How to be an ally: a case study

We’ve talked before about the tricky issues that arise when the well-meaning, gender-aware male philosophers triy to figure out how to be an ally to women in the profession. As a case in point, a male philosopher writes:

I’m teaching a grad seminar this semester made up of 9 men and 1 woman. I’ve noticed already that the woman tends to talk a lot less than most of the men and to be much more hesitant about putting forward ideas in class. I don’t want to let the men dominate the discussion, and I want to make sure the woman feels that the atmosphere in the class is safe and welcoming for her. But I really don’t know how to go about it. I worry that if I make special effort to ask her for her opinion or encourage her when she speaks, she’ll feel like I’m singling her out or coddling her – which could of course have exactly the opposite effect of the one I intend.

I’m sure a lot of philosophy professors – male and female – have found themselves in similar situations. What’s a well-intentioned professor to do?

19 thoughts on “How to be an ally: a case study

  1. I used to think that I should call on people, but several female colleagues pointed out to me that they didn’t LIKE speaking in class, and that my then-current strategy only reinforced the fact that I (a male) was deciding for my female students when they should and shouldn’t talk. Of course they were correct and I felt quite bad about it. Since then, the only solution I’ve come up with is to stand firm on my general feminist commitments: let the class know where I stand, clamp down FIRMLY and QUICKLY on any kind of sexist language/behavior, don’t let sexist arguments get out of the gate without calling them on their bullshit, and don’t let anyone “chest” an argument – insist on respectful atmosphere. In other words, create a safe space. Past that, I’ve had no other ideas; if there’s anything else I need to be doing, I absolutely want to know. This is an incredibly important issue.

  2. I don’t claim any relevant pedagogical experience or experience as an ally, but I think that this particular case admits a fairly straightforward course of action: talk to the student! This needn’t be a case of singling out “the woman.” I think a savvy professor should be able to find tactful and respectful ways to say something like the following, to any student:

    Hello ______

    I just wanted to check in with you briefly about [class]. I’ve noticed that, in the last few sessions,
    I’ve noticed that you haven’t been saying much in discussion. You may have good reasons for this, and there is no need to tell them to me if you do.

    That being said, one of my goals for the seminar is for everyone to be confident and comfortable in philosophical conversation. I therefore hope that you will tell me if there is anything that I can do to make the classroom a more welcoming space for you, and to encourage your participation more generally.


    But perhaps I am missing a relevant consideration here?

  3. If assignments are handed back during the semester, you could take the opportunity to encourage participation… something like, “I like your idea X, it’d make a great contribution to in-class discussion.”

  4. There are lots of ways to have students give regular verbal reports, and her doing this may make her feel more comfortable as she gets used to it.

    I’d worry about talking to her about her not speaking much. This might well go straight into her category of “how I am different and don’t belong here.” Plus, she may well have heard this all before and before and … . So she may well know she has a problem and has no idea of what to do. Hence, trying to familiarize her with just being one of the speakers might be a help.

    If I were to say anything to the class, I’d stress how important it is to learn to take public risks. I almost removed a blog today because I thought it was too risky, and then decided it wasn’t that risky, but still… It can be an issue for much of one’s life. Correspondingly, grad students need to tolerate people’s taking risks, as opposed to scoring off of possible mistakes.

  5. As a female grad student who is often either the lone woman or one of very few women in grad seminars, I’d like to offer the following observations about my own level of comfort speaking in various courses.

    First, note that grad students are EXTREMELY anxious about what faculty think about us and are as such hyperfocused on any indication a faculty member might give about this. For this reason I feel like it’s a bad idea to make any sort of extra effort during a class to get a student to speak. Inevitably, the student will overanalyze the reasons you are doing it, and will likely come to the most negative conclusion consistent with her evidence (since we tend to think that faculty think poorly of us). I at least know that anytime special attention has been drawn to me during a seminar, I’ve felt extremely uncomfortable and spent way too much time thinking about why and not enough time thinking about the material. But also, it’s going to make the rest of the students in the course do the same thing–overanalyze the fact that you are pressing the woman to speak–and this might cause them to resent her, say stupid things to her, internally think she is getting extra attention because she is a woman, etc.

