Reader query: sexist lecturer

A reader writes:

I’m taking an ethics course in college right now. One of the chapters deals with feminist ethics. I’m really disappointing in my instructor, as he wrote the book and clearly has issues with feminists.
He brings up the ridiculous assumption (and supposed “facts”) that women can’t make ethical decisions, that we are inferior to men in the morals department, and that we can never be moral or ethical due to the differences in our brain structure…

What do I do? I don’t know if you answer questions like this, but I could really use the help. I have a bad feeling the other women in this course will just go along with what the book says.

Any reliable sources debunking this garbage?

26 thoughts on “Reader query: sexist lecturer

  1. Theologian Ian McFarland (in Difference & Identity) recommends “The Mismeasure of Man” by Stephen Gould as a good source for rebutting the general category of arguments that some group X is inherently inferior.

  2. This sounds like teaching derived from Kohlberg’s “moral development” theories. Carol Gilligan in “In a Different Voice” and “Joining the Resistance” addresses these issues head on. Read these books for an antidote, but don’t expect to get anywhere with the teacher. He has too much invested in his own orthodoxy.

  3. I don’t think the reader should say what the book is, as it could identify her and pose problems for her.

  4. Cordelia Fine’s “Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Sexism” not only debunks those ridiculous assumptions but also offers an explanation for any apparent, existent difference between the male and female brains.

  5. I second Cordelia Fine’s fine book. And I’ll add “Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences” (2011, Harvard University Press) by Rebecca Jordan-Young.

  6. I think this is a really interesting case involving academic freedom.

    One does not need a source to refute this. It’s not the sort of thing that needs “authoritative” refutation. It’s clearly bonkers. It’s akin to a biologist teaching the naivest sort of anti-evolutionism, e.g., appealing to the bible for taxonomic information. I guess the dude could be subtler about it, but if it’s anything near as described, I personally think that there’s a harassment as well as a malpractice case to be had.

    It is, at the very least, prima facie a hostile environment. I personally don’t know how I’d cope with someone telling me that I was incapable of moral judgement (at all!) much less based on my gender. (What the hell are all those female ethicists *DOING*!?!?)

    On the flip side, no level of direct engagement is going to do anything with this schmoe, ever, much less coming from someone who is a student and female. He has a BOOK! What do you know? I’d drop the class and discuss why it’d be appropriate for the school to deal with it.

    Seriously. If this guy can *live in this world* and think this and PROPOUND this in a CLASS, then there’s no way he’ll be responsive to evidence.

  7. Bijan:

    I don’t find you ranty.

    I was going to suggest that she tell the the idiot to take a walk around the block and observe how many women are caring for others, how many males are threatening others by aggressive body language or comments, how many female drivers politely let elderly pedestrians cross the street slowly and how many aggressive male drivers nearly kill the same pedestrians, how many females courteously step aside to
    let someone in a wheel chair pass and how many males force the person in a wheel chair to swerve, etc., et.

    A quick walk around my block would lead me to conclude that women are the more moral gender.

  8. One woman being a complete jerk doesn’t disprove a generalization. I don’t think the generalization is all that weighty, since it’s not possible to verify that biased expectations aren’t affecting swallerstein’s hypothetical scenario, and even if it is a safe generalization it doesn’t mean anything for internal differences.

    But it occurs to me that it’s just possible the professor described in the OP didn’t mean it the way the student took it. Is there any chance the professor was citing what others have said? (My students occasionally take presentation of a view to be autobiographical disclosure.)

  9. I have taught hundreds of students over the years, and I have noticed something (drum roll): they don’t always fully understand and accurately report what they read. I find it very hard to believe the book is as dumb as the query suggests. It just doesn’t seem like a book that preposterous would make it into print. So my advice is–read again, make sure you’re understanding. After a second reading, re-evaluate. If you still find the guy sexist (as opposed to perhaps opposed to feminist ethics–that is not necessarily sexist!), go talk to him. Ask questions, challenge him, satisfy yourself that he’s kosher. If you still think not, then drop the course (if you can), complain to the department chair, and generally raise hell!

