U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Nor Secret Griefs Nor Grudges: Laura Kipnis’s Unwanted Advances

As I mentioned in a previous post, my vacation reads from earlier this summer were an eclectic mix, but I managed to find or fashion some faint connections between them.  After I finished off Charles Capper’s fine intellectual biography of Margaret Fuller, I moved on to Laura Kipnis’s controversy-courting polemic Unwanted Advances.

Of course I found myself disagreeing with many of Laura Kipnis’s positions. Honestly, I don’t think the good old days of “unproblematic” professor-student intimacies were all that good – or, rather, I think they were good not because of that dynamic, but in spite of it.  (I went to college in the ‘80s; so when it comes to the good old days, I know whereof I speak.) Not that our present days of increasingly intense administrative scrutiny and regulatory control of the campus climate are vastly better in all respects – I think these days are just differently dangerous.

Still, I was glad to be reading Kipnis’s book, because even as I balked at her take in places, I greatly appreciated her intellectual company, her voice on the page.  She is someone worth listening to, even if you disagree with what she’s saying.  (Claire Potter made a similar point recently in a forum hosted by Signs.)  Some have compared her style and her critical stance to Camille Paglia’s, usually as a way of dismissing or diminishing Kipnis’s arguments as anything different or new, but I don’t think that’s an entirely apt comparison.  Yes, both deploy irreverent humor (is there any other kind?) as a rhetorical weapon to advance their polemics.  But they use it very differently. Camille Paglia takes no one seriously, but herself; Laura Kipnis takes no one seriously, including herself.  It’s a minor distinction, perhaps, when they’re both mocking pieties right and left (or Right and Left), but it makes a difference.  A real capacity for self-deprecating humor is a good trait, and it’s something I appreciate about Laura Kipnis’s voice on the page.

Mostly, I appreciate this:  Laura Kipnis’s take on any controversial issue is her take. This is where I drew a connection between Margaret Fuller and Laura Kipnis, since both used cultural criticism as the métier for conveying to the reader not just critiques but also the critic herself.  And Kipnis does what cultural critics worth their salt are supposed to do:  in the course of rendering her own judgments she explains the conditions and criteria by which she arrived at them. She is taking a line, for sure, but she is also modeling for readers how to take a line — not by trying to think more like Kipnis, but, like Kipnis, by daring to think more like themselves.  Her cultural criticism successfully moves a lot of people from the position of thoughtful reader to engaged (and sometimes outraged) critic.

There are lots of outraged critiques of Kipnis’s book out there, and they’re as worthy of consideration as the book itself.  Of all the reviews and critiques I have read of Unwanted Advances, this thoughtful review by Lisa Duggan stood out for me as particularly sharp, fair, and useful:  “Rapture and Risk on Campus in the Age of the Sexual Security State.”

But what about this reader?  Do I have anything useful to say about Kipnis’s book, beyond the fact that I am glad I read it?  And, yes, I realize that simply saying that much – or that little – is enough to invite outraged condemnation from some quarters.  In this job market, why risk offending anyone?  Well, flip that around, as I do:  In this job market, what does it matter whether you offend somebody or not?  There are so few tenure-track jobs, the odds of landing one are already infinitesimally small.  Might as well say what you think and not worry about it.

So, in that spirit, let me say this…

There’s a motif running through Kipnis’s book that really jumped out at me, but that I haven’t seen addressed very much in any of the reviews:  the suggestion that academics are using the administrative apparatus of Title IX to intentionally damage the careers of other scholars.  To me, that is by far the most explosive allegation considered in this book, but it has not garnered much attention.  Most critics have focused either on what Kipnis says about particular students or about students in general, or on what Kipnis says about the serial predations (my reading, not hers) of Peter Ludlow.  Some critics have focused on what Kipnis says about her own experience as the target of a Title IX investigation – and it is crucially important to remember that Kipnis was investigated for possible Title IX violations for an essay she published in the Chronicle, and that experience prompted her to write this book.  But most reviews have really given a wide berth to Kipnis’s ruminations about how Title IX proceedings play into professors’ dealings with one another.

That critical silence is interesting to me, and I don’t quite know what to make of it.   In some ways, it seems to me that Kipnis has achieved a feat of legerdemain, with everyone on the one hand closely parsing her claims about the students and about the professors they have accused of malfeasance, while with the other hand she has laid some potent charges on the table and lit the fuse unnoticed.

