Wednesday, July 24, 2013

View #10

Remember when we were doing Views from your Window? I kind of let the project die, but there were a few submissions that I didn't get to. One of the ones I didn't get to was my favorite, and this whole time I've been sad that I didn't put it up. So I'm putting it up now.


Submitted by Wendy Pepper

Middleburg, Virginia

8:20 p.m.

January 27, 2012

--Mr. Zero

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Should Phillis Bail?

An anonymous Smoker writes: 
Imagine a philosophy PhD student - call her Phillis -  who is about half way through her well-ranked program. Phillis is a bright student whose adviser thinks highly of her. She wouldn't fit a description like "best student this adviser has had in the last five years" but nevertheless she's a promising scholar in her mid to late-20s working in an area of philosophy that is high in demand, to the extent that jobs in philosophy are highly demanded. 
Further imagine that Phillis finds herself in the following circumstances with the following psychological profile: She has friends and family on both the west and east coast and would prefer to live near one group of them to not living near either group somewhere in the middle of the country. She doesn't currently want to own a house, nor does she want to start a family right now, but she wants to keep those options open in the not-too-distant future. She finds joy in the arts, professional sports, fine dining, the outdoors, etc. She finds philosophy intrinsically rewarding but she's not a true-believer, as she can imagine finding fulfillment doing other things, too. She has little work experience outside philosophy, however, and is worried that she is, to some extent, stuck on the philosophy-trajectory because of this. She also expects that if she were to leave philosophy she would regret not fulfilling her goal, but she doesn't expect that the regret would be debilitating. She is also mildly frustrated living on a graduate student wage and has come to find the solitariness of philosophical work a bit exhausting. Again, though, she not infrequently finds satisfaction in doing philosophy. 
Question: Does it make sense for Phillis to continue pursuing philosophy professionally, given the awful state of the job market? Why or why not? 
Go ahead and substitute for 'make sense' whatever normative terminology you find most useful (e.g. 'rational', 'the thing to do', etc). 
Surely some philosopher (you perhaps) has fit Phillis' description at some point in their lives. And if not, surely some philosopher who is paid to try and sort out how people ought to live would have some insight to share.
I don't really know what Phillis should do, and I don't really feel qualified to comment. But that's never stopped me before, so here's what I sort of think. To me, it seems like Phillis might be better off if she bailed on philosophy. Tenure line jobs are hard to come by, and it's even tougher if one is picky about being on the coast. If she can find a tenure-line job at all, she's probably going to wind up in Evansville or Des Moines or someplace. And if she wouldn't mind it too much, and wouldn't have a crushing sense of failure and regret that she didn't stick with it, and if there are other things about philosophy she finds unsatisfying or frustrating, and she can find something else on one of the coasts, maybe she ought to bail. 

But look. I don't know. I would say that my experience on the job market has been a real struggle, but I would not say that I regret my decision to pursue this career. And I don't think I'll end up regretting it, even if I end up giving up on it. Not that this really means anything. Your mileage may vary. 

On the other hand (back to the first hand?), I sometimes think about my friends and family who still live in and around the city we grew up in, and I am nearly overcome with insane jealousy. I guess my mileage may vary, too. 

--Mr. Zero

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Some Things I Still Don't Understand About the McGinn Case

I have gone back and forth about whether to publish this post or not. There'd be something I didn't understand, so I'd write about it a little, then decide not to publish it and put it away. Then something else would come up, and I'd write about it a little, then put it back away. And so on. Interest in the case, as evidenced by our comment section, has waxed and waned several times. And McGinn's recent posts raise some interesting points. So I figured, what the hell. Readers who are sick of this shit should feel free to skip it--and let's be serious, maybe so should the rest of us. This is none of my business, and it's probably none of yours.

