Reading classical male philosophers through a feminist lens

Feminists may read philosophers in new and important ways.  Perhaps one of the most famous examples of this is Annette Baier’s reading of Hume, in which she strongly resists the traditional individualist readings of him and  reveals the extent  to which Hume saw society as important in the development of the varieties of human excellence.  Jenny Lloyd and Jackie Taylor are two people who have also contributed to this understanding of Hume.

Nancy Tuana’s series, ReReading the Canon, has encouraged feminists to embark on such re-understandings, and I’m wondering whether readers of this blog have thought about feminist readings of the classical philosophers, either in that series or elsewhere.  If so, which have been particularly helpful to you, do you think?  Or helpful to the community’s more accurate understanding of the philosopher?

The historical re-reading can overlap with another kind of re-reading, one in which feminists provide a critique of a topic in philosophy and its standard treatment.  Here too often the themes of the critique can show up in work the guys produce and when it does it arguably gets a much more sustained audience.  Readers might want also to mention when and when  this has happened.

And if you are an editor of a volume in the Re-reading series, please feel free to mention your authors!  (The same goes if you are one of the authors.)

How can we make higher education more inclusive?

It’s a long post, but I could really do with your thoughts!

Suppose a university or college wanted to review the inclusivity of the curriculum.  Not recruitment, or admissions, or student support, but the core learning, teaching and assessment activities.  What might that mean? And how should it be presented to busy academics? I’ve been thinking about this a lot, but it’s easy to get bogged down in bureaucratic language, so I wanted to see if I could articulate some basic claims that might be behind such an initiative.  My starting point is the thought that

  • although there are many similarities among students and the people teaching them, there are also many differences;
  • some of these differences are culturally and politically significant in ways which have affected people’s access to, and success within, higher education;
  • these inequalities are not inevitable – they are, in part, the result of barriers created by practices and policies in learning, teaching and assessment;
  • we should be working to identify and remove such barriers.

Given this starting point, I take the ‘inclusivity’ of the curriculum to be the extent to which it draws in a wide range of people and enables them to learn to the best of their ability.  So I’m thinking about members of all kinds of groups traditionally underserved by higher education.  The kinds of barriers which would make a curriculum less inclusive, then, might include

  • drawing syllabus content throughout a degree programme from a narrow understanding of the subject or discipline, to the exclusion of critical or marginalised perspectives (see Jill Gordon’s paper What Can White Faculty Do – sadly not available for free unless you have access via an institutional library);
  • using ‘high stakes’ delivery or assessment, which only gives students one opportunity to participate or to demonstrate their achievement and leaves no room for them to learn from mistakes;
  • relying heavily on a single method of delivery (for instance, the traditional lecture) or a single method of assessment (for instance, the traditional written exam) (see Making your teaching inclusive);
  • assuming that students already understand the cultures and norms of higher education in your country – or of specific disciplines – and so failing to make expectations clear;
  • using illustrations, examples and language which reinforce stereotypes or convey the message that some ways of being are ‘normal’ and others ‘abnormal’;
  • stereotyping students from particular groups and (even unwittingly) treating them differently as a result (see our other posts on implicit bias and the American Psychological Association on racism and psychology) ;
  • only offering opportunities for further research or study at times which are inaccessible for students with caring commitments or who need to earn money alongside their studies;
  • allowing offensive behaviour or speech to go unchallenged in a way which makes people feel humiliated, excluded or silenced.

Are there other reasons to pursue this work – or reasons not to pursue it?  Are there other barriers that seem obvious to you?  What kinds of evidence would help establish the nature of the barriers?  Or is this the wrong way to think about it?

If you work in higher education, how could you raise these issues with colleagues?  And how do you think the conversations would go?

“Feisty Working Women”

Gail Collins is celebrating today’s signing – by Obama – of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act [See Jender’s post on her here.]  She mentions several other FW women who took action that has  made work  conditions better for other women, though too often not for themselves.

Another was Eulalie Cooper, a flight attendant who sued Delta Air Lines in the mid-’60s when she was fired for being married. …

Patricia Lorance, an Illinois factory worker, went to court after her union and employer secretly agreed to new seniority rules that discriminated against the women who had been promoted in the post-Civil Rights Act era of the 1970s. …

Ledbetter’s real soul sister is Lorena Weeks of Wadley, Ga. Weeks, now 80, had worked two jobs to support her orphaned siblings, then struggled with her husband to set enough money aside to assure their children would be able to go to college. A longtime telephone employee, she applied for a higher-paying job overseeing equipment at the central office. Both her union and the management said the job was unsuitable for a woman because it involved pushing 30-pound equipment on a dolly, even though Weeks regularly toted around a 34-pound typewriter at her clerical job.  Weeks v. Southern Bell helped smash employers’ old dodge of keeping women out of higher-paying positions by claiming that they required qualifications only men could fulfill.


How to reinforce stereotypes in the classroom…

Context: a discussion of personal injury cases in a tort law class…

Student:  Wasn’t P v. Q the one where the victim’s sexual performance was affected?
Lecturer:  No, P v. Q was an infection.  And anyway, the victim was a woman.

…laughter all round, except not from me.

At the time, I took the lecturer to be implying one of two things:  (a) only men have (or do?) ‘sexual performance’ so if the victim was a woman there could have been no effect on sexual performance, or (b)  women also have/do ‘sexual performance’ but even if it was affected it wouldn’t count as an injury.

Help me out, here: is there a way to understand this such that it doesn’t reinforce some pretty scary stereotypes about women and sex?

Facebook Horrors

You know how it goes… You sign up for Facebook, and pretty soon people you knew back in school are asking to “friend” you. You think “I couldn’t stand this person back then, but I should give them a chance. I wouldn’t want to be judged on who I was back in high school. I’ll bet I’d really like them now– I’m sure we have a lot in common.” Next thing you know you’ve got “friends” who are fans of Fox News, Joe the Plumber and Benjamin Netanyahu, and who spend inauguration day “with a stomach ache because the Democrats are going to ruin the country”. Oh, and they love the Left Behind series (with no hint of irony), and have written books about angels. Aaarghhhhh. What do you do? Un-friend them? Write bitchy (possibly gloating) comments? My response has generally been to cringe, then quietly congratulate myself on the good taste that led me to dislike these people even back when I was young and had bad taste in other matters. Share your thoughts, and your facebook horror stories!

Yay Iceland!

OK, they haven’t been doing so well lately financially, But they’re well out ahead of the pack on this one. They look likely to get the world’s first openly gay Prime Minister, Johanna Sigurdardottir. Hurrah!

(Of course, the confluence of economic crisis and social progress reminds me of the Onion’s great “Nation Finally Shitty Enough to Make Social Progress”. Bad Jender. Stop thinking of that.)

But back to the celebrating: Hurrah– another barrier falls! But, wonderfully, the Icelanders themselves apparently don’t consider her sexual orientation at all newsworthy.

“No one has ever talked about Johanna (Icelanders always use first names) as a gay person,” an Icelandic friend and a prominent journalist told me this morning. “She’s not hiding it either, the name of her spouse is on her Parliament and Ministry web pages, it’s just that nobody cares about it, any more than people cared in 1980, when Vigdis Finnbogadottir ran for president, that she was a woman and a single mother to boot.

“Johanna is very smart and not afraid to tackle difficult issues, and I think she can unite us,” my friend added. “Reasonable, sane people are not going to care about people’s gender or color. They just want the best person for the job.”