Campuses as Models of Democracy

Posted on February 12, 2021

The 2020 presidential election has put into sharp relief not only the political polarization of the American people but also the widespread confusion and skepticism among the citizenry about democratic practices. While this confusion and skepticism threaten our electoral politics (look no further than the messy aftermath of the 2020 election), our problems run much deeper. At the core of the democratic ideal is the vision of citizens coming together to address our most pressing challenges. Today, however, we are increasingly unable to trust and work with one another on problems and projects that can advance the public good.

When we think about higher education’s role in our democracy, we often think of students as future citizens who need to learn particular academic content in order to take their rightful place in the citizenry. For example, perhaps they need to take a course in American government or political philosophy. More broadly, we might imagine that a course in sociology or even literature (studying the poetry of Walt Whitman, for example) could nurture civic virtues. We also might have students engage in various forms of experiential learning—service learning, community-based research, or even particular travel experiences.

While all of the above strategies undoubtedly can contribute to cultivating good citizens and thus strengthening our democracy, they might not be enough to facilitate the kind of democracy we so desperately need. Perhaps one way to advance towards a more robust democracy is to think of our campuses as laboratories of democracy. Perhaps what we need today are radically democratized campuses that allow students to see democratic practices in action and to participate in those practices.

Certainly, the academy prides itself on the practice of shared governance, but often that is merely a form of consultation. While the faculty might be given control over curricula as well as tenure and promotion decisions, that control is limited and therefore not fully democratic. Faculty members might also participate on many committees throughout their organizations, even on top-level boards, but this is often token, not effective, participation. Staff also might have some shared-governance role, but it is generally even less significant than that of the faculty. Students rarely if ever observe the shared governance on their campuses—so they never see these (albeit limited) democratic practices. And certainly, students have little power or say in the administration of institutions.

What if the administration of our academic institutions were radically different? What if students could regularly see democratic practices among the various campus constituencies and even participate in various democratic practices? For example:

  • Instead of a staff council or faculty senate that operates in isolation with relatively little institutional power, what if all the constituencies (including students) were part of one deliberative body and process? What if such a body were given the power to make decisions that traditionally have been the reserve of upper administration?
  • What if students joined with faculty in determining curricula? At the course level, perhaps students could help determine topics or readings. At the broader curricular level, perhaps they could help determine what kinds of courses should be scheduled. Obviously, some disciplines have accreditation constraints that limit curricular diversity, but most disciplines have significant flexibility.
  • What if we mapped power relations and decision processes and sought to analyze how to democratize that power and those processes? With such maps, we might find many places where students can be legitimate partners in the decision-making process.
  • What if we sought ways to give the broader citizenry a greater say in the direction of the academic institutions that are in their communities? Many of these institutions are public, and their missions are to serve their communities and regions. Shouldn’t community representatives have some say in how these institutions operate? Imagine how powerful the experience would be for students to work closely with community members in this regard.
  • What if we abandoned traditional elections on our campuses and took the “democratic lottery” approach instead? This approach allows all qualified and interested candidates to “throw their hats into the ring” and, through simply a drawing, one of them is selected to serve. Such an approach has been proven to increase participation and get a richer diversity of voices into campus conversations. Democracy should be something other than a popularity contest—and that goes for elections to faculty senates and committees as much as for elections to student governments.

These are just a few ideas for democratizing campuses. Efforts in these directions would allow faculty and staff to truly engage in shared governance and enjoy the empowerment of democratic practices. They would also show students what genuine democratic practices look like, while at the same time bringing them into those practices and thus cultivating civic skills and capacities. In the end, our campuses could become true laboratories where students not only learn about democracy and civic virtues but also live democracy and practice civic virtues. As educators who proclaim the democratic purposes of higher education, we then would be practicing what we preach.

An earlier version of this article was presented as part of a panel presentation at the 2020 Annual Meeting of the Society for Values in Higher Education.

By Eric Bain-Selbo
Dean, School of Humanities and Social Sciences
Indiana University Kokomo

Additional Reading

Bain-Selbo, Eric and Paul Markham. “Did I Teach Them That? The Implicit Power of Democratic Education.” eJournal of Public Affairs, vol. 1, no. 2, 2012, Accessed 12 July 2020.

Bain-Selbo, Eric and Paul Markham. “To Practice What One Preaches: Deepening Civic Education.” Journal of College and Character, vol. 13, no. 4, 2012.