Anyways, here are some things I still don't understand about the McGinn case.
  1. At the University of Miami, under what circumstances would a faculty member be required to disclose a consensual but non-sexual relationship to his or her superiors and withdraw from evaluative authority? The Miami faculty handbook says, "romantic, amorous, or sexual," but (as McGinn has pointed out) that's not too specific. 
    1. Suppose the senior person wanted a sexual relationship with the junior person, but didn't act on this desire and was able to successfully keep it to him- or herself. Disregarding practical difficulties with enforcement, would the person be required to disclose and/or withdraw? [My guess: no]
      1. On the other hand, if we suppose that the senior person is secretly in love with the junior person, then I suspect that the senior person would be required to disclose and withdraw--although this would defeat the purpose of being secretly in love. But that just shows that you shouldn't be secretly in love with your graduate students. Literally: if you are, you have an obligation not to be.
    2. Suppose the senior person wanted a sexual relationship, suggested this to the junior person, and then the junior person declined. Does the disclose-and-withdraw requirement apply there? [My guess: possibly, yes. Maybe. Not entirely sure. It depends?]
    3. Suppose that, according to the senior person, the relationship could be correctly (if cryptically) described as an "intellectual romance" that was not at all sexual in nature. Does the disclose-and-withdraw requirement apply in that kind of case? [My guess: I have no idea because I don't know what that even means.]
  2. What was the basis for this (potential?) charge? Why did the University think that McGinn was obligated to disclose the relationship? Based on what I've been led to suspect is the evidence, this isn't the most obvious charge, after all.
    1. I think I understand the non-McGinn side of the story, thanks to a recent anonymous commenter. (Who, of course, may or may not be on the level. Who knows? Not me.) According to this comment, the university initially approached McGinn with this charge because when the RA turned over the incriminating emails, she submitted only those that contained McGinn's (alleged) advances and stuff, and did not simultaneously turn over emails or other evidence of her having declined (in spite of the fact that this evidence (allegedly) existed). This meant that although the University could see that there was an apparent sexual aspect to the relationship, in that he had (allegedly) proposed sex, it could not immediately determine that it was not consensual, or that it had persisted despite her objections. This meant that it could not sustain charges of sexual misconduct or harassment at that time.
    2. Now, maybe that's what happened and maybe it isn't. I don't know--I'm not Columbo. But I can at least follow the logic. On McGinn's version, though, I can't see how the University's behavior makes any sense. I can't see where there's any policy at Miami that says you have to disclose and withdraw from positions of evaluative authority over your friends or your mixed-doubles partner or whatever. If McGinn's version of the story is true, why would anyone have thought that he was required to disclose and withdraw? 
  3. McGinn says that the President of the University of Miami has the power to overrule the Faculty Senate, and can unilaterally declare that, say, sexual harassment has occurred even if the FS finds that it didn't. Where does this come from? The UM faculty handbook contains a detailed description of their disciplinary procedures, (I'm looking at § B4.9, pp. 29 - 33) but I can't find any mention of this power. 
  4. In Edwin Erwin's letter to Seth Zweifler, who is the author of both of the CHE articles about the case, Erwin indicates that it is his view that "most of" the second article "is very fair to [McGinn]," although some portions of it misrepresent the case against him. These portions misrepresent the case by suggesting that it was about sexual harassment when, according to Erwin, it was really just about McGinn's alleged failure-to-disclose and withdraw. 
    1. But as I read it, the suggestion of sexual misconduct has been present from the very beginning. It pervades both of the CHE pieces, and virtually all of the subsequent commentary. As far as I can tell, there has been literally no mention of the failure-to-disclose charge other than McGinn's own complaints that the case about him has been misrepresented, and my occasional commentary about it in which I wonder what in the hell that's all about. I don't see how anything anyone other than McGinn has said could be taken to suggest that this is anything other than a sexual misconduct case. And the bulk of what McGinn himself has said about it (apart from his explicit denials, that is) seems to suggest the same thing. 
    2. And so I don't understand why Erwin and McGinn (in virtue of the way he has approvingly reposted the Erwin letter) would be willing to say that "Most of [the second CHE] article is very fair to Colin". If they see things how they say they see things, they'd have to think that virtually all of the CHE's reporting on the case is deeply unfair. 
  5. I was reading McGinn's recent post, in which he reprints his initial response  to the University to the failure-to-disclose charge. 
    1. Reason 1 doesn't strike me as very strong. If a disclosure-requiring relationship exists, that one or the other (or both) of the relata do not wish to disclose it makes no difference whatsoever. Disclosure and withdrawal from evaluative authority protects both parties from a variety of potential negative effects, including a lot of the things McGinn mentions later on.
      1. Another weird thing about this is the implication that he and the RA had a discussion about whether he should disclose and withdraw. If so, then the existence of this discussion indicates that there was some question as to whether he should disclose and withdraw, and that it was thought by at least one of them to be worth discussing. If it's worth discussing, maybe it's worth discussing with someone who has a clearer understanding of the policy than McGinn claims to have. If the policy is as unclear as McGinn thinks it is, maybe he got it wrong.
