More on ‘Male Anxiety’ in Academic Philosophy

Daniel Mullin comments on my post from yesterday about ‘male anxiety’ in the workplace–in particular, in academic philosophy departments–and describes his strategy for dealing with an atmosphere in which there is heightened sensitivity about sexual harassment:

Since that time, I’ve considered ANY interaction with a female student as a potential minefield to be avoided if possible. I certainly kept my office door open during consultation and only met with female students during office hours. I was a little more casual with male students, sometimes meeting them at a campus coffee shop if, for example, they had class during my office hours. Ironically, then, I suspect that ‘male anxiety’ does not foster more equality, but is more likely to result in preferential treatment of male students by male professors. I still consider my policy a prudent one, but it’s unfortunate that female students had less access to my time than did male students. Sadly, however, the practical effect of male anxiety might be that female students don’t get the best out of male professors which may contribute to an already existing problem: the dearth of women in the discipline.

It is not immediately clear to me that the precautionary measures that Mullin (and his adviser) describe should lead to a situation in which male professors accord ‘preferential treatment’ to male students. Meeting students during office hours, or by appointment on school premises, or conducting all discussions–the ones that do not require a private hearing–in an office with open doors, don’t seem to entail zero contact with female students, and neither do they suggest that all avenues for discussion with them have been blocked. And of course, they do not preclude careful and detailed comments on papers and respectful conversations in academic fora and the classroom.

More problematic is Mullin’s assertion that he considers ‘ANY interaction with a female student as a potential minefield to be avoided if possible.’ This is roughly equivalent to saying ‘I consider ANY female student to be potentially an irrational actor who will make false, career-destroying accusations against me.’ This seems like a very prejudicial attitude to maintain toward women students; it makes it seem as if false accusations by them and destroyed careers are the norm in academia. Are they? Are female students–especially those in philosophy–especially prejudiced against their male professors? So much so that they have conducted a vindictive smear campaign against them?

Again, it must reiterated, it is a false dichotomy to suggest that unless and until male professors can interact with their female students in a host of intimate, possibly problematic, situations that there cannot be fruitful academic interaction between the two. To suggest this is to paint a curiously impoverished picture of the numerous modes, possibilities and venues for meetings and discussions between professors and students. If Mullin could not meet on a campus coffee shop with his female students, could he have met them in the department lounge or common room? Or on the quad? Or is the fear that a student will insist on a private meeting and then turn around and make a false accusation of sexual harassment? The picture of the female student that emerges from these anxious responses is not a flattering one.

It is significant that Mullin mentions his adviser giving him the–very sound!–advice to ‘be conscious of what [he] said to female students. ‘ Indeed, all professors should be careful of what they say to their students: we occupy positions of power; we often set examples by our behavior and speech. Professors, like other folks, can also make racist and sexist speech; why shouldn’t we be cognizant of the effects of our words and actions?

As I indirectly noted in my past yesterday, what started as a problem about sexual harassment of women in the workplace can turn very quickly turn instead into one about ‘fearful’ men in the workplace, whose needs now must be attended to. The most substantive effect of this is, if Mullin is to be believed, is that women have suffered even more. They needn’t have, but they might, according to this account. Perhaps the women should have not complained so that business as usual could have proceeded?

Finally, Mullin suggests that ‘the academy is already doing more than enough to make men hyper-conscious of the dire consequences of even seemingly innocent interactions with female students.’ The crucial point is whether this ‘hyper-consciousness’ is leading to better behavior or just the anxious reactions that I have described and discussed. If it’s the latter, then we haven’t made any progress.

