October 14, 2013

Tales of gender difference, the Socratic Method, and the hostile environment that is philosophy.

The story of one female University of Wisconsin-Madison student and the undergraduate club the Socratic Society:
“People were yelling and banging on the table to make their points,” [Macy Salzberger] says. “It was basically a free-for-all... The environment felt hostile, and often I was the only girl in the room”...

“I told women that I understood the problem, but that it was possible to balance out the combative tone if more of us came. The women who started coming were intentional, as well. They shared that goal.”...
“Macy has been an outstanding leader,” says Philosophy Department Chair Russ Shafer-Landau. “It’s absolutely vital that we enfranchise all who want to participate in philosophical discussion, and Macy’s efforts have been exemplary in this regard.”
Can we get some Socratic dialogue on what "enfranchise" means here? And nice as it is to feature some hard work by a UW student, do you really believe that if only more women came in at the intake level and "shared" a "goal" of inclusiveness, then some "tone" you view as exclusionary would be "balanced out"? What do you think women are? Are we some bland ingredient to be added to an over-spiced stew to make it more palatable for everyone?

And I say that as a female who went to law school, where the Socratic Method supposedly reigns, in 1978, and who has been teaching in law school since 1984, doing something that some people might call Socratic, but which got watered down long before 1978. ("The Paper Chase" is a cornball Hollywood movie, people.) Law school discussions are facilitated by professors who dearly want the participation spread around. It's in no way a free-for-all and there's nothing hostile about the environment, and the numbers of males and females are close to equal, and still — if you go on volunteers — the males talk more than the females.

Circa 1990, there was an uprising of female students who took the position that the Socratic Method was required in order to reach gender equity. The mellow, volunteer-based classroom oppressed women, we were told by earnest advocates. They demanded an authoritarian environment as the way to make women equal. That was perhaps the most surreal experience in my 30+ years inside law schools.

Oh, but enough of my memories. I need to keep reading this article:
 “I had been reading more about why women are less represented in philosophy,” [Salzberger] says. “One article documented the 'tapering effect,'which shows that even though a lot of women tend to major in philosophy as undergrads, there are a lot fewer in grad school and even less in faculty positions.”
And here's UW Philosophy Professor Harry Brighouse (who spoke on a panel on the status of women in philosophy):
“It is easy for people to think this is a male discipline.... there is a degree of aggression. Philosophers don’t act in ways that others might see as polite.”

Adjusting the heat from “boil” to “simmer” would go a long way toward improving the climate for all undergraduates, he says.
Ah, so they do have a cooking metaphor. I still have the question: Why would making things friendlier at the intake level solve the problem of failure to continue on to grad school and a professional (academic) career? If you've already got — as Salzberger says — "a lot of women" majoring in philosophy as undergrads, how would lowering the heat prepare them for the fighting they'll need to do when the competition gets tough?

This is a very old issue, and philosophy departments sound like they are where law schools were 40 years ago.

59 comments:

Gabriel Hanna said...

Physics is the same way. When ideas are introduced, they are attacked. This rarely happens in the classroom environment, few students are in a position where they can critique an idea, but at every other level of the profession--grad students in research groups, presentations at conferences--you are expend to defend your ideas under hostile questioning.

"Hostile" does not mean combative or aggressive, though there are jerks out there. It means only that you are expected to think on your feet and answer objections. A lot of people cannot distinguish between a critique and an attack.

Bob Ellison said...

Larry Summers might reasonably ask whether women just aren't as good at philosophy as men.

I might ask whether it is a worthy study in the first place.

Mingus Jerry said...

Maybe women are smart enough to major in fields that lead to actual paying jobs.

Rae said...

Makes me wonder how science would be different if it had been historically dominated by women. Would the "scientific method" be so scientific?

Rae said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rob said...

The problem is obvious. The most talented female academics choose to engage in truly rigorous fields such as gender studies.

Iconochasm said...

So women can do anything men can do except stand their ground against an aggressive argument? Is there anything more anti-feminist than feminists in academia?

Donald Douglas said...

"What do you think women are? Are we some bland ingredient to be added to an over-spiced stew to make it more palatable for everyone?"

