19 thoughts on “What It’s Like and What We’re Doing

  1. The first new story posted presents as true a story that has circulated for quite awhile about a “big name” philosopher that is not true. Unless, perhaps, there is a second such story now circulating, this one true, about a top philosopher allegedly “forced out” of a top department who fits the other clues in the post.

    The story also embellishes with the claim that “every philosophy student in the country is still required to read his work”. There isn’t any philosopher who every philosophy student in the country is required to read.

    It’s one thing to approve a posting that says, as this one initially does, that the author was told these things by others and the story had an impact on her thinking about the profession. Many others have been told this same story. What additional value is there in furthering the pretense that the story is true?

  2. 1. The story is, like all the stories, testimony about one person’s experience.
    2. “Every philosophy student is required to read…” is obviously hyperbole, of a very ordinary and readily comprehensible sort.

  3. I know of a case personally that fits the first new story. I assumed that it was the case the first new poster in the what’s it like blog was describing. And I know of a second case very close to it in kind (this time, from the grad student involved who then moved to my department), but where big name guy was not forced to leave his department. In the second case, big name guy is widely known to be problematic from his behavior at conferences etc.

  4. Jender,

    You say “The story is, like all the stories, testimony about one person’s experience.”

    This is true about the initial part of this story; the part about what the author of the story was told. But is it merely “testimony about [this] person’s experience” to report that the philosopher in question was forced out of his department? How is this part of the story-teller’s experience? Can it be part of that experience even if it’s not factually correct?

  5. I’m not sure how you can tell whether the story is factually correct, given anonymous’s comment about more than one person this story might be about. But our policy is to simply present testimony, with as little editing as possible (limited to preserving anonymity, etc). And her experience obviously includes having been told this. (And no, it does not say at each point “I was told that”. But we don’t see a need to edit in order to add this in, since it’s clear that’s what took place.)

  6. CrimLaw,

    I think it’s best for the editors of the blog to just step back and let people talk about their experiences, rather than trying to verify every claim. And they seem to be doing a great job of that. Verifying every claim is time-consuming and perhaps impossible, especially while anonymity is being preserved, and will intimidate people into not stepping forward to talk about their experiences. Are there a couple of stories that contain factual inaccuracies here and there? I’m sure there are. I have no idea about the claim in the case you cite. But I think the risk of widespread factual inaccuracies on a blog like this is pretty low and not really a top concern.

  7. Thanks for the replies. I now see better what one can and can’t conclude from the stories being presented at that blog.

    As to how one can tell whether this and a few of the other stories are factually correct or incorrect, I’ll add the following. Stories that purport to be about what has led to faculty departures from top philosophy departments are stories that some of us will know quite a bit about. The number of departures from such departments over the past few decades that did not involve retirement or death is not all that large and some of us employed at such departments pay close attention to these movements. When additional clues are present as is the case in this post it’s not hard to figure out what situation is being discussed.

  8. Matt,
    “But I think the risk of widespread factual inaccuracies on a blog like this is pretty low and not really a top concern.”

    I don’t see that at all. CrimLaw’s concern seems very real to me.

    I don’t want to get deeply involved in the particulars here, but what bothers me is that as soon as someone sees a description that he knows to be inaccurate, it’s going to make him skeptical about the other stories on the blog. And that’s really too bad, because reading those stories with an open (and preferably sympathetic) mind is very important. So to my mind, it’s pretty crucial to keep false testimony, as it were, off the blog.

  9. We have published 272 posts. This is the first time a doubt has been raised about any of them.

  10. Also, suppose that CrimLaw is right– both about which case the woman was writing about, and about the facts of the case. Then we have one woman’s truthful testimony about how a widely circulating (though according to CrimLaw, false) rumour affected her choice of grad school. How on earth does that make one think that other testimonials (most of which first-hand experience of things other than rumours) are false?

    Finally, if CrimLaw and I are thinking of the same case, the facts are these: the person was found guilty of sexual harassment, but they weren’t fired. Instead, they left for other reasons. These differences matter a lot from that person’s perspective, and their institutions(s), and also for one considering the effects of sexual harassment regulation. But from the perspective of a woman worried about going to study with someone who’s guilty of sexual harassment? Not so much.