      2. And I think it matters when this alleged discussion took place. Before or after the "handjob" email? Before or after the alleged request for sex? Makes a difference.
    2. Reasons 2 through 8 strike me as fairly compelling, but only if you construe them as reasons not to begin a disclosure/withdrawal-requiring relationship with the student. Construed as reasons not to disclose an existing disclosure-requiring relationship, they are very weak. 
    3. I don't understand reason 9--it is absolutely mystifying. I can't see anything in the relevant section of the UM faculty manual that might be interpreted as precluding the coauthoring papers, or the making of positive statements about the person in a general way. What's he talking about? 
    4. Reason 10 seems to me to assume facts not in evidence, given McGinn's own claims that he's not sure what the regulation means. McGinn says he doesn't think the relationship warranted disclosure/withdrawal. I don't know if he's right, but according to several people who have seen the emails, McGinn made sexual jokes involving her performing sex acts and suggested that they have sex. I don't know if that's true, but I also don't see a way to make sense of the University's position if it's not. (See item 2.1.) And McGinn's denials seem to be more semantical than categorical. And since McGinn admits that he doesn't understand the policy very well--he finds it incomprehensibly vague--I'm not sure I find his opinion here particularly trustworthy.
  6. Another recent post uses a hypothetical discussion about a nuclear attack on Iran as a prop to illustrate the difference between proposing a course of action and merely entertaining it. This post seems to indicate that the "sex three times" incident reported in the second CHE article actually happened, but not quite as reported. McGinn doesn't specifically say what he's talking about, so it's hard to be certain if that's it. But he seems to be saying that he did not literally propose sex, but merely was willing to entertain the possibility of sex in order to be assured that it was not a good idea and that it was not even the least bad of some set of alternatives. 
    1. For one thing, why does everything McGinn says about the case have to be couched in riddle and metaphor? Why can't he just tell his side of the story in plain, literal language? Maybe this is epistemically questionable, but the fact that he is unable or unwilling to do this makes it very hard for me to see things his way. 
    2. For another thing, under what circumstances would it make any sense at all to "entertain" this possibility? I think I understand why a top government official might be willing to entertain the possibility of a nuclear strike against Iran, if only to immediately rule it out so that the discussion can move on to more viable proposals. Especially if the goal was self-consciously to discuss the pros and cons of all possible courses of action. 
      1. But I don't see why it would be necessary for a professor to entertain the possibility of having sex with his research assistant, in order to assess the pros and cons of that course of action, on the way to consideration of more viable proposals. 
      2. And I don't see why it would be necessary to discuss specific numbers of sexual encounters as individual alternatives. (The "n times" remark. Maybe I'm misinterpreting.) Maybe that was supposed to make it funny.
      3. And I don't see why it would be necessary to include the research assistant in these discussions--seems like it would be a pretty bad idea. Suppose you're the high-ranked government official who's trying to find a solution about Iran. Suppose that you're having the discussion in which you entertain the possibility of nuking them. Suppose that, for some reason, you have not made this discussion private between you and your national security team or whoever, and that you have literally included  the Iranian government in this conversation. How easy is it going to be to convince them that this discussion of nuking them was entirely innocent, and that you were just contemplating it, were not suggesting it, and there's no reason to take it as a serious proposal? I think it would be hard. 
      4. And I don't see how an intelligent person could be surprised if other people were to miss the crucial detail that he was merely entertaining the possibility, and not actually suggesting it. Or, if the person didn't believe him when he said he was  merely entertaining it without intending in any way to suggest it. It seems to me that a discussion like that is all but guaranteed to generate misunderstanding. And that the kind of misunderstanding it would generate is likely to get a person fired and/or divorced. It seems to me that "entertaining" a possibility like that would be an incredibly stupid idea.
  7. Regarding McGinn's "advice" post from earlier today, I'm not sure I have much to say. Some of it sounds like decent advice--it might not be a bad idea to maintain a certain level of professional distance from one's students--but some of it seems a little unreasonable and extreme ("Do not form genuine friendships with students. Do not engage in any non-academic activities with students.) Of course, he's had a recent bad experience and can be forgiven for advising an abundance of caution. 
    1. He's clearly right, though, that "there will be an immediate presumption of guilt against you if an allegation is made," that you should "not suppose that the authorities are much concerned with justice"--assuming he means the administration, who will be concerned with protecting the institution from liability--and that if someone has accused you of sexual harassment you should immediately get a lawyer. That all seems basically right. 
I'm really sorry about this.

