Georgia State Syllabi Experiment

Discussed in Inside Higher Ed.

Starting next year, graduate students teaching introductory-level courses in philosophy at Georgia State, who teach about half of all such sections offered, will use syllabuses that include at least 20 percent women philosophers. That’s at least double the number included on most syllabuses for the course at the university. The effort is an extension of preliminary research by Eddy Nahmias, professor of philosophy, and several of his graduate students, Toni Adleberg and Morgan Thompson, into why male and female students enroll in introductory-level courses in similar numbers but women drop out of the discipline in much greater numbers.

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Inside Higher Ed

5 thoughts on “Georgia State Syllabi Experiment

  1. The “we shouldn’t pay attention to gender” seems like such a weird argument when I try to analyze it:

    Premise: most syllabi’s breakdown of authors (even excluding the ones with history of philosophy) don’t match the demographics of our field in terms of gender.

    So, unless you think there is a specific reason for that, such as, you think women philosophers are for some reason worse on the whole then men who do philosophy, wouldn’t you take your syllabi’s dis-similarity to the philosophical community’s demographics as reason to suspect that something weird is going on with how we chose authors for syllabi?

    If you think a factor (gender) is unrelated to something you’re selecting for (philosophical merit), shouldn’t you expect your choices to, over time and in a large enough sample, approach the natural distribution of that factor in the population at large (i.e. the demographics of our field)?

    I get why, if you pick five philosophers and they’re all dudes, you don’t think that’s necessarily weird. But if you pick twenty people, and your colleagues all pick twenty people, and taken together you’ve only chosen 5% or 10% women–from a population with 20% women–why doesn’t that strike people as weird?

    Am I not reconstructing the argument charitably? Because it seems to me, for this argument to be coherent and rational, there must be a suppressed premise of something like, “If my colleagues and I only choose 5% women when we pick authors for our syllabi, then women must not be as good overall at philosophy as men are, since we are picking authors according to philosophical merit.”

    Or maybe the suppressed premise is: “We want to pick for our syllabi the most excellent philosophers, which are a small subset of the population of all professional philosophers. Because that subgroup is so small, we shouldn’t expect it to necessarily mirror the demographics of the field at large.”

    Though, considering that we all lament about how it’s impossible to read everything written in philosophy these days, why would we ever think we know everyone in this subset of “the most excellent philosophers”–and thus know just how big (or small) a subgroup it really is? Do we also assume that, the most excellent philosophers have, surely, gotten enough attention to be known to most people? So even if some mediocre philosophers also get attention, it’s very rare that a brilliant philosopher has gotten little or no attention? I did once hear a graduate student claim that X (a woman) couldn’t possibly be a “great” philosopher because he had never heard of her.

  2. Well, another “suppressed” premise might be that introductory courses in philosophy typically examine works by older, rather than contemporary philosophers. That has certainly held in my personal experience. In that case, we wouldn’t expect the gender demographics of an intro syllabus to mirror those of the discipline as it is currently made up. (Unless, that is, I am wrong to assume that philosophy has been more male dominated in the past than at present.)

  3. Anonymous@2:

    Another (equally common) way to approach Intro is topical: introduce students to some representative key disputes in metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, using a mix of older and contemporary works. This has the advantage of showing the philosophy is an ongoing enterprise with historical roots. Topics could include the mind-body problem, free will and determinism, external world skepticism, major ethical theories (including discussions of ethical relativism), applied ethical problems like famine relief, etc. etc.

    With this approach, it’s not at all hard to reach a 20% threshold. (20% isn’t that high.) Leaving aside historical figures (which there are), Patricia Churchland, Onora O’Neill, Martha Nussbaum, Philippa Foot, Susan Wolf (and plenty of other people) have written pieces excellently suited for introduction to philosophy.

  4. Just in case people were interested in seeing how GSU instructors met the 20% threshold, and also for people who are looking to increase the proportion of texts by female authors in their own intro classes, I’ve gone ahead and compiled a list of all of the texts our grad student instructors used in the past year, at . At the bottom of the list are links to some additional resources.

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