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Marianne Stidsen. The final interview

Farewell interview — Marianne Stidsen is finished. She has quit her associate professor position at the University of Copenhagen after accusations of plagiarism, and she is now withdrawing from the public debate. But in what she calls her last interview, she says that she leaves in the same high spirits as when she arrived.

When I pressed the doorbell outside Marianne Stidsen’s small fifth floor apartment in the Copenhagen district of Frederiksberg one afternoon in mid November, I had prepared myself to meet a human being in a dark place.

Marianne Stidsen had resigned her position as associate professor at the University of Copenhagen after 25 years. The university has started the process of examining her 2015 doctoral dissertation after a series of articles in the news media Information accused her of plagiarism in two recent books.

Due to the pandemic, we greet each other without a handshake, but Marianne Stidsen immediately starts chit-chatting and swearing over a thermos with a stuck lid. Through a joint effort, we loosen the lid, and we both claim that it was actually the other person who did it.

»I’m tired,« says Marianne Stidsen.

»It’s been a completely insane month, and I had gotten used to it, because I’ve been in some pretty tough debates for a number of years. But still, I haven’t tried this before,« she says, with reference to the plagiarism accusations.

Marianne Stidsen has given interviews every day for weeks on end. Earlier on this day, she had received a visit from someone at the Kristeligt Dagblad news media, she says. She adds that she agrees to the interviews because »it’s very important for me to explain how I look at these things.«

She pours coffee into two huge ceramic cups and reclines in a gold-coloured leather couch that is up against the wall in the small room. I have read that all her many books and featured comments were written on this couch, and it makes sense because she does not own a desk.

The room is sparsely furnished, but the atmosphere is like being in a cocoon. The books tower up on all sides: In the bookcase, on the dresser, on the windowsill and on the dining table in the middle of the room. Marianne Stidsen never has dinner guests anyway, she says.

»I’m not a very social person. I’m a very homey person, and I love being here.«

She has framed her strong gaze with kohl eye make-up, and has fastened her shoulder-length reddish-brown hair with a clip to the one side. It makes for a fresh asymmetry that has her looking younger than her 59 years.

If any original research has been done at all in modern humanities, then you can be goddamned sure that Ms. Stidsen is the author of it

She wears an 80s style vintage knit, but it is almost camouflaged by a huge bouquet of flowers placed on the coffee table between us. The reddish-brown and deep purple flowers came by messenger from the Danish Free Press Society »when everything was an inferno,« she says.

Marianne Stidsen took ten years to write her doctoral dissertation. What does it mean for a university person to have her examiners getting her work tested for plagiarism, I ask.

»Absolutely nothing. Of course, I find it sad,« says Marianne Stidsen and takes a deep sigh. »And it’s actually pathetic that someone can turn up six years afterwards and claim these things. Stop it. Read the work. It’s me all the way through, you cannot be mistaken about this. They may be able to get these accusations through now, but I feel absolutely certain that in the long run someone will clear my name and point out that if any original research has been done at all in modern humanities, then you can be goddamned sure that Ms. Stidsen is the author of it.«

The defence

The last time I interviewed Marianne Stidsen, we talked about the dissertation she had just defended against attacks in a packed auditorium. The defence dragged on for hours due to sharp protests from the seats in the lecture hall.

Among the critics was Lars Bukdahl from the Weekendavisen newspaper and Tue Andersen Nexø, a reviewer of the Information newspaper and associate professor at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Arts and Cultural Studies. Nexø’s listed points of criticism included that the dissertation suffered from »academic straw men and a strange concoction of conceptual sloppiness«, as he put it in a review in Information in January 2016.

Marianne Stidsen was in good form. She said that the disagreements were primarily rooted in different views of the individual’s position in literature. »The subject is not kosher at the moment,« as she put it.

Today, she says that the years since this defence have been her best:

»I worked on my doctoral dissertation for ten years, and when it came out, it was as if the cork popped out of the bottle. Over the past six or seven years, I have achieved my research ambitions with a series of works from my thesis, to the book on existentialism, to my book on Danish literary criticism through five decades.«

People at university know Marianne Stidsen as a researcher in the field of literature. People outside university know her as a pundit, and as a vocal critic of identity policy, feminism, and the entire »radical left wing,« which she has called her political opponents in many comments and letters-to-the-editor in the written media, including the University Post.

