A Personal Note On Scholarship


Sheila Ruth


I sat among perhaps three or four hundred people in a large auditorium, listening to philosophers deliver "papers," one after the other. The room was in relative darkness except for a brownish gray hue cast over the entire scene by a few recessed ceiling lights. The draperies having been drawn against the shimmering afternoon sunlight, daylight was visible only in a few elongated slivers where the fabric met the sand colored walls. Speakers, also rendered brownish gray by the artificial glow, were illumined further by a glaring spotlight as they took their turns one at a time behind a scarred wooden podium on the stage, leaning on one leg and then the other, rarely looking up, droning lines into a microphone.


It was a new experience for me; I was a fresh assistant professor attending my first professional meeting, there to give my first paper, and to absorb what knowledge I could. It was a two day meeting, all the papers scheduled consecutively, about ninety minutes apart, mine toward the end. I was attending every paper given on both days. It never occurred to me to do otherwise. My reasoning was that I was new at my work, and I needed to garner every bit of erudition I could. What was more, I had a duty: My department was paying for this outing. I was very young and very earnest.


I was also very nervous. Alienation, the subject of my paper, was a good topic, substantive, timely in the early 1970s, and one that I had been working on for several years. Nonetheless, I was acutely aware of my own inexperience and worried that I might not have gotten it right, or that I might have neglected some central issue, or that I would not be able to answer some very important question.


I had tried to take no chances with my paper. I had shared it with several people, making changes where they suggested, and I had sent it to my old mentor, my dissertation director. His droll advice was twofold: 1) Don't worry--it's as good as any; and 2) Where possible, substitute a three syllable word for every two syllable word and a four syllable word for every three syllable word. I thought he was joking.


Now in the brownish gray afternoon, I was growing ever more anxious. Not only my paper, everything seemed to feel wrong. I felt wrong. Alienated? Hard as I tried, I couldn't seem to become ignited by the lines dribbling out of the microphone. In fact, they seemed to me to be growing increasingly unintelligible and, worrisomely, pointless. Oh boy, I thought to myself, I'm even less a philosopher than I thought I was.

On and on the papers went: "A Note on So and So's Theory of Locke's Theory of This and That;" "A New Interpretation of Hume's Use of the Comma in . . ."


I looked around the room to see whether I was alone in my consternation. I appeared to be. Most of the others were barely moving and seemed to be rapt in attention, if not on the edge of their seats. Now and again they shook their heads with approval or objection, emitting occasional grunts and nods, snickers, or scribbles. Clearly they cared.


An old gentleman rose to read a paper on someone's theory of someone's idea of meaning. "What is a mouth?" he questioned. Slowly, very thoughtfully, and with great import, he continued, "You and I can identify our mouths. A duck does not have a mouth in the same way, but it has a bill. And an apple, in what sense can it be said to have a mouth?" Now people did seem to be on the edge of their seats. They must know something I'm missing, I thought. I waited for the punch line, that strand of connection to what matters that would bring it all together and render his argument more than an exercise in precision dissecting. To me, it seemed never to come. I was convinced, however, that the fault was mine. I just didn't get it.


At a break between papers I chatted with the woman beside me, whom I had befriended early in the proceedings and to whom I surreptitiously clung for sisterly security. We would have much in common, I surmised. At that time there were few women in philosophy, and there were only four on the program at this meeting. Outside of the requisite rumpled suit, pipe, and facial hair, she was very much in form, very philosopher-like in demeanor, and I believed she might keep me out of trouble. Just before the microphone sounds began again, she whispered, "Who is your paper on?" My paper wasn't on anyone, I told her. It was on alienation. She looked surprised and a bit disconcerted. "Oh my God," I thought, "I'm dead."


Then it was my turn to read.


I had begun my thinking on this subject long before, during my student days, undergraduate and graduate. I had come alive intellectually during periods of social ferment and change. McCarthy, the House Unamerican Activities Committee, socialists, communists, and the Young Americans for Freedom had peopled my universe at "pinko" Hunter College in the late 1950s, not to mention atheists and agnostics amid a horde of ultra Jewish relatives. The 1960s and beyond had featured Vietnam, Students for a Democratic Society, and the women's movement.


I had been a questioner in the don't-be-so-smart Bronx, a Jew in perfectly Protestant Indiana, a "libber" in an anti-libber universe, and, in so many other ways, an outsider in my own land. Concern for alienation had arisen out of my experiences in political organizations, on picket lines, or even earlier as the object of ethnic hatred.


