The Philosophy Boys

This account is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek commentary on graduate school culture. I must admit, while I recall being annoyed by the antics of the philosophy boys in my classes, I was friends with many of them. But, I know that I never wanted to be one of them: a philosophy boy who spouted jargon and couldn’t utter a thought without providing a history of its origins or name dropping a dozen key thinkers that have contributed to its significance. As I write this last sentence I realize that, shortly before leaving the academy, I was getting dangerously close to becoming just that.  

My first semester in my Ph.D program at Emory University, I took a philosophy class. I met two great friends in that class. I also met the Philosophy Boys, a group of male philosophy graduate students who were trained in the fine art of pontificating, abstract theorizing and bullshitting. Individually, these “boys” were friendly-enough and very smart, but collectively they exemplified the stereotype of the graduate student as an overly erudite and elitist blow-hard.

While at Emory, I took a lot of philosophy courses, usually with at least a few of the “boys”. My wonderful advisor, Dr. Cynthia Willett, was in the philosophy department. I loved her classes and being exposed to new approaches to freedom, agency, politics, and critical theory. But, I always felt like an outsider, and maybe a bit of an interloper when I took a philosophy class (especially if it wasn’t her class). Feminist philosophy (or theory) wasn’t real philosophy to many of the philosophy students and faculty. And the feminist demand to ground philosophy in concrete experiences and express it in accessible and clear language seemed to them to be aimed at dumbing down the serious and lofty work that philosophers do. Of course, really cool feminist work was being done in that department, by faculty and students alike. Two thirds of my awesome dissertation committee were in the philosophy department. But, the looming presence of the philosophy boys and their frequent in-class soliloquies served as a reminder that philosophy and my feminist methods and practices did not quite mix.

When I taught graduate students at the University, occasionally I would talk about my graduate school memories and how 90% of what graduate students seemed to do in my classes was bullshit. I was thinking about my classes with the philosophy boys. Their bullshitting typically involved name-dropping at least 2 or 3 highly influential theorists or schools of philosophical thought. It also involved bypassing any summary or recognition of what that author/theory was actually claiming, and jumping right into a scathing critique or outright dismissal of them. As a result, in-class discussions weren’t that enlightening or productive.

Sometimes these bullshitting sessions made me feel like a fraud. I shouldn’t be in the class. I don’t understand what is being said. I don’t know half the names that are being dropped. Other times, these sessions entranced me as I listened to the boys wax poetically about Hegel or positivism or phenomenology. I stopped trying to understand their words and instead would marvel over the cadence of their sentences, peppered with polysyllabic jargon and punctuated with phrases like, “the ways in which” or rhetorical questions like, “right?” full disclosure: I still like using the phrase “the ways in which.” The meaningless words were so pretty and flowed so well.

By the time I had spent four semesters in class with the boys, I was ready to be done with coursework. I had reached the limits of my desire to be a graduate student.

A few years ago, I attended an on-campus lecture. During the Q & A period at the end of the speaker’s talk, after several graduate students and professors had posed their “questions”, which weren’t really questions but mini-lectures about their own research, I had a flashback to that class and the philosophy boys. I had attended and even presented at dozens of lectures by that point, but it was this random lecture that triggered my memories of graduate school and made me finally fully realize that the philosophy boys’ methods for functioning in academic spaces were, and continue to be, the norm for (most) academics.

What do I make of this realization? Is it possible to be a different kind of academic, a non-philosphy boy one? I used to think that interdisicplinary programs/departments like women’s studies (or maybe cultural studies) offered different models. But, having taught in a interdisciplinary department, I’m not so sure. And, now that universities are consolidating departments or eliminating interdisciplinary programs to streamline their programs and provide students with a more cost-efficient and “world-class education,” I wonder about what spaces are left for me.