What’s a self-respecting feminist to do?

Reader pjs has written in with this query:

Yesterday, I had a bad experience, and I need some advice. I went to return a shirt at Walmart. The customer service employee was maybe five years older than me, late twenties, white male. He asked me if the shirt was too big. Unthinkingly, I smiled and said yes. Almost immediately, I began to feel extremely self-conscious. I believe I blushed, a very rare occurrence for me. At first I thought he was just drawing attention to the fact that I’m fairly thin. Then, it dawned on me that he might be calling me flat chested (I am proud to be a 34A). The remaining few minutes of the transaction felt like forever, and then I dashed away.

Today, I was thinking about it again, and decided maybe I should submit a complaint to the store. But then I reconsidered – the thought of some manager and the guy having a laugh over the complaint was disgusting. From what I hear, Walmart has a terrible track record with these sorts of things (I probably shouldn’t have been shopping there in the first place). The complaint probably wouldn’t have any effect, and I’m highly unlikely to see this guy again. On the other hand, the comment was truly inappropriate no matter which way he meant it… right?

And maybe I’m overthinking it entirely. Maybe my recently acquired interest in feminism is turning me oversensitive and causing me to see males in a new and worse light.

What’s a self-respecting feminist to do?

This sort of thing is very tricky to deal with. It’s hard enough to get one’s complaints taken seriously about comments and behaviours that are unambiguous, and in this sort of case it’s really hard to imagine a complaint accomplishing anything. Then there are the epistemic difficulties of knowing what was really intended. One fairly all-purpose solution I like is to simply look puzzled and ask for clarification, forcing the person to either spell out something offensive, make it clear they meant something else, or simply get embarrassed. I learned this from my excellent Irish friend M. We were dealing with a fool (F) who had come to pick up some boxes to be shipped to the US. M helped him with all the adding and measuring, for which he was grateful. Then he discovered he’d lost his card-reader (the old-style kind that stamps his company’s details on a receipt) and panicked. M explained that he needn’t worry too much since whoever had it could only put payments into F’s company. F started laughing, imagining “some Irish guy” doing just this. M simply looked at him and said “Oh, really?” with a sweet smile. F’s jaw dropped in horror and he froze in that position for sometime. I still smile when I remember it.

So that’s my recommendation. What’s yours?

On the state of the profession

This year does not look good.  Students are complaining that getting into graduate school is very difficult, while the  job market seems to be really limited this year.   People who might retire very soon and so free up jobs are probably being advised to wait.  In any case, lots of universities will have trouble hanging onto such jobs, one suspects. 

Are any of the APA committees collecting data, or preparing to do so?

We might remind ourselves that tenured jobs are not entirely safe.  Financial need can lead to restructurings and closing downs that can end a tenured job.  Has anyone experienced this?

Who are the most vulnerable?  I would bet that those who hold the adjunct-plus conditions, where one gets something like class rates plus a  retainer, may get withdrawn quite easily.  I hope that’s wrong, but since I experienced it once, I can say that it comes as an unpleasant exercise in you-versus-them.

If you feel like sharing a story of hardship in the present situation, please do so.  We need to know more about what  is going on.  If you have a survival strategy, please let us know!

When is a joke just a joke? When is a response needed?

At the risk of demonstrating clearly that feminist philosophers have no sense of humor at all:

The 86th Philosophers Carnival is up.  The first cited entry is on strong friendships in contrast with romantic relationships.  The first are intrinsically valuable, according to  Aaron Weingott, while the  second are only instrumentally valuable.  The carnival is on a cartoon site and accompanying the reference  is the following cartoon (not by AW):



Words really do fail me, though about 20 minutes after having first seen it, I’m struck by the fact that the race and gender of the cartoonist seem pretty obvious, and the age of the author, Aaron Weingott, also fairly clear. At least, I hope men tend to grow out of this sort of view of human life, though when I think of it …

Earlier (in  comments) we explored the idea of just querying a comment when supposedly jokey remarks employing discriminatory discourse are used in public spaces. I’m thinking that just saying, “Could we just clarify the point of  the brothers-and-whores analogy?” might be better than nothing.

The following thought does also occur to me: “They really think they own the world and provide the model for it.”   But, jj, where is your sense of humor?!?

What do you think?

The Two-Body Problem

Stanford,CA. August 20, 2008 – Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research presents its latest research,

Dual-Career Academic Couples: What Universities Need to Know,

available for download at http://www.stanford.edu/group/gender/ResearchPrograms/DualCareer/index.html .


Dual-career issues are increasingly important in higher education today.  Over 70 percent of faculty are in dual-career relationships; more than a third are partnered with another academic.  This trend is particularly strong among women scientists and people in more junior positions.  As the number of women receiving Ph.D.s continues to rise, U.S. universities will see an increasing number of high quality candidates for faculty positions partnered with another academic.  This presents universities with a challenge, but also a great opportunity to access new candidates and diversify their faculty.


Based on a major survey of full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty at thirteen leading US universities, plus interviews with administrators at eighteen universities, Dual-Career Academic Couples explores the impact of dual-career partnering on hiring, retention, professional attitudes, and work culture in the U.S. university sector.  It also makes recommendations for improving the way universities work with dual-career candidates and strengthen overall communication with their faculty on hiring and retention issues.  It is vital reading for anyone interested in the continuing strength and competitiveness of US universities.


