Where I Am

I haven’t posted anything on this blog in several months, and I’d like to write about what happened and explain where I am now.

I was recently an Assistant Professor of Japanese in the Department of Modern and Classical Languages at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. I went up for tenure promotion to Associate Professor at the beginning of the Spring 2020 semester. My first monograph, Manga Cultures and the Female Gaze, was scheduled to be published in November 2019. Unfortunately, due to pandemic-related printing delays on the Asian side of the production chain, the publication date was pushed back to April 2020.

In January 2020, when my tenure case was reviewed, the effects of the pandemic were not yet widely understood. It therefore seemed as though there was an unexplained problem with the publication of the monograph, and my tenure promotion was denied. The expectation seemed to be that I would resubmit my case once the book was published. When it became clear that the pandemic would have long-term consequences, however, the university declared a hiring freeze.

George Mason University has a policy that professors who are denied tenure must wait a certain number of years (depending on previous rank) before applying for a non-tenure position. Without a secure source of income for the Fall 2020 semester or any guarantee of employment after that, I was forced to leave the university and relocate from Washington DC to Philadelphia, where I accepted a one-semester adjunct position at the University of Pennsylvania. I am currently retained by the university in an unpaid capacity as a “research associate” at the Center for East Asian Studies.

At least, this is the story on paper.

What actually happened is that I was harassed by my older male department chair in the Department of Modern and Classical Languages at George Mason University. This continued for years, and everything I did to address the problem was ignored by the institution.

After four years of dealing with a hostile workplace environment, I developed an anxiety disorder that was just as physical as it was mental. In a last-ditch effort to remedy the situation, I attempted to declare a disability with George Mason University’s Center for Compliance, Diversity, and Ethics, which administers Americans with Disabilities Act provisions for faculty. The provisions I requested were that my department chair have nothing to do with my tenure case, and that I would have no interactions with the department chair (including attending department meetings) for a full semester so that I could distance myself from any immediate ill will and retribution as I recovered from the various physical complications of the illness.

Although I made it clear that time was of the essence, as I would soon be going up for tenure, the Diversity Office was slow to act, and nothing I did could expedite the process. The timing ended up being critically disadvantageous, by which I mean that my department chair ended up submitting my tenure file and discussing my case with the university’s tenure liaison immediately after he was presented with my accusations against him by the Diversity Office.

In addition, the department chair did not notify my colleagues that I had requested disability accommodations. According to several accounts, he brought up my absences from recent department meetings as a strategy to sway the department’s vote on my tenure case, which had apparently been unanimously in favor of my promotion before the issue was raised. My department still voted that I be granted tenure by a large margin, but the department chair was nevertheless able to convince the tenure liaison tasked with representing my case to the university that I was unfit for service. What the liaison later said to me was that “there is no place for someone like you here.”

In other words, the delay of my book’s publication was only an excuse. I was denied tenure because of discrimination.

I have documentation of almost everything I described above in the form of emails and official university reports. I’ve considered publishing a corroborated narrative of my department chair’s behavior, as I think it’s important to show people what this sort of harassment looks like and what it entails in terms of how it limits access to funding, grants, and other opportunities and resources. This harassment wasn’t just a matter of me being upset and having difficulties with communication; it was an extraordinary professional handicap that stymied my career to a degree that’s difficult to exaggerate.

At the same time, putting together a document like this would be time-consuming and emotionally catastrophic. I would of course redact the names and titles of individuals, but I also don’t want to put myself in danger of being accused of libel. I wouldn’t just be implicating my former department chair, after all. This story couldn’t be told without mentioning the numerous people I approached for help over the years, from people in the Title IX Office to people in the HR Office, and from assistant deans to members of various diversity committees, as well as friendly colleagues in my department whom I asked simply to talk to my department chair in private before things got out of hand. What I learned was that movements like #MeToo aren’t particularly useful in situations like this, as it takes an extended network of people committed to maintaining the status quo to enable the inappropriate behavior of a single bad actor.

I understand that this makes me sound as though I’m a difficult person who wasn’t capable of finding support because there is something innately wrong with me, and perhaps that’s true. My own experience of the situation, however, was that I was overwhelmingly nice. I was polite and friendly to everyone I spoke with, and I tried to keep my head down and do whatever was asked of me without causing trouble. I was as discrete about the harassment I experienced as I could possibly have been while still seeking to address the problem, and I have to admit – to my lasting shame – that I never did anything to push back against the department chair, even when I saw him exhibiting the same behavior toward other people.