  10. One thing I might say in response to Jean K is that it might not be the case that this is a book released by an academic or even popular press.

    Plenty of universities allow you to collect your own writings and have them bound in book-form for a course you’re teaching. So it’s entirely possible that the “book” in question is the instructor’s own work bound and published by the campus bookstore.

  11. Yeah, I was just thinking it might be a course pack or something like that.

    I would also advise the student to find out what this instructor’s status in the department is. A lot of schools have poor review systems in place for non-tenure track instructors. The department chair/head might not have any idea what’s going on, and might welcome receiving this information about the instructor. (Tread a bit more carefully if the instructor has tenure.)

  12. I also would recommend talking with the department chair or if there is a senior woman philosopher in the department, maybe it’s worth talking with her.

  13. I’ll add my “me too” to those recommending Cordelia Fine.
    Jean K– I don’t know. All of the ‘studies’ Fine that dismantles were published… And there’s the fact that there are some foundations, some of whose names we all know, which provide subventions for the publication of right wing crap. I think it’s entirely possible there’s a book with a chapter that reads just as reported.
    What to do? If there isn’t immediate, reliable, courageous support in the form of senior faculty and administrators willing to back up the student and at least have a conversation with the instructor about the classroom environment he is creating–fwiw, my advice is– drop. the. class. Yes, it’s great to stand up to idiot bullies and bigots, but if you haven’t got support for doing so from folks higher up the food chain, you don’t need to make yourself miserable for a semester trying to do so.

  14. I was thinking a bit more about the interlocking issues and pitfalls. Here’s my first attempt at an approach:

    1) Verify that the material is problematic in the way described.
    In particular, one needs that the content is bogus and that the support forthe content is bogus.

    2) Verify that the problematic material is being used inappropriately.
    There’s not thing wrong, after all, with *studying* bogus material. In bioethics classes, I had to hunt for papers arguing that homosexuality was immoral that were philosophically worth reading (i.e., 1) weren’t too novel in their lines of argument (so as to engage what students had heard or thought) *and yet* 2) had the form of an argument). (Michael Levin was my go to for horrible positions seriously argued. And really, if it’s awful, Levin will argue for it.)
    (An example of how easily this can go wrong, I received once an applied ethis textbook containing fragments of an interview with Paglia in which she was pro-date-rape and other partner abuse — “Some of these working class women are having hot sex and like it!!!”)

    3) Decide what you’re personally up for.
    This is very important: Do you want to get through the class or do you want to change the class? There’s different risks and potential payoffs involved.

    At this point, there are radically different moves to make. For example, if you are going to try to change the class, you have to think about whether the instructor (or administration!) is going to be sympathetic, hostile, or indifferent to your case. It’s not easy or safe to raise a stink (and whether you’re e.g., male or female can make a huge difference in whether you’re taken seriously as we’re all painfully aware), so a bit of planning and nerve checking is in order.

    I’m sure many of us participating in this thread would be happy to provide a confidential reality check (i.e., steps 1 & 2) and at least tactical advice for confrontation. I certainly would be.

  15. My immediate reaction would be to confront him with my concerns. Ask him if these are his views or if he is playing devil’s advocate. If you don’t like that approach, then you could get in contact with your Students Union rep for advice on how to go through the complaints procedure. What you need is evidence. If you’ve got enough money, then I recommend that you purchase a Sony digital tape recorder. I’ve got one and it’s very small and quiet. If you decide to (covertly) tape him, then keep Article 8 of the Human Rights Act in mind. Alternatively, you might consider asking him and the whole class for permission to tape all of his classes. If he is the only one who objects, then you can confidently go through a complaints procedure. Good luck!