Feminar 103: Notes on Teaching about Women, Gender, and Sexuality

Posted on October 12, 2020

In my Feminar 102 column, I argued that Kate Manne’s Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (2018) deserved our immediate attention. Manne’s latest book—Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women—has just now been released by Crown Publishers, a popular press. It emphasizes to all of us, not just academics, the urgency of investigating the consequences of our complicity in maintaining “misogynistic social structures” (10). Here she interrogates in particular men’s perceived entitlement “to a woman’s sexual, material, reproductive, and emotional labor” (19). She also details men’s perceived entitlement to knowledge, what countless feminist scholars have defined as the belief in man’s authority as the knower and the positioning of women, at best, as the known or as the mirror to man’s superior nature and privilege. Entitled is, like her first book, a depressing but nevertheless enlightening read, especially coming at this time of rampant dismissal of women’s right to a voice and the loss of one of the great advocates of gender equality and equal rights, Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

Certain works of literature also address both the costs of misogyny and thus demonstrate the deep value of humanistic inquiry into issues of ethical behavior and moral responsibility. Susan Glaspell’s 1917 short story “A Jury of Her Peers” (or its dramatic version, the 1916 one-act play Trifles) is routinely included in anthologies of American literature, women writers, mystery, drama, and theatre. The story has also been discussed extensively in legal studies; taught in law, religious studies, and theology classes; employed in leadership training sessions; analyzed by sociologists and cultural historians; and cited as an exemplary text with which to teach ethics to nursing, medical, and law students. You can find articles detailing those investigations and usages in the extensive bibliography available on the International Susan Glaspell Society’s blog.

It is a simple story about the murder of a husband by his wife. Its focus is not on who did it but why and who bears responsibility for the chain of events leading to his murder. It takes place in a dingy kitchen. Three men come to investigate in order to nail down a motive to ensure conviction of the murderer. Two of the men bring along their wives to pick up some clothes for the jailed wife. You see gender dynamics come into play from the outset when the men first take possession of the kitchen space, then make caustic remarks about the jailed woman’s poor housekeeping skills, and later make fun of the other women’s concerns, all of which they consider “trifles.” The men—a farmer, the sheriff, and a county attorney—assume that the women will in no way further or hinder the investigation but nevertheless caution the women that, should they find anything that might be construed as evidence, they should immediately turn it over to the men. The county attorney goes so far as to state that, since one of the women is the sheriff’s wife, she is therefore married to the law: thus she is a mirror to man’s adjudication of women’s acts. The title of the story makes clear that Minnie Wright will be judged only according to those terms. The majority of the story then dramatizes what would happen if her case were heard by a jury of her peers.

As the men investigate in every room but the kitchen, the women piece together what they believe occurred. The bleak setting immediately indicates how Mr. Wright has, despite his material wealth, needlessly impoverished, isolated, and silenced his wife. Not only is the kitchen badly furnished, but Minnie’s clothes are shoddy and her access to communication with others nonexistent. The “clues” the women discover are related specifically to the domestic sphere and therefore something only a woman would see and understand. More alarming to the women is their finding disturbing signs of possible violence expressed toward the wife through the killing of her pet. As the women uncover signs of Minnie’s escalating agitation and despair, the sheriff’s wife recalls a similar act of violence she witnessed and another profound loss that scarred her. Martha Hale, the farmer’s wife, in turn admits her shame over letting a situation she knew was bad to become horrific. As Martha says, “We live close together, and we live far apart. We all go through the same things—it’s all just a different kind of the same thing!” They then decide to hide the evidence from the men. The story by no means exonerates the wife/murderer, and we know that hiding the evidence will not make a difference in the ruination of Minnie’s life. It instead asks what could have been done and interrogates what was done. While the story emphasizes the necessity of fostering empathy and a sense of communal obligation, it also questions how effective empathy is if it is not coupled with timely action to prevent both quotidian and monumental wrongdoing and injustice.

I urge you to read the story yourself and then share it and discuss it with your partners, your reading groups, a handful of your friends. Analyzing and appreciating this story with others will, I assure you, lead to a rich and revealing discussion, as it has the many times I have taught the text in a variety of classes. You will see not only the banality of misogyny at work but also the tremendous price both women and men pay for social practices that enable both moral complacency and the disturbing lack of empathy so many today feel toward their neighbors, members of their community, and citizens of their nation state.

By Mary E. Papke
Professor of English
University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Kate Manne. Down Girl:The Logic of Misogyny. Oxford University Press,2018.
Kate Manne. Entitled:How Male Privilege Hurts Women. Oxford University Press,2018.
Susan Glaspell."A Jury of Her Peers." 1917.
Full text widely available under its story title.
For further essays on "A Jury of Her Peers," see the International Susan Glaspell Society's online bibliography here.