To characterize Kipnis’s ruminations on possible faculty involvement in these Title IX cases as “charges” is, of course, a play on the idea of “explosive allegations.”  But for the most part Kipnis does not allege that particular professors did use the Title IX process to settle personal scores. Instead, she entertains the possibility that they might have done so.  For example, in her discussion of “Jocelyn Packer,” the pseudonym she has assigned to the thesis advisor of Peter Ludlow’s accuser “Nola Hartley,” Kipnis notes that “Packer and Ludlow had once been friendly,” at least in Ludlow’s telling.  “Ludlow,” Kipnis writes, “thinks the friendship may have gone downhill after a spat about a hiring decision—Ludlow hadn’t supported Packer’s candidate, who didn’t get the job. Packer would later complain to Joan Slavin [the Title IX officer] that Ludlow had girlfriends half his age and poor moral judgment, so maybe the estrangement had nothing to do with turf wars – but who knows?” (91-92).

That fillip of uncertainty renders the passage something just short of a direct accusation.

Then there is Kipnis’s discussion (pp. 109-123, passim) of “Professor X,” an academic with whom Ludlow’s accuser had had a relationship before coming to Northwestern.  Writing of the Title IX investigator assigned to investigate the graduate student’s complaint against Ludlow, Kipnis says, “Bobb knew about Hartley’s relationship with Professor X, but ignores the implication – which is the uneasy spectacle of one philosophy professor with whom Hartley had had a relationship helping to take down another philosophy professor with whom she’d had a relationship, and using the secret juridical apparatus of our institution to do it – a project in which our administration appears to have unwittingly collaborated” (111-112).  Kipnis uses italics for emphasis here and there throughout the book, usually just highlighting a single crucial word. The phrase above is the longest such instance of italics for emphasis in the whole book.  It’s an important idea she is presenting to the reader – though, again, not quite as a direct allegation, but rather as an implication.

A bit later, in discussing her own Title IX investigation (“My Title IX Inquisition,” she calls it), Kipnis says that Packer contacted the editors of the Chronicle “informing them that I’d been brought up on Title IX complaints, and advising them to distance themselves from me. It was like being tattled on to the teacher. I did find it outrageous that Title IX was being wielded as a club to discredit someone (me) with an employer – was she trying to get me blacklisted too, along with Ludlow?” (130)  Kipnis continues:

If word gets around that Title IX can be used by one professor to try to shut down a rival professor’s point of view, I foresee potential complainants lining up around the block.

All this made me wonder whether Packer had advised her students to file the Title IX complaints against me – she did seem rather invested in the situation.  If so, it was spectacularly dumb advice (130-131).

Well, the word that professors might be able to do this to one another has gotten out, thanks in part to Kipnis’s account of her own experience.  Indeed, I think this may be the most pivotal aspect of her story, at least for Kipnis.  The astonishing fact that a professor could undergo a Title IX investigation for an opinion piece published in the Chronicle is really subordinate to the even more astonishing idea that professors might see this as a legitimate means of curtailing the academic freedom and crushing the careers of those with whom they disagree.  That’s the truly explosive charge at the heart of this book – that academics might be using Title IX not to protect students but to settle scores under the cloak of anonymity.

Kipnis does a little score-settling of her own towards the end of the chapter on her own Title IX case when she discusses the possible involvement of “Heidi Lockwood, the roving crusader for female sexual justice who’d advised Hartley in the Ludlow case” (152).  Kipnis is careful to say that she does not know “if Lockwood had anything to do with my Title IX case,” but adds that Lockwood was “certainly involved in the case against Ludlow, one of the various shadowy figures advancing his downfall” (152).  Kipnis goes on to describe a legal affidavit that Lockwood had filed in another case related to Ludlow, an affidavit that had apparently been posted to or at least discussed on “the philosophy blogs,” where commenters reportedly took issue with Lockwood’s characterizations of their views.

Kipnis offers this assessment of Lockwood’s involvement in/commentary on Title IX proceedings at Northwestern:  “…Lockwood at least signs her name to her stories, though when confronted about circulating pernicious rumors, she typically denies all responsibility; her usual response is that she was merely repeating information, not attesting to its truth. The abdication of responsibility seems to be Lockwood’s signature move….Is it possible Lockwood sees repeating hearsay about people as a form of political activism? I recently came across the phrase ‘noble cause corruption,’ the belief that a good cause justifies fraudulent means.  Maybe it does in some cases, but it would still probably be reckless advice to give to students” (154).

