On the Uses of Academic Privilege (@theTable: “Manthologies”)
By Mara Benjamin.
man·thol·o·gy · noun · /manˈTHäləjē/: 1. A collection of writings by different authors, the vast majority of whom are men. 2. a popular form of scholarly production, produced by an intellectually myopic volume editor, an insufficiently critical publishing house editor, and the passive complicity of contributors.
When I was asked to write an essay for an edited volume a year ago, I asked for a list of contributors and scanned it with gender balance in mind. A quarter of the proposed contributors were women. It was bad, no question. But I wanted to add my voice to what cast itself as an authoritative guide to the field. I decided I could live with a volume that skewed male and signed the contract.
When I saw the final list of contributors to the volume recently, the table of contents looked remarkably different. The final manuscript was to have barely 10% women. Not incidentally, a number of the more interesting topics had also dropped away. I wrote to the editor, alerting him that the gender imbalance was a problem and that the volume would be incomplete without the topics and authors originally listed. I suggested holding off until more contributors could be added. He responded that the page limits for this volume had been reached – too bad! – but assured me that “fortunately, your essay is very strong.” Rather than reconfigure or expand the manuscript, he suggested, “it would be wonderful if you or someone else could do a new volume of essays” by women.
I tried once more to explain why the issue was more serious than this response acknowledged, pointing out that the collapse of gender, feminism, and women marginalizes women and gender-non-conforming people, gender as a topic, and feminist analysis as a lens. When I received a short treatise defending of the lack of women in the volume (and in the field) on philosophical, even theological, grounds, I realized it was time to take the issue up with the editor at the publishing house. I explained that the current version of the book would, if printed, present a partial and largely outdated version of the field; more troublingly, it would convey the message that the field itself was of limited interest. (At the same time, I reached out to a senior male colleague who had published with the same press, hoping he might intervene. In an extraordinary act of allyship, he wrote to the press and not only amplified the objections I had raised, but also added that he would subvent additional expenses to ensure that the original price point of the volume could be maintained.) But soon I realized the press would not change the volume.
Fortunately, the colleagues to whom I grumbled – many of whom are contingent or on the tenure-track –were instrumental in moving me from private venting to taking action. They rightly argued that scholars in my position could refuse to go along with business as usual, and by doing so, would signal that volumes such as the ones I was invited to contribute to are obsolete.
This argument woke me to the enormous privilege I hold as an academic, beyond the other forms of privilege that I have by virtue of my social position: I have tenure at an institution where I’m happy to be. I recently published a second book and expect to be brought up for promotion. Although I put a lot of work into the piece I wrote for the edited volume discussed above, and would like it to be published, I don’t need it to be published for career advancement. And so I wrote to the editor at the press:
I would like to withdraw my contribution. There is an ethical issue at stake here for me as a scholar; I would simply not have agreed to contribute to a volume like the final one. As you may know, there is now widespread attention to issues of gender misrepresentation in Jewish studies, not only in scholarship but also in the popular press. I fear that if this volume isn’t changed, it will be (justifiably) ripped apart in both scholarly and popular venues. In fact, I can almost guarantee it will be. And then we will have worked very hard to produce a book that no one will buy or read.
In terms of my own story, I was fortunate: the editor at the press let me break my contract. But what are the broader lessons from this small drama that consumed my writing time and saved no trees from being pulped for yet another manthology?
First, to would-be editors of volumes and publishing houses: you’re on notice. We are watching the choices you make. We are uninterested in hearing I asked many women but they all declined. If your volumes aren’t representative, they are not worth publishing. Women and other underrepresented minorities don’t want to be tokens; we want to do our work. You can support us by reading it, publishing it, and engaging in serious and constructive conversation with it. Your failure to acknowledge and engage our work is a methodological error on your part that is now being called out publicly in more and more subfields of Jewish studies.
Second, to senior scholars: Share the spotlight. Lift up the work of scholars who are in more precarious positions. Call out editors. Ask your friends and colleagues who organize conferences about how they came up with the list of invitees or contributors. If you’re at an R1, reflect on how you admit graduate students. To what extent are your decisions guided by the implicit aim of replicating yourself? How can you bring underrepresented voices and topics into the scholarly conversation? Make your position on these issues known to junior and contingent colleagues who may want to call on you for support.
Finally, to contingent and junior colleagues: I am not in your shoes. I am not going to advise you to always take the high ground, make a stink, or otherwise take risks that I no longer face myself. The pressures on you as you work to land or maintain a stable job are real. But you have allies. Ask around to find out who we are. We serve on the boards or task forces of professional associations and can provide cover or amplify your voice. We are willing to use our privilege to change what passes as acceptable in the field. It’s time.
Mara H. Benjamin is Irene Kaplan Leiwant Associate Professor and Chair of Jewish Studies at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, MA. She holds a Ph.D. in modern Jewish thought from Stanford University and has taught at the University of Washington, Yale University, and St. Olaf College. She is the author of Rosenzweig’s Bible: Reinventing Scripture for Jewish Modernity (Cambridge, 2009) and The Obligated Self: Maternal Subjectivity and Jewish Thought (Indiana, 2018).