We recently attended the annual conference of the peak scholarly body in our field. These conferences are great – always warmly supportive of established and new academics. On the last day, most of us packed into a large lecture theatre to listen to the plenary speaker. Natalie was buzzing after chairing a fantastic panel on Indigenous storytelling and the ways we can more meaningfully incorporate this into our teaching pedagogies. As well as criticisms, the papers offered strategies for moving forwards and some models that could be used in research and the classroom. Enza had been to a session where presentations evocated discussion on the nature of imagination and play in research and knowledge generation in a contemporary world. We both walked into the auditorium brimming with ideas.
Plenaries can be conference highlights. Last year at two different conferences Tony Birch and Rita Felski delivered searing, thought-provoking plenary sessions, both of which have changed the way many in the audience teach, write and research. At this conference the plenary speaker was cloaked in impressive accolades: a Professor from the UK, a translator of and collaborator with a renowned French theorist, and the author of sixteen books. Most of his work looks at cultural fields, the ways these are created, and the dynamics within them. It looked like it would be an interesting talk.
‘The Professor’ proceeded to talk for forty minutes about music as well as other artistic endeavours such as literature and visual art. To ‘map the field’ he dropped names like boiled sweets – John Keats, Henry James, William Shakespeare, James Joyce, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Oscar Wilde, Jackson Pollock, Salvador Dali, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, The Beatles – do you see where we’re going yet?
In forty minutes he managed to discuss the work of 44 male artists influential to him and/or his biographical subject. When it came to women, he mentioned three (one of whom was only referred to as someone’s mother). Women musicians, as well as artists and writers, were made invisible, evidence of them and their work wiped from ‘the field’.
By the end of the talk, Natalie was exhausted and livid. She wanted, desperately, to ask The Professor how he had managed to overlook generations of female artists in all of these fields, but didn’t think she could ask the question in any civil way. She left.
Outside Natalie was joined by several other academics who had quietly walked out of address, and some who were too smart to go in in the first place. The academics Natalie spoke to included men and women from several different ethnic backgrounds. No-one could believe that at a conference in a creative field in Australia in 2016, a plenary speaker could be so blind to gender (and to race, for that matter – but that’s a whole other paper).
Sitting in the middle of a row, Enza couldn’t leave, instead complaining to her neighbours, all women, who nodded in frustrated agreement. When The Professor finally finished, a number of men in the audience raised their hands and asked questions about methodology, about the period, about music. Fuming Enza raised her hand, ‘My question is about the women,’ she said, trying to phrase her question as politely as she could out of respect for the conference organisers. ‘Why is it that in your mapping of the field you have not mentioned women musicians at all?’
The Professor’s response; ‘Well the musician’s mother was important and he did have a wife …’
‘That was not my question,’ Enza called out, the microphone already out of reach.
He went on to tell us that the musician had a wife who was not musical but went along with him to gigs and collected the money. Another woman asked a question focusing on the fact that his examples were all also predominantly white men. Again The Professor shrugged the question off, saying something about his subject being a man, and that you can’t include everyone.
Over lunch many other academic women joined in critiquing The Professor and it became obvious that the silencing of women artists we had just witnessed in the plenary session had infuriated many of us.
The experience prompted several issues. Most disturbing was that so many of us – strong, articulate feminist academics – had just sat there, mute, polite, civil, while this man spoke of three artistic fields in such a way to erase women’s contributions entirely. Why didn’t more of us ask questions, or storm out? We had the numbers on our side in this particular gathering (women outnumber men in the creative writing field). The Professor’s talk not only made women invisible but it silenced those present – why? Was it because of the work so many good women had put into the conference organising, and our desire to not make trouble for them, to not be those feminist ‘killjoys’? Was it because academia is so hierarchical and the ‘authority’ we bestow on senior white male academics seems impossible to challenge even when their work is so obviously flawed? Or were we so exhausted, angry and frustrated by the continual dismissal of women that we did not have the energy to fight?
The Professor was not aware, or did not care, that he was addressing a roomful of women academics and that most of us are practising artists as well. We publish books and win awards. Why didn’t The Professor take his audience into account when preparing for this talk – what stopped him mentioning names such as Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickenson, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Sylvia Plath? Surely he could have mentioned Margaret Preston, Georgia O’Keefe or Louise Bourgeois? And if he wanted to talk about female folk singers, then there are women like Odetta, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez as well as countless others who have made significant and lasting contributions to shaping that genre. Yet these women’s names, as well as the names of artists of colour who have played a major role in shaping contemporary music across genres, were all omitted.
This smacks of academic laziness – a laziness resulting in research that continues to promote the work of white men, while rendering women and people of colour invisible.
This has made us think about the importance of vetting keynote speakers. When speakers actively silence their audience and ignore questions raised, then not much can be learned. Indeed, such a response is a disservice to all attendees of academic conferences.
But the experience also makes us think that it is time to re-evaluate how we determine whose work is of merit, whose work is funded and published. If a scholar is cloaked in accolades, as The Professor is, but actively ignores everyone other than white male authors and artists, then how comprehensive can his knowledge be? We need to stop thinking of these concerns simply as issues of diversity or inclusion, and rather as the actual foundation of what we call academic knowledge.