Avital Ronell and A Bunch of Dudes

So to get you normal people caught up, the scandal surrounding surrounding Avital Ronell at NYU, here’s a description, along with (PAY ATTENTION PHD STUDENT AND NONFICTION WRITERS) the point of the entire essay stated in the first sentence from Fordham’s Leonard Cassuto: 


It shouldn’t take a case like Avital Ronell’s to make us pay attention to graduate advising. Ronell, a professor of philosophy at New York University, was recently suspended from teaching for a year for the sexual harassment of Nimrod Reitman, one of her former Ph.D. advisees. Reitman, who had brought a Title IX complaint against Ronell after he graduated, has further claimed that Ronell’s lukewarm recommendations have hindered his search for an academic job. Ronell disputes all the charges.

This case is strange for many reasons. One is that Ronell is female and Reitman is male — an inversion of the usual pattern for sexual-harassment cases. Further, Ronell is a prominent scholar. And the kicker: Ronell is lesbian, and Reitman is gay. The two have been flinging he said/she said barbs at each other since his accusations went public. More than 50 scholars signed an open letter of protest of NYU’s investigation, and now that the university found that he was sexually harassed, Reitman has sued NYU for damages.

“What Happens to #MeToo When a Feminist Is the Accused?” asked The New York Times.”Groping professor Avital Ronell and her ‘cuddly’ Nimrod Reitman see kisses go toxic,” said Britain’s The Times. The public fascination is no wonder. This is bizarre stuff.

It is, but it isn’t.  This has the feel of a “Man Bites Dog” story, and thus we have it in the BLOODY  New York Times which has apparently lost its mind again:  What happens to #MeToo When a Feminist is Accused? 

Well, bloody nothing.  First of all, just being queer doesn’t mean you are feminist, and just because you are feminist—and I have real questions about whether Ronell is or isn’t one—doesn’t mean you will never abuse your position.  Even posing this headline this way pisses me off as how it illustrates the NYT’s desire to have it both ways, to be the grey lady, while also dog-whistling to the worst in us. Har, har. This’ll give those feminists their comeuppance and douse some fires on this whole #MeToo thing.  

I have to start by saying I personally have not found Ronell’s work particularly useful over the years, at the same time that her advisor, Derrida, who has some big coattails, was pretty important to my own ways of thinking about the world.

 I’ve generally considered Ronell to be one of those few women who could gull their way through the university’s star system, which, by the way,  is actually one of the villains here (SEE STUDENTS, I’M NOT NEARLY AS GOOD AS CASSUTO, BURYING MY LEAD HERE.)  Post-modern universities give most of the work to adjuncts and then use media to flog a small number of their “stars.” Who are these people?  Who can explain this?  They look good, they are stylish, they write their own Wikipedia pages, they get on great with deans and higher-ups, they network like crazy,  and they in no way REALLY challenge existing social or economic relationships. And, notably, they get their work done.  Avital Ronell fit this bill very well, with her pixie-ish looks (not a criticism) and her connections to one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century, and, in turn, her control over a department at one of the exclusive privates just outside the Ivies. 

If there were a recipe for this academic scandal to get into the mainstream, it’s this one with Ronell: Man bites dog, yes, but then 50 other superstar academics did her the great “favor” off condemning the investigation—let’s repeat this, condemning the investigation–in an openly circulated letter arguing (REALLY BADLY) that because she’s such a precious little genius and so playfully queer that her behavior somehow can’t be judged by the rest of us (puke)–and thereby making the holy bejeezuz damn sure that the WORLD was doing to pay attention to Ronell’s disgrace granted their own star status. Like, somehow, they don’t know how this works, only they do, because they’ve done every play in the star playbook to get where they are.

Honestly, with this set up, why are we surprised that malignant narcissists make their way into these star positions then make others miserable, which is exactly what it sounds like Ronell did.  I have no doubt that some of the people on the 50 scholar list were well-intended but oye what were you thinking? 

The key to understanding this is 1) the man bites dog story of the malignant behavior in  question coming  from a queer woman versus the 2) everyday story of the malignant narcissists in star positions is that men dominate in high-status, perk-laden positions and women don’t. It’s not that feminists are immune (though I would hope our training would make us more reflexive leaders, nothing is certain). It isn’t that men are swine, and women are naturally more moral. It’s that our structures make it unusual for a woman for Ronell to make into the star space in the first place because of patriarchal suppositions about who is allowed to be on top of anything.

