Archive for the ‘power dynamics’ Category

After all the ups-and-downs, ins-and-outs, rough-and-tumble politics of a graduate career, as a “woman of color” (a term which I despise, but for which no adequate substitute really exist), the final nail was hammered into the coffin of my philosophical aspirations just over two years ago. My Ph.D. program expelled me, under the thin veneer of academic failure. Internal appeals failed me, and the prospect of pursuing external appeals through various deans and administrators, even should they succeed, seemed to exhausting to consider. As information about how other (white, male) graduate students were treated, it became clear to me that had I received even slightly comparable consideration and treatment, I would have been able to finish. No one will ever admit my expulsion had to do with race or gender, and indeed, there is a very good story about why I was expelled and department policies. On paper, it is all legitimate. The story completely fails to explain why white, male students were not subject to the letter of the law, and given chances I was not owed. The message was clear: THEY can fuck up frequently and continue, but YOU are always a fuck-up and we will run you out.

There was definitely a grieving process. After all, a Ph.D. in Philosophy had been my singular objective for more or less a decade – my entire adult life, at the time. I organized my life around, I made my choices to reflect it. It occupied a significant portion of my emotional life. It defined, in part, who I thought I was.

That was, as I said, about two years ago. As life moved on, my life changed form. Though employed as a philosophy professor at a community college, and, thus, technically a professional philosopher, I began to mentally disassociate myself from the profession. I no longer identify as a professional philosopher. When, in social settings, someone says, “You are a philosopher?” my joking response is to say, “Shhh! Don’t tell anyone!” and promptly change the subject. Rather than regularly checking blogs, I wandered onto them only occasionally – sometimes realizing months had passed since I’d visited them (once a daily activity) – and then only in some sort cathartic rubber-necking type moments. I signed off of email lists and gave away books (well, not all of them, but a lot of them). I stopped listening to philosophy podcasts, and gradually eliminated all but a few philosophers from my social life. The ones who are still in my life are people with whom I, as a stringent rule, never discuss the profession or philosophy at all, except as a passing remark here and there.

I became involved in legislative advocacy for higher education in my state (so I still deal with plenty of, uhm, colorful behavior). I subscribed to the local symphony. I went to hear bands and traveled to places where I wasn’t going to conferences. I made friends who are artists and real estate agents and accountants and school teachers and chefs and most definitely not philosophers.

I realized recently that I was happier than I had been in years. In fact, I was happier than I had been since I first started taking philosophy classes as an undergrad. This realization was both joyous – that I had recovered from such a brutal and unfair ending to my hopes and ambitions – and melancholy – that something, which I had loved so much and brought me so much joy when I first encountered it, had been reduced, through the racist and sexist actions of its principle advocates – to a increasingly distant memory that is better banished from my life.

I wonder how many people out there feel the same way.

I’m a MA student in an area of philosophy where there’re less women. I have a somewhat aggressive personality so I don’t find it too bothersome when I find myself in what might have been sexist situations. However, I sometimes observe other girls who are less aggressive than I am and it makes me sad watching them struggle to get their voice out over all the male students.
I was taking a UG/MA combined seminar course where the gender ratio is just slightly above 1:10. The professor is a male who is very conscious of gender issues and tries his best to be sensitive and fair. There are a few male students in the classroom who are fairly aggressive in general – they constantly cut each other off and always speak very loudly. I have interacted with them outside of class and, from what I can gather, they are not really sexists: they do hear my points and get into meaningful discussions with me. It’s probably just their personalities to be loud and have short attention spans.
What is unfortunate is the fact that these guys can be quite intimidating (without actually trying to intimidate) – they are bigger physically, louder, and appear to be more confident (irrespective of how well they understand the course material). Aside from myself, there is only one other girl who comes to classes every week. She is a quiet Asian girl who speaks very softly. Sometimes she would be making a very good point but the guys just started talking and no body could hear her. The prof is too polite to silence them and, even if he does manage to shush them, the girl would either be too intimidated to resume or thought she was making a stupid point – which she totally wasn’t. After a couple of times she just stopped speaking. Even if the prof asks her opinion (I suspect because he has noticed this) she would just say very little. I don’t think it’s fair to put all the blame on those guys, because it was supposed to be a free discussion, and people did cut each other off rather frequently. I’ve always wondered how anyone could’ve done anything to change the situation. It just feels to me that nobody is really at fault here (except maybe the guys can be a bit more respectful, but let’s face it, philosophical discussions can get quite intense).