  16. I’ve been teaching Ethics courses in the class room and online for many years. I am male, and I’m surprised and sad to learn of your experience. There are several aspects one might consider, with various priorities. Pragmatically speaking, you must be aware of your GPA (sad to say). If this Prof. is actually (personally and academically Neanderthal), you will not want to alienate him.

    It may help you to recognize his position on the moral capacities of girls and women as based upon other, deeper issues, both personal and technical. Attacking such a person’s views runs deep. Ethics here is on the surface, but does a person want to engage all related assumptions and conclusions by which he is apparently convinced, whether he is aware or not. As a student you will probably not be able to counter his arguments against your position. You don’t want to frustrate yourself needlessly.

    Then again, you have the option to “bite the bullet,” as we say, and to learn from this apparently closed-minded person. (He should know better, academically, socially, politically, morally, etc.) While you listen to him you can learn to develop arguments against the positions (traditional patriarchal) that you hear. If he is willing to engage you seriously, good. If not, you will recognize this. Remember to remind yourself that, while the issue is around Sexism, you would have the same problems communicating with a racist Prof. How does one argue against such moral stupidity in 2013? How does one negotiate the unspoken, the unconscious fears and hatreds that fuel such “ethical” justifications”? We don’t want to be fooled by the apparent “objective ” nature of academia. It is deeply personal, with serious attachments to the human heart-mind and life-practices.

    Currently I am required to use a textbook in my Ethics course that I would prefer not to use. It gives almost no space to Gilligan’s Ethics of Care, or any Feminist positions. The author (male) does provide much space for his own theory, which differs not at all from traditional patriarchal approaches. I point this out to my students, just as I reveal to them my personal and academic bias on the Feminist side.

    The Western cultural influences, of which this sexist approach is a product, are obvious to some of us, but not to all of us. Patriarchal beliefs are ancient and have been institutionalized for a very long time. Philosophy is supposed to encourage the expansion of our imaginations, moral and otherwise. Sadly, professionalized Philosophy is not committed to this Socratic project. (In his “Republic” Plato already recognized that women are equally capable. He was millennia ahead of even future philosophical writers. Why would he have imagined this of women, who were even more oppressed in his culture than ours? He knew he was writing fiction for his time. Yes, he’s one of the “good ole boys,” but he’s one with an open imagination. Why is “Sophia” (wisdom) feminine in the ancient Greek mind and practice of Philo-Sophia, we should ask ourselves?) Good luck! Nick

  17. As a grad student TA, I’ve been in a quite similar situation. Here is my biggest piece of advice: talk to people about what’s going on. Talk to other students in the class, talk to other professors (either in the dept or elsewhere). One of the really pernicious things about this sort of course is that the people who are targeted by these views often either a) internalize them, or b) disagree but feel isolated and powerless. So speaking up, in class or elsewhere, is really powerful and important. When I went through this I would straightforwardly tell the students I met with that I disagreed with the professor’s views; it was amazing to see the sense of relief they felt at having their own disagreement and discomfort validated. Even if you don’t change the professor’s mind, just the act of speaking up can be liberating for the other people in the course.

    While it was pretty wretched to have to go through this, at the end of the day I can look back on my experience as being a positive one. This is because I talked to a LOT of people about it and the reactions I got were overwhelming supportive. It became clear that while everyone knew that the professor said some crazy/controversial things, no one really knew the details. Alerting people to what is being taught in the course — and especially how it is being taught and how it’s impacting students — is really important. If there’s a pattern of discrimination, then the department or the university can take action. At the very least, this is important info for other people to know to put the professor’s other actions into context. You aren’t going to be able to change the professor’s mind, but these are some ways to mitigate the impact he has on others.

  18. “And really, if it’s awful, Levin will argue for it.)”
    This made me laugh. things that are true.

  19. Thank you all for the responses. I think I’ll stick with the course and speak up. I can’t leave an issue like this hanging.

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