The reason for the “Bunch of Dudes” in the title is that I want to point out, without any real sympathy (or derision) for Ronell (as i don’t know what happened beyond the structure that allowed it because that structure is everywhere in research universities), that male privilege is even at work here. Her disgrace follows her by name because of women’s oppression in these spaces. Her uniqueness means her name and her face are imprinted. But when you are a sexual harasser amongst a big, long list of dudes, you’re just another one of the dudes. You might face some consuquences–you might–but the NYT won’t be all over you the same way, nor will there likely to be one salacious, score-settling article after another one denouncing you. Because the male harassers’ field is crowded, and womens’ is not, well, stand-outs in the second get the full measure of public censure.

It’s important to point out that plenty of us in the academy have both tenure and accountability. As Cassuto points out, the answer is institute genuine post-tenure reviews and systems of accountability that disallow the nonsense that Ronell’s dean let her do–both in graduate advising and everything else. Granted, my dean knew me from when I came up as an assistant, but I can’t imagine in a million years pulling what Ronell appears to have done (and that I have seen white het cis male scholars do all the time) just on an everyday basis without getting hauled over the carpet for it, either by my dean or my senior colleagues.

Regardless of the various salaciousness of the details, students deserve better than the nonsense of hot-and-cold advising, which is at the very least what happened here. If you have a problem with a student’s work, it needs to *be worked out* with you and the rest of the committee. Students should have *multiple mentors* they can rely on for support and advice, including the advice that the academy maybe is not the place for them if they really don’t fit in it, for what ever reasons. And it’s not just students. The rest of us need these things,too.

Even, and especially, stars.

My Slow Professor Reflections/Rules

Hi everybody!!! I’m back after three weeks of sad computer and even sadder WordPress issues! I think we have all made friends again.

I have been thinking about about what it means to be a slow professor, and in particular I have been reflecting on the privilege embedded in the concept of taking your time in an academy that wants you to publish like you are spitting out widgets (or you are fired) and that presses so much work from adjuncts and staff that the academy itself becomes indistinguishable from the worst corporate citizens.

As a full professor in this system, I do have a lot of privilege, but it seems to me that means slowness matters even more with privilege. Slowness is not just for yourself, to protect your health or to protect to your own time with your own family. It IS for those things. Slowness is about making time for what is important and what is not.

1. Slowness means that as a full professor, I bring *reasonable expectations for productivity* to evaluating tenure and promotion cases that I have been given to evaluate. None of this “in my day I had to have 39 papers and $50 million” bull crap.

2. Slowness means that I stand up and *refuse* to let my colleagues dismiss or count against time junior colleagues have taken for parental leave when we are evaluating deservingness for promotion.

3. Slowness means that when I can do work for overloaded colleagues, particularly other women and especially women of color, I volunteer to do it out of respect for their time if there is any I can fit the task into my existing workload.

4. Slowness means that if I see work, crappy teaching times, or an overload of difficult classes fall onto adjuncts, I step up and take the icky teaching time or one of the classes. Cheerfully.

5. Slowness means I take time to speak up and speak out for others in the institution who are not as protected as I am from blowback.

6. Slowness means I respect other people’s time as much as my own, so that I support benefits and leave time for _all employees_, support attempts to unionize contingent faculty and at-will staff.

7. Slowness means that if any of my colleagues have a childcare glitch, my office and my time are open. I love kids, I hate work, and I love visitors, snacks and games, so I’m always here. If they need me to fill in for them on a class, I am willing to do so.

8. Slowness means I have time for students’ problems, all their problems, from their problems in my class to their professional and personal worries. This is particularly important. I let time go lightly when I am with students. Nothing helps people grow more than time. I don’t know what quality time is. I just have regular old time. It is meant to be shared.

9. All of the above is the same for colleagues, too. I am here, fully here, to listen and help whenever I can.

10. I have time to speak to injustice, abuse, and harm in every institution I belong to. I have time to apologize, properly, when I do something wrong. I hate time to learn to do better for my students, my peers, my colleagues, my neighborhoods and my friends in supporting them as they speak their truths.

Bonus point: Slowness recognizes that it is a privilege to serve other people.

