UserpicThe Genius Project
07.06.13, 09:04 AM

On a couple of emails


The student (hereafter NN) and I were engaged on what we called “the Genius Project”. The purpose of the genius project was to make NN into a truly original and outstanding young philosopher (one who could expect to find an attractive job later). Part of this project involved techniques for encouraging unconventional thinking, and the concept of “taboo-busting” was deemed helpful towards this end. We had developed a very open and candid style of communication, and were in contact extremely frequently. (She came to my house several times to play tennis and go paddle boarding, as well as talk about the work we were doing.) The understanding was that we could say anything to each other, in a spirit of mutual trust (she would often use the phrase “cluster fuck” to me). Humor and playfulness were much in evidence. We also liked each other very much. The relationship was close, reciprocal, and much valued by both parties. She sent me many affectionate and exuberant emails, often of a very personal nature.

In this spirit I sent NN two short email messages, spaced over three months, which contained some (mild) sexual content, which was related to the seminar of mine NN had attended and which was relevant to work we were doing together. This content pertained to the hand in relation to human evolution and human life (including sexual life), and referred back to material discussed in the seminar I gave and which NN enthusiastically attended. These emails were received in the spirit in which they were intended (certainly no complaint was voiced about them), and they gave rise to some mild amusement between us over the months. They were quite banal. Many other personal and professional matters were discussed in our email correspondence, as well as our very frequent meetings; these two were exceptional and designed to achieve a specific pedagogical end. In no sense were they intended (or interpreted) as attempts to elicit anything from the recipient (except perhaps a chuckle).

            To impose disciplinary action on the writer of these two emails would be a clear infringement of academic freedom and freedom of speech. I judged that these emails were in line with the project on which NN and I were (consensually) engaged, and I think they served their purpose (taboo-busting—though they described rather mundane matters). Most of the genius project took a more conventional form, but it is within this context that they should be interpreted. They were not just gratuitous snippets of risque prose, sent out of the blue. I believe that had the genius project continued it would have borne significant fruit; and indeed a colleague has remarked to me that NN’s philosophical abilities went from “good” to “superb” following the several months during which I was attempting to make her into a “genius”.

            It is very important to view these emails in context, which includes both their pedagogical history and the verbal responses from NN that followed and preceded them. It is also important to avoid stereotypical thinking. It should also be noted that it was explicitly agreed between us that if anything in our relationship was felt to be unacceptable it could be stopped simply by saying so.

            I am sorry to have to air these personal matters in a public setting, but recent events have forced me to it. What should have been entirely private has become a matter of (prurient) public speculation.


Colin McGinn

19 comments 19 comments ( 6370 views )

No Userpicechochamber
08.06.13, 09:35 PM
"Which part did you find repugnant, the training of young future philosophers or the critical analysis of social taboos?"

Do you really suppose those to be the only options? Oh my.

Look, an aging philosopher engages a graduate student with the promise of turning her into a genius. The method involves suspension of taboos, including that against salacious repartee between instructor and student. The bit about turning her into a genius I find simply ridiculous, beyond salvaging with irony. The bit about taboos I find creepy -- too near for my tastes to the sexual dispensations one hears about in cults. So far, very near to repugnant. But the research project! The semantics of "hand job"? I write fiction and frankly couldn't have invented anything richer. That McGinn would dignify this farce -- which taken whole I do find repugnant -- with comparison to this or that cultural figure I find astonishingly dim.

Note that I've not accused McGinn of harassment, or even advocated his dismissal. On that score, I would say only that it matters not at all that his accuser -- if that's what she is -- waited five months to air her complaints. If those are grounds for denying her claims, many a rape should go unpunished (needless to add, this is emphatically not an accusation of rape).

As for McGinn's latest submission -- épater les bourgeois etc. -- would someone who cares about the man please advise him to stop? Time for some reflection, I'd say, not least on the astonishing smugness that surely brought him to this pass.

UserpicDesi Murcho
07.06.13, 08:26 PM
Which part did you find repugnant, the training of young future philosophers or the critical analysis of social taboos? If the first, then perhaps teaching and training young philosophers should be altogether abolished. If the later, then perhaps philosophy should be abolished because an important part of what we do is precisely that.

I believe Mill would also would have been accused of suspending taboos -- like the idea that women were not equals to men -- and therefore sacked for the university. Oh wait, he did not have a university post. Lucky bastard.

Let's get something clear here. Imagine McGinn did send sexual innuendo to the student. The student could just tell him to stop or else. Or could just complain there and then and not months after a failed assignment. This sounds like petty revenge on the part of the student. This is not even remotely close to sexual harassment.

