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.