That was an extraordinary passage to read in a book about academe written by someone who not only has but intends to keep a job in academe. That wasn’t some thinly veiled reference to a conflict that would be legible only to those already apprised to it:  that was one academic saying, in front of God and everybody, that another academic is “circulating pernicious rumors” and “repeating hearsay,” and calling that person out by name.  That’s not how most conflicts between academics usually play out, in my observation.

I’m surprised this passage, if not this whole strain of Kipnis’s argument about how some academics may be weaponizing Title IX, hasn’t gotten more attention in the reviews of the book.  (If I have missed a review that focuses on this point, please do add a link in the comments.)

But I do wonder if this particular aspect of Kipnis’s argument – or at least the recoil from it – isn’t the driving force behind some of the animus that has been directed at Kipnis’s work or at Kipnis herself.  She has done something unforgivable:  she has explicitly described and publicly criticized alleged guild behaviors and misbehaviors that the canons of academic decorum – or, perhaps, the strategies for survival in a dysfunctional institution that is itself embedded in a dysfunctional society – would cover up in silence or, if necessary, allude to only in highly coded speech.

For that offense alone, this book would garner critics, even if they aim their criticisms elsewhere.  How else can we talk about someone talking about the things we can’t talk about?

I am reminded of one of my favorite poems from Spoon River, the epitaph of the scrappy Dorcas Gustine:

I was not beloved of the villagers
But all because I spoke my mind,
And met those who transgressed against me
With plain remonstrance, hiding nor nurturing
Nor secret griefs nor grudges.
That act of the Spartan boy is greatly praised,
Who hid the wolf under his cloak,
Letting it devour him, uncomplainingly.
It is braver, I think, to snatch the wolf forth
And fight him openly, even in the street,
Amid dust and howls of pain.
The tongue may be an unruly member –
But silence poisons the soul.
Berate me who will – I am content.

In a nutshell, that’s Laura Kipnis as a critic: someone who insists on snatching the wolf forth. That’s not an easy gig, but it’s an important one, and I think it’s a role that comes naturally, if not easily, to her — just as the role of village censor comes naturally to others.  There are plenty of critiques of Kipnis’s book that move well beyond mere supercilious censoriousness, but some of them start in that mode and never get out of it.  Even so, there are certainly worse things for people to be in this scenario than self-appointed guardians of village decorum, or spectators watching the drama play out from the silence and safety of the sidelines.  And of course not everybody can be like Dorcas Gustine or Laura Kipnis, and maybe not that many people would want to go through life that way anyhow.

One thing’s for sure: you don’t ever want to be that wolf.

14 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Maybe ladder faculty at Northwestern (or wherever more prestigious than where I work) have that kind of time, but that kind of long game seems not just impractical but literally impossible for most of the people I work with (the idea of weaponizing Title IX to pursue faculty grudges.)

    I need to read the book, and want to read the book, but I assume (so far, for now) that this is Kipnis playing to the paranoia of bad actors on the faculty now. Thanks for writing this, and for pointing me to the Duggan article too. I saw Claire’s piece in the roundtable review that Signs published recently, & really want to read the book now!

    I will one day write a post about why I am so passionate in my belief that faculty-student relationships are always & forever corrupt & wrong. But not yet.

  2. Ann, thanks for this comment — I waited to reply because I figured that others would want to weigh in. But I think even commenting on a thread about Kipnis’s book can seem fraught or risky for some, depending on one’s views. I have gotten comments on social media indicating that some academics see this aspect of Title IX (faculty — or, as some pointed out, administrators — using the investigatory process to wreck careers) as a real risk, but for whatever reason folks are hesitant to say so here.

    I wrote this on Facebook, and I think it’s worth considering:

    this book/topic has become so heated that I think most people will just sit it out for safety’s sake — but that “for safety’s sake” is important, because it too points to the underlying concern that some of our own colleagues (never mind the general public) might gladly weaponize our words against us. not great.

    So thanks for sticking your neck out and commenting!

    On the substance of your comment…I really don’t know what the process of filing a claim entails, or how time consuming it might prove for someone to initiate an investigatory process. It seems that the process itself is quite time-consuming and labor-intensive, but I am guessing that in most schools this is handled by a dedicated officer or administrative unit. Still, it sounds like a hassle, and something that no one with good sense would take or take on lightly.

