Feminist Professors Are Not Secluded Monks by Kwok Pui-lan

Pui Lan.high resolutionIn 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.

7 thoughts on “Feminist Professors Are Not Secluded Monks by Kwok Pui-lan”

  1. This post deserves wide readership. Professor Kwok Pui-lan makes a strong case for Mr. Kristof to update his antiquated view of scholars, and an equally strong case for the importance of feminist work in religion. She is an outstanding example of that work both in the academy and on the ground.


  2. Historically the university system flourished because it supported scholarship that otherwise was not economically possible. Universities were granted tax benefits in order to promote this type of scholarship. It is one of the hallmarks of a civilized society. While undergrads grumbled that professors didn’t spend enough time in the classroom, society as a whole benefited from their wisdom. So where did we go wrong? When did universities become money making machines that chopped professors’ salaries and in their stead established multi-billion dollar chairs and “trusts”? When did a grant from a pharmaceutical company become more important than pure research? It is a sad, sad commentary on our society that we no longer look to universities for true knowledge. It is even sadder that women’s studies have gotten trampled in the process.


  3. Thank you, Kwok Pui-lan, for this important post. We here at Feminism and Religion needed to see this review of Kristof’s most recent work. I’ve been critical of his journalism about women since 2009 when I wrote a review of his New York Times Sunday Magazine headliner “The Women’s Crusade” (at http://www.tikkun.org/tikkundaily/2009/08/24/crusade-for-women-or-womens-crusade/). My critique was based on what I considered his instrumentalized view of women an their empowerment as cogs in a machine to lift their families out of poverty. The fact that he is only looking at articles published in the NYTimes or The New Yorker reinforces my perception of him as an elitist. Thanks again.


    1. And I bet he doesn’t know how many op-eds by feminist scholars have been submitted to the NYT yet rejected. I venture to guess their numbers are legion, to quote a phrase.


  4. Thank you, Kwok Pui-lan. I also think this important but for very different reasons. He may not have been talking about Elite. He may have been talking about “presence”. If not, I am. I want you, feminists and Feminism and Religion to have a real presence on social media.

    Whenever I read posts on blogs I make it a point to go to the links embedded within your post. I want a fuller and better understanding of the subject. Having done that with today’s post, I have two very different observations.

    1) Nicholas Kristof for better or worse has 1.4 million followers on Twitter. His tweets easily get 66 or more retweets. For a non reality star that is actually pretty high. He doesn’t have to retweet others tweets because he already has a huge following that elude almost all feminists. Possibly, eludes all feminists. I checked your blog Kwok Pui-lan. It is a very accessible blog. Meaning it is written in conversational writing. It doesn’t have a way for me to follow you on twitter. And the tweet generated from your blog reads ” Check this out ” and your link. In my experience, no one is going to read that. It is void of hashtags and your twitter account. And that matters. I really don’t want to select the hashtag. It is your writing. I wish to share it with my followers. I also want it to be social media savvy so they will read it.

    Nancy, I also read your article. Your tweet was more sophisticated. Your article is very accessible. A key in social media. No one wants to read posts that sound like term papers. I have never seen a large audience when a blogger does that. If someone only wants college and academic scholars to read and follow, that is perfectly acceptable. If anyone wants a wider audience it isn’t.

    Because I couldn’t check either Kwok Pui-lan or Nancy’s twitter accounts, I checked Feminism and Religion on Twitter. ( I follow ) It has 1,084 followers. With little to no retweets. And no one from Feminism and Religion is retweeting other accounts tweets. That grows followers. I did those actions on my two personal accounts daily for months. And I was also responding to diverse opinions. I use the block function the minute it becomes abusive. I also will DM other feminists and feminist organizations if I get a pile on of harassers, abusers and the threats. I know about the lack of time everyone has. Personally, I am dealing with cancer and every complication that comes with it. My accounts have stagnated. And I know why. To have a real social media presence means you actively participate with other twitter accounts. At least until you have a lot of followers. Even then, because this blog and yours Kwok Pui-lan presents so many good and DIVERSE voices and ideas, active participation may always be necessary. I may be off base. You may not want the following or to have more join who will be at the very least skeptical. I am not sure that only speaking to the proverbial choir does much to further the end of patriarchy, I also checked FAR’s Facebook page which I “liked” some time ago. I couldn’t find any cross posts from other pages. That is vital to your growing interested readers. Those pages will in turn post your posts. Again, FAR may be very happy with it’s current traffic. And Kristof may have been talking about the lack of having a large base of followers.

    2) Let’s talk about Half The Sky. (49.5 thousand followers on twitter). It is flawed in many ways. (I hate every time a child was called a prostitute). Right now to add non-patriarchal communities in this world is going to require purchasing land and building. So,Nancy, unfortunately becoming a cog can be a vital step. At the end of the documentary they showed a very brave community in Africa that did not allow men. It was for any women and children who needed to get have refuge from abusers, FGM, victims of acid attacks, rapists and those who would force them to prostitute to earn money. These women openly admitted that they could be wiped out at any minute. They don’t keep weapons but the men that live miles from their village do. While the women do keep fires lit every night and watch for intruders they live in uncertainty and courage. It was the most powerful part of the documentary. I work with actual survivors of rape and have friends who escaped from traffickers. This book and documentary are often the inroad for others who are willing to no longer be apathetic to the War on Women and all it entails. They come join the movement to stop this global insanity.

    He may be an Elitist. Right now in the US all academia is under attack. What is the priority for us as feminists?

    My real name is Bridget Robertson. My @freyafirst account has a little over 1700 followers. Not huge but again I let it stagnate because of health. My other account is @wemarriage it only has slightly over 1000 followers. These are personal accounts, not ones trying to promote a publication.


    1. I agree! Thanks, Bridget. I just finished a book, and one friend told me I needed 8,000 friends on Facebook and several thousand followers on Twitter to get it published, so I would love to talk to you further about doing that. As my UU minister said, I’m a digital alien.


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