7 comments on “More on ‘Male Anxiety’ in Academic Philosophy

  1. danielmullin81 says:

    Hi Samir,

    It’s just ‘Mullin’, no ‘s’. But ‘Daniel’ will do. If I may clarify my comment, it’s obviously not the case that I had no interaction with female students. I encouraged them to participate in classroom discussion, communicated with them via email, and in other fora as you suggest. That’s far from treating all women as irrational actors. I should hope the context of the comment makes it clear that I simply maintained a (in my opinion) prudent policy for interacting with female students outside of class. This was to indemnify myself against risk and make the nature of the interaction clear to both the student and any outsiders. I agree that the risk of any student making allegations was really very low – and I never had any incidents – but in light of what happened to my adviser, I erred on the side of caution. Was that an over-reaction on the part of a young academic? Possibly. If any female students were poorly served by the policy, I regret it. However, that speaks to my point that female students may not be well-served by anxious male professors.

    In saying this, I’m not suggesting “that unless and until male professors can interact with their female students in a host of intimate, possibly problematic, situations that there cannot be fruitful academic interaction between the two.” I actually never found the measures I took to establish professional dialogue to be particularly onerous. I agree with you that men who behave badly should be called out and made to change. My point is simply that men who don’t behave badly also change, and in ways that don’t necessarily make them better professors.

    You say the following:

    “It is significant that Mullins [sic] mentions his adviser giving him the–very sound!–advice to ‘be conscious of what [he] said to female students. ‘ Indeed, all professors should be careful of what they say to their students: we occupy positions of power; we often set examples by our behavior and speech. Professors, like other folks, can also make racist and sexist speech; why shouldn’t we be cognizant of the effects of our words and actions?”

    I’m not sure why this is ‘significant’ as though it’s telling of some deep character flaw. As I said in my original comment, I see nothing but sound advice in what my adviser said. I was always very conscious of what I said, realizing that I’m not immune from slipping up on occasion. What puzzled me was Antony’s implication – unless I badly misread her — that such male anxiety is unjustified or an example — which you reiterate — of men trying to make it all about their needs which must now be attended to. Is it even possible that some of it is justified? Just asking. Also, I’m pretty clearly not saying that women who are harassed or discriminated against should just suffer in silence so that the boy’s club can be maintained. I’m frankly surprised that you drew that conclusion from my comment. It’s certainly not the most charitable interpretation.

    Finally, I agree that “The crucial point is whether this ‘hyper-consciousness’ is leading to better behavior or just the anxious reactions that I have described and discussed. If it’s the latter, then we haven’t made any progress.” I suspect that those men who are inclined to behave badly aren’t going to change as a result of such hyper-consciousness. Indeed, your own examples seem to indicate that the point of sensitivity training is largely lost on them. Nevertheless, they should change. Again, however, men who don’t behave badly also change in ways that might hurt their pedagogy. I just wanted to point out this unintended consequence.

  2. Anna says:

    More in response to Daniel Mullins: Perhaps this is a simplification of the matter, but I don’t think so. Look, if the (mostly white) male philosophy professors find it so difficult not to interact with women (both students and faculty, although given power differentials, the student issue is more pressing) in ways that are ethically questionable and potentially detrimental to their careers, just ask yourselves this simple question: Is the way I am conducting myself with professionally-subordinate female X something that would survive the clarity of daylight (and, you know, other gazes), or is this something that would be, say, morally alarming, once out in the open? I’m just a simple girl, but I find that when I feel the necessity to hide a behavior or a relationship, then this is a sign that I, at the very least, ought to reassess what the hell I am doing, with whom, and why.

    • danielmullin81 says:

      As I said in my comment above, I didn’t find it onerous to interact with female students in ways that were not ethical questionable or potentially detrimental to my career. (The past tense doesn’t indicate that I now find it difficult; just that I’m no longer teaching.) I would espouse your criterion for conducting professional relationships. If it isn’t something you don’t want to see the light of day, you shouldn’t be doing it.

      • danielmullin81 says:

        Sorry about the double negation. The last line should read “If it isn’t something you want to see the light of day, you shouldn’t be doing it.”

  3. Scu says:

    I just wanted to thank you for your posts, and share that I made some commentary about these posts over at my blog, http://criticalanimal.blogspot.com/2013/09/inappropriate-environments-is-bad-for.html

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