--Mr. Zero

Friday, July 12, 2013

Be Employable, Study Philosophy

Via Leiter, I found this nice little article about the benefits of a philosophical education. The author is a journalist who thinks that aspiring journalists should study philosophy, not journalism. Some choice quotes:
But a smattering of undergrad philosophy classes taught me something applicable to any and every job: clarity of thought. Name me one aspect of your life that doesn't benefit from being able to think something through clearly.
I express some version of this idea on the first day of every class I teach.
Because it delivers real skills, philosophy doesn't go out of fashion the way the vague, trendy subjects do. The University of Windsor just announced it's closing its Centre for Studies in Social Justice, after 11 years. I suspect some of the problem there may be that no one can actually define "social justice." And the importance of defining terms to ensure we all mean the same thing when we're talking is one of those skills I picked up in philosophy.
To be fair, it's at least kind of likely that nobody can define social justice because the nature of justice--social and otherwise--is a matter of ongoing philosophical controversy.

There's an amusing polemic against postmodernism, which leads into the following quip:
I've long thought that the debate about whether universities should be offering trades training or educating citizens is something of a red herring -- the discussion should be about whether to study knowledge or nonsense. 
The article concludes with some observations about the value of clear thinking.

Maybe I like this article only because it flatters my philosophical vanity. But I also like it because of the students I see some through my classes. A substantial proportion of my freshman-level students think that "if p then q" means "p is true, and so is q". Now, it seems to me that they can't really be that confused, because if they were they would be completely unable to reason about anything and would quickly die of starvation or accidental poisoning. But when they try to think carefully, this mistake consistently emerges. When they are trying to think carefully. I want to generate interest in the discipline of philosophy, and I want to generate interest in our major, sure. But if I can generate clear-thinking students who major in other things, I'll happily take it.

--Mr. Zero

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

McGinn Interview in the Chronicle

Here. It’s behind a paywall, and unfortunately I don’t know of anyone who has posted a PDF to the internet like last time. Sorry.

It paints a horrible picture of McGinn using mostly his own words. It has him saying stuff like, “a superior person is not necessarily arrogant, but just superior”; and how he is “the most enlightened person in the world”; and how “his situation will fan anti-American sentiment” (in the words of the author, but attributed to McGinn). He complains, again, of everyone else’s lack of senses of humor and irony.

(Which is really old hat, right? “It's not that I'm a jerk; it's that your sense of humor sucks.” Y’all jerks need to work on your excuses.)

But as far as I can see, it doesn’t say anything new or groundbreaking, other than a few stray details, with one fairly notable exception. It does contain what would seem to be the verbatim text of the handjob pun: he says that he “had a handjob imagining you giving me a handjob.” First off, that’s awfully yucky. Secondly, even if his claim that it was a joke in which ‘handjob’ doesn’t mean “handjob” is credible, it seems to me that it’s still pretty clearly inappropriate. Thirdly, although he makes another attempt to connect the stuff with the handjobs to his research, it still seems to me like that entire avenue is complete bullshit. Fourthly, even if you interpret it as McGinn says he intended, it’s still really weird. He, McGinn, had a manicure while imagining her, his research assistant, giving him a manicure. What? A) who thinks about their research assistant while getting a manicure? B) who thinks about getting a manicure from their research assistant under any circumstances? C) what is he talking about? I mean, he’s free to insist that he had created a context in which ‘handjob’ is to be read as “manicure,” and where anyone who doesn’t see that is has an irony-related disability. But the fact is that if you read it that way, the message doesn’t make any goddam sense. And this is why nobody who has ever read it has read it that way.

It has him describe his relationship with the RA as an “intellectual romance.” Whatever that means. Seriously: what does that mean? Why would anyone ever say something like that? If I were in his position, I think I’d be very careful to avoid using the term ‘romance’ in any capacity whatsoever.

