A philosophy conference so diverse it merited a news story August 18, 2014
The Diverse Lineages of Existentialism meeting was a far cry from a typical philosophy conference. In a discipline dominated by white men, this conference hosted as many women as men and a large number of people of color along with white participants. In a discipline often characterized by its esoteric isolation from public and politics, instead there was outpouring of conversations about social justice and lived human experience. Given the recent public and professional conversations about the lack of diversity in philosophy, the Diverse Lineages of Existentialism (DLE) conference is a hopeful glance into the future of the discipline – one that is long overdue and necessary if philosophy is to continue as a viable and relevant living and growing field, both in the academy and in the public imagination.
“Why I Left Academia: Philosophy’s Homogeneity Needs Rethinking” August 15, 2014
“The pressure to accept and conform to a narrow conception of philosophy was pervasive. [...] While much of the rest of the academy has evolved to reflect these demographic changes, philosophy remains mired in a narrow conception of the discipline that threatens to marginalize philosophy even further. [...] I loved studying philosophy, and truly have no regrets about devoting nearly a decade of my life to it. But I also grew tired and frustrated with the profession’s unwillingness to interrogate itself. Eventually, I gave up hope that the discipline would ever change, or that it would change substantially within a timeframe that was useful to me professionally and personally.”
“It’s not that women and minorities are (inexplicably) less interested in the “problems of philosophy”—it’s that women and minorities have not had their fair say in defining what the problems of philosophy are, or what counts as philosophy in the first place.”
Eric Schliesser on the Boulder situation August 8, 2014
As usual, Eric has many thoughtful things to say. Here are just a couple of them.
It is encouraging that after the settlement, the victim has decided to stay in the profession and at Boulder; this suggests to me that there is reason that the majority of our peers at Boulder are, in fact, already (quoting Curtis) “making progress.” Our colleagues at Boulder deserve our respect and support in doing so. It’s not impossible that in doing so they are, in fact, showing the way forward to the rest of us…
As I claimed a few month’s ago, victims’s lawsuits “and the harsh light of publicity are the best means to destroy the culture of silence in the profession and to give everybody incentives to do the right thing (protect victims and to ensure that success goods are not abused). It’s a sad fact that the victims and relative powerless are the ones that are now the best hope for reform and wisdom. But that’s how the situation looks to me now.” The size of the settlement $825,000 at Boulder is of the right order of magnitude to generate the right incentives.
As readers know, I spend a lot of time talking to people in departments with climate problems. One issue that arises in many cases is how to deal with the continued presence of people who are known or suspected to be a problem. Sometimes this is someone who has “done their time”– e.g. had a year of unpaid leave; sometimes it’s someone who was cleared of all charges but about whom suspicion still lingers; sometimes it’s someone trailing a history of well-known problems. What often comes up in conversations is the question of how to react to these situations. The situations differ from each other in many, many ways. But what’s common to them is that they create difficulties for the community– how to make the department as safe and welcoming a place as it can be for everyone is chief among them. What I’m asking about is not the formal remedies– in these cases they have already run their course. My concern is with what those concerned about climate can do to cultivate as good an atmosphere as possible in such a challenging situation. These situations are in fact quite widespread, so I’m guessing there is a lot of knowledge out there in our readership. I’d be grateful for your thoughts.
Code of Conduct Discussion July 15, 2014
“As teachers, mentors and colleagues, we, professional philosophers, take our tasks of teaching, research, and service to the profession very seriously,” Eleonore Stump, professor of philosophy at Saint Louis University, and Helen De Cruz, a postdoctoral fellow in philosophy at the University of Oxford, wrote in their petition. “We want to create a supportive environment where fellow faculty members and students feel safe and where their concerns are heard and addressed.”
Amy Ferrer, executive director of the association, responded to the petitioners in a statement they posted on their web page. In her response, Ferrer said that members of the association’s Board of Officers, “like so many others in the profession, are deeply troubled by incidents of harassment and other misconduct that have recently come to light. We want members to know that we take professional ethics very seriously.”
. . . The eight-member task force, made up of professors from institutions across the U.S. and Canada, is expected to provide a progress report to the philosophical association’s board in November. Discussions – which will mainly be internal – are just beginning, but the task force announcement already has prompted a range of reactions.
Inside Higher Ed
A Reply to “The Gender Academy” July 14, 2014
In a July 5th article, “The Gender Academy,” University of Colorado Boulder philosophy grad student Spencer Case complains about his department’s new “Best Practices” document, which recommends, among other things, that classroom discussion facilitators make an effort to assist students from underrepresented groups in participating in discussion “by, for example, intervening when such students are interrupted or spoken over while attempting to contribute.”
