Dankprofessor’s Weblog

A weblog examining sexual politics in higher education and beyond.

Oxford as a “sexist little dump”

Ruth Padel was elected to the position of Oxford Professor Of Poetry after Derek Walcott withdrew as a candidate once allegations surfaced that Walcott had been involved in sexually harassing students.  But now Padel has resigned from the professorship after serving for only 9 days.  Such was the case after Padel admitted that she played a role in having the press cover Walcott’s sexual harassment history.

A number of the British literati were disturbed by the resignation.

Novelist Jeanette Winterson said: “It’s a pity she has been backed into a corner. What she has done is so much more ­trivial than her contribution to poetry. This feels malicious and nasty. We ought to be able to look beyond the woman to the poetry. This is a way of reducing women; it wouldn’t have happened to a man. But then Oxford is a sexist little dump.”

Now wasn’t this in essence what the defenders of Walcott had said- that we ought to look beyond the man to his poetry; that what he had done is so much more trivial than his contribution to poetry; that this would not have happened to a woman. 

But when Winterson characterizes Oxford as “a sexist little dump” such goes beyond the poetic fringe.  In the dankprofessor’s opinion,  the Oxford debacle represents a form of poetic license, of poets running amok.

May 25, 2009 Posted by | ethics, feminism, higher education, Oxford College, poets, sex, sexual harassment, sexual politics, United Kingdom | 1 Comment

Poetry, poets and sex

Poets have been making the headlines over the last couple of weeks, not in the USA, but in the UK.  Ruth Padel is now Britain’s first female Oxford Professor of Poetry.  Initially such was quite unexpected. Heavily favored to assume the Oxford Professor of Poetry was Caribbean Nobel laureate Derek Walcott. But Walcott dropped out of the race at the last moment, and a race it was, which made Padel the leading vote getter.

Walcott dropped out since he did not want to publicly engage in a controversy concerning his past sexual behavior.  As reported by the Guardian’s Katy Evan’s Bush-

“…an anonymous “smear” campaign alerted between 50 and 200 academics to his history of sexual harassment, as recounted in a 1984 book called The Lecherous Professor. John Walsh (an “old friend” of Padel’s) tore strips off Walcott…Accusations and recriminations flew and Walcott withdrew, saying he had never commented on the matter and wasn’t about to. Padel was voted in with her detractors’ boots in her back.

…Walcott was disciplined by Harvard University in 1982 (after which the university updated its sexual harassment policy) and settled out of court with another student, Nicole Niemi (now Kelby), at Boston University in 1996. He justified himself on the first occasion saying his teaching style was “deliberately personal and intense”. In fact, it was so intense, according to the student who complained, that after she refused his advances, he refused to discuss her work and gave her a C, which the university later raised to a pass.”

Ms. Evan-Bush goes on to state-

Whether or not you think this should bar Walcott from the Oxford professorship, the lack of clarity around the terms of the debate is disturbing. The press refers to “smears” against Walcott. “Smears” means slanderous untruths; Walcott has admitted making some of the comments attributed to him, been disciplined, had his grade reviewed, and settled out of court.

It may have been settled out of court and Walcott demurs to engage in the court of public opinion and withdraws from the Oxford candidacy, but the “victim” of his 1996 sexual harassment, Nicole Kelby, finds the whole thing quite unsettling.  She feels that Walcott should be the Oxford Professor of Poetry-

I am appalled and saddened by the anonymous smear campaign against my former mentor Derek Walcott. Everyone has a right to face his or her accusers. That’s why I sued Boston University. I wanted to discover if Professor Walcott was actually harassing me. At first, I thought he was joking. Anyone who knows him knows that it is his way to be sexual, to push the envelope of both decorum and good taste. I didn’t really want to think that this man whom I placed so much trust in, and had so much affection for, would actually be bartering sex for favours. It didn’t seem possible. But as events unfolded, I needed clarification.

Do I think that it’s appropriate for a professor to joke about sex with a student? No. I do not. Many years ago my daughter Hannah died, so I understand how dangerous the world can be. As a mother, I can not tolerate the idea of a young woman being harassed. Sexual harassment is not about lust, it is about asserting power over the powerless.

However, while I believe that it is not appropriate to be sexual towards students, I also realize that it happens. Writers, by nature, have reckless hearts. Poetry is a passionate art. That is why it is crucial that institutions have strict policies against sexual harassment and are not too embarrassed to allow concerns to be heard. It is impossible to legislate behaviour, but to allow a student an opportunity to question behaviour in a safe and open forum is within our grasp. I believe that Oxford is capable of dealing with any situation of this nature.

Derek Walcott is not an evil man. Like any man, he is flawed. But, like any great man, he is retrospect and understands that his flaws are universal. And from them, he creates art.

His role in this society is crucial. Art forces our minds to reinvent what we think and so we build impossible buildings, find improbable cures and make changes that could never have been dreamed of before. With every artistic moment the paradigm shifts and civilisation grows stronger for it.
I can only hope that Oxford decides to stop the election and allow everyone more time to reconsider what has just happened. Derek Walcott should not walk away from this post. He is the greatest living poet in our time and what he has to say is vital to all of us.

Well, Oxford didn’t stop the election and as a result of a 27 year old Harvard sexual harassment case and a 1996 Boston University sexual harassment case in which the so-called victim now engages in the bizarre, Walcott is out.  In Kelby’s terms the paradigm shifts but the dankprofessor believes that civilisation has not grown stronger.

In fact the book in which the Walcott case was written up, THE LECHEROUS PROFESSOR, was a paradigm shifting book.  It was this book by Billie Dziech and Linda Weiner which put forth a previously bizarre notion that differential power precludes consent, that there can never be a consensual relationship between a student and a professor.  This idea galvanized the campus anti-sexual feminists at the time and ultimately led to the initiation of a campaign to ban all student professor sexual relationships.  Or to put it another way, the Dziech argument conflated sexual harassment and consensual relationships.  In terms of the Walcott case, if the student had protested that she had consented, no matter to Dziech, it is still sexual harassment. It also energized the dankprofessor who had always been wary of persons who wanted to take the right of sexual consent from others in the name of protecting them from themselves.

Unfortunately, universities throughout North America bought into this gibberish and power was taken away from student professor couples and the power was given to Big Brother and Big Sister administrators.  The damage was done and continues to be done, and is now being done in the UK.

And as for the successful moral campaign against Derek Walcott becoming the Oxford Professor of Poetry, it can be called many things, but one thing it cannot be called is poetic justice.

And one final question- What’s wrong with a poet/professor telling a joke about sex in front of a student???

May 24, 2009 Posted by | consensual relationships, ethics, higher education, Oxford College, passion, poets, sex, sexual harassment, sexual policing, sexual politics, student professor dating, United Kingdom | 1 Comment

   

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