Caught in the Middle: Inside Academia's Culture War
How one feminist PhD student at Duke found herself cancelled by both the illiberal left and the Christian right
In another era, the biggest setback for me to become a professor would have been my sex. Now the biggest setback is the way I think.
I started writing for 4W when it became clear to me throughout the course of my PhD at Duke University that I would not be platformed by either of the two major intellectual tribes of academia: the woke left, which dominates elite college campuses, nor the reactionary Christian right, which has circled the wagons around a few schools and publications so that its members can thrive within their select communities.
While it was the woke left at Duke who ostracized me, it was a Catholic convert who almost had me expelled. The ideas that so outraged him became my first 4W article.
Alienation from woke academia
Within months of my arrival at Duke, my Facebook was being policed by other graduate students. When I posted about the death of a cop, an anarcho-Marxist commented that my post was problematic because cops are agents of white supremacy. When I informed my colleague that the deceased officer was a black woman, she responded that it made no difference. The same person also chastised me for critiquing hookup culture in another post. I eventually blocked her.
When I didn’t respond to a private message sent to me by another graduate student demanding I take down another post, I was subjected to a social media pile-on. This resulted in me blocking dozens more grad students to avoid continued harassment.
A (former) friend from the German department called me a “fascist” on Facebook messenger when I opposed the legalization of prostitution.
One student refused to unlock the doors to her car and let me out of it until I ceased arguing with her as she shouted “trans women are women” at me repeatedly.
Our opinions had differed on a North Carolina law which “required transgender people in state-run buildings use the bathrooms, changing rooms and showers that corresponded to the sex on their birth certificates.” The ACLU represented transgender plaintiffs in court to attempt to block the law. A so-called "feminist" professor at Duke, for whom I acted as a teaching assistant, took up class time to denounce this law.
Evidence of my thought crimes came as much from what I didn’t say as from what I did. Since graduate student decorum requires enthusiastically performing woke radicalism, those who don’t loudly denounce all police or "TERFs" (short for "Trans-Exclusionary radical feminists, and often considered a slur by those branded with the term) can fall under suspicion.
It was obvious that I was gender critical when I refused to give my pronouns at the Thompson Writing Studio (TWS) during an orientation session. All English PhD students are forced to work at the TWS for one semester unless they can obtain funding from elsewhere. This involves being subjected to days of orientation sessions, each of which is hours long. These meetings do not so much improve our ability to mentor writing as they function as surveillance mechanisms and regimes of behavioral control for the administration.
The first day of orientation required that we introduce ourselves, which involved compulsory pronoun identification. When it came to my turn, I announced my name and area of study alone.
“And your pronouns are?” I was asked in an irritable tone.
I repeated my name and area of study.
My pronouns were demanded once again.
Not wanting to lose my fellowship, I stated the pronouns that accord with my sex—but I had already made my beliefs known without saying anything that could get me reported to the Office of Institutional Equity, a resource dedicated to responding to complaints of discrimination and harassment, sometimes with disciplinary action.
The orientation was not the end of the behavioral control regimes imposed on us by the Thompson Writing Studio. PhD students were required to attend weekly staff meetings throughout the rest of the semester alongside permanent staff which covered almost every conceivable woke topic.
“Never did I imagine that one of the requirements to obtain a PhD from Duke was to keep a straight face before the Gender Unicorn on a PowerPoint slide.”
Naturally, one of these meetings involved mandatory gender ideology training at the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity (CSGD). To prepare for this meeting, we were advised to read the “CSGD General Training Handout,” which included a hetero- and cis-privilege coloring book exercise; a chart of different pronouns ranging from xe/xem/xyrs to ey/em/eirs; and information on what constitutes cisgender privilege, such as access to spaces that align with one’s gender identity including bathrooms, sports teams, and “gender exclusive spaces such as Domestic Violence shelters.”
Never did I imagine that one of the requirements to obtain a PhD from Duke was to keep a straight face before the Gender Unicorn on a PowerPoint slide. While I never spoke heresy at this meeting, I didn’t fling my arm into the air to ask questions and I gave bored, minimal responses when forced to speak while others gave emotive, self-lacerating rambles. It didn’t take much effort to identify me as the shape that doesn’t belong.
Luckily, most internet warriors are cowards without the protection of a screen, so I was never harassed in real life—just committed to social death. People who knew me refused to acknowledge my presence, often walking by me without so much as a nod or falling into hostile silence if I entered a room. People with whom I never had a personal conflict acted visibly uncomfortable when I spoke to them or stood in their vicinity. It was as though I carried a contagion. On one occasion, I saw someone flee to the other side of the street after spotting me. Rational behavior in this environment since if you talk to a dissident (or, worse, dare befriend one) you might be suspected of counterrevolutionary activity, yourself.
