Student Social Justice Warriors start to eat their own.
“Social justice” activism at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY, is becoming self-parody, and not in a good way.
We have covered extensively the anti-Israel activism that has led to anti-Semitic incidents in 2014 and 2016. Among other things, in 2014 Jewish students who stood up at a campus-wide forum were mocked and jeered by a raucous crowd of students and faculty, a class was picketed and a professor forced to cross a picket line of ululating students because the course involved a trip to Israel (and the West Bank), Students for Justice in Palestine posted a Nazi cartoon on social media, and pro-Israel displays were vandalized.
Just recently, a Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) resolution campaign kick-off by SJP and Jewish Voice for Peace, followed by a faculty-sponsored event at which Israel was accused of engaging in an experiment to “stunt” Palestinian bodies, led to anti-Semitic messages on campus Yik-Yak.
As if that were not bad enough, the social justice warriors at Vassar now have turned their sights on a feminist professor who allegedly did not use proper pronouns for transgender students.
I stumbled upon the story while researching the BDS activity on campus. The student newspaper, The Miscellany News, reported, Letter criticizes LGBTQ, Women’s Centers’ faculty fellow:
On Jan. 31, the VSA [Vassar Student Association Council] endorsed a letter that marked a week’s worth of campus criticism. Days earlier, Dean of Campus Life and Diversity Ed Pittman announced that the LGBTQ and Women’s Centers would host a faculty fellow after the departure of the Centers’ former director, Judy Jarvis ’07. Pittman named Professor and Chair of the Drama Department Denise Walen as the new face of these community resources until the College finds a new director. Despite the Administration’s optimism, many students reacted to the news with serious concern. The charged response to this announcement stemmed from many students’ assertion that Walen has a problematic record dealing with transgender students….
One student, M McKee ’17, was dismayed by the announcement of Walen’s appointment. Reflecting on the two courses they took with Walen, they wrote in an emailed statement, “I (along with at least two other trans drama majors) was disturbed when I heard Professor Walen had been appointed to this position…Throughout the whole semester, she used the wrong pronouns for me, even when corrected by other students.” ….
McKee’s views echoed these frustrations. They explained an especially excruciating moment during which Walen led a discussion of McKee’s performance as a female character in a play. In their eyes, Walen’s words became invalidating when she emphasized her opinion that the play’s production “boldly put a male body in a dress” despite the fact that McKee had openly explained that they did not identify as male. As McKee recalled, “Her comments struck me as deeply transmisogynistic, and I reached a point where I felt neither respected nor safe in her classroom.”
Walen’s only comment for this article was an emailed statement that read, “I’m looking forward to working with students this semester.”
The Open Letter containing the the list of complaints appears at the student-run Boilerplate magazine. The Open Letter was written mostly by JD Nichols, a transgender student, and focuses on alleged “repeated misgendering.” It is signed by numerous student organizations:
Prof. Walen seems like an unlikely candidate for scorn. Obviously, she was selected by the administration to be a faculty fellow because she checked all the right social justice boxes. Her faculty bio reads:
Denise A. Walen is a Professor in the Department of Drama at Vassar College where she has taught since 1996. She earned her M.A. and Ph.D. in Theater from the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis with a minor in Feminist Studies from the Center for Advanced Feminist Studies and concentrates her areas of teaching and research on dramatic literature and theory, theater history, and women’s studies. Dr. Walen focuses on early modern drama and has directed Twelfth Night, As You Like It, and Aphra Behn’sThe Feigned Courtesans, along with several other productions for the department. She is the author of articles and reviews in Theatre History Studies, Theatre Survey, Theatre Journal, and Shakespeare Quarterly as well as chapters in Women and Playwriting in Nineteenth Century Britain (Cambridge University Press, 1999) and Passing Performances: Queer Readings of Leading Players in American Theatre History (University of Michigan Press, 1998). Dr. Walen also served for several years as Performance Review editor for Theatre Journal and is currently on the editorial board of TRM. She is the author ofConstructions of Female Homoeroticism in Early Modern Drama (Palgrave 2005).
The abstract of her article Constructions of Female Homoerotics in Early Modern Drama reads, in part:
In this essay, I demonstrate the connection between dramatic literature and other literary material by examining Robert Wilson’s play The Three Ladies of London through the lens of Pietro Aretino’s Ragionamenti. Aretino’s non-dramatic text provides graphic images of female homosexual activity that open Wilson’s play to an analysis of its homoerotic content. I then explore some of the textual evidence that illustrates an awareness of female-female desire and sexual activity available in early modern England. The knowledge that women enjoyed one another sexually and found avenues for same-sex encounters existed in a variety of literary material. The main section of the essay investigates how the cross-dressed female character evokes homoerotic images in a number of plays, both prominent texts such as Twelfth Night, As You Like It, and John Lyly’s Gallathea, as well as lesser-known works like Robert Greene’s James IV, and Love’s Riddle by the popular poet Abraham Cowley. Early modern drama abounds with erotic imagery, and homoerotic constructions add to the complex and evocative nature of these plays. This essay works to reveal how compositional structures are developed that might otherwise be dismissed, ignored, or misinterpreted in these works.
Expanding on Douglas Bruster’s concept of the “sexually imaginable,” I suggest that female homoerotic desire in early modern drama is encoded in the imaginative realm of a spectator’s psyche, created when textual events, situations, or relationships are filtered through the existing…
Walen also signed onto a faculty letter objecting to some of Donald Trump’s comments about Muslim’s.
The Miscellany News reports that the administration is standing behind Prof. Walen:
While cognizant of this student backlash, [Dean of Campus Life and Diversity Ed] Pittman’s response suggests that the administration will be cautious to embrace radical changes to their decision. As Pittman wrote, “There are certain opportunities for student input, but personnel decisions are made by administrators. When this decision was made we utilized available input and considered the benefits of Professor Walen’s experience as a faculty member and Class Advisor among other factors…I have confidence in Walen’s ability to support all students who see the centers as welcoming and inclusive spaces.” ….
Pittman notes that although there are certain limits to student involvement in administrative decisions, everyone may voice concern. As he explained, “I have invited students to meet with me and ultimately with Professor Walen to understand any concerns that exist…My hope is that we can create bridges for dialogue and open conversations where students concerns can be heard.”
Neither Dean Pittman nor Prof. Walen responded to my requests for comment. But having covered student activism at Vassar for the past two years, I am more than willing to assume she did nothing wrong. Certainly, the administration is standing by her.
Commenting on the anti-Israel movement, a Vassar alum commented in the student newspaper:
Who in his right mind would send their children to an institution mired in such horrors?
That question would seem applicable to faculty teaching at Vassar. No matter how progressive or politically correct, they are one microaggression or hypersensitive grievance away from being on the receiving end of social justice war. Just ask the professor who had to cross the anti-Israel picket line, or Prof. Walen.
Because at Vassar, the social justice warriors are eating their own.
[Featured Image – Vassar LGBTQ Center via Vassar Website]