Heh. I'm sure they do, actually. But I love the quote. Perfect for an Althouse-style blog headline.

Henry said...

Althouse wrote: I still have the question: Why would making things friendlier at the intake level solve the problem of failure to continue on to grad school and a professional career? If you've already got — as Salzberger says — "a lot of women" majoring in philosophy as undergrads, how would lowering the heat prepare them for the fighting they'll need to do when the competition gets tough?

What "professional career" would that be? Isn't that the more fundamental problem?

Career academics can't afford to make things harder at the intake level. They have to look wanted.

Gabriel Hanna said...

True story: I presented a technique of my own devising which involved sending light through two parallel surfaces. A Very Important Professor wandered by, looked at it, and said:

"But doesn't this just end up canceling out when the distance is an integer number of wavelengths? It seems it couldn't be that useful."

I said, "No, because it's not a plane wave, it's a Gaussian beam."

"Oh," he said, and wandered off.

Now maybe he knew that and maybe he didn't--the plane wave is always your first approximation to anything real--but the point is he expected me to answer a challenge, whether he already knew the answer or not. He wasn't annoyed or offended that I could answer him, but he expected me to either think on my feet and answer, or honestly say I hadn't thought about it and didn't know and that I would look into it.

Ann Althouse said...

The question of politeness is important.

The notion that women are "polite" in some special way needs examination. Women may have developed a strategy that gets called politeness that works in many situations. But let's be honest about what that really is and why it developed, both biologically and culturally.

No one is engaging in physical combat here. It's verbal sparring, and there's an emotional element that affects your predisposition to that kind of fighting.

There's no reason to think women are less able than men in verbal argument, but there is an emotional aspect to it. Still, when you do verbal argument, you are using emotion. You can't extract all emotion.

Lawyers know this perhaps more than philosophers.

Philosophers are stewing in their own juice. They think the juice needs more women, because lack of women is not the current taste.

They're going through an awkward phase of trying to add women. But women are not passively accepting the role as ingredient in their foul stew.

Why should they?!

Where do those female undergraduates in philosophy go if not to philosophy grad programs?

I bet they go to law school, which would be an extremely rational thing to do.

Although if philosophy departments are desperate enough to display chunks of female floating in their gloppy gumbo, it may be a good bet for a few individuals to offer themselves up as the women philosophers, at least for a while, and these women may play the game especially well if they package themselves as specialists in "women in philosophy" issues.

Circa 1970, females entering law teaching would do "Women in the Law" and "Family Law" topics. When I was graduating from law school in 1981 and going into a law teaching job search, one of my female lawprofs advised me (and other women) to resist getting assigned Family Law or any of those women-associated topics. Get right to the seemingly "male" things like Contracts and Corporations.

rhhardin said...

"Ignoble as it may be, and lacking in natural nobility; poor in its genealogical extraction, and unable to choose between the proper and the improper, the economy of the sponge is nonetheless better able to resist the oppressor--its ignoble labor enfranchises it. "

Virgil, via Ponge

Gabriel Hanna said...

@Henry:Career academics can't afford to make things harder at the intake level. They have to look wanted.

Bullshit. Our biggest problem is massive oversupply of Ph. D.s, leading to a two-tier system of impossible-to-fire tenured academics and hordes of disposable, low paid academic staff without any security and frequently without benefits.

Nobody wants it to be easier to get a Ph. D.

rhhardin said...

A woman fellow student in Phil 101 leaned over and asked, "What are they talking about?"

I explained the problem.

"Is that all?"

Women can't do philosophy.

n.n said...

So, women prefer left-wing (i.e. authoritarian) solutions, while men prefer right-wing (i.e. libertarian) solutions. I wonder how the proportions are distributed in practice.

Ann Althouse said...

Philosophers may like to think they are using verbal argument at a level that excludes emotion, but their effectiveness in scaring off women is evidence of the emotional part of the arguments they make, especially if you conceive of their meta-argument as: I am the greatest philosopher.

Scott M said...

They demanded an authoritarian environment as the way to make women equal. That was perhaps the most surreal experience in my 30+ years inside law schools.

