Academics and their universities must do better on sexual harassment.

Yes, indeed! An excellent article by Luke Brunning. My only quibble with it is with this:

If members of the ‘rigor and clarity’ brigade have influence within an academic department it is hard to see how cultures can change. Belligerent or plain aggressive behavior is justified in terms of ‘informality’ or conceptions of what ‘good thinking’ requires. In speaking of his conduct, for example, McGinn emphasized that he was “a philosopher trying to teach a budding philosopher important logical distinctions.” Many think that some ideas justify ‘forceful’ modes of presentation.

I think it’s vital to realise that one can distinguish concern for clarity and rigour from being an arsehole. The author is right: such concern is used as an excuse for appalling behaviour. But condemning “the clarity and rigour brigade”, seems to me to look a lot like accepting that such behaviour is simply what comes along with caring about clarity and rigour. (Thanks, C!)

One thought on “Academics and their universities must do better on sexual harassment.

  1. It is a terrific article, and worth some discussion. Let me point out some issuesone could raise about some paras right before your quote:

    … After all, the first thing students want to know in a new department is whether the people they must rely on for explicit academic guidance, often exclusively and for years, are ‘any good’. Students quickly become acquainted with character portraits and rumors. At this stage, trust is often replaced by cynicism. When ‘everyone knows’ that someone has behaved inappropriately but keeps their position, or remains undisciplined, a department appears less safe and supportive – even if most people are supportive. The effects of this cannot be underestimated. Over time a creeping weariness contributes to women leaving the profession, and bolsters the reluctance of other women to enter in the first place.

    Sadly, many persist in arguing that it is impossible to address the problem in ways that retain the ‘informality’ of productive working relationships. These arguments rest on lazy or hasty foundations. As an administrator friend of mine observed, other disciplines with increased intimacy and thus much greater risks of erotic transferences, such as psychotherapy or medicine, have clear guidelines in place to address harassment. More importantly, those in these roles explicitly attend to the risks generated by the vulnerabilities they encounter, and openly discuss these risks to foster a culture in which abuses and harassment do not spread or erode trust. Cultures like this are not widespread in the humanities. 

    The McGinn case helps us see that academic cultures get distorted in other ways. Well-intentioned contributions within disciplines philosophy can foster environments that are not conducive to women (and many men). For example, civility and politeness are often abandoned in favour of ‘rigor’ and ‘clarity’. Admittedly, there are blurred lines between rudeness and respectful attempts to understand someone’s ideas, but academic institutions need to cultivate courteous seminar interactions. We can be clear and polite. 

    Comments re para 1 and 2: Universities differ on whether there is an effort to foster a community of respect; without some general efforts, the atmosphere can get very poisonous. We’ve discussed one kind of poison, “mobbing”, in a number of posts, which you can find through searching. Presumably, without a culture of respect, harassment can go pretty much unchecked.

    Has there been any investigation on any connection between harassment and dropping out? I gather one year 8 female grad students recently left one well-regarded program, even though there are many who think it has a serious problem with a harasser. I know a woman who graduated from a very similar program; she wonders if she will ever fully trust anyone again.

    Third para: recently I’ve been very rudely attacked after I’ve given given a paper. I think of this style as “the mad woman has escaped from the attic” approach. Each time people from different cultures and/or fields have asked with great bewilderment, “what in the world was going on? I’ve never seen any thing like it”. At the same time, one should remember that a very negative attack can be presented with a veneer of civility. So we might take it that there’s a deeper contrast between looking at a paper for what is wrong and looking at it to see if one could contribte to the project it came from.

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