Feminist Philosophers

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Linda Alcoff on The Pluralist’s Guide July 13, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — KateNorlock @ 7:44 pm

The following is excerpted from an email by Linda Martin Alcoff, with her permission.  Please note that, as Alcoff says in her email to me, she is of course in much discussion with co-developers of the Pluralist’s Guide, so the following is not speaking for everyone affiliated with the Guide, and not intended to be the last word or exhaustive of all that they must continue to consider.  (Last, here at FP we are already disposed to moderate discussion of this post very closely, since overstated criticisms of our colleagues are unwelcome and inappropriate; therefore, please forebear from comments not conducive to constructive discussion.)

A few facts for people to know about The Pluralist’s Guide to Philosophy that I have been working on for over four years with Paul Taylor and Bill Wilkerson  :

1) Our guide is entirely independent of every philosophy organization, including SPEP. Paul Taylor is not a member of SPEP nor a continental philosopher. He and I hatched the plan entirely ourselves, then recruited Bill Wilkerson. Many leaders of SPEP, the APA, and other organizations have voiced their encouragement because they are concerned that we need more information about philosophy departments out there, and more than one source of information. But we, and they, want total independence.

2) Our methods were painstaking, but obviously limited as anything of this sort is when it is basically an “expert survey.” We tried to make our expert survey better than the PGR by allowing respondents to do research, making our questions more specific so it was less of a beauty contest, and casting a more pluralist net of advisors. Information on our advisors, our methods, and our questions is all on the site.

3) A commenter [on Leiter Reports] says “some” of our advisors are dead.  John Haugeland is mistakenly up on the continental list of advisors. One person. And he did advise us before he died.

4) Much of the criticism is going to the climate for women report, which reports problems at a few top depts. I knew this would generate heat, but what are we to do when we get very negative reports on these depts? Ignore them? I felt a responsibility to report the information we received when it was numerous enough to warrant concern. We will update at least every other year, so depts have a chance to change their rating. That’s the best we can do. The responses are confidential—I don’t even know who reported what, though I know who I asked and who sent in a response.

5) As viewers of the site may note, there are many departments not listed. We listed departments with positives in two categories: Strongly recommended and recommended. Some departments did not make the cut, and some departments did not have enough of a response to generate any information. It is true that our advisory lists are less than 100% comprehensive in their collective knowledge of the profession. That is inevitable.

 

27 Responses to “Linda Alcoff on The Pluralist’s Guide”

  1. Elijah Says:

    Thank you for this, Prof. Alcoff. I hope the organizers sit down to consider the critiques and suggestions that were offered in good faith.

    Perhaps the most pressing area would be to brainstorm the best ways of evaluating the climate for women, people with disabilities, LGBTQ students/faculty, racial minorities, international students/faculty and working class students/faculty. In such cases, I hope such surveys go beyond expert opinion. I would also encourage having a section of narratives to capture more nuanced qualitative data on this.

  2. CrimLaw Says:

    I take it that the reason that most of the criticism is being directed at the “climate” section is that Brian Leiter only opened for comments about that section. If he opens a thread for comments on other sections I’m sure there will be follow-up to the criticisms Leiter raised in his post that doesn’t currently allow comments.

    Here we’re told:
    “I felt a responsibility to report the information we received when it was numerous enough to warrant concern.”

    But the information isn’t reported is it? What’s done instead is that 4 programs are listed as needing improvement with no reporting of the information. The information could be reported without saying who reported it.

    If I understand the report correctly, the professors listed as on the “advisory boards” in the various areas were surveyed about programs strength in the area. The report doesn’t list an advisory board on the climate question.
    The methdology section says:

    “We posed the substantive question to experts in American philosophy, Continental philosophy, Feminist philosophy, and the critical philosophy of race and ethnicity. And we posed the climate question to experienced observers of the paths that people from underrepresented gender, racial, ethnic, and sexual identity populations take through the profession.”

    Those answering the substantive questions are presumably those listed on the area advisory boards. But who were the “experienced observers” answering the climate questions? How many were experienced observers of the 4 departments that the anonymous board tells us need improvement?

    A final small point, in response to this: “We tried to make our expert survey better than the PGR by allowing respondents to do research…”
    Those responding to Gourmet surveys can do as much research as they want. In filling out surveys ranking various departments in several different sub-fields, of course I spend quite a bit of time looking at faculty lists and updated publication lists. I’m sure I’m not alone.