Lead author Londa Schiebinger, Director of the Clayman Institute and Professor of the History of Science, welcomes questions and comments on the research at gender-email@stanford.edu

Rats! II: So how should we do philosophy?

It’s probably the case that anyone’s purporting to have the answer to that question provides a good reason for not believing what they say.  What we can do, however, is to look at one answer and consider what makes it wrong or at least incomplete.  And of course the answer is going to reflect the picture of philosophy as a blood sport, the rude philosophy discussed here (the first “Rats!”) and here.

The answer I’ll ask us to consider is one that has really been given and endorsed on at least one occasion.  That occasion was one that occurred some time ago at one of the very elite grad schools.  And here’s the rest of the story:

At August University the women graduate students in the philosophy department felt that they were under-privileged outsiders.  Their complaints became visible enough that the department called a meeting.  After a discussion of why someone might feel reluctant to speak up at a seminar, one of the male professors got up and said:

“This is the philosophical method.  Someone puts up a position and everyone else tries to knock it down.  And if women don’t like it, they should get out of philosophy.”

The impact was increased by his pounding a fist into the palm of his other hand to match the cadence of his voice. Some of the women students were in tears. One brave male graduate student said he didn’t much like getting torn apart in public either.

Now just about anyone who writes can benefit from criticism, and those of us trained in, and working within, the analytic tradition may tend especially to value having our arguments assessed and assessing those of others. But it doesn’t take a lot of thought to see that the description of the “philosophical method” is at least incomplete.

I’m going to quote from some comments on the original “Rats!” (linked to above), but let me suggest something that in effect elaborates on a point in a number of comments. The fact of the matter is that the philosophical community as a whole values interesting and insightful ideas at least as much as good arguments. But if we look at research about how to encourage the engendering of interesting and insightful ideas, it doesn’t look as though the way to do it is to launch into attack mode the minute someone has the nerve to present a possible idea. So there’s a disconnect between the methodology of philosophy as a blood sport and at least one central value in the profession.

Well, see what you think. Here are some interesting comments on alternatives that come from the discussion in the original “Rats!”. (In fact, there are many more good comments than I’ll quote, since I’m especially looking for descriptions of alternatives. Thus I’m leaving out discussions of the effects of the dominant method.)

Noumena’s quote from Janice Moulton (my stress):

Rude and belligerent styles are developed in the name of teaching philosophy; glibness rather than careful thinking is modeled and encouraged in classes; winning arguments rather than encouraging and developing good ideas becomes the role of the teachers; and sensible people who would abhor such an interchange among normal human beings learn to admire such teachers and are even motivated to do it themselves.


In class, I try to emphasize the importance of other approaches–like building on what another person says or writes, or raising questions about it, or connecting it to the work of another. Trying these approaches is quite hard for some of them; they would prefer to go for the jugular.”

Not the fun kind:

a type of discourse that can be primarily dialogic, co-creating, cooperative building on one another’s points in intense excitement rather than beating one another down and one-upping one another …


. It’s made a huge difference to me to see that people can do philosophy collaboratively– and to be in atmosphere where that is cultivated and appreciated, and the attack-dog style is considered not just nasty but shallow and intellectually inferior.

My own tentative:

… my training at least had one look not so much at specific arguments as at the type of theory being developed, its goals and suppositions. That makes a constructive approach easier and the specific put-down often less interesting, since the goal really is increased understanding. It is not so much about a competition among the theories competing in some sub-field

What do you think?


There’s Brian Leiter over on his blog treating philosophers’ rudeness as a joke.  Or, equally, as something you should experience as proof you are being treated as an insider.  AND I CAN’T  SEEM TO COMMENT ON IT.  Goodness knows where the comment box is, or isn’t.

The post is called “Funny–On Academic Bad Manners.”   Notice that though he and those acting like him apparently think they’d never, ever treat students with crushing rudeness, everyone else is fair game.  Interesting view of social interaction and one’s place in it. 

Is the priority given to one’s feelings and thoughts  in an academic debate – and the obvious sense of entitlement to nastily dump on people-  narcissistic?  Is there really any justification for comments that are nasty and bitter enough that, when made by a powerful figure, they can lead to one’s being ostracized?   What do you think? 

UPDATE:  You might want to look at our earlier discussion of philosophy as a blood sport.

Survival Strategies 1

Reader SK sent us a lovely letter (thanks, SK!) in which she made a great suggestion.  Her thought was that we should pool resources, and discuss effective ways to respond to claims like:

the grrl got the job I so richly deserved (and therefore the grrlz get all the jobs), evolutionary psychological mumbo-jumbo about how women and/or people of colour just aren’t “hard-wired” to do philosophy, and the typical conservative/troll tactic of screaming that anyone who disagrees with you is merely being “politically correct.”

More generally, it would be great to discuss survival strategies for women and others who are in the minority in philosophy; and strategies for those who want to work to fix the problems that women and other minorities in philosophy face.

But right now, let’s start by discussing how to respond to people who make the 3 claims SK cited. Share your strategies in comments! All strategies welcome– quick ones, long range ones, ways of changing minds, ways of laughing things off, ways of reassuring yourself after the fact when you realise you didn’t manage to say the right thing on the spot, etc. Let’s get together and put this stuff in one place. And if you have other survival issues you’d like us to discuss, let us know– we’ll post, and solicit advice.