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.

Male Anxiety in the Workplace: The Case of Academic Philosophy

In 1990, I began work at AT&T’s Bell Laboratories. My technical employment status was ‘Resident Visitor’; I was a ‘consultant’ sent to work at the Laboratories on a contingent basis. Because of this status, I was not required to attend the training sessions that were often set up for permanent employees. Off they went, while I, and the rest of the consulting crew stayed in our offices, attending to whatever it was we did. When my colleagues and friends returned, they complained bitterly and caustically about these trainings, these onerous impositions on their time and energy: they had been made to attend day-long seminars on ‘diversity,’ ‘affirmative action,’ ‘women in the workplace,’ ‘sexual harassment’ and the like.

Their contempt for these efforts was unvarnished: ‘a fucking waste of time,’ ‘useless,’ ‘just a bunch of moaning and whining,’ ‘the usual politically correct bullshit.’ They wondered, to a man–and I use that term advisedly–what would it all mean? What did ‘management’ want? How should they comport themselves? They were bewildered and anxious and angry: ‘It’s like you can’t crack a joke anymore without someone getting offended’; ‘Try being friendly with someone, and you’ll get cracked down on’. One older gentleman, with whom I had developed a bit of a friendship, complained to me that he when he called younger women ‘honey’ or ‘sweetheart’ , he meant it as a term of affection, not meant to be remotely insulting, patronizing or offensive; it was just how he interacted with that demographic. (I failed to point out to him that he used these terms more often for women of color.)

Listening to them, one would have been hard pressed to not imagine that a gigantic inquisitorial McCarthyite whip had been cracked, shedding skin and sending them scurrying for cover. Those whose protection was seemingly demanded by these trainings now became the focus for more suspicion and contempt: Will this woman complain about my language, linguistic or body? Will this black man accuse me of being patronizing? Oh, the inhumanity! The realm of social interaction, previously unsullied by exhortations to be more sensitive to assorted sensibilities, to problematic presuppositions, to the potential for prejudice-enforcing behavior, had been transformed into one of suspicion and worry; relationships, which would have flowered and bloomed without this malign intervention and chaperoning, were now doomed to wither. Why not just let things be as they are–when they seemed to have worked so well for everyone? Couldn’t the whiners and complainers just learn to live and let live?

I am reminded of that group of anxious men as I read Louise Antony‘s article at the Stone yesterday, noting the male anxiety triggered in academic philosophy by La Affaire Colin McGinn, in which a senior philosopher resigned his tenured post after being accused of inappropriate behavior by his female graduate student. As Antony notes, the MIT linguist  Steven Pinker wrote ‘that “such an action would put a chill on communication between faculty and graduate students and on the openness and informality on which scholarship depends.”’ And then, of course, there are the familiar worries from elsewhere:

Pinker’s reflexive and overheated reaction to the events in Florida is simply one precipitate of the fog of male anxiety that floats through the halls of academia. I’m always hearing from stressed-out men, worrying aloud what “all this fuss” about sexual harassment means for them. I’ve heard it at training sessions on university sexual harassment policy: “Does this mean I can’t even tell a woman that she looks nice?” I’ve heard it in coffee lounges: “Make sure you keep your door open when you’re talking to a woman student — you never know what she might say later.” And I’ve had it confided to me, with a sigh of regret, at conference happy hours: “I’m afraid now to form any relationships with female students — they might take it the wrong way.”

Unsurprisingly enough, in academia, just like it was at Bell Labs more than twenty years ago, the actual disciplinary record is the same: very few men have actually been complained about, and an even smaller number have had any action taken against them. Very few careers had been ruined; what had been, or could be, ruined was the atmosphere that had existed before, where all the squirming was done by women, or some other vulnerable minority, and where all the smirking and grinning was done by men. Yes, there was plenty of banter, some of it just the kind that adults engage in to take the edge of what might otherwise be a stilted social engagement. But in these very same engagements, the balance of power was always visible to all; if there were lines to be crossed it would only happen in one direction. How much give and take, the supposed fabric of banter, could really be spun out in these domains of unequal power?