“People with whom I never had a personal conflict acted visibly uncomfortable when I spoke to them or stood in their vicinity.”
What I discovered through the course of my half a decade or so in academia is that many courses, conferences, journals, talks, and seminars exist to propagandize woke politics under the guise of scholarship.
Consider, for example, this recent call for papers from one of the most prestigious journals in my field. The CFP solicits articles that “revitalize our understanding of Romanticism” by showing “present-day Palestinians to be necessary interlocutors for scholars concerned with ongoing struggles against colonial racism” since:
“Palestine’s Arabic and Bedouin indigenous histories and cultures open up non-sovereign and beyond-statist perspectives that cannot be understood through the Eurocentric constructs of identity, history, and belonging that emerged in the Romantic period.”
Or, consider this "feminist" art exhibition about 9/11 at Duke which asks us to “rethink the call to Never Forget by expanding the possibility of what we choose to remember,” namely, “Muslim women healing from experiences of bigotry during the 9/11 era.”
Not a single word about the brutalization of Afghan women by the Taliban going on at the time of the exhibit. Even if one makes the argument that the event was designed before the U.S. exited Afghanistan, Alison Kysia felt no need at all to mention female genital mutilation, sexual slavery, child marriage, beatings, forced body covering, etc.
The Muslim women who experience these atrocities have been written out. After all, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an ex-Muslim survivor of FGM had her invitation to receive an honorary degree at Brandeis revoked after protestors accused her of “Islamophobia” since she has written numerous books attacking patriarchy in Islam. The only story I see being told at Duke’s art exhibit “99 clay vessels” is that of Alison Kysia’s career, which follows the predictable plot of opportunism and conformity.
Aspiring feminist professors must not only be wary of stepping on Islam’s toes but also endorse sexist and regressive gender ideology without qualification. A talk by Princeton professor Gayle Salamon on a legal case "in which gender was simultaneously treated as a material object and understood as the effect of immaterial bodily gesture" is a good example of what constitutes mainstream academic feminism.
The more topics that can be grafted onto gender ideology the better, whether that be race, the environment, or even COVID-19.
And, finally, there was the graduate student's research project (deemed much more fashionable than my own) which was advertised in the hall of Duke’s English department as "Queer Covens: Feminist Spirituality and the Supernatural in American Women's Writing."
The student who gave this talk is a trans-identified male who appeared once at a prospective student meet-and-greet wearing a shirt that read “LOUD MOUTH DYKE.”
Still, this is tame next to Duke Women’s Studies Professor Kathy Rudy’s article on the intersection of queer theory and bestiality (you can read my 4W piece on that here) or the cover of Duke University Press’s Transgender Studies Quarterly, which depicted several trans-identified males holding guns.
Almost expelled by reactionary academia
Only one professor could direct the dissertation I wanted to write, since he also resisted woke ideology as well as affiliated philosophies that dominate the humanities (namely, postmodernism and materialism).
My advisor was somewhat of an oddball in the department. He had converted to Catholicism years after obtaining tenure whereupon he started writing about theology and critiquing secular modernity. He, in fact, had a second appointment in the divinity school and the last book he published brought him notoriety within the Christian intellectual community.
Like me, he had an interest in philosophical theology, in particular Platonism—a pre-Christian philosophy that believes the highest reality consists in transcendent ideas or forms in which lower realities participate. A good thing participates in the absolute Good, for example. It’s obvious why postmodernists would not like a philosophy that believes in Truth, especially moral Truth.
He warmly embraced my interest in the resurgence of Platonism in British Romantic poetry when many other professors would have been hostile to this topic, and when he helped me publish a paper I wrote for his class and offered to be my dissertation director, I was overjoyed. We worked together for five years during which he praised my work repeatedly. He even stated in an email that my dissertation proposal was “truly excellent—arguably the finest such proposal to have reached me in all my years of teaching”:
However, this praise lasted only up until my dissertation expressed sympathy for the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s criticism of Christianity. I backed up Shelley’s criticism with quotations by Saint Augustine, the influential early Church Theologian, who wrote that God ordained women to obey men. He also claimed that an adulteress who puts up with rape is morally superior to a married woman who enjoys sex with her husband. This chapter also included a survey of the systematic incarceration and torture of 'fallen' women by the Catholic Church.
