My husband and I were having a conversation a little bit ago. I was telling him how, when I was in my teens/early twenties and had found a new obsession, I’d often talk about it in cafes. During this time, I would no doubt say all the silly things that newbies said. Someone would interject and correct me, and I’d invariably get embarrassed enough to find a book on the subject, then another, then another, then another.
I remarked how Tumblr (and message boards, FB groups and so forth) are a lot like the newbie babbling in a cafe. It’s a way for someone to enthusiastically converse and talk about it. You may even find blogs or groups being run by people that have little, if any, expertise.
The problem, though, is that with the internet, the line between novice and expert gets blurred. When I was a teenager, it was pretty easy. Printed materials generally tended to be more reliable and when they weren’t, there was usually some cue. If that occult book had a very cheesy looking illustration of a Renaissance woman surrounded by pentacles, you knew it was cheesy. If it was some hastily drawn and pasted together zine xeroxed at Kinkos, you knew that it was just some guy’s random views on things. These days, it’s easy for someone that knows nothing to get a blog that is indistinguishable from an expert’s blog. Ideas get transmitted on the basis on popularity, not merit. Someone can misunderstand something in fundamental ways which can lead to a complete distortion, but if the person saying it is in a venue with a high number of novices, then the inaccurate interpretation becomes the dominant one.
The younger generation has grown up around all of this and knows that the internet has some reliable information. (After all, even academic journals cite websites from time to time.) It’s the parsing out of that information that’s tricky. If my experience teaching college is any indication, instructors in post-secondary education are more concerned with having a fun, entertaining, interactive classroom than ensuring students have an adequately rigorous education and are prepared to think and evaluate information critically. I suspect we have standardized tests to thank for this one. When your job depends on getting high test scores, you’ll do whatever it takes to keep your students engaged, and God forbid, you try to intellectually stimulate them by including anything that they won’t have to regurgitate on an exam. University professors, concerned with their jobs thanks to the excessive weight placed on student evaluations, imitate the high school teachers that created this problem.
I know of one very expensive university in particular where most of the students graduated without ever having written a ten page paper. Despite the $40,000 a year price tag, the college wasn’t teaching adequate research skills and the professors were too worried about evaluations to stress the students out by assigning the very sort of papers that would teach them the skills they need to be competitive in the job market. This seems to be the norm more than the exception. Potential employers, cynical due to what they see as a lack of preparedness in college grads, have taken to hiring only experienced candidates or those graduating from universities with an untarnished track record.
The only way out of this is to require critical thinking at the high school level. Students are parsing through information at a much earlier age than ever before. Yet, every day, the line between reliable and unreliable sources blurs further. The only way out of this is to teach kids how to think about information. How to identify a credible source, how to spot logical fallacies, how to recognize when something is based on evidence rather than hyperbole. Intellectually, students are absolutely capable of handling such a course by the time they’re fifteen. Educators either can’t keep up with the technology or use it in a manner much like using a laser pointer with a cat. (“Look, kids, I’m tweeting my lecture! Woohoo, look at me!”) You can’t possibly cover all of the changes in technology in a way that will be meaningful to a diverse group of instructors. Telling students what sources are reliable, while a good start, is just a Band-Aid solution and ultimately doesn’t help them to become better thinkers and researchers. If you teac
Tuesday, March 26, 2013
If you're on Facebook and generally an open-minded person that prefers the company of other open-minded people, you have probably noticed a deluge of profiles changed to some sort of red icon. Despite being sympathetic to the cause in question, I noticed that the icons really set me off this morning. It wasn't the first time I've observed the icon-as-statement phenomenon. In fact it's happened so much that I knew what was coming: having ten or twenty or more people with identical icons, making it impossible for me to utilize my preferred visual shortcut for seeing who is showing up in my feed. What was notable to me was the profound detachment I felt from the cause. Not that I don't, on some level, care, but it had the same psychological effect as a dozen posts about Christmas or the Super Bowl.
It got me thinking, though, I wonder how many other people have the same reaction as me? If so, could it be that such memes not only don't help anything but may do harm in the form of compassion fatigue?
Compassion Fatigue has been most commonly associated with the pessimism, nihilism and uncharacteristic apathy that occurs in the helping professions. Nurses, social workers and other caretakers commonly struggle with it. It's been identified with lawyers as well. However, more recently, it's been cited as something that occurs in the general population. Compassion fatigue has been identified as an issue with donors to charitable organizations. It's frequently cited as being sparked by over-exposure to tragic events in the media. In short, over-exposure to the problems of the world can lead to a sense of helplessness and desensitization.