“This is micro-managing and worse,” he objects, “Instead of being an objective facilitator of learning for all, the teacher must now be an advocate for some.”
Kudos to University of Colorado Boulder philosophy grad student Sofia Huerter, who wrote a reply to Case, drawing on Jenny Saul’s work on implicit bias and stereotype threat:
“I have, for some months, permitted myself to remain silent with regard to the climate in my department because I have become so preoccupied with my own fears of confirming stereotypes about women in philosophy, namely that we aren’t very good at it for one reason or another. I have felt fearful that any slip-ups on my end will result in accusations of fallacious and misguided reasoning, engendering yet more negativity in the debate about the status of women in philosophy…
Stereotype threat is a psychological phenomenon which affects the way that members of stigmatized groups perform. Victims of stereotype threat tend to under-perform on relevant tasks, such as writing papers, because they are unconsciously preoccupied with fears of confirming stereotypes about their groups…
As women enter graduate programs in philosophy, they are likely to be reminded of their under-representation in various ways. For instance, as Jennifer Saul notes, in most classes, other than perhaps feminist philosophy, they are likely to encounter syllabuses consisting overwhelmingly of male authors, and the people teaching most of their classes are likely to be male. Further, those who are teaching are susceptible to implicit bias. As such, we are likely to witness in philosophy departments the same well-documented asymmetries in the treatment of male and female students that have been observed in other areas of academics. For instance, we are likely to see teachers calling upon male students more often than female students…”
(See here for the full reply.)
UPDATE: Case has published a reply to some of his critics, in which he argues that feminism is not a sub-discipline of philosophy and ought to “be discussed alongside conservatism, libertarianism, liberalism, fascism, and socialism in political-philosophy classes.” Presumably his arguments are directed at feminist philosophy, and not feminism — which is not (and as far as I know has not ever been) characterized as a “sub-discipline of philosophy.” Even under this charitable reading, however, Case’s argument is little more than a classic example of a straw-person fallacy; the argument shows merely that feminist philosophy should not be “insulated” from “criticism” — which, of course, is not a conclusion that anyone would contest. What the “Best Practices” document recommends is that philosophers refrain from disparaging sub-disciplines of philosophy, not from providing a rational critique.
On “smartness”, “genius”, etc. July 9, 2014
Philosophers are very prone to discussions of “who’s smart”, and also of “who’s stupid”. I vividly remember discussions in the lounge when I was a grad student of who was stupid (discussions amongst both staff and students) and my terror of making it onto the stupid list. In recent years, lots of good worries have been raised about such discussions.
In some disciplines success may be seen as depending on sustained effort and dedication, whereas in others it may be seen as requiring a “gift” or brilliance that cannot be taught. Because women are stereotyped as being less likely than men to possess innate intellectual talent, they may find the academic fields that emphasize brilliance as the key to success to be unwelcoming.
I have been collecting anecdotal data on seeming smart. One thing I’ve noticed is what sort of person tends spontaneously to be described, in my presence, as “seeming smart”. A very striking pattern emerges: In every case I have noted the smart-seeming person has been a young white male. Now my sample size is small and philosophy is about 75% white male anyway, so I want to be cautious in this inference. Women and minorities must sometimes “seem smart”. And older people maybe have already proven or failed to prove their brilliance so that remarks about their apparent intelligence aren’t as natural. (Maybe also it is less our place to evaluate them.) But still I would guess that there is something real behind that pattern, to wit:
Seeming smart is probably to a large extent about activating people’s associations with intelligence. This is probably especially true when one is overhearing a comment about a complex subject that isn’t exactly in one’s expertise, so that the quality of the comment is hard to evaluate.
And now Carolyn Dicey Jennings on the negative side of things– criticising people as not intelligent, rather than simply criticising their arguments.
Eric Schliesser, in a related vein, on boy wonders:
I define a ‘boy-wonder’ as follows: a male — aged 20-28 — who is quick on his feet, precocious, often with gifts in formal areas of philosophic, and annointed as ‘the next big thing’ by Some Important Philosopher(s) (SIPS) at a top department.* Words like ‘genius’ and ‘brilliant’ are often used in this context. (Often SIPS and their boy-wonders are dismissive of other people’s contributions.) Philosophy is by no means the only discipline that has ‘anointed’ boy-wonders (economics does, too), but we like them a lot. By this I mean that boy-wonders do not only show up in the inflationary context of letters of recommendation, but they also impact the sexist mores in philosophy.
I offer seven considerations to rid ourselves from the whole set of practices that involve boy-wonders.