In parallel to her battles against #metoo and ‘wokeism’ in the media, Marianne Stidsen has fought her critic colleagues in book supplements and with her author colleagues in the Danish Academy, where the disagreements culminated in four members quitting in protest, and not coming back. One of them was the writer Suzanne Brøgger, who Stidsen had previously singled out as a major role model for her.

Marianne Stidsen did not withdraw from the fight, but continued from one duel to the next. Right up to 25 October, when she quit her good job as an associate professor at Department of Nordic Studies and Linguistics shortly before her 25th anniversary at the Faculty of Humanities.

But why is she leaving? Why does she not just lean back and wait for history to clear her name, which she is so sure will happen?

»I think basically that the most important thing has been the shift away from the big ideas, the astute analyses, and the intelligent perspectives. This has almost been overshadowed by what I, in several publications, have called hysterical pedantry. But since I have now been taught the hard way that this is not the way the rest of the university world sees it, there has been no doubt that it is me that has to leave.«

The plagiarism charges

Three weeks before her resignation, she was accused of plagiarism in an article in the Danish media Information referring to her new book on gender Køn og identitet – et spadestik dybere from 2021.

A law professor reckoned that Stidsen may have infringed the copyright of the Danish encyclopedia Den Store Danske because passages from the encyclopedia have been merged into the text without the author marking the sections with quotations marks. Stidsen responded and called her method ‘paraphrasing’.

There is a difference between odds and ends like this and actual plagiarism

Since then a whole series of articles in the news media Information followed. A book from 2019 was examined closely, with Stidsen accused of copying articles from Weekendavisen, Information and the University Post without giving due credit and quoting them correctly.

Marianne Stidsen defended herself. She would permit the same method by her students, she said. And as to the question of whether she would use the same practice in her scientific work, she replied yes. This had the assessment committee that reviewed her doctoral dissertation ‘The New Mimesis’ to ask the university to check its 1,300 pages for plagiarism.

If the plagiarism test fails, Marianne Stidsen risks losing her doctoral degree. The last time this happened was for neuroscientist Milena Penkowa in 2017.

The University Post is not here to discuss cultural politics. Today we are here to talk about academic practices and Stidsen’s views on the university that she is about to leave.

The culture war

Marianne Stidsen does not just talk about the ‘literary subject’ as in her doctoral dissertation, but about the position of the individual in our civilization. From the couch she says something that sounds like a manifesto:

»I want to defend the small, balding, singular individual until I can no longer stand upright on this planet. For me, civilization is when the singular individual has value in and of itself, and this civilization ends when it is no longer the case.«

She has the same focus in her research field. The central, academic, nerve in Marianne Stidsen’s research comes from the Age of the Enlightenment, she says.

»The individual is addressed for the first time during the Enlightenment, where it is conferred rights on the basis of what they called natural law. All people are born equal and have different rights, like for example to express themselves freely. This is the power that keeps my entire apparatus going.«

According to Marianne Stidsen, this ‘bald, short, weather-beaten singular individual’ has come under huge pressure. The rhetoric has intensified, and the battle metaphors have taken over from the nature metaphors when Stidsen describes the current climate of debate.

On the one hand, she sees a leading and arrogant cultural elite, who just continue full throttle under the banner of wokeism. On the other is Marianne Stidsen and a majority of people who do not enjoy the same privileged access to the media, but who, according to her, find the trends just as frightening as she does.

And now the battle for civilization has turned into a fight over citation practices, if you are to believe Marianne Stidsen:

»I can see that most newspaper readers, even people who have a very different political persuasion than I do, see this as a political witch hunt. There is a difference between odds and ends like this and actual plagiarism. When something is blown out of proportion like this, it is logical that there must be other motives behind it. It’s hard not to put two and two together. I feel that the accusations are part of a culture war that is raging out there. If it had not been in the context of this fierce cultural drama that I myself have been a very active part of, I would have definitely taken it much more personally,« she says, and adds:

»It has come as a surprise to me that it was something like this that would ‘take me down’ in inverted commas. But I knew that something would turn up at some point,« says Marianne Stidsen.

She has a healthy appetite for the pastries I brought, and she does not look like someone who has been sleepless for weeks.

»Just when it all blew up, there was actually a week where I didn’t sleep. Or rather, I slept just enough to be able to get through the days in a way that others would not have noticed. I went to work as usual and took care of my teaching. And then it all kind of settled a bit.«

Marianne Stidsen denies that she would have done things differently with hindsight. Not even in the light of what happened over the last month.

