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:
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.
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.
Penguin USA has provided me with three copies of Every Time I Find the Meaning of Life, They Change It: Wisdom of the Great Philosophers on How to Live, by author and (long time ago) philosophy student Daniel Klein, to give away to Daily Nous readers. I haven’t done one of these before but since the book is about advice from philosophers, and since Ought Experiment is also advice from a philosopher, I thought an Ought Experiment column was the right place for this book giveaway.
So, to the first three commenters on this thread who try to help Louie Generis help Perplexed Ally—that is, hopefully, the first three commenters after this—if you’d like a free copy of the book, just email me and I will send it to you.Report
On this side of there being reasons not to discount the student’s claims, I would suggest that Perplexed Ally ask the student more about them. At the very least, asking the student to talk about why why she believes criticism of her work is stemming from discrimination may highlight ways to move forward. (For instance, if she says something like, ‘At my undergrad, saying X would have meant Y,’ you can point out, “Here, X, often means Z instead.”)
But, I would also take seriously the notion that maybe the student is picking up on something that Perplexed Ally is not. Sometimes graduate students get radically different treatment from professors, but unless people are actively comparing notes, most of the dept. can be oblivious to it.
Also, even if the student can’t formulate specific reasons for her beliefs, they may still be worth paying attention to. Sometimes our brain can pick up on a pattern well before we are able to consciously articulate what that pattern exactly is. Maybe the student would instead benefit from someone working with her to articulate her claims. In my experience, even when people are wrong about some behavior stemming from bias or discrimination, they usually have some reason for thinking so if it gets to the point where they are making this claim out loud. So at the very least, if the student is vocally saying, “I think this criticism is biased,” there is likely *something* there she is picking up on—even if she is ultimately mistaken about what that something is.Report
This probably won’t help in this case, as feedback on things like drafts of dissertation or thesis chapters, or of papers a person is thinking of submitting to conferences or journals, can’t really be anonymous. But I think that this case helps to highlight one advantage of anonymous grading: it will make it more difficult for students to think that criticism stems from a professor’s bias, whether based on gender, race, past interactions, etc. (That’s in addition to the obvious benefit of anonymous grading, which is that it helps to ensure that our own biases don’t actually shape our evaluations of work.)Report
I do not have experience with this precise situation, but a related phenomena comes to mind: someone fails to appreciate the content of criticism because they are unhappy about the delivery of the criticism. Surely I’ve done this. My peers talk as if they do it as well. This case is similar to the case in the post in that they involve difficulty appreciating criticism. They are dissimilar in that gender and discrimination need not feature so centrally. The failure to appreciate criticism generalizes to lots of cases. I do not want to derail the discussion by focusing on these general cases. Rather, I want to say two things:
Parts of Louie’s advice might generalize beyond the present case (and thereby be useful even to people like me who are not facing with this specific case, but are facing other instances of failing to appreciate criticism).
Something that usually helps me when I fail to appreciate criticism because I am focused on features besides the content of the criticism is this: a period of distraction. It is sometimes difficult for me to switch my focus from the features of criticism that upset me to the other features — e.g., when I am cognitively drained. So rather than try to change my focus in a top-down self-directed way; I have to do it in a bottom-up sort of way. I need something that will switch my focus for me. So I usually need to do something that is easy/enjoyable…or maybe that’s just what I tell myself so that I can catch up on a TV show. Anyway, once I have distracted myself for awhile, I am no longer so bent on thinking about the delivery of the criticism, so I can approach the criticism a new goal: focus on the content of the criticism. I’m usually much better at focusing on the content of criticism after I’ve distracted myself from the other features of the criticism like its delivery. I wonder if something like this would also help (students) in Perplexed Ally’s case. Or maybe I’m the only one who is so foolish as to not focus on the content of criticism the first time around.
Thanks for this wonderful post! I found it to be very helpful in thinking about my role as a student and in my role as a teacher.
(Re: Book – I tend not to use hardcopy books, so unless the book is a digital copy, the book would probably be best suited in someone else’s possession. But thanks! That’s very kind of you. I’ll see if I can find a digital copy of the book.)Report
I want to echo what Stacey said but also strongly disagree with the first standpoint suggestion. Women aren’t free from bias against women. Perplexed ally, on the other hand, seems both invested in the student’s success and sensitive to the complexity of the situation — I think that means they’re well-suited to work with the student. But I really do think they need to hear more about why the student believes there’s an issue.Report
I don’t think anyone needs to hear more about this student’s situation, and this kind of problem is the kind that grows the more attention you pay to it. Just treat her like a philosopher. Read her work, give her honest feedback, when it’s good, encourage her to submit to conferences/journals, introduce her to people who work on similar things, etc. Eventually she’ll be so distracted by being a philosopher that this other stuff will fade to the background. As it well should.