First, it’s very hard to judge future philosophical performance. While it may be true that some future fantastic philosophers are recognized at an early age (fill in your favorite example), there are also lots of false positives.
Second, once somebody is annointed as a boy-wonder in some privileged circle, they often benefit from this for a long time in their career. Their work is systematically over-rated (fill in your favorite example), over-cited, and it happily carries them into exalted status (where they can annoint, etc.) They benefit from a positive feedback loop with material and psychological support that will help some of the boy wonders produce enough to retroactively justify the anointing within the (magic) circle of sympathy (see this analysis by Eric Schwitzgebel).
Third, undoubtedly, some boy-wonders crack under pressure, and suffer from not being able to live up to to expectation. I suspect that all anointed boy-wonders are harmed in some such way, but they may not care when they really make it in the profession.
Fourth, boy-wonders can get away with a lot. And, sadly, that means a lot of sexist stuff, too. Boy-wonders get a lot of second-chances. (I am *not* claiming that boy-wonders are more likely to be harassers.)
Fifth, the proxies that are often used to ‘track’ boy-wonder potential are, frankly, themselves sexist; they tend to rely on tacit bias, heuristics, and social norms many of which are known to favor men.
Sixth, because the intellectual gifts and virtues that tend to be associated with boy-wonder-hood tend to be associated with only a limited sub-set of philosophical areas/interests, they also skew everybody’s sense of what matters in philosophy.
Seventh, the phenomenon reinforces some of the worst features of the system of commodification of philosophy (and other disciplines)–the sociology around boy-wonders, facilitates Deans and Chairs to ‘sell’ their latest hire as a potential ‘superstar.’
I suspect that questioning the intelligence of any philosopher in a public forum could trigger stereotype threat for marginalized groups and such questioning adds nothing of value to public discourse.
I think we should all try to just stop talking this way. It’s not easy, and we’ll surely slip up. But we should try.
The Extreme Badness of Silence March 25, 2014
Note: One of the survivors quoted in what follows requested that I remove the “trigger warning” that was originally at the beginning of this article, arguing that it contradicts the message that we shouldn’t be afraid of sharing trauma narratives. Her point that there is a certain tension is a perceptive one. We’re not ashamed, and part of the purpose of this piece is to encourage transparency — but we also feel, given the intensity of the responses to sexual misconduct in philosophy over the past couple of months, that readers should know that what follows could be triggering.
This is a difficult post to write – and probably an even more difficult one to read.
I’m writing it because I have had a number of conversations in the past month that have led me to believe that there are more than a few philosophers who have no clue just how damaging even mild forms of sexual misconduct can be – or, for that matter, how the extreme badness of silence and silencing techniques can compound the problem, for both the survivor and for others in the community.
And, after talking to some 15-20 survivors of faculty-student sexual misconduct – mostly in philosophy – I am beginning to think that the problematic nature of faculty-student relationships is not “merely” that the power asymmetry (or perception of a power asymmetry) precludes bona fide consent. Although consent is important, the issues go far beyond consent.
The role of a faculty mentor or adviser, particularly at the graduate school level, is not just that of an authority figure. Dissertation students are often described as the progeny of their Doktorvater or Doktormutter, and there are academic genealogies in philosophy and mathematics and many other fields which track the relationships between academic “parents” and their “children.”
In other words, it is reasonable to think that, regardless of whether or not the full doctrine of in loco parentis applies, faculty have fiduciary duties to their students.
Obviously the experience of every student is different – and I don’t want to presume that all students perceive faculty as academic parents (indeed, I’d encourage students not to harbor this perception) – but I want to give a rough sense of how the perception of a fiduciary relationship, and the corresponding silence of the “family,” can make the impact of sexual misconduct more severe.
I’ll start with my own first-hand account. As a grad student at MIT oh-so-many-years-ago, I thought of my adviser as a sort of academic father figure, a mentor who viewed me as his academic offspring and cared about my intellectual growth and development in much the same way a father would. And so when he suddenly started touching me and behaving in a non-fatherly manner, it was both unthinkable and profoundly disturbing. I felt betrayed, disillusioned, afraid, isolated, damaged, guilty, defiled, and, above all else, angry at the “family” who protected him by turning a silent back to me, confirming my belief that to report the problem would be to commit academic suicide. “Being accepted into a graduate program is like being born into a family,” a senior member of the department told me when I asked for his support in transferring to another program, “you don’t just transfer out.”
