Gendering Contingency in Religious Studies

This paper was my contribution to a roundtable on contingency in religious studies at the annual AAR meeting. I talked through the paper rather than read it as written, so you miss my bad jokes , wild gestures, and animated facial expressions. What is striking to note is that the small audience was all contingent workers, who were mostly women. There were two men on our panel of five. Contractual labor needs gender analysis. Let’s hope this starts a much-needed discussion.

Gendering Contingency in Religious Studies at #sblaar14

I’ve only had contingent positions. I started adjuncting as a graduate student for extra money and continued adjuncting at multiple institutions in multiple states until I received a full-time non-tenure track job in 2011. I’ve taught at community colleges and big state universities, and for a long time, I taught heavy course loads while keeping up my research and searching for a tenure track job. I quit my lecturer job because I no could handle the strain of contractual work. Now I’m a freelance writer. I’ll say it again: I have only had contingent positions.

This shouldn’t necessarily be surprising since contingency is now the norm, rather than the exception despite the what the AAR/SBL jobs report tries to suggest. The AAUP notes that 76% of the instructional positions at American universities and colleges are non-tenure track. Since 1975 tenured and tenure track positions are up by 26% while part-time appointments are up 300%. My story and the stories of my fellow panelists illuminate the reliance (or dare I say over reliance?) on contractual labor in higher ed and within religious studies. Yet, I don’t want to talk today about contingency generally. Instead, I want to direct our attentions to the relationship between the casualization of labor and gender.

It first occurred to me that contingent labor might be gendered at non-tenure track faculty reception at my old university. My fellow lecturer (also a woman) and I entered a room filled with many, many women and few men. Our university was trying hard to be equitable to those off the tenure-track, and the reception was a meet and greet with one of the vice presidents, who was establishing a system for promotion for lecturers. I was struck by the abundance of women in lecturer positions from all over the university, not just the humanities.

Usually, when critics lament the adjuntification of higher education, neither gender nor race are prominently discussed. While contingent labor is a clearly problem for the modern university that learned societies like AAR must react to, it is not a problem that affects everyone equally. What does it mean for religious studies and the AAR if contingency is a problem that overwhelming affects women? How does, or should, this change our approaches to contractual labor within our discipline? More importantly, what does this suggest about the gender politics of religious studies more broadly?

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Monsters

I’ve been thinking about monsters. Not the zombies I usually research and write about, but the language of monsters that lurks in our everyday speech. The rhetoric of horror is so pervasive and so present. It comes to us when we have something to speak that seems unspeakable. It is deployed to justify violence and harm. It is used to vilify and to distance. It appears in moments of trauma. The language of monsters is disastrously unavoidable.

I’ve been thinking about how we create monsters and ultimately about how we destroy them. Creation and destruction tangled together, dependent on one another. Their ubiquity begs for explanation when I have no words to give.

I’ve been thinking about monsters because I also can’t quit thinking about Darren Wilson killing Michael Brown.

Like so many people, I was heartbroken over the grand jury’s decision last week. I was also enraged and frustrated. I keep looking at my children and imagining the suffering of  Brown’s parents and all the parents that fear the same fate for their children. I don’t know their anguish; I can’t really. But, I’m haunted by autopsy sketches, the pain etched into his mother’s face, and the wounded bodies of protesters. I hug my children a bit tighter and hold them more closely. I also realize that their white skin offers them protection that Brown did not have.

I keep coming back to monsters.

In his testimony for the grand jury, Wilson described Brown, “it looks like a demon.” Dexter Thomas notes the dehumanizing language that Wilson employs with both “it” and “demon,” which resonates with a larger history of denying the humanity of African Americans. Thomas describes how the events in Ferguson feel like a bad movie playing out exactly like we feared it would. Spoilers aren’t an issue, if the pattern is the same.

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Sophie

Sophie the dog died last week.  She had surgery to fix her bladder. The surgery had complications. Sophie had to be put to sleep. These are the facts, but as is often the case, the facts leave so much unsaid.