Benedict Carey of the New York Times asks:
Are people today — are societies — really becoming somehow more callous?
The answer is no, of course not — at least not in any fundamental sense. But compassion is a limited resource, a system rooted in cognitive networks that tire and need refueling. And it’s not always rational.
Now, some people may express revulsion at the suggestion that compassion seems to be in limited supply. However, Carey cites evidence to indicate that this is an important survival instinct, and just as there's an evolutionary basis for compassion, there's an evolutionary basis for the overload. It's this ability that helps us to reason our way through a truly horrific crisis situation, but also to save our reserves for those close to us. Indeed, we seem to be more responsive to an individual than a group or a whole country. Carey goes on to state:
Still, even when rested and ready, people generally find it far harder to extend empathetic concern to a nation than to a neighbor. The helping instinct evolved to protect the household, the clan. Some psychologists make a distinction between moral intuition, the physical horror at seeing someone hit by a car or the tears of a parent whose son is kidnapped; and moral reason, the more intellectual process of grasping larger tragedies, like floods and famine.
As you can see, compassion fatigue, although a problem, also has its benefits. Namely, helping us to reason properly when emotions might cloud our judgment as well as ensuring that we care first for our immediate kin. However, the potential for compassion fatigue ought to be measured in deciding which tactics to use to influence change.
In the case of Facebook, care should be taken when passing on political memes. Granted, I think there are other factors (such as group acceptance/affiliation) that motivate this behavior. That said, if you do want to influence others' attitudes or awareness consider the following point: compassion fatigue is tied to both a sense of helplessness and desensitization. Both of these seem to be the by-product of over-saturation. In the case of charitable donations, one of the biggest culprits is just that so many people ask us for money, and even when we donate, that seems to increase rather than decrease the pleas to help. If frequent exposure to a problem does this, what does seeing the exact same image over and over again do?
I suspect that news articles are another source of fatigue, especially from more provocative blogs that are designed to stir up emotions. The stirring up of emotions, when done often enough, by enough people, can in fact evoke emotions in others, but that's precisely the problem: if I see ten people in a given day posting articles from the Huffington Post (for example), I will first feel sad or angry, but I will quickly move to feeling overwhelmed, and from there I'll move to weary...particularly if all I'm exposed to is others' outrage and not, say, any brainstorming about possible solutions. It's only a matter of time before I start skipping the articles, and it's only a matter of time after that before I start scanning for links and moving my eyes elsewhere. I suspect it's worsened by the short-lived reaction: today everyone is concerned with gay rights, tomorrow it will be something about unions, the day after that it will be about rape. This intensifies the feeling of helplessness, because not only does the over-saturation occur with the deluge of the same icon or article, but it gets seemingly forgotten when some other injustice crops up and suddenly there's a whole new problem to attend to.
Perhaps the icons and articles are how others fight off compassion fatigue. If the fatigue emerges, in part, from helplessness over suffering in the world, "slacktivism" may provide temporary relief through the delusion that one is having an influence. Still, if it really is a delusion, and if it could actually be inducing apathy in others, shouldn't it as a practice be abandoned?
Tuesday, February 19, 2013
It's a huge pet peeve of mine when someone is too smug about their passivity or think that being over-accommodating and conciliatory somehow gives them a moral high ground.
Sure, part of it is that I tend to be questioning, opinionated, a bit critical at times...I've been told, on more than one occasion that I have a "lawyer" personality. It's not that though.
I think my problem with it is that the flip side of that is passive-aggressiveness. If someone is obnoxious, I can deal with it head-on. If someone is passive-aggressive, my hands are tied. The other problem, though, is that the passive person, well, tricks you. If someone isn't direct about what they think, at best you get a vague "prickly" sense when they side step an issue only for them to eventually explode. That's no big deal, right? Sure, it might blindside you but at least you're finally getting their opinion, right? Well, except, there's always a bit of martyrdom and guilt built into it. You didn't ask them to martyr themselves. In fact, you wish they'd been straight with you from the get go. Only, they seem to think holding it in for so long somehow makes them superior. It never, for a moment, occurs to them that maybe they just haven't been doing their part in the relationship. No, they just want you to know the burden they've endured dealing with you while denying any responsibility for communication in the relationship. Once it's done with, the evasiveness resumes again...for a time at least.