  3. Matt Says:

    I was curious about this bit:

    We tried to make our expert survey better than the PGR by allowing respondents to do research

    What sort of research is allowed that’s not allowed to respondents to the PGR report survey? I’m not one, but my understanding is that those who take part in the survey are given faculty lists and asked to assign scores to them (and that similar things take part for the specialty rankings, for qualified responders). I’m pretty sure that nothing about this precludes respondents from “doing research” about the faculty members in any way they see fit (i.e., looking at CVs), so I’m not sure what’s being suggested. One possible idea is that the “Pluralist” guide talks about the likelihood of doing a dissertation at a department. That’s something that one might (pretty highly imperfectly, I think) research by looking at what dissertations have been done at a department, but would be trying to evaluate something _different_ than is evaluated in the PGR. Given that it would just be doing something different, I’m not sure why it would obviously count as “better”. So, I’d be quite pleased and interested for further clarification on what’s meant here.

  4. jennysaul Says:

    My recollection from being a Leiter ranker (and I may be remembering incorrectly) is that we were discouraged from looking people up online, because that would lead to us knowing what department we were ranking. Leiter provides the list without names of departments in an attempt to reduce prestige bias due to institution.

    Also, it’s definitely true that we were not *encouraged* to do research of the sort required of rankers on the UK RAE/REF– reading 4 pieces of work per philosopher. There’s a range of amounts of research one could do, and explicitly encouraging research (which I’m pretty sure Leiter doesn’t do– though again I may be misremembering) probably leads to an amount of research somewhere in between Leiter and REF.

  5. Matt Says:

    Thanks for that addition, Jenny. (I see the advantage of giving the lists of faculty w/o the name of the school attached, but it’s always seemed to me that anyone w/ the knowledge needed to rank a faculty or a specialty group would have a pretty good idea of the school for each faculty even w/o the name.)

  6. Jenny Saul Says:

    Yes, I tend to agree, Matt. The intention is a good one, but I doubt that the measure succeeds. Though some do self-report being surprised by what a department looks like without “the halo effect”.

  7. Brian Says:

    It is not correct that PGR evaluators are discouraged from doing research. Some do, some don’t, based on anecdotal reports over many years. Evaluators have 3-4 weeks to complete the surveys.

  8. Christine Says:

    I would like to say this: regardless of the flaws it may have, the Pluralist’s Guide is a much welcome addition to the Leiter rankings. Now students may consult both and gain a more balanced perspective. It is especially important with regards to continental philosophy, feminist philosophy, and climate. Climate is so important and it is crucial to report on it so students know what they should expect. I see too many students in my office wanting to quit the discipline because of the chilliness that faces them and which they did not expect… yes, my own place is very chilly as are many.
    Bravo to Linda, Paul and Bill!

  9. CrimLaw Says:

    If reports on climate are especially important and many philosophy programs have problematic climates, then no one should be happy with the Pluralist Guide report. After all, the report only lists *4* programs as needing improvement with respect to climate for women and we don’t know much at all from the report about who made these determinations and how. In the other areas the methodology is described more fully and those whose collective judgement is exhibited are identified by name. This is not so with respect to the climate assessments.

    As for the area recommendations, whether the recommendations are welcome and provide helpful balance surely depends on how competent the rankings are. In feminist philosophy, is it really true that there aren’t “indications” that one “will be able to write a state of the art dissertation” at places like Michigan, University of Chicago and University of Massachusetts Amherst? That’s what the recommendations tell us. To focus on just one example, I wonder if Louise Antony agrees that there is no indication that a student of hers at UMass will be able to do this? I think that three clear indications that this is wrong about UMass are the presence of Louise on the faculty, her outstanding work in the area, and her reputation for excellence as a mentor.

  10. Paul Says:

    I’d like to express my hope the authors of the Pluralist’s Guide will formally address the (to my mind) very real concerns raised by Rebecca Kukla and others concerning the integrity of the “Climate for Women” recommendations they’ve provided.

    Here’s another way of expressing what I take to be one of the main concerns. The guide “strongly recommends” predominantly SPEP-affiliated departments as providing a good climate for women. The advisory panel for the guide is comprised of predominantly SPEP-affiliated philosophers. The concern is that the expert opinion surveyed has conflated openness to (e.g.) Marxist feminism with a good climate for women. The two are not the same, and, need to be carefully distinguished. For example, openness to feminist theory is compatible with hostility to actual women. Likewise, a good climate for women in philosophy is compatible, in practice, with hostility (or indifference) to various strands of feminist theory. The point is *not* that openness to feminist theory in general (or SPEP-affiliated approaches to feminism in particular) is never an indication of a good climate for women. No doubt, it often is. The point is only that the two are not the same, and not necessarily even connected.

  11. Anonymous Says:

    When you ask experts where to go to do solid research on a particular topic such as Continental or American philosophy, I’m sorry, but you won’t pick an analytic department that has the one expert on French feminism and psychoanalysis, nor the one expert on Heidegger in light of a department whose strengths really are epistemology, metaphysics and philosophy of mind. You’ll pick a department with four or five Continentals and has a solid history of both researching and supervising these given areas. That’s why this list is needed. It is, indeed, a welcomed effort.