My mother-in-law called my husband to let us know, and he told me. I cried (and I still cry when I think of Sophie). She was not my dog, but she used to be. She was my pet, and then, I had to give her up. She’s lived with my in-laws most of her life. Yet, I raised Sophie from a puppy. I struggle to mourn her loss.  I already gave her up. What right do I have to mourn? How can I not mourn her? What do I say about a dog who used to be a part of my family? What do I owe her memory? I have no good answers (I rarely do).

Instead, I’ll tell you Sophie’s story, the parts that I know. It is the least that I can do.

Sophie as a puppy.
Sophie as a puppy.

Chris and I already had one dog, Hannah, and a mean cat, Belle. We bought a new house with a large backyard, and we worried that Hannah might be lonely. We were both graduate students. We spent many hours at the university away from home.  We thought maybe another dog would be a good companion.

My mom happened to have a new litter of hound-mix puppies, so we decided to pick a puppy for Hannah. I was drawn to an off-white puppy with spots running through her fur. She had  big brown splotch over one eye, which made her look a bit like the Pokey Little Puppy. This puppy was also nervous, which amounted to much pee to be removed from carpet, and rambunctious. We named her, Sophie. The name was my choice because it sounded sweet, and she was.

When we brought her into our home, she promptly peed on the tile.

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Notebooks

I keep a notebook for my ideas of what to write. Actually, I keep notebooks (plural), virtual (Evernote) and physical. Fragments of what I write rest in so many places. I cannot corral my words even when I try too.

None of my notebooks are even close to full. Blank pages dominate my frenetic handwriting. Each notebook represents  different moments in my life as a writer. They are evidence of my contradictions, my successes, and my failures.

There’s a black and white floral one that had plans for chapter five of my dissertation. I’m unsure whether I followed these plans. There’s a magenta notebook that feels like it is made of suede. It is not.

There are many black notebooks. One of which I cannot bring myself to open because I’m afraid of what I will find. That one is an anguished journal, in which I try to make sense of where I am at and where I have been. There are previous selves that I am not quite ready to encounter (again). There are moments I am not proud of.

At least one is repurposed. It is small and spiral-bound. The cover is green and brown. “Wine” is hastily written on the cover. Years ago, I thought I would get into wine because people I knew were into wine. I decided to document my favorites and their tasting notes. I quickly discovered that I don’t like wine that much. I feel outclassed by wine drinkers, and my tasting notes are shit. I ripped out the wine pages with much prejudice. Now, that notebook contains my thoughts on Joan Didion’s essays on self-respect and others from Slouching Toward Bethlehem, possible columns for Sexism Ed, and some colorful drawings by my daughter. Since I wrote in the notebook, she did too. A purple whale and a pink snake rest between my jottings on kindness and my summaries of episodes of The Leftovers. Writing and motherhood intermingle. Her whale makes me smile every time I thumb through that notebook. Continue reading Notebooks

Academic Writing Month: Bring it On!

This week, I have written something everyday: pitches, blog posts, drafts, and lists. I managed to finish an agonized column that I’ve been writing off and on for two months, and I should finish a review essay by early next week. I even sent off a pitch for a personal essay on tattoos, which is a topic that I tend to not be forthcoming. Last week, I finished a column and hit “publish” on two blog posts that had been hibernating in my Evernote files for at least nine months. There are more of those to come.

More importantly, I sat down with my files on my zombie manuscript this morning to strategically plan how to finish the damn thing. I’ve done more work than I thought I had (good), but there is still so much more to be done (not bad, exciting even). I feel like I am finally back in the writing groove after my slump this summer and early fall (also good).

Here’s the thing: I like writing. I actually enjoy it. Yes, it is often hard, but I am much happier with myself when I write. I feel productive. I process what’s happening in my life. I push all my torturous thoughts onto the page to get them out of my head. When they linger, they only do do damage. On my desk I keep a note that I wrote months ago. I keep trying to throw it away, but I can’t bring myself to. My frenetic scrawl reads, If I write them down, maybe I can let them go. It is my reminder to write out the thoughts, emotions, and things that trouble me. I follow, no more agony over what could have been. This is good advice that I often don’t take. Writing saves me from myself. Continue reading Academic Writing Month: Bring it On!

Figuring it out one post at a time.