I have just completed the first twenty interviews for my complaint project (1). I have spoken to students, former students, administrators, junior academics, senior academics and retired academics. I have heard about ableism, ageism, classism, transphobia, homophobia, sexism, racism, sexual harassment, and sexual misconduct. I have been given many accounts of bullying and abusive behavior. I have listened to people who have been devastated by their experiences; I have heard accounts of depression, stress and illness. I have heard from people who have lost their jobs, houses, partners; I have heard about experiences of becoming isolated from friends and colleagues as a consequence of making a complaint or of supporting those who have made complaints. I have heard from people who left the academy as a consequence of their experiences. I have spoken to those who made complaints only because they were leaving their jobs or programmes – I will return to the relationship between being able to complain and leaving in due course. I have spoken to those who decided not to go ahead with formal complaints, and I have learnt so much from their reasons. I have spoken to those who have had formal complaints procedures used against them because they have challenged, or have been understood to have challenged, those with authority within institutions. I have heard harrowing accounts of institutional violence, of how just how much weight can and will be thrown against those who try to identify a problem, or who are perceived in some way as being a problem, whether they made formal complaints or not.
It has been a privilege to receive these accounts. I understand my task as being to give these complaints somewhere to go, to be an ear, to learn as to learn to hear. I will be thinking as I go along how best to take care of them.
In the research I have decided not to separate student complaints from staff complaints (the latter are usually called grievances). This means I am pulling together what is filed apart. Filing together has become key to my method. Many of those I have spoken to have shared with me their confidential files. I will return to files. They matter.
I have learnt from how much I have learnt by listening to people’s experience of the complaint process. By this I mean: I have learnt how making a complaint means acquiring wisdom, what I would call institutional wisdom. To make a complaint is to learn how organisations and departments that appear on the surface to be committed to equality and progressive values turn out to be deeply hierarchical and traditional once you dig deeper; that a complaint often requires digging deeper tells us something. When you make a complaint you often learn about the gap between how some people represent themselves (as being, say, progressive or feminist) and how they act; you learn so much from who gives you support and who does not (2). I am thus not generating data on complaint but receiving data that has already been collected by those who are making complaints. It is like being offered a series of snap-shots of institutions; zooming in on what is usually passed over.
As I have been doing the research, I have been revisiting my own institutional history, thinking about how I would assemble my own complaint biography; the times I did speak out, the times I didn’t. I have been remembering experiences I had in my first academic post. I remember especially one term when I was still a junior lecturer in Women’s Studies but was acting head of department. Until that term I had an impression of this organisation as a friendly and feminist space. Well if Women’s Studies was a feminist bubble, becoming head of department meant that bubble burst. I began to attend faculty meetings. I shared some more of these experiences in the introduction to On Being Included (2012), experiences of hearing how senior managers talked about race in faculty meetings (for example saying whiteness was just about geography). These were experiences of becoming a complainer, firing off emails; you can’t say that, you are reproducing whiteness by naturalizing whiteness. In fact it was making a complaint that led to me ending up on the race equality committee. And complaint followed being on that committee, complaints about what you cannot do under the rubric of diversity.
I attended another meeting in the top room of the fanciest building on campus. I remember going into that room and seeing all these paintings of white men on the walls. They were modern in style but traditional in content. I remember women coming around in uniforms serving tea and cakes. But the thing I really remember: the secretary and the chair of the board engaging in sexual innuendo throughout the meeting. I remember people laughing. I remember feeling so shocked in part by how it seemed to be business as usual. Sexual jokes, sexual banter; portraits of white men, former VCs reminded you of who the university is for, women serving coffee: yes my feminist bubble had burst. All these different elements combine; thick, becoming wall.
It is not that a complaint is the only way we take such snap-shots of institutional life. I didn’t complain then; I didn’t say anything, though perhaps I expressed my feelings in some way, a no as sinking into the chair, as trying to disappear. A complaint might be how you begin to recognise something through the gradual forming of a no, until you can come out with it. It is through opposing something that it becomes clearer; when we are in agreement so much recedes.
Sometimes to do the work we have to do we put what we encounter to one side. One woman senior manager I spoke to attended a meeting with other senior managers. She was the only woman around the table; she was used to this; you get used to this. She is doing her job as they are. But then one man makes a sexist and sexualizing comment. She described how the comment became a bonding moment between men: how the atmosphere in the room changed, laughter, interest, as if they had been brought to attention. After expressing her feelings to me, of rage, alienation, disappointment, also of sadness, she said: “you file it under ‘don’t go there.’” And that is what we do, often, to keep going, filing as how we put to one side what is hardest to handle so that we can do our jobs.
I have been thinking about this: our everyday ways of coping with stuff and how much that requires putting things to one side. I think sometimes in the past I have tried to put whiteness in a file, to imagine it wasn’t there, all around, as surround. And then of course something happens and what you knew was there becomes all the more there; it can hit you all the more, what is there, the more you try not to notice what is there.
Complaint as noticing: in making a complaint you zoom in on such experiences, such as the times you are told that the university is not a place for someone like you. I don’t think you make those experiences bigger than they are – though you will be told you are doing just that; you will be told not to make such a big deal of it. It is more that you refuse to file those experiences away (even if you have filed them before): you refuse to reduce their significance, to make them smaller than they are. I am not saying that a complaint reveals everything about an institution or that what comes into view is the whole view. But a complaint often brings into view what an organisation does not want revealed. When you complain you refuse not to reveal something. This is why a complaint can feel like something spilling out, out of files, out of containers.
