There is a stereotype within the field of philosophy.
According to Tom — a philosophy graduate student who wished to use a pseudonym for fear of retribution — people assume that philosophers are constantly jockeying to prove how smart they are, sometimes at the expense of others in the room. That they must be loud and contrarian to be brilliant.
But, Tom said, that perception is beginning to shift.
In conversations with 12 graduate students and six professors, many agreed with Tom. Department members pointed to an expanding body of scholarship –– tackling questions of race and gender –– and conscious efforts to construct inclusive intellectual spaces.
Yet, the impetus for these more than a dozen interviews came from the Philosophy Department’s 2017 climate survey, which was leaked in an email to the News in the spring of last year. The survey solicited anonymous online feedback from 36 graduate students and received answers from 70 percent of its targeted audience. Students were welcome both to write qualitative responses and provide quantitative data. Climate surveys like these are common tools that departments at Yale wield to interface and check in with their students. This particular study, conducted in the spring semester of 2017, was intended for use by faculty members and graduate students within the department, according to Philosophy Department chair Verity Harte.
In the words of the climate survey committee, composed of graduate student liaisons and professors, the survey’s “three most disturbing results” are as follows:
“1. One of our students has experienced romantic or sexual attention from a faculty member.
“2. Students – including 9/10 women – do not trust that the department will protect them from faculty sexual misconduct or follow policy on sexual misconduct, and we found evidence of a hostile environment experienced by a number of students.
“3. Conservative or religious views have been disrespected by faculty,” according to the survey overview.
Of the interviews the News conducted with graduate students, few respondents of the 41 emailed provided on-the-record commentary, opting instead for anonymous, on background or off-the-record remarks due to personal or professional concerns. In addition, while the News reached out to all philosophy graduate students listed on the department’s website this summer, the responses overwhelmingly came from male-identifying members.
Most graduate students interviewed by the News reported positive experiences with their peers in the department, and many said they enjoyed their relationships with professors. Graduate school in general is notorious for its grueling workload and isolating lifestyle, and the concerns reported in the philosophy survey –– including misconduct, minority group treatment and lack of respect for students –– pervade many pockets of academia.
But that the three most disturbing problems exist at all is seen as troublesome by many in the department.
“Concrete steps are good, and will continue. But we are not under any illusion that such specifics are enough, all on their own, to build confidence and community,” Harte wrote in an email addressed to the philosophy graduate students in November 2018. “Change is slow and often comes only through the less tangible more difficult work of raising awareness of community building.”
CONSERVATIVE OR RELIGIOUS PERSPECTIVES
Tom said he once took a class that assumed capitalism and the military were “bad and evil.” He identifies as progressive, but he understands how comments like this could be less tolerable for others who did not necessarily concur.
One graduate student, who preferred to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, said the department is fairly politically homogeneous, with most of his peers and his professors leaning left.
While the student described his opinions are “moderately held,” he could imagine a more right-wing student becoming frustrated by some of the anti-Republican rhetoric that pervades the department. This commentary, according to the student, can paint conservative viewpoints as “proto-fascists or motivated by malign intentions” to minority groups.
The student added that he has encountered descriptions that paint religious adherence as either the result of a lack of education or reliance on a therapeutic crutch.
“The departmental atmosphere toward religious people ranges from polite condescension to outright low-key hostility,” the student said.
According to the climate survey, the political and religious landscape of the department was found to be “shamefully miserable.”
One respondent wrote that while the issue did not affect them personally, it likely had a large impact on undergraduates. The individual wrote that Yale College students had asked them whether they could argue certain topics in their theses due to political content “for fear of punishment by faculty and/or other undergraduates.”
No respondents said they had seen faculty members repeatedly make such comments or jokes about progressive of left-wing political opinions, and most respondents reported that they had never or only occasionally seen faculty members make “disrespectful or dismissive” remarks concerning religious or right-wing views in such a manner that could “offend or exclude” people who hold such opinions. One respondent wrote they had occasionally witnessed discussion between faculty members and graduate students that could make “persons of traditional religious views feel quite uncomfortable.”
Even so, the survey writers lamented that any complaints had been raised at all.
“Do faculty know what they are doing?” the survey asked. “Do they intend to discriminate against these positions? Or, subconsciously? Either way, it does not say anything nice about the climate.”
In May 2016, Buzzfeed News published sexual misconduct allegations against renowned philosophy professor Thomas Pogge. In the story, Fernanda Lopez Aguilar ’10 filed a formal complaint with the University in 2011, alleging that Pogge sexually harassed and assaulted her the summer after her senior year.
The University’s adjudicative panel found that Pogge had engaged in “unprofessional conduct” that could have made Aguilar feel “confused, anxious or uncomfortable.” Yet, despite these findings, the panel did not find Pogge responsibility for sexual harassment. He remains at Yale today.