If she thinks she has to solve the gender discrimination problems she faces/might face before she can really be a philosopher, then she’ll never be a philosopher.Report
What in this post makes you think the student thinks that?Report
Babygirl, would you also suggest that black people under Jim Crow should have just done their jobs with the similar conclusion that eventually they’d be so distracted they’d forget they were oppressed?
I sincerely hope you can understand the offensiveness of your post.Report
The idea that female philosophers face anything at all comparable to the sort of systematic discrimination faced by black americans under jim crow is laughable. So, no, I don’t think that, because the situations are not relevantly similar.Report
I don’t think anonn was attempting to make a comparative claim but offering a counter example to the principal underlying the comment.Report
anonn, I think you’ve misread Babygirl’s post. Babygirl was probably claiming that *iff* we grant Perplexed Ally’s assessment of the case, then it’s best not to pay attention to the issue. To make the analogy to Jim Crow apt, we would have to grant the student’s assessment of the case, rather than Perplexed Ally’s.Report
Babygirl also wrote, though, that no one needs to hear more about why the student believes they are being discriminated against — that suggests not that what follows holds only if we grant PA’s understanding, but that it doesn’t matter (note also the last sentence confirms that, by including the possibility she is facing discrimination).Report
Right, I suppose I don’t think it matters if the student is actually being discriminated against or not, for the purposes of this professor’s relationship to her, unless *she* approaches this professor and specifically asks for help with some particular instance of discrimination. Assuming that is not what is going on, Perplexed should just treat her as s/he would treat any other philosopher, not try to get to the bottom of this issue, because this issue is bottomless. PerplexedAlly should just be a good professor to the student, which means helping her along *in philosophy*, not solving whatever discrimination problems exist once and for all.Report
Babygirl has already spoken for herself, but there is at least one other reason why someone might have the same basic response. My own initial reaction to the suggestion was not so much “it doesn’t matter” as “it’s none of my damn business”.
I intensely dislike the tendency, when there are conflicting or unclear identity-politics claims going around, to insist on delving into people’s backgrounds to determine who is more oppressed. It seems to me that if you really want to protect members of vulnerable, marginalized groups, demanding that they out themselves at every turn is the last thing you should be doing.Report
It’s a small thing, and doubtless won’t solve the whole problem, but consider writing up comments carefully and sending them to the student rather than delivering them orally, at least at the beginning.
Many of us have mannerisms that sometimes make us appear condescending or dismissive when explaining things to people, even though we usually don’t intend to be. Often it stems simply from the fact that philosophers (of all genders) tend to get lost in thought when talking about things that interest them, paying little if any attention to their body language.
But because women do in fact get condescended to and dismissed disproportionately often, the student might be (understandably if mistakenly) treating these mannerisms as evidence that she is being subjected to gender discrimination. Reducing the interaction to the impersonality of ink (or, I suppose, electrons) might help.Report
I suspect that many women, and members of other underrepresented groups, have realized that they are treated differently from male (or white, etc) peers in a way that is so common and systematic that gender (or race, etc.) must be playing a role in explaining some of the difference. The difficulty is that, unless the discrimination is blatant, it’s hard to know which are the bad instances of a clearly bad pattern. It sounds like the student in this case has concluded that all instances are bad instances. In my own case, I’ve found that the best way to work around this problem and ensure that I take advantage of good comments is to accept that I need to have faith in my own judgment. (One of the most important habits to cultivate in grad schools, as it happens.) Ask yourself: Can you point to concrete evidence of unreasonable dismissal? For example, does an objection rest on the assumption that your topic is X, when it is Y? Or that you are claiming P, when you are claiming something weaker? Is the “objection” a mere reassertion of the claim at-issue? Any of these forms of evidence are good prima facie grounds for setting a response to one’s work aside (though perhaps investigating whether there is a clearer way of formulating one’s central claims). But if it’s clear that a response is making contact with one’s work, the default should be engagement with the comment (if not the commentator). After all, even comments offered in bad faith, with questionable motivations, can be comments we can learn from. If I needed a slogan for this, I guess it would be “focus on your own best assessment of the message, not the messenger”. Added bonus: Also works to protect yourself from mindlessly mimicking the professionally more successful.Report
“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”