No Userpicechochamber
07.06.13, 06:15 PM
The emails were part of a pedagogical experiment -- yet still somehow "private". Strange, that. I often send emails with a pedagogical purpose. Would it be uncomfortable to find them the subject of sudden, vast attention? I imagine so. But not because they're private. And am I the only one who finds the very idea of a "Genius Project", including a suspension of taboos, repugnant? McGinn's posts on this site only deepen the impression.

No UserpicDevilsAdvocate
07.06.13, 05:13 PM

Easy with those inferences and analogies!

I was merely corroborating the hypothesis put forward by Zealot above: the student is used to use her looks to get ahead, a strategy which probably worked well to get privileged access to a slightly lecherous professor, etc. Obviously that would not excuse the sexual harassment. In fact nothing would, on any plausible definition of sexual harassment.

However the hypothetical story in conjunction with the fact of the five-month delay between harassment and complaint does raise some questions with regard to the student's conduct and motivations.

07.06.13, 05:03 PM
DevilsAdvocate: by accusing a student of accentuating her attractiveness rather than her professionalism, you seem to be implying that she deserved to be sexually harassed by mcginn -- and you are thereby essentially echoing the claim that women who dress provocatively deserve to be raped.

07.06.13, 04:57 PM
mcginn makes himself sound like a catholic priest training an altar boy. he reveals his own salaciousness through his misguided apologetics.

No UserpicDevilsAdvocate
07.06.13, 04:46 PM
Insofar as there are clear sides in this comment threads, it's quite clear which one is mostly resorting to rational arguments and which one is mostly resorting to name-calling.

No UserpicJackHandy
07.06.13, 04:40 PM
"(Anonymized) details of the student's academic failure could help the community of rational people come to a better informed judgment."

I think you meant "...details of the student's academic failure could help the community of rational people come to an even clearer understanding of Prof. McGinn's astounding lack of professionalism and self-awareness."

No Userpiczealot
07.06.13, 04:21 PM
(Anonymized) details of the student's academic failure could help the community of rational people come to a better informed judgment.

07.06.13, 04:18 PM
you are a disgusting dirty old man.
your repulsiveness is even more clearly displayed the more you try to justify your sexual harrassment with your paternalistic arrogance.
good riddance to you, colin mcginn.

No UserpicBerkeleyGirl
07.06.13, 04:17 PM
I took it the failure refered to one of the other parties involved but I could be wrong Zealot. However all the speculation is probably not that useful to Prof. McGinn at this point. Moving forward I know he will have the support of many rational people.

UserpicDesi Murcho
07.06.13, 04:12 PM
I wonder if anything like this would have happened had Professor P been a woman or had student NN been a man.

No UserpicJackHandy
07.06.13, 04:10 PM
Y U Resign????

No Userpiczealot
07.06.13, 03:54 PM
So, on what basis was the student selected to embark on the Genius Project'? And was this opportunity offered to other grad students? (I'm sure it was potentially open to others, but was it offered?)

I can imagine the outline of a typical tangle of responsibilities. Perhaps subconsciously, the professor wants to get close to an attractive student so he devotes special attention to her; perhaps subconsciously, the student can see that her attractiveness helps her gain the professor's attention so she flirts; then the student's boyfriend protests and out comes the harassment complaint -- perhaps after the student realised that she wasn't going to be a genius anyway (the academic failure mentioned above).

How far am I from the truth?

No UserpicBerkeleyGirl
07.06.13, 03:25 PM
Indeed. It is a sad day for philosophy when philosophers and those aspiring to the profession prefer to focus on salacious gossip rather than attempt to use their critical faculties to assess a situation.

UserpicColin McGinn
07.06.13, 02:39 PM
And yet I never used the M word in fact (nor did I mention it). Russell was denied a job at CUNY because he had written that "a boy of four who touches his parts should not be slapped". Maybe things have changed that much.

No UserpicBerkeleyGirl
07.06.13, 02:14 PM
Five months! For one so badly offended......just doesn't add up. Very very unfortunate situation. The strong reaction of Prof. McGinn's employer is not without precedent It seems the M word has caused her to react strongly in the past also.

UserpicColin McGinn
07.06.13, 01:46 PM
Five months after. I don't know if a third party prompted it. But I do know it followed an academic failing by the student.

No Userpiczealot
07.06.13, 01:43 PM
Clarification question: was the complaint raised weeks or even months after the incriminating emails were sent? And was the complaint prompted by a third party?