Perhaps some people that are passive had their self-esteem crushed at some point, but they've never considered that more assertive types may have taken as much of a hit to their self esteem and not become passive. Furthermore, some of the most passive people I've ever known actually had more support for their dreams and aspirations than the average person. The problem with this "taught not to take up space" rhetoric is that it encourages a victim mentality with what may genuinely be a personality difference. Statistically, INFPs and ISFPs are low on assertiveness, whereas many extraverted types (including, interestingly, ENFJ) are much higher on assertiveness. It may not be the case that anyone "did" something to the IFPs, but rather, we naturally fall on a spectrum from very assertive to very unassertive. Additionally, either extreme can be very disruptive in society. The very unassertive person can easily become uncooperative and stall group processes. The very assertive person can (often, without realizing it) bully others. Neither extreme is without problems, nor should either end of the spectrum either praise or condemn the early home environment. The ENTJ who grew up in a home environment that tried to repress her would probably naturally push back against such messages whereas the ISFP who grew up in a home environment that told her how special and talented she was from an early age, would likely still be plagued with reticence and self-doubt.
We've all no doubt seen the sanctimonious internet meme with a photo of Detroit that says "Don't take a picture, do something about it!" In the February 2013 issue of Art News, Richard B. Woodward captures (among other perspectives) Detroit blogger, James Griffioen's rather myopic attack on the photographic endeavors of outsiders. Griffioen coined the phrase "ruin porn" to capture what he believes to be an exploitative endeavor.
However, Griffioen's reaction is an all too familiar (dare I say, typical) reaction from Detroit inhabitants, who often portray a thinly-veiled "you ain't from around here" mentality. When he says, "I take pictures of ruins, too, but I put them in the context of living in the city" he really is falling back on a very common local sentiment: if you don't live in Detroit, you don't have the right to criticize. If you live in Detroit, but weren't born in Michigan, you still don't have the right to criticize. If you grew up in the Detroit metro area, well, maybe you can criticize...a little bit.
I lived in Detroit from 2002-2007. During that time, I attended Wayne State University and ultimately received my BA in Philosophy from University of Detroit Mercy. I was born in a small Pennsylvania town called "Uniontown" in 1971 and witnessed Pittsburgh's demise through the great steel mill depression. I also saw it bounce back so that now it is a very nice city. Coming to Detroit and seeing a city that never quite bounced back from the 60s (indeed, there were many abandoned buildings that looked as if they could have been that way for decades)and a population plagued by pessimism about recovery, with the admixture of developers that believed they could simply build condos in devastated neighborhoods and make it big, I could see precisely what they did wrong. When my now-husband and I moved into a loft condo (rented from the owner who bought it as an investment) in mid-town Detroit, we were invited to a party to celebrate another new development. As we talked, I tried to explain the importance of doing things to attract people to the neighborhood: you need to put stores in, I said, you need to put in cafes. She turned to me and asked me where I grew up. I explained, I grew up in the Pittsburgh area. She then refused to listen to me any further. My husband explained he grew up in the area, and she would then talk to him (but not me). He, of course, made the same points that I was going to make, which she would at least discuss, but rejected. The neighborhood never did become the great investment opportunity my neighbor had hoped. When we moved out three years later in 2007, it took our landlord several months to rent out the unit.
The media started noticing Detroit when things got really bad, when homes started going for under $20,000, but the problems in Detroit had existed for decades before that, and the mentality of "outsiders can't fix our problems, sure, we insiders can't fix our problems, but outsiders still have nothing to offer" substantially contributed to the demise. In the five long years that I lived there, I felt the strange juxtaposition between the frustration of short-sighted locals and the oddly comforting beauty of the ruins. Many a night would be spent on my balcony, drinking and smoking cloves, looking at the surreal and apocalyptic beauty of the ruins next door to me, only to wake up in the morning, look out my window and be struck by profound depression at what greeted me. I remember the one time, when, in a fit of anti-sentimental rage, I decided I needed to get rid of a book. I walked out on my balcony and threw it in the ruins. I figured that whomever was most likely squatting there could read it or (more likely) burn the pages for warmth. I remember riding the bus (yes, I used to ride the bus a lot, a rarity in Detroit) and seeing the abandoned building with the sign that said "warning: no floor."
