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Charismatic Nerd Looks for Fun Times

From Professor Phoebe Cohen:

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Who will #meToo come for next?

If Cohen were seriously concerned about such behavior, shouldn’t she focus more on her Williams colleagues some (many?) of whom were seeking sex with their students in the not-so-distant past? Cohen, now tenured, is well-placed to call out such “super-sketchy behavior.” If she declines to do so, how seriously should we take her condemnation of Feynman?

UPDATE: BH’s comments remind me that not everyone follows this topic as closely as we do. From October:

At least three current students have reported to EphBlog that professors in a for-now-unnamed department warn current students they advise to either a) not take a course and/or b) distance themselves from one particular professor due to a number of sexual harassment complaints, including “coming onto” students during office hours and attempting to engage in other inappropriate behavior. Despite the complaints, which have come at least since the 2013-2014 academic year, this professor is still currently in the employment of the College and is teaching a class this semester. Notably, this professor only conducts class on a limited number of days a week when they are allowed on campus, a measure enacted since the 2014-2015 academic year in response to the complaints. At least for the last year, this professor has not held office hours for their classes.

Note that this post was not written by me.

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14 Comments To "Charismatic Nerd Looks for Fun Times"

#1 Comment By BH On May 12, 2018 @ 12:59 pm

This is a ridiculous post, David. Do you have an evidence that Professor Cohen would not (or has not) called out “super-sketchy behavior” one the part of her Williams colleagues when and if she has become aware of it? The way you word this clearly implies that you think she does not do so. Again, any evidence whatsoever for this insinuation?

And in what way would her noting that on re-reading Feyman’s writing she sees much to find disturbing somehow how interfere with her calling out colleagues for similar behavior? By implying she should “focus more on her Williams colleagues” you seem to indicate that writing this tweet took away precious time from fighting sexual harassment at Williams. Surely you’re joking.

I am honestly curious why you would post this. Was it just a chance to take a cheap shot at Williams faculty? An absurd attempt to accuse Professor Cohen of hypocrisy without any basis for doing so? I’d like to say that you’re better than this, but the more I read this blog the more I start to doubt that’s actually the case.

#2 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On May 12, 2018 @ 1:42 pm

Do you have an evidence that Professor Cohen would not (or has not) called out “super-sketchy behavior” one the part of her Williams colleagues when and if she has become aware of it?

1) There are current Williams faculty who have (successfully!) sought to sleep with students.

2) I have never met a tenured member of the Williams faculty who was unaware of this. (Professors gossip too!)

3) Once you are tenured, calling out sketchy behavior is as easy as a treat or a Record op-ed. Cohen, to my knowledge, has done neither.

Now, of course, you could be right! Cohen might be unaware of the behavior of some of her colleagues or she might have called out their behavior in some fashion. If I am wrong, I will apologize.

But I bet that I am not wrong!

However, your complaint seems deeper than this. (Correct me if I am wrong!)

Assume for a second that Cohen is aware of her colleagues behavior and that she has not called them out. (Again, if I am wrong about those assumptions, I owe her an apology.)

you seem to indicate that writing this tweet took away precious time from fighting sexual harassment at Williams.

Well, I would phrase it differently: If someone says that they care deeply about X and then point out what a problem X was 3,000 miles away, I am happy to criticize them for hypocrisy if they ignore X in their backyard.

Is that unreasonable?

#3 Comment By BH On May 12, 2018 @ 2:33 pm

I’m starting to think my belief that you are a intelligent person who cares about Williams, even if it is sometimes expressed in odd ways, is sadly misplaced.

Professor Cohen pointed out two specific things in Feynman’s writings that bothered her upon rereading: 1) he brags that lied about his identity to try to get younger women to have sex with him and 2) he referred to the women who wouldn’t sleep with him as “bitches.”

Are you claiming that Professor Cohen has firsthand knowledge (similar, for example to Feynman himself bragging about doing so) that faculty at Williams are doing this and that she is not taking appropriate action? Of course you don’t.