    The times I’ve been most comfortable in seminars in which I am the only woman are when the person teaching the course makes an effort to develop a relationship with me outside of the course, or, ideally, when I already knew him or her quite well before the course started. I think it’s a much better idea to privately contact the student, ask if she wants to meet to chat about anything philosophy or program-related, emphasize that you are willing to talk about whatever, and then go from there. I also think it’s much better to focus on affirming the good content of what she might have to say than on why she isn’t speaking. So, for example, if you ask her what she thought about class X, and talk about things with her, you could emphasize which of the points she made seem really good, and then suggest to her that she contribute more. That way you are straightforwardly telling someone a) she clearly has good contributions and b) you would like her to make them.

    The main thing that makes me comfortable speaking vs. uncomfortable speaking, though, is just the tone of both the way the course is taught and the other grad students. One thing that I’ve noticed is that if someone runs a course in which the professor just talks and students interrupt whenever they want to, I’m much less likely to speak, because it’s much more intimidating to interrupt someone than to raise my hand and wait to be called on. Also this is probably obvious to readers of this blog but for whatever reason women seemed to be called on less when there are a bunch of people with raised hands. One professor in my department always makes, on the board, a list of people waiting to make points, and I think that’s a good strategy for not forgetting people. The worst situation is one in which the course seems like one in which one has to raise one’s hand to speak–that’s sort of the standard thing–but then it slowly devolves into the more aggressive/confident students interrupting constantly, which thus means that the people with their hands up never get called on. I’ve sometimes become so frustrated in this situation that I’ve had to leave the class, because it just seems ridiculous to me that I should have to interrupt someone in order to be heard.

    In general, I think faculty policing grad students is pretty good. So I think another thing to do as a faculty member is to ensure that none of the other grad students in the course are behaving like jerks. I think it’s ok to publicly tell them not to interrupt etc., but for more subtle things I think it’s always better to speak to them one-on-one.

  6. I think LWS is right – she may just not want to speak in class. In one of the seminar groups I’m in, there are people both male and female whom the rest of us know will contribute twice in a discussion at most. However, because we know this, as soon as they make any indication that they’re about to speak, everyone pays attention. I think talking to the student in question always has to be the first port of call: do they want to speak but feel too shy, or do they just not want to? And once you’ve found that out, lead by example. Don’t single that person out to talk, as that will probably just lead to embarrassment unless they’ve said they would appreciate that, but look out for cues that they do want to speak and make sure no one talks over them.

  7. I think we have to remember that grad work in philosophy may be – and perhaps should be – professional training. It may be we need to help people get closer to professionally beneficial behavior than they want.

  8. I’m in favor of asking the quiet students what they think and pretty much forcing them to talk more. As Anne says, we should be training our students to participate in public philosophy discussions and to get comfortable. I’ve seen way too many cases of students who were still terrified of in-person public philosophy discussion, or too unaccustomed to it, when they reached the job market and needed those vital skills.

  9. I agree with you Anne and Liz– but I also think that the anonymous grad student has some good suggestions about how to go about that.
    I had an undergrad (an amazing undergrad) who reported (as did her parents, actually, when I met them for an award she was receiving from the dpt) that she was very shy about speaking until she took my classes. For her, it seems, small ‘group’ projects, in which the group had to speak to one another, and then to the class, really helped. I don’t know how to translate that into the graduate student context, but have been trying to chew over what the equivalent might be.

  10. Anne and Liz make important points. I think it’s all too easy to see individual instances of the lone woman or minority in a class who isn’t speaking and think “Well, maybe they’re just shy. Maybe they just prefer not to speak in class – and that’s fine.” The problem is when these individual cases add up to a pattern. If women and minorities – especially when they’re dramatically outnumbered – are systematically more likely not to speak in class than your average white male grad student, then we run the risk of these students systematically receiving less in-class training and attention from their professors. And that’s the kind of thing that can end up having massive knock-on effects when it comes time for the job market.

    I really appreciate anonymous grad student’s remarks, but I’m not sure how applicable they’ll be in all cases. Katy can make friends with her quieter students, and its awesome that she can do that. But the person that wrote to me is a young, single male faculty member. I’m willing to bet he’d be *extremely* cautious about doing something like, e.g., “privately contact the student, ask if she wants to meet to chat about anything philosophy or program-related, emphasize that you are willing to talk about whatever”.

