Harassment on the periphery

Posted: April 2, 2014 by Jender in sexual harassment

It is not only graduate students and younger professors in philosophy departments who are subject to harassment from male professors. Many of us who do not stay in academia end up on its periphery, as editors, journalists, independent scholars, activists, and in other roles.

It is decidedly not uncommon to be harassed, even stalked, at APA and other conferences. When one’s role is editor or journalist, for example, one is in the unenviable position of having to interact with the harasser at a press booth or in an interview room; one’s job requires it. This can lead to repeated uncomfortable incidents, and there is no recourse that I am aware of.

When in grad school, I was physically assaulted and raped by a philosopher, call him X. I have never told a single person in philosophy about this. I am confident even now that if I had, it would have ended the possibility of me having a career in philosophy. Not even because X was important or had a good reputation, but because he was a member of a tight-knit group of people in my department who at the time collectively essentially had complete power over what would happen with my career.

Many years later, he was accused of attempted sexual assault by another philosophy graduate student. Many of the faculty rallied around him, loudly claiming that his accuser was crazy, trying to dig up dirt about her past, threatening legal action against her, and so on.

All of those people immediately and without any hint of hesitation took X’s word about what happened the night in question, and immediately discounted his accuser’s story. But there is something else that is incredibly disturbing about the situation. And that was that X’s story, which I heard many times, was pretty damning. Even if his story was true and his accuser’s was false, any outsider could have seen that he had acted in a completely awful way. But I have never heard a single one of his defenders say this.

Nearly every day I kick myself for not speaking up at the time. I would have had a horrible few months, and then I nearly certainly would have ended up leaving philosophy. But, first, maybe, just maybe, X would have suffered some consequences for his actions (though I doubt it), and maybe, even if he didn’t, it would set a precedent such that he might have suffered some consequences in the later case (which he didn’t). And second, I no longer understand why I wanted to stay in philosophy so badly, when it has never gotten any better for me with respect to these kinds of issues. At the time I think I thought I was being strong and proving a point. In fact I think that I was just scared. If I could turn back the clock I would speak up. But not because I think there would have been some fairy tale ending. This is not a call for people to speak up when things happen to them like this. But I do want people to know that at least one person wishes that she had made the choice to stick up for herself even at the expense of the possibility of a future in philosophy.

What not to say to someone who leaves

Posted: April 1, 2014 by Jender in Uncategorized

I am a junior faculty member a few years out from my Ph.D. I graduated from a top institution, have a pretty decent publication list for someone in my position, and consistently receive high scores on my teaching evaluations.

Recently, I decided to leave academia for a variety of personal reasons, none of which were about my ability to be a philosopher. I decided to tell the Head of Department in person first, before formally submitting my resignation.

His reply? “Oh well, some people aren’t cut out for philosophy.”

Policing the Boundaries

Posted: March 26, 2014 by Jender in that's not philosophy

I taught for several years as a lecturer in a department composed entirely of white, straight men– except for one white straight woman. I am a white femme. While there I proposed a course to be called Philosophy of Race in which a number of students had indicated an interest in other courses. The chair of the department approved this and was quietly supportive. At this very multicultural university but among our (not surprisingly) largely white majors, the course attracted only 6-7 students. But these 6-7 students were the ones to sign up in the spring before the class had been approved as a core curriculum course, which enables and encourages far more students to take a course. Heading into fall the course was approved and ready to go as a core curriculum course. BUT before the fall registration had a chance to open– a time of year I’m told many students make their choices about courses– a different faculty member happened to be serving as chair of the department. And he canceled the course claiming that ten students are required for the course to “make.” I was a lecturer at the institution, and so really had no avenue for response. I figured I’d continue to work Philosophy of Race into other courses as I’d been doing.

It was only several weeks later in a discussion with a colleague that I realized that members of the department might have been actively upset to see Philosophy of Race on offer. I realized this while standing in a colleagues’ office listening to him explain to me patiently and in detail why Philosophy of Race isn’t philosophy. The same old, sadly bored white guy thinks Feminist Philosophy isn’t philosophy, but I did teach a course under this title while employed in this department.

As an undergraduate, I was introduced to the concept of Plato’s ideal realm with the form of a girlfriend. While I don’t remember all of the specifics given, I do remember my professor claiming that the ideal girlfriend “looks good in a sweater.”

Discussion Question

Posted: March 12, 2014 by Jender in objectifying women

In a required class offered during my Masters program, whose students included about six women and one man, my professor posed the following discussion topic: “If you knew that you were going to be stranded on a desert island, and you could take either Michelle Pfeiffer or the philosophical canon, which would you choose?”

I was upset by the question, and jumped in with a defiant, “I’d take Michelle Pfeiffer.” Everything became tense. My teacher was considering his next question, when the male student said, “I’d choose the philosophical canon.” The remainder of the discussion proceeded between the male student and the professor…

In my doctoral program, the student who received the largest funding package had been involved in a long-term affair with a married, tenured professor. When she decided to accept a terminal masters degree in order to follow her fiancĂ© to another school, that professor failed her defense. She received a degree from the other school, and doesn’t mention this experience on her cv.