Reader query: tell prospective student about sexist?

A reader asks for advice:

I am a Ph.D. student in a philosophy department and we have some prospective master’s students visiting our department at the moment. One of them is a girl who will, if she comes, work with a particular professor in the department who is a sexist bastard.

I’m trying to figure out what, if anything, I should say to her, and when I should say it. I don’t want to unfairly taint her perspective of him before they’ve met, but I also think it could be tough for her if she comes here and works with him.

Any thoughts/ideas?

11 thoughts on “Reader query: tell prospective student about sexist?

  1. When advising prospective grad students one goes through the strengths and weaknesses of the department, and may well comment on the virtues of particular individuals. This is part of the usual information-gathering process for a prospective grad student. New students enrolled on the program may well come not to share one’s views and may wish they hadn’t listened to the advice, but we don’t usually think this is a reason for not sharing our experiences and views. Of course, if our experiences have ben unusual relative to the other grad students on the programme, we should, at the least, temper our advice to reflect this, or ensure our advisee speaks to others as well.

    I don’t think any of this changes when it comes to the vices of individual faculty members. It is appropriate and responsible to paint a fair picture of a department, so if you have reliable information of this nature I think it would be wise to pass it on. Has our questioner had a chance to discuss her views of the professor with others? Perhaps this is not possible, because there is no one else on the programme she feels comfortable talking to. In any case, some reflection on her situation is, in this case, as in others, part of a responsible process of advising prospective grad students. Once the student feels that her view is well-grounded, as no doubt she already does, having taken the step to write in, then I think she should endeavour to pass this information on. (None of this has anything to do with the specifics of the case, I always think it wise to consult our peers to ensure we are not painting an unduly positive/negative picture of our department).

    There is, unfortunately, a risk in this case to the grad-student passing on the information as the conversation could make its way back to the professor. So the student should cover herself. There is also the risk of slander. Insofar as is possible, perhaps the thing to do is not to label the professor a sexist, but talk about how hard our student has found it on the graduate programme being a woman. She could do some of this, one suspects, without picking out individuals. Of course, such a conversation may then lead on to requests for specifics, and things may become tricky. I would be tempted to talk only in general terms.

    Anyway, those are my thoughts. I’d be very interested to hear what others think, so that is one reason I’ve started the ball-rolling.

  2. At the risk of being reductionist, I find a good way of removing artificial ambiguity from issues of sexism or homo-/transphobia is to switch some terms.

    If you swap sexist for racist, and it reads horribly, e.g. “a particular professor in the department who is a racist bastard”, I would think this tells you all you need about how you should proceed.

  3. You also have to think about what her options are. If this is her only option, then she might prefer to fight the sexist tendencies of the “sexist bastard” to quitting philosophy. In my experience, it can be done.

  4. oh please do tell!

    let me approach this from another perspective: unfortunately sharing this type of information is a consequence of systemic sexism (racism, homophobia etc) itself. if there would not have been systemic sexism, or if the Department would have had a healthy approach to dealing with Prof’s and others who exercise this sort of behaviour, then there would not have been a need to rely on these types of way to inform her; she would have known, or he would just not have worked there (like that). it is not you would sketch an unfair image; to the contrary, you would provide *balanced* image. i have and will always take this sort of information serious and have myself always informed friends and colleagues of this sort of info. i think it is (symbolically, verbally if not physically or otherwise) violent for someone to experience discrimination and if i can contribute to someone making a sane decision about their well-being, then i will contribute to that. and, yes, also if that might have repercussions for me – even though i will and have done so strategically in the past (making sure others know about this and so on).

    on the same note, i have chosen my PhD Dep on the basis of this sort of information. there is enough sexism (etc) to deal in the rest of the world, you really dont want to be willingly confronted with that in such a vulnerable position and waist an amazing experience.

  5. Very dangerous advice, some of the above. The new student may well come anyway (self-justification and cognitive dissonance being staples of decision-making), and either see for herself, or not. If the latter (or even if not but some male student-friends of the professor find out), you can bet that the professor will find out who said what about him. This way lies a lawsuit, or worse.

    I would advise that the informer (1) stick to “I” statements: “I wouldn’t work with this professor”; (2) leave it very general –NOT say “he’s a sexist (OR racist) bastard”, but “there seem to be women issues in his vicinity”; and (3) give only examples that are, and are objectively and publicly acknowledged as, true, e.g. point out that no women have worked with him since 1946, or that the last twelve women who did quit, or got pregnant…

    Keep in mind that even a successful defense against slander can be very expensive. And that sexist bastards can be especially vindictive with women.

    Make sure the person receiving the advice is worthy of it.

  6. I say please do tell, but just be cautious about how you tell. For example, you might want to offer to give her some information on the climate for women if she’s interested, recommend that she ask several women (if there are other women to talk to) about this, and you could always say, from what I know, Prof. X is difficult to work with, and here’s why (and I might just give examples of bad behavior rather than say “sexist” per se) but (if there are other good people around) Profs. Y and Z are great. When I was looking at programs, I *really* appreciated this information. And if she does come anyway, I think it’s better to be prepared.

  7. I think that you should not tell. What if this would be a reason for her to go elsewhere? Then this bastard can just go on with his happy life, discriminating against you and the few women who are left and the student would have let his sexism, and therefore his and her gender make this choice when it should not matter in this decision.
    A new female student can change the situation for the better because it changes the balance.

    Wjhat you should do is take action against this man. Perhaps the new student can help some time in the future.

  8. As a prospective student myself, I think an honest, but tame, message would be fine and appreciated. To be fair, a great deal depends on the context of the student’s future relationship with said bastard, and how much of a bastard he really is. Is he paternalistic and condescending, or does he think women have no place in philosophy? Both are bad, but as Prof. Brogaard seems to indicate (although I may be inferring too much) it is possible to do well in an uncomfortable or unwelcoming environment. However, I doubt this would be true in a wholly hostile one.

  9. Granting the risks of various dangers, I suggest that one way to help a fellow student and to further your own well-being is to just tell the facts about observable behaviors. That way, if anything you say “gets back” to the professor, it cannot be denied. It’s just a description of observable facts.

    For instance, if the students says, “I want to work with [that prof] on the writings of Great Woman in Philosophy,” and that prof has said in your classes that Great Woman in Philosophy was a ding-dong who never wrote anything, then it is possible to say, “That’s interesting that you would mention that particular figure, because the prof told our class she was a ding-dong who never wrote anything,” without thereby incurring correct criticism of you as overinterpreting something.

    Of course, you may incur unjust criticism of you, instead. That’s the risk.

  10. Thanks, everyone, for your thoughts. There are obviously many dimensions to this issue, and it’s difficult to know just what the right course of action is. I am especially thankful for those who cautioned against action that could cause me legal trouble: I am exactly naive enough to forget about that side of things every single time I open my mouth.

    In the end I have decided to take the “honest but tempered” approach, where I simply caution her that I and others have had trouble working with him in the past. If she asks for examples I can give her plenty of facts, but they will all be of the “this is something that I experienced/everyone can observe” variety. From consistently lower grades to dismissiveness to refusing to acknowledge a point as a good one until it is made by a guy to “can you go get us our coffee while we discuss this matter?” to ….all the usual suspects are in the mix.

    Hopefully this will walk the appropriate line of honesty and due diligence while still protecting myself.

  11. I am ever grateful to the woman grad student who advised me many, many years ago about a professor who thought women should be at home, in the kitchen, with children. Her advice helped me plan my studies so I didn’t have to take any classes from him on my way to a Ph.D.

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