I am not alone in this response. Many of the emotions that I muddled my way through in my decade-long hiatus from philosophy have been echoed in the reports of all the courageous women I’ve talked to this year. Here are just a few of the responses they have described:
“I was walking across campus yesterday, and I saw someone who looked like him from the back, and, even though I knew it *couldn’t* be him – he’s not at this university – I couldn’t overcome my anxiety, and turned around and walked in the opposite direction.”
“I don’t go to APA meetings, because I’m afraid that I might run into him and have to deal with the mind games that he plays. I don’t want to be manipulated and mind-f*ed again.”
“I’m afraid of going to graduate school because I’m afraid of taking classes with men. I’m afraid that they’ll become someone else. I’m afraid of being alone in a classroom with a professor. I’m afraid that I’ll never be able to overcome these fears.”
“It took me three years to be able to go back to the closet where he cornered me, and when I did, I felt nauseous.”
“He told me not to say anything to anyone else, because they’d be ‘jealous’ of the ‘special privilege’ of being his girlfriend. He told me I was lucky. I didn’t feel lucky – I just felt alone, and confused, like an alien who didn’t belong. I couldn’t talk then, and I can’t talk now because I’m afraid of retaliation.”
“I signed a non-disclosure agreement with the university which means I’m not supposed to say anything to anyone. It was stupid, I know, but I thought signing it would put the whole thing behind me. It didn’t. I still wake up in the middle of the night, screaming. And now I can’t talk to anyone about it.
“I want to talk about it, but I can’t. I feel like there’s something wrong with me, and I don’t want anyone to know. I don’t want everyone to read one of my papers and think, ‘oh, this is the woman who was f*ed by that guy.’”
“I tried to tell my adviser, and he told me that it would be best not to report, because there are too many powerful philosophers who are known harassers. Obviously he’s right; there’s [that philosopher] at [that top university] and [another philosopher] at [another top university] and [another philosopher] at [another top university]. They’ve all done things to women who won’t report, because they’re too scared to report too. I understand this – but why can’t I at least talk about what happened? I feel like I’m dirty, and everyone looks away when I try to mention it.”
“He was a mentor, like a father – he is old enough to be my father – and then he got drunk and tried to kiss me. I went to the bathroom and vomited. I felt betrayal, then loss – I had lost an adviser and a mentor and couldn’t ever trust him again – and later immense sadness and grief.”
“I always thought of professors as the pinnacle of integrity and respectability. Mine were the opposite of this. I’m not sure whether to be angry at them, or angry at the culture that misled me.”
“The fact that he is a creepy — a blatant misogynist who touches every woman he can get his hands on — makes me angry. But the thing that really makes me see red is the fact that no one else in the department cares enough to say something. They’re too busy covering their own sorry asses to speak up. I went back for a colloquium and it was like Thanksgiving with a dysfunctional family. Everybody knows that Uncle Harry is a pervert, but, hey, cheers to him, he’s a good philosopher and we’ve known each other for fucking decades and that’s the only thing that counts.”
“He exploited the fact that I was vulnerable. He would help, and then coerce me into doing something I didn’t want to do, calling it ‘love’ and reminding me of how much he cared for me and had helped me. But I never felt like I had control. I couldn’t say ‘no’ because he would have responded with rage and revenge. He would have ruined my career.”
“I began to hate myself for not telling anyone, for projecting a sunny image when everything was not okay. I would have loved to tell him how much I hated it when he touched me, hated his laugh, hated his disgusting ratty beard, but I was too scared about what he would do to my reputation if I tried to report.”
“I told my adviser what happened. He told me it would be best to keep it a secret, to just forget it and not tell anyone until I am 60 years old and writing a retrospective on my career. But I feel like I’m living a lie. How can I ignore and stay silent on something that changed my very conception of self?”
“I figured it must have been my fault. I must have done something – or failed to do something, I don’t know. I just didn’t see it coming. I felt like everyone must have been guessing what had happened, even though I refused his advances, and that they must just be assuming I’m another one of his conquests. I can’t even look other philosophers in the eye.”
“I still feel cut off and detached from sexuality sometimes, like I don’t want to be touched—or at least don’t want to be touched unless it is absolutely under my control. For a long time it was the opposite, and the only pleasure I could feel was if I didn’t have any control, if I just lay absolutely still with my arms at my sides.”
“I feel on the outside of philosophy, like I don’t fit in or belong. I guess that’s my fault, because I’m just too angry, still. I have trust issues – sometimes I trust people I shouldn’t, and sometimes I don’t trust people I should. But mostly I just feel different.”
“I should have submitted pieces of my dissertation to journals years ago, but I can’t seem to bring myself to do it. I might submit some of my pieces related to feminist philosophy and activism, but I don’t want to share the work I really care about with other philosophers because it’s none of their business and I don’t owe philosophy anything.”
