Today’s post is from Karen O’Donnell, Coordinator for the Centre for Contemporary Spirituality at Sarum College. Here Karen reflects on her own experiences of being on the receiving end of attacks in academic settings, and offers advice on how we can act in solidarity when we witness such distressing encounters.

Early on in my doctoral studies, I became quite fascinated with the way in which the battle metaphor is used in the viva and in the presentation of one’s research. It was and is still quite common to talk of having to “defend” your ideas; the idea of attack is implicit in the construction of your defence. I think I was fascinated, because the department I studied in for my doctoral research (Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Exeter) was not like that at all. Research seminars were rigorous conversations but never attacks requiring defence. In fact, it became a running joke about how polite and courteous everyone was in asking questions after a paper!

I have since been in situations where such collegiality and respect has not been a given. A few years ago, in quite quick succession, I twice found myself on the receiving end of a senior white male academic’s irrational anger. In both cases, I had been invited to speak at an institution that was not my own. In both cases, these men felt it was appropriate to shout at me about how wrong I was in what I had said in the context of a research seminar. In one case, the man was angry that I hadn’t talked about sin in the way he thought was appropriate. In the other case, the man was angry that I had suggested that we, as a group of white theologians, were not the best group of people to make judgements about how people of colour might feel about something.

A few things surprised me about these encounters. I was surprised that these senior men, in their professional capacities, became so angry so quickly and felt that it was entirely ok to direct their anger and their verbal aggression (and in one case insults) toward me – a junior female scholar who was, at those times, precariously employed and just starting out on my academic career. I felt incredibly vulnerable. Especially as I looked around the rooms and found many of the rest of the people present avoiding making eye contact with me. This was my second surprise. I am well capable of fighting my own battles, and in both cases I did; I had to. But no one intervened on my behalf or said anything in solidarity. At least not until after. After both of these encounters, I had people come up to me and apologise for the way these men had behaved—not the men themselves—but their more junior colleagues. They said things like “Oh, he’s always like that” and “he’s done that before”.

These experiences led to me posting on Facebook—in the immediate aftermath of the second encounter; mainly, because I was very distressed, having a panic attack in my room, and miles away from any friends—about what had happened. Friends and colleagues were horrified but began to share other scenarios where senior white male academics had behaved in similar ways (the list of responses was shockingly long) and they had not intervened. They reflected on why. In some cases, it was pure shock that paralysed them in the moment. In other cases, it was anxiety around intervention that would somehow imply the person under attack needed rescuing. But what was really helpful was a conversation about preparing a response in advance. Something like, “X is well capable of fighting their own battles, but I want to note that I find this line of questioning / your approach / your anger inappropriate for this context.” I can fight my own battles, but in both of these cases, this small gesture of solidarity would have made all the difference. We should have rigorous conversations about our research, but no one should be made to feel vulnerable or fearful in their professional environments. We should be building each other up, not tearing each other down.