Archive for the ‘relationships with students’ Category

 

Dear Professor X

Some weeks ago, you asked me why rape culture had become so prevalent, particularly in the university environment. As an ethicist, it seemed you were troubled by an apparent cultural shift that casually denigrated women: you mentioned it several times, and we were both puzzled. I didn’t have a ready answer for you: like any woman, I have been on the receiving end of off-hand sexism, off-colour remarks and a generic insouciance about sexual assault for all of my adult life and much of my childhood. But, beyond reaching for the usual hackneyed explanations of the structural features of phallocentric societies, I could not give you an answer that satisfied me. Now I think I can.

You see, Professor X, one of the key causes of rape culture in the university, and its various nefarious adjuncts (the systematic demeaning of women on the basis of their gender; employment inequality; the evaluation of women on the basis of their appearance or qualities ‘appropriate’ to females), is you. Or, at least, it is people like you: senior academics at the top of their profession, men—usually—who set and maintain the culture in which others work and study.

I have known you for some time, in my capacity as your graduate student. During that time, it is fair to say that we got to know each other fairly well: hours and hours of conversations on everything from movies to food to child-rearing to sexuality, and the malaise of everyday life. I went to your place, met your family, had drinks with you: normal things that adults on good terms do together. I confided in you, you confided in me; you met my husband and professed friendship to us both. But then, as life sometimes does, things started to go a little awry for me. But you were a friend: you gave me advice and hugs and time and I appreciated that. Life is rarely so gentle: in the midst of these few weeks, I had something of a mental health breakdown and, as a friend, I told you about this. And that is where things went wrong.

The day after I told you, you felt it was appropriate to tell me about your own sexual proclivities, your fetishes for bondage and sadism. I was not overly troubled by this, certainly; we are adults and I am no stranger to various subcultures, including this one. Your timing, though, was strange: my husband could not understand why you were offering to teach us bondage techniques at our place. I was perturbed by the fact that you encouraged him to physically chastise me for some innocuous thing. I was also surprised that you felt it appropriate to send us photographs of some items in your house, items associated with torture and bondage. You invited us round to your place to ‘see’ all this stuff; you told me it would be fun to hang out with me like that. And so it went on, hours of messages over two nights, inappropriate comments and information about how you use your domination techniques to persuade students and others.

I do not suggest that any of this explains the prevalence of rape culture in the university. No. You know me better than to expect such gauche naivete: it is not your sexual preferences and bad timing that make you a danger to women in the university environment. Instead, it is this: when, as a friend, I might have expected support, you chose that moment of vulnerability to move in with your sexual fantasies.

Then, you turned on me. When we didn’t go along with your invites, you viciously cut me off. Over the next few days, systematically excluded me from the university, advised colleagues that I was vulnerable, volatile and unsafe to have around. You disclosed personal information about me to various parties in the university, blaming me for your distress. I cannot continue my studies, as has been long agreed, because of your sudden fears about having disclosed things about yourself that you think might damage your reputation. You forbade me from contacting you—but you contacted me several times—and insist that I collaborate with no-one in the department. You have fundamentally destroyed my life plans, disrupted my family life—and justified all this to your colleagues on the grounds that I am distressed, vulnerable and—‘therefore’—too unsettling to have in your department.

And that, Professor X, is why rape culture has become so endemic in the university environment. It is because men like you fundamentally believe that women like me—vulnerable, hurting, susceptible to claims of friendship or not—can be toyed with, dispensed with, and used as means to ends that are intended solely to protect you and your ill-gotten reputation. I would have kept your confidences, not for you but for the protection of your family and because, ultimately, I believe that people’s sexual proclivities are broadly their own business: until today, I resisted all my friends’ advice to protect myself, because I could not bear the thought that your misjudgements might negatively affect your family. But in keeping that silence, I allowed you to portray me to others as the person in the wrong, as the one who (in spite of my lowly status as a student and the supposed ‘high regard’ that you told me people in your centre held me in) was a risk to your department. It is my life that fractured and fell apart, not yours—and none of that mattered to you, because I am simply a disposable woman who deserves not protection, but predation, exclusion and opprobrium to ensure the ‘greater good’ of maintaining a man in his elevated, powerful position.

