Interview with Janice Dowell

Clifford Sosis (Coastal Carolina) continues his series of interviews of philosophers at What Is It Like To Be A Philosopher? with Janice Dowell of Syracuse University. In it she discusses her childhood (she worked as a janitor for a Princeton eating club), how she ended up going into philosophy (“almost entirely by accident”), her career at various institutions, her current work, and her experience as a graduate student at Michigan, starting in 1989:

Unfortunately, grad school wasn’t friendly for me.  I started out at Michigan-Ann Arbor in the fall of 1989, back when it was the only top ten philosophy department in the US that had never tenured a woman.  There were problems among the faculty, between the faculty and the students, and among the students.  Some women there at the time did well.  But, many women left; I believe I’m the only one who left Michigan, but stayed in the profession, by transferring to Pitt.  Pitt at the time was better, but by no means problem-free.

Although this is very unpleasant, I’d like to say something about my grad school experience, on the hoped-for chance that if folks can put a name to someone who has experienced some of the problems with harassment and sexual assault our profession has just begun discussing, it might dampen some of the truly damaging speculation about the motivations survivors have in coming forward that we see on some professional blogs.

There are too many bad experiences to list them all.  I’ll mention two, as well as the effect they had on me.  Early in my grad career, I was the object of a surprising amount of disturbing attention.  Someone put a plastic erection in my mailbox in the department common room and a male grad student followed me home. He let me know that he had done this when I arrived home, telling me gleefully that he was glad to know where I lived so he could come see me whenever he wanted. As I said—disturbing. 

The cumulative effect of this attention was pretty bad: I began to experience intense pain in my arms whenever I went to campus.  Not surprisingly, I avoided campus as much as I could; no reading groups, student lounge conversations, no socializing before or after class.  Also, not surprisingly, it was very difficult to concentrate on my work, particularly to follow lectures in class, given that they included some of the students I was having trouble with.  In retrospect, it’s astonishing to me that I finished any of my classes.

Unfortunately, that was not the worst of it.  I was subsequently raped by another philosopher, someone who is still in our profession and whom I occasionally see at APA meetings.  I’ve already written about this experience anonymously, here.

In response, Sosis says:

That’s terrible. Thank you…it takes a lot of bravery to share something like that. I’m sure others have had similar experiences. Would you like to add anything?

To which Dowell replies:

There’s not more to add, only to underscore. The discussions of sexual harassment and assault in our profession are extremely unhealthy; they’re bad for individuals in our profession and for our profession itself.  Fortunately, we don’t need protests or shanties to fix this one, we just need folks to say something when they see or hear something. Discourage speculation about complainants.  More generally, treat people with respect and encourage respectful discourse. Bullies do what they do because we allow bullying to pay. But we don’t have to.

The whole interview is here.


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