Do you think that what she is doing here, describing her reaction to re-reading a biography of a scientist she (presumably) never knew and who has been dead for twenty years in the exact same category of identifying rumored “sketchy” behavior among her colleagues? If I decide, upon learning of JFK’s behavior towards his interns that he was, in fact, a rapist, does that make me a hypocrite if I don’t simultaneously call out a former Williams faculty member whom I heard might tried to sleep with his students? How ridiculous.

Yes, there are no doubt current Williams faculty how have slept with students in the past. Do you have any evidence that Professor Cohen has evidence that such behavior is going on currently or has been going while she was a faculty member? Or, rather are you suggesting that she should write editorials in the Record about rumors she has heard about past behavior of her colleagues? Surely you know the latter is absolutely crazy. Well, given what you regularly do on this blog, perhaps you don’t know that.

Any sex between faculty and students is, as of recent faculty vote, in violation of college policy. Prior to that, it was in violation of college policy in most, but not all, contexts. Are you claiming that Professor Cohen has actionable knowledge of violations of important college policies that she is not reporting though the proper channels at the college? If so, that’s a very serious accusation you are making. Do you have any evidence, or are you simply making things up?

Should I suggest that it likely you have sex with the interns you hire from Williams? Or with the students you teach in Winter Study. Maybe I’ve heard things. Maybe I haven’t.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I bet I have exactly as much evidence that you pressure your interns into sex as you have that Professor Cohen is aware of current faculty having sex with students. Should I write a Record editorial about this? Perhaps I should just start warning students about you. I mean, just in case.

#4 Comment By BH On May 12, 2018 @ 2:36 pm

For the record, of course I shouldn’t and wouldn’t do these things. Similarly, you should both take down your post and apologize to Professor Cohen for your completely unfounded accusations.

#5 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On May 12, 2018 @ 3:03 pm

Professor Cohen pointed out two specific things

No. She quoted someone else doing that. Her own specific claim is to accuse Feynman of “sexism and super-sketchy behavior.” Can you read her mind? Do you know precisely which parts of Feynman’s book she is referring to?

Having read Cohen’s tweets for a while, I am fairly certain that she would have lots and lots of complaints about Feynman (as would I). In particular, she would describe faculty seeking sex from their own students as “super-sketchy.” Would you disagree with my reading of Cohen?

Professor Cohen has firsthand knowledge

English, please. I made specific claims about what Cohen, and virtually all tenured Williams faculty, is aware of. Do you disagree with those claims?

If I decide, upon learning of JFK’s behavior towards his interns that he was, in fact, a rapist, does that make me a hypocrite if I don’t simultaneously call out a former Williams faculty member whom I heard might tried to sleep with his students?

Uhh, JFK is dead. One hopes he is no longer seeking sex from interns.

Super-sketching behavior by Williams faculty is recent, perhaps on-going. Happy to explore that topic, if you like.

Any sex between faculty and students is, as of recent faculty vote, in violation of college policy. Prior to that, it was in violation of college policy in most, but not all, contexts.

All of Feynman’s behavior was consistent with Caltech’s policies at the time, otherwise he probably would not have included it in his book.

Cohen seems (correctly!) to feel that consistent-with-current-policy is not a reasonable guide to moral judgment.

#6 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On May 12, 2018 @ 3:16 pm

BH: Thanks for pushing me on this topic!

1) I have updated the post with recent accusations (made by faculty) against a Williams professor.

2) I e-mail Professor Cohen to make sure that she was aware of these accusations.

#7 Comment By Doug On May 12, 2018 @ 3:48 pm

Provocative post, DDF, but if you’re really trying to make a stir you should name-drop this philandering prof.

#8 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On May 12, 2018 @ 3:50 pm

Most times, my goal is not to “make a stir.”

#9 Comment By BH On May 12, 2018 @ 4:17 pm

You’re right that I misunderstood the Twitter thread in that I thought the second part was written by Prof. Cohen as well. Sorry (I don’t use Twitter).

English, please. I made specific claims about what Cohen, and virtually all tenured Williams faculty, is aware of. Do you disagree with those claims?

