From philosophy professor Kathleen Stock’s Substack:
Back when I was a graduate student in the 90s, first at St Andrews University and then at Leeds, philosophy departments were terrifying places. Seminar rooms often felt like amphitheatres.
Every week, the same ritual would unfold in the senior research seminar. First, a visiting speaker from another University would spend an hour explaining the details of his new theory to an ostentatiously bored and listless audience. Grimacing through the faint applause, he would brace himself for what we all knew was to follow.
Previously slouched, comatose-looking figures in the audience would ominously stir into life. Hands would shoot up. The objections would start. Frank accusations of confusion, question-begging, inconsistency, and contradiction would be made, against which the stammering speaker would defend himself as best he could. Tenacious questioners would follow up on their original objections and follow up again, to be stopped only when the speaker eventually muttered the shaming words, equivalent to a “give-up” signal in judo: “I’ll have to think a bit more about that”. Victory achieved, the questioner would fall back in his chair, visibly satisfied to an almost post-coital degree.
The speaker’s immediate ordeal over, he would be dragged to the pub and force-fed copious amounts of alcohol, then on to some probably awful restaurant, where colleagues who were particularly socially unaware (which, let’s face it, was most of them) would continue explaining to him precisely why he was completely and utterly wrong, with huge enthusiasm, late into the night.
When I was a Masters student at St Andrews, the stated aim of some faculty members was to humiliate visiting speakers, with a “win” for the “home” department declared afterwards. A distinguished Professor from Australia once told me that, years later, he still woke up in the night sweating, reliving how badly his paper at St Andrews had gone. At Leeds during my PhD, there were still a couple of Wittgenstein’s original acolytes knocking about. Apparently first learnt at the feet of the master, the habit had spread amongst some staff there of theatrically wrinkling and striking the forehead in an exaggeratedly contemptuous manner when they heard something they didn’t like, in full view of the visiting speaker. Sometimes they would wheel round, sneeringly turn their backs on the speaker, and hold their heads in their hands.
Frankly, these places scared the bejesus out of me. At St Andrews, I think I only ever spoke twice in class. The second time, I was scoffed at by the teacher so effectively that I didn’t speak in class again there, ever. In Leeds, I used to shake with anxiety walking down the endless departmental corridor. Towards the end of my time there, I finally dared to put up my hand to ask a question at a research seminar, and thought I must be having a heart attack, so loudly was my heart banging in my chest.
Most places back then were like this, I think. Academic philosophers were nearly all men, and many (most?) of them were eccentric, obsessive, grumpy men with minds like steel traps. Philosophy departments were places where derision, incredulity, and scorn were manifested on a daily basis without any attempt to hide it.
You probably expect me to say how terrible this all was. Actually, I wonder if it wasn’t the best of all possible worlds in comparison to what came next.
She goes on to recount the history of how the British philosophy profession attempted to neuter microaggressions in the seminar room to make women philosophers feel less challenged, with the ironic result that hyperaggressive ex-men and testosterone-mainlining ex-women took over and pushed women’s concerns to the margins.