I had become a philosopher because life was full of puzzles,  religious, political, social, conceptual, and none of the ready made solutions I had encountered had been of much use in solving them. I wanted to live a good life, an ethical life, a meaningful life, and that required solutions to real dilemmas. Yes, there were sub-questions, and questions beneath those that had to be confronted, but ultimately I believed that one kept one's eyes on the prize--meaningful answers to meaningful problems.


Outside of the brownish gray light of the auditorium, real people in real time were struggling for real light: Men and women were killing and dying halfway across the world for a purpose no one could seem to discern. Students and friends were fighting, facing imprisonment, some of them dying on their own campuses. Women, raped and murdered by lovers and strangers in their own homes and on the streets, were finding themselves excoriated for complaining about it. People all over the globe were starving, were drowning in hatred, feeling hopeless and disconnected, and neither individuals nor governments could make sense of any of it. This and more defined my world, and this engaged my attention and found its way into my work and my "paper."


With great trepidation, and some passion, I read. Afterwards there were some comments. Most of them had the form, "Well, this idea sounds like so and so," and "that idea appears in a similar vein in this philosopher or that one," and "I'm a little worried about your terminology in this section."  Not so bad, I thought; at least I hadn't been tarred and feathered, as I had feared. I was relieved at that. No one, however, spoke to the issue of alienation. No one had anything to say about the mess threatening to consume us.


I returned home in a funk, completely convinced that I had chosen the wrong profession. Eleven years of school, and now what was I to do?


What I was to do presented itself to me it seemed miraculously a few short weeks later. The dean of our school asked me to meet with a woman investigating the influence of the women's movement on academia. Indeed! I didn't know it had had one. She wanted to know what we as an institution were doing in feminist scholarship? Feminist scholarship? Such a thing could be? One could be a feminist, a scholar, and a philosopher all at the same time? Bonanza!


A few months later I attended a conference at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Some women scholars, including the provost of that institution, were gathering to explore the nature and possibilities of research and teaching from a feminist perspective. These were the days before there was "women's studies."


Here again I sat among more than a hundred scholars, this time, all women. Again there was a large room, only this one had tall windows open to the light. There were some upholstered chairs, hardback desk chairs, and sofas strewn about, facing each other. Women seated in small groups around the room were exchanging ideas and concerns, all extremely animated, full of enthusiasm, talking and listening and talking. There was the requisite microphone, this time a mobile one on a long cord so that it could be passed around the room, from one to another, giving as many people as possible an opportunity to address the issues at hand. It was a very early conference on feminist scholarship, and much had to be done.


These scholars were animated because they cared about the questions they were asking, the problems they were formulating. They were focussed on pressing needs, real and urgent.


Like myself, most of the early feminist theorists came to women's studies from activism on the streets, and from personal encounters with an implacable masculine system. They had endured battle after battle with an endless succession of opponents, heretofore rarely challenged: stubbornly conventional sexist families, patriarchal religions, an educational system that excluded them from the full range of possibilities and reinforced masculine interests, abusive marriages, forced motherhood, financial dependency, not to mention mortal danger on the streets and in their homes. Beyond that, they shared these perils and others with all other women, including those not in the room, not even in America, not able to speak or formulate explanations and devise solutions.


What was to become women's studies was a whole new methodology and area of investigation, one that mattered profoundly and was to become a powerful agent of insight and change not only in academia but in society and in people's lives.


For more than thirty years feminist scholars asked questions that changed the way we think and act, not just feminists, not just women, not just academicians, but all of us. The realization that what was called "knowledge" had been produced by men alone, less than fifty percent of the human population, and indeed by only a small portion of that less than fifty percent, created a revolution in scholarship, and from scholarship into society and into the world of law, medicine, government, business, the arts, and so on.


The books and papers coming out of feminist scholarship reinforced the actions on the street and vice versa. Feminists asked why sports and sports education was reserved for men only, when women had healthy bodies and enjoyed competition as well as men, and the rules were changed. They asked why the definition of self-defense was formulated in a masculine context (involving brute force against force) when women have to defend themselves against violent men in a very different way, and new law was written; and so on.


For years the vigor and originality of women's studies captivated students and scholars alike with the impact of its ideas. The term used most frequently by both groups was "life changing." And it was. It changed individual lives; it changed culture.


What made feminist scholarship so vibrant, so revelatory was its connection with "the street." Early controversy regarding the relative merits of theory versus activism, academicians versus street feminists, resolved itself in the idea that neither could be sufficiently effective without the other, that each supported the other, and both were stronger together. Feminist scholarship pointed the way to layer upon layer of explanation and solution to the struggles encountered by masses of women who might or might not know that women's studies even existed.


