Going into my English MPhil course, I expected to find myself surrounded by people who were excited about and interested in popular literature, popular culture and contemporary debate. I hoped to spend each class discussing the high/low culture divide critically and considering the various classed, raced, and gendered prejudices that accompany genre fiction, devoting equal weight to the complexities of chick lit and the global appeal of The DaVinci Code. Instead, I was disappointed that the majority of my classmates carried the sort of snobby literary hangups I had hoped to escape through this master’s course.
Students reluctantly refer to Fifty Shades of Grey, one of the biggest publishing phenomenons in recent memory, as if it’s heresy to even mention it in a popular literature classroom. Comments are frequently prefaced with statements like, “I hate to bring up Fifty Shades of Grey, but…”. This is a book that almost none of the class have read (“Fifty Shades is not worthy of my study”, one student scoffed when asked about it), and whose only engagement with the text appears to be mocking older women who enjoyed the series.
These attitudes unfortunately haven’t changed much over the course of the year, seemingly because no one wants to have their views challenged. A possible reason for this is that academia, at least in TCD, has proven to be quite a cosy, conservative, self-preserving environment, more concerned with defending its past than embracing the future, and largely unwilling to listen to dissenting voices.
It’s potentially a reflection of Trinity, or academia, in general, that students consider themselves unquestionably progressive, but have revealed themselves to be shockingly conservative. Because they consider themselves to be in a liberal setting, it’s assumed that they too have adopted the liberal attitudes Trinity supposedly bears. However, hiding behind the academic terminology of their self-professedly “liberal” arts education is an ugly bias. Students are quick to announce “I identify as a feminist!” but would soon after begin anxiously worrying about whether Beyonce is a suitable role model for young women: “I just don’t think she’s challenging anything. Her ‘feminism’ isn’t what I think feminism should be, and I don’t like that.” When pressed on whether Beyonce’s feminism might not necessarily apply to a white woman, a classmate argued, “Well it’s not very coherent”, a claim which was soon supported with dubious comments about “rescuing” “streetwalkers” and porn stars.
Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, ageism, ableism, and many other forms of discrimination operate on a different level in the classroom. People consider this kind of intolerance to be embodied in very blunt, visible acts of violence and slurs, but prejudice doesn’t work that way in academia. It works in a carefully coded and covert fashion. It exists in a student prefacing their comments with words like, “racism aside, this is actually a very good book”, or “transphobia aside, just for a second, there is some brave stuff in here”, erasing the lived realities of trans folks and people of colour. It manifests in a lecturer, and a group of students, justifying Raymond Chandler, “When he uses the n-word, he’s doing so in a very complex way. He’s using racism subversively,” and reminding us “not to confuse Chandler and [fictional detective] Marlowe”, rather than studying a writer of colour’s account or experience of racism.
Subconscious bigotry has pervaded my master’s on a structural level as well as in our discussions each week.
Of the 44 authors studied on our core module, Marjane Satrapi is the only writer of colour. Photo: Babelio
It is there in a student calling The Da Vinci Code “the kind of book you see fellas on the Luas red line reading in their tracksuits”. It is visible in the dismissal of romance writing as “trivial” and romance readers as “not able to read critically”. When students interpret BDSM sex as rape, “whatever about ‘consenting adults’”, while complaining that scenes of incest and the rape of a 15-year-old girl “aren’t sexy enough”. When students demand chick lit author Sophie Kinsella provide a solution to the financial crisis at the end of The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic, but say of the unresolved social problems in James Herbert’s eco-horror, “They don’t need to resolve social problems, they’re just entertaining and that’s fine. If they had to resolve it, it would become really boring and preachy.” When a lecturer apologises for the behaviours of a brutal serial rapist and murderer, “It may be upsetting to think of men as potentially violent.” It seems that MPhil students, and Trinity lecturers, are happier to defend straight white men against accusations of racism, homophobia and other intolerance than address those uncomfortable prejudices head on.
This subconscious bigotry has pervaded my master’s on a structural level as well as in our discussions each week. Of the 44 authors I studied on our core module this year, only one was a person of colour, Marjane Satrapi, whose autobiographical graphic novel Persepolis was applauded for the “Western-ness” of her text and its ability to provoke their unexpected interest in her experience. Of course, it’s unsurprising that a reading list on popular literature would include primarily white authors, but there was never time taken out of the course to address this.
When I spoke to friends outside of my course about it, a sociology student observed, “I have a second wave feminist teaching me gender theory in 2015 and telling me transgender people are ‘annoying’, ‘with all their pronouns’. The research these lecturers based their careers on isn’t holding up any longer, but no one wants to find failing in their own work, so they instead choose to obfuscate that and defend that against any challenges.” Similarly, when I tweeted about my frustration, a postgraduate student on an entirely different course, in an entirely different country, shared my frustration in her own classes.
What I’ve learned is that academia may not be the best place for me. Although I wasn’t expecting to be in class with the next Judith Butler or Kimberlé Crenshaw, I had expected and hoped for more from my master’s. After spending a year sitting in the same rooms and talking to the same people, it’s become clear that the drawbridge is well and truly up. Literary and cultural criticism are vital forces in the appreciation of art, but if academia continues along these lines, as it is almost sure to, it can only become more and more isolated.