  11. J,

    Maybe it’s best to consider a fairly close analogy, the signing of petitions among activist groups. No one reasonably expects a person who signs a petition (against, say, housing discrimination or war-mongering) to conduct an independent research project into the facts in the petitions he/she signs. The reason is simple enough, and it’s that if this requirement were in place productive work would be ground to a halt. Only people with inordinate amounts of free time would ever sign any petitions. We put a certain amount of trust in the petition author and hold that person responsible for inaccuracies.

    It’s more or less the same here. There are blog owners. If inaccuracies pop up and are clearly demonstrated, they’re responsible for taking action just as the people giving reports are responsible for the accuracy of those reports. But the bloggers initially place trust in the people giving the reports, because not doing so would mean they’d probably have to get rid of the blog. Blogs are one part of the fight against discrimination. There’s also a place for more in-depth research into institutional discrimination.

  12. I’m really puzzled by this discussion. I don’t see any false statement in the entry being discussed. Maybe there’s a two step implication from the reported tale to the author’s belief to the truth of the story, but implications like that are not formally valid.

    On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that some people do not believe these stories. I don’t know quite how that is possible, but I’ve heard expressions of disbelief.

    Matt, I’m not sure about who holds whom responsible. To take petitions, I think that change.org, who do a lot of petitions, get enough information for it to be possible for them to have a fair chance to spot fraud. But I don’t hold them responsible if there is some. Perhaps if it started to turn out that the fraud was really significant, they’d be held responsible by many, but in any case, they’d have their credibility blown.

  13. “I’m really puzzled by this discussion. I don’t see any false statement in the entry being discussed. Maybe there’s a two step implication from the reported tale to the author’s belief to the truth of the story, but implications like that are not formally valid.”

    I’m not so sure formal validity matters here. if it emerged that none of the authors believed the stories they sent to What is it Like, that would be a real problem.

    But I share your puzzlement– CrimLaw is not doubting the author’s belief in her story, or how a rumour affected her choice of grad school, but rather the truth of the rumour she heard. And that does not in any way seem undermining to the reliability of the blog.

  14. Jender, good, I’m glad there have been no other doubts raised about the stories!
    Matt, that’s fine — suppose (and I agree this is plausible) there is no particular responsibility for the blog moderators to fact-check. My point was about the consequences, which seem to me to be serious and worrisome.

    jj, I’m surprised that you don’t see how anyone can doubt the stories. (Just to be clear: I do not doubt the stories.) Keep this in mind: the difference between the average man’s experiences in the profession and the average woman’s is very great. My bet (and admittedly this is just on impressionistic evidence) is that the average man *rarely* witnesses the ugly and troubling scenarios reported at “WIILTBAWIP?”, and when he does, he is much more apt to think relatively little of them (“Oh, god, there’s an a**hole in every bunch” rather than “Ugh, yet another sexist episode in the series that makes our profession inhospitable to women”). For this reason, the stories on the blog will strike many men as surprising, atypical, etc., and in this mood they are more likely to have at least some skepticism.

    I hasten to add that it is PRECISELY this last point that makes the blog so important, to my mind. The great mass of reports must nudge the epistemic base of male readers a little closer to that of female readers. These episodes are *not* atypical; everyone has to be aware of that. So I worry about ‘poisoning’ the perceived reliability.

  15. J, I cut out the explanation of my surprise which was meant to be about the people denying belief. It was due to our having been students together when there were a number of people who recounted stories of harassment.

    I understand that many men are stunned by the stories, but on reflection I wonder if it is that the hostility and harassment is so hidden. It might be more a case of not having really imagined what it’s like for those receiving it. E.g., it’s not uncommon in some depts for male grad students to tell the women that they can’t really do philosophy. But those doing ths and those seeing it might not bring together in their minds what sort of environment that creates.

    I don’t want to offer a general hypothesis, but one problem with abuse is that some people find very effective ways to not see it. E.g., the abuser says it was just a joke,she does it too, etc.

  16. Jender, I wonder if we are talking at cross purposes here. I was puzzled by the idea that something false was said. From that point of view, formal implication seems important.

    I suspect you were looking at issues of something like good faith, credibility of the blog, etc. I was more stuck at step one.

  17. jj, [16], yes, I think that’s a very big element, you’re right. That is, a lot of it is only ‘hidden’ in a way that something can be hidden in plain sight, as it were, and oddly invisible to people who aren’t looking at it from the right angle. (Well, allow some leeway for the limitations of the perceptual analogy.)

  18. Thanks, J! I suppose part of what people think might be that something almost common can’t really be that bad.

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