Archive for the ‘good intentions gone awry’ Category

I just received a truly depressing email announcing a new volume in my area. It starts off in a good way, then we get to this part (replacing names with variables):

“The contributors include luminaries such as a, b, c, d, and e. Other prominent contributors include f, g, h, i, and j.”

At first, the email made me delighted. I was delighted to see so many female contributors. But then I paused. The so-called “luminaries” were all men. The other “prominent” contributors were the rest: the women.

This was a first for me. Apparently, the editors went to a lot of trouble to find female contributors only to subtly put them down and belittle them in the end.

In my graduate department this year, only one of the 6-or-so graduate student job seekers is a woman. Each year, my department arranges practice job talks for all of the year’s job seekers.

The woman’s job talk was the only one in which the Q&A period devolved into a philosophical jousting match between two senior male philosophers. She was asked a difficult question, and paused to think about how to answer. Maybe taking this as a sign of weakness or something, one of the male philosophers defended her position, and another philosopher who disagreed began to engage directly with him. And they went back and forth like this, completely excluding the speaker.

I was appalled at how her Q&A was hijacked, and the moderator only encouraged the hijacking by occasionally jumping into the back-and-forth himself with his own commentary. All told, 10-15 minutes of the 30-minute Q&A period consisted of this back-and-forth, and did not include the speaker at all.

Male philosophers should really check their paternalistic (though possibly well-intentioned) tendencies to jump into the Q&A and ‘help’ female graduate students who may simply be pausing to think carefully about a question posed.

I found your website by accident and was moved by the stories. I had no idea what is going on, and reading the stories will, hopefully, make me more sensitive.

I don’t know if your readers would be interested in my story, but here it is.

I (mid-forties male associate professor) was teaching a graduate seminar today. Students were taking turns discussing paper ideas. I had spoken with one student (call him B) during office hours a few days earlier about a particular topic he was researching in cognitive neuroscience. In class, one of the students (call her A) brought up the same topic from a more philosophical angle. As she was finishing up her summary, she mentioned that she had not yet found any empirical support for her position. At this point, I volunteered that student B could certainly help. Everyone chuckled knowingly, and student A blanched. I had obviously done something wrong, but it was obvious to me only after I had done it. Students A and B are a couple. Everybody in class knows it, including me.

That’s pretty much the story. You can cut it there. Just so you know, though, if I hadn’t read your blog, I don’t think I would have given it a second thought, or even noticed A’s reaction. Having read the many stories on your blog, though, I approached A later and talked to her about it. Indeed, she felt at the moment that she was no longer independent student A, but had suddenly been reduced to just “B’s girlfriend.” I apologized, and she graciously apologized for being “too sensitive.” If student B had, instead, been unattached student C, I would have said the same in class about student C being able to help (but with perhaps less certainty). Therefore, as a fairly privileged white male professor, it is easy for me to excuse my mistake as innocent and unintended, but looking at it from the point of view of A, I can see that I should be more careful.

I am married, and keep myself out of the departmental affairs. On one occasion, I did have a conversation with another male graduate student in the group office. A female graduate student was working on her computer and then burst out of the common office (to which we all had keys). Later on, I heard that she had accused me and another male colleague of not including her in on the conversation, even though she stared at her computer screen most of time. She cited your blog and thought of our conversation as just another instance of male-dominance in philosophy even when she made no attempt to be part of the conversation. At the time, she didn’t really know me, but nobody needs an invitation to talk to me. Perhaps, she does now, though I wouldn’t know it. I feel like she avoids me.

After the incident, I went home really upset and discussed this at length with my wife. My wife told me that if she truly knew me she would never have thought what she did, and she also suggested that I should avoid her, not be involved in controversy and get my funding from the department. I am still really bothered by this incident.

So, I have attempted to build bridges and she has not been receptive. I have offered blanket statements about interest in whatever work anyone might want to share. I have made subtler gestures. I have attempted to discuss what she found fascinating in a particular seminar. I have tried my best to treat her like a colleague.

Don’t get me wrong. I know there are real problems in philosophy, and I have been rather oblivious to them. I don’t drink nor hang out with other grads. I have been married all throughout graduate school. I never saw a leading philosopher of said-sub-specialty as anything but a scholar. I regularly read both women and men; very often I am concerned more about the argument than I am about the author that wrote the piece. I love Nussbaum, Wolf and Korsgaard’s work in moral philosophy, and I have even tried to adapt some of the thoughts about Marilyn Friedman’s work on autonomy and community in my own work. My colleague would never know this because she would never discuss philosophy with me. Isn’t this how it is supposed to work? You read something that honestly is fascinating, and sometimes it is written by a man and other times a woman.

