Historian Alice Dreger championing the right of academics to take controversial positions

Historians in the News
tags: Alice Dreger

Alice Dreger is a historian of medicine and science and the author of Galileo’s Middle Finger. She will deliver the keynote at FIRE’s faculty conference in October, in Dallas. Thumbnail Image -  By Timothy Bates, CC BY 3.0

... I have enjoyed meeting and talking with every one of the plainclothes armed guards who have come to my invited lectures to protect me and my audiences in the past few years. They have never looked as handsome as Kevin Costner, but then I don’t sing as well as Whitney Houston.

Why do my hosts sometimes arrange armed guards? To use Aristotle’s framing — which I realize marks me a tool of the patriarchy — the efficient causeis threats designed to have me disinvited and humiliated for my supposed sins. The formal causeis a climate in which some people, including academics, think I should be silenced because my scholarship is "dangerous."

What did I do to mark myself? I spent a year documenting the liesof activists about a group of researchers who put forth unpopular ideas about transgenderism. I have also written about transgenderism in other ways that challenge what have been positioned as the "acceptable" narratives. Thus, I stand accused of committing "structural violence" — even being responsible for physical violence against transgender people, about whose rights I care deeply.

My work has, in fact, focused on the history of the abuse of sexual minorities in science, medicine, and society. I have tried to push for the rights of sexual minorities from a consistently feminist perspective. Thus you may be surprised to hear that I have certain "lived experiences" in common with people like Charles Murray. If you have followed mainstream media portrayals of free-speech strife on campuses, you may have reasonably concluded that activists have tried to silence only white men. Only through the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) — a group that has defended my rights— will you hear about the troubles of people like me, women in women-and-gender-studies programs, and people of color in various ethnic-studies programs who have failed to swear allegiance to the latest creed.

Somehow, even in the case of a supposedly offensive email sent by Erika Christakis at Yale,the mainstream media managed to make that controversy largely about her husband, Nicholas. I guess white men make for simple characters in sound-bite "news" reports about campus oppression — villains for the left, heroes for the right. In reality, though, all over the country, I have heard from faculty members who are white women, people of color, queer folk, persons with disabilities, and people with complex "intersectional" identities who have been subject to shutdowns in their own classrooms and departmental meetings because they are allegedly guilty of not being progressive enough. Some have told me of the deployment of Title IX by students and colleagues to mark them as discriminators and abusers. Disturbingly, many faculty members have told me of cleansing their syllabi and visiting-speaker rosters to avoid causing offense.

To be clear, I have nothing against giving students a warning when we’re wandering into something we know in advance may be uncomfortable. I have alerted students when they are about to see close-up video of the pudenda of a birthing woman. ("She hasn’t shaved, which I realize may shock and disturb some of you.") But it is the very roughness and unpredictability of academic exchange that can lead to highly productive moments in teaching and research, and by hemming ourselves into what is the lowest common denominator of "inoffensive," we lose those opportunities. We stop ourselves from doing what could be our best work as teachers. ...

Trigger warning: Here comes the blowjob.

When I was on the faculty of the Medical Humanities and Bioethics Program at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine, we put out a high-gloss, high-quality publication called Atrium. Each issue focused on a theme in the medical humanities — unmentionables; haunting; power. I often described Atriumas a "tapasjournal" because it contained relatively short essays, articles, and graphic art that explored rare and ordinary experiences in health care. We rotated who edited a given issue and, for the Winter 2014 issue, it was my turn. Atrium’s editor in chief suggested the theme of "Bad Girls." We did the usual thing — soliciting proposals — and we got back the usual marvelous arrayfrom medical humanists, bioethicists, nurses, doctors, cartoonists, and patients. Of the 30-some offerings on abortion, caregiving, and the like, I could choose only about a dozen to put through peer editing, revision, and publication.

One article I chose was a first-person essay by the cultural anthropologist and disability-studies scholar Bill Peace, of Syracuse University. Bill told what happened in a rehabilitation hospital in 1978 when he became paralyzed at the age of 18. Long story short, while physicians refused to engage young Bill’s questions about his sexual function, a nurse with whom Bill had developed a friendship gave him oral sex to assure him that he could still look forward to a good sex life.

Bill Peace’s story wasn’t something you’d find in Playboy,unless I’ve missed the issues with stories in which foreplay consists of young men crying over bladder incontinence. Bill wasn’t telling his history to titillate or to advocate for sex between medical professionals and patients, but rather to document "the wild west" of 1970s rehab hospitals and to question whether we take seriously the sexual lives of persons with disabilities. Even as I went with Bill’s cheeky title, "Head Nurses," it never occurred to me that this essay was going to cause my dean, Eric Neilson, to declare that we might have violated a "branding agreement" the medical school had made with the university-affiliated hospital corporation and to insist that we pull Bill’s published article.

But it did. Neilson couldn’t call back the already mailed 3,000 paper copies, but he did insist Bill’s essay come offline.

Awkward timing for yours truly. I had a book coming out on academic freedom, Galileo’s Middle Finger, a book in which I called on academics to stand against attempts to silence "dangerous" scholarship. Neilson’s censorship was bad, but what made it much worse was that he also insisted that our program thereafter subject Atriumto a new "editorial committee" consisting of people from the PR department and his office. This new (censorship) committee would vet (censor) themes, proposals, and content. ...

Read entire article at The Chronicle of Higher Education

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