Like talking to a door: Thoughts on the interactional and semiotic dynamics of an office door

Like talking to a door: Thoughts on the interactional and semiotic dynamics of an office door

This post is Part 2 in a short series covering some of my thoughts on a recent story about University of Alberta professor Kathleen Lowrey, whose “gender critical” views were central to her being removed from a departmental service role. For the details of the event itself, see Part 1.

One curious aspect about the way that Lowrey has framed the events leading up to her removal is that she suggests people have “scoured” her social media feeds as part of an effort to find the worst of what she has said, and yet one of the primary sites that people are actually talking about is Lowrey’s office door. I first heard of this story in the blog post by Carolyn Sale called “Academic Freedom and Perceptions of Harm”, which acknowledges that Lowrey “posts statements related to her views on her office door” and simply says that this is “something she is entitled to do”. Several of the other articles mention the door as well, notably when they include the voices of department members who support the decision to remove Lowrey from the role. For those people the door is a very salient piece of this story, and having seen some photos of the door, I would agree. See for yourself (the first two photos were taken and provided by Dr. Elizabeth Sawchuk, a post-doctoral scholar and adjunct faculty member in the department, the third is from this article in the U Alberta student newspaper).

Photo of office door which includes a small cutout with contact information, two small circular stickers, and 8.5x11 papers with gender critical commentary
Image 1. Photo of door with several printed images on it. Detailed description in Footnote 1.

Broadly speaking, what do our office doors accomplish, communicatively? Basic information would be the name and position(s) of the person/people whose office it is, and given the nature of academic work and schedules, to tell people what days and times they could find the person they wish to meet with. But lots of academics also like to add to that, and post some additional items – images, cartoons, quotes, etc. When we do that, we’re essentially extending a bit more information about ourselves, which is seen either by people who come to our office to meet with us, by colleagues who regularly pass by our offices, and perhaps by people looking for the offices of those colleagues. In this way, then, our office doors become part of material and linguistic systems through which we do identity work and index pieces of who we are (there are lots of great linguistic anthropological writings on such systems, but see for example Mendoza-Denton 2008, Bucholtz 2011, and Davis 2018, which focus on aspects of gender, race, and ethnolinguistic identities as discursive products). In addition, though, these doors are parts of a workplace and also play a role in shaping the environment and culture of the place as a whole. On the one hand, they’re like t-shirts with slogans, pop-culture references, or the logos of events we’ve participated in, but on the other, they’re like signage and posters that structure a larger space. This makes them, I think, particularly potent sites of both individual identity management and workplace interactional dynamics.

Photo of office door, with different set of cutouts from previous
Image 2. Photo of bulletin board next to door with several printed images on it. Detailed description in Footnote 2.

To give a counter example, while I unfortunately don’t have and can’t currently take pictures, some things I have had on my office door include anti-sexual violence stickers with information about campus sexual assault services, linguistics jokes and memes (like these ones), and the classic Calvin & Hobbes “verbing weirds a language” strip that literally shattered my linguistic assumptions when I was 13. Students and colleagues walk into my office, look at my door and laugh a little at the comic strip, or maybe say “I don’t get it” about the memes, and allow me to explain some basic linguistic principles (ruining the jokes, sure, but my job is to teach linguistics and linguistic anthropology, not to be a comedian). So the images on my door have served to initiate the interaction, and given people some information about me that they might take up directly, or that they might file away as information shaping their feelings and opinions about me. Some information might not become the topic of direct commentary – like the sexual violence information – but may shape a student’s decision should they ever be in a position to need to disclose something like that to a professor. I’ll never know for sure why some students choose to talk to me about things like that, but I can assume that over the course of their getting to know me, the varying ways in which I have indexed my stance on and awareness of those issues might come in to play. 

image of bulletin board beside an office door containing several printed sheets of paper
Image 3. Photo of bulletin board next to door with different printed images on it. Detailed description in footnote 3

