Ethical issues about academic advice

I do an awful lot of academic advising, from the very formal writing of letters and filling out forms, to the informal chats with students about careers in philosophy. And I have to say there are days when it all seems ethically complicated to me. There are a few different sorts of dilemmas I face. here’s one: Clearly I want there to be more women in philosophy, more sexual diversity too, as well as ethnic and racial diversity. But I also think philosophy can be a lonely place for those who don’t fit the mold. It’s a conservative discipline and while that will only change as the people who make up philosophy departments change, there are days when I’m not sure about encouraging young people to pursue careers in philosophy. It’s this mix of utilitarian considerations—we’d all be better off if the discipline were more diverse—and paternalistic concern for those first faces of diversity. I want to say, “I love philosophy too but it can lonely here. Some philosophers might not think the kind of issues that interest you are sufficiently philosophical. Or if they are seen as philosophical, they might be seen as ‘light weight’ or on the edge of the discipline. Many philosophers with interests in gender, sexuality, and race end up with joint appointments in order to find an intellectual community where there work is valued. Or, philosophers might expect you to teach courses about race/gender even if your interests are in logic or analytic metaphysics.” Am I just having a bad day? What do you say to students who you think won’t fit in but for whom there ought to be a place? How to we balance the goals of promoting diversity and being honest about how rough it can be?

8 thoughts on “Ethical issues about academic advice

  1. In my humble opinion, say that, “I don’t think you’ll fit in, but there ought to be a place. It’s your choice, someone needs to be breaking molds but the one doing that is going to be lonely.”

  2. This is really hard. I don’t like telling women to avoid philosophy, but there are much more rewarding fields where they deal with exceptionally interesting and important issues.

    I’m not sure about advising students to go into philosophy because the profession needs them. I’m inclined to think one should help them discover how to satisfy their best interests, and not the profession’s.

    I probably do actually sound negative about philosophy to some extent, but I don’t think I’ve had much effect.

  3. I have the same dilemmas with WS & students of color and radical LGBT students. Ultimately, I tell them “the problems you are having now with diversity and liberalism will continue as a member of the faculty. Take a long look at the demographics of the discipline, the ongoing conflicts at conferences and outlined in pubs, and weigh your own feelings and ability to navigate issues you have already encountered. If ultimately you think that is too much psycho-social-emotional work, you need to know tenure is a long process. If you can hang, try. we need you.”

    Most write thank you notes or “I wish I’d listened more when you said that” emails during their first appointments.

  4. As a student, and one who is seriously weighing issues about what to do next and whether I want to continue in this sometimes unwelcoming discipline, I think I would appreciate redeyedtreefrog’s (RETF for short) honest discussion.

    RETF’s framing does not blame the student. It does not imply that the student is at fault for being interested in “light weight” philosophy (or even that it is actually “light weight”). RETF’s framing does not suggest there is something wrong with their interests. It is not dismissive of the student’s interests. But it is honest about how *others* might perceive these interests (unfairly). RETF does not try to minimize or downplay the difficulties the student might face. Then RETF also suggests some positive steps those considering a career could take (e.g. cross appointments to find a supportive community). This seems just right to me.

    I might slightly disagree with jj, however. I am not sure it is always bad to let the students know that philosophy needs them, as long as you also let them know that it might not be in their interests, and might make their professional life difficult. Maybe I am just not cynical enough, yet, but I do think philosophy needs us. It is not wrong to say this, in my opinion, as long as one does not give the false impression that philosophy will welcome us. I think RETF’s discussion strikes this balance admirably.

  5. I have the same issues frequently. Students ask me because they want to know how it is to be a woman in this profession. I feel obligated to give as accurate a picture as I can even if I desperately want them to continue (the very good ones anyways) and even if my accurate account might actually turn them away. I think that if they decide to continue while “knowing” what awaits them might work better in the long run. They will be better prepared (as much as one can be) and might be in a better position to live through it and, most importantly, change things. I wish I had known what awaited me. The shock under which I was for a while would have been avoided and I could have invested my energies to change things right away instead of having to overcome the surprise (!).

  6. I would like to comment, but I just don’t know how right now. Perhaps you might call it culture shock, or a sense that there is so much to be said about what I never anticipated.

    I will say that I have a young black lesbian student who has confessed to an unabashed longing to study metaphysics. I have a feeling, however, that her idea of metaphysics, and the disciplinary understanding, are wildly at odds.

  7. Let me just clarify what I meant. If I am thinking of advising someone to go into philosophy, I don’t think I should do that because I want more people of their type in philosophy, or even because the profession needs more people of their type. I think my advice might mention more such people are needed, and it would be wonderful to have more, and they can decide whether that is a reason to go into philosophy.

  8. Ironically this post was made on the same day a former student of mine wrote to say he is going on the job market (again, about the 4th year in a row) but also facing questions from a student where he is now teaching as an adjunct about whether to apply for graduate school. He (my former student) went back to find an e-mail I wrote on this back in 2001 and sent it to me. Here it is for what it’s worth.

    Hi again,

    I didn’t mean to come across as sounding too discouraging.

    To be frank I have seen so many people fail or drop out of
    philosophy at
    so many stages of the profession that I try quite hard to
    people from it. One of my former and very best XXX Ph.
    D. students,
    XXX, has published a fair amount. She bounced
    around in a
    succession of one-year jobs for about 4 years, then got a
    tenure track
    job at XX which she just hated, and with reason
    (three people have
    now left that job in quick succession). She left that to
    take a
    tenure-track job at XXX. She’s gone through two
    years of hell
    with her parents being elderly and ill in California,
    finding housing
    for them, flying out during crises, and her mom just died
    in January,
    and now XXX has not given her a contract renewal
    after 3 years.
    She hasn’t even got a chance to come up for tenure. When I
    see the
    profession grinding out good people like her (she is
    creative and does
    several kinds of topics) and then giving success to people
    I consider
    utterly boring and narrow, it sours me on it. The pay is
    poor, raises
    and perks are few unless you become a “star” which is rare,
    and the
    working conditions can be very tough with heavy teaching
    loads at lots
    of small schools. The administration of a university has
    control over
    you but is out of your control. The committee work is
    essential and
    boring and nit-picky. If you are good your colleagues are
    jealous and if
    you’re not so good you’ll probably know it and get eaten up
    insecurity. The students are less and less well-prepared
    and more and
    more unwilling to do work and earn good grades–they just
    come to you
    and say “I need a B in this course” etc. I don’t mean to
    sound wholly
    sour here, I actually still like my life, but I often think
    that other
    life options might have been preferable for various
    reasons. This could
    be a case of grass is always greener.

    Also in more and more places within the academy the
    humanities seem to me to be less and less valued, esp. in
    comparison to
    the other professional fields. I see more and more
    departments with cutbacks.

Comments are closed.