After I submitted this chapter to my advisor, he declared it “unacceptable” and “theologically illiterate.” When I resisted his demand that I remove the arguments and called him “willfully obtuse,” he sent me an email informing me that he decided to drop me as his student.
However, I was in my fifth year and had a nearly complete dissertation over three hundred pages long.
I spoke on the phone with another professor in the department with whom I had an intellectual friendship of sorts. This professor expressed support for my work, stated he found the arguments I presented in my final chapter "not just compelling" but "altogether irresistible," and described the dissertation chapter as "strongly impressive." He agreed to step in and act as my advisor if it became necessary.
I soon met with the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) on Zoom to discuss my situation. Though she bemoaned the plight of unknown marginalized persons in emails spammed to the entire department, she did not seem eager to save me. After telling her that I couldn’t see how I wouldn’t be allowed to graduate given that I had a record of academic excellence, she gave me a beaming smile and informed me that, since I no longer had an advisor, I was no longer “in good academic standing.” I could not graduate without a director.
I was on track for expulsion months away from graduation.
My one allied professor sent an email on my behalf to the DGS in which he boldly called the department’s actions “unconscionable” and named other professors who could fill in to ensure I was able to finish my degree. But none of the others stepped up, even they were the only other experts on my chosen literary period and the role would practically be a formality.
Ultimately, what enabled me to get my PhD was not this professor's moral courage but the whim of my advisor. After I begged him to let me graduate, composed an apology email written per his request, and vowed to revise my dissertation according to his wishes, my advisor took me on as his student again. I gutted my arguments, removed the Augustine quotations, and deleted the section on the torture and incarceration of "fallen" women by the Catholic Church.
I last saw my advisor when he appeared at my apartment to collect some books. When I mentioned my disappointment at there being no graduation ceremony due to COVID, he grunted, “I never attended mine,” before stalking away into the distance in his black turtleneck—no doubt to pen a tome on the selfless love of Jesus. I haven’t heard from him since, though I did see his next advisee walking around with a COVID mask plastered with what looked like a hand-drawn image of St. Augustine.
Reactionary academic Christians
My advisor is representative of a widespread reactionary Christian movement within academia. While these people do not dominate the big name schools, they have Western history on their side. Christian universities and publications were founded in an era in which they had power and they continue to receive funding and host conferences.
Many of these conservative Christian intellectuals criticize the woke left’s illiberalism, not from any genuine liberality on their part, but out of frustration that their own brand of illiberalism is no longer in vogue.
For many of them, the woke left is an enemy because its dogma is opposed to their dogma, not because they are admirers of classical liberalism. Christendom has been “conquered by the heathen” and they wish to reclaim the territory.
“Of course, no one will tell you they are censoring you for your ideas—they’ll just create a BS rationalization for why your scholarship is not intellectually credible.”
I interacted with many of these people throughout my PhD at talks and seminars because they platformed me in their spaces— as long as I criticized woke academia or celebrated transcendence against materialism—my feminism, on the other hand, was not welcome.
I encountered the Augustine quotations that I put in my thesis in a course on his theology.
When the misogynistic quotations came up for discussion in this class, they were trivialized or rationalized away. While the professor did not celebrate them outright, I suspect he approved of at least some of the sentiments contained therein, since he blurted out, “we can all agree that it would be better if orgasms didn’t exist, right?”
The fact that religious attitudes like this exist is partly why the woke left has had success in getting people to condone abusive sexuality, including violent kink and the legalization of prostitution by fearmongering about puritanism.
This professor was eventually pushed to resign by the woke, with whom he had enjoyed a longstanding antagonism at Duke. While, in an email, he was right to accuse the woke left of “illiberal roots and totalitarian tendencies,” his statement is rendered ironic by his veneration of the Catholic Church, which has vastly outstripped wokeism in both longevity and intensity of these faults.
While some reactionaries appeal to classical liberalism to shield themselves, others denounce it, such as University of Notre Dame professor Patrick Deenen whose book, Why Liberalism Failed, looks nostalgically back on an imaginary era in which everyone behaved well because Christianity was in charge. In this book, Deneen implicitly advocates for soft theocracy over liberalism:
“Liberty [as in liberalism]…requires liberation from all forms of associations and relationships, from family to church, from schools to village and community, that exerted control over behavior through informal and habituated expectations and norms.”
Deneen gave a talk on this book at Duke after he was introduced by my advisor. Before Deneen began denouncing liberalism, he boasted about having a friend who was a monarchist and cracked a joke about a woman who condemned the Catholic virtue of chastity.