    It sucks that he’d have to be cautious about what would – in a nicer world – be nothing more than an overt gesture of goodwill. But one of the toxic effects of the behavior of some male faculty is that things like this can so easily be misunderstood. And as a result, I think a lot of well-meaning younger male faculty are hyper-cautious about avoiding them.

  11. One thing I’ve done with undergraduates, but suspect would be useful with graduate students too, is to have them write me a short (2-3 sentences) response to the reading. I found that several of my female students, as well as students of color, really got into the responses and we were able to develop academic relationships outside of the classroom setting. Over the course of the semester, I noticed a marked change in how often these students talked. I think having something like that in place goes a long way towards negating the prof-is-going-to-think-I’m-dumb worries. It also allows students to interact with you in the way they feel most comfortable, not necessarily the way current convention dictates.

  12. I think comment #12 is a very helpful suggestion (among others above); in my courses where professors ask us to write short reflections on the reading, then pick out some things to start off class discussion, class participation seems to be far more equalized. It’s an easy way to shape the discussion such that everyone ends up participating (as one can make sure to use some thoughts from those who are quiet to start things off) without singling them out in an obvious way, and it allows faculty a good opportunity to let quiet students know when they have good ideas that are worth discussing in a very concrete and natural way–and I think it doesn’t take long to realize that often those who are quiet really do have interesting and substantive contributions to make, but hold back because they’re nervous. I also think it doesn’t take long for this to help them build the confidence necessary to participate more regularly.

  13. Until grad school, I used to participate a lot during classes. As a young woman in grad school, however, I became almost silent. I am not shy, but I guess this had to do with feeling that I did not belong there, and lack of confidence in myself in the philosophical domain.
    If you had asked me, I would have told you that I didn’t want to talk. Which was true. Yet I also realised that staying silent certainly would do nothing to improve my confidence in myself. In addition, it can be damaging if you want to pursue in academics: I have the impression that young philosophers who speak a lot tend to be perceived as smarter than ‘silent’ young philosophers (regardless of the actual smartness of interventions).
    So I forced myself to talk. I was also helped by the fact that other meetings were organised over time, where I felt less threatened. I also found that participating to ‘friendly’ after talk discussions (where not drinking alcohol is not reproached to you, for example, and the environment is more relaxed) helped boost my confidence and got me more used to participate in philosophical discussions.
    I guess my point is: sometimes respecting people’s desire not to talk is actually bad for them. I still tremble every time I ask a question after a talk, but it is getting better, and I think that my participating more in the discussion is beneficial both for me and for my colleagues. It would have been easier to achieve (and probably quicker) if instead being ‘alone’ in this, someone had pushed me to talk more. In the rare cases where this happened, it certainly helped.
    I agree that singling out the female student is not a good way to go. But what about the idea of the professor ‘leading’ the discussion, asking different students for their opinion and input at different times, thus encouraging everyone, not only the female student, to talk? I think this could be good for all the students, reinforce the idea that the student form a group, and help making the environment safer for the woman. In addition, it might be good to voice some things aloud: for example that a question or remark is interesting or clever. The idea is not to cuddle the students, but rather to express the good alongside the bad, and to help with low confidence in oneself. Here again, doing this with male as well as female students enables one to not single out the female student. I think such attitudes certainly would have helped me a lot.

  14. i found it easy to talk in my courses in graduate school, because i was in classes where i was one of four or five women, all of whom talked, and from whom i learned an immense amount. it was a woman graduate student a year ahead of me who told me that she always asked a question at talks, because she felt it was important, and for purposes of practicing – and i followed her lead.

    having more women around matters. i wish everyone had the experience i had for a few precious years in graduate school.

    in absence of that, i think anon at #5 speaks the truth – anxious graduate students, doubly anxious about being the only woman and not necessarily even conscious of how their environment may be affecting them, will feel the message that they don’t belong reinforced if you come down too hard, or too publicly. on the other hand, students who are conscious of the environment tend to hold their professors responsible for the character of the discussion in the classroom. this isn’t entirely fair, but in the end you are the one at the front of the room, and there are some things one can do to encourage broader discussion; it’s something i struggle with myself, so the ideas above are super helpful.