»I can say no to this without hesitation. And I’m aware that many people will think I’m being obstinate. That’s also why I haven’t had any unpleasant feeling of uncertainty while it has happened.«

Stidsen says that she did not ask anyone for advice before she decided to resign:

»I have not talked to anyone about it I never do this with decisions that are crucial to my own future. I discuss them with myself and come up with a decision that I then put into practice. I think it has something to do with the need for me to take on responsibility for these kinds of decisions. I cannot let others share this, because what if things don’t go well, and what if I get a depression? Is it then the people who gave me advice that are responsible? Small decisions, on the other hand… I often say to my sister: you have to decide, because I cannot. But never with big things, and not something like this.«

The network

Marianne Stidsen is not the type that distinguishes between her work and her private life. She lives with the books that inspire and excite her.

»You can see that the piles of books have only grown since you were here the last time. I know exactly what is in every pile, and I let my interest steer a path.«

This is the place from where Marianne Stidsen’s world starts. And her closest support is literally in the adjacent entrance, where her beloved parents live.

»They support me in everything I do and have confidence that I will do the right thing. And I think they’ve been able to see that it’s also been tough. I have no idea how many featured comments I have authored over the past three to four years, but there are many of them. And it has all been next to my full-time job at university. So my sweet and caring parents think it’s good that their daughter gets a bit of peace and quiet,« says Marianne Stidsen.

She also says that even though her parents descend from farmers, they are a couple of the brightest people she knows. It was not in the cards that their daughter was going to be an academic. But it may have been in the cards that she would be a free thinker. She has always felt as if she was at the edge of polite society, she says.

To the news media Information, Marianne Stidsen has said that it would be a good thing if someone would start a private university in Denmark. Her father had ruminated on this, she says, and concluded that Denmark was too small a place, but that you might imagine something at an inter-Nordic level with its headquarters in Malmö.

»This was just to say that we are all full of ideas in my family, including my old dad. It’s brilliant,« says Marianne Stidsen. »And oddly enough, on the same day news came out that a new private university in Austin, Texas, was started, something that I didn’t know when I said it. It almost makes you superstitious.«

Marianne Stidsen could dream of being in a workplace where she is not always the one with the wrong opinions, but she says that she will never leave Denmark.

You could bring your parents to Texas?

Marianne guffaws and says:

»My mother has flown on a plane only once. Back and forth to Crete. This was our gift to them when they turned sixty, and that was enough for her.«

The students

Marianne Stidsen will continue to teach her two courses in modern literature on the bachelor’s degree programme until 31 January and thereby complete the semester and assess the students’ assignments.

»It means a lot to me to leave university with dignity. And this includes that my students can rest assured that they do not have to change teachers in the middle of it all. They have enough worries as it is,« says Marianne Stidsen.

The University Post has spoken to some Danish students about the plagiarism charges against Stidsen. Several of them say that the whole story leaves them with a sense of uncertainty. They call for a conversation on where the limit actually is. They have heard that students are thrown out of university for much, much less. Marianne Stidsen understands their confusion.

»As I understand it, students reckon that it is very small things that they can be penalised for and, in the worst case, thrown out for. And I have to say that I didn’t know that things were actually like this. I’ve thought a lot about this. And it confirms my choice to resign, because if that’s the way things have got to, I can no longer vouch for teaching. Not in the sense that the formal requirements should not be taken seriously. But the concept of plagiarism has been completely misunderstood if the smallest minor error in source referencing or footnotes can trigger this type of sanction. Then there is something wrong with our system. And I have no problem saying this out loud.«

Do you understand that your students have been in a precarious situation, where they may be unsure about what they have learned from a teacher who is being investigated for plagiarism?

»Yes. It’s no good for me to approve of something, and then have the students subsequently being tripped up by the system afterwards. This goes without saying. But since they all know that I have been ticked off, I have urged them to be safe and place a couple of extra apostrophes if needed. I have tried to put it to them with humour so as not to make them even more worried.«

Guilt by association

To the University Post, other students have expressed their regrets over the loss of Marianne Stidsen, who they call a good, and very committed, teacher. What do you think of that?

»I’m really happy about that. Almost moved to tears. Gosh.«

Marianne Stidsen is quiet for an unusually long time. She takes a sip of coffee. Then she says that she feels she has something to offer as a teacher, and that she has it in her blood.

