As an undergraduate major in philosophy, I remember being (perhaps overly) pleased when philosophy faculty encouraged me to pursue a graduate degree in the field, or when a professor offered what I now think of as “over the top” sort of praise. The Chair of the department was one such professor. He told me that my work was “close to publishable.” He told me that I was “the best student” he had had in his ten years of teaching.
My interactions with the Chair, let’s call him Prof X, were purely professional. And then, more than ten years later, when I was about half-way through grad school, he sent me an out-of-the-blue email. I quote:
“Gosh, you are memorable… You were different in maturity blah, blah. Maybe I had a crush, who knows, who cares. Main thing… is to connect, re-connect… Love, [Prof X]… Oh my very private cell is…”
Now, I realize that this is just a run-of-the-mill “wanna hook up?” email which poses no immediate physical threat. I assume that Prof X was in an altered mental state or otherwise not thinking clearly when he sent it. I recognize that he was simply being candid about his feelings and probably intended no harm.
But the thing is, the email did do harm. Significant harm. As a graduate student with all the usual anxieties and uncertainties about my ability, I suddenly started worrying that my undergraduate success was a product of something other than philosophical ability. I suddenly became wary, uneasy, and overly analytical about my interactions with male faculty and colleagues. I suddenly became anxious when a male colleague or faculty member expressed interest in my work, wondering what the real motive for the interest was.
I have never had – and never will have – a relationship with a philosopher, but more than one philosopher has expressed interest in something other than my work. How many of the philosophers who have expressed an interest in my work were really interested in something else? And how many of the philosophers who didn’t express an interest in my work were uninterested because they weren’t interested in something else?
Trust is a very fragile thing, easily broken and difficult to rebuild.