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Sexism Ed: Essays on Gender and Labor, by Kelly J. Baker.

May 17, 2018

Everyday People

Sexism Ed: Essays on Gender and Labor, by Kelly J. Baker. Blue Crow, 2018.

4 stars

Essays on the problems of higher education, especially the refusal to respect women and the shift away from tenured faculty.

Kelly Baker has a Ph.D. in Religious Studies, edits the journal Women in High Education, and publishes articles in major newspapers and magazines such as the New York Times.  Her area of scholarly expertise is the popularity of the Ku Klux Klan and zombies; she has published academic books on those topics.   After Baker received her Ph.D. in 2008, she failed to obtain the tenure-track position that she was trained to hold. She taught in one-year contract positions before leaving academia.  Her own experience and her current job give her an important perspective on what it means to teach and work as a woman in higher education.

Some of the essays in Sexism Ed are essays that Baker has written and published elsewhere. The first two sections of the books include articles she has written for the journal she edits.  Here she writes with clarity and authority about the multitude of ways that women in higher education continue to be treated as second-class citizens in terms of hiring and promotion and lack of respect for their expertise and scholarship.  She uses both statistical analysis and personal accounts in ways that startle readers into approaching problems in new ways.  At time,s she presents and acknowledges what other scholars and thinkers have said. Sexism, especially toward female faculty, is the core of the first section.  Related problems facing universities are the primary focus of the second section. A particular concern in both sections is the decline in the numbers tenured faculty with academic freedom and economic security along with the growing reliance of adjuncts and lecturers who teach on short term contracts and lack such advantages. Unsurprisingly, women remain a minority of tenured faculty and a majority of contingent, contract teachers.  What is different about Baker’s analysis is that she looks at all those who teach at universities as laborers.  She urges tenured faculty to face the threats to the continuation of tenure and admit the ways that they depend on contract teaching for their own privileges.  Baker urges them to consider the worlds of their untenured colleagues and reach across the gulf that divides them.  Her position is more radical than many of those who bemoan the decline of tenure.

The last section of the book builds on the previous analysis and speaks in more personal, more moving ways about issues of gender, especially around the real and perceived tensions between motherhood and academic commitment.  Mothers are less likely than other women to get academic jobs, but for Baker, being a mother is key to who she is.  Discussing Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark, Baker also writes in moving words about how she holds on to hope, because we can never know for sure what the future will bring. Perhaps by doing our own small part to bring about positive change, we can affect the outcome.  In writing about her own experience and feelings, Baker touches what some of us, male as well as female, know but try to forget.

Much of what Baker describes is what we were talking about as women teaching and seeking to teach in the 1980s and 1990s.  In some cases her book felt repetitive.  Yet Baker is a different generation of feminists in a different academic world.  Building on some of the gains we made, she can be more rebellious than we could.  She has been hurt for trying to be something other than the accepted image of college professor that might, or might not, have gotten her tenure.  Instead she adapted and created ways that she may be more seen and heard than those who stand in front of college classrooms.  I laud what she is doing and saying.  I recommend it to young women in American universities today.

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