  15. As in so much else, I can offer only a case study of how not to do it.

    I was once teaching a class having some content on race, and after an hour in a forty-person class, only white people had spoken. (Yes, race is distinct from gender, and yes, these were not philosophers; grad students, but not philosophers.) I explicitly commented on this, and asked if any people of color wanted to comment on the exchange.

    They did not.

    I got several e-mails after the class, all of which had the same core: please stop thinking of me as a representative of a group. (One of them said: I’m tired of people thinking I have to care about race. I’m here to study energy policy in the Middle East.) They weren’t angry – they recognized that I had been stupid, not malicious – but they were deeply tired of well-meaning white dudes trying to make things “inclusive” by demanding that other people act.

    So, I try to do things differently now. I sort of try to do some of what #5 above says: recognize the tone of the group, keep it welcoming to people who are not necessarily confident in their own voices, understand that sometimes that lack of confidence has a gendered component, but don’t insist shame people into speaking. But, to this day, I think this is a huge problem; it’s dangerous to try to “make” female students speak, and it’s equally dangerous to ignore the gender dynamics of the classroom. I’ve accepted that the most I can do is to make the classroom non-abusive and hope it all works out, but I rather wish there were more direct methods to increase participation.

  16. A simple general point which I don’t think has been mentioned (unless I’ve missed it). Give a little speech at the beginning of each course, seminar series etc, about how the discussions are to be conducted. State the importance of being considerate, listening to others, not dominating the discussion, raising hands, being constructive etc. Mention that if they have a question it is likely that others have that question too – so do bring it up. Emphasize the importance of focusing on the content of the argument and not on criticizing individuals for what they say – that a person puts forward an idea for discussion does not necessarily mean he/she believes it is correct or is committed holding to it. It is important to get participants to think about how the discussion is managed and their own role in that, and to set the right tone at the beginning.

    Also state that people can come and speak to you after the seminar ends. Then the person who remained silent (perhaps due to fearing risking making a fool of him/herself or due to not feeling comfortable speaking in the prevailing atmosphere or perhaps due to having more complex thoughts that cannot be summed up in a snappy comment) can come and speak to you one to one afterwards.

    Finally, I have to say that I think these general group ‘everyone chip in a few comments’ type discussions are overrated as a way to make philosophical progress and learn. I don’t think one should have to be good at them in order to progress in the profession. Socrates insisted on talking to only one person at a time. One to one discussions have a quality that group discussions do not have. The two participants are far better placed to develop a sustained line of argument and construct a deeper shared understanding.

  17. The strategy I’ve adopted in my undergrad classes is to start off every class with each student sharing a reading response — a question, comment, or connection about the reading. We don’t discuss these as they’re being presented — rather, the point is to get everyone talking right away (it also keeps the students on top of the reading and lets me know where the students are conceptually, but those are more of side benefits). These responses are informal and short; there’s not pressure to say something revolutionary, and no student is allowed to dominate the time here. What’s nice about this is that it’s a way to ‘force’ students to speak without singling anyone out. Moreover, it gives advance warning so that shy or insecure students can prepare ahead of time; they can think about what they want to say, and then are more likely to pursue the issue during class discussion. My students have overwhelmingly liked this practice. I think something like this might have been really helpful when I was taking grad seminars, where I tended to be silent unless I was already very familiar with the topic.

  18. I realize that this discussion is now a few days past the usual expiration date but I wanted to thank everyone for their advice in this discussion. I was not the thread starter but I was facing a very similar issue in one of my courses this term and I too was perplexed about what to do. I had noticed the issue almost immediately and had been wondering how best to respond to it for the last three weeks.

    I’m a (minority) male philosopher and was having trouble deciding how best to reach out to one particularly quite female student in a seminar. I’ll report my recent experience if only so that it serves as another data point: I contacted her directly (via e-mail) using an e-mail similar to Phil’s suggested e-mail up top.

    Result? From what I can tell it worked wonders. The student was actually very appreciative that I reached out to her. She expressed her shyness as partially stemming from her nature (‘naturally shy’) but also from an intimidation with the material. The conversation, I thought, was very productive and, from what I can tell, the message was positively received. I think we’re definitely moving in the right direction and frankly I don’t know if I would have gone through with this approach without this discussion (thank goodness it exists!).

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