“In graduate school the classroom became a place I hated, yet a place where I struggled to claim and maintain the right to be an independent thinker. The university and the classroom began to feel more like a prison, a place of punishment and confinement rather than a place of promise and possibility” (bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress, Routledge, 1994: 4).
I was invited to submit a book review to a respected journal, which I did, and it was submitted to a referee for review. The book I chose to review was Sara Ahmed’s Complaint! about the gatekeeping of complaints in academia. The referee asked for substantive revisions, including (1) a sketch of the structure of the book that outlines each chapter; (2) a more “critical reading” of the book, including commentary on where Ahmed’s arguments are “weak”; and (3) an explanation of the “overall philosophical relevance of the book” beyond what it can offer to victims of discrimination and harassment. I decided not to do any of that, and to post the review on this blog instead (find it below). I refuse to rewrite the review to conform to a hegemonic structure that adds nothing of epistemic value, to incorporate criticisms and complaints about the book that I do not believe in, or to betray the spirit of the book by catering to an audience of theorists with no lived experience of epistemic violence and institutional marginalization.
It’s ironic that I was asked to make these changes to a review of a book precisely on academic gatekeeping. But this mundane form of gatekeeping is part of the broader context of epistemic injustice that Ahmed addresses. It’s one of the tools that upholds the master’s house. Maybe you have a good idea, but you didn’t present it in the conventional academic style. You weren’t critical enough. Or you were too critical (of the people who matter). Your aims are too practical. Your audience is too niche. You didn’t write in precise Standard English. These are all discriminatory forms of academic gatekeeping. Why do we all have to write in the same style, with the same aims, to the same audience? Now journals are starting to use AI to evaluate the “quality” of a person’s writing, and soon we will be expected to use AI apps like Hemingway Editor to make sure we pass the quality-assurance test. Welcome to the brave new world of academic publishing, where everyone is supposed to sound like an overrated 20th-Century misogynist!
It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that academic gatekeeping is killing me. Every time I publish something (except in a few “niche” blogs like this one), I have to do multiple revisions, often in response to useless and persnickety requests like the ones above. These changes don’t alter the basic idea of the paper, but they make it more appealing to a general audience (of predominantly white, straight, cisgender men). This proves bell hooks’ point that academia values conformity over creativity: “During college, the primary lesson was reinforced: we were to learn obedience to authority” (1994: 4). More important than presenting an interesting idea, or challenging a structural injustice, is crafting a “well-structured argument.” In order to publish my ideas, I need to cram them into a conventional mold and feed them into an AI that criticizes my natural voice. Is my writing too “mangled,” too disabled, too queer for the philosophical community? Should I revise my paper for two years to make sure it looks like everyone else’s?
All of this takes work. In my department, I am, to my knowledge, the only disabled and queer professor. I am doing the work of representing two oppressed communities by myself. I am also one of only two adjunct representatives for the entire university, representing more than half the faculty, which includes the poorest and most diverse segment of the faculty population. (The lowest ranks of academia are also the poorest, Blackest, queerest, and most disabled). Needless to say, I’m tired. When I offer to do an unpaid service for the profession and I’m asked to do substantive revisions for little to no epistemic reason, it uses up my scarce time and energy.
Someone might think that the solution is for me to quit philosophy. That’s just another example of academic gatekeeping. The antidote to thought-policing in academia is not to kick out the “complainers.” It’s to reduce the thought-policing. If someone’s idea is valuable, then don’t hyper-fixate on the person’s argumentative structure, style, vernacular, or general reach. Academia doesn’t have to be the exhausting, competitive, capitalist, bureaucratic morass that it is. But if it’s going to change, then the gatekeepers have to take people’s complaints seriously.
Here is the review that I did not publish in the journal:
Book Review: Sara Ahmed, Complaint!, Duke University Press, 2021.
To file a complaint at a university is, in Sara Ahmed’s words, “terrifying” (p. 45). The university is designed to stifle complaints and punish complainers. This is because it is committed to reproducing institutional legacies, protecting ‘important people,’ and increasing revenues. Complaints jeopardize these unstated goals. Therefore, when someone files a complaint, the university retaliates with warnings, threats, gaslighting, humiliation, and psychological torture. “The system is working,” says Ahmed, “by stopping those who are trying to transform the system” (p. 28). This is something that many academics understand, but it is not common knowledge. Most people don’t realize that universities punish ‘complainers’ unless they themselves dare to complain. This is when the university’s “institutional mechanics” are triggered to silence them (p. 27). Hence, complaining is enlightening: it reveals the “gap between what is supposed to happen in accordance with policy and procedure” (i.e., accountability) “and what does happen” (i.e., denial, gaslighting ) (p. 25). Complainers have privileged insight into the relationship between the university and broader apparatuses of power.
Ahmed wrote Complaint! after resigning from her university in protest of the way it had dealt with complaints filed by students against sexual harassers. She organizes the book around a series of qualitative interviews that she conducted with students, academics, researchers, and administrator who had been involved in a formal complaints process. The interviews illuminate the shady dealings and back-door conversations that make complaints “go away”:
A student complains about a professor who has been sexually harassing her. Senior managers meet with her for a hearing. They nod and express sympathy. Nothing happens. She follows up with an email asking for further action. No response.
