A Professor Knows Breast
An American University anthropologist goes rogue.
8:45 AM, Sep 13, 2012 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
Adrienne Pine, an assistant professor of anthropology at American University (AU) in Washington, decided to bring her cold-stricken baby daughter, too sick for the daycare center, along with her to teach her opening class for the fall semester in "Sex, Gender, and Culture." Some 40 undergraduates enrolled in the class watched on August 28 as Pine first lectured with the feverish infant girl, Lee, strapped to her back, then let her crawl around the classroom floor in her blue onesie. A student called out, "Professor, your son has a paperclip in his mouth." Pine rushed to extract the clip "without correcting my students' gendered assumptions," as she later put it. Little Lee also crawled dangerously close to an electrical outlet but was rescued by her mother. A conversation ensued between Pine and her teaching assistant that resulted in the assistant's rocking the increasingly fussy baby for a while. Finally Pine took hold of the baby and began to breastfeed her, all the while going on about the "origins and consequences of patriarchy" and "[h]ow economic systems, social structures, and values construct and redefine biological distinctions between women and men" (that's from AU's official course description of Pine's class).
That bizarre spectacle wasn't the end of it, however. As word of Pine's conduct traversed the gossip grapevine on the AU campus, the student newspaper, the Eagle, dispatched a reporter, Heather Mongilio, to contact Pine, first by email and then in person after Pine's next class. Incensed by Mongilio’s daring to quiz her about the incident, Pine on September 5 published a 3,800-word diatribe titled "Exposéing [sic] My Breasts on the Internet: The Dialectics of Breastfeeding on Campus" in the leftist online newsletter Counterpunch. The target of Pine's polemic was the Eagle and its band of 18-22-year-old reporters and editors. Arguing that Mongilio had been "hounding" her, exacerbating the cold that she had meanwhile caught from her baby daughter, Pine decided that the Eagle was waging a GOP-style war on women against mammary glands, especially her own. "The naïveté of [Mongilio's] questions was not promising, nor did there seem to [be] anything newsworthy in the story other than the thrill of joining together the words 'university professor' and 'breast,'" Pine wrote. She complained that a female Eagle news editor had addressed her in an email as "Ms." instead, of, say, "Dr." or "Prof." Pine quipped: "[A]pparently my breasts got in the way of her letter-writing."
The Eagle has “a solidly anti-woman slant," Pine added, pointing to a column written in 2010 by the since-graduated Eagle columnist Alex Knepper. Knepper, probably the house conservative at the time, had argued that "date rape" was an "incoherent" concept invoked by college women who overindulged in "jungle juice," accompanied a guy to his dorm room, and engaged in sex that they regretted the next morning. Pine declared that the Eagle was a "sexist third-rate university newspaper" determined to create a "hostile work environment" for Pine. "Hostile work environment" is a legal term of art. If proved, it can be the basis for making a case of sex discrimination based upon workplace harassment and intimidation—all of which might be useful to Pine should she sue AU for denying her tenure sometime in the future. Pine claimed that an Eagle story about her would condemn her to becoming a "victim…online for all eternity."
The problem with all this verbiage was that the Eagle hadn't actually published a single word about Pine and the breastfeeding incident. In fact, Eagle editor Zach Cohen, a junior at AU, had informed Pine by email that "providing anonymity" was an option, and that the paper could find "alternative ways of identifying you in the story." It was thus Pine herself who publicized her mammological victim status and ensured that it would be electronically eternal. Sure enough, no sooner had Pine's article appeared in Counterpunch than the web-based trade paper Inside Higher Ed picked up on it, followed by the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, the local Fox station, and the Drudge Report.
Furthermore, AU administrators seemed not to be swayed by Pine's breast-centric interpretation of her in-class performance. An AU statement issued in the wake of Pines's Counterpunch article focused on a genuine public-health concern raised by Pine's bringing a sick infant into a busy classroom (Pine admitted in her article that she herself had caught baby Lee's violent cold a few days later). The statement pointed out that AU provides paid leave "to care for the sick child and protect the health of the community." The university also provides private places for nursing mothers to express their breast milk, the statement pointed out. Indeed, since babies don't start crawling until they are about eight months old, Pine's daughter was clearly of an age to take the occasional bottle. Pine stated twice in her Counterpunch article that she had been nursing for a "year" in various public places. (Her reason for breastfeeding in class: "I hate cleaning bottles.") This isn't even getting close to the wisdom of letting an infant crawl freely on a heavily-trafficked classroom floor where small school supplies are likely to fall and outlets for laptop chargers are aplenty.
Pine had stated in her Counterpunch article that right after her email correspondence with Mongilio, "I spoke with my departmental chair, who gave me his full support and—with my permission and gratitude—notified my colleagues and Dean that we were about to be drawn into a pointless story centered around my breasts." I emailed Richard Dent, the chairman of AU's anthropology department, to find out whether he had actually said this. He replied, "I did say in an e-mail that 'Prof Adrienne Pine has my full support as a scholar and teacher as well as a caring mother.' I said nothing further." Pine herself, when I contacted her by phone, said, "I have no comment."
The AU administration was also unhappy about Pine's hostile and quasi-paranoid stance toward the hapless undergraduates who staff the Eagle. Pine had originally incorporated their personal contact information into her Counterpunch article and then removed it at the administration's request. It is highly unusual for professors to turn on students, much less disclose private information about their whereabouts.
Meanwhile, the Eagle has yet to publish any story about Pine and the breastfeeding brouhaha, even though few other news media have been so hesitant. "It's being deliberated," Cohen told me. "We're trying to get all the facts." Cohen did, however, vigorously defend the much vilified (by Pine) Heather Mongilio. "Heather demonstrated the utmost professionalism," Cohen said, "and I'm proud to have her as a member of our staff."
Charlotte Allen is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s Minding the Campus website.
Recent Blog Posts