Normalizing versus learning to cope with failure and rejection

This week, Twitter saw the advent of a hashtag I’m kind of conflicted about: #ShareYourRejection. It was primarily for writers because there rejection is everyday, even for established writers, and because you have to contend with it. I brought it into academic Twitter because I think these things are equally as important for academics, specifically young academics…but I have to remind myself a lot, too, and I am not young by any means.

The criticism arises that the ability to share your rejections and failures openly is a function of privilege. Undoubtedly. There is part of me, however, that thinks it’s a good use of privilege, to show that even those whom you may think are past all that are not. Most definitely not.

Some of these stories turned into humblebrags: this editor rejected me, another one finally took the book and it went on to win awards etc and then that editor died of shame. I think sometimes even these stories can be helpful. Marty Wachs told me a story of somewhat similar ilk, not at all humblebraggy, that sustained me through many rejections and that I still tell to my own students.

My shared stories of rejection were not nearly as triumphant. These involved my advisor rejecting me for a book editor job when he was a journal editor–without a word of “sorry, kid, I had to go another direction” and my colleagues rejecting me for a leadership position here.

I have never gotten over these, and I should. A smarter, tougher, more seasoned academic would put it away, compartmentalize it, not think about it. Instead, though each happened years ago, they still hurt, and I don’t have anything triumphant about them to relate now.

Actually, a bit of schadenfreude, I guess. By shooting me down when I tried to lead at USC, my colleagues gave me the time and space, as I changed from ambitious young faculty member to jaded older faculty member, to learn that I was perfectly happy *not* leading anything at USC (or anywhere else).

People in normal organizations will wonder why that matters. Academics will understand that is a major, major problem to have tenured faculty who have no interest in running things. I remember when I was talking with John Randolph, a colleague of mine at VT, about it and he shook his head. “They are going to regret that.”

Nobody mentored me out of this problem, and I’ve never wrapped my own head around it to come up with other ideas, so I never got over it, and now I am pretty convinced that my lack of ambition towards other scholarly roles is just as well because I would probably be *inherently* bad at them. We’ll likely not know now.

These two moments of rejection hurt so much because they are those that remind one that you just aren’t a favored child–and I never was one. If you have autism or Asperger’s, you are never the favored child. You are loved *despite* who you are. You are not easy. You are awkward, weird, often embarrassing. Going places with you involves shame. It’s clear to everybody that you are burden instead of a joy. You don’t relate to people the right way. When you are never golden child, you know it. And it hurts. And reminders of that hurt sting, even as you grow into the person you are and the realization that for you, at least, to be is to be singular, alone, with the human relations extended to you caveated, asterisked.

Book recommendation: I really liked Gavin Shatkin’s Cities for Profit: The Real Estate Turn in Asian Cities

Info first: I am not paid to review books here, nor do publishers seek out my attention, nor do I sell advertising. I’m just hanging out here, talking about what I think.

Here is the cover, which I don’t love but as we know, that’s not the author’s fault. My problem is that it looks like a lot of other covers. I get why book designers do this for Los Angeles, and it’s not as though freeways can’t represent the Asian megacities. But it just makes the book more generic than it is.


It’s available from Cornell University Press, in paperback (still speedy, but much better than the hardback), and it’s definitely worth a look in your university library if you can find a copy.

Shatkin is a terrific writer and thinker, and in this book he discusses the “real estate turn” in Asian cities with a focus on mega projects in Jakarta, Kolkata, and Chongqing. I didn’t keep track of the number of projects he discusses in each of these cities, but it’s quite a few, so much so that I had to make a little graph to keep track of them. As it is, he finds a lot of common factors across these projects, and one of the most notable is the cities’ willingness to change the value of land underneath people and shake them off it like grains of sand from a beach towel (my characterization, not his, which is much more careful).

In particular, Shatkin highlights the governing dynamics of urban very large planned urban developments (what some of us call MegaProjects). When these cities seek major redevelopment, they aren’t mucking around: the Bukit Jonggol Asri development in just south of Jakarta comprised of 30,000 hectares, which was about half the size of Jakarta’s entire geographic footprint at the time.

Shatkin’s story is one about economic elites controlling city developments agendas in new, brash ways, with CEO politicians driving the decision-making. We’ve always had giant-ego CEOs extending their leadership into city-making and planned urban developments. They are always the smartest boy urbanist in any room. This is different, however, from PUDs of the past, notably for their displacement and market dominance potential.

