In his column “Professors, We Need You!” New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof charges that most university professors “just don’t matter in today’s great debates” and admonishes them not to cloister themselves “like medieval monks.”
Many academics and others took offense at what he has written. A Twitter hashtag #engagedacademics sprung up and many have posted opposing views.
That Kristof imagines the professors who isolate themselves from the real world as “medieval monks” betrays his bias that the professors to whom he is addressing and the public intellectuals he longs to see are male (and possibly white)!
Kristof is an award-winning columnist who has written on sexual violence against women globally, human rights issues, and Chinese politics. Yet, he has overlooked that feminist professors have engaged in political struggles for decades and many have used Twitter and other social media to spread our ideas and further our causes.
Gwendolyn Beetham, an adjunct professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Brooklyn College, responds that Kristof has failed to take women and marginalized groups’ concern about public engagement seriously. Women’s voices are routinely neglected and those who dare to enter public debates are shunned or even threatened. Professor Brittney Cooper, an African American scholar, was physically threatened while speaking in a forum in New York and British classicist Mary Beard was threatened with rape and having her home bombed via Twitter.
The mainstream media marginalizes scholars in the field of feminism and religion. In debates such as the provision of contraceptives in health insurance, the future of the Catholic Church under Pope Francis, and gender violence associated with religion, we seldom hear the voices of feminist intellectuals in the mass media. Male scholars, conservative TV and radio hosts, and religious leaders have the large microphones.
Kristof has overlooked that many professors in religion who are women of color are closely related to their communities and have worked tirelessly to effect social change. The late Mujerista theologian Ada María Isasi-Díaz is one shining example. She was very involved in the Women’s Ordination movement in the Catholic Church and she interviewed grassroots Latinas and included their voices in her ethical analysis. A new group “Women of Color Scholarship, Teaching, and Activism” has been formed at the American Academy of Religion to discuss challenges to women of color who want to be engaged scholars.
Many have pointed out that Kristof has only looked at publications such as the New York Times or the New Yorker when he laments the diminishing presence of public intellectuals. Had he looked wider, he might has noticed that feminist scholars, including those in religion, are actively blogging, tweeting, uploading pictures and videos in Instagram and Google Plus, and using other forms of social media. We have written op-eds and blogged on Huffington Post, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Studies in Religion, Religion Dispatches, Patheos, Center for American Progress, and other websites. Some of us post videos or appear in YouTube and have personal blogs. I have started a blog several years ago to share my ideas about postcolonialism and religion and to connect with my readers.
Kristof notes the pressure on academics to publish peer-reviewed articles and books. But he does not mention the underclass of adjuncts who earn $2,000 to $3,000 per class and can hardly make ends meet. According to the Coalition on Academic Workforce, adjuncts earn on average $21,600, while tenure-track positions averaged $66,000 a year. Some labor groups estimate that adjunct faculty make up to 75 percent of higher education positions. Women make up 61 percent of adjunct faculty, according to the Coalition.
The scarcity of jobs in the field of religion and the growing use of adjuncts have made many feminist professors wonder whether they should encourage their bright female students to pursue a PhD. Some are concerned whether to encourage their PhD students to do research in feminism and religion, for fear that this will further narrow their marketability. Several trade presses in religion are publishing mostly textbooks and there are fewer venues for feminist religious scholarship.
I am convinced that the world needs feminist work in religion more than ever. The generation of feminist scholars in religion before us faced ridicule, censorship, and loss of employment when they charted a new territory and started a new field. They have laid a solid foundation for us to build on. It is important for us to discuss how the field will flourish and how feminist professors can continue their work as engaged intellectuals and help the upcoming generation.
Kwok Pui-lan is the William F. Cole Professor of Christian Theology and Spirituality at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She was the President of the American Academy of Religion in 2011. Her recent publications include Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude (with Joerg Rieger) and the edited volume Anglican Women in Church and Mission.
This article is cross-posted on Kwok Pui Lan’s personal blog.