Why? How did they propose implementing this system? Granted, it seems silly, but apparently some thought it was the "right thing to do".

rhhardin said...

when you do verbal argument, you are using emotion.

Women need a pilot. That's why there are guys.

rhhardin said...

Women aren't scared off by philosophy. They're bored by it.

They're scared off by feminism.

Ann Althouse said...

rhhardin's comment at 11:19 AM shows how the emotional work is done, intimidating women.

It's hard to understand difficult things if you are plagued by the fear that you can't do it, just as it's hard to step up to physical combat if you think you are going to get killed.

Part of physical combat is making your enemy believe he'll be killed if he steps up.

Part of verbal argument is a variation on this kind of intimidation.

Somehow the philosophy department — Mars Needs Women — thinks it can turn down the intimidation so they can get what they've figured out they need.

But they're loaded with guys who say thinks like rh at 11:19.

Stir well.

Laugh from across campus.

What are you men cooking up?

n.n said...

Gabriel Hanna:

That's not true. There is a fiscal and political incentive to keep men and women in school, but especially the latter. As women, apparently, have a predisposition to sustain this myopic policy.

rhhardin said...

Vicki Hearne held her own in philosophy, taking on Cavell and Derrida both, on matters of fact when they talked about animals.

That was via her being able to sustain an interest in it, which is what was unusual.

rhhardin said...

how the emotional work is done, intimidating women.

Only women who are into feminism are intimidated.

The regular woman is at worst bored by philosophy, and perhaps amused by the battle of the sexes.

Men and women are very different in what sustains their interest.

Basil said...

"I am the greatest philosopher" is the only argument philosophers have. It is the only point of philosophy. Fortunately, these questions were all solved by the Jewish prophets and kings of the Old Testament. Now philosophers just argue and make up stuff to keep their cushy academic jobs.

n.n said...

meta-argument as: I am the greatest philosopher

It is dissociation of risk which causes corruption. It is dreams of material, physical, and ego instant or immediate gratification which motivates its progress.

So, what is the solution when men and women demonstrate they are incapable of self-moderating, responsible behavior? What is a reasonable compromise between individual liberty and authoritarian excess?

Strelnikov said...

"What do you think women are? Are we some bland ingredient to be added to an over-spiced stew to make it more palatable for everyone? "

And thus is born the "Corn Starch Feminist". (Thought it sounded better than "Potato Feminist".)

rhhardin said...

Guys who are interested in philosophy ("How do I know this is a piece of wax? At best I see only the front surface of it..") are taken by it.

That doesn't happen to women.

Nothing is cooked up.

The math department guys want women, so they have somebody to talk to. Would that be great or what. But they get only women who move on to the women's workplace issues committee.

Why is that?

rhhardin said...

Check out the chapter "Beastly Behaviors" in Vicki Hearne's _Bandit_ for her excellent analysis of sexual difference and traditionally male intellectual activities.

She states it in a way that doesn't dismiss women but keeps the difference.

Strelnikov said...

"Women need a pilot. That's why there are guys"

And we don't have to ask directions because we can fold up maps.

MadisonMan said...

Is there a similar initiative to balance numbers in Education, where there are more women?

If not, why not?

Sharkcutie said...

When I started law school at the age of 30 in 1986, one of the first things I noticed was how women qualified both their questions and their answers with comments like "this is a stupid question" or "I'm probably wrong." Most professors put up with it. It really annoyed me because it implicitly approved a type of female behavior that would get the women nowhere in the practice of law. In my third year, I told a group of male professors that their explicit pleasure in the "ass shaking, hair flipping" female law student was perpetuating a stereotype and preparing a group of inferior lawyers.

Henry said...

Gabriel Hanna wrote: Nobody wants it to be easier to get a Ph. D.

That's not what I said.

I emphasized the "intake level" not the PhD level. The academics at the link bemoan the "tapering effect" but I don't believe them (except in terms of marketing). They worry about "tapering" the way the NBA executives worry about second-round draft picks: Nice to have, and cost you nothing if you cut 'em.