So when we look at Lowrey’s door, we can think about what it is she wants people to know about who she is and how they might interact with her. The space on her door and the bulletin board beside it is almost entirely filled with commentary that is dismissive of trans and non-binary experiences and identities. There are no general anthropological quotes, memes, or cartoons, no directions to student support services, no “safer space” stickers. There’s a more generic anti-status quo sticker that could be read in a lot of different ways and another “Action Labs” one that presumably refers to something else, but everything else is making a “gender critical” feminist statement in a variety of forms (expanded descriptions of the images here are provided in the footnotes; since so many of these are lengthy texts I have tried to capture their main points rather than copying them in full). Examples of her posts include a longer quote articulating the argument in academic terms, accusations of harms to women/feminists done by trans activism, likening trans activism to the right-wing reactionary Men’s Rights movement, and cartoons and memes that dismiss or express opposition to trans activism.  Dr. Sawchuk also mentioned in an email to me that these images of Lowrey’s door are from different times in the year, so the conversation remained fresh and your attention would be drawn to the themes again and again. At least one other professor in the department responded to Lowrey’s door by trying to ensure that a counterpoint would be visible, and placed a large number of trans-supportive messages on their own door.

In addition to being an active and ongoing conversation, then, this was not an issue that can be seen as marginal to Lowrey’s professional work, and in particular to her role as Associate Chair of Undergraduate Programs. While such jobs differ in their details across institutions, they are essentially student-facing positions – in other words, they inherently will increase the number of interactions that this professor will have with a variety of undergraduate students, and students are not able to exercise choice about this – so while they could avoid taking her optional courses, if they have a concern as an undergraduate anthropology student, they will be directed to Lowrey’s office and to this door. Two posts in particular strike me as ones that students in this position might respond to. First, the cartoon of smiling and affirming women wearing uniforms referencing the oppressive practices of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale, while the one who is liberating herself explicitly invalidates trans women’s identities. The other is the meme-ified variation on William Carlos Williams’ poem “This is Just to Say”, explicitly calling those who have included pronouns in their profile “needy” and “ridiculous” (as my friend and fellow ling anthro Jenny Davis commented in a conversation about this, is it just as “needy” and unimportant to include things like “Associate Professor” in our email signatures and profiles, as though we are demanding to have our statuses recognized and affirmed?).

Imagine being a 19-year-old trans or non-binary student who is struggling to come out or to understand yourself, or who has recently started to publicly use a different set of pronouns, or who has been constantly cautious and on guard against family members and authority figures who reject and ridicule you for who you are, and approaching this door. Imagine being a trans person who is frequently misgendered, or whose appearance is scrutinized regularly in interactions, and standing outside that door waiting to go in to discuss a complaint that you have about another professor. Even if your concern is unrelated to your gender, you are walking in to an environment that has been set up as hostile, one in which, depending on how you respond to hostility, you may be angry and on your guard, or closed off, fearful, and upset, or all of these things at once. If your experience is related to being trans, you may leave altogether and never report the concern, after making the quite reasonable presumption that the person you have been directed to will not be on your side.

Beyond the interactional context that it produces for people who will be meeting directly with this professor, these images must also be seen in terms of the culture and environment to which they contribute within the department. Despite the claims of Lowrey and other gender critical feminists that they are the ones under attack, it is apparent that trans and gender non-conforming people suffer marginalization and discrimination in nearly every aspect of their lives, and move through a world that is extremely hostile to their existence. As such, Lowrey’s posts fit in to the construction of cis public space (h/t again to Jenny Davis for pointing this out, and linking it to existing work by Jane Hill [1998] of the role of language in shaping white public space). While Lowrey also claims there is an effort to “silence” her, these posts have remained a part of not only her own private speech, but also of the workplace in which students and colleagues have to function. No one has required, or to my knowledge, even asked her to remove them. This is despite the fact that there is a clear ability for the university (or any workplace) to exert some control over what employees post on their door – we can’t put up stickers supporting particular candidates or parties during elections, for example (at least where I have worked), and plenty of the examples of behaviours that can legally be defined as creating a “hostile work environment” include examples of communicative acts such as the sharing of jokes, images, and other material that berates or mocks members of a particular group.

I’ve taken the long way to say what I know a lot of people already get, which is that the act of making such postings on a door is harmful to a group of people. I would argue that we can presume this harm from the basic structure of the interaction and power dynamic in which it sits, rather than requiring examples of individuals who must demonstrate a specific harm in order to justify removing such a person from a student-facing service role. Within an anthropology department in which linguistic anthropology is taught, where symbols and communicative acts are clearly understood to be related to embodied social experiences, and where power and its effects are studied, the attempt to hand wave away these images and posts as mere examples of innocuous views and opinions that have no material impact is a position that should not be taken seriously.

