Recently, Terence Kealey, vice-chancellor of the UK’s only private university, wrote a piece referring to attractive undergraduate women as a perk of lectureship. The Times Higher Education Supplement published it as part of a broader piece on “the seven deadly sins of the academy”. Laura Woodhouse of the F-word blog and I had pretty much the same initial reaction to it: “I hate to be juvenile but, really, fuck you.” The good news is that enough criticism came in that both the Times and Dr. Kealey felt obliged to respond.
How do you defend the indefensible? The editor, Ann Mroz, made reference to her gender, free speech, and robust debate. I’m not sure that her gender is sufficient qualification for deciding that whether young women should be regarded as objects by men who are paid to help them learn is an appropriate subject for debate. I am sure, however, that the vice-chancellor of any university is unlikely to be silenced simply because a single piece of his, invited or not, is rejected. In fact, I’d wager that most academics have had an article or two rejected and not felt that it was a restriction on their free speech.
As for Dr. Kealey’s response, it’s a bit wordy but basically comes down to three points:
- I deserve a cookie for telling lecturers to look at students but not touch them.
- It was satire.
- Because I used a literary device and people criticizing me didn’t identify it (at least not explicitly), their criticisms are invalid.
That he thinks point one is valid suggests a total lack of empathy. He fails to understand that women do notice when men are looking at our breasts instead of our eyes, for instance. If a young woman has the impression that a professor is thinking of her primarily as a sex object, it may make her too uncomfortable to approach him for help—whether with an essay or, later on, when she is looking for letters of reference.
As for the second point, I can only surmise that Dr. Kealey doesn’t really understand how satire works (nor apparently does the editor who also made this argument). A Modest Proposal worked because it suggested something that everyone knew to be objectionable. If Swift had merely repeated a hard line stance against aiding the poor of Ireland, it would not have been satire. Granted, that essay is in the Juvenalian mode; the Horatian mode (which includes everything from The Rape of the Lock to The Simpsons) is less harsh. As both of those examples show, however, for satire to be effective there must be some exaggeration or indication of absurdity. Merely “employing the good ol’ boy language of middle aged male collusion” (and later claiming that this is somehow transgressive) is not sufficient.
Along those lines, regarding point three, I would suggest that in the future Dr. Kealey use literary devices properly if he wishes his audience to recognize them.
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