The job of the photojournalist is social critique. The job of the photojournalist is to draw attention to the things going on in the world and evoke some sort of reaction in the audience. The job of the photojournalist isn't, however, to simply present the insider's perspective. That isn't to say the photojournalist shouldn't talk to insiders or work hard to understand their perspective, but at the end of the day, the photojournalist remains the outsider looking in, helping both those within the situation and outside of it appreciate it as something universal, of relevance to everyone. Indeed, this is the case, even with, as Griffioen puts it, "$40,000 cameras to take pictures of houses worth less than their hotel bills."
At the end of the day, Detroit is no longer a local issue. Detroit has rejected the outsider perspective for far too long, and this rejection has at least contributed to the problems Detroit is now faced with. Even the perspective of ruins from an LA journalist or New York trust fund art school kid gives a lens on how Detroit looks at first glance to someone who has not experienced the desensitization that comes with growing up there. One doesn't need to live in Detroit to be a little bit shocked by what you see while exploring the city. If you've lived much of anywhere, particularly if you've lived in or near more thriving cities, you can't help but be stunned by the sight. However, what Detroit does need is for people in Detroit to start seeing the city through the eyes of outsiders. Not defensively reacting to the outside perspective but honestly, truly seeing it how they see it. Only then might locals start to ask the question, "What have you tried in your city that we haven't?"
Monday, January 21, 2013
I'm sitting here listening to New Model Army after having spent the afternoon reading and working on my novel. Now that I'm done with MA comps (my fate still uncertain) and in preparation to start a creative writing MFA program in a few months, I've been catching up on my reading. In particular, I'm re-reading Ed Abbey's The Fool's Progress.
This book was a favorite of mine back in the early nineties, when I was busy locking myself to bulldozers and bopping around various national forests out west. There are so many great lines, so many great scenes, that shaped my thinking: "Anxiety got you down? Try fear." "Home is where when you have to go there, you probably shouldn't" and so forth. The book really enabled me to tap into my own hyper-awareness of urban sensory overload long before I ever learned enough about personality type to identify myself as an introvert. The sense of aimlessness really resonated with me, as did the prioritizing of exploration over ambition and the philosophical outlook on life.
At the same time, Ed Abbey is always a bit disconcerting: with his womanizing, often vulgar in description, with his vivid racial characterizations and his rather questionable views on immigration, I can't help but flinch. The central character (based, though not entirely, on Ed Abbey's own life) comes under fire for this quite a bit and is often portrayed as being perceived as a bit of a loser, even, at times, by those close to him. We get into his head and can feel a bit sorry for him, even while wincing at behavior that, were it to exist in someone we actually knew, would make us avoid that person. This is what literature does, though. It takes us into the psyche of someone whose background, way of thinking and behavioral choices might not otherwise be sympathetic and makes us really see them as people.
That's something that's sorely lacking these days. There is a general tendency for people to demonize those whose values differ from their own and a tendency to not recognize that they're engaging with someone that has the same basic, albeit differing, orientation towards the good. These days, perhaps depersonalized by an overload of information, we often don't recognize those with ideas we dislike as worthy of basic respect. It's a dangerous attitude, it lends itself to an unresolvable acrimony. How can we effectively communicate with people when we condemn them as stupid sociopaths out to destroy the other's way of life? (And both sides do this equally.) That the hatred shifts daily, focused on whatever the media has determined as the issue du jour, only adds to the disturbing trend. These aren't front line activists, a bit too zealous over a cause. No, it's as superficial as it is aggressive, behavior more appropriate to a sporting event than the expression of beliefs.
Perhaps I've thought about this due to an all-too familiar Wild West picture painted by Ed Abbey coinciding with my Facebook feed being nearly taken over by (most recently) very heated gun debates. I've tried to largely avoid it, but I haven't been able to avoid the memories. Passages such as this one remind me of what Arizona was like when I was there, especially rural Arizona:
He says, "I hope you're not headed east without arms." I reassure him, mention the revolver, the shotgun etc., the two-shot Derringer in the ashtray. "Good," he says; "hard to feel sympathy for any man goes around without a weapon these days."
I, of course, hitchhiked all across that beautiful stretch of the country not only without a gun, but without so much as pepper spray. I hitchhiked from Albuquerque to Flagstaff one time. When living in Flagstaff, I hitchhiked constantly, whenever I wanted to get out of town, mostly to Prescott and Sedona. I never carried a gun, only a lot of restless energy and genuine curiosity about other people and the stories they would tell me.