Deneen is not the most outlandish among the reactionaries I encountered. At a conference at Cambridge University, a Catholic man confided in me (with the aid of alcohol) that his wife fantasized about bombing abortion clinics.
At a summer seminar at UPenn on secularization in Western modernity, one attendee discussed whether alien species would need their own Jesus to be saved from damnation, while another offered homosexuality as an example of evil. Still another ended our conference with a prayer to protect us from the enemy, meaning Satan.
Perhaps my favorite safari through lunacy was a summer seminar at Oxford University on the thought of John Henry Newman (a theologian influenced by Romanticism). It was hosted by the Lumen Christi Institute located at the University of Chicago. It was at this seminar that I misgendered the eucharist and was brusquely corrected—an event which inspired, in part, an article I wrote for 4W comparing the Catholic idea of transubstantiation with transgenderism.
“The reactionary Christian right and the woke left exist in a kind of perverse symbiosis.”
One woman at this conference, who inspired awe among the other seminar participants for enduring a pregnancy made painful by a medical condition, kindly advocated for non-believers in the middle of class by noting that their wrong-headedness might result from being under the influence of dark forces, not because their own reason led them astray from Catholic truth. She was a ThD student at Duke Divinity school whose advisor was acquainted with mine.
This same woman later spoke to me privately at one of the seminar’s social events about someone she knew who had witnessed black shapes crawling up the wall during mass. She also advised me that I could free myself from the perils of male sexuality by following the Catholic method of natural family planning. This practice of having ten children instead of twenty by avoiding sex when you’re fertile means fewer duties to your husband per month—apparently, the only thing more inconceivable to her than denying your husband is the idea that a woman might actually want to have sex.
Another Catholic woman told me that she didn’t want to have an orgasm because it would make her more likely to have children. Evidently, saying "no" to her husband was also unthinkable.
“One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool,” George Orwell
My half a decade living in the ivory tower left me astounded and disheartened that the only significant opposition to woke derangement in academia was simply another kind of derangement.
The reactionary Christian right and the woke left exist in a kind of perverse symbiosis. While these groups seem radically opposed to one another, they, in fact, reinforce the same rigid conceptual binaries—secularism vs. Christianity, puritanism vs libertinism, homophobia vs. gender ideology, etc. It seems that the one thing the conservative religious and the woke can agree on is that there are only two options. If you fit into neither, like me, then you will find it extremely difficult to be platformed.
This isn’t to say that good work is never platformed—just that your odds of success diminish drastically when you write well and think for yourself.
Even if your work is fashionable, academic job openings have been low for years and have been getting lower ever since. Naturally, the consequence of this is that those who get the precious few jobs will be doing "cool stuff" like claiming that Buffalo Bill, the man who murders women and wears their skin in The Silence of the Lambs,
“challenges the…misogynist constructions of the humanness, the naturalness, the interiority of gender” because the flayed woman’s corpse “has been degendered, it is postgender, skinned and fleshed.”
Job boards make the binary obvious, not just journals. Consider, for example, this tenure track job at the University of Texas at El Paso for an English professor with a specialization in Romanticism--a job for which I should be perfectly suited except for the requirement of "strengths in the literature of migration, mobility, race, and/or gender in the Atlantic world."
While woke schools demand woke professors through the language of “diversity” and “inclusivity,” Christians schools like Seaver College demand Christian English professors demonstrate "an active commitment to the university's Christian values."
Whether they are Christian or Woke, many professors, administrators, graduate students, and journal editors use their power to disseminate their ideology—not to teach critical thinking skills. On my ratemyprofessor.com profile, a student found it so remarkable that I excluded woke politics from my class that he saw fit to note it in his review.
When teaching is propagandizing, students either become fanatics or they cynically mouth the truisms of the ruling party to succeed. PhD students and faculty who deviate from thought norms can be blocked from professorships and publishing to ensure that the culture of the establishment goes unaltered. Of course, no one will tell you they are censoring you for your ideas—they’ll just create a BS rationalization for why your scholarship is not intellectually credible.
In a credential-based society such as ours, intellectualism is a title obtained by a degree, not a way of life marked by deep, nuanced, and prolonged reflection—though this is ideally what a PhD should enable.
In academia, shallow groupthink too often passes for profundity by being buried in polysyllabic jargon and students are expected to defer to authority simply because it is titled by the establishment. The consequence is that students are taught to intelligently regurgitate. Their vocabulary increases. They are shown how to organize an essay and embed a hundred citations in it, but rarely are they taught to think.
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