Accessing Feminist Philosophers

As we announced April 23, Feminist Philosophers is shutting down. This is one of a series of posts by FP bloggers looking back on the blog and bidding it farewell.

There’s an apocryphal quote that is usually attributed to Helen Keller that goes something like this: blindness separates you from things, but deafness separates you from people. It turns out that Kant wrote something about this in his Anthropologie (aside: for all the hours I’ve been thinking about this farewell post, I must say that starting off with a reference to Kant never occurred to me, but blogging has a way of swerving the words on the page).

It’s hard to put into words how excited I became once I discovered the philosophy blogosphere and Feminist Philosophers.

I could finally understand without guesswork what other philosophers were saying, and having the words on the page to be read, not speech-read, meant that I had an equal footing when it came to accessibility. I’d never had the opportunity to communicate with philosophers without having to do the additional work of speechreading inference or working through an interpreter (who didn’t have the background in philosophy the rest of us did).

It was through Feminist Philosophers that I found a sense of community in the informal aspect of academic philosophy. There were many times when we disagreed — sometimes publicly on the comments page, but also on long email threads. I will miss those threads, time-consuming as they were, because of the respect we showed each other, even in times of deep contention. They were also another (inadvertent) accessible feature of doing philosophy that hadn’t been available to me — I learned much from reading and participating in them.

What I find most bittersweet about shutting down Feminist Philosophers is that this venue of informal philosophical exchange will now only exist as an archive. I learned philosophical jargon and ‘insider catchphrases’ by reading the comments, I learned about other feminist philosophers, including about other disabled feminist philosophers of color (our numbers are small, but we exist!) by reading the comments, and I learned that the written word modality of social media was a way for philosophers who were deaf or hard of hearing or had other communication disabilities could participate in conversations that prior to this were difficult to access.

Access to the informal conventions of feminist philosophy will still continue to exist as an archive, but it will be a snapshot of a certain period of time and place. And so, I worry about how others on the margins will gain access to the shifting social capital and conversations that may not be present in their departments — whether this is access related to disability or other factors. My hope is that with the closure of Feminist Philosophers, we can continue the spirit of this blog by continuing to invite others into our conversations, in whatever formats are needed for inclusion.

To my fellow bloggers, I want to say how honored I was to be invited to join you, and what an incredible privilege it has been to work with you to make a difference. To the readers of Feminist Philosophers, I’m grateful for the sense of community you helped to build, and especially for making it possible for me to see the range of ways to engage and sometimes, to spar! To Jenny, thank you for having the vision and the fortitude to keep Feminist Philosophers going, especially when the path was a tangle.

Diversity in Philosophy initiatives

Jessica Moss (NYU) and Edouard Machery (Pitt, HPS) sent us the following note, which will be of interest to many of our readers:

There are now several well-established initiatives aimed at addressing the lack of diversity of philosophy (http://www.apaonline.org/page/diversityinstitutes). To support these efforts, NYU and Pitt have recently decided to waive application fees related to their PhD programs in Philosophy (NYU and Pitt) and in History and Philosophy of Science (Pitt) for students who participated to these initiatives. We suspect other schools have similarly waved their application fees and we invite them to advertise their efforts in the comments thread.

Syllabi and Diversity

Luvell Anderson and Verena Erlenbusch have a really useful article, “Modeling Inclusive Pedagogy: Five Approaches,” appearing in the Journal of Social Philosophy. In it, they canvass five conceptually distinct approaches to making syllabi, and thereby course content, more diverse. Their taxonomy of approaches clarifies the advantages and disadvantages of each, but also illuminates the metaphilosophical aspects of diversifying courses. E.g., are diverse practitioners principally being employed as critics of the standard fare and approaches? Is the conceptual architecture itself reflective of diverse philosophical concerns or are diverse voices being brought to bear on a traditional core set of questions?

The essay as a whole does much to clarify what sorts of embedded assumptions or concerns can render diversifying a syllabus challenging. Anderson and Erlenbusch don’t provide any quick or easy resolution to these challenges, but that’s sort of the point. This is one of those cases where simply mapping out the landscape of possibilities and naming the rough terrain in each helps a lot. Do check it out!

Who should take the notes?

Yesterday, I posted the following note on my Facebook page. It has generated considerable enthusiasm, much more than I anticipated for a modest bit of administrative advice. Since folks seem to find the advice useful, I am posting it here too, for a broader readership.

Earlier this week, I told a bunch of female colleagues that, for many of the meetings I attend, I don’t bring paper/pencil because, too often, a woman with writing tools is seen as the best candidate to be recorder for the meeting. The colleagues — especially the more junior ones — were very excited about this tactic, and many resolved to start doing the same.

Today, I was at a consultation at which each table was provided with a note pad and pens and asked to assign a recorder for the table. I was the only woman (and the most junior person, from the puniest department) at the table. I told the table that, on principle, I do not take notes when I am the only woman in a group, and that one of them would therefore have to take notes. After some kerfufflement, the most senior person at the table (a quite senior admin) took the notes for the table. I feel good about this result.

