In the social science faculty at Lund University there is a rule of thumb which suggests that at least 40% of the articles on the reading list of a course should be written by women. This is necessary, say the advocates of the system, in order to give female academics a more prominent voice. BS, I say. The system is a threat to the university and to academic freedom.
Let me give you an example of how it works. Take my course on the rise of right-wing ideas, and eventually fascism, at the turn of the twentieth century. What interests me is the possibility of a connection between the spread of global markets in the course of the nineteenth-century and the subsequent swing to the right. If we once again are living in a period of globalization and if fascists once again are on the march, it is difficult to conceive of a more urgent topic. Besides, it is bound to be a topic on which students have a lot to say. Excited by the idea, I submitted a proposal to the relevant course committee.
The problem was only the lack of female authors on the reading list. My course did not reach the 40% quota required. It was not even close. It was right-wing ideas I wanted to talk about and since the focus was on primary sources — authors from the turn of the twentieth-century — it was difficult to find female candidates. It seems most reactionaries of the day were men. Women, at least the ones who expressed themselves in writing, were predominantly liberal and progressive. Finally, after an extensive search, I came across one female author who was against women’s right to vote. Gratefully, I included her on the reading list.
Then the Director of Studies in my department contacted me. “Sure,” he said, “the 40% quota is only a rule of thumb, but a course with this few female authors will never be accepted.” Oh well, I thought, and continued my search for female reactionaries. In the end I decided to change the rationale of the course a bit. If I included anarchists too I would be in a much better position. Anarchists were not fascists to be sure — in fact they were, well, anti-fascist — but at least they shared the fascists’ fascination with violence. And, more importantly, there were quite a number of female authors among them.
My course passed the course committee but is was a close call. The student representative on the committee was very critical of my “lack of focus on gender issues,” and a number of other committee members agreed. After an extensive discussion, the course was approved — as long as I promised to include Judith Butler, a well-known contemporary post-structuralist feminist, among the nineteenth-century male reactionaries.
The course started last week, and already the first class was eventful. I had not gotten far into my first lecture when I was interrupted: “Could you please tell us something more about the condition of women during this period?” a student asked. “Yes, that’s right,” another chimed in. I was stumped. I was talking about Plato’s cave metaphor and the idea of enlightenment, a topic quite far removed from the status of women. Why are the students interrupting me with such an extraneous question?
Two days later I hear from the Director of Studies again. A delegation from the students on my course had come to him to complain — after only two seminars. The complaints were not very specific, but it seemed I had not taken their comments seriously and besides my course did not correspond to the reading list as it was officially approved. Of course it did not. There is not a course committee in the world which can force me to teach Judith Butler unless I want to.
The whole thing was strange — the students who interrupted me with extraneous questions, the delegation that went to the director of studies before the course had even properly begun. But finally I got it. One of the students, he revealed in an unguarded aside, had worked full-time for the student union, and besides he was a friend of the student rep on the course committee, the one who complained about the lack of a focus on gender. “As a student,” he said, “I love your course, but the student union has a number of issues with it.”
The student union at Lund University is thus busy finding “issues” with courses and proceed to harass teachers who have an insufficient focus on gender and too few female authors on the reading list. In these aims they are actively supported by some members of the course committee and passively supported by the majority of members who are too scared to take a principled stand. Since I wanted to give a course about old reactionaries, I now have a reputation as an “anti-feminist” and my course is something that needs to be investigated and scrutinized.
The basic problem is that an intellectual activity — in this case a course — has been subject to democratic criteria. But if everyone is allowed a vote, everyone will vote for their favorites, and students are in a position to veto what they don’t like. Democracy has its place, but it is not on my course and not on my reading list. The affirmative action system for female authors must stop. Intellectual activity is about thought, analysis and understanding and it is not just an occasion for people to express their political preferences. It is the course committee’s inability to grasp this point, and their failure to stand up for the integrity of the intellectual process, that has made the situation untenable.
I have after some head-scratching decided not to give the course again. I don’t want to be bullied by students and I don’t want weird rumors to spread about me. Too bad, I think, since the growth and spread of fascism is an important and timely subject.