Yes, I disagree with those claims. Beyond the bit you repost above, I have not even heard a rumor of a current faculty member having or pursuing sex with students since I have been at Williams. That certainly doesn’t mean that it’s not happening, and humans being humans I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it is, but it’s perfectly reasonable to think that Prof. Cohen is not “aware” of such activities. (By “beyond the bit you repost” I mean that your post is the only time I’ve heard of this situation, not that I knew about it independently of that post.)

I don’t understand the “English, please” part. My point about “firsthand knowledge” is to distinguish this from rumor. I think you grossly overstate what “all tenured Williams faculty” are “aware of.” And what do you mean by “aware of”? If Prof. A tells me “I heard from Prof. B that Prof. C made a pass at a student,” am I now “aware” that Prof. C made a pass at a student? That seems to be pushing the definition of “aware” a bit too far.

More to the point, do you think that in that situation I would have a responsibility to write a Record editorial about Prof. C? That seems to be what you are implying.

Let’s say that a student comes to me and says “Professor C made a pass at me.” Under such a circumstance I would definitely believe I had a responsibility to report this through the appropriate channels. Do you think I would also have a responsibility to write a Record editorial about this? That would seem grossly irresponsible without having far more information.

JFK is dead!?! Oh no!!!

I am aware of that. Richard Feynman is dead as well. That’s why I made the analogy (learning something new, or seeing something in a new light, about a person who died some time ago and whom one previously felt positively about).

#10 Comment By Mr. Bean On May 12, 2018 @ 4:27 pm

JFK is dead? Who knew?

This whole discussion appears to be pointless. Why are we following every word of every single professor or student at the College? Everyone is their own individual, with their own opinions and ideas, and although we should criticize people for egregious actions, this Tweet is nothing of the sort.

On the issue of sexual relations/assault/harassment, that is indeed an important topic if we are finding out that institutionally, Williams has shielded a predator. But we do not know that. We do not have a name, department, or a gender. Williams has ~400 faculty members — shall we go through a list and cross out each one? This is a sensitive topic, and should be approached with care.

#11 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On May 12, 2018 @ 4:31 pm

Why are we following every word of every single professor or student at the College?

I, at least, am not. I follow a handful of people on twitter, please who are a) Very smart b) Often teach me something and c) with whom I generally disagree.

Taking a part in that on-line conversation is a big part of what “All Things Eph” means to me.

if we are finding out that institutionally, Williams has shielded a predator

“If”? You really think that this Williams student is lying to us? I will take the other side of that!

#12 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On May 12, 2018 @ 4:34 pm

do you think that in that situation I would have a responsibility to write a Record editorial about Prof. C?

Nope! But if you make a big deal of virtue-signalling on Twitter about how upset you are by sketchy professor behavior, I am going to make fun of you for not doing something about it!

Especially if you have tenure . . .

#13 Comment By Mr. Bean On May 12, 2018 @ 4:45 pm

I, at least, am not. I follow a handful of people on twitter, please who are a) Very smart b) Often teach me something and c) with whom I generally disagree.

Taking a part in that on-line conversation is a big part of what “All Things Eph” means to me.

I understand and respect that. Fair.

“If”? You really think that this Williams student is lying to us? I will take the other side of that!

I have no idea — I have not met anybody, nor gained any information. As of now, to me, I have no clue what is going on; and that is OK. I am not taking any side nor claiming anyone is lying, simply stating that to conjecture about identities or sexual acts is harmful to those who have experienced such behavior, to students who have been assaulted, to those innocents who might be accused, and to administrators claiming to be shielding people.

Until all the details come out into the light, speculating would just be harmful to all parties involved. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.

#14 Comment By ZSD On May 12, 2018 @ 9:18 pm

I, at least, am not. I follow a handful of people on twitter, please who are a) Very smart b) Often teach me something and c) with whom I generally disagree.

Taking a part in that on-line conversation is a big part of what “All Things Eph” means to me.

Wow! It seems the value of the Liberal Arts education is being degraded rather rapidly!