»Unfortunately, the university has become a place where it costs you if you say something nice about the wrong people, and something ugly about the right people. Everyone knows this, even the students. And I don’t remember that things were like this before, even if things could get agitated. There is this new culture of fear, something that they outside this country call guilt by association.«

Marianne Stidsen continues her train of thought and says that several of her friends have been told that it is not a good idea to associate with someone like her.

»Over the years, it is as if a barrier of cold air has surrounded me. Old student friends who turn their heads the other way if we pass each other. Of course it could be just me seeing ghosts in broad daylight.«

Marianne Stidsen says that she has thought a lot about what has happened to the university in the years that she has been employed. This also goes for the concept of plagiarism, which she »of course has been aware of as a university teacher.

»I have assessed assignments and evaluated them with a multitude of different co-examiners, and you develop a sixth sense for seeing something like that. A sense that lets you see when someone is trying to pass off something as their own, and steal thoughts, ideas, analyses, and original formulations. This is plagiarism, and this will never do. It never has done.«

And then she examines herself with the eye of an examiner:

»I have never claimed that what I do is completely free of error, but it has nothing to do with plagiarism.«

The question is whether Marianne Stidsen would have wished she was more careful with those damned quotation marks when she rereads the examples in the media?

»I am extremely conscious of what I do when I write. And I think it would be hypocritical for me to make this kind of post-rationalization. When I say with conviction that I stand one hundred per cent behind what I have done, it is because I think my practice is OK. I think I’m honest and transparent, and I reference the sources. When you refer to factual information from an encyclopaedia – which is, of course, based on other encyclopaedias, and therefore is what you would call general knowledge – do you have to sit there putting apostrophes around the information? I don’t believe so, and I stick to that. Others believe that this is the case, and that’s where we are at.«

The pause

»I’m sure that those who are out to get me know that they have no case whatsoever. But I’m also certain that they want me somewhere far, far away. And they got what they wanted.«

I let the last sentence sink in. Then I hold up a featured comment from the Danish Weekendavisen newspaper from 28 October 2021 with the title ‘Turncoats and Katyusha rocket launchers’ –  [in Danish: Vendekåber og Stalin-orgler]. It was a rebuttal that came a couple of weeks after the first plagiarism claims. Marianne Stidsen dissected her accusers’ motives and called on the choir of critics to sue her.

Does that mean that there will be no more featured comments from you like this one?

»No, there will be none. At least not for some time.«

You are withdrawing from the debate?

»Yes, I am. I have just made a presentation, which will be released somewhere out on the web, because I was called in to a debate meeting on gender transition for children, which is something that I have written about in my most recent book. Apart from this, I intend to take a very long break.«

And when will you give your final interview in this case?

»Now: It is you. I have told people that I will run with the ball as long as I am in possession of it, but when someone takes it from me, I will just lay down on the couch and take a breather.«

You say you see the accusations as an ideologically motivated attempt to get you out of the way. You have quit your good job, and now you proclaim that you are withdrawing from the debate?

»Yes.«

Blood sports

Marianne Stidsen feels she has been turned into a criminal. But you could also argue that she is labelling her opponents as criminals with the rhetoric she uses when she calls #metoo a terrorist movement, feminism a type of nazism and so on.

»It is thought-provoking that it is always these words that are cited. No-one is interested in the context in which these words are, and it is otherwise quiet and calm. When the other side flings around polarising expressions like toxic masculinity, it is not considered controversial. This is because it is included in the mindset we now are supposed to have, where we have to understand that men alone, due to their gender, are a problem, while women are the opposite. In my worldview, this is the worst kind of discrimination.«

I leave the polarising words aside. They are opening up a tangent that takes us away from the constructive dialogue we have on the sofa group. But I tell Marianne Stidsen that I might use the toxic masculinity concept.

»There you go! It is at least on a par with the harsh words I used myself. But the debate nowadays takes place in a way that if a person stands outside the flock in their own name and writes something, they are immediately met with a herd of people in the other direction. There is this collective blood lust in these cultural debates, which I find extremely creepy.«

The workplace

Marianne Stidsen says that she has only praise for the management, all the way up to the Board. But she does not feel that there is space at the University of Copenhagen for people like her.

