The Good Advisor

For those who inexplicably did not read my last post on the topic, Colin McGinn is a relatively bigwig philosopher who resigned from University of Miami rather than face an investigation into sexually suggestive emails sent to a female graduate student. He seems intent on assuring his total self-destruction with a series of increasingly unhinged blog posts. According to McGinn, he is misunderstood. “Lesson: reported speech is a bitch (a female dog—be careful how you paraphrase me!).” Those emails about hand jobs were only jokes. Jokes for sophisticated people. If graduate students were like they used to be, they’d totally get it. The bitch — that’s a female dog, people! don’t make any insinuations here! — set him up.

Forget the accusations against him. This other post alone means he should not be supervising grad students. 

The student (hereafter NN) and I were engaged on what we called “the Genius Project”. The purpose of the genius project was to make NN into a truly original and outstanding young philosopher (one who could expect to find an attractive job later).

He seems serious about this. The Genius Project. Like Plato teaching Aristotle? Or maybe just Russell and Wittgenstein.  (See the funniest fake twitter feed ever here; and great advice from Feminist Philosophers: “Apparently, it was all in the name of pedagogy! Pro tip: Be cautious of any pedagogical approach that requires a safe word.”).

Note that he states the goal of the Genius Project is her eventual employment. You may be wondering why a female graduate student would say, “Yes, please do make me a genius.” Or why she might wait before reporting inappropriate emails. If your bigwig advisor implies in your letter of recommendation that you are not the cat’s meow, then you are pretty much guaranteed not to get a job. So. NN’s career hinges on pleasing McGinn. He has made it clear that “the Genius Project” will be what gets her a job. Stick with me, kid, and I’ll write in your letter of recommendation that you are a truly original etc. etc. Or even a genius.

Part of this project involved techniques for encouraging unconventional thinking, and the concept of “taboo-busting” was deemed helpful towards this end.

When I read about a 63 year old man assuring a young woman she needs to break her taboos in order for her to really express her genius, I feel like I’m watching a Woody Allen movie. Note the passive voice “was deemed helpful.” I’m guessing she didn’t do the deeming.

The man who was my advisor, whom I will call Paul, is just awesome. He is a male more than twenty years older than me. In our time working together, he has never treated me as a project. He has never implied, cult-leader-style, he could make me into something that I could never become without him. (Although I do actually think I wouldn’t have finished my dissertation without him). He always behaves quite humbly, and points out his own failings readily. And good God, he never once suggested we break taboos in order to free my genius. Now that I think about it, he has most inspired me by giving very pragmatic advice about how to work most efficiently. Not by teaching me to be a genius, but just to work harder and better and how to navigate the profession.

…I sent NN two short email messages, spaced over three months, which contained some (mild) sexual content, which was related to the seminar of mine NN had attended and which was relevant to work we were doing together. This content pertained to the hand in relation to human evolution and human life (including sexual life), and referred back to material discussed in the seminar I gave and which NN enthusiastically attended. These emails were received in the spirit in which they were intended (certainly no complaint was voiced about them), and they gave rise to some mild amusement between us over the months.

Paul and I, too, work on issues that touch on evolution, and so sexual selection and sexual attractiveness have come up. Yet I received no emails about hand jobs. Our discussions aren’t humorless (he’s a dry wit type), but it’s never the sort of joking that one could even possibly mistake as being sexually suggestive.

It should also be noted that it was explicitly agreed between us that if anything in our relationship was felt to be unacceptable it could be stopped simply by saying so.

Imagine you are NN. Your future depends on whether you make your advisor happy. Perhaps you might be hesitant to say something “in your relationship” is unacceptable despite such an explicit agreement. An advisor who does not realize this has no business advising.

I can imagine some men thinking there’s no way to mentor a younger woman without being misinterpreted by the thought police. But it can be done! My advisor indeed did it. Here’s how to be an advisor without engaging in a Genius Project. More specifically, how an older male can mentor a younger woman non-creepily.

1) Take her actual work seriously. Paul has read drafts and drafts and drafts of my work. There are some papers of mine he might have edited 15 times. Seriously. 2) Have high but reasonable expectations. When I became a mother, a lot of faculty in the department assumed I’d leave philosophy. Including women. He never acted like that was even a possibility. He struck a balance of having high expectations of work production and understanding that sometimes my kids would slow me down. 3) The art of criticism. He is really good at knowing just when to give his occasional “You’re pretty good at this!” (note: NOT the next Kant) and “go knock ’em dead” talks. And when to say one of my ideas is bunk. 4)  Meet professionally. Paul meets with me frequently (still! even though it’s no longer part of his job!) and talks about philosophy and how to get a job. The meetings are in his office. 5) Here’s a rule of thumb: if you think it might possibly be construed by stupid bitches as sexually suggestive, then don’t do it.

Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.


  1. Rose, I’m grateful you wrote this.

    But I have to admit, it boggles the mind (still, after all I’ve been through) that some — not all, but some — people need to be instructed on how to not be sexually predatory.

    My first thought is that it’s not worth the bother, that those who seek sexual favor via control will not change. But then I realize that it is worth the lesson. Perhaps non-predators benefit from the lesson; perhaps it will help them better recognize the behavior and not so lightly brush it off. Perhaps prey who are subjected to this will learn to speak up more quickly.

    In either case, it’s disturbing that these situations often go on well past the comfort zone without the needed confrontation to end them.

    (This was originally written with men as predator, woman as prey. That did seem unfair. Yet that’s also the greater reality.)

  2. Maybe he’s teaching her to do tech support at an Apple store.

  3. First, I’ll say that my comments on the last thread were probably too sympathetic of Mr. McGinn because I was too willing to suspend judgment. I had read the update, so I should’ve been more critical.

    Second, it does sound like you have a great advisor. Mine, too, was/is great. For me, sexism wasn’t an issue (unless you count the fact that all my committee members were men, I was(am) a man, and the only woman who attended my defense was my wife….but that’s a different issue).

    Third, I recognize what you’re saying about professors assuming that when you became a mother, that you’d quit grad school. I’ve heard of similar assumptions about other grad students in my department, too (not to the same degree….but then, it’s not something that affected me directly so it may have happened much more often and I simply didn’t notice). I will say that my advisor is personally very outspoken and on record about accepting people’s choices to start families while in grad school. He and his wife had children very early in their grad career (possibly even when they were undergrads, although I’m unclear about the timeline), and he thinks academia should accommodate people who make such choices.

    That said, I think a good advisor, at least potentially, leaves open the door for plan B strategies that include quitting the program. I say this not because I believe women or men should quit their program when they become parents, but because I probably (or at least possibly) would have been better served by quitting the program a year or two after I started instead of what I did do, work on it for 10 years. I made my own decisions and I don’t blame anyone (and if I hadn’t stayed in, I wouldn’t have met my wife….so a lot of good came out of it), but I’m do think quitting, while always an option in a free society like ours, has to be a discussable option.

  4. Dr. McGinn should be reminded of Rule One. Then of Rule Two.

      • Rule One: Shut up.

        Rule Two: No, seriously. SHUT. UP.

        • on the plus side he’s probably nuked having any grad students to creep on in the future.

      • If you’re using a club, you’re doing it wrong.

  5. “You’re pretty good at this!” (note: NOT the next Kant)

    It would be very ill-advised for a male professor to tell a female student “You are the next Kant.”

  6. “I don’t understand what the problem is. None of the other female students I’ve pulled this with ever complained, and I’ve used this line a lot over the years.”

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