A Black junior professor complains about a racist colleague. HR warns her not to formalize the complaint. She files the complaint anyways. HR contacts her three months later to say that the complaint form wasn’t filled in correctly and must be resubmitted. She resubmits it the next day. They tell her that it’s past the deadline and the complaint is void.
A disabled student submits a complaint about ableist policies. The university asks her to participate in a committee on disability access. She declines because the location is inaccessible. She submits another complaint. Nothing happens. Three months later, she asks to see her complaints file. The administrative assistant tells her that the file doesn’t exist.
These are examples of the defense mechanisms used by the university to stifle complaints and gaslight complainers. Ahmed identifies several of these mechanisms: warning, nodding, blanking, and strategic inefficiency. Often, complainers are warned about the risks of complaining. They may be told that complaining is pointless: “institutional fatalism tells you that institutions are what they are such that there is no point in trying to change them” (p. 73). Or they may be told that complaining is dangerous. Other times, complainers are told that the university has an open-door policy and complaints are welcome. Ahmed calls this a “nod,” but it is a “nonperformative” speech act: the nod signals that something will happen, but nothing does (p. 29). Diversity and equity policies can be nonperformative nods. In some cases, the university doesn’t even nod. Ahmed calls this blanking: by blanking, the university can deny that a complaint was made, or prevent a complaint from being filed and acknowledged. These strategies are part of a broader tactic called ‘strategic inefficiency.’ The complainer is busy filling in forms, researching complaints policies, contacting the correct people, doing the ‘housework’ needed to file a complaint, and the university is responding by dragging its heels, doing nothing. Strategic inefficiency, it seems, is the most common defense against complaint, because it is the most effective. If the university does nothing, the complaint goes nowhere.
Ahmed appeals to marginalized philosophical subdisciplines to explain the experience of making a complaint only to be warned, patronizingly nodded at, blanked, and strategically managed. She especially draws on queer theory, critical race theory, and critical disability theory to capture the cartography, phenomenology, epistemology, and politics of complaint.
To be a complainer, she explains, is to be a “misfit,” someone who doesn’t comport with the institutional cartography, the historical legacy, or the tacit expectations of the university:
[Critical disability theorist] Garland-Thomson (2011, 592–93) describes misfitting as ‘an incongruent relationship between two things: a square peg in a round hole.’ When you try to fit a norm that is not shaped to fit your body, you create an incongruity; you become an incongruity” (Ahmed, p. 140).
A complainer is someone who resists the oppressive neoliberal cartography of the university. Most people don’t want to complain. Most want to fit in. Most want to be accepted and rewarded. To better fit in, an academic might conform to the university’s demands and try to “pass” as a cheerful worker. Ahmed calls this “institutional passing”: “Maybe you don’t wear a sari; maybe you don’t ask for prayer time off. You might smile…” (p. 9). To smile in response to a nonperformative nod is to signal submissiveness, to show that you are a happy drudge, a neoliberal shill. In this context of compulsory cheerfulness, complainers experience a “queer phenomenology,” a reorientation to the university, a creeping feeling that something is “odd, bizarre, weird, strange,” not right (pp. 43-44). Complainers begin to see the strategically closed doors, the gatekeeping, the fake smiles, the nepotistic relationships between old friends, the institutional mechanics. They begin to feel epistemic disorientation; to notice a gap between expectations and reality; to experience a “queer temporality” (p. 101), a zigging and zagging between complaining and waiting, hoping and despairing. The default in academia is to not complain, not “make a fuss” (p. 72). A complaint is a wrench in the institutional mechanics.
Complaining, seen in this light, is a form of political activism. Complaints reveal that the university is the master’s house, a site of neoliberal violence and oppression. Hence, “a formal complaint can be part of the redirection of violence” (p. 130). It can raise awareness about forms of institutional injustice – racism, sexism, ableism – that stretch back generations, to a time long before the complaint was made. This is what the university wants to prevent: public awareness of intergenerational violence. Complainers reveal a festering wound at the heart of academia. To listen to a complaint, says Ahmed, is to lend a “feminist ear,” to open the “doors of consciousness” to the closed doors, back rooms, and seedy underbelly of the university (p. 115).
One of the most insidious defenses against complaining is to weaponize the complaint against the complainer. Ahmed explains that complainers are often labeled as ‘neoliberal’ because they are using ‘the master’s tools’ – a formal complaint mechanism – to address a grievance, or because they are putting personal grievances above collegiality and group solidarity. Both objections are in bad faith. First, complainers use a variety of mechanisms to register complaints, and typically use formal procedures only as a last resort, if at all. Second, complainers normally do try to register complaints jointly, but most universities don’t allow it. They strategically ban collective complaints, and force people to file individual forms. Nonetheless, some complainers do form “complaint collectives” to address a structural injustice, often using alternative methods such as staging protests and organizing talks (p. 25).
Complaint! leaves very little to complain about. Rather than using the little space I have left to reach for an objection to Ahmed’s analysis, I would recommend her book to the many, many academics who have been silenced by their university. In short, it’s not you, it’s them. I have personally experienced these ‘institutional mechanics’ in so many forms. Filing a complaint with other students against a sexual harasser who purports to be a feminist and is still a rising star in his department. Trying to represent adjuncts at a university that refuses to give me the adjunct mailing list or email them on my behalf. Going to grad school 15 years ago with men who openly believed that women shouldn’t be admitted to the program. If this seems implausible, this just reinforces Ahmed’s point that the closed doors of the university aren’t apparent until you try to open them.