Still, it was in Flagstaff when I met, for the first time, a bona fide gun nut. It was Sasha, the Paranoid Pacifist (tm). Sasha had the largest collection of AK-47s I'd ever seen (which isn't saying much, since I actually had never met anyone with an AK-47 before that, but believe me, he had a lot). Sasha was a twenty-something punk rock kid, a self-declared environmentalist and pacifist. On one occasion I sat there (with no small amount of anxiety) as he poured back booze and cleaned his weapons. Why would a pacifist have so many guns? As he put it, "I don't believe in a society where the police can have guns and the citizens can't." In his mind, fascism could happen at any time, and when it did (not if, when) the first thing that would happen is they would take his guns away. Obvious contradiction to his self-declared pacifism aside, he wanted to be prepared for revolution at a moment's notice. He would have nightmares about storm troopers finding his secret stash and seizing it. Sasha was a little bit unhinged, a nice but erratic guy. We weren't close. We only hung out a handful of times. Still, I developed an empathy for his fear even if I didn't agree with his theories or ever want to so much as hold in my hand a dissembled part from his stash.
I never met anyone else as severe as Sasha, but I do remember buying candy bars at the combined liquor/ammo shop that I'd pass on my way home sometimes. I remember the gun racks in the back of pick-ups and trying to explain to a short-lived long distance boyfriend from New York why that was. I think having moved so much, having travelled so much really helped me to tap in and recognize others' experiences and perspectives as valid and genuine for them. That's the problem these days. It's so easy to espouse a view and condemn the contrary view without really engaging with the people that hold that view. There's one fundamental principle that, if you have a desire for change, you must always keep in the forefront of your mind: Most people are as passionate and good intentioned about what they believe in as you are. Issues of moral rightness or wrongness aside, if you can't recognize that someone on the opposite side of the fence believes as authentically in the rightness of their viewpoint as you do, and that you need to find a way to address that in a respectful manner, you're never going to exert much influence
With so much of this country in a divide that is as geographic as it is political, I think other people would be well served by traveling as much as possible. I don't mean for a few days. I mean for a few years. When you have to live with different viewpoints, you learn how to engage them. If you remain entrenched in your viewpoints it will, at best, be self-congratulatory preaching to the converted. At worse it will be a battle of who can shout the loudest, which is often little more than intellectual white noise.
Monday, January 14, 2013
I re-posted an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education on the condition of women in philosophy for the purpose of responding to it. As a woman that has decided to leave a philosophy graduate program, I thought this would be a good time to address some of these issues.
First, I want to start off by saying that I, too, believe sexism can be a problem in philosophy. Sexism, though, is not the same thing as feminist philosophy, nor is it sexist to have an atmosphere where argumentation and competition is the norm. Sexism includes the obvious instances mentioned in the article of propositioning subordinates and dismissing women's contributions as well as the subtle gender bias that women are going to be more nurturing than men in teaching positions or that just because you're a woman, you must want to do feminist philosophy.
Oh yeah, the last one. That's something that gets perpetuated by men and women alike: that being inclusive means being welcome to feminist philosophy. There are a number of problems with this. The first problem is that it's horribly self-referential. While I realize that there are women that are persuaded by feminist philosophy and quite passionate about it, and while I recognize it as one area of philosophy that ought to be available to anyone who wants to study it, I object to the notion that while men can have an incredible breadth of potential research interests, that as a woman, I am and ought to be mainly concerned with issues related to my gender. The second problem with this is that it ostensibly ghetto-izes women in the profession. When you only have a dozen women in a program, and most of them are doing feminist philosophy, that basically isolates women in one AOS, making it so that women still do very little to influence other fields, such as the history of philosophy, philosophy of science, metaphysics and so forth. The third problem is that such a ghettoization isolates women that don't have an interest in feminist philosophy, since the few women that are in the program are doing it. Even worse is if you perhaps agree with some of feminist philosophy's claims but openly challenge or reject others. Finally, conflating the two ostensibly detracts from any real discussion about what's happening in philosophy, since departments that have strengths in feminist philosophy think they're "dealing with the issue" and ones that don't will dismiss it as not logical enough, lumping it in with continental philosophy. Either way, it's become an academic issue, not a social one.