But lots of undergrads to fill up classes? What's the harm in that? Even the hapless adjunct, for whom the tenured position is forever out of reach, wants maximum intake. The number of classes that fill means the difference between having a job and not having a job.

Ann Althouse said...

"What "professional career" would that be? Isn't that the more fundamental problem?"

As a philosophy professor.

Ann Althouse said...

I'll add the parenthetical "(academic)" to make that clear.

Obviously, there are a limited number of slots for philosophy professors.

Ironically, these people need to be very rational, but a very rational person would hesitate to go down such a constricted career path.

Law school is a MUCH better bet (and that's clearly so even as the job market is tighter than it once was).

Hagar said...

Some years ago, a fellow engineer was designing a project that crossed an area where a public agency also was planning a project for which we had seen the preliminary plans. My friend had some ideas about how the two projects could be coordinated to everyone's benefit and requested a meeting with the agency and its consultant to discuss these. The agency head immediately got excited when he heard my friend's ideas and even took over the discussion and enthusiastically expanded on them himself. However, the agency staff representative and the consultant's representative, both young women engineers, lost interest as soon as they realized that changes to the agency's plans were being proposed and went to chatting about something - I believe it was handbags - between themselves.

Driving back to the office after the meeting, my friend was very happy about how it had gone, but I said, you have to realize that nothing is going to happen.
"What do you mean? Tom was all for it!"
"Yeah, but he thinks he has said all that needs to be said, and you can't call him back and tell him he needs to instruct his staff to follow up on it, because he will take that as telling him how to run his office, and you cannot call the other consultant's principal, because likewise, and he will also think you are trying to pull a fast one and mess with his project. These women are not going to do anything about your ideas unless their immediate supervisors tell them to, so nothing is going to happen, regardless of what Tom said in this meeting."

And I was right, nothing happened, and it got expensive for both projects.

Henry said...

Where you say "hesitate" I say "be nuts".

My wife was teaching art history as an adjunct at a small college. She began investigating the idea of getting a PhD and pursue a professorial career. Every one of our friends in academia told her "getting a PhD is nuts. Don't do it."

Ann Althouse said...

"When I started law school at the age of 30 in 1986, one of the first things I noticed was how women qualified both their questions and their answers with comments like "this is a stupid question" or "I'm probably wrong." Most professors put up with it. It really annoyed me because it implicitly approved a type of female behavior that would get the women nowhere in the practice of law."

It's extremely common for both male and female law students to couch their questions in protective words like "this may be a stupid question" (bet you they said "may be" and not "is"!) or "I was just curious."

I sometimes discourage that verbal clutter by saying something like: If you have that question, probably a lot of other students do too and they just are not willing to say it, so I need to hear it.

The alternative is to be afraid to ask, afraid of looking stupid. That's much worse. I could go flying along for weeks talking about something no one understands and no one is willing to admit not understanding.

I'd rather accept some of that self-protective clutter than not to get the questions at all.

The fear of questioning is much worse than a few words that clutter a question.

And in real life people sometimes use words like that to disarm their interlocutor.

Think Columbo.

"Oh, I was just wondering...."

Larry J said...

Strelnikov said...
"Women need a pilot. That's why there are guys"

And we don't have to ask directions because we can fold up maps.


Men invented GPS so we'd never have to ask for directions again. Little did anyone imagine at the time all the other uses for GPS.

Sorun said...

"The most talented female academics choose to engage in truly rigorous fields such as gender studies."

Yes, and let's see some professors hand-wringing about the lack of men in gender studies.

Carol said...

there are a limited number of slots for philosophy professors.

Boy, what an opportunity..instant affirmative action hires for women! I remember when that hit all the other departments in the 80s. Some of those gals were good! And they put up with being dept chairs and going to faculty senate.

elkh1 said...

What is the Socratic Method? The yelling and banging on the table, or balancing out the combative tone or enfranchising all?

I don't know Socrates, but I know none of those in that Society knows anything about the Socratic Method.

David said...

Still more fodder for my new television show:

"Assholes on Parade."

David said...

Seemed to me that the woman in rhhardin's little tale had it exactly right.