Recent events and the on-going dialogue about our discipline have been very difficult for me.

While in graduate school, a colleague attempted to rape me using physical force. He was an advanced, highly-regarded student in our department. He also (so I thought) happened to be, until that point, a close friend.

To this day, I have only told two people. At the time, I consulted my two closest feminist philosopher friends and asked for advice. We went through every conceivable option and all agreed that I shouldn’t take any action. Because I had “escaped”, I had no “evidence” other than my word against his. He had a wife with a baby on the way, and became very outgoing while consuming alcohol. Very few people would believe me and even the few potential advocates would not be able to act in any official capacity. (This is why I don’t think coming forward would protect other women.)

I’m now working in a TT position (which several male philosophers told me I got because I’m a woman.) I honestly think nothing would come of me breaking the silence other than my professional reputation undergoing a public bashing.

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.

Ok here goes. I was doing my MA at [a university in country X], and the language spoken there was not my native tongue, even if I was fluent in the language of instruction. Naturally I felt a bit isolated and insecure. But also, both the general approach to philosophy that the department was engaged in, and its pedagogical methods were new to me. I was trying to be very open to this new way of doing things philosophical, even if I did not like it very much.

Instead of teaching us for the whole term, professors required that from the 4th week of class, students– each in turn– take on the weekly 3-hour seminar, and present their work. This was all terribly tedious, as the 95% male students, as well as we 5%, were either 1) fresh from undergrad and unable to really talk intelligently about their subject, or 2) long term graduate students who knew how to talk about philosophy without actually saying anything. We all wore black clothes, smoked camel cigarettes and felt existential 🙂

When it was my turn to present on a philosopher that we had not covered at all in class, but who I was supposed to research all on my own and present to the class (for three hours) as expert, I felt a bit freaked out. I asked my prof. (weeks ahead) if I could meet him to get some help. He was so busy, it seemed… always traveling or something.

In the end, the only time he could meet me was in the evening… a few days before I was due to give my presentation in class (upon which my entire grade depended). So sorry, but would I mind coming around to his house? We really did need to discuss things before I presented this major philosopher’s work to the class. I had literally started from scratch in trying to read and understand his writings, had had no instruction at all on his thought, and now I was supposed to do a 3 hour seminar presentation to the 15 other slightly hostile students. And was supposed to do this in a language that was foreign to me.

All this to explain how easy it was for me to accept the prof’s invitation to come to his house three days before my presentation, in order to “discuss the work of X philosopher”. It was too cold to get my car started, and I had to take a cab to his house. When I got there 1/2 hour late, he already had a big whiskey poured for me. I had to climb over the various children’s fisher-price toys for 4 year olds, and big lego sets to enter the room. It was all so uncomfortable, and he carefully explained that he was now single.

He was drunk, though I was too naive to see this right away.He kept insisting– INSISTING that I drink more whiskey, and pouring me huge amounts. I tried to comply … but didn’t fall for the liquor or the conversation. It was all so juvenile! I was a grad. student, not some 17 year old… and he just got progressively more drunk. I was naive enough to think that we would talk about Wittgenstein, but after he flopped over me a few times, telling me that I had to have sex with him– he needed it so badly, etc.–..and then beginning to force me to lie down…. well, I made my escape. Caught a bus home. Got home really late and tired and felt filthy for having let him go as far as he had.