Feminar 102: Notes on Teaching about Women, Gender, and Sexuality

Posted on December 29, 2019

In a speech in the House of Commons on 11 March 1873, Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli proclaimed that “a university should be a place of light, of liberty, and of learning.” Those of us in the humanities have seen our programs repeatedly attacked as meritless in terms of consumer profitability and, according to some, pernicious in their liberal persuasion.  We wish more people would believe in Disraeli’s aspirational statement rather than place faith in the profit models that currently drive too many university investments and curriculum choices. As I hope to demonstrate, the humanities offer more than a chance to discuss old books and therefore matter to every program within a university—if our goal is the making of a better, more just world for all.

I regularly teach an undergraduate class titled “Women in American Literature.”  The course was added to the curriculum decades ago in order to address the inadequacy of a predominantly white masculinist canon of literature to represent the cultural production of Americans, and it reflected the then dominant feminist critical practice of examining images of women.  The canon exploded in the 1980s through radical inclusion; as a result, literature anthologies now routinely offer writing by authors of all races, genders, classes, ethnicities, and sexual persuasions.  Nevertheless, what can be taught is not necessarily what is being taught.

As I tell my students at our first class meeting, I used to include male writers in my course since the only available anthologies then did so.  But, times have changed, and we need no longer relegate women to the status of spoken about rather than speaker.  These days I choose to focus solely on American literature by women writers.  Many students mention in their first reflection papers that they hadn’t expected the focus on women writers, but my introduction to the class made them realize they hadn’t actually read, or even knew of, many American women writers.  We then move on to read together and analyze gender, class, race, and sex representation in the works, along with the aesthetic qualities of each piece.

Some instructors of the same course still include, and sometimes focus upon, male writers’ creation of women characters, and that is their right, though I consider that decision a bit myopic given the rich tradition of women writers now readily accessible to all.  Much more troubling are those instructors who continue to disparage “women’s” literature as strictly a special interest.  One wonders how anyone can simply dismiss the work of half the population as a “special interest.”

The explanation can be found, in part, in recent studies of misogyny, the perceived entitlement that those who promote heteropatriarchal standards consider the norm, and because of which any form of identity politics or political correctness is too often marked as a dangerous challenge to those who hold power in politics, education, religion, law, and other ideological state apparatuses.  I’ve been working through Kate Manne’s Down Girl:  The Logic of Misogyny, a challenging philosophical investigation of what too many people simply dismiss as individual irrational behavior or psychological aberration.  Manne argues that misogyny is, instead, a political phenomenon, and we must address it as such.  As Manne documents through extensive examination of quotidian as well as catastrophic instances of misogynistic acts, we still live in a white heteropatriarchal society in which sexism is “the branch of patriarchal ideology that justifies and rationalizes a patriarchal social order” and in which misogyny is “the system that polices and enforces its governing norms and expectations” (20), rewarding only those who perform their cisgender designated roles as they have been traditionally inscribed.  While misogyny can involve hatred of women, more importantly, Manne argues, it has a specific social function as a “system of domination” similar to “racisms, xenophobia, classism, ageism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and so on” (13).  Misogyny is designed to keep women in their place—inferior to, beholden to, and complicit in male supremacist ideology that acknowledges women have value only if they never step over the line into the space belonging to men.

Manne focuses on both infamous acts of violence and everyday micro-aggressions against women in both the United States and Australia (the country of her birth), analyzing, for instance, the Isla Vista sorority killings, Trump’s never-ending assaults on Hillary Clinton, and Rush Limbaugh’s demand that male taxpayers should be able to witness the sex acts of those women who want health insurance to cover the cost of their birth control pills.  She also draws our attention to the particularly virulent form of misogyny, what Moya Bailey calls misogynoir, experienced by black women.

Manne’s book has received extensive laudatory reviews in leading critical journals even as, not surprisingly, it has been summarily dismissed on bookseller sites as liberal feminist ranting by anonymous readers, several of whom make clear that they have read only the first few pages.  The book demands a close reading of and commitment to taking seriously Manne’s meticulous investigation into misogyny’s history, social function, virulence, and effect.  You should read it, and you should also read and promote study of literature by women.

Analyzing literary works offers us the opportunity to interrogate the social practices and cultural narratives we have inherited, to question the values being passed down to us.  Education in the humanities—in philosophy, literature, religious studies, cultural history, foreign languages, classics—is key in helping us fight against the many systems of domination that still poison our lives today. Today, more than ever, we must work to ensure that the university is a place of light, learning, and liberty for all.

By Mary E. Papke
Professor of English
University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Kate Manne.  Down Girl:  The Logic of Misogyny.  Oxford University Press, 2018.