On a lighter note, if anyone wants to analyze the semiotics of academic office doors, I think that would be pretty fun.

Footnotes

  1. Description: Photo of office door including a cutout with contact information, two small circular stickers (one green with the words “status quo” crossed out and one yellow with the label ‘action labs’), and two 8.5×11 sheets of printed paper. The text on the first paper is a quote from journalist Sarah Ditum describing the practice of treating transwomen as women as situated in “the male interest”. The text on the second paper outlines “a list of the human rights of women that trans activism is eliminating”.
  2. Bulletin board beside an office door which includes 4 8.5×11 printed sheets and one smaller printed square, organized vertically. At the top is a colour cartoon strip featuring 4 women side-by-side in clothing reminiscent of the costumes in the show “The Handmaid’s Tale”, saying “So Brave” “So Stunning” “So Authentic” and “So Valid”, followed by a fifth throwing off her veil and walking away from the row and saying “He’s a Man”. The second sheet of paper contains a drawing and the professor’s name and contact information. The third sheet contains an unattributed quote contrasting queer theory and feminism, making the claim that the former attempt to “dismantle biological sex” instead of dismantling oppression, and therefore avoids confronting power. The final large sheet provides a chart with the headings “trans rights movement” and “men’s rights movement”, with a list of connections between the two under each heading. The small square is a printout of a tweet on a blue background, saying “1. What you call ‘exclusion’ is actually ‘centering the needs of female people’ 2. What you call ‘inclusion’ is actually ‘centering the needs of male people’ 3. Patriarchy is held in place by socialising female people to center the needs of male people
  3. Bulletin board next to an office door with three 8.5×11 printed sheets of paper, organized vertically. The first is a lengthy quote from feminist writer Alicen Grey that argues that “the memetic slogan ‘trans women are women'” is an example of “males exercising the power to define femalehood”, and discusses the idea that this is “transphobic” as a strategy for censorship and silencing. The second page is white text on black background with a list of first names of women (Meagan, Maya, Joanne, etc) followed by the sentence “We will not be silenced” in all caps. These names are associated with women who have been criticized for trans exclusive views. The final paper reads, in its entirety “This is just to say // I have ignored / the pronouns / that were in / your profile // and which / you were probably / hoping / were important // Forgive me / they were ridiculous / so needy / and so mad”.

References:

Mendoza-Denton, Norma 2008. Homegirls: Language and Cultural Practice Among Latina Youth Gangs. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing

Bucholtz, Mary 2012. White Kids: Language, Race, and Styles of Youth Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Davis, Jenny L. 2018. Talking Indian: Identity and Language Revitalization in the Chickasaw Renaissance. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Hill, Jane H. 1998. “Language, Race, and White Public Space”. American Anthropologist 100(3):680-689

4 Replies to “Like talking to a door: Thoughts on the interactional and semiotic dynamics of an office door”

  1. This suddenly reminded of 1978 (if you can believe it) when, as a frightened 20-year-old gay boy, I walked up to Michelle Rosaldo’s office at Stanford for our weekly meeting, she had pinned on her door a poster against the anti-LGBT Proposition 8 (the Briggs Initiative). This image that has stayed with me all my life.

    1. I can so believe it, actually, because I think these moves are so super important. Thanks for sharing that story – I hope she knew that it made a difference to you. <3

  2. The colorful Gilead-like cartoon is from the webcomic “Sinfest” by Tatsuya Ishida. Over the years, Ishida’s comic has gone through several ideological transformations, most recently into a full-bore anti-porn, anti-sex work, anti-trans position which he characterizes as “radical feminism.” He lost a lot of fans in the process (myself included), wiped out his previously existing discussion board to create one with a fully supportive population, and has apparently established a social media presence on Gab, a twitter imitator explicitly created to host discussions which run afoul of Twitter’s content restrictions, including white supremacy and anti-trans positions.
    Whether Lowrey knows all of this is a different discussion, but it’s clear that the anti-trans narratives in the cartoon are not accidental or incidental.

    1. Thanks for this background! The theme definitely didn’t seem accidental to me at all, and it’s good to have that confirmed. Apologies that this comment got trapped in the approval filter for so long – I have been out of the habit of checking such things and just saw it now.

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