Ghost

I’ve been listening to Ella Henderson’s “Ghost” on repeat.

I keep going to the river to pray
‘Cause I need something that can wash all the pain
And at most I’m sleeping all these demons away
But your ghost, the ghost of you
It keeps me awake

Throughout the day for at least two weeks, I find myself singing about going to the river to pray. The line is oddly evocative and nostalgic.  I understand that need for prayer. I get that desire for all the pain to disappear into the current of the river never to trouble you again. (I was almost baptized in a river, but that’s a story for a different day.)

There’s a desperation in the song claws at me, but I feel compelled to listen. And listen and listen. Give up the ghost, she croons, give up the ghost. She pleads, Stop the haunting, baby.  Her words feel too truthful. They resonate too much. She’s haunted, and damn, so are the rest of us. At least, I am.

I’ve thought a lot about haunting. I’ve tackled haunting from a theoretical perspective as a scholar interested in monsters and, tangentially, ghosts, their ephemeral partners. I adore the work of Avery Gordon and return often because of her careful attention to how absences seethe and harm. How the absence of ghosts makes them present. How ghosts become the signifiers of  loss, trauma, and erasure. I read about ghosts with detached observation. Yet, the more I analyzed theories of ghosts and haunting, the more the question became personal and unavoidable. We all live with ghosts. We don’t always confront them. What began as scholarly questions about haunting transformed into an essay about a particular ghost of my younger life. I couldn’t theorize ghosts with confronting one of my own.  Continue reading Ghost

Bad Feminist

Here’s a teaser of my review of Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist for Women in Higher Education. In the review essay, I describe my own ambivalence about the term “feminism” and my experiences being a feminist in academia. (Note to self: Some people are jerks.) This book is fabulous, and I would argue that what higher ed needs is more bad feminists.

I bought into the vision of feminism that its detractors portray: strident, unyielding and unwelcoming. I still believed in gender equality, equal pay, reproductive freedom and bodily autonomy. In practice, I was a feminist, but the word tripped me up. I found myself uttering, “I’m not a feminist, but …” in conversations.

Graduate school clarified the social need for feminism as well as my personal need, but the word proved to be problematic.  I noted the way male colleagues acted toward women who proclaimed their feminism with sighs, eye rolls, guffaws, and snorts. I observed how professors assumed feminist scholars were too subjective and not rigorous enough.

The derision and hostility that feminism engendered even inside the academy gave me pause. If feminism couldn’t find a home in academia, where would it be accepted? (I found pockets of safe space.) My feminism became stealthy and quiet, even as I studied and taught gender theory. I was happy with my background feminism. I knew what I stood for. Who cared if I labeled myself a feminist or not?

At my previous university, a senior male colleague pulled me into his office to explain that he was a better feminist than I was. This was not a random encounter. I was invited to participate in a methods and theory group, and he was not. He wanted me to know that I was only a token.

The group was mostly men, so he reasoned that they needed women. This could be the only possible reason that I was invited. He shamed me for my acceptance of the invitation. His feminism would not allow him to participate in such a group because of their gender politics. Thus, he was a better feminist, and I was a bad one. Continue reading Bad Feminist

Radio Silence

I know the blog has been remarkably quiet lately.

There are many reasons for this, including the children being off of preschool and school for about three weeks, the swirl of holiday engagements, and a pile-up of writing assignments (which is a good problem to have). Add to all of these a serious funk about what I’m doing with my life that seems to happen about every January.

I needed a break. I needed time and space away from social media, blogging, and the internet more generally to figure some things out.

I have now had that time, and I’m looking forward to getting back in the swing of blogging alongside my other writing. I cannot guarantee that I’ll blog regularly because I never really manage to do that anyway. In 2015, I will try to post something once or twice a week to keep y’all updated on what I’m doing. This is not a resolution but rather a goal.

I will be adding a new feature to the blog, essays that I love, in which I direct you to essays that I adore for reasons both varying and wide. Look forward to my first post soon. Additionally, I hope to be better at pointing out what I’ve written that’s recently published. Hope is the operative word. In the next few weeks, I’ll highlight my favorite essays that I wrote in 2014.

Keep in mind that you can see what I’m up to on Twitter (@kelly_j_baker) and on my new Facebook author’s page.

Task Force

First comes an email. A senior colleague in your field needs your opinion on contingent labor. You message back with your opinion. You also send links to posts, articles, and thinky pieces. Senior colleague responds, “Can we talk about contingency more?” You agree, but admit that you are no expert. Senior colleague is contacting you because you wrote a piece about your experiences as an adjunct and a full-time lecturer. You’ve also written about the challenges of the faculty job market and your attempt to walk away from academia. You realize that this makes you a voice on this issue. You are not sure how that makes you feel. You are writing to learn to live with how your life turned out, but you aren’t sure you are an activist. People keep calling you an activist. You wonder if speaking up is the mark of activism. It makes you sad to think that’s the case.

Next come the phone calls. You have a lovely chat with the senior colleague, who heads a prestigious committee for a learned society. He wants that society to take action on contingent faculty (finally). You agree wholeheartedly. This has been one of your frustrations with the learned society that you’ve been a part of for 12 years. Almost every year, you send money to this group for dues and conference fees. A quick calculation reveals that you’ve paid thousands of dollars on plane tickets and hotels to attend its annual conferences — all in an attempt to build an academic career.

Read more here.

Activism

Here’s my second paper for #sblaar14, which was an invited talk about activism at the junior level. This was another strong panel with a small audience. Unsurprisingly, I took the prompt “Can we BE activists at the junior level?” as an excuse to think about activism’s relationship to not only religious studies but also the modern university. It is a small miracle that there’s so little cursing.

Can we be activists at the junior level? Hell.

Kelly J. Baker

Over the summer, I mentioned to a dear colleague and mentor of mine that I would be participating on a panel about activism at the junior level. He laughed at me. “How can you be on a panel about activism at the junior level,” he asked, “when you never made it to the junior level?” His question was also my question when I received the invitation to join this panel. My name, it seems, pops up when you ask people about activists in religious studies. This is puzzling and also sad.

I’m at best adjacent to academia. I took a year off, which is now a year and a half, and I have no plans to return. After six years on the job market, I bowed out. Publicly. I’m now a freelance writer, who covers higher ed, gender, and religion. I never made it to the junior level (if we’re defining junior as assistant professor. I’m not sure we should).

Yet, I’m at the AAR presenting on a panel about activism, even though I wouldn’t label myself an activist. This is a label applied to me because I write starkly about higher ed and sometimes my own discipline. Maybe my bar for activism is too high, and writing should count. Maybe everyone else’s bar is too low. Yet, I agreed to participate for two reasons. First, I still care deeply about this field we call religious studies, despite my attempts not to. Second, I have things to say about about the role of academic activism in the age of contingency. I’ve lived with this question since I received the invitation. I’m not sure I have any good answers, only more questions.

First, I want to tweak the initial question. Instead of “can you be an activist at the junior level?”, I ask, “Can you be an activist if you are perpetually on the job market?” My tentative answer is a firm “no.” Under the current job market, in which contractual is king and tenure track is not, anything you write, say, or do can be held against you. Members of search committees admit that they look for reasons to ELIMINATE candidates rather than keep them. The question of activism is even more fraught for contingent workers, who work at the whim of department chairs and heads. With positions that can be terminated at any time, certain kinds of activism might prove too risky while others might guarantee you are back for another semester. Continue reading Activism