The problem, I think, is that both men and women are a bit sexist in a way. Women that fit into gender norms often assume that this is how women are...always. Men that are more socially awkward and/or unsure how to act around women (arguably,a group that is overrepresented in academia, and not just in philosophy departments) are going to look for the one "right" way to interact with women. Neither side is actually seeing women as individuals at this point though. Once you start saying "women are offended by this" or "women don't do that" you're essentially prescribing thoughts, feelings, attitudes, behavior and even intellectual orientation based solely on the person's gender. This robs women of autonomy and discounts what may actually be a matter of personality differences. I personally think that feminist philosophy attributes to women what is actually the feeling preference on the Myers-Briggs and attributes to men what is actually the thinking preference. Granted, 75% of women prefer feeling, but if we incorporate personality type, that will show us that 1 out of every 4 women will find themselves not represented by the feeling focus of feminist philosophy. For this reason, inclusiveness would mean not conflating the study of feminist philosophy with the treatment of women in philosophy.
More than anything, I think there needs to simply be the recognition that you're dealing with, well, people. I ultimately decided that philosophy wasn't the discipline for me, for a number of reasons. Before I did, I met men that were much more sensitive to negative feedback than I was and I occasionally met women that were much thicker skinned than I was. Go ahead and do philosophy, decide what strengths you want to have as a department and don't place any expectations on who would or should focus on any given area of research. Go ahead and give critical feedback, but give actionable feedback. Let students argue, but don't assume the quiet student is less capable or less engaged, just assume that they have a quieter nature.* Don't admonish female graduate students for not being more nurturing and accepting when they start teaching only to turn around and tell male graduate students to not let teaching interfere with their research.** In short, strive for consistency while at the same time recognizing that personality differences do exist, and that the differences in personality will always be greater than the differences in gender. You can't be everything for everyone (nor should you try)but a consistent, learning-focused, improvement-focused, bias-free atmosphere will do more than any superficial revamping ever could.
*Obviously, if there's a participation component of the grade, assign according to whatever rubric you have set up. Just don't let it influence your assessment in other areas.
**Actually happened once. I don't believe that faculty member is still in "our" department anymore, though.
I am re-posting this for the purpose of writing a blog post, since this is subscriber content. (I am not a subscriber, but it was sent to the department mailing list which, for the time being, I am still on. The original article is here.
From the Chronicle for Higher Education:
Women Challenge Male Philosophers to Make Room in Unfriendly Field
By Robin Wilson
America's philosophy professors are having a party, the sort of gathering that has become an institution at the annual meeting of the American Philosophical Association. In a ballroom on the lowest level of a sprawling downtown hotel here, clumps of men sit talking, laughing, and drinking beer at big, round tables.
The association calls the gathering a reception, but everyone here knows it as the "smoker," even though no one is allowed to smoke anymore. It caps the first day of sessions at the association's Eastern Division meeting and is not only an occasion for old friends and colleagues to catch up but also a time for young job candidates to talk informally with professors at campuses that have faculty openings.
The smoker is also notorious for making women uncomfortable. Tales abound of how, two decades ago, drunken male faculty members at the event chased young female job candidates and, more recently, of female junior professors getting propositioned by their senior colleagues there.
Some female philosophers who attended the association's meeting here late last month did not even give the reception a chance. They skipped it in favor of their own gathering over Domino's pizza and red wine. "We avoid it at all costs," said Shay Welch, an assistant professor of philosophy at Spelman College who held the "woman friendly" party at her home with a couple of dozen people. "It's almost like there is this tiny parallel universe women have created where women in philosophy hibernate."
The two gatherings in Atlanta are emblematic of what's happening in philosophy, where a small group of female professors is trying to shake up the field. The women want to broaden the discipline to embrace feminist ideas, raise the number of women in the faculty ranks, and put an end to sexist remarks and behavior.
Dustin Chambers for The Chronicle
Shay Welch, an assistant professor of philosophy at Spelman College: "It's almost like there is this tiny parallel universe women have created where women in philosophy hibernate."
Shay Welch, an assistant professor of philosophy at Spelman College: "It's almost like there is this tiny parallel universe women have created where women in philosophy hibernate."
But they have found the field more resistant to change than are many others in academe.
Most philosophy departments and conference meetings are still saturated with men. More than 80 percent of full-time faculty members in philosophy are male, compared with just 60 percent for the professoriate as a whole, according to 2003 data compiled by the U.S. Education Department, the latest available.
Women at the conference here didn't miss opportunities to observe how isolated they felt: One who waited in line at the hotel's Starbucks said she had counted 10 men in the line, plus her. The 16.6 percent of all full-time faculty members in philosophy who are female constitutes the lowest proportion of women in any of the humanities and is lower than the proportion of women in traditionally male fields like mathematics and computer science.
