La Affaire Colin McGinn AKA the Handjob That Might or Might Not Have Been, has roiled the philosophy world for some time now. (A couple of Chronicle of Higher Education articles might bring you up to speed; here and here. Because those articles are behind a pay-wall you might do better to google ‘Colin McGinn miami sexual harassment’. An indication of just how old this news is may be gauged from the fact that The New York Times has finally deigned to cover it.)
The most salutary effect of this sordid affair has been the spotlight it has shone on the status of women in academic philosophy: the environment the discipline provides, the levels of sexual harassment, and so on.
I’d like to make a brief note of a factor that I think contributes to the kind of situation McGinn and his student found themselves in.
Philosophy is–like many other humanities disciplines–notorious for its impoverished job market. (I think I might have noted on this blog that in my two years of job hunting at philosophy departments, I sent 114 applications and received precisely zero calls for an interview.) An adviser’s letter of recommendation and his ability and willingness to go the extra mile in ‘promoting’ a graduate student’s job application still counts for a great deal. This results in a great deal of behavior that is ripe for exploitation by a less than conscientious faculty member: obsequious name-dropping, aggressive socializing–very often fueled by alcohol–and transparent networking. The annual meeting of the American Philosophical Association–where job interviews are conducted–is an unbridled schmooze-fest, as are most post-colloquia receptions. (I still appreciate the first-name informality that is encouraged in the discipline even as I am appalled by the stories or rumors I have heard of gropes, grabs and fumbles following a beer or wine session involving professors and students.)
This, to put it mildly, is a state of affairs primed perfectly for a variety of encounters that can go wrong. Professors are likely to imagine that they are God’s chosen creations, dispensing favors from on high, while graduate students might indulge in self-abnegation, regarding themselves as lowly creatures that need to grovel, wheedle and flatter in order to get by. (If you wanted to really get crude, you could say this was a buyer’s market.)
The McGinn affair shows off the professorial side of this: McGinn’s blog posts reveal a man who has conceived of himself as a suave intellectual combination of Svengali and Henry Higgins, ushering his simpering debutante ward across the threshold of philosophical maturity. Conversely, his graduate student, conditioned by the behavior that was possibly visible to her, might have realized too late that the parameters of the relationship she was engaged in were inappropriate.
Little can be done about the job market and I do not think informality in interactions between professors and students should be discouraged.
But one simple change might help: it would be great to have more women in philosophy that could act as mentors to its female graduate students.