    I have always been confused that the Leiter report dismissed what it called SPEP affiliated schools from being on the top of the Continental list despite the very real fact that if one attended a top PGR school, the background literature one would be reading is produced by faculty at SPEP related schools. This is especially true for Heidegger scholarship. Leiter has always maintained that the scholarship of these schools is inferior to top Continental schools on his list. Puzzling, truly puzzling.

    Then again, we should probably stick to Gadamer’s insight that our prejudices are the very prejudgments necessary in order to understand the world, including where to go if someone wants to do solid work on, say, Dewey, Heidegger or Kristeva.

  12. Anonymous Says:

    “I have always been confused that the Leiter report dismissed what it called SPEP affiliated schools from being on the top of the Continental list despite the very real fact that if one attended a top PGR school, the background literature one would be reading is produced by faculty at SPEP related schools. This is especially true for Heidegger scholarship. Leiter has always maintained that the scholarship of these schools is inferior to top Continental schools on his list. Puzzling, truly puzzling.”

    Allow me to explain. Brian Leiter has long claimed that (a) there is no thing as an “analytic/continental” divide in Anglophone philosophy; (b) that there is only “good” and “bad” philosophy”; (c) that the PGR accurately tracks “good” philosophy. It follows trivially that non-PGR-ranked programs (and, by extension, their faculty) do “bad” (or “not very good”) philosophy. The programs in the “Pluralist’s Guide” are non-PGR-ranked AND they focus on continental philosophy. Therefore, they must do continental philosophy BADLY.

  13. sk Says:

    interesting, anon 5:37. here we see the limits, i think, of “pluralism.”

  14. profbigk Says:

    [Sorry to those of you who are disappointed to see your comments deleted. We enjoy your participation, we do.]

    All, this really is not the place to ask who does or doesn’t participate in the PGR evaluations. We’re not affiliated with the PGR and we don’t know what Brian Leiter thinks, nor do we want to become the blog that entertains questions about the contents of his head, with occasional interpolations of clarification by Brian about said contents. Of course, sometimes our comment forum does, indeed, become that, but it’s not what we’re about.

    Back to topic, please.

  15. Kathryn Says:

    Sorry Prof!

  16. profbigk Says:

    No problemo. Just trying to keep the cross-blog pollination down a bit.

  17. matthew smith Says:

    Prof Kukla -

    I mentioned this on the Leiter blog but I will re-mention it here.

    I worry that treating people’s impressions of a department, entirely in the absence of any attempt at using less subjective data, is an unfair and unreliable way to assess a department’s climate for women.

    It is unfair because reports of a hostile environment, when published widely on a guide, amount to a form of character assassination. Perhaps it is warranted. But, when all you publish are anonymous digests of reports, you do not meet standards of warrant for such bold dismissals of departments as unfriendly. At the very least, why not alert the department privately that there are reports of abuse and that you intend to publish this fact to the broader community? Perhaps the reports are stale or false. Perhaps other people have contradictory views of the department. Who knows until you do the research? Who knows who reads your report unless you *publish* that research?

    It is unreliable subjective reports may not capture the whole story. You should *supplement* your anonymous but perhaps warranted reports of an unfriendly climate with data that is verifiable, namely data regarding the presence of women as faculty and grad students, and the rate of job placement of women, in that department. Wouldn’t your incendiary charges be much more reliable if supplemented with data showing that this department has very few or no tenured women, no untenured women, only a few female grad students, and even less who have gone on to get TT jobs? What if your reports of an unfriendly environment are contradicted by this data? What then?

    Surely women who wish to choose departments at which to study will benefit from these less subjective, more publicly verifiable data sets?

    Perhaps you believe that this would allow departments with scurrilous practices to escape the rough justice of being shamed by your report. But that would itself be an unfortunate grounds on which to reject a more inclusive data set.

  18. Anonymous Says:

    Anonymous,

    I am Anonymous @ 5.37.

    Several things and then I’ll go away.

    a) The fact that Leiter says there is no “divide” doesn’t mean there is no divide. This is very easy to say, but the fact this is a discussion at all about “good” and “bad” philosophy is just another instantiation of that divide in practice with different labels between “good” and “bad.” These are superficial.

    For it is one thing to assume there is nothing called Continental philosophy when this label was the miscellaneous category imposed by the Anglophonic community years ago. Now, that it has become something on its own, it is less desirable still and these same people (and the generational socialization of supervised students) go about now proclaiming there is no “Continental philosophy.”

    b) The fact that the PGR can speak for all of philosophy is a presuppostion on the part of Leiter that again is not my experence. For instance, Penn State has several exchange programs with top-notch European universities for those of whom take up European philosophy. Top Leiter schools assume that all philosophy should be done in English, it seems. Penn State is a wonderful program with top-notch people, then again so is Duquesne.

    c) You’ve presented a false dilemma, and that’s not exactly a good way to argue. :)

  19. Jamie Dreier Says:

    Matt Smith, what of Prof. Kukla’s are you talking about there?