"Is that all there is?"

--Peggy Lee, Philosopher

David said...

Men can't fold up maps?

Phooey. Men understand that you don't have to fold up a map. At least not in the stupid way it was folded before.

RonF said...

Why is it that when a particular academic department has fewer than 50% women it's a big deal, but when it has fewer than 50% men it's not?

Michael K said...

I'm still wondering if Inga ever looked at the link provided on the French health care system.

It may sound unrelated to the thread, but it's not.

Tarrou said...

Something I've noticed teaching 100 level undergrads is that if a guy doesn't know the answer to a question, they either guess, or say they don't know. Quite a few girls will preface with "I feel like", or "in my opinion". The material is basic and factual, we aren't up to opinions yet. What they "feel" couldn't possible be less relevant when answering which section of the brain controls hunger. The only thing that matters is whether they read and understood the book.

Beldar said...

My first day at Texas Law School in 1977 was very Paper Chase-ish, with the Socratic Method employed in a classically aggressive fashion.

Salamandyr said...

Here's a couple questions.

Is it worth attracting more women to philosophy if the methods used to do so drive more men away?

Do fields of study dominated by women spend valuable time thinking about how they can attract more men into their fields?

Jupiter said...

"They demanded an authoritarian environment as the way to make women equal. That was perhaps the most surreal experience in my 30+ years inside law schools."

Um, isn't that what we mean by "affirmative action"?

Hagar said...

My point in the little story I told above, is that young male engineers in that situation would have either just proceeded to work with the changes that Tom, the agency head, obviously wanted, or have told their supervisors and asked for guidance when they got back to their offices.

The young ladies did neither and would not, because their attitude is that if changes are wanted, someone should tell their supervisors to tell them to make them - what, when, and how.

William said...

The Socratic method works best when you get someone like Socrates instructing someone like Plato. Sartre's tutoring of deBeauvoir enabled her to increase her typing profiency enormously, but one can't say with certainty that her reasoning skills were equally augmented.

Badger said...

Prof. Althouse,

I was in one of your classes in the mid-eighties and I can vouch for the effectiveness of your “watered down” use of the Socratic method. I was generally too intimidated to participate much in class, but one day, despite being under-prepared, I volunteered an answer—an answer that would not have withstood one bit of Socratic inquiry. All I remember about it now (and I do think about this incident from time to time) is that you were very kind and did not embarrass me in any way. So, let me just say, after all these years, “Thank you.”

mtrobertsattorney said...

A philosopher would answer Mr. Ellison's this way: The question is not what can you do with philosophy. Rather, the question is what can philsophy do with you.

rhhardin said...

Valery Socrates and His Physician

Google omits some pages.

Socrates asks why his body confides the future to the physician but only treats himself to contempt and insults.

Larry J said...

Salamandyr said...
Here's a couple questions.

Is it worth attracting more women to philosophy if the methods used to do so drive more men away?


To many universities that worship diversity over all other things, driving away men (especially the ever evil white ones) would be considered a feature, not a bug.

Do fields of study dominated by women spend valuable time thinking about how they can attract more men into their fields?

If they want to increase the number of men taking their classes, they just get those classed added to the mandatory list. That's how you grow the department when very, very few men (at least the ones with any sense) would voluntarily take their classes.

Ann Althouse said...

@Badger

Thanks for noticing and remembering.

Bill R said...

Professor Althouse says:
"Although if philosophy departments are desperate enough to display chunks of female floating in their gloppy gumbo...."

There's an episode of "Sex and the City" where the girls are at the Playboy Mansion. They come upon a hot tub where a dozen unclothed females are enjoying themselves.

"Look at that.", says Amanda, "Boob soup".

The Playboy Philosophy, I guess.

Douglas said...

Perhaps because I teach law in China, my experience is a bit different from our host's. In my classes, the women students are more likely to volunteer than the men. Now that may be a reaction to the fact that the rest of China is an extremely sexist, old fashioned place - many of the top Chinese law firms won't even interview women law students, although that is slowly starting to change - and my distaff students are thrilled to be in an environment where they can compete on an equal footing with the boys.