Mistaking Criticism for Discrimination (Ought Experiment)

Mistaking Criticism for Discrimination (Ought Experiment)

Welcome back to Ought Experiment! This week’s question is a sensitive one, indeed. A professor writes that s/he’s struggling to reach a grad student who apparently interprets any criticism of her work as evidence of gender discrimination:

Dear Louie,

I’m hoping you can help me with a tricky teaching situation. There’s a student in my department who has, in the past, faced serious gender discrimination. The problem is that she’s now become very difficult to teach, because she tends to interpret any critical feedback on her work as gender discrimination. If any faculty say a paper isn’t good or an argument doesn’t work, she tends to assume her work isn’t being valued appropriately because of her gender. Ordinarily, when a student interprets critical feedback as their genius not being appreciated, I tend to tell them to get over themselves. But here it’s more difficult. As a feminist and as a decent human, I want to be sensitive to difficult things this student has been through. But at the same time, I want to figure out how to get her to see that not all criticism is about her gender, and that part of respecting women in philosophy is allowing that they can be wrong and make mistakes just as easily as men can. But I don’t even know where to start.

Perplexed Ally

Dear Perplexed Ally,

Geez. Calling this case ‘tricky’ understates things a bit, yeah? Given the subject matter, I’m going to forego my usual jokey approach to offering advice. Somehow quips like “Why did the chicken cross the road? Because of structural marginalization!” feel out of place. Go figure.

It’s hard to say what strategy will succeed. People differ. There are a lot of relevant details I don’t know (and shouldn’t know). And the problem may generalize to other groups and kinds of discrimination, meaning that being a little noncommittal here can be a lot productive. So I’m going to shamelessly dartboard this question: I’ll throw nine contentious strategies out there, and hope that something sticks. I’m also interested in seeing what advice will emerge from the comments section this week. Some readers may have dealt with similar situations in the past, and even if they haven’t, this is the kind of topic where strategies are seriously open to debate.

By the way, in what follows I’m going to assume that your diagnosis is right: at least some of the time, the student is mistaken when she asserts discrimination. If so, then correcting this genuine problem is ultimately in the student’s own interest, as responding to feedback is a necessary element in professional success. I don’t think any feminist is going to disagree with that – only cartoonish characterizations hold that feminism is about exempting women from evaluation or being entitled to unearned positions. But as a feminist myself, I have to note that a big neon disclaimer hangs over everything I’m about to say: there are good reasons to be cautious when discounting claims of discrimination. A lot of good reasons. Like, at least seven good reasons. (Especially in philosophy, where we tend to think that our judgments are authoritatively pure.)


  • Have the student read the work of some brilliant, game-changing, deservedly famous women. Bill it as dissertation research. Presumably the student will raise various objections to these articles, since any piece of philosophy is open to criticism. If that isn’t enough to convey the idea that no one is above criticism, then be more direct: ask the student why her own criticism of these articles isn’t an example of unfairly dismissing women. From there, work with the student to develop a substantive distinction between fair and unfair criticism.
  • Or, from the other direction: ask the student for blatant examples of gender discrimination in academia, and isolate what went wrong in cases of failed criticism. Then have her try to articulate what non-gendered criticism would look like. Work with her to develop criteria of fair criticism that she can apply in the future. Either way, the hope with consistency strategies is that she’ll take ownership of these distinctions or criteria, instead of experiencing them as dismissive impositions from above.


  • Unless your student thinks her work can’t get any better than it already is, she’ll recognize that grad school is actually an opportunity: a chance to improve before the real evaluation and rejections start rolling in. So ask her where she thinks her work stands to improve the most, and start with those dimensions. Once you’ve built a certain amount of trust, it may be possible to raise new dimensions of criticism yourself.
  • Alternatively, a frank discussion about political realities might moot this tendency. There is no appeals court in academia – in most cases, you have to navigate professional relationships by dealing with the individuals themselves. If people are evaluating your work unfairly, and there’s a significant power imbalance between you, then you often have to convince them of your merit without alienating them in the process. Being vulnerable or junior means you can’t cite discrimination every time you see it, even if you’re always right that you’re seeing it. The same goes for securing allies and building a positive reputation. Yes, I realize that there’s a thin line between picking your battles for the sake of advancement and being complicit, but that’s what makes it a frank discussion.


  • I don’t know your gender identification, Perplexed Ally, but it’s possible that you may want to recruit someone else into the conversation. While you’re qualified to give advice about her work, the student might hear that advice better from a fellow woman.
  • A related suggestion is to bring the topic up at a SWIP meeting, or at a professionalization event geared toward women. Having this conversation in the proper context might help, and so might numbers. We can’t do everything on our own.
  • Especially if you’re a woman, show the student examples of referee reports where the refs got it right. I know we all like to complain about refs, and groan about just how uncharitably or bizarrely they’ve misinterpreted our work, but a lot of the time these comments can make our papers better. So it might help to have concrete examples of fair criticisms leveled at women in academia. The point here isn’t to disprove the existence discrimination. The point is to introduce alternate explanations for some instances of criticism.


  • We sometimes slip into thinking that disadvantage is an exclusive category. For example, when we very correctly observe that women face unjust barriers in academia, that claim can be misinterpreted to mean that women alone are disadvantaged, or that women are the most disadvantaged. In reality, there are burdens aplenty, affecting different sorts of people in different ways. Most feminist theories with which I’m familiar have moved away from the idea that there are absolutely oppressed or privileged groups, and argue instead that everyone’s going to be advantaged with respect to some norms and practices and disadvantaged with respect to others. To get all fancy with my terminology, the student may need to check her intersectional privilege. Exploring different kinds of discrimination can put her own (real) discrimination in a wider context of exclusion, and also highlight the ways in which she has some advantages being heard compared to other groups and subgroups. Done with care, this can be eye-opening.


  • Maybe the problem doesn’t have an academic solution. Depending on the nature of the prior discrimination she experienced, the student may benefit from attending support groups, or processing events with the help of counseling. To be clear, I’m not trying to medicalize dissent, or suggest that people who speak out about discrimination “too much” are ‘crazy’ or need professional help. I’m just noting that not every barrier to academic success is an academic problem. The problem may go deeper than an inability to handle criticism from professors. If so, the underlying problem needs to be addressed, and most professors are not qualified to do that.

Now, if none of these strategies work, and the student continues to ignore constructive criticism over time, then it’s possible that she may simply be unteachable at this point in her life. And as much as I cringe to say it, part of the function of graduate school is to weed out students that demonstrate an inability to succeed in the profession. If the student discounts all criticism, then she can’t submit to journals, or conference, or teach, or be a good colleague. The source of her unteachability is genuinely tragic, and that’s why I think her situation merits a lot of empathy as well as a prolonged and creative attempt to reach her, but even the most sympathetic desire to help a student has to stop short of guaranteeing them a place in the profession no matter what.

This situation is painfully complex, and the above advice—imperfect though it is—is the best I can offer. My hope is that readers can point out strategies that I missed in the comments below, or set me straight where I got it wrong. This is a question that we really should get right.

— Louie Generis

Do you want Louie Generis to tell you what to do? Send your questions to [email protected]! You can also follow Louie on Facebook. And in the meantime, continue the discussion in the comments below.

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