Antony is right to note that the real effect of the heightened visibility of discourse about sexual harassment–or about other variants of discomfort and offense inducing behavior–is not as much legislative or punitive, as it is to induce an uncomfortable spotlight on the perpetrators and to place an expectation on them of real, substantive change in their behavior. That is onerous; it requires some serious introspection, some work on building new habits of speech and action, some effort directed toward sympathetic or empathetic listening; it requires working on the new, as yet not clearly understood or defined, parameters of new relationships; it requires the construction of a new space of discourse, with new guidelines and conversational implicatures. If male academic philosophers insist that ‘openness and informality’ be understood and construed only as specified by them, and that intellectually rewarding academic relationships cannot be formed in any other way, then they are guilty of several false dichotomies.

As Antony notes:

The real worry, I think, for men is that they will have to change their ways. They will have to monitor what they say to female students and colleagues. They will have to think twice before chatting up that attractive graduate student they see at a conference. They’ll have to stop relying on smutty double entendres to get laughs in their seminars.

So, yes, it is a burden. Having to change our ways always is.  So, since those folks who complain about diversity training and sexual harassment sensitivity sessions always set great store by plain speaking, it would not be untoward to direct at them, a simple and plain injunction: Deal with it. Change.

Colin McGinn and the Exploitation of the Philosophy Job Market

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.

Note: My previous posts on women in philosophy touch on related topics.

On The Lack of Women in Philosophy, Contd.

It’s not just me. It does seem there has been a lot of talk recently about women in philosophy: their absence, why they leave philosophy so early, the sexism and sexual harassment they face, and whether philosophy seems to do worse in this regard than other disciplines in the humanities or even science. (To jump into this debate, you could do worse than chase down some of the links available here through the excellent New APPS blog: discussions on the under-representation of women in edited volumes, conferences, the McGinn affair, for instance.)

I consider myself to have already made a contribution to this debate by my positing the Dickhead Theory as a possible explanation for the lack of women in philosophy. To wit, academic philosophy is overpopulated by male blowhards who seem to conceive of it as a contact sport and engage in public displays of obnoxious behavior at academic fora. Today, I want to embellish that claim just a bit in response to some of the discussion that was sparked by Rebecca Kukla’s suggestion that the adversarial nature of philosophy was something women could and should be able to handle:

I think that the whole idea that women are put off by or unsuited to the aggressive, argumentative style of philosophy is crap.

This has sparked a fairly extensive discussion so I’m definitely coming to this late, and possibly with very little, but let me press on regardless, mainly by way of anecdote. (A far more theoretically informed discussion can be found on the New APPS blog here and here. I broadly agree with Jennifer Saul that whether or not the aggressive style is something that women are comfortable with, its bad for philosophy, and with Eric Schliesser that modes of argumentation can be productive without being aggressive and that even if philosophy was adversarial in the past doesn’t mean it has to be now.)

So: the best and most useful and productive philosophy discussions I have participated in have not taken place at public fora like conferences or colloquia. They have taken place in private settings: a beer in a bar or at someone’s home, a discussion over a coffee somewhere. They have been intense in the best sense of the word: lots of ideas exchanged, arguments traded back and forth, positions questioned and examined extensively.  The contrast with the ‘public’ discussion of philosophy could not be more acute. There, the aforementioned Dickhead Theory finds ample confirmation.

The reasons for this, I think, are quite simple: philosophy as a discipline seems to set great store by performances in its public arenas: the forums, the conferences, the workshops, the colloquia. Here is where, apparently, you ‘make an impression’, where you posture. Its graduate students are highly insecure, worried about jobs and placement. They go to these venues hoping to make a visible impression; they have already received some instruction on how to perform from their ‘heroes’: the tenured (male) bigwigs who will write their letters of recommendation (and who once were graduate students just like them). The peacock effect in these settings then manifests itself in the visible display of coarsely demonstrated philosophical nous.

Take a discipline racked by deep insecurity about its worth compared to science, which finds its most pleasing self-image in imagining itself continuous with the natural sciences and aspires to their ‘hardness’, throw in a largely male population, add a desperate job market, a culture of uncritical hero worship of its luminaries, mix in a sphere of ostensible academic interaction used instead for preening and strutting and the academic equivalent of mating, and you have, I think, the makings of a domain, which will continue to remain hostile to women.