Friends, let me recommend that when a note-taker is needed, you try to identify the person at the table whose perspective is least likely to be overlooked, and have them take notes. That way, those (women, racialized people, junior folks, etc.) whose perspective is most likely to be overlooked can put all of their energies into sharing their perspective rather than recording the alpha dogs’ perspectives. If you are the alpha dog, or think that you might be, consider volunteering to be the note-taker so that others’ voices can emerge. This saves the more junior/marginalized folks from the sometimes scary task of refusing to be recorder.

Postscript: A couple of further notes in response to comments folks made under my Facebook post.

  1. Note-takers are important. We shouldn’t diminish the important work that careful recorders do, nor neglect the power that a recorder can have to influence what goes on record. For some folks, in some contexts, recording may well be a better, more powerful, way for them to contribute than talking.
  2. Having said that, it is quite likely that for some folks — women in particular — regarding recording as more powerful than speaking is an adaptive preference. That is, if the context isn’t conducive to their full participation in a discussion, then recording — and valuing recording — may be a way to feel empowered rather than disempowered in an otherwise disempowering situation.
  3. The aptness of the above advice varies by context and purpose. Junior folks can learn a lot from senior folks if the former record what the latter are saying, and in some contexts that’s desirable. After all, typically students take notes while profs explain stuff. In such a case, the work of recording helps the junior person to learn. However, in a meeting intended to survey a range of perspectives — as opposed to a context in which expert knowledge is being passed on — it makes sense for someone whose perspective is over-represented to record.
  4. The distinction in #3 between contexts in which a range of views is sought and those in which expertise is transmitted is a fuzzy one. As standpoint theorists, such as Sandra Harding, have been telling us for decades, a crucial but oft-neglected question in inquiry is who gets to count as an expert and why.

A philosophy graduate student on why she’s leaving the discipline

Udoka Okafor writes,

When I began university at sixteen years old, I was very young and naive. I practically grew up in a very abusive catholic boarding school in Nigeria, as I was sent there at the age of nine and didn’t leave until I was fifteen. The one year of highschool that I did in Canada was also severely distressing. Needless to say, up until the time I got into university, my only instinct had been to survive life, never to fully live it, experience it, and indulge in its many diversions. But, when I got into McMaster University, the world felt more open than ever before. I left the sciences behind and I fell in love with philosophy, and ultimately ended up doing my undergraduate degree in “Justice, Political Philosophy, and Law”, which I enjoyed thoroughly; so much so that I decided to put off plans for going to law school in order to do my Masters in Philosophy.

. . . For my Masters program, I had to take six philosophy courses, but this time the courses just felt tiring. It felt as though we were recycling the same philosophers and the same canons of knowledge. I learnt about Hume, Kant, Aristotle, and it all felt so exhausting; not just for me, but for some of my friends in the program as well. We had to sit through these classes where we were told that of course these philosophers were racist and sexist, of course Aristotle believed in natural slaves, but none of that was to be taken as salient when interpreting their works. I took a Social and Political Philosophy class on our duties to the poor were we talked in great lengths about Thomas Pogge, and not once did we talk about his sexual harassment scandals, because it wasn’t deemed salient to his philosophy. That is how we protect these “great” philosophers, we separate their personal life and actions from their philosophical legacy. We excuse too much, and we concede too much.

. . . Philosophy helped me at a time in my life when I needed the help the most. But, I have lost faith in its ability to answer the questions that are most pressing to me, I have lost faith in its ability to help me understand the world.

Her full piece is here.

Okafor cites a broader set of issues, but her piece reminded me of a post at Daily Nous awhile back on the intellectual costs of misconduct to the discipline:

[W]hile I love philosophy and thoroughly enjoy teaching, there are times where I am deeply conflicted about whether or not I genuinely want to continue after I finish my degree. There are certainly many features of my experiences with philosophers to recommend such a career. I have found some wonderful friends, intelligent and creative colleagues, a place where I can pursue my interests, and mentors who give me hope that I might, someday, feel at home in the profession.

All the same, what should I think about my place in a discipline that sometimes feels like an episode of Mad Men, only with less well-tailored clothing? How am I supposed to feel about the worth of my welfare when I can no longer count the number of people I know who have been sexually assaulted by fellow philosophers on one hand? How should I respond when I am told that I ought to keep silent about such things until I have tenure? Why would I want to adapt to a professional culture where this is normal? Will it be possible to succeed without becoming part of the problem along the way?

I know folks tire of having conversations about misconduct, exclusion, and diversity in the profession. These conversations are hard. But this is exactly why we need to keep having them —  it isn’t just a matter of justice (though it is this too), or for that matter, moralizing. It’s that we lose talent. It’s that we miss out on important insights and intellectual developments. It’s that we cannot make the most of our intellectual community when it functions such that systematically, people with certain social identities do not feel welcome within it, and people are regularly discouraged from pursuing swaths of legitimate areas of study.

New resource for syllabus diversifying!