“I’m not sure who I am any more. Before he assaulted me, my world was predictable, sane, regular. Now I just feel shattered, fragmented, completely at the mercy of things I can’t control. I have no idea what tomorrow is going to bring.”
Confusion and hatred:
“I told him I never wanted to see him again, and he agreed not to contact me. Everything was okay for a year. But then I started having flashbacks and anxiety and got really angry that he was completely ignoring me, as if he didn’t care. I emailed him and then hated myself for being so insecure as soon as I sent the message.”
“He was so angry when I refused to take his classes after it happened. I was afraid, and I think I even felt, you know, guilty. So I tried to placate him by telling him what he wanted to hear, which was that I had feelings for him, which I didn’t. I hate myself for doing that.”
“I know this is irrational, but somehow I can’t shake the feeling that if I’m not sexually attractive, I’m not a good philosopher. And, you’re going to think this is weird, but I flirt with other philosophers, and at the same time I hate them and still don’t trust men in general. I sort of feel like they won’t ever be interested in my philosophy, just my body, so if I can keep them interested but also keep them at bay, I might be able to get them to listen to my philosophy. I know that’s wrong, but I can’t make myself believe otherwise.”
“It was consensual, but I didn’t have any choice – he has too much power in the discipline – and at points I have hated him so much for taking advantage of the power asymmetry that I have plotted revenge against him.”
“I feel so alone. I tried to commit suicide last fall. I can send you photos, but they’re sort of gross. The scar on one wrist is in the shape of a IX.”
“I can’t read the blogs or Facebook any more. Most days I just cry.”
“I have a really hard time concentrating on anything right now. I can’t believe a friend wrote that on her Facebook page – I thought she understood.”
“My world is closing in.”
One of the most alarming things about these responses is that they come from women who were, almost without exception, mentally well-adjusted prior to the incident(s), and have no history of sexual abuse or sexual assault.
So, how do we support survivors who are experiencing one or more of these feelings?
One thing I’ve learned is that it’s important to give a survivor permission to talk, to think and feel at the same time, to explore the meanings and connections between thoughts and feelings, to regain a sense of control.
While professional support is important, it is also equally important that the proverbial “family” – other faculty and grad students – not shun or silence the survivor by discouraging sharing. Yes, it is important to support the survivor by acknowledging his or her philosophical thoughts and contributions, to help achieve a sense of normalcy by discussing philosophy instead of the issue – but it is also equally important to repeatedly indicate that you care and are available. There is nothing wrong with being a survivor, and survivors need to know that. Many survivors also need to be able to share their trauma narratives with members of the philosophy “family” – which in turn means we need to overcome either an inability to empathize, or, worse yet, a fear of empathizing with that which forces us to acknowledge how very precarious our own fate is. As Susan Brison points out:
“As a society, we live with the unbearable by pressuring those who have been traumatized to forget and by rejecting the testimonies of those who are forced by fate to remember. As individuals and as cultures, we impose arbitrary term limits on memory and on recovery from trauma: a century, say, for slavery, fifty years, perhaps, for the Holocaust, a decade or two for Vietnam, several months for mass rape or serial murder… In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera writes that ‘The struggle against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.’ Whether the power is a fascist state or an internalized trauma, surviving the present requires the courage to confront the past, reexamine it, retell it, and thereby remaster its traumatic aspects… to the extent that bearing witness reestablishes the survivor’s identity, the empathetic other is essential to the continuation of a self.” (Aftermath, 57-9)
Another equally important thing we all need to do is to stop ostriching, to pull our heads out of the proverbial mud, and act. I’m no psychologist, but it’s pretty clear to me that the survivors I’ve spoken to are suffering. It’s also pretty clear to me that many of them blame university administrators for failing to impose appropriate sanctions, and the colleagues of their perpetrators for failure to recognize and respond to the problem. And, if I’m correct in thinking that the effect of a faculty member violating his or her fiduciary duties by making sexual advances is tantamount to that of, say, a parent making sexual advances on an adult child, then to maintain silence about a “known problem” is to be complicit in a behavior whose effects are similar (though of course not identical) to those of sexual abuse. The survivors need our collective support and counseling – as do the perpetrators.
Yet another thing I’ve learned in the past year is that higher education is a very large “family,” and that, although there are some dysfunctional members, there are also many of us who understand the extreme badness of silence – who are committed to ending the cycle of sexual abuse, to getting treatment for those members of the family who commit incomprehensible acts and preventing them from having contact with students and other vulnerable members of the community, in order to prevent further damage.
Please, if you are aware of a problem, don’t ignore it.