Crushed BlackademicsThe Case for Black Women to Ditch Academia

Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall book cover

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Released: May 16, 2017
Price: $17.95

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There are two ways to look at the academy. One is that colleges and universities are places where people trained in intellectual specialties engage in broad knowledge production; the other is that academia is a hierarchical system of abuse that takes advantage of intellectual curiosity while paying all but a chosen few poverty wages. The chosen few are primarily white cis men, despite much public handwringing at academic institutions about how to become more inclusive without “sacrificing quality.”

It is in this context that Suzette Mayr’s recent book Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall comes to life. Vane, a Black, lesbian professor of biracial heritage, suffers the whips and scorns of tenure-track academic life in a world where tenure is increasingly an illusion. She does this both for reasons that make sense (her love for the story of the fictional African-Canadian memoirist Beulah Crump-Withers) and that don’t (an expectation that she’ll be vindicated by the success of her scholarship).

I finished the book convinced that I should quit academia for the sake of my mental health because all academia will ever do is demand that I be a perfect, corporate knowledge producing automaton, a role I am destined to fail at. At the start of Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall, our failure as intellectual machines is juxtaposed with the failure of an actual machine: “She needs a new washing machine. She has no time to buy a new washing machine.” It can be easy to think that academic administrators and supervisors are trying to destroy you. Mayr deals with this feeling of catastrophe by proposing that Vane’s workplace is literally a rotting, maggot-infested building that kills occupants who stay in the building but refuse to engage in inhumane behavior toward their colleagues. A building out to kill its inhabitants doesn’t seem so outlandish when you consider a recent news item about a cancer cluster in one building at University of California, San Diego.

Dr. Edith spills the tea about how academics inevitably come to believe in their inadequacy. Slowly, Vane’s experience as a graduate student are revealed: She was supervised by a distinguished (presumably white) woman academic who sees her students as academic accessories. Vane’s advisor is a perpetual victim who feels hurt that her abused underlings refuse to give her credit for all of their work; she gets off on putting people in their place; and she steals the intellectual property of the young scholars she’s supposed to be stewarding. There are many famous public intellectuals who are guilty of this exact sort of behavior—and not all of them are white men.

The book also deftly handles the subtlety of the university’s apparent color- and gender- blind “EnhanceUs” program, which dispenses tenured faculty who don’t generate money or publicity. No one directly mentions Vane’s race and gender, nor do they acknowledge the extreme loneliness she suffers in an apparently straights-only environment, but it’s clear that the research she’s conducting about an Afro-Canadian woman is seen as disposable because such people are considered irrelevant in academic spaces. There’s nothing colorblind about telling Blackademics that Black history doesn’t matter. As I finished reading, my only question is whether white readers will get the message Mayr subtly delivers. On the other hand, maybe Mayr wrote the book for me and not them, and that’s just fine.

Dr. Edith underscores that Mayr is one of Canadian literature’s most unique and interesting voices, and her novel successfully advances the importance thesis that Afro-CanLit is, in fact, quintessentially Canadian. Even though Beulah Crump-Withers is an imagined historical figure, her existence is a reminder that Canadian history has never exclusively been white history, and that Black academics matter. So, even though Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall makes the case for quitting the academy, I’m not going to.

Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is a researcher in particle physics and cosmology at the University of Washington. A Black queer femme, Dr. Prescod-Weinstein was recently awarded a grant to study philosophical questions related to the participation of marginalized peoples in physics.

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