The News reached out to more than 30 philosophy professors in the department to inquire if they would like to be interviewed for the piece. The email requesting the interview explained that the feature was “not about any specific figure in the department, but is rather about [the faculty member’s] perspective on the culture of the department.”
In an interview with the News, Pogge reasserted what he has long said: that he is not guilty of the charges brought up against him based on the committee’s preponderance of evidence standard.
But Pogge said that those individuals who doubt his innocence should challenge the original findings by offering procedural or substantive reasons for not accepting the committee’s decision.
“It seems to me that anybody who finds these accusations credible should want them to be investigated. We don’t want any professor running around this campus attacking a student,” Pogge said. “But strangely, the people who make these accusations and proliferate these accusations do not seem to be interested in an investigation. And, so you wonder: Why not?”
Pogge said that graduate students have a choice of whether they enroll in any course he teaches, and this semester, no graduate students in the philosophy department took up that offer.
Pogge will teach two seminars offered to graduate students this academic year: Philosophy 657: “Recent Work on Justice” offered in the fall and Philosophy 664: “Justice, Taxes, and Global Financial Integrity” offered in the spring. Both courses are also crosslisted in Yale College. He also teaches the Yale College courses “Topics in Kant,” which features graduate students from other departments aside from philosophy, and Philosophy 180: “Ethics and International Affairs” in the spring.
When asked why he does not leave the Philosophy Department at Yale if students believe he is worsening the culture of the department, Pogge responded that he needed added context to understand this claim against him. But he said that he does not think there is an alternative for him to continue his academic career elsewhere, given his age and the allegations.
For now, he continues to maintain his innocence.
“We should ask ourselves ‘Has this really happened?’ The whole thing should be driven by the actual facts. It should not be driven by the fact that somebody is upset,” Pogge said.
Still, Tom, the anonymous graduate student who splits time with another discipline, said it is a “source of difficulty” that Pogge teaches undergraduates given the allegations against him.
“There is persistent unrest among the graduate students,” Tom said. “And the faculty says ‘Well, there’s nothing we can do about it.’”
A section of the climate survey asks respondents questions about group treatment, specifically in terms of attitudes toward minorities in academia in the department.
The result, according to the survey, “is quite disappointing.”
“As far as groups go, we see the number disturbing enough against these groups, especially women,” the survey wrote. “Racist, sexist, or homophobic comments have been made in the department, which is totally unacceptable.”
Three respondents reported repeatedly having witnessed graduate students enduring unfair or biased treatment due to “gender, race, sexuality, socio-economic status, or other identity characteristics” in the past year. Thirteen respondents answered “never” to the same question. Eight students said they have avoided work with a professor because of that professor’s treatment of minorities, while nearly 13 answered that they had never considered avoiding professors in these ways.
Another part of the survey report breaks down gender discrepancies in responses. Though the spread of responses in the survey were similar for male and nonmale students, the survey found that there were some challenges that nonmale students faced at disproportionately higher levels compared to their male peers. According to this section, only two of nine nonmale students said they felt that faculty members respected them, as opposed to 12 of 14 male respondents. Further, a majority of nonmale students — 60 percent — disagreed with the statement that their work was evaluated in a “fair and unbiased manner.”
One female undergraduate philosophy major, who preferred to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, said she has not experienced any overt gender discrimination, but she said she is quieter in classes than some of her counterparts. She said this reticience was the result of “underlying normalized factors” like gender breakdowns, which often place her in the minority and subconsciously impact her behavior.
One anonymous respondent in the survey said that while most faculty members do not treat her differently based on her gender, there are exceptions within the department. Another respondent reported that male students unintentionally exclude women from conversations in social settings or casual philosophical debates.
“I have had to aggressively insert myself into the conversation in order to get any attention,” wrote the survey respondent. “I have wondered whether this dynamic in part explains why so many of our female students do not socialize, or infrequently socialize, in departmental spaces.”
In interviews with the News, four graduate students reported having heard complaints from female counterparts regarding misconduct, but explained that their information was secondhand, albeit reliable, and that they had no details regarding formal processes brought up against professors.
Though the introduction to the survey reported that one student had been the recipient of “romantic or sexual attention from a faculty member,” the student who was the subject of this inappropriate behavior either did not speak to the News or did not mention the misconduct. Still, several students reported rumors they had heard, attesting to the gossip mill all too common in tight-knit academic circles concerning harassment allegations.
PHILOSOPHY SPECIFIC OR GRAD SCHOOL
Since enrolling at Yale, another graduate student who has chosen to remain anonymous for fear of retribution said finds himself overworked and consistently stressed.
“[Philosophy] can feel sort of isolating and combative in a way that other fields might not,” he said. “That part is difficult and I imagine that is true of sort of any graduate experience in philosophy.”
