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When Murder is Academic: A Brief Tutorial on Academic Life

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Yesterday I read about Amy Bishop, the academic who opened fire on her colleagues during a department meeting, killing three. The media consensus at the time circled around "having been recently denied tenure" as a motive. Today, Glenn Beck blames the radical ideology he most fears, misunderstands, and mistakenly assumes has overrun American universities for this horrifying event.

I've been an academic for 25 years, and I am here to tell you universities are not the hot-beds of liberal thinking and radical ideology so many think they are. All my degrees are in the humanities; all my jobs have been in departments of "liberal" arts. Even in departments claiming to teach critical thinking, to promote openness to new ideas, and to practice the religion of liberality, gender and class hierarchies are fixed, closely guarded and quite conservative.

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Being denied tenure is no true motive for violence, and Ms. Bishop was a demonstrably troubled person who committed earlier crimes free of the pressures of the tenure process. But, both guesses at motive illustrate how deeply misunderstood higher education and those who teach there are within the larger culture. Academe is not an easy place to exist if one is a woman, or a person of color or gay. The myth of the cushy, politically-correct, hyper-liberal academic grows out of work produced by a small minority of institutions. Even within these institutions, publishing and pumping out literary theorists of the post-modern set, women are a minority; power is maintained by a small, well-connected and largely white/male population.

We dream of department citizenship and believe in universities grounded in democratic notions of fair play. But we do not live in such a place.

Sitting at lunch with a friend yesterday, I observed the university community around us: the Smug Table of Smug Men: those secure in their tenure, their influence, their academic cache which begins and ends in white skin and the male gender. The Smug Ones enjoy reduced teaching loads, gained through exotic research projects, or calculated moves into administration, or reputation as "too busy with his latest project." Behind me, a junior professor (what we kindly label Tenure Eligible, promising nothing) who talks a bit too loudly, nervous about "the letter" and what it will mean once it appears in his next evaluation. The Letter will likely be written by a committee of Smug Ones, who neither appreciate nor entirely understand Tenure Eligible's work. They will feel no compunction undermining him, and promoting themselves as they execute this small task.To our right, two female professors, Tenure-Eligible-and-Female, clearly working to find their way through academic life as women: one dresses a bit too aggressively, the other too flirtatiously. Their conversation is smart and reflects good educations and critical minds; still, they are burdened with self-conscious body language and an unwillingness to meet their colleagues' eyes.

And my table, here the two of us sit, mid-career, with several articles, a book a piece, heavy teaching loads, and a full plate of committee work and student projects. We are the Department Proletariat, performing service the Smug Ones are simply too busy to help with and the Tenure Eligible too inexperienced. We are the good citizens, having believed all these years that department service, a respectable research agenda, and dedication to teaching would earn us a measure of, if not professional status, then surely minimal respect--and perhaps a travel budget.

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I wouldn't harm my colleagues, cannot understand what Amy Bishop did to hers. But I do understand academic frustration that grows out of the invisible forces that seem to control our destinies, the "letter" included in the tenure file, the apparently arbitrary doling out of funds or offices, and (I am not making this up)pens and letterhead.

And I understand too well the wall of privilege some of us feel we pound against day after day, women, academics of color and garden variety professors (of all genders, all colors) who want not to undermine, or over rule, or bilk, but to do good work and to feel they are appreciated. To feel they are seen by the institution, their colleagues, the "system." On top of it all, we are maligned in the media, or portrayed as lazy, having taken the easy way, not part of "the real world." Academe is the "real world" in small, pressurized form that can be misery-making.

I don't understand or condone violence, but on days like this one, at this lunch, I understand anger.

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Kellie Bean has been a Professor of English at Marshall University, an Associate Dean of Liberal Arts, and most recently, Provost of a small New England College. Author of "Post-Backlash Feminism: Women and the Media Since Reagan/Bush" (McFarland (more...)

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