I know that the author is paraphrasing here, but I wonder whether the student’s reaction is in part a response to the particular words being used. Ideally, I think an adviser wouldn’t tell a student things like “this argument doesn’t work” or “this paper isn’t good”. I would think that the best thing to say to a student is something along the lines of “If I hold /this/ position, then it looks like I can accept these premises but still deny the conclusion, so I think that if we want to rule out that kind of position, we need to say a bit more” (or something like that). This kind of phrasing doesn’t set up the student to think that they’ve failed, but rather simply that they have more work in front of them. By talking about what “we” need to do, it also doesn’t set the advisor up as the dialectical adversary or the evaluator of the student. I think that there are good pedagogical reasons to present advise in this way in general (though I don’t do it as often as I reflectively think I should), but it may also help out in this particular case, since, in presenting feedback in this way, you don’t need to use any evaluative terms like “good” or “bad” at all. The student can’t take issue with your evaluative stance or your reasons for it if you’re not taking any evaluative stance. The only way to respond to this kind of feedback is by saying something like “here’s how we can rule that position out” or “here’s why you can’t accept my premises if you take that position”. In other words, the only way to respond to that kind of feedback is by doing some more philosophy, which is just what you should want from your student in the first place.Report
I really want to second what Jan Dowell says here about learning to trust your own judgment in these contexts; this is something I wish I had realized sooner in my grad school life.Report
What the student is facing is known as “attributional ambiguity”: when one knows one is subject to discrimination, it is difficult to know whether specific negative experiences (including criticism) are instances of discrimination. In addition, it is difficult to know whether praise is genuine or is due to someone’s lowering standards for you out of sympathy. (Never do the latter, by the way: it’s demonstrably harmful.) This is a normal response to being subjected to discrimination.
Claude Steele discusses these issues in a popular piece on stereotype threat and Black college students from a while back: http://www.bc.edu/content/dam/files/centers/boisi/pdf/f08/Steele_ThinIceStereotypeThreat.pdf. As he notes, one approach that has been shown successful is (1) to apply high standards fairly to all, (2) to successfully convey to those being evaluated that this is what you’re doing – which involves establishing trust, and (3) to convey to each person that you believe they are capable of meeting these standards.
One last thought: I really wish the business about the student’s possibly being “unteachable” had been left out of the advice. I am not aware of any research supporting the idea that people who have been traumatized by discrimination and are in the grips of stress due to attributional ambiguity are “unteachable.” It is our responsibility in dealing with such students to find ways to teach them.Report
That’s a fair point, Sherri. I went back and forth on whether to include the bit about unteachability, since I do see the situation as tragic. That’s why I think her case “merits a lot of empathy as well as a prolonged and creative attempt to reach her.” I’m sensitive to how harms like discrimination can create ripple effects well after the fact, including the unfortunate ways in which the burden for dealing with the harm can fall on the victim or else – a classic double bind. I didn’t mean to suggest that the student was inherently unteachable. Rather, if years go by and the student is still unable to accept any criticism of her work, Perplexed might genuinely exhaust the range of options open to him/her. Not every student can be helped, no matter how tragic the circumstances. I certainly agree that it’s our responsibility to find ways to teach them – that’s why I offered nine strategies, and am gratified to see others weighing in with even more suggestions here in the comments.Report
Feedback on her work from several female philosophers may well help this student to learn to accept criticism. Once she’s gotten a bit more used to accepting criticism per se, she may be readier to accept criticism from males.Report
“Ordinarily, when a student interprets critical feedback as their genius not being appreciated, I tend to tell them to get over themselves.”
That ordinary response seems to be fine in this case as described. One regularly interpreting routine philosophical criticism from a variety of interlocutors as gender discrimination probably needs to learn a whole lot more about both philosophical criticism and gender discrimination.Report
Is it possibly a case of “victimology”? That is, using victim status as a way of deflecting criticism and putting pressure on a professor for better comments and grades? It is impossible to tell what is going on in the student’s mind, but the response assumes it is others who must accommodate that frame of mind. I do not mean to minimize the student’s past experiences, but part of me says it is her job to adjust to what happened in the past and that in an effort to be overly-caring her teachers are encouraging her not to do so. Part of life is that people will experience negative treatment. However, learning to put them into perspective is necessary; to adopt the victim role and use it is not adapting, it is negative to encourage it may be to the student’s disadvantage.