Files: they are part of institutional life. And there are many files in a complaint. If we follow complaints, we might end up in files. Files themselves have their own journeys: they might travel, be passed around from person to person or between departments; they might be stationary, and end up in a cabinet. Although a file is supposed to be how you can locate an item, filing as the ordering of documents so they are handy, filing often seems to be how things go missing. I have learnt of one case where a file that contained all the documents from a large scale enquiry into sexual harassment mysteriously went missing; I have been tempted to call this phenomena strategic inefficiency. A history can go missing; missing files, missing cases, and also then: missing people. We do not know how many are missing. One academic described their experience of complaint as surreal in part because of how documents seemed to travel in mysterious ways, suddenly appearing in files without an explanation of how they got there.
Files: things are not always as they seem.
Files could be thought of as houses as well as housed: they contain documents; they might be stored in cabinets. If diversity work is often “doing the document,” to quote from a practitioner, so too is complaint. One student began her testimony by showing me a folder of all her complaint documents: it was full; it was stuffed. Others have sent me copies of documents before we talked. These documents are often long, just as many accounts shared with me have been long; a complaint biography is long and messy because a complaint is long and messy. One student told me her formal complaint was as long as her MA dissertation. Think of the work of this; think of the time this took. One academic who wrote a 64 page complaint, which did not go anywhere, understood her complaint as its own kind of achievement. She said: “I am very proud of that complaint, it was a lot of work, a huge amount of work, and even though it didn’t go anywhere, I am still happy that I made it…. Just having this clear chronology of what happened was helpful for my mental health, and for understanding what went down. I am glad that it exists for me, and that if any questions are raised I have it and also that I did lodge a grievance, I had a go, I did try, and for the record that matters to me.” A complaint can be a record of a struggle, and records can have uses whatever happens. After all, difficult experiences are difficult to recall; writing a chronology can be a way of remembering. And even if the complaint does not get anywhere, it does not mean a complaint does not reveal to the one who made it that they made it.
But when a file becomes a destination we have a problem. If a complaint is filed away the problem that the complaint addresses has not been addressed. Many have shared with me a sense of despair that their complaints end up in files. One student who made a complaint about disability discrimination suggested it “just gets shoved in the box.” Perhaps a file becomes a bin: to be filed as how something is discarded. I spoke to another student who decided not to proceed with a formal complaint about sexual harassment. She said she did not want her complaint to “become a note in his file.” Some complaints are not made because people do not want their experiences to be noted and that’s it, to be filed, and that’s it. If the file is the destination of many complaints, files might need to form part of our explanation of why many complaints are not made. (2)
And: when a complaint is filed away or binned those who complain can end up feeling they too are filed away or binned. We need to remember that a complaint is a record of what happens to a person, they often come about because of difficult, painful, and traumatic experiences. Complaints are personal. Complaints are also institutional records; they are records of what happens in an institution. Complaints are institutional. The personal is institutional. To file a complaint can mean to become alienated from your own history, a history that can be difficult, painful and traumatic.
And yet complaints are filed. What would happen if we opened the files? What would come out? And by “opening the files” I am thinking not just of the files lodged in institutions but our own files, we might call them mental, I think they are material; the places we have deposited some of our most difficult experiences.
Opening the files could be thought of as enabling a conversation between complaints. Confidential files are usually kept apart. When we open them together what will we notice? A complaint could acquire a companion: perhaps these folders, files, and documents, will talk to each other. Perhaps they will have something to say to each other. In placing what is filed apart together we can assemble a shared history; we can listen for patterns and resonances. Of course even when we put them together they cannot be released. To research complaints requires that we maintain the confidentiality that surrounds them. We have to have the conversation as best we can; we have to show what complaints know whilst removing any traces that could identify sources.
Feminism is what is possible when those with a complaint speak to each other, learn from each other. It is a collective feminist task: opening files, pulling out documents, pulling out memories. What comes out is what the project is about.
1) I am expecting to do 5-10 more interviews. I have also collected a number of written testimonies.
2) Support will be a key concern in the project: I will ask how support can be provided and what we learn from the failure of support to be provided.
3) I will address in due course why developing new complaint procedures is important but also why better procedures won’t necessarily get at the problem. What I have learnt thus far is that the work of containing a complaint is the same work as the work of reproducing culture. We have to understand the problem otherwise the solution will be the problem given new form.
Sara your work has certainly been beneficial to me and my experience. It has become my guide.
I will keep your comment safe. Thank you.
Mobilization / lobbying efforts win moratorium on suspensions of racialized provincial government employees who file complaints https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2018/02/15/province-puts-moratorium-on-suspending-racialized-public-servants.html
Thank you for this work.
Thank you so much for your work. I just finished On Being Included and it’s going to take me a while to reconcile some of my own experiences in academia. The personal is institutional, indeed.
Thank you for this work , thank you for opening up a space to me and people like me who were under the impression that being invisible and oppressed is the normal and only way to be in academia , that there was something essentially wrong with us…Each time I read your writing, I know another way of thinking is possible.
I wrote a review of your book Living a Feminist Life. Would you be willing to post it?
I don’t post reviews on my blog, but can tweet links (@SaraNAhmed)
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