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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Louie Generis
Louie Generis
4 years ago

I can’t even fathom the strength it takes to share a story like this, but I can fathom the incredible service it does us all to let it be known. Thank you.Report

HFG
HFG
Reply to  Louie Generis
4 years ago

I believe you Louie. But you deserve credit for realizing what it is that you can and can’t fathom having the strength to do. Report

Rebecca Kukla
Rebecca Kukla
4 years ago

Jan, I have admired you since grad school and admire you so much more now. Huge congratulations on surviving this, staying in the profession, and giving it so much year after year even though it has in various ways been horrible to you. Hugs and respect.Report

Jennifer Lackey
Jennifer Lackey
4 years ago

Thank you, thank you, Jan Dowell, for your bravery and generosity and for not giving up on this profession, which is so much the better in every way for having you in it!Report

Heidi Howkins Lockwood
Heidi Howkins Lockwood
4 years ago

Thank you Jan, not just for sharing some of the details of the harassment and assault, which might help those who haven’t experienced it to better understand why ostriching is unacceptable — but also for your ongoing behind-the-scenes support of the new generation of survivors. I am saddened by the fact that you have been suffering for so long in silence, and angered by the fact that you still have to endure seeing the perpetrator at APA meetings. May this be (yet another) call for the silent and thereby complicit majority in our profession to speak, to issue unambiguous demands for zero-tolerance policies, and to reveal the “open secrets” and “known problems” within the discipline.Report

Sophie Ban
Sophie Ban
4 years ago

We are beyond lucky to have Dowell at Syracuse. Every department needs someone like Jan Dowell. Report

Another Target
Another Target
4 years ago

I also want to thank Janice for her incredible bravery. I hope her testimony will help put a face on a very real problem, one that is unfortunately still alive and well in our discipline. For my own part, I have never endured anything so awful as rape, but I have both been a target of sexual harassment and have witnessed/been aware of the harassment of others (and, I’m afraid to say, I have not always been an effective bystander, though I hope to be a better one going forward). I just received my Ph.D. last year.

I think our discipline is at the point where we must acknowledge our ineptitude at dealing with this problem. Many philosophers have a poor understanding of what constitutes sexual harassment and most (including myself) aren’t quite sure how they should deal with instances of sexual harassment within their community (What are the complainant’s options? When do legal or criminal options come into the picture? Does she enjoy any protection against retaliation? For sexual harassment at conferences or in other free-floating contexts, how should complaints be handled? How should bystanders intervene?). Fortunately for us, our universities generally have people in their employ who *are* experts on harassment and, at least so far as it concerns university contexts, we can defer to them. Instead of waiting for harassment to occur — or just praying it never does (it does… it just goes unreported….) — departments should take a pro-active role in preventing harassment, e.g., by introducing annual training by their university’s resident harassment experts. They should also have a faculty equality officer who works more closely with Equal Opportunity and/or other relevant offices about ongoing issues. And they should welcome additional trainings on how to create an inclusive culture within their department and how to be a pro-active bystander.Report

Kate Norlock
4 years ago

Another Target, you might find the APA committee report, We Can Act, a good place to start. I think the committee did a good job on getting the ball rolling on some of your questions, even if it’s not the last word on the subject. And Laurie Schrage is the new chair of that committee, a good person to consult for continuing questions! http://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.apaonline.org/resource/resmgr/sexualharassmentreport.pdfReport

Another Target
Another Target
4 years ago

Kate Norlock, thanks so much! I will dfn be checking out the report. Great to know some things are happening.Report

Nebraska grad student
Nebraska grad student
4 years ago

I’m proud to have taken courses with Jan, and to count her among those philosophers that have made me a better philosopher and, more importantly, a better person. I hope I speak for all us she taught at Nebraska when I say thank you for this, and for all you’ve done for us and the discipline.Report

Jan
Jan
4 years ago

I found these tips for being an active bystander really helpful.
http://web.mit.edu/bystanders/strategies/index.html
One problem I have with being a good bystander is that I’m sometimes too stunned to respond effectively. That page offers some good strategies for common situations, making it easier to be ready. Even when caught off guard, though, it’s always possible to reach out to the the injured party to say that you thought what happened was uncool. The simple recognition of a wrong done can make a huge difference.

Also, thanks, everyone, for your very kind words. The outpouring of support I’ve received gives me a lot of hope. I hope this gives other survivors a sense that we really do have a rather large community of supporters. Report