Reader query: suggesting women for syllabus

I am a very new TA and the only woman in my department. I would very much like to be able to include female writers in my teaching – and to make some basic suggestions to the more receptive of my colleagues. However, I am unsure how to balance this with the expectation that I stick to the “important” or “significant” people – especially with more historically focused classes. A little advice would be helpful, especially for those of us that are new to putting a syllabus together at all! The standard advice in our department is to take an old syllabus from someone else and use it.

11 thoughts on “Reader query: suggesting women for syllabus

  1. I teach literature at St Stephen’s in Delhi, and the usual issue I face with most expansive courses (like 20th Century Indian Writings, Modernism, etc.) is whether the texts included are representative enough. While we cannot alter prescribed syllabi at the undergraduate level, the students are required to do seminars for a part of their assessment. I allow them, to work on authors/ ideas they consider important enough to have been included, and that also gives me pointers to situate how I teach what is in the curriculum. That could be one of the ways – feedback from the students themselves. We often undermine the knowledge of those we teach.

    Another one of my frequent references is the inter-disciplinary approach. If I take a course on Feminist writings in the Literature department, I also go take a look at the prescribed texts for similar/ parallel courses in departments like, say Sociology/ Performance Studies, to re-orient how I look at it’s very tenets & their applicability.

    In India, it also helps to look at regional writings within any discipline, which may not reach the same fame as writings in English, but may have some very seminal ideas.

    Hope this helps. Do keep us abreast of how you went about it. Cheers.

  2. I was a graduate student teacher in a history of philosophy program, and found that there were two ways I could introduce “non-canonical” works into my syllabus. The first is as commentary–using contemporary work by women as a response to or criticism of the “old guard.” For instance, Okin’s work on Plato, or Lloyd and Bordo’s work on the body in relation to the history of philosophy in a more thematic class. I made sure to include work from women that wasn’t explicitly feminist, so that students could see the variety of responses and responders possible (I also included work in Native American philosophy, critical race theory, and eastern philosophy).

    Once I got bolder, I starting adding women as main figures in my course readings (I should have done this earlier, but I was timid). I used Iris Marion Young’s work quite frequently, and in ethics, got a great response to Simone de Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity/Second Sex from students.

    The problem, as I see it, with the first method is that it gives students the impression that women writers are secondary to the old guard, which is mostly white men. The second option meant some difficult conversations with professors who thought I wasn’t doing it the “right way,” but there are a whole host of arguments at your disposal for this one.

    As for where to look, I think I’d first take a look at some of the standard readers and topical edited volumes in feminist philosophy to get a sense for who’s working on what issues and who is most accessible to students. From there, you can look through pluralist textbooks to find shorter, more accessible pieces for students, and a wider variety of work, as well.

    What class are you teaching? I maybe be able to throw out some more concrete suggestions with more information.

  3. A good syllabus often combines “classic” papers with some newer stuff that defines the cutting edge. Pick excellent papers by women to represent the latter.

  4. I’ll second the suggestion for the Warren — Ann actually mentioned this post to me and I came around to give you the Warren reference if no one else had.

    Mary Ellen Waithe edited A History of Women Philosophers. ( – 4 volumes covering 600BCE to mid 1990s.

  5. Oh, third the suggestion for the Warren anthology!

    When teaching intro, I prefer to end the semester on a monograph. I tell the students we’re building up to taking on this advanced task of reading, cover to cover, a contemporary philosopher, but that 20th and 21st century philosophers often tend to presume knowledge of the canon, so we’re reading this canonical stuff to build to the book at the end. And then, surprise!, the end text is something like Mary Midgley’s _Wickedness_, which includes musings on Free Will, Divine Command, Nihilism, all sorts of good stuff. Or the end text is one by Martha Nussbaum, for which you have to know Aristotle, Mill, etc. The students take this for what it is: An endeavor designed to bring all their mad skills to bear on the analysis of a book worth reading. That the philosopher is a major female figure, contributing a point of view missing from much of the canon, is an obvious good to them, and at the same time, just one among many.

  6. I should add, since I rework my syllabi every year and I remember well the challenge of doing so as a beginner: It IS good advice to use someone else’s old one as a model. But one must make it one’s own, too.

    If you do something like I describe above, building to a monograph at the end, then you may quail a bit, because what if you haven’t read it, or never used it in a class before? Daunting, isn’t it? I’ve been there. It’s a throat-constricting feeling to commit to an untried or only semi-familiar text. I’ve done this every year for fifteen years now, and it’s resulted in doing much more preparation on the job and from week-to-week than one would otherwise have to do. It’s also been incredibly positive as experiences go. I don’t use completely unknown material, but rarely use the same monograph twice, and so I get to have experiences of discovery right along with my students. Highly recommended!

  7. There’s a wonderful site, called Women’s Works, affiliated with the Australasian Association of Philosophy. It’s a database of papers, books, and book chapters by women, appropriate for undergrad teaching, that can be searched by author or subject area, and that (I believe) can also be searched via google to get more specific results.

  8. PS it might also be useful to note that Women’s Works includes fairly detailed abstracts of all works on the site, so that you can tell at a glance whether an unfamiliar paper is what you might be looking for

  9. I will just recommend Hannah Arendt and some of her works. Her actuality today are great both within philosophy and within political theory. One of her greatest book in my view is “The Human Condition”, but also “Life of the Mind”. She also has some great articles, for instance “Thinkin and moral consideration”. Many students at the University in Bergen (Norway) was greatly inspired by that article.

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