Well a few days later I gave my presentation to the class, with the prof watching, editing, intervening, just as a good teacher would do. I thought the grade he gave me overall for the course was fair. Later, I contacted the University and tried to register an anonymous complaint, but met too many roadblocks. I tried to spread the word among my fellow students, but most were uninterested. Finally, I just moved on.

When I was an undergraduate in philosophy, some of my friends and I started a philosophy undergraduate group. Naturally, amount the ten or so of us, there were only two women, myself included.

Most of the time, this was not a problem for me – I was used to hanging out with the boys, and I could argue just as hardheadedly as the rest of them. My male professors were probably the most supportive mentors I could have ever hoped to find; they were encouraging and always very generous with their time. For the most part, the sexism I did encounter straight on was from my male peers toward my female professors. They would challenge them to unrelated logic questions, complain that their subject matters were less worthwhile and (quite wrongly – many of them were top in their field) accuse them of being worse professors than my male professors. I contested them hotly on each point after class, knowing how badly women professors tend to do on subject evaluations, and how this hurts their chances at tenure.
Nonetheless, fearing ostracism by my peers, I never took any courses in feminist philosophy, nor actively discussed feminist issues with my peers.

I did, however, on one occasion feel personally insulted by my peers. We would host public talks, debates, or movie screenings fortnightly. One week one of my closest male friends suggested discussing autonomy and alcohol consumption. He wanted us to debate whether or not a drunk or ‘impaired’ person should be found at fault for rape, given various scenarios (a drunk victim, or ambiguous consent, for instance). My heart still races and I still get hot in the face remembering this topic being brought up. I have to admit I went a little hysterical at the suggestion – I told them I would boycott the group if they chose to discuss that subject. Having been the subject of sexual assault, (although no alcohol was involved), it seemed ridiculous to me to even ask whether someone who had willingly gotten drunk could possibly be found innocent of sexual assault due to their ‘impaired’ state. My friends laughed at me and told me to calm down, that it was a serious philosophical question.
I left the meeting in a huff, slamming the door.

Now I am in grad school, and the friend who brought the topic up claims to be a serious feminist (although he himself is not an academic). I have trouble believing him since he still doesn’t understand what was wrong the many times he has brought up the above scenario since.
Another friend who was in the group has visited me recently, and he confided to me that our mutual friends used to think that I was not very good at philosophy, and that they were surprised I did so well on my graduate school applications, despite the fact that I was always one of the most active members of the philosophy group, and despite the fact that I graduated as one of the top students in the major. Now they say that I am very good, and that they misjudged me (only a couple of them ever went on to grad school themselves).
I am still pretty sure the only reason they ever thought that I wasn’t good because they were sexists, and confused my anger at their continued offenses for philosophical incompetence. And now I feel guilty that I constantly excused them anyway. Maybe we should never have been friends. I feel I have indirectly contributed to the bad climate for women by never bringing up any of the issues as feminist issues, and by avoiding feminist subjects as philosophically illegitimate. Nonetheless, if I had not remained friends with them and cut my teeth in debates with them, I would probably only be half as good a philosopher as I am.

I am a junior member of a Philosophy department. Recently at a faculty meeting we were discussing the application of a philosopher to teach at our program for a short term. The applicant crashed a party I threw a while ago, arrived somewhat drunk, and hit on me incessantly even as I tried to maintain a professional distance (and I wear a wedding ring.) I explained this, including how uncomfortable I felt. A senior male professor said, ‘I don’t understand…is this positive or negative?” That was followed by heartfelt chuckles from some of my other colleagues. Somehow I found it in me to respond to that and say that it was negative, and that I did not appreciate the remark at all, since I had already stated it had been uncomfortable. To this the response of the senior member was, “I see.” After which, a senior female member of the department went on to tell me that not everyone, e.g. not her, would find it wrong to flirt with a married woman.