My colleague is forever turned off by me, this incident or both (I honestly can’t tell). In the long run, it might not matter as I am moving on, and she is remaining in the department. I just wish that in this incident the misconstrued intentions can be as harmful in nuanced ways than if there was a legitimate point made. I am always aware of the incident every time I see her. Perhaps, there were implicit body cues that did unwittingly make her uncomfortable. I did talk to a male colleague I had known for about two years prior to her entrance, and perhaps she already felt like an outsider completely moving to a new place from far away. I honestly don’t know and I wish my colleague all the best. I hope she reads this, knows how much I respect her, and I hope she recognizes that our politics are more in sync than she and her partner could ever truly know.

To the Specific Party,

Hopefully, you do read this. I do not know if ever want to talk to me. Perhaps, I too am reading way too much into this little incident. Perhaps, this is not even on your radar of concerns. I would just like to start this new year with you as the colleague I think you are, and not have any weirdness between us. I respect all the thinkers you engage with, and if you read this, again, the offer stands that I will read anything you write given my interests in your field. I am sorry for this weirdness and any part I unwittingly played in making you feel estranged; it was never my intention.

All the very best,

A colleague and potential friend

On being interrupted

Posted: April 29, 2012 by Jender in good intentions gone awry

I’m a grad student who gave a short talk to members of my department (some faculty and some grad students). The talk went well, everyone was very helpful, and overall I thought it was a great experience. However, I was interrupted during the talk and Q&A more than any other speaker in recent memory and on several occasions a professor with whom I’ve worked answered questions before I could get a word out. I think it’s easy for professors to see their students, but especially their female students, in this sort of paternalistic way. They think they’re helping, but it’s frustrating!

As an undergraduate, I took a seminar where, in one class, the topic of moral relativism arose in discussion. There were only two women in the class. One of us (it might have been myself) used the example of female genital mutilation in some cultures, arguing that a practice as horrifying as that had to be universally wrong. The men in the room, including myself, started arguing aggressively about this point. Finally, one of the women spoke up: “Could we maybe pick a different example?” I hadn’t thought about it, but it later it occurred to me how uncomfortable I would have been in a room full of women vociferously arguing about cutting up male genitalia.

Am I the only one who finds it unbearably frustrating when male philosophers tell me how much better things are now than they used to be? I am a recent PhD and my male colleagues continue to tell me how “there are so many more women in philosophy now.”

My graduate program had an embarrassingly small number of women: two, including me.

In my first job, I was the only woman in the department.

In my second job, I was one of only two women (neither of whom were tenure-track).

Now, in my new job, I am still only one of two women.

Oh yes, so much better!

How NOT to help

Posted: October 28, 2010 by Jender in good intentions gone awry

My first year of graduate school in the late 90s I had a required class with one of the older female professors in the department. I had been looking forward to the class and to having her has a professor. It was horrible. Every time I tried to make a comment, I was shot down. I remember clearly once being asked “do you really think that was helpful?” In lamenting with other female grad students a couple of years ahead of me, one said that I should take this as a compliment–this professor always picked the strongest female grad student to pick on in class as a way of toughening her up, since her early experience was so tough in the discipline. Not sure I really want to say thanks for that, but, thanks.

There is a younger female graduate student in my department with whom I have had a lot of really good conversations. She is smart, open-minded, and insightful. I get a lot out of our discussions, and I would like to think that I respect her just as much as anyone. But sometimes she talks to me as if she’s afraid that I’ll disagree with her, as if she has to make sure to put things gently – with a smile – and to pull back at any sign of resistance. It makes me feel uncomfortable about contradicting her, and I end up talking to her differently than others in my department. That, in turn, makes me feel like an awful sexist, like I’m helping to create an environment in which she’s treated delicately because she “can’t handle” the normal intensity of philosophical discussion, and because she’s “too gentle and sweet to really be argued with.” I want to talk to her in a way that makes her feel comfortable, but sometimes I suspect that my instincts about how to do that are telling me to treat her “like a cute, dumb girl.” I wish I knew how to do the right thing.

A few years ago, when I was a student, I had developed a close (completely nonsexual) relationship with a male professor, who was my mentor and advisor. We would work together on a lot of things and consequently, hang out together frequently, although never outside of school. It apparently got to a point where the other male faculty felt uneasy as if something would happen, that the department chair would intentionally go out of his way to make sure that my professor and I weren’t in close proximity of each other. Because of this, nothing ever got done and I ended up extremely distraught to a point where I was close to quitting philosophy all together.

How good intentions can go awry

Posted: October 6, 2010 by Jender in good intentions gone awry

I am a single woman. In 2004, I was hired by an all-male department; two men were hired at the same time as me. The department was very welcoming to all of us, but the welcome was shown in different ways. One of the new men was invited by an older faculty member in his research area to come over to his house, watch basketball, and talk. They quickly formed a friendship. The other man was invited out for beer by several older men in his research area, and was also invited to regular poker games with male faculty from closely related departments. He formed a research collaboration with several of these men. I was invited by families to enjoy a family dinner. Because of the presence of young children and non-philosophy spouses, shop talk was not appropriate. I’ve never been invited to an informal one-on-one talk about shared research interests by anyone in my department, so I haven’t received the kind of informal mentoring that can be so helpful to a junior faculty member.