Women's studies grew. It attracted a second generation of scholars, and a third. There were spin-offs, among them men's studies and gender studies. Finally, gender scholarship became so popular, attracted so many, it found itself established. Courses evolved into programs and/or departments, minors, majors, and degree-granting specializations, even on the graduate level. It gave rise to sophisticated research, to books, journals, and associations.


And the associations held meetings, where people read papers.

And here the story takes turn.


The development of feminist research into a "legitimate" field of study in legitimate institutions has been a two edged sword. On the one hand feminist research has gained serious attention, had major impact on thought itself, and generated a great deal of insight and information. On the other hand, to a large degree it has morphed into the very kind of creature it took issue with three decades ago, and it is suffering many of the same tribulations.


Particularly in the United States feminist research is losing its punch. It has become academically respectable, and in so doing it has disconnected itself from "the street." In losing much of its intimate interconnection with activism and the people and problems for whom we act, women's studies' power to excite and persuade has deteriorated.


Contemporary feminist professors would rarely dream of picketing the woman-hating Victoria's Secret store, let alone smearing it with blood red paint, as many of the 70s generation of professors had. Encounters with the establishment, it used to be said, inform, excite, and raise the consciousness. They also change society. They also make our thinking robust. Many women's studies programs today fear to take on even the issue of reproductive freedom for fear of losing support. Instead, like other disciplines it used to take issue with, it is churning out mounds of material that speak to nothing and appeal mostly to practitioners in the field who earn a living paying attention to it.


Once feminist writing spoke so directly to the desperation of women, articles and theme papers were handed around from one to another like food and drink. Women battered by their men, stalked in the streets, starved by low paying jobs, rendered insensible by the walls of kitchens and nurseries, mutilated in mind and body by the religions,-- these were their topics. My textbook, Introduction to Women's Studies, started that way. I had collected about twenty pieces written by activists whose goals had been to describe, explain, and stir one to action. Each quarter I would copy them, arrange them into packets, and give them to the women in my classes. They would beg for more packets, to give to their mothers, or cousins, or friends, or . . . whomever, because these people needed this information. No problem. There were no copyrights to deal with or women who cared how many copies were made. We all wanted to solve the problems.


Today most introductory texts are collections of personal stories, biographies, and autobiographies of women from here and there, important content to clarify our differences, but  devoid of theory, and devoid of a call for involvement. Advanced works in feminist theory often sound like most advanced works in any other field; they dissect some argument now in vogue, and apply it to other issues now in vogue. One post-modernist tome, tres au courant, splitting the celebrated hair again and then again, concluded there were no such things as women. Well, that ought to sew it up. However, one little problem remains: If there are no such things as women, who's being raped and draped, and ordered to "graciously submit"?


Once women's studies became established, once the people connected to the street were replaced by second and third generation people attracted by the page, trained by the page, immersed in the page and not the problem, once the field affected to become respectable, and took to providing programs, degrees--and jobs, it had to play the game like everyone else: To keep your job, to raise your salary, to maintain respect for your department, you must churn out academic "stuff," and it must look like other academic "stuff." Whether it makes sense outside of professional expectations, whether it addresses itself to questions that truly matter is not of the greatest importance.


This is not a story about feminist research or women's studies alone. It is a story that raises a wider question: What is scholarship? What is good scholarship? What is great scholarship, and when does it go wrong?


What is the task of the scholar? Is it not to apply one's mind and heart, one's training and expertise to the puzzles and problems that beset existence as a whole and to do it in such a way that we improve life? Does it not ultimately come down to that? Isn't that what we profess? Small questions, minute issues, peculiar themes that we all get mired in at times might properly precede larger ones, but if they don't proceed to the larger ones, at least in theory, they are little more than word games, quite like the ones from the Sunday morning newspapers that we titillate ourselves with when we want to play.


There is a huge difference between a task and a job, and things have come to a pass in the academic community where one often threatens to interfere with the other. For raises or promotions or even to keep our livelihoods we are expected to "produce," even when we are not ready or able to do so. To build a reputation we must impress the academy, which often requires that we sound like every one else, use the latest language, address the fashionable questions. It is unlikely that a paper will find a "reputable" journal if it doesn't treat a "reputable" subject in the expected way, or that a book will sell or garner attention if it is deemed outre by those in the know, and so on.


Fads, fashions, and games threaten to squash great scholarship. Brave and admirable is the scholar who resists.