Friday, June 07, 2013

Unprofessional Behaviors

There was a recent mild scandal when a very widely known name in philosophy of mind (the name is irrelevant to my point, but is easy enough to find out) recently resigned amid allegations of improper behavior toward a female graduate student, in particular sexually explicit e-mails. The resignation was the result of a settlement in which the academic was given the option of resignation or investigation. This sort of thing happens, although it is remarkable how rarely it does; the information available to the public seemed damning on the particular charge, but it was mostly quite sketchy and indirect, and probably would have been forgotten soon. Inability to stop arguing, however, is a disease to which those of us with philosophical training are sometimes susceptible, and the academic in question started defending himself online. He thereby turned a mildly scandalous situation into a major scandal, because it is an unavoidable conclusion from his 'defenses' that he was, in fact, acting unprofessionally, and that unprofessional behavior was a consistent behavior with respect to this particular grad student.

Graduate students are in a peculiar position in the discipline in part because they are simultaneously students and professional colleagues. That's the whole point of the program. Because of this, it is exceptionally important to act professionally with them. This doesn't rule out socializing, but it requires some very clear and definite lines. And, indeed, given the power relationships in a graduate department, these have to be even more clear than they are with one's fellow faculty members.

But academic philosophy as a profession has severe professionalism issues. It's not that philosophers are incapable of acting professionally, since a great many are and do. Rather, it's that reputation in the field has practically nothing to do with how professionally one acts in professional situations. You can act like a clueless adolescent or skeevy predator and, remarkably, it has very little effect. It's not that people are unaware of this sort of behavior. One of the goddesses of academia is Rumor: academics, being in occupations where general reputation is very important to career, are inevitably gossipmongers, and philosophers are not at all immune to this. It's just that it's treated as if it's not essential. It is, for all practical purposes, a 'lifestyle choice', one of which people may disapprove, certainly, but which won't have any real adverse effects except in the very extreme cases.

The weird thing is that we're not talking heavy cultural restrictions here: we're talking very elementary procedure and protocol. It's a matter of taking a few basic steps. There are things you don't do, there are things that you definitely do, if there's a possible ethical problem down the road you work out a basic structure for minimizing the risk of it, if an unexpected ethical problem pops up you deal with it in a procedural way without blowing it off, and it's all a matter of how you structure the way you work with others, not content. If you look at how genuinely professional people deal with a potentially tricky area like, say, philosophy of sexuality, where the content could provide any number of occasions for inappropriate interactions or comments, that's what they do. They go in with a framework for interaction; they continue to emphasize boundaries as they go along; they take steps to approach matters in ways that can see the light of day; they take time out occasionally to look at any problems that might possibly be on the horizon or that might need to be nipped in the bud; and that's essentially it. It doesn't mean you can't look at controversial topics or investigate 'taboos' or consider all the possibilities of a case, even the unsavory or political incorrect ones. It's just a matter of keeping things well-structured, fair, and appropriate to the nature of inquiry as a cooperative enterprise. And yet.

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