The Elusive Art of the Book Review

A dozen or so years ago, my first ‘official’ book reviews were published. Both of them had been commissioned–that sounds so grand!–by the APA Newsletter on Teaching PhilosophyPhilosophical Naturalism by David Papineau and What Is This Thing Called Science? by Alan Chalmers. (The always-ahead-of-the-curve APA website’s archive is incomplete and I cannot find copies of these reviews any more. Perhaps it’s just as well.) Back then, I was completing my dissertation and welcomed the opportunity to broaden my readings, develop some analytical writing skills and of course, add a few lines to my CV. My editor was happy with the reviews I sent in and suggested only exceedingly minor edits.

A year later, I wrote another review, this time of Theory and Method in the Neurosciences (Peter K. Machamer, Rick Grush, Peter McLaughlin (eds)), for the journal Metascience. My draft review was rejected by the editor: it supposedly read like a tedious listing and description of the table of contents. The editor had seized on a confusion that I still entertained about how to write a good book review: the step-by-step analysis of arguments or the broad, synoptic take. In the case of my current assignment, this confusion had been made worse by my reviewing a collection of essays rather than a unitary monograph. Suitably chastened, I revised the review to take on–hopefully–a more elevated and magisterial view. It was accepted, and I moved on.

In the intervening years, I’ve only written a few more reviews. Truth be told, I’ve not been approached too often, and I’ve not minded, as I’ve often felt myself lacking in time given my academic commitments and teaching loads at Brooklyn College. Moreover, I find myself not wanting to review philosophy books as much as novels or collections of essays; if I want to diversify my readings now, it’s in a direction away from philosophy, of which I get plenty during my teaching and academic writing. But ‘the literary market’ seems considerably harder to crack, and so I patiently wait for my first commission in this arena, and satisfy myself by writing the odd critical note here on this blog.

Still, my early experiences in writing book reviews and my subsequent reading of review essays and author-reviewer disputes in those hoary fora, the New York and London Reviews of Books, still prompts the question of what the ‘correct’ approach to writing a book review might be: the micro or the macro? (As described above. I’m leaving aside the question of whether the hilariously negative and scathing review–a la Strohminger of McGinn–serves any value whatsoever, other than confirming the popular impression of academics as highly educated squabbling children.)

The best reviews, of course, eschew the excesses of either approach: they disdain the grim plod through the minutiae of the text as well as the lofty ramble or learned filler that only glancingly or perfunctorily considers the book under review.  The former suffers on stylistic grounds and sometimes misses the forest for the trees; the latter on content, especially as it confirms its author as a blowhard.

Unsurprisingly, very few get the balance just right.

The Physics-Philosophy ‘Kerfuffle’

The ongoing spat between physicists and philosophers–sparked by David Albert’s negative review of Lawrence Krauss’ A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing–is the latest instance of a simmering conflict that seems to recur between the academic practitioners of discipline ‘X’ and philosophers who specialize in ‘philosophy of X.’

One kind of complaint made in these disputes is that made by Krauss about philosophers’ excessive sensitivity about encroachment. Roughly (in the case of physics): philosophers don’t like it when physicists deign to solve ‘philosophical problems’ in physics, ones that philosophers have deemed unanswerable by them. (In the context of philosophy of mind and neuroscience, see the bickering between Colin McGinn and VS Ramachandran in the New York Review of Books.) Here, philosophers consider practicing scientists too happy to accept a facile resolution of a genuine problem because they are not sufficiently aware of the philosophical niceties at play in solving it. The charge leveled here: ‘philosophical questions’ that are sought to be answered by science are first reformulated to make them so amenable.

Another kind of complaint, phrased in various forms, and directed at philosophers, runs roughly like this: ‘How can you do ‘the philosophy of X’ when you don’t specialize in X?’ The philosopher thus stands accused of lacking credentials, the appropriate graduate training or professional experience, and thus the appropriate sensitivity to subject matter; without such credentialing, the philosopher is handicapped in his investigations of the conceptual foundations of ‘X.’ This requirement often underwrites X-practitioners’ skepticism about philosophers: You don’t understand the work we do, and you don’t have the background or the experience to do so. (I suspect this forms a subtext to the attitudes expressed by Krauss.) Unsurprisingly, the most vigorous instances of this sort of skepticism about philosophers’ competence to investigate the foundations of ‘X’ are expressed by members of scientific disciplines: science, conducted in a technical, specialized language, requires an immersion in its particulars and methods before it can be philosophized about. The ideal philosopher of physics would be a physicist himself, one who could wax philosophical about a subject he is intimately familiar with. Bohr, Einstein, for instance, in their philosophical moments, arguing about quantum completeness or the measurement problem, would be archetypes of this, as would, say, Sheldon Glashow arguing against string theory.