The DRL aims to make finding relevant texts easy. All entries offer the following information:

  • Text bibliographic details
  • Abstract, publisher’s note, or a content synopsis
  • A short comment with teaching notes and suggestions
  • An indication of how hard to read a text is and whether it is more appropriate at introductory or further levels
  • Links to the paid and open access versions of the text, and to any published syllabi that use it
  • Link to the author’s web profile

You can search the list for specific texts, authors or keywords, or browse by topic in a easily navigable structure of categories inspired by PhilPapers. All texts included have been recommended by philosophers and assessed by our team who select for clarity and relevance to teaching. So while you could simply search existing databases for authors from under-represented backgrounds and find the texts you need, the DRL has done the work for you – and it gives you some basic teaching notes on top.

For more, and to join in the discussion, head on over to Daily Nous!

Un-diversifying academia

An important article on universities’ failure to tenure and retain the members of underrepresented groups that they hire.

This disturbing trend of denying tenure to women and minorities at disproportionate rates vis-à-vis white males is revealed in June Junn’s study at the University of Southern California. Junn found that of 106 tenure cases, heard between 1998 and 2012 at USC, 92 percent of white males were tenured, whereas only 55 percent of women and minority scholars were.

So You Want To Be Inclusive

A reader is asking for guidance on creating inclusive events.  Their problem?  Not every attempt to be inclusive works.  So for those with experience, what strategies have proven reliable?  What can you do if your ideal conference line-up all decline the invitation?  What do you say if the colleague organizing this year’s colloquium series has pulled together a rather marginalizing list, despite your suggestions?  How do you translate the aspiration to be inclusive into actual inclusion?

A female colleague recently reached out to me about a lack of inclusivity in an academic setting. This got us talking about a variety of things. One thing was strategies for making conference/colloquium schedules more inclusive. I asked her for advice about this. She recommended that I reach out to you (all).

Context: We were talking about how there are a variety of ways in which even progressive departments and conferences (i.e., ones run by progressive people) fail to be inclusive. E.g., one otherwise inclusive department’s colloquium schedule does not feature any non-white non-male (etc.) speakers.

My own experience: Some of my attempts to be inclusive don’t pan out. And many of my second, third, etc. attempts don’t pan out either. In the moment, I felt like I am going out of my way to be inclusive and somehow not succeeding — I am sure there was more to it than this, as will become clear in a moment.

I am interested in brainstorming ways to be inclusive when putting together, say, conferences and colloquium schedules: anything that involves inviting scholars to participate in something, really. I have searched through this blog and gathered some ideas — I particularly enjoyed reading “I Dreamt Of An Inclusive Conference,” by the way. One idea is for conferences to be held online, eliminating some of the difficulties associated with attending a conference and thereby making it easier for people who might not otherwise be able to participate. Still, I imagine that there are all sorts of things that have not even occurred to me. (And in my more anxious moments, I worry about how I might be clueless to the fact that I am the (or part of the) problem).

Any guidance/correction/resources/etc. would be very much appreciated.

It seems to me that there are at least four separate stages worth considering:

  1. How are conference funds and organizing duties distributed within a department?  Who is making invitation decisions?  Are they responsive to criticism?
  2. If you have the opportunity to organize an event yourself, how should a desire to be inclusive affect the planning stages: the conception of the topic, the kind of event and how it will convene, the keynote selection, etc.?
  3. Once the event is in the works, how do you ensure representative participation?  Where and how do you advertise the CFA/CFP?  How are you evaluating the submissions you get?  Where and how do you announce the event to encourage outside attendance?  Should you engage in outreach?  Should some funds be reserved to facilitate attendance by those for whom attendance is difficult?
  4. As the event approaches, and as it’s underway, what should you do (and what resources should you set aside) to ensure that attendees are able to participate fully?  What instructions should chairs be given on managing the queue?  What can you do if the tenor of Q&A or discussion turns exclusive?

And a difficult question raised by the reader’s concern: what constitutes a good faith effort?  What should you do if attempts to be inclusive fail?  Can you reach a point where you’ve done all you can?

Thoughts?  Suggestions?

On reasons for diversifying the profession

In response to Eugene Sun Park’s article on why he left philosophy, Brian Leiter writes:

“What I still do not believe is that we should add Asian philosophers, or African-American philosophers, to the curriculum in order to “encourage” (on some misguided theory) minorities to enroll in philosophy courses.”

I agree. We certainly should not add anyone to the curriculum on the basis of a misguided theory. But knowing all that we know about stereotype and implicit bias, we have very well-supported theories in favour of adding demographic diversity to our syllabi. Knowledge of these theories tells us that our selections for syllabi are very likely influenced by implicit biases which it make it more likely that we will select white men. It also tells us that demographically diversifying our syllabi is no mere marketing ploy, but rather something which is likely to have real effects on the attitudes not just of students from underrepresented groups, but also on those of other students.* Those who are making such suggestions are not acting as “identity politics police”, as Leiter would have it. We are carefully examining the evidence, and working to improve our profession. Eugene Park’s testimony is a further piece of evidence (albeit anecdotal) that these suggestions are on the right track.

*For a summary of some of this, see my “Implicit Bias, Stereotype Threat and Women in Philosophy”, downloadable at the lower right, here.