»I really feel that my immediate management has struggled to uphold academic freedom and insisted that there should be space for perspectives and opinions to clash. And the new board member [Associate Professor Pia Quist, ed.] was in the University Post saying that there needs to be space for this. This is really nice for someone like me. But maybe it’s not enough,« says Stidsen.

»This force that comes with political pressure is just too great. In the future, it would be a good idea for management to be a little more clear on where the limits are in terms of activist influence. It should not be left to individual courageous voices, typically students, to speak out about the the politicisation. It is management’s responsibility to protect the university from politicisation. The rector sets the course here. And if he wants to make it easier for managers in other parts of the system to put their foot down, he should announce this more clearly.«

The rector said in his speech at the annual commemoration on 16 November that »researchers need to be able to stand up to harsh criticism, as long as it does not tip over into hate.« I thought about you …

»I don’t think he was thinking of me … But it’s no use becoming too delicate. You could say: This is coming from me who has just quit her job. But I think it’s absolutely crucial that we, as the very, very privileged university staff we are, understand that society contains many other kinds of people. They try to express themselves with the words they have. I have become accustomed to exchanging my views with the world outside academia. And I’m used to the manner of speaking of all kinds of people, even when their language isn’t perfectly shaped and polished.«

Marianne Stidsen is tired of being a one-woman show, she says. People are not following her call to stand up and be heard, because the price is too high:

»There are people at our university who have seen the same problems as I do, but who do not want to speak openly about them, because they have clear and legitimate reasons for believing that this would cost them,« she says.

»And we are not talking about angry culture warriors, but people who are quietly observing the trends, and find that some of these trends are regrettable. Perhaps they express this in a scientific article, and the next time they go to a conference, nobody wants to sit next to them. There are wild stories that I get from people. And it saddens me. And this has also made it hard to go to work.«

I remind Marianne Stidsen that she has also been supported by colleagues. In 2018, she received an academic literature award from the Danish Authors’ Society for making difficult material accessible to a wider audience.

»Yes, of course, I was really happy and honoured and proud of that. This would probably not have happened if it had been a couple of years later. It was good that I managed to get this before I made myself completely persona non grata,« says Marianne Stidsen.

The parting

»Do you want more cake?«

No thanks, but I think the rest of my questions are quite boring, so I want to ask you whether there is anything you would like to say.

»I don’t know whether this fits into this interview. It was – for me at least – a good interview, because you relate to the individual that you are facing. You don’t just see me as a representative of some creepy group.«

This is a farewell portrait, so of course it has to do with the human being Marianne Stidsen.

»Yes! It is, of course,« says Stidsen, and sounds surprised. »And it is fitting that I almost quit the same day as my 25th work anniversary. There’s some symmetry in that. When I resigned, I had a feeling of immense pride. When I think back on all these years, I have achieved much more than I dreamed that I would be able to when I started,« she says, adding:

»What I was not able to do, was my new research project, which was to be about literature and the freedom of speech, and which I started this spring with an elective course.«

Are you going to let yourself be celebrated with a farewell lecture and a reception?

»I have said to my head of department that it is nice if she wants to hold a small reception, but that’s it. There will be absolutely no lecture. I will spare everyone that.«

I ask Marianne Stidsen what is going to happen and how she is going to make a living. She repeats what she said about lying on the couch, and says she is not looking for a new job, and that she has done the calculations:

»The night before I wrote my resignation was my last sleepless night. I did a bit of primitive math. Since I finished paying off my student loans, I have saved up on my associate professor’s salary. I only have a few expenses, and I can manage if I pull my socks up, and don’t shop for vintage clothes as I otherwise would do … When I had done the math, I fell asleep.«

She also says, even though I find this hard to square off when you think about how much, and how frequently, she has been published in recent years, that she has several different manuscripts already in the files.

»Some funny, crazy, crooked ideas for books, like the way I worked in the past. So I think that I will loop back and have the freedom that I had before I was employed at the university. I will continue along this track in a strange intersection of genres between art, research, and critical debate.«

For this intersection of genres, I suggest the concept of sampling from the world of hip-hop, but this is probably more my generation than Marianne Stidsens. She has described herself as a small-town punk in her youth, and she latches on to my suggestion for a genre title, post-punk.

»Yes it really is post-punk. And it will all take place in a less hectic pace. It’s also about age. It all has to be a bit slower,« she says, before she adds:

»But things should not come to a standstill. I promise you that. And I will leave with the same high spirits as when I came.«

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