I wish you well, but I will not maintain my silence any longer. Women deserve better than this.

Today I (a female grad student) was discussing with my partner (a male grad student) some of the comments Ruth Chang makes about sexual harassment in her recent 3am interview. He was shocked at senior philosophers confessing to Chang that they don’t consider expressing romantic interest in a student to be particularly problematic, as he (reasonably) considers it to be wildly inappropriate. To be clear, everything he said was supportive, and he is very understanding of the issues women in philosophy face, but still two of the things he said (and especially my reactions to them) struck me as noteworthy.

1) “I can’t believe someone would really think that was okay!”
I reeled off the names of four people we know personally who we know to have expressed interest in students or junior colleagues, and in fact to have gone further than mere expressions of interest. (This includes one who person he knows harassed me as an undergraduate). He agreed that in some sense he knows that people do it, but still can’t get his head around the idea that they would think it is okay.

2) “Imagine if I was talking one-on-one with [senior member of staff] and she admitted that she was attracted to me. That would be so horrible and so inappropriate!”
This made me realise that even the most empathetic of male philosophers will have trouble fully understanding the extent of ‘what it’s like’, because I only recognised this point myself during our conversation: whenever I have ever had a meeting with a male member of staff I am on some level worried that they might express interest in me, or that I will realise that they are interested in me, or that they will think that I am interested in them. I can’t think of a single exception to this, and now I’m feeling exhausted at the prospect of a career filled with such stressful interactions.

In my doctoral program, the student who received the largest funding package had been involved in a long-term affair with a married, tenured professor. When she decided to accept a terminal masters degree in order to follow her fiancé to another school, that professor failed her defense. She received a degree from the other school, and doesn’t mention this experience on her cv.

There is fellow academic at my school who I like and admire as a friend and colleague, but I struggle endlessly with mixed emotions knowing that he lives his personal life in a highly misogynistic way.
He has had relationships and secret affairs with students, and made passes at students; some were his own students too.
When confronted about his sexual harrassment and relatiosnhips with students, he will deny it and claim that he doesn’t know where these “rumours” are coming from. However, he knows perfectly well exactly what is being spoken about. And if he knows that you know too, then rather than denying his behaviour he will attempt to justify it, claiming there was consent and denying any power imbalance.
His behaviour has been addressed by our school and he is no longer permitted to engage in friendships or events with students anymore. But rather than reflecting on his behaviour, now he instead dates students in other schools! These students sadly have no idea that they are a notch on the bed in a long line of graduate students – and I often wonder how this would effect their “consent”.
He actively seeks relationships that involve a clear power imbalance: the women are his students, they are siginificantly younger than him, they are underage, he is paying for their sustanence, he is in a position to advance their career, and so on.
And he often lies about these relationships to people who are concerned about the power differential. When female friends attempt to educate him on this, rather than avoiding future relationships with a power imbalance or seeking to equalise power in current relationships, he simply denies that it can exist.
We befriended a female student who was visiting from another university. She came to work with him (and others) and was deeply embarrassed to find out that people had assumed the academic work was a ruse to cover an affair. Of course, people’s assumptions were justified based on his past behaviour.
How can we respect someone as an academic, and as a colleague, and expect them to respect us as women in academia and in philosophy, when the way they behave in their personal life is riddled with subtle misogyny and abuse of power? When will academia be a safe place for women?

I started studying philosophy as an undergrad almost exactly 10 years ago, and have just finished my PhD and started a TT job. In all of this time, I’ve counted myself extremely lucky to have never dealt with any of the horror stories that so many other women on this blog have had forced upon them. To the contrary, I’d had some really exceptional male mentors who have been warm, kind, open, and supportive without ever making me feel in the least uncomfortable or treating me in any even remotely inappropriate way – and this has been especially important because I’ve always struggled with self-doubt in relationship to work, and thought about quitting many, many times. My undergraduate honors thesis advisor, especially, has always been my model of an ideal teacher and mentor – that is, until today. A friend from undergrad just sent me a text message telling me that he had gossip about this professor – apparently, he had not only married an ex student of his, but was seeing a student in my class while still married to her.

