Writing for Nieces, not Uncles

Hilary Ilkay
Mar 17, 2017 · 6 min read

By: Alyssa Granacki and Hilary Ilkay

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μέγα βιβλίον μέγα κακόν. “A big book is a big evil.” -Callimachus

Over the past week, in conversation with our colleagues and professors, we found ourselves compelled to address the problematic thinking that underlies Johanna Hanink’s article recently published in the online Classics journal, Eidolon, “More Women Classicists Need to Write Big.” While our piece takes the article in question as a starting point, we hope it raises its own feminist critiques and questions that will help rethink the place of women and their writing in the field of Classics and beyond.

As female graduate students, we share Johanna Hanink’s concern that women’s writing is largely absent from dominant cultural discourses, particularly in the field of Classics and in academia more broadly. Yet Hanink’s analysis of the problem fails to identify the structural factors that prevent women’s writing, in all its forms, from being recognized as valuable and authoritative. In fact, she shifts the blame onto women themselves, as if their own intellectual output were the problem rather than the perpetuation of oppressive structures of knowledge production. These structures include such arbitrary categories as “big” books and writing that is “masculine” — a term Hanink places in quotes but never explicitly interrogates.

But what are “big” books? Hanink defines them as “‘big’ not because they’re long, but because they tend to be about big subjects — battles, wars, The Ancient World… or even The Course of Human History.” These books treat subjects that historically tend to exclude women’s lives and voices, and Hanink does not address why female scholars should strive to write them. Instead, her article takes for granted that these “big” books have universal value, that they are predominantly responsible for dictating cultural and critical conversations, and, most troublingly, that they are inherently “masculine.” Expanding on her hazy definition, Hanink cites a Slate article that provides us with the term “uncle books,” that is, “tomes that you give an older male relative, to take up residence by his wingback armchair.” She thus reinforces the “masculine” nature of these volumes and their place in a literary network where demand is produced by male readers.

As Hanink’s argument develops, an inherent contradiction emerges. She rejects the idea that the market lacks books with a “particularly ‘female viewpoint,’” but she also insists that the “public conversation is lacking a diversity of opinions and perspectives.” Herein lies the tangle. If public conversation is mostly steered by male-authored “uncle books,” then Hanink, in citing a dearth of diversity, must, at least in part, be calling for the intervention of female authors. This implies that women could offer a different, i.e., “female” perspective on these “big” book subjects.

Moreover, despite her implicit critique of what qualifies as “masculine” writing, Hanink ascribes traditional stereotypes of femininity to female academics. She claims that their lack of “big” books could be attributed to a reluctance to embody an attitude traditionally coded as male. In doing so, she herself reifies a gender divide that alienates women writers from the sphere of intellectual authority. Women, therefore, find themselves in a double bind. The choice is either to assimilate themselves to a model of masculinity through the act of writing “big,” or to expose themselves to the risk of being labelled a “feminine” writer, a voice of otherness whose texts are by nature personal, never universal.

Seemingly ignorant of her own position of privilege, Hanink does not address the barriers encountered by women who find themselves outside of the elite, Ivy-League world of tenured and tenure-track professors. This world offers certain opportunities that are often not available to the majority of female academics, who occupy more adjunct positions and more rarely reach higher states in their careers. More generally, she ignores structural factors that impact women at all levels in the field of academia. She observes, “The men seem to be managing it. Why does it seem that more men than women take the mid-career turn toward the big, whether measured in centuries or otherwise?” The most fundamental answers to her question, felt by women across academic disciplines, are curiously missing from her analysis. In many aspects of their lives, women tend to take on more emotional labor than men. Whether as caregivers in the home, mentors in the classroom, or in positions of institutional service, women devote precious time and energy to their commitments.

Even as women advance in their professional careers, they face gender biases in tenure cases, ultimately leaving them less time and stability and fewer resources to pursue the sort of “big” book projects Hanink lauds. In many cases, they confront interlocking systems of oppression. Hanink’s suggestions, which include working within, rather than challenging, the dominant paradigm, require women to conform to an elitist mold of white male subjectivity. Not only are her “solutions” patronizing and tone deaf to the experience of being a woman in academia, but they disregard the racist and classist systems and heteronormative privileging that pervade scholarly institutions. Her idea of diversity is both narrow and oblivious to the makeup of academic fields.

There are many reasons female academics might not write “big” books, but lack of “a particularly ‘masculine’ chutzpah,” in Hanink’s words, is certainly not one of them. It takes chutzpah to be a female academic. It takes chutzpah to wake up every day and know that you will be the target of “mansplaining”; to shrug it off when a tenured, male academic “jokes” that the female intellectual doesn’t exist; or to work with male professors who discount discussions of misogyny by “bracketing gender” as an issue. It takes chutzpah to dare to think in a space that has excluded women for centuries. To instruct women to start writing “big,” as if inviting them to “sit at the table” and “lean in,” is to ask them to situate themselves within fundamentally problematic structures. To truly think “big,” from a feminist perspective, we must radically critique these existing paradigms and refuse to adhere to a patriarchal norm of intellectual authority.

Toward the end of the article, Hanink offers suggestions to supposedly empower women to write “big” books. Most of her solutions center on pedagogy, but she assumes an arguably tenuous correlation between what students learn in the classroom and the kind of books they will write later in their careers. Her argument even discounts the possibility that this kind of “big” thinking is already happening in undergraduate and graduate classrooms. In her assessment, the value of teaching is diminished unless it results in the eventual production of more “big” books. Professors, however, regularly dare to think “big” when they present narratives to students, design inclusive course syllabi, and teach their lesson plans. One of the most disturbing elements of Hanink’s argument, however, is her reinforcement of gender stereotypes, epitomized in her unqualified and uninterrogated claim that “women may be warier of breaking the educational mold that trains us to think small.” The sexism in her phrasing is subtle, but with a single comparative — “warier” — Hanink asserts that women are less equipped than their male colleagues to challenge educational frameworks.

One of the central takeaways of Hanink’s article is, “If we want to change who’s writing the uncle books, nieces seem like a good place to start.” We have a different vision. Instead of training our nieces to write “big” books for uncles, let’s teach them to write for their future nieces — in whatever size they choose. If we can foster the intellectual curiosity of young women to think critically about the male-dominated structures in which they find themselves, and to find their own voices, audiences, and forms in public discourse, then we can begin to effect change.

Alyssa Granacki is a Ph.D. Student in Italian Studies at Duke University, where she also dabbles in medieval Latin and Feminist theory.

Hilary Ilkay is a soon-to-be MA graduate from the New School for Social Research’s Liberal Studies program, with a Certificate in Gender and Sexuality Studies. She received her BA in Classics in Halifax, Nova Scotia and remains a devoted Latin and Greek nerd.

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