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.