it turned out, did not actually have a license for such operations.

Now, several months later, the license has been acquired and Gogebic Taconite has announced, to little fanfare, that the Bulletproof guards will eventually return at an undisclosed date. Still, the image has done its work and many more Wisconsinites are both aware of and suspicious of the mining activities now taking place just beyond their backyards.

For many, the mine is now synonymous with aggression, violence, and fear. It’s interesting then, that the images of the protestors have garnered less attention. That is, while the camouflaged soldier appeared around the state, few ever saw the images of the masked and rowdy protestors who first disrupted mining operations and supposedly prompted the Bulletproof hiring in the first place. On June 11, a group of militant protestors filmed themselves rushing a test site, screaming profanities and forcefully seizing one Gogebic Taconite employee’s phone and camera. The protestors were wrapped also like guerillas or freedom fighters, with their faces hidden, and, though unarmed, were unruly and aggressive in their conduct. Those who forwarded the video on conservative websites often described the protestors as “eco-terrorists,” and the conduct and dress of the protestors in the video make such terms and comparisons understandable. The incident led to a felony charge for one protestor, but the video got less public media play, perhaps because of the profanity used and its six-minute length.

As in all such cases, there is not a simple black and white, good and bad dichotomy to be made. Yet many now fear that the tension in the Penokees is still only building, and these images of armed and masked individuals are making the stakes seem more desperate from both sides of the issue. These violent images, reminiscent of scenes from a war zone, are causing the two sides in the debate to feel and self-identify more as two sides in a war. The debate will certainly continue, but the debaters are no longer armed only with their words.

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“Flipping the Script” on Panhandling

This summer, Vitamin Water and CollegeHumor released the above video, “Subway Bragger,” as a part of the water brand’s new #makeboringbrilliant advertising campaign. The idea, of course, is that water on its own is boring, but Vitamin Water has made it “brilliant” through the addition of tasty flavors and vitamin supplements. “Subway Bragger” is part of a series of online videos in which panhandling joins waiting rooms, airplane delays, a natural history museum tour, and more, as the “boring” to which Vitamin Water adds flair.

Online response to this panhandling “prank” on a Philadelphia subway train has been mostly positive. GOOD magazine and call the video “hilarious,” Policy Mic touts it as an “awesome performance,” and inspirational website Upworthy says that while being “pretty hilarious,” the video “teaches a little lesson on not being so quick to judge people.” The Huffington Post featured the clip in its comedy section, and explained that the people on this train were “delighted” when this panhandler “flipped the script.” Interestingly, the only negative responses I have found to the piece have come from the advertising community. AdWeek’s David Kiefaber wrote, “maybe a sugar-water brand’s energy would be better spent actually helping the homeless [rather] than making fun of them,” and the AdRANTS blog questions the marketing value of a video that “makes light” of homelessness.

To call panhandling — and by implication, poverty — “boring” isn’t just to minimize the struggle of millions of people who experience homelessness in the United States each year. It also speaks to the ease with which so many Americans allow visible poverty to become an (effectively) invisible part of the urban background, as natural as the honking of horns, the smell of the subway station, or the changing of traffic lights. To pass someone in need has become mundane, and that is what allows Vitamin Water to place it in the same campaign as the boring waiting room ad.

What I find even more interesting than the campaign slogan is the response to the video. The scenario is “hilarious” because the black man speaking on the subway train isn’t poor. If this is a “flipped script,” the poverty of a black man is normal, but his ability to speak eloquently and succeed economically is unusual. And, in the words of Vitamin Water, it’s not just funny, it’s “brilliant.”

I would argue, however, that the script hasn’t actually been flipped. Instead, I think the presumed panhandler simply moves from one stereotype of black masculinity to another. Rather than serving as the poor black man, as the audience anticipates, he serves as the black comedian. A number of scholars (including for example, Patricia Hill Collins and Donald Bogle) have explained that black men who wish to avoid being freighted with images of poverty and criminality in the media have few options, but an ability to entertain is one of them. Humorous black characters like those played by Chris Rock, Tyler Perry, or Bill Cosby are “acceptable” black men who appear “safe” (i.e., not criminal, not poor) so long as they don’t challenge existing race norms. As the man in this video moves from presumed panhandler to subway car entertainer, he does not escape the social categories that guide the ways that Americans (white Americans, in particular) interpret black male identities. The script isn’t flipped; it just shifts.

Vitamin Water is not just selling water with the “Subway Bragger.” It is also marketing narratives of race and class. Rather than challenging viewers’ perceptions, the video’s humor reinforces their beliefs about both poverty and black men in America.

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