    In any case, I am more intrigued by the relative silence on this strain of Kipnis’s argument than by the plausibility of the argument itself. Yours is one of the first comments I’ve seen that says, “This is implausible.” And you could very well be right, and even obviously so. But if Kipnis’s characterization of this aspect of the process is not credible, that makes it all the more interesting to me that more critics of the book haven’t seized upon what should be a fairly easy avenue of critique. Maybe now they will?

    • Thanks for your response! I’m sorry I drifted away from this for a few days–now I’m eager to read your Ross Douthat post!

      I have been the target of senior faculty in the past, so I don’t discount the notion that vulnerable faculty esp. can be bullied. What’s implausible to me is that there’s a critical mass–or even a few dozen–bad actors out there who are also administrative evil geniuses who can use the machinery of Title IX to destroy their enemies. (Not your formulation, but I take it that’s not too far from where Kipnis is: that there is an army of feminists with Dick Cheney-like ruthlessness and deep knowledge about manipulating university governance eager to step on the dicks of every professor who ever leered at a student.) Most uni faculty are just bad at admin, which is really good because think of the damage that the really bad ones could do outside of the tenure & promotion system!

      (We do enough damage with that superpower, IMHO. What do they need Title IX for when we’ve got that?)

      Also, I don’t feel like I’m taking any risk whatsoever in commenting on Kipnis because I’m noisily on the record as someone who is against faculty-student relationships of all kinds at all levels, full stop. It’s an abuse of our pastoral role as well as (most of the time) a practice that fetishizes the imbalance of power in heterosexual relations, as well as a practice that almost always screws up the careers of the younger/more junior women involved, and only rarely the older/more senior men. Anyone with clear eyes who’s been to more than one rodeo can see that this is what sex looks like between faculty & students, & that it doesn’t resemble Kipnis’s self-serving distortions at all. Anyone honest & without ulterior motives, that is.

      Lawyers can’t bang their clients. Doctors can’t date their patients. Clergy aren’t supposed to either (although there’s no state licensure they stand to lose, which is why it probably happens more often than with docs and attorneys.) We can do a lot better. It’s our moral and ethical obligation to do so.

      • Thanks for this, Ann. Yes, as I mentioned in the review, I think nostalgia for the “good old days” of prof/student entanglements is misplaced. They weren’t better than now; just different.

        My sense is that it’s not the academics rushing to condemn the Kipnis book who are taking the risk, but I could be misreading the situation.

        Thanks also for your comment over at my blog. Interestingly, Douthat doesn’t seem to have many stans…but the Koch brothers sure do, judging from my mentions. (Don’t @ me, dudes; I just saw “Wonder Woman,” and I’m feeling my powers.)

  3. I do think part of Kipnis’s argument is that there are now administrative positions devoted to helping students file these claims. Ther’s no smoking gun for the second argument: that these adminstrators actually generate Title IX claims in the way that child psychologists generated Satanic Ritual Abuse claims, but that is the insinuation. But the important difference is that in the university setting, perfectl ordinary interactions are potentially insidious. For example, HIstoriann, that cab we shared at the beginning of our friendship. Could you have been unaware of the possibility that taking you to an airport also brought us into the vicinity of airport motels? Did you feel uncomfortable about our proximity to those motels — but felt that someday I might be on a grant review committee, and if you said no, you would not share that cab, I could begin the process of destroying your career? And so on.

    • Argh! The British Internets ate a long reply to Claire’s comment! I’ll just say that I guess I’m the kind of self-confident badass woman that Laura Kipnis wants to see more of. I see plenty of us–way more than the delicate orchids she seems to see.

  4. This is a thoughtful piece, and I like what you’ve gotten from the book. I agree that there’s a smart book to be written about how Title IX can be used as a weapon for people in positions of relative power to attack faculty members with less power: straight male students making accusations against gay male faculty, tenured professors making accusations against untenured faculty, etc. Where I disagree with you is the same place I disagree with Duggan: I don’t think this is the book you want it to be. Kipnis does briefly mention each of those types of cases, but she doesn’t dwell on them; instead she dwells on cases where female students, including one in financial distress, make accusations against tenured male professors. I don’t think we can ignore this clear emphasis when considering the book. I guess what I was surprised by was your surprise that other reviewers haven’t focused on what you call “the truly explosive charge at the heart of this book.” My view is that we haven’t focused on that charge because it’s not really at the heart of the book. I wish it had been — the book would have been better for it.

