When I was an undergraduate student, my father, who is a professor (not philosophy), was accused of harassing a female colleague. He taught at a small school in the Midwest. Although, there was enough evidence to prove he did not harass his colleague, my father didn’t fight the accusations because the damage had already been done. The rumors and injury to his reputation were enough to drive our family out of town. The impact was huge. Not only did this woman’s finger pointing devastate and hurt my father and mother, but it took everything away from our family. We were forced to hear rumors about our family, sell our home at a loss, relocate, and I lost my tuition remission and had to take large sums of student loans to finish my education at the same school.
Because of what happened to my family, I am very sensitive to persons claiming harassment without evidence. The accusation alone is enough to ruin the lives of many people. Perhaps it is this sensitivity that keeps me from openly telling my own story and possibly hurting innocent people in the family of a particular professor, so I am thankful for this blog.
I am not a graduate student at a top university, and the person who affected me is hardly an influential or well-known philosopher, well, you might have heard his name. The sad thing is at the time he was just some professor flexing his power over someone like me who was forced to have him as an advisor in order to finish a simple master’s program.
I won’t go into the details of things that were said that were so painful to me and stripped me of all confidence I might have had in my abilities. I won’t describe the awkward situations he put me and other female graduate students in with his wife present or conveniently not present. I won’t tell you what this professor said to another male professor with whom I had to work that completely changed his rapport with me, because I still don’t know what was said. Rather, I want to talk about a chance I had to work with a male professor at a different school years later.
I didn’t even realize how heavy the burden of my advisor’s words was until another professor at this other school took the time to listen to my ideas and concerns about continuing on in philosophy. At one point this professor told me something that was completely opposite from what my advisor had said-essentially he said that I have a place in this field. Although I somewhat compartmentalized what my advisor had said to me at the time, I guess I never truly realized how much it had hurt every part of me until I heard another professor tell me the opposite case. I left this professor’s office and as soon as I was outside I started crying and I couldn’t stop until I reached the other side of campus.
I suppose my point is that as a professor, one may not realize how a few simple, sincere, and encouraging words might be undoing something that is really hindering a student-something you have no idea about, something the student might not be able to share. Although I think efforts must be made in both directions-we should have systems in place to help weed out the true harassers-let us not forget to keep sincerely encouraging the students, particularly the female ones, who have to deal with all of this. And though I am not saying that female students receive their self-worth and validation from their male professors, when a student has to hear that she is “less than” from a male professor, it sometimes takes hearing from another male professor that this is not the case for the damage of those words to be undone.