The advice I was given, over and over and over again, was to keep quiet and wait until I got tenure. I could call out bad behavior once I got tenure. I could be vocal about the discrimination in my department once I got tenure. I could protest the university’s exploitation of adjuncts, grad students, and postdocs once I got tenure. I could be upfront about racism and sexism and homophobia and ableism once I got tenure. I could make an issue of the university’s near-total lack of barrier-free accessibility, LGBTQ+ safe spaces, and gender-neutral bathrooms once I got tenure. I could speak up about the hypocrisy of “diversity committees” and “diversity members” in an openly hostile workplace environment once I got tenure. I could advocate for meaningful affirmative action once I got tenure. I could fight the older members of my department to place myself on university-level committees once I got tenure.

This didn’t work, obviously. If I was going to be removed from the system as a heterogeneous element anyway, I wish I had been loud and angry while I still had a chance.

And that’s the main moral of this story – it’s important to speak up for yourself and your community and do the right thing when the time comes. If you wait until later, it might be too late.

In any case, I’m no longer at George Mason University. Meanwhile, the University of Pennsylvania hasn’t made any provisions for affiliated faculty during the pandemic. Keycards and ID badges are necessary to access all libraries and academic buildings during the lockdown, so I physically can’t be on campus.

I’ve therefore been working out of my car while driving around and looking for wireless hotspots. I don’t want to stray too far away from my apartment in case I need to use the bathroom, so I’ve been playing a bizarre game of cat-and-mouse with the neighborhood police and various private security services while taking care not to stay parked in one place for too long. I’ve been repeatedly warned that I can be arrested for “loitering” after dark, which severely curtailed my work hours during the fall and winter months.

I’m totally broke, I don’t have health insurance, and I’ve more or less given up on meeting any given deadline on time. I’m far from the only adjunct faculty who has to work like this, and it’s disgusting that universities are so dependent on transient adjunct labor that such conditions are considered normal even when there’s not a pandemic.

I’m extraordinarily grateful to my friends and colleagues in Asian Studies who have supported me and helped me out with offers of compensated talks, lectures, and podcast interviews, as well as adjunct teaching positions. They are all superheroes – friends helping friends during a time of crisis with no expectation of mutual obligation.

That being said, there’s only so much work I can take on, especially under such awful conditions. What I desperately need – and what the countless people working in the precarious underclass of academia need – isn’t more Zoom talks or weekend workshops. We need job security, we need a livable wage, and we need health insurance.

More than anything else, we need an entirely different mindset regarding how American universities function as social and cultural institutions, and this includes rethinking the duty universities bear toward their employees, their students, and their local communities. Universities need to pay local taxes. Universities need to take action on a concrete plan for minimizing student debt. Universities need to address the issue of their teaching staff being overworked and underpaid to the point of personal exhaustion and ethical irresponsibility.

If I had power in academia, I would use it to advocate for affirmative action in hiring diverse faculty for full-time positions on multiyear contracts. I would also use my power to protest the neoliberal ideology of human capital, which only permits those in positions of pre-existing advantage to succeed in environments that are expressly engineered to be hostile. I would advocate for a decisive move away from the sort of annual productivity reports that are used for no other purpose than to justify discrimination and punish diversity.

I did none of this because I didn’t think I had any power in my position as an entry-level faculty member, but I was wrong. I could have made my voice heard, if only to defend myself by vocally calling out bad behavior.

Again, this is why it’s important to speak up for yourself and your community and do the right thing when the time comes. Take it from me – being invisible won’t protect you. Be loud, and be angry.

I’m writing this essay now, almost exactly a year after I received a formal letter from George Mason University saying that my case for tenure was denied, because someone called the police on me yesterday afternoon while I was sitting in my car next to a public park and trying to make the deadline for an invited essay contribution to an edited volume. Earlier this morning I had to email the editor and request that my contribution be withdrawn. I’m doing my best, but there’s just no way I can handle that sort of work right now.

No one needs to be sitting in their car and trying to do research while hoping that the police will have the good grace to circle the block a few more times and let you write another paragraph before they pull up alongside you and ask you to leave, but this is where I am now.

When I started this blog in 2008, it was nothing more than a casual personal project I embarked on for the purpose of addressing what I saw as a critical gap in online resources for Japanese literature. Thanks to the generous support of numerous friends, colleagues, and readers, I was encouraged to take this project more seriously, and I hope I was able to promote good writing and good translation in a culture in which “global fiction” has become increasingly commodified by corporate interests.