At the meeting in Atlanta, the association's Committee on the Status of Women sold black-and-white buttons that said: "Philosophy: Got Women?" A very explicit blog, "What is it like to be a woman in philosophy?," publishes horror stories by women describing sexual harassment and gender bias on their campuses and at scholarly meetings. A new petition, started by men, encourages senior male philosophers to refuse to speak at philosophy conferences that include few, if any, female presenters; it has about 1,000 signatures.
"There is a groundswell of movement right now," said Linda Martín Alcoff, a professor of philosophy at Hunter College of the City University of New York, who is president of the association's Eastern Division.
'Jerks in Philosophy'
Ms. Alcoff and other women say that despite the overwhelmingly male nature of their discipline, faculty members picked her as president in part because those who vote in the association's elections are more likely than others to endorse change, and because the association's nominating committee assembled a diverse slate of presidential candidates, including a black male and two feminist philosophers. "One of my goals is to increase diversity," Amy Ferrer, the association's new executive director, told The Chronicle.
She is hardly the first to try. The Society for Women in Philosophy has been promoting women's work in the field since 1972, and Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy was established in the mid-1980s. In November the philosophy association created a new Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Harassment to study the problem. The action came exactly 20 years after the organization first issued a statement condemning sexual harassment. While complaints of harassment may have dropped to a trickle in most academic fields, in philosophy the issue remains a major problem.
"Where else but in the U.S. military are women the targets of such regular abuse by their own close colleagues?" Ms. Alcoff wrote in a 2011 issue of the association's Newsletter on Feminism and Philosophy.
While Ms. Alcoff said she doesn't like the way women have historically been treated at the smoker, she has not endorsed abandoning it, because all association meetings have social gatherings. But the harassment, she said, must stop.
Next fall the association's Committee on the Status of Women will begin visiting campuses to evaluate the treatment of women in philosophy departments and recommend changes.
Some prominent men in the field say sexual harassment is real. "There are some jerks in philosophy," said Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, a professor of philosophy at Duke University who sits on the association's Board of Officers and supports the committee to study sexual harassment. "I have seen people hitting on female philosophers where I thought they shouldn't."
Sally Haslanger, a philosophy professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been at the center of efforts to make the field more comfortable for women. She said harassment is not the only problem. Female philosophers are generally given little respect, she said, which leads many to leave and erodes the confidence of those who stay.
"I've been worried about this for 30 years," she said. "We are all just sick of what's going on."
It's not unusual, she said, for female students to come to her office crying. "These women say they want to quit philosophy because they don't feel they belong," said Ms. Haslanger. "They say, 'I'm not good enough.' Or they say, 'I thought I could do it, but I see now that I can't.'"
That nearly happened to one young woman who recently finished her bachelor's degree in philosophy at a major East Coast research university and is now applying to graduate programs. In a conversation with The Chronicle here, she recalled a couple of times when she was sitting with some male graduate students after talks by visiting male professors who didn't know any of the students. Each time, the visiting professors asked the male students sitting next to her about their interests but ignored her. "I would think: 'I don't exist. Am I underdressed? Am I dressed provocatively? Do I look too young?'" she said.
The female student, who asked not to be named because she feared her observations might influence her acceptance by graduate programs, also recalled one male graduate student's advising her that philosophy wasn't for everyone and urging her to consider graduate work in psychology or sociology instead. At times, she acknowledged, she thought about quitting.
And yet, some of her male professors encouraged her, she said. "One said, 'Come up to the board. It's OK to speak up. It's OK to be wrong.' Before that, I had kind of shut down," she said. "He brought me back into the field."
Part of the problem, women say, is that philosophy is a verbally aggressive field, and some women may be more uncomfortable than men are with the kind of sparring and jousting typical of philosophical debates.
"You have to have the self-confidence to withstand critiques against your work without taking it personally," said Ms. Welch, the Spelman professor. "It's a very critical, crushing profession."
Other philosophers here agreed. "At many fine institutions, philosophy is so hyperanalytical and combative that young women may be put off," said Dianna Tietjens Meyers, who is retiring this year from her post as a philosophy professor at Loyola University Chicago. At the meeting here, the Society for Women in Philosophy held a session honoring Ms. Meyers's work.
But in her own remarks, she was not shy about publicizing the discipline's failures. She called philosophy "the least women-friendly field in the humanities" with a "terrible reputation for welcoming women."