One case study, Magarpatta City, Shatkin portrays as a qualified success in presenting an alternative model to corporate control over vast swaths of urban land. Instead, a collective of farming families there worked ahead of the development they could see coming from the growth of the Pune, a big IT center. But Shatkin asks the key question: is this model replicable? And the answer is likely no. The families are far from impoverished peasants: they are instead a group of market-dominant, related families who wielded significant political and economic power through Pune’s sugar industry. This is a story about elites swapping horses with other elites instead of what has appeared throughout the rest of the urbanizing globe: step 1 take from poor people based on some modernization or modernization rationale, step 2 build, baby, build; step 3 watch the money fall into specific pockets.

For students reading, please pay attention to his methods. The key to rigor in qualitative research is triangulating evidence from multiple sources, if you can possibly do so. Here are Shatkin’s sources:

interviews, site visits, government and nongovernmental organization reports and data,plans, architectural renderings, annual reports and promotional materials from developers, and newspaper and other media accounts.

And while he’s not strict or tedious about triangulating, he does fine. He’s got the receipts, as they say.

Policy expertise versus policy loudmouths, yet more on rent control

So a self-appointed policy expert with 76 followers came at me yesterday to explain that rent control is just plain bad governance, has nothing to do with capitalism/socialism or labor no matter how much armchair rhetoric I do on it. Rent control harms communities period, the end, there is no debate.

This person has to be a troll trying to waste my time because that comment is just silly.


Of course, there are only about eleventy billion case histories, from around 1845 onward (props to whoever guesses the references) on the political economy of development coalitions showing how renters and communities are harmed rather routinely by new development. I am going to highlight one of my favorite books from this year later in the week on just this topic.

Why do the anti-rent control studies get to rule the day for policy but not the abundant evidence we have that development itself can cause tremendous harm to impoverished people and renters? Because unlike we scientifical neoclassically trained economists, those little community studies are done by people with a (gasp!) political agenda! Unlike wonderful, objective us. Our studies are just so durn wonderful that our Complete Objectivity(TM) affirms our priors. Yay,us.

If you actually believe this, I got a fancy bridge in New York to sell you.

Thus, Richard Green basically demonstrates why he is one of my favorite colleagues:

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There you have the difference between an actual policy expert and some loudmouth who thinks his beliefs are answers. Anybody who studies policy knows seriously that we don’t know as much as we’d really like to. We have to make decisions with imperfect information–otherwise we would get nothing done. And waiting too long to do something can be just as bad, if not worse, than doing nothing.

But all that should make us go forward with humility and flexibility. A great deal of policy is judgment, sadly. Richard’s judgment on rent control is “no.” I get why Richard reads the literature the way he does.

My judgment is…”I wouldn’t rule it out right away granted our existing conditions. There are some debatable things here. What is the specific proposal?” No, I wouldn’t get on board with a policy covering all LA County in perpetuity. But around a specific development project instead of limp “community benefits” nobody delivers? I’d read the proposal, for sure.


Now, Richard is an economist and a MAN and all, and he’s taking my “It’s kinda debatable” seriously even if he is a no, so can ya just respect him a little and get outta my face?

So here’s another one of my genuinely brilliant colleagues: Antonio Bento.

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Now, you would have to be some special onions to be smarter than Antonio even if you have convinced yourself you are smarter than me because Antonio and Richard are both very sharp. And Antonio is willing to grant I have a point– noting that ‘second-best’ part.

Ultimately, I have questions about just how big a trough we have in calling something “second-best” versus “third-best” versus “oh ratpoop, it’s all FUBAR” when it comes to housing and land. When I get musing about UBIs, people jump on me and say “landlords will just up rents by X amount.” Now that is a straight-up market power argument even if it’s not couched as such. There are always theoretical and empirical questions, and these questions are not analytically straightforward by any means.

When you think about it, all I am really saying is that if you want to take rent control off the table and you want it to stay off, you should probably come up with a better idea for renters and laborers than “Oh, just let us build what we want, it will trickle down in time. We’ll take care of ya.” Otherwise people will use democratic politics to use whatever influence they can vis-a-vis the long odds of development politics against them.

And they should.