    I thought Rebecca Kukla had been quite *critical* of the report. And let me add that her comments at Leiter’s blog have seemed to me to be beautifully composed — measured and polite while still conveying passion. I tip my hat to her (hereby).

    I am also very impressed by Helen Yetter Chappell and Meghan Sullivan’s comments. They took some guts. Despite some unfortunate misunderstandings, many of the comments at Leiter’s blog on this topic have been edifying and even heroic.

  20. Matthew smith Says:

    Alcoff!! Alcoff!! Not Kukla! Kukla and I agree! Oops!

    Sorry!

  21. Thomas Noah Says:

    Anonymous 5:37/8:15 writes, “Top Leiter schools assume that all philosophy should be done in English, it seems.” Evidence? Or is this a presupposition on the part of anonymous that is not my experience? At the very least, an overstated criticism?

    On topic: I worry about Prof. Alcoff’s email. I take it that (1) is problematized by the fact the SPEP schools (and MIT) do well on the climate for women section and the top three PGR schools do poorly. Such a showing makes people wonder (reasonably, in my opinion) about the methodology that produced such results and then further speculate (less reasonably, in my opinion) about the motivations of the actors that produced the methodology.

    (2) and (4) show why the first wondering is reasonable: (2) implies that the PGR does not allow responders to research, asks only general questions (which results in beauty contests), and is less pluralistic (in gathering a variety of responders) than the new Pluralist’s Guide. To focus on just one of these issues (one where I’m not completely ignorant), (2) tells us that we can get info on the questions from the website. The website says, on the Methodology page, “The aim of the anonymous polls – we know who our respondents are, of course, but we don’t know how any individual answered any particular question – was to gather information on two questions: Which departments are likely to provide substantive support for research in specific areas? And: Which departments are likely to provide a welcoming climate for students from underrepresented and traditionally excluded populations?” So, we don’t know which specific questions were asked of responders. This is less than transparent (and less than advertised in (2)) and provides the space for people to leap to wonder about the motivation of the actors.

    (4) is more problematic. (4) says, “Much of the criticism is going to the climate for women report, which reports problems at a few top depts. I knew this would generate heat, but what are we to do when we get very negative reports on these depts? Ignore them? I felt a responsibility to report the information we received when it was numerous enough to warrant concern. We will update at least every other year, so depts have a chance to change their rating. That’s the best we can do.” First, Alcoff sets up a false dichotomy: either the Guide must brand the departments (without any sort of transparency) or ignore very negative reports on those departments. Since ignoring would violate a responsibility, branding the departments (with annual updates) is “the best we can do.” This is exactly what people are objecting to, that branding the departments, without any transparency as to who were the responders or to which specific questions they were responding to, is “the best” that could be done. To me, anyway, it seems like if we follow Alcoff’s line of reasoning, the Guide should name not just departments but also individuals. After all, “What are we to do when we get very negative reports on these sexists? Ignore them?”

    I am not opposed to the Pluralist’s Guide and think that it could prove valuable. My suggestion would be to make the specific questions asked of responders public and available. I would also be in favor of making public who the responders were for the women’s report.

  22. Rebecca Says:

    Matt: Whew!

    Jamie: Thanks so very much! These kinds of communications are tricky, as you know, and a bit socially scary, so your kind words are very appreciated. And I really agree about that overall thread in general, and the comments from those two students in particular.

    The post above me addresses Alcoff’s 1, 2, and 4, so I will stick up for myself in response to 3. I think that one dead person is quite a lot of dead people to be on an advisory board. My point, which I think was pretty clear, was that the presence of a dead advisory board member suggests that the information we are getting may not be very current. Linda’s response that Haugeland did indeed advise before he died strengthens rather than undermines the point I made. I will admit I said ‘dead people’ rather than ‘dead person’ for slight comedic effect (and for all I knew there were multiple dead people on there), but I take it we can all agree that one is some.

  23. Anonymous Says:

    For those interested in a broader discussion of the questions emerging from this debate, we’re hosting a discussion here:

    http://theoriekritik.wordpress.com/

  24. profbigk Says:

    Hey, theoriekritik blogger, thanks for hosting a discussion there! But am I missing something when I cannot find a way to comment on your site? Are you enabling comments?

  25. Anonymous Says:

    our apologies, Profbigk. We’re still new to this. I think you can comment if you click on the title of the post. But I will check and see if that’s possible. Hope you can keep reading and commenting.

  26. [...] anonymous commenter at Feminist Philosopher’s weblog makes the following breathtaking [...]

  27. [...] post. In case you’ve been blissfully out of the loop, background can be found here, here, here and here. From Bonnie Mann: As one of the feminist philosophers from the UO department, and by the [...]


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