As a tenure-track faculty member at a research institution, I had ambitions to develop this site in a way that exhibited an alternative model of publication and scholarly engagement. Specifically, I wanted to create a venue that wholeheartedly pushed back against the exploitation of both academic labor and people in marginalized positions. Although I’ve maintained a strong publication record, my experience with academic peer review has nevertheless been that many journals solicit bespoke submissions from “diverse” contributors only to then subject them to rhetorical violence and rejection. What I therefore intended to do was secure funding to establish this website as a paying venue for both authors and editors, who would be treated with respect and allowed to publish their work in whatever format they saw fit while using their own distinctive writing styles. I planned to use this platform to actively seek out both emerging and established voices, especially from outside the United States and outside academia.

What people following this blog would have seen three to five years ago was the frequent publication of reviews of a wide range of books, constantly updated annotated collections of links and resources, and numerous contributions from guest reviewers. Unfortunately, my attempts to secure funding were subverted by my department chair and other hostile elements within my university, and activity on this blog fell off as my enthusiasm for the project gradually dissipated.

I still feel strongly about the immense cultural value of discovering and reading interesting stories from different perspectives, and this is not going to be the final post on this blog. It might take a while, but I’ll be back. There are so many fantastic translations and books about Japan being published right now, and I’m looking forward to sharing what I love about them.

Until then, I want to emphasize the point I’ve tried to make with this essay once again. Different perspectives are necessary now more than ever, and diverse voices are critically important. What my experience has taught me is that forcing yourself to remain silent doesn’t benefit anyone, least of all yourself, so please don’t ever be afraid to speak up and let your voice be heard.

8 thoughts on “Where I Am

  1. Hello Kathryn,

    It broke my heart to read this post. I cannot tell you how sorry and angry I am. I got your message loud and clear: speak up and make sure you’re heard.

    I cannot wait to read your wonderful posts again but till then, I hope you’ll find a job that’ll make you happy.

    Lots of love!

    Elif

  2. So sorry to hear about this, and I hope things improve for you soon. When I hear how things work in (American) academia, I’m always amazed that it’s that bad…

  3. Hi Kathryn, I am so sorry about what happened (I guess that “what has been done” might be a better term, though) to you. I am aware that sharing this story couldn’t have been easy. Don’t know what else to say – except maybe that I have been following this blog since 2010 and your perspective and recommendations have been invaluable to me here on the other side of the world. Lots of love.

  4. Hi Kathryn, Thank you for writing this essay and you are correct that you have to speak out. You are brave and strong even when you don’t feel like it. I love your blog and all I can do is wish you well and hope that things change for you soon. I am absolutely sure you have a bright future ahead of you! There is an audience out there for your writings and work. Please take care of yourself first and foremost. Best wishes, Beena

  5. Hello Kathryn,

    I am sorry for everything you have been through. It saddened and pained me so much to discover that the owner of the blog that I have been following since before I started my graduate school had to endure such this kind of harassment. All these were disgusting and you did not deserve such treatments at all.

    As a non-American graduate student, I am so sorry have no power to do anything to help. But please know that one follower will continue to support you and your work, and I look forward to seeing you having brighter days in the near future.

  6. about ten years ago I had terrible experience teaching as a visiting AP in a public research university in WA (I’m an Asian woman). I found a TT position afterwards and have been fairly happy since then. I hope you’ll find a good position soon — at least before the Pandemic there were some good openings. I believe you can do anything with your intelligence and perseverance. Nothing will be wasted eventually.

  7. I’ve been following your blog and situation. As a nontraditional academic, I found your career inspirational. When I first learned you were denied tenure last spring, I was dismayed and disillusioned. I said to my spouse, “They literally have done everything right. If they can’t get tenure, what does that mean for the rest of us?” You are not a difficult person–higher education, as an institution, is “difficult.” Don’t shoulder any shame for not speaking up more. That’s on them and frankly, higher education really needs to step it up in becoming more equitable, ethical, and humane.

    As a nontraditional academic, I find your career even more inspirational and look forward to seeing all the wonderful places you will go.

  8. Hello Katheryn,

    Not that this makes anything better, but I am disgusted by the treatment that you have suffered, and I am very sorry that your career has come to this, though as has already been described by you and others in the comments, this is far from “the end” of anything. Have you considered starting a Patreon to fund this website? For what it is worth, I would happily join such a project. I hope that you are prioritizing your mental and physical health at this most difficult of times.

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