There is no reason other than prurience that I should be obsessed with the case of Avital Ronell. She’s a comparative literature professor at NYU who has been suspended for a year for sexually harassing one of her graduate students, a man, who filed a complaint under Title IX. Granted, the tale has many bizarre and riveting elements: she is now 66 and he’s in his thirties. He is gay. She is queer. Yet, according to the allegations, she insisted on sleeping in his bed, among other sordid details. They say truth is stranger than fiction. Indeed.
When I saw a photograph of the professor, clad in her unique version of academic-chic and with contemporary and slightly intimidating eyewear, I was immediately reminded of one of my English professors at Bryn Mawr College. That woman also dressed stylishly, wore expensive glasses, and presided over a room full of young women, many of whom seemed infatuated by her intelligence and her appearance, or maybe the combination of the two. When she lectured, I could see a small gap between her two front teeth, the only thing that marred her otherwise precise delivery and demeanor. Most of the time her words and thoughts about whatever we were reading floated like a complicated cloud above my head. I recall that we dissected a book by James Joyce; I can’t remember the title only that I found his sentences appallingly long, his paragraphs incomprehensibly dense. Most days I felt too afraid to ask any questions for fear of being revealed as ignorant or stupid in front of a group, my absolutely worst fear. For an entire semester, I lurked and barely said a word.
Another student usually sat in the front row and frequently engaged the professor. My classmate seemed fluent in the terminology of literary criticism which, to my ears, sounded pretentious to the point that it required its own dictionary. It’s as if they were having a private dialogue in a room full of onlookers. I don’t know if this student was genuinely interested in the books or trying to curry favor with the professor. But I do know that many young women revered this faculty member and looked to her as a role model and inspiration. To me, she seemed like she had come from a rarefied planet, one whose inhabitants had the supernatural ability of finding exactly the right pair of shoes to match one’s sweater and belt, assembling impeccable outfits that supported their impeccable thought, speech, delivery and reputations. It seemed that this woman left little to chance or spontaneity when it came to cultivating her image and dressing to impress (she did!). The environment in that class deterred me from putting pen to paper for a very long time. I believed that what I had to say couldn’t possibly matter or be important enough for others to read.
As a younger person, I wasn’t able to put my finger on why I didn’t feel completely comfortable in college and why I didn’t develop connections with my professors. My own shyness and introversion aside, reading about this case and comments on it has helped explain some of the alienation and outsiderness I experienced at an elite institution. Maybe it’s because many of my professors seemed to inhabit an ethereal world, as if they had stepped out of a rarefied fashion catalogue while also speaking in tongues. Maybe it was the cliquishness of the academic class that put me off, as if the Ivory Tower is open to only a chosen, anointed few, a kind of professional royalty. When I read that a large cadre of professors, including many prominent academic feminists, leapt herd-like to Ronell’s defense before knowing about the specific allegations, as if her scholarly reputation should shield her from any negative consequences, I could not help but feel somewhat vindicated for my earlier unease about cloistered academia. Now that the tables are turning, and more and more harassed men are stepping forward, I hope the culture will stop being blinded by labels and achievement and learn to hold powerful abusers to account, regardless of whether they are male or female, conservative or progressive, misogynist or feminist, industrialists or academics. Sometimes a collective identity or purpose can lift us up; but, unlike the cluster of literati who claimed that the campaign against Ronell was “malicious”, it shouldn’t be used to tear others down. It boggles the mind that some of the most highly educated people in this country have not figured that out.