The parable of the pool cue: macho posturing in conference sessions

To make conference sessions more reflective of the actual demographics of our field, it’s not enough simply to invite a more plural set of speakers; we also need to address the masculinist culture that dominates some areas of Geography. In my area, for example, the theory sessions are so notorious that even when organizers try to reach out they mostly end up with the usual suspects. Many women, people of color, and white male allies have no interest in engaging the macho posturing of session participants (on stage and in the audience).

What does that masculinist culture look like, you ask? Let me tell you a story: the parable of the pool cue. This is how the order of things was explained to me my first year of college. “Phil” is short for philosophy, which is where the theory courses were at the university I attended.


The Parable of the Pool Cue

My freshman year in college I was shooting pool with my friend Benjamin when a very large guy in a black leather jacket and brass knuckles (really) sauntered over to us and said, taunting, “So, I hear you wanna be Phil majors.”

We nodded, eyes big, very nervous about where the conversation was going.

“Know why I’m a Phil major?”

We shook our heads.

“Because it gives me a hard on,” he said, using a pool cue to demonstrate.  “And you know what Phil classes are?  They’re about proving who has the biggest… fuckin’… hard on,” extending the pool cue out with each word.

Benjamin and I both switched majors later that week.
Let us be clear that that masculinist culture sucks not just for women and people of color, but also for non-macho white guys like my friend Benjamin. It’s past time we changed it.

So what do we do?

  1. First, remember that the Pool Cue dynamic is learned, and where it’s learned is primarily in the classroom. Instructors let it happen, or even encourage it. But check it out: now we’re the instructors. So the first order of business is changing the culture in theory seminars in our departments.
  1. A good second step would be refusing to show up for Pool Cue sessions at conferences. It’s the basic rule of socializing three-year olds: don’t reward bad behavior. On that same principle, we could change our citation practices to omit macho jerks. They can sit in empty conference rooms together and watch their H-indexes stagnate. That might make their pool cues less rigid.
  1. As a follow-up, take the time freed up by Step 2 and go to sessions organized by women, people of color, and the many lovely white guys in our field.   Standing room audiences for those sessions would help to shift the cultural norms.

It’s our field. We can change it.

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