Now, it is not uncommon to find philosophers of ‘X’–where ‘X’ is some science–who are competent in ‘X;’ they have received some training or earned some experience in it. (David Albert for instance.) Most philosophers that write on these specialized domains are competent in them–without being experts capable of producing interesting results in that field by themselves.  Physicists then, might well doubt that a ‘competent-in-physics’ philosopher could deign to pronounce on the foundations of their discipline. But it may be that this competency is all that is required in order to tackle the questions the philosopher is interested in; perhaps the abstraction of these questions–and their answers–make them amenable to the philosopher.

These considerations should suggest to us that the most perspicuous response to disputes of this sort is to focus on the nature and method of philosophical and scientific question-asking-and-answering. That, plus close attention to the intertwined history of philosophy and science,  would do much to banish the rancor needlessly on display in this latest instance of academic turf warfare. The former inquiry would clarify how the framings of questions differ in philosophy and science and influence their notions of what kinds of answers are considered reasonable. The latter inquiry would show how questions in the sciences either grew out of philosophical speculation or are original to the sciences themselves and how philosophical questions, even after generating fields of scientific inquiry, can persist in forms facilitative of persistent engagement.

A Friendly Amendent to Nina Strohminger’s McGinn Review

Nina Strohminger–a post-doctoral fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics–recently wrote a scathing review of Colin McGinn‘s book The Meaning of Disgust. Thanks to Strohminger’s flamboyant cuffing of McGinn around the ears, her review earned her some well-deserved ‘net fame. I have not read the book so I cannot comment on it but the review does make for quite an entertaining read. I say that as someone who has mixed feelings about such ‘takedowns’ in the academic context; I have no such compunctions when it comes to bad movies (see below). Still, McGinn has dished out plenty in the past, so he should be used to this sort of jousting. (An interesting subtext: Strohminger is a newly minted Ph.D from the University of Michigan’s Cognition and Cognitive Neuroscience program; McGinn is a senior professor in a related field. Let’s hope McGinn has the grace to retaliate only in print.)

Strohminger’s review begins:

In disgust research, there is shit, and then there is bullshit. Colin McGinn’s book belongs to the latter category.

From there it moves on to:

McGinn’s view of disgust is insistently mysterian: not merely ignorant or unenlightening but obfuscatory. Baroque, eye-catching explanations are given precedence over parsimony, evidence, or even common sense….Another property of the book, of which potential readers should be aware, is its unintentional hilarity. The humor derives less from the unblushing content than from the unblushing purpleness of his prose.

And so on. You get the picture. There is however, a missed opportunity in the review, and it occurs when Strominger catches McGinn being sloppy and sexist:

McGinn suggests that inorganic items—a list which includes cars, houses, and, apparently, fine silks—lack the ambivalence of human companions, so we can love them wholeheartedly, unencumbered by the physical disgust that attends our love for children and romantic partners. Diamonds, being forever, do not remind us of death. He muses: “Is this why women tend to love jewelry so—because of a relatively high level of bodily self-disgust? Just asking.” Is Colin McGinn a sexist, penis-gazing blowhard? Just asking!

Strohminger’s retort to the line she quotes is good, but I think it could have been better. By placing an exclamation mark at the end of the ‘Just asking’ Strohminger defuses her counter-volley’s rhetorical impact significantly. With that punctuation, Strohminger’s retort looks a little hurried and nervous, one quickly made, and then withdrawn. McGinn’s ‘Just asking’ ends with a period; its offensiveness is a function of the baldness of its statement. It is the period that makes clear his ‘just’ asking is insincere.

Consider now:

Is Colin McGinn a sexist, penis-gazing blowhard? Just asking.

This, I think, is the right mirror to McGinn’s line. I do not know if reviews ever appear in revised editions; but if they ever do, then Strohminger should take the opportunity to ditch the exclamation mark, replace it with a period, and email McGinn and myself a copy. (Come to think of it, I don’t think Strohminger’s review has been published yet; time yet to revise!)

Note: Thanks to reading around the McGinn review, I stumbled on Anthony Lane’s hilarious review of George Lucas’ disastrous Star Wars episode 3. The review is genuinely funny and Lucas deserves every single word in there.