    I don’t blame you for wanting to envision Unwanted Advances as the best version of itself; after all, that’s what we’re taught to do in academia, to look past gnarly prose and structural flaws and pull out the meat at the heart of the argument. But I think there are limits to this approach, and where I suspect we disagree is that I see this book as falling outside those limits. If you write a book full of toxic, libelous nonsense and briefly make a few good points, I don’t think reviewers can be expected to focus on the good points, good though they may be. I don’t mind that you chose to focus on the good points; I like your review a lot more than I like the book. I’m simply protesting on behalf of myself and other reviewers who haven’t found the book as thought-provoking as you have. It’s not that we don’t want to have a serious discussion about the benefits and limitations of Title IX (although, in my case, it’s probably best for me to keep my part of that discussion semi-private); it’s that we don’t think Kipnis’ book is a worthwhile jumping-off point for that discussion.

    • “If you write a book full of toxic, libelous nonsense and briefly make a few good points, I don’t think reviewers can be expected to focus on the good points, good though they may be.”

      Well said! The personal attacks on the young women sound over the top, although I’m just going by the reviews I’ve read & haven’t yet read Kipnis’s book myself.

      Also, let’s not pretend that “feminist says feminism sux/has gone wrong” is some kind of brave truth-telling rather than a super-successful marketing ploy that many others have used in the past–not just Paglia, but Katie Roiphe, Rebecca Walker, and a whole bunch of other smart but soulless broads who know that antifeminism always sells, and that it sells even bigger when sold by a so-called feminist.

  5. Well, we are having a serious discussion about a lot of things — about the precarity of queer scholars and minority scholars, about how Title IX could be made better, about what the role of a cultural critic is or should be — and Kipnis’s book was, in fact, the jumping-off point for all these conversations. And even if her argument was flawed (and it was), her effort was commendable and has prompted many valuable conversations and elicited many sharp and worthy critiques. I think that’s great.

    Speaking of sharp critiques, worthy or not, I got pissed off at Ross Douthat this morning, so I wrote this thing. It has not much to do with Kipnis’s book, but it’s related to higher education access, and I guess I can threadjack the comments on my own blog post as a way of flagging this for readers who enjoy reading polemics. Shooting from the hip here, but I probably hit something.

    Ross Douthat Is Running Scared

    • L.D.,
      Re your linked blog post: I agree, not surprisingly, with the critique of conservatives who push for defunding public higher education while pointing to the alleged “liberal conformism” and “political correctness” of mostly private (and elite) institutions to gin up support for that defunding. They deserve all the opprobrium one can heap on them.

      Just one side point: that many elite colleges and univs. have become harder (in some cases much harder) to get into than they were, say, 30 or 40 years ago could mean, but does not necessarily mean, that the class compositions of their student bodies have become more inegalitarian. In the case of a Harvard or (I assume) Stanford, the student body does come very disproportionately (compared to the pop. as a whole) from the upper-middle and upper reaches of the income/wealth distribution; but if a low-income student does apply and gets into, say, Harvard, his or her tuition is wholly covered by financial aid, and attending is thus v. likely less expensive for that student than going to, say, a state univ. would be (though travel costs etc. might, I suppose, even some of that out).

      I haven’t done the requisite research, but it’s of course very possible that these elite institutions have become in recent decades both harder to get into and more skewed (or at least not less skewed) to the upper reaches of the income distribution. All I’m saying is that these are two separate — albeit not completely unrelated — questions, and one needs two different sets of data/info to answer them.

      • p.s. at the same time (i.e., over the last several decades), of course, the overall distribution of wealth and income (in the U.S. at any rate, and quite a few other places) has become more unequal. So that would make it not too surprising if the composition of student bodies at elite univs had also become more unequal (i.e. skewed toward the wealthy) but, again, one would need to look at the data, to the extent available.

      • Louis, thanks for your comments.

        Part of the change in admit rate is due to a policy of “recruit to reject” (this from a friend who is an admissions officer at an Ivy+). Acceptance rate is one of the metrics that U.S. News & World Report uses to rank colleges, so one way to jigger the rankings is to find a way to boost application numbers for the same number of slots. It’s gross.

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