More on what it’s like to teach philosophy as a woman

Posted: December 7, 2010 by Jender in Uncategorized

I have been considering whether or not to send this in because I have gotten past it, but in light of the last post about teaching philosophy and the hostility of male students, I thought that it was time. A few semesters ago it was my turn to teach the graduate seminar for my department’s MA students. In this seminar I had primarily male students but did have three women. There was one male student who was particularly hostile to me in and out of class, personally and professionally.

It came to my attention through the department’s graduate coordinator that the hostile student and another student who was not in the class had slandered and threatened me on their facebook pages. They claimed I picked texts that were unimportant, such as John Rawls (which is on their comprehensive exam list) and was attempting to indoctrinate them. At the same time, though, I was said not to be very smart and that they would make sure that “I got mine.” They said my grading was unfair (even though one of them never took a class from me) and that clearly the hostile student’s paper was the best of the lot, but did not get the best grade, so I must be a “man hater.” And that the reason the hostile student did not get an A was because I only gave As to women, which of course, is false. The best grade of the class consistently went to one of the male students. The university where I teach is Catholic, and they claimed that I was a bad Catholic for teaching contemporary philosophy
and feminism.

The matter was taken to the university lawyer, the dean of students and our EEOC officer so that my tenure application would not be put at risk. With the exception of the university lawyer, whom I did not meet with personally, everyone was supportive and helpful. They reminded me that this was nonsense, unacceptable and they would proceed as I wanted to. In the end I decided not to pursue things further as I did not want to risk another flare up in class. One of the students did eventually apologize to me, under some pressure from his thesis director who told me that he almost said no to directing the thesis because of the student’s behavior toward me. Another colleague said if he was asked for a reference would give one but would not be able to say anything positive about the student’s character or collegiality.

What was supposed to be the plum teaching assignment in my department was my twice weekly torture. But I did get good support from my chair, from the graduate coordinator, from the EEOC officer, from the Dean of Students and from most of the other students in the seminar, with whom I generally have good relationships. The EEOC office has a letter on file that it is the official position of the University that these two students’ opinions, if they choose to challenge my tenure application, are to be given no weight. I turned in my application for tenure and promotion on Monday and I checked the list of letter writers today–those students weren’t on it. Phew.

But I do know that one of them is teaching philosophy at a community college now and has bad-mouthed our program on his blog. He had never had a female philosophy professor before he took my class. He was bright, but I don’t think he learned anything from me, and that was his own fault. His prejudice precluded it.

I, however, learned a lot. I have the support of those I work with and that counts. Many of my male colleagues learned something, too. Sexism is alive and well, even in some of the otherwise brightest students. They learned that it is harder to be a woman in philosophy than a man. And some of them, I think, respect me even more than they did before. I guess that’s something.

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