And it’s the next part that I don’t really know how to put into words. I feel sick to my stomach, and I’m doubting myself in a way that I haven’t in years. Not only was he my idol and my reason for wanting to be an academic as an 18-year-old – he was also the first person to show enthusiasm for my work, and that enthusiasm and belief continued to bolster me in moments of self-doubt all of the way through my PhD. And now I’m sitting here, crying at my computer and feeling sick to my stomach because I suddenly feel like I can’t trust one of my earliest and most formative reasons for trusting myself and my work. I worry that he didn’t think that my work was good at all – that I was just another potential student to sleep with. And even worse, a part of me worries that my work (or do I really mean “I”?) wasn’t good enough for him to think that I was worth sleeping with, since he never treated me in any even remotely inappropriate way. The last part is the worst because I don’t endorse that feeling at all – there is no part of me that thinks that a professor 20 years older than you wanting to sleep with you is a compliment. I hate that I can feel so unsure of myself so long after the fact, and I hate that I can’t shut up this voice in my head that is saying odious things that I can’t endorse but can’t ignore either.

I know just how minor this in comparison to virtually every other experience reported on this blog. Part of what terrifies me, though, is that I am suddenly struck by how much I can’t begin to imagine how destabilizing and terrible those experiences must be – if something this small, this indirect, and this long ago is making me feel so out of place in philosophy, how do so many of the women who have experienced so much worse ever stay? And when so many women do experience so much worse, how are there any left at all?

Since someone posted a story here about a philosophy department in Scandinavia, here’s another. I send this story because it is important to realize that however bad things are in the U.S., in some European departments things are much worse.

Some 12 years ago I had a falling out with a philosopher in my field, on the basis of ethical issues and also what I saw as a tendency toward sexual objectification of myself and others. A typical incident: once as chairman of the dept., he walked into a class I was teaching 45 minutes late and remarked: “I am here to inspect the merchandise.” There are many other incidents of this kind I could recount. At the time he had been having an affair with a student, who since left philosophy. I decided to base myself in another department, but suffered in the years since by being tarred as difficult, not only in his department, but in others.

Since then he has become a very powerful person in philosophy in this country, in spite of a poor publication record and in spite of continuing to use the graduate students as a dating pool. (So his recent affair with yet another graduate student, this time a very, very talented woman, also ended in her leaving philosophy. ) He also has had conflicts with many other colleagues in the years since his conflict with me. But like me, they always end up leaving the department.

FInally, in his capacity as chairman, he has conducted an open war with feminist philosophy and fields related to it.

Needless to say a female professor has never *ever* been hired in that department, of whatever AOS.

Nobody can do or say anything about this person because he has the administration on his side. If there were anything like a conversation about women in philosophy in this country, maybe his behavior toward female students could be checked, and other areas of philosophy—besides those related to his—could have a chance. But that conversation has not gotten started yet. There is just no way in at the moment.

Not to focus so much on this one person, my point is that because of the general attitude that prevails here, he can pretty much do what he wants. As a person of authority he is always give the benefit of the doubt.

It’s a tragedy.

I work in a small, relatively unproductive, unnoticed philosophy department. One of our tenured faculty members is in a committed relationship with one of his female students. He is her thesis and teaching supervisor. The relationship began shortly after she joined the department. My department tacitly condones this relationship by ignoring it. I find my department’s tacit condoning of this situation offensive and sexist. 1)It is unfair to her. As an Associate, he has all of the power. 2)It is unfair to the other students in the program. There is no doubt or question that she has and will receive special treatment. 3)It is unfair to other faculty. How can we be expected to grade her without bias? 4)It sends the wrong message to the few female students in the department. I have personally witnessed public displays of affection between the two. I think that it not only sends the wrong message to those of us within the department, but also to other departments.