This is a description of an incident that happened during a seminar/lecture given to a small audience of about 12 PhD students from different research areas. The goal was to teach the PhD students about decision-making.
The goal of this post is to make people aware of systemic oppression and in what ways it manifests in academia on a daily basis. There are no names of people or institutions mentioned in this post. This is not about blaming, this is about consciousness-raising.
Short summary: Yesterday in a lecture there were a series of remarks and images intended to be amusing that were perceived as sexist, heteronormative and patriarchy-promoting, followed by some examples and exercises that, though well known in the literature, are fairly offensive. Some of us – PhD students – were, understandably, very uncomfortable with this, but, when they expressed that, the instructor did not make a concerted effort to find out why, not did he make any effort to adopt less offensive examples. About four students left. One was accused of acting disrespectfully by a peer.
Details: The instructor began his session on “mate choice” (a very problematic area of research, which has produced the most incendiary work in evolutionary psychology) with some slides indicating the kinds of reasons why choosing mates is important and how such choices are made. He showed, a picture of a baby, a picture of a hetero couple, and a picture of a man showing off his big biceps. That recapitulates the evolutionary psychology stereotype, i.e. that human romantic behavior is about procreation, which is driven by things such as male strength and female fertility. So, already the students are on edge. He then shifts into a classic mathematical problem from the psychology of decision. This problem dates from the mid-20th century, a time when the field was almost entirely male, and it has a number of very unfortunate names: the secretary problem, the fussy suitor problem, the marriage problem, and the sultan’s dowry problem. The instructor used the secretary formulation, and tried mask the sexism of the example by saying it can be formatted in a gender-neutral way. He then used the sultan problem, which became his main example. This version is culturally insensitive (I would say islamophobic) and sexist (about a man making choices for many women who can serve in a harem, an equivalent: woman being selected by a male decision-maker to serve as sex slaves).
It is true that these formulations are standard in the field, but little effort was made to apologize for their appalling content. The instructor too could have reformulated in terms of any problem domain. There is no reason to re-use these dated and offensive examples. By analogy, had he introduced choice by talking about a slave market, it would have been obviously inappropriate. Well, a harem is basically a slave market, so some people rightfully took offense. That this was presented as science by a white male teacher (a person who is in authority at this given moment and who is, per se, a person possessing power privileges) to a diverse audience made matters worse. The most unfortunate and avoidable thing, however, was that no effort was made to address the students who were clearly getting agitated. The students also made an excellent point about the scientific value of one example: the instructor said that we model mate choice by assigning a numerical ranking to potential partners, and the students astutely noted that this is not at all realistic. At this point, it would have been trivial to just switch the example at that point, or even to say “I know these are really offensive examples, but they are in the literature, so I want you to know them by name.” The lecturer carried on with the lesson, failing to make such small gestures to recognize that students were uncomfortable. In the end, several walked out of what should have been a completely benign lecture. And again: about four of us left the lecture. After speaking out to the lecturer several times, telling him to stop using sexist content in his lecture, and in the end walking out of the lecture, I was accused of acting disrespectfully by a male peer afterwards (e.g., for the use of the word “fucked” – for clarification: I used it once, I did not insult the lecturer at any time).
I am grateful for those who followed me in leaving the lecture and speaking up. Too often whistle blowers become doubly victimized. They first have to endure the original offense, and the hostile climate that it promotes, and then they are demonized for responding. Knowing some people support my decision is already great. It would be even greater if some public effort were made to express that students who speak out are not mental but important.
The thing that strikes me as even more important is consciousness-raising about why such examples are toxic. Many of us PhD students will have occasions to teach such material in the future and this is a great occasion to brainstorm with them about how to do so in a sensitive way. I would be very happy to create a group that puts together some written material handling provocative topics in the classroom. Or to organize a session to discuss this – though, that can put the whistle blowers in the position of having to defend their actions, or place the burden on them of educating their peers. I think it might be better if advice was privately developed in consultation with interested and then distributed to all.
I think it might help if instructors/ and institutions in general (!) reflected (along with the students) on what to do when a student conveys that something is offensive. Offensiveness is something that should be taken seriously, and one should presume the feelings are legitimate, and try to identify and correct their source. Here it would have been effortless to change examples, or apologize for the literature. There may be cases where just one student is offended. There may even be cases where the instructor can imagine why someone is offended or thinks they shouldn’t be. Even here, it is important to respond with an effort to take the student’s perspective seriously. A white heterosexual male teacher is not necessarily in the best position to see why the example of Sultans choosing women can make people feel uncomfortable. The teacher can, at that point, engage with the student to come up with a better example.
People who are charged with offensiveness get angry sometimes, and try to turn the tables and attack their accusers or claim they have been persecuted by “thought police.” It is helpful to anticipate that reply, and to make it explicitly clear that this is not about censorship; it is about effective and inclusive instruction. An islamic student hearing the sultan example will not be any more motivated to learn than a Jewish student hearing an example about a Jewish moneylender. This is not a matter of people being delicate, sensitive, or overly emotional. It is about creating a classroom that doesn’t promote bigotry and where people who ask for respect are heard. The examples are an unfortunate residue of a very sexist period in a field that remains male dominated. Efforts to remove sexist examples are no less important than efforts to diversify the university population. They are part of the same process. To speak out about this is not delicacy or weakness.