It gets better, but when it doesn’t…

Friends, bloggers, froggers,

I’ve gotten two separate emails today from colleagues who mention nearly identical experiences of new students:  Each has been told by peers in her graduate program — surprise? — that she only got in to her program because she is a token.

People of good will in the profession will continue to work hard to make philosophy a welcoming place, but there will be people who don’t change, and new members coming in who haven’t been schooled in better practices.  I continue to believe It Gets Better, but when it doesn’t, when the same old, same old happens to you or your students, please do what you can to find support.  If you are a student or if you have a student who has been treated like less than a deserving equal:

(1) You’re not alone.

(2) You’re not an imposter.

(3) Philosophers can and do treat each other better!  We’re working on it.

(4)  You don’t have to figure it all out from square one. Let others help.

(5) If you need us, we’re here for you.  Write us.

9 thoughts on “It gets better, but when it doesn’t…

  1. From what I understand, hearing this sort of thing is not uncommon. I guess male grad students get the idea that only men can do philosophy. How could that happen?!?

    Let me count the ways: overwhelmingly male canon, syllabi, faculty, invited speakers, conferences, book series. What am I leaving out? Sexist stereotypes in philosophical thought experiments…more?

  2. This post and Anne’s response to it puts me in mind of something that has been worrying me quite a bit lately. Anne lists all the excellent ways in which we can and do and are trying to reverse the stereotypical male image of the philosophy profession. But for our students, especially graduate students, the peer culture is an extremely important way in which they experience their place in the profession. My concern is that is it really difficult for faculty to get a handle on this and to know when things are badly out of hand because the male students don’t share with us their view that they and they alone have been picked to succeed. But I know from remarks dropped by returning students that sometimes the peer culture has been seriously problematic, although at the time I wasn’t aware of this. My question is about how faculty can head off or improve a culture of which they are not members.

  3. I just wanted to register my appreciation for these types of posts. I consider myself lucky to be in a department with a *relatively* decent number of women (faculty and grad students). Even so I have occasionally ended up in courses with an all male syllabus, or gotten the backhanded compliments (I mostly think that what feminists are doing is crap, but your project actually seems to matter), or have witnessed or heard about insensitive comments made in our department, questionable actions taken, etc. But because of the sheer size of our department and the relatively decent feminist subculture that’s been cultivated here, I’ve been able to shield myself from a lot of the worst parts of our field.

    But it’s good to be reminded that there is still a lot of work to be done and also that there is a lot of support for doing this kind of work. Thanks!

  4. I share the worry that Margaret expresses. What’s of equal interest to me is how departments might come to communicate disapproval of “you’re a token” style remarks without ever knowing that they occur – i.e., ways that we can, even where ignorant of particular cases, nonetheless undermine the psychology of male privilege and security in play here.

    My brother is a mathematician and I’ve asked him whether such “token” remarks are prevalent in math. He said no, not in any department he’s been in, and said it owes to something like the following general orientation toward students among faculty: The number of women in mathematics is so low that any male student who would disparage a female peer is grossly mistaken about his value and must understand that, unlike his female peers, he is infinitely replaceable. The way he described it suggested to me a hierarchy in departmental values that produces a potent sense of threat against expressions of bias, the overabundance of male mathematicians leveraged *against* bias rather than creating a safe zone for it. The women aren’t in a supplicant posture relative to their peers, hoping to be let in, but are instead considered akin to an endangered species, such that anyone who will, so to speak, shoot a spotted owl can get kicked off the land and will feel the threat of this before the gun is ever raised.

    I described this to a male colleague in philosophy and he thought it sounded mean and “cold” toward male students. However, my brother (a white male) describes all this with approval and considers it rather fundamental to why math has lately gotten much better at including women. Then again, when I’ve described philosophy norms to my brother, he tends to say things like “I thought philosophers were supposed to care about things like ethics and justice!?!”

  5. Margaret. I completely agree. Here’s one idea: Departments who have significant numbers of grad students could explicitly declare themselves as concerned about the lack of equity in the field, which certainly extends beyond women.

    Taking such a position would provide a reason for a meeting with graduate students about some of the mechanisms at work in academia and elsewhere that serve to exclude various people. This would not just improve the peer culture of grad students, but it could also impact how these students interact with undergrads, etc.

    In an article in the NY Times about 8 years ago, a male prof at Michigan describes how learning about bias changed his views a great deal. I link to that article, and discuss it a bit here:
    https://feministphilosophers.wordpress.com/2008/07/02/the-second-snort-philosophy-women-and-the-problem/

    I expect there are other ways to do it, but it would be such a help to get whole departments to engage in the pursuit of equity! Peggy Desautels and I were discussing it this week. One might think of instituting some sort of formal recognition of departments who undertake certain equity-favorable actions, of which this might be one.

  6. I just linked over from NewAPPS, and the author expresses surprise that sexism in philosophy isn’t in part just a generational issue. My experience has always been that the sexism from young people, fellow graduate students, was what I found unmanageable. It was beyond anything I had ever experienced, before or since. My strategy was just to not get to know or speak to most of them. They were the ones with a very active interest in undermining a fellow graduate student’s confidence and standing, in my view.
    The example from mathematics is fascinating, thank you. And, I know the original post is old- but I hope you hang in there! You are not alone!

  7. Thanks, WOCIV! I didn’t realize NewAPPS had picked up conversation about it online, but indeed, it’s been shared on FaceBook again recently precisely because that uneasy experience of being confronted by peers has come up in recent emails I’ve been receiving. So alas, it’s timely.

  8. Beta, could you give us a link to one or more FaceBook’s discussion of the topic?

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