The student has found a strong community in fellow graduates studying philosophy. From his understanding of other department cultures at Yale, he and his peers within the department enjoy a comparatively friendly and “not hypercompetitive” atmosphere. He is unsure whether the stress of his studies is unique to Yale graduate students or is indicative of academic pressures worldwide.
A 2018 study in Nature Biotechnology described the mental health of graduate students as a “crisis.” Ninety percent of the report’s respondents were doctoral candidates across 26 countries and 234 institutions. Thirty-nine percent fell in the moderate-to-severe depression range, several points higher than the 6 percent of the general population who ranked in this category.
One graduate student, who preferred to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, said that anecdotally, there are many mental health issues among their peers, although the student did not know how that compares to other departments at Yale or across other institutions. The student said graduate school in general can be psychologically difficult, given the lack of structure and abundant uncertainty.
“One thing that factors into that is the job market because there is just this feeling and fear that many of us just won’t get an academic job,” the student said. They added that they estimated at least half of the philosophy graduate students were not happy.
But other facets that negatively affected student’s experiences were more specific to the department. Several graduate students pointed to the dual listing of seminars in both Yale College and the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences as one such contributor. Ten survey respondents, a plurality of the more than 20 that answered the question, said they “strongly agree[d]” that the presence of undergraduates in seminars negatively impacted their learning experience.
Another graduate student, who preferred to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, said that he has enjoyed the seminars he has taken, but he has been at times burdened by undergraduates who may slow down the discussion.
“It’s a structural choice the department has made. There are policy considerations either way,” the student said.
The survey found that it is often these undergraduates, along with graduate students from other programs, who are most prone to aggressively dominate conversations.
The survey report asserted that these classroom environments require increased moderation from faculty members. But in interviews with the News, several graduate students reported aggressive teaching styles that reward assertion and masculine domination of spaces.
“Their vision of philosophy is about demolishing the other person’s argument,” Tom said of some faculty members in the department.
The survey found that faculty behavior and discrimination has led students to avoid enrolling in the courses of certain professors or working with them as teaching assistants.
“There are a significant number of professors I would not want to work with,” one graduate student, who preferred to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, told the News. They elaborated that some faculty members are not engaged with their students, making them prone to cancel or rearrange appointments at the last minute, for example. Others are simply unpleasant to work with, either due to highly critical feedback or implicit biases that the professor may have, the student added.
Still, Tom said these aggressive and at times difficult professors are the outliers and not the norm, and he emphasized that the philosophy graduate students, by and large, are positive forces within the department.
WHAT IS BEING DONE
In April 2018, faculty members and students met to discuss the results of the climate survey and brainstorm methods of improving the culture of the department. After these discussions, the Title IX office held a workshop November of that year, and the department hosted several town hall meetings. The “Yale University Philosophy Department Graduate Student and Faculty Responsibilities” guidelines were updated to reflect the role of the director of graduate studies in addressing concerns related to faculty misconduct.
“As department chair, I want everyone here to feel, as I do, that they are part of an exciting, intellectually engaged and supportive community,” Harte wrote in an email to the News. “I know firsthand how supportive this group can be, and I’ll continue to do everything I can to bring out our best collective self.”
Harte said the department will discuss when to conduct another climate survey in the coming months.
Minorities in Philosophy at Yale –– shortened to MAP –– has also been developing proposals to increase mentorship programs between graduate students and undergraduates.
According to Marissa Wallin, a MAP representative and second year doctoral student at Yale, the group is also working to counter the “pernicious stereotype” that philosophy classrooms are aggressive spaces. They are looking to create an inclusive space for a variety of learners, whether they are underrepresented minorities in the field or simply introverts in what can be a domineering space.
“We think it’s really important that we are giving a platform to women, that we are working to legitimize the field of feminist philosophy,” Wallin said. “We also think that our mentorship scheme will help with our pipeline.”
Steven Darwall, a philosophy professor in the department for 11 years, said he has watched the nationwide landscape of the discipline grow more diverse in terms of the issues it tackles. He has watched discussions of race and gender become more mainstream nationwide and at Yale.
For Tom, the discussions of race and gender within and outside of the classroom have expanded since his undergraduate experience. He said that occasionally, such sensitivities may stifle honest conversation in favor of political correctness.
The News received the climate survey in the spring, and by its own analysis, certain cultural elements of the department require amendment. Yet, the News does not have access to all departmental climate surveys, often designed for internal circulation. Graduate schools across the nation and academia in general often grapple with many of the same issues as have been reported here. And while this survey observed and questioned the culture of one department at one university, other similar searches could find equally or more shocking results.
Overall, Tom has been content in the department. He says he feels supported in his academic work, having received ample feedback on coursework, and he respects the work of his professors.
And despite the testy relationships with some professors, the concerns of open conversation, treatment of conservatives and gender bias, he has found solace in his peers.
As Tom would say, “The graduate students I know are very down-to-earth.”
Carly Wanna | firstname.lastname@example.org .