After the session, over a Champagne-and-cheese reception for Ms. Meyers, a female graduate student told a Chronicle reporter how her male faculty adviser had come to talk to her after some students in a class she taught gave the course low marks. When she noted that at least one student in the class must have enjoyed it because he had signed up for another of her courses, the adviser told her that was probably because the male student found her attractive.
"I have yet to hear from any of my male colleagues that their advisers had explicitly talked about how they looked versus their performance," said the female student, who asked not to be named because she will soon be on the job market. "When my male colleagues get feedback, it's always about their performance and the quality of their work, not their appearance."
The problems for women in philosophy stem from the historically male-oriented nature of the field and, in particular, the lack of respect many in the discipline have for feminist philosophy, say female scholars.
"Rationality is thought of as men's kingdom," said Ms. Welch. "And there is an argument through time about how philosophy belongs to men."
While the profession's dominant analytic approach stresses objectivity, abstract reasoning, and theoretical thinking, much of feminist philosophy challenges those values. Many argue that there is a decidedly female perspective, that people's bodies play a role in their understanding of the world, and that objectivity is impossible.
Peggy DesAutels is chair of the philosophy association's Committee on the Status of Women and a professor of philosophy at the University of Dayton. She began her career in ethical theory and moral psychology but turned, as well, to feminist philosophy because "that's where women were," she said. "It's a space where you are not the only woman trying to prove women are good at this."
But it hasn't been easy. "I'll submit to the Society for Philosophy and Psychology conference a feminist piece, and they'll say: 'This is not the kind of piece we do.'"
But Mr. Sinnott-Armstrong, the Duke professor, said feminist philosophers whose work is rejected may mistakenly chalk it up to sexism. "Most of the journals accept less than 5 percent of submissions," he said. "A lot of feminist papers are rejected, but so are a lot of papers. There is good feminist philosophy, and there is bad feminist philosophy, just like there is good ethics and bad ethics, and good epistemology and bad epistemology."
Brian Leiter, a professor and director of the Center for Law, Philosophy, and Human Values at the University of Chicago Law School, said he isn't sympathetic to arguments that the content of philosophy courses, and the style in which the discipline is taught, should be changed to make it more attractive to women. Some women, he pointed out, "dislike the suggestion that the field's too combative for delicate women," and he agrees with them.
"Some people want to make philosophy more like the English department, with more focus on gender and race, and they want it to be more touchy-feely, good-natured, friendly, and mutually supportive," said Mr. Leiter, who publishes the Philosophical Gourmet Report, an online ranking of top philosophy departments. "The discipline has been argumentative for a long time. Socrates' interlocutors frequently threaten to punch him in the face, they are so annoyed."
Women at the meeting here said there are some bright spots in the discipline. At a table in a room displaying philosophy books for sale, three undergraduate women sat with copies of the undergraduate philosophy journal Stance. Undergraduates at Ball State University produce it, and all of its authors are students.
The journal was started by a female student in 2006, and its current editor is female, as are the authors of about half of the papers in its latest issue.
David W. Concepcion, chairman of Ball State's department of philosophy and religious studies, is the journal's managing editor. He cajoled Kiley Neal, a soft-spoken senior majoring in creative writing with a minor in philosophy, to be this year's editor in chief.
"Being editor of a journal is a big step for me," said Ms. Neal. "But if Dave thinks I can do it, I can do it."
Some women here acknowledged that they had experienced gender discrimination but said conditions in the field may have improved.
The University of Georgia hired Victoria M. Davion in 1990 along with another young female philosopher. At the time, they were the only women in a department of about a dozen men. During her first pretenure review, Ms. Davion recalled, male professors suggested she not publish as heavily in Hypatia. But Ms. Davion, who studies feminist ethics, told them it was the most-prestigious journal in her field. They backed off.
In addition, one of her older male colleagues had been skeptical of Ms. Davion's courses on feminist philosophy, which include work by women. "His attitude was, 'We're going out the window with this,'" Ms. Davion said. But she invited him to look at her syllabus and talk to some of her students, and now, she said, he's not only very supportive but also one of her closest colleagues.
Ms. Davion is now head of the philosophy department at Georgia, where 43 percent of the faculty members are female—the largest proportion of women in any of the top 51 Ph.D.-granting philosophy departments in the country, according to Mr. Leiter's report.
"Obviously nothing is perfect, but the situation for women here has improved," said Ms. Davion. "At Georgia women are hired and are successful at promotion and tenure. That shows there is hope for improvement in the field."