I would suggest discussing all this with the student, pointing out the fact she might be over reacting, that she needs to be strong and resist crying “wolf”, and point out the realities of being a professional philosopher — who among us have not had a paper trashed, a presentation assaulted, or a book negatively reviewed? The reality of being in academe and publishing, debating issues and reacting to criticism is such that this student needs to be able to take this as non-personal and react with strength. Note, again, I am NOT discounting past discrimination, but one needs to move on.Report
If the original letter writer is just one of many faculty members in the department, then he or she should listen to babygirl ‘s excellent advice: stick to the words on the page and the performance in the seminar, and treat the student as one would any other student in one’s course.
But if the OP is the Director of Graduate Studies or the student’s advisor, then I think he or she does have some responsibility to deal with this issue directly. The idea that you could just hand the student over to some gaggle of women to deal with is offensive and naive; there is no reason to assume that women qua women will be particularly well suited to talk with this student about her complaints.
It is true that some disadvantaged people blame all their problems on their disadvantage, and in so doing, they do nobody any favors. The OP’s role, as educator and advisor should be to get the student in the habit of responding to criticism. This is a skill that is crutial to doing well in philosophy and is obviously not synonymous with capitulating to or mindlessly rejecting criticism.
So the first step would be to sit down with the student, look at the specific criticisms of the student’s work, and discuss different ways of interpreting the criticisms (talking about what constitutes fair and unfair criticism, and so on ). I think it makes sense to point out that many of us do receive unfair forms of criticism based on various forms of prejudice and brainstorm ways of responding to it, but the emphasis should be placed on seeing what is valuable or substantive in the criticism and what resourses the student has to respond to it.
As should be clear, these are the kinds of conversations that advisors should be having with many of their students; most graduate students have difficulty knowing how to deal with critical feedback. Should the student in question begin focusing on her past oppressive treatment, I think the best thing to do is keep bringing her back to the *specific details* of the criticisms under discussion.
If possible, I think it is also helpful to encourage students to recognize that who they are extends far beyond their identities as preprofessional philosophers. Philosophy can be a pretty screwed up environment filled with small minded, sheltered, emotionally stunted, and, yes, racist and sexist people. It is helpful if one’s sense of self isn’t too tightly connected to one’s identity as an academic philosopher.Report
I tend toward a direct approach. She should be confronted clearly with the problem and the appropriate way to think about it. The problem is that in this philosophy course, I have commented on her paper, and she rejects my comments due to her suspicions that I am sexist, and using a sexist bias against her. So, apparently, she thinks that my comments are superfluous, or some sort of excuse, or dodge. That is, she thinks that my real objections to her paper are not what I wrote, but something else. I would categorically deny this, and point out that I make these same sort of comments to papers of male students as well as female. Then, I would ask her why she thinks my comments are not the real objection. I would explain why they are the real objection, (and how I exemplify this in the course in question). I would explain the kind of objections that are typical of philosophical thought, appropriate to it, and explain appropriate responses to my comments. If she persists in her claim of sexist treatment, I would take her and her paper to the department chair, or a dean, and explain to them how the comments I made on her paper are appropriate, and her response is not. This is the kind of problem that should be addressed head on, not allowed to fester, and not allowed to undermine either my own point of view or hers.Report
Yes. If the Perplexed Ally cannot do this, then PA needs to reevaluate the situation. Specifically, if there is no concrete problem to point to, PA might be being overly defensive here.Report
Apparently discussing the reasons for the criticisms hasn’t worked. Why? There are those who reject traditional logical analysis of arguments as relative to the biases of dead, White, Western European, linear thinking, males. If this is what’s happening here then we have what some would call an incommensurable “conflict” of paradigms. In such a situation what counts as justification is relative to point of view and no compromise nor communication is possible. I find it interesting that in general it’s hard to determine what would count as making a mistake when minorities charge discrimination.Report
Can you say a bit more about how this weeding is supposed to work please?Report
But seriously, I’m a female student, who has been sexually harassed among other things. I love philosophy, and sometimes I’m pretty okay at it. I don’t accuse people of discriminating against me- even when they might be.
But how do I know Perplexed Ally isn’t writing about me? How would anyone in my position know that? This just feels like a case of a professor preemptively passing the buck.Report