Introducing The Shiloh Pushback Series: “Abuse in the Academy…”

Over the coming weeks, we are hosting a series of blog posts relating to abuse experienced by academics as the result of their research.

Within the academy, there is a toxic culture of competitiveness, including battles for grant funding, struggles with the recruitment of students, and an anxiety-infused pressure to be productive in terms of research outputs and knowledge exchange. Precarious employment is too common, and the looming threat of cuts and redundancies are acutely felt across many disciplines, not least of all of theology, religion and biblical studies. All of this is fuelled by a capitalist system of higher education. The ivory towers not only have a cloud hanging over them, but they are stained with the blood, sweat and tears of burnt-out academics.

Academics attack one another in myriad ways. #Reviewer2 has gained notoriety to reflect the harsh and tactless derision of a scholar’s work through the peer review process. Tweets and hashtags on social media pay testament to many academics’ experiences when a reviewer’s critique lacks humanity and is enabled by the blind peer review process. Or, the “more of a comment than a question” scenario, where attention is stolen from a researcher’s work through the performative confidence of another academic; the latter completely lacking in any ability to engage constructively with the speaker. Other, more overt attacks exist.

The abuse we are discussing in this series of blog posts is in no way related to the critique of thoughts, theories and methods that are expected in the academy to ensure constructive and generative dialogue in our respected disciplines. Rather, it takes the form of micro-aggressions, verbal attacks, public attempts at shaming (including and especially using social media platforms), gatekeeping, excluding and shunning an academic and their work, or putting further barriers into the promotion of their research in the wider community. Sadly, these are far too common in academia to ignore.

These attacks bear little significance to the academic work being attacked, but instead are the result of conscious prejudices. They are often projected against women, Black, Asian, African, Hispanic scholars, LGBTQ+ people, disabled people, and working-class academics. They are, simply put, the manifestations of misogyny, racism, homo-bi-trans-phobia, ableism, and classism.

In Other, Please Specify (2018, University of California Press), Jane Ward writes about her own experiences in a toxic work environment in the discipline of sociology. She comments,

“The fervor and sanctimony with which many […] have guarded the gates of the discipline and asserted the privileged position of their own epistemological and methodological preferences raises some basic questions about the politic stakes at hand. What, precisely, are they guarding? Why is there so much resistance in a discipline built upon the study of social change? How can these scholars, who are seemingly so troubled by new theories and research methods, not see the low stakes of methodological squabbles in the grand scheme of the world’s social problems?” (p.56)

Kristen Schilt also notes that, by erecting and maintaining rigid and “traditional” disciplinary boundaries, ideological critiques are masked as objective criticism. Schilt describes the intersectional and institutional strategies that push academics to the margins or into exile. She describes the “three Rs” as resistance, reduction and ridicule:

  • Resistance: “the attempt to erect boundaries against an emerging area of inquiry”
  • Reduction: “the attempt to dismiss scholarship … as too ‘fringe’”
  • Ridicule: “an attempt to devalue scholarship…by positioning it as absurd” (p.39).

Academic-on-academic abuse is rife, but it is not the only sort of abuse our bloggers experience. In engaging with the study of religion from critical and non-orthodox perspectives, an academic’s work is often on the receiving end of uninvited feedback from members of the public and religious groups – we will hear more about this in upcoming posts. Yet, it isn’t only an individual’s work that is derided, but aspects of who they are. In one example, former co-director of the Shiloh Project, Dr Katie Edwards, writes on her experiences of classism, and accentism, within the academy:

“I regularly receive horrified emails from those who’ve heard me speak wondering why on earth I was given a job in a university when I sound, and I quote, ‘like you’ve never even attended school’. These attitudes used to upset me, but nowadays I couldn’t give a toss; my accent and use of dialect words gives me a strong sense of connection to the people and places I love.”

Despite these experiences, Katie now uses her enchanting accent in a fruitful career as a broadcaster and writer.

There are damaging consequences of this abuse, though, and the Shiloh Project is committed to calling out abuse in all forms. For many academics, abuse that is obfuscated as constructive objectivity can lead to a real paralysis in their academic work. Feelings of loneliness, isolation and not being good enough manifest, and compound an often already well-established embodied experience of imposter syndrome.

The bloggers in this series are sharing some of their professional and personal experiences, and, in some ways, remove the professional mask that usually obfuscates any vulnerability. Yet, it is precisely this vulnerability that can be a catalyst for change. Brené Brown speaks more forcefully about the rich potential of the power of vulnerability. Emotive stories about pushback our academics have received has been a fuel for productivity and action. More importantly, it is a call to the need to create change – in our responses to others, in reviews of others’ work. In sharing vulnerable episodes of our academic lives, the bloggers in this series demonstrate the urgent need for intellectual relationships built on empathy, kindness, support and a space to belong within the academy.