He seems to suggest that the “genius project” literally had that name while it was going on, in spite of what he says in one of his blog posts:
Another time, the professor says, the student expressed reservations about her job prospects in philosophy. He devised a solution, an undertaking he called the “genius project.” He describes it as an experimental learning endeavor in which he hoped to help the student improve her philosophical abilities by fostering creativity and encouraging taboo busting.
I totally understand being worried about your job prospects. I could not be more sympathetic. I worried about that when I was in grad school, and my worries have not been assuaged since then. And I completely understand approaching your faculty honcho person with these concerns for advice and counsel and stuff. Makes perfect sense. And I totally get why the faculty member might start a formal or semi-formal project designed to put the student in the best position possible to go on the job market. I understand. With perhaps less explicitness, something exactly like that happened with me and with basically everybody I knew in grad school. We were all worried; we all went to our advisors for advice; our advisors all tried to help us get prepared. Nobody ever gave it a name, as though they were the first person to ever think of helping their students get ready for the job market, or they were really special for actually going through with it, but we were all engaged in some kind of Genius Project. If you twisted my arm, I would have just called it “My Graduate Training.” The “Ph.D. Project.” Whatever.

What I don't get is why “taboo busting” always so high on the list of Genius Project techniques. My “Ph.D. Project” consisted, in part, of various discussions with my advisor: what I should read; what I had read; how to approach the material; where my ideas fit into the larger literature/conceptual space; etc. Another substantial chunk of the project consisted of submitting written work; receiving withering criticism in return; revising the work in response; receiving more withering criticisms; and so on. We spent a lot of time working on my teaching, too.

Now, I understand that the Genius Project involved spending part of each day thinking about your own ideas without relying on outside texts, and that it also involved asking, “is that really true?” a lot, and that sounds good to me. And I don’t have any problem with the tennis or the paddle boarding. Seems basically normal. But I don’t get why busting taboos was such an important part of the project. Is there some reason to suspect that unbusted taboos cause problems for candidates on the job market? And what was the pedagogical purpose of agreeing that manicures will henceforth be called “handjobs”? That seems to come out of left field, as far as mentorship goes.

(Just kidding, kind of. I realize that the reason that the “taboo busting” aspect of the Genius Project has been getting so much press is that the taboo-busting stuff is what got him in trouble, and that the press its been getting is not necessarily proportional to its prominence in the Project. But seriously. It got him in a shit ton of trouble, and it served no clear pedagogical purpose. It was a bad idea, and he should have known better.)

There's also this passage,
When he saw the student, they would perform a “ceremony,” he says, during which they went through a series of “hand grips” simulating closeness and social interaction.
Which sort of makes it seem like they had a secret handshake. What the hell? Is he a Mason? And what would it mean for a “hand grip” to “simulate social interaction”? Is that something people do?

Another passage reads,
“The relationship was difficult,” he says, speaking in his living room. “It wasn’t natural. It was constrained by the fact that I was a professor and she was a student. … We couldn’t just go in the way people normally would.”
Which really makes you wonder. Hadn’t he been teaching for a long time? The ins and outs of the teacher/student relationship shouldn’t have been that bizarre for a senior professor like him. You’d think that it would be sort of normal. He’d been around the block a few times by then.

But it seems to me that the most substantial new piece of information is that according to the RA’s boyfriend,
McGinn once wrote to the student that they should “have sex three times in my office over the summer when no one else is around,” Mr. Yelle [her boyfriend, that is] says. He also says the professor once suggested that the student should wear shorts more often because he thought her legs were attractive.
McGinn denies suggesting sex, and says that he merely told her that her legs were muscular. He also declined to share the emails.

Now, there are a lot of potential reasons why he might not want to share those emails, and the fact that he doesn’t share them doesn’t mean he said what Yelle says he said. And from our standpoint, there's a very real sense in which this is just a he-said/she-said thing. And if you just look at how he describes his style of interacting with people in general and her in particular, it’s fairly clear that the best-case scenario for these emails is that there's a lot of very borderline, easy-to-misunderstand material there, interspersed with a few things that are genuinely inappropriate (such as the oft-mentioned handjob pun). So, best-case scenario, releasing the emails won’t help him very much, and it makes sense for him not to release them.

On the other hand, on the best-case scenario, McGinn seems like the kind of person who wouldn’t realize how harmful releasing the emails would be. Case in point: everything he’s said up until now.

--Mr. Zero

Monday, July 1, 2013

The New APA Website...

...is up. Looks nice. Looks like an actual, professionally-produced website, and not* some piece of Geocities trash from 1996. Drop-down menus are clearly labeled and functional. Seems well-organized. I like the new logo.

It looks like I have let my membership lapse, and so I'm not able to get into the members-only section right now. Maybe somebody more responsible than me will let us know how it works.

It really does seem like the APA has gotten a lot better lately.

--Mr. Zero

*edited. shit.