Lorenzo & his humble friends

The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool

Tag: academia

Looks are a danger

Jelena, who is one of my bosses at EUDO Citizenship, published a short article for Dangerous Women, part of a project that asks the question What does it mean to be a ‘dangerous woman’? Jelena writes about her experience as a tall and well dressed woman in the academia. The article starts like this:

– Why didn’t we become friends earlier on?

– I was afraid of you.

– Why?

– You are so tall. That is scary. And you are all well-groomed and always have a nice nail polish.

– I am not sure I understand.

– You know, it is not too common for a woman to be that tall. And I am sorry to break this to you, but women who take care of their appearance the way you do are considered shallow in academia.

– Oh, I see.

Recalling this conversation with a now close friend of mine, it came to my mind that the original version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was entitled First Impressions. If I remember correctly, Fitzwilliam Darcy’s first impression of Elizabeth Bennet was that she was ‘tolerable; but not handsome enough […]’. Be it fiction or fact, and as much as we would like it to be otherwise, we are judged by appearances: our height, weight, the way we dress or comb our hair all determine how we will be perceived by others and how we will establish the grounds of our interaction with the outside world.

Obviously, and as it has happened in Austen’s novel (and in my life on various occasions), these initial first impressions can change. That, however, requires social contacts that unfold in a setting where questions of character, intelligence, and mutual understanding prevail over initial perceptions of one’s appearance. With the increasing reliance on digital and social media that advance particular visions of women, establishing such contacts in the personal sphere has become tremendously difficult. Equally, many professional circles have come to embrace a particular vision of a way their female employee should look. At this point, I would dare you to think of a woman who is a lawyer, or a chemist, a politician, a store manager, a CEO of a company, a soldier, or a socialite and not to have at least an idea of their appearance. And here I do not refer only to imagining their ‘uniform’ if they have any, but also to their facial features, body types, hair and makeup. I assume that with a few culture-specific exceptions, we will have thought of quite a few similar traits. Maybe we share some of them.

Maybe we are defined by appearances. 

Our dangerous looks.

I am six feet tall and there’s little I can do about that. I never asked for my height and unlike those unhappy with their breasts, noses, lips, or sex, I cannot change it. Well, at least not without seriously endangering my health. I have read a piece about how between the 1950s and 1990s, tall teenage girls were ‘treated’ with synthetic oestrogen (DES) because their height was seen as ‘abnormal’ and it hardly fit the pattern of what is culturally and socially accepted as ‘femininity’ (Jakobsen 2011). As absurd as it may sound, being tall was considered a medical condition and DES treatments set off both ethical questions – such as the girls’ consent – as well as the medical ones. More recent studies have shown that side effects of DES treatment included irregular period, ovarian cysts, excessive vaginal discharge, galactorrhea (leakage from breasts), blood clots and breast cancer (Rayner, et al. 2010). Paradoxically, the treatment designed to make tall women’s ‘shoe fit’ the societally acceptable pattern of a feminine appearance had adverse effects on women’s primary sexual characteristics.

If you want to read the rest of the article clic here.

Academia, here I come

I had a good talk with Jonas last week – in fact we had many, but the one I am referring to now was probably the only serious discussion we had. Ever. We spoke of academic writing and its needless complexity. This is a recurring annoyance in my research field. I am not going to talk about economics or law, because perhaps complexity is necessary to fully grasp the kind of problems faced by these disciplines. In politics, however, I can assure you can virtually always write simply and clearly. But of course, it ain’t easy.

For more than half the papers I read it takes me a lot of time to decode what the actual meaning of the text is. It is not necessarily that I am slow – in fact it has been shown that academic prose is often so riddled with professional jargon and needlessly complex syntax that even someone with a Ph.D. can’t understand a fellow Ph.D.’s work. This I could accept – if only it were effective. But the problem is most of these papers have nothing to say. Take an academic article that has been published today. This is the concluding paragraph (spoiler!):

A project that should revolve around the will to build a demystified political reality in which the legitimacy of power rests on its capacity to preserve the rights and liberties of citizens and to guarantee a reasonable distribution of goods and services, and not at all on the fulfilment of a national being.

I read this kind of stuff and I feel insulted. It is not only unpleasant to read: it is also empty. Jonas and I came to the conclusion that complexity is normally used to hide a utter void in the message. I looked it up a bit, and found this study showing that “a majority of undergraduates admit to deliberately increasing the complexity of their vocabulary so as to give the impression of intelligence”. If you have nothing to say, just pack a sequence of overly complicated sentences, spice it up with some jargon and you will do the trick of impressing your audience. A needlessly complex text is obscure, vague, and ambivalent; so of course it is much harder to debate. A straightforward, clear, and direct text is easier to criticize, because it conveys a clear message.

academia-billwatterson

To write clearly is not easy; and by opening up your message you might actually be exposed to criticism. But, on the other hand, it is probably the only way to convey a message. All the rest falls inevitably victim of demystified realities where enduring imbalances of power make it complicated to protect one’s liberty to express herself in front of legitimate public audience whilst not hampering her self-determination capacity and individual fulfilment.