Friday, December 16, 2011

Faith in and Frustration with Philosophy

**This week I've been following the conversation on a feminist philosophy listserv about an article that appeared this week in The Chronicle. With each message that gets posted I've wanted to add something from my prospective as a grad student who passionately teaches philosophy to non-majors, but as I started to write, my response got too long. I didn't feel comfortable posting the whole thing on the listserv and thought that maybe people could just follow the link to my blog if they really wanted to read. But that second-guessing is part of the process I've been dealing with for the past few days and even now as I write. I have been self-censoring so that I don't come off as arrogant, but then I swing back and forth, compelled to say something because I am especially frustrated with the lack of internal and institutional support that I have been facing regarding my own research and methods. But I need to write. About philosophy. About life. About my practice of philifesophy. After all, that is precisely why I have this blog. So, I'll write the message that I wish I had the confidence to post on the listserv here.**

I want to thank all of you for engaging with this topic. As a graduate student, I have been following the thread of emails with a sense of optimism thanks to the generally shared sentiments that seem to be coming through in each message. But I've also been concerned about how we seem to be at a loss for what to do about the concerns at hand. I hear the worries about potentially negative student evaluations if one were to bring up relevant, everyday, and very political examples in class, the fears about losing jobs (or in my case, not getting one), the frustrations around philosophy being treated like a mere commodity that could be distributed to bring in more majors, etc. Even though I've only been teaching my own classes now for three years, I've had to face similar worries about how I run a classroom. But I've also had the good fortune of putting together my own course syllabi and use my own pedagogical techniques from the very beginning. While teaching classes like Love and Sex, Race and Diversity, and Philosophy and Feminism lend themselves to difficult yet highly personal and relevant conversations, I've employed the same methods in my Basic Problems and Asian Philosophies classes. I have decided to make sure that every course and every class period takes the issues head on with honesty, integrity, and courage. My students are often surprised by how ethically and politically charged our discussions can become, and I don't even hesitate to show my own cards, but so far, I have had very few students openly state their disapproval of my style in evaluations or on Perhaps my students respond more favorably to me because I am relatively young for an instructor and close to them in age. Maybe this allows me to get away with more polemical and often surprisingly outrageous things. But I have to think it is something more than that.

Could it be that they appreciate my style precisely because I'm not afraid to bring up polemical issues and say and do pretty outrageous things?

An overwhelming majority of my students have loved my classes, precisely because it helps them be not only better thinkers but better people (by the way, these are their words--I have them write final reflection papers on their thought processes at the end of every semester). My classes are never easy-A's; I run intro courses more like 300 level classes. They require young 18 to 21-year-olds to actually think, read, speak, and write in ways that they often haven't ever been expected to do before. In fact, at the start of the semester many don't  really know how to think, read, speak, and write well at all. And it's true that in my class on race, some students even admitted in their final papers to being so filled with anger at me and the material we were covering that they said they hated the class. I already knew, of course. I could feel it during the semester from the line up of four white male students against the back wall. But those same students came around with gratitude and eventually wrote about how and why they responded that way for the majority of the semester. The material is personally challenging, but also personally rewarding. For being non-majors seeking a simple gen-ed credit, I've had students re-enroll to take my other classes and decide to become majors (all good things as far as the college is concerned, right?). But more than that, they see value in philosophy and appreciate the work that we do over the semester because it means something to them in the end. And you know what? It means something to me, too. There have been numerous times where conversations with my students have made me think harder and learn more than any of the graduate level seminars that I have taken since my senior year in college. I suspect that they see how I am also learning with and from them.

Related to Marilyn's email, the real shame here, though, is that no one taught me how to teach. I was just one of those undergraduate students who was always frustrated when my own professors didn't seem to care enough to go out of the box in terms of their own teaching. With the exception of two classes as an undergrad, I found the majority of my philosophy classes to be painfully boring and useless, and so I used the experience to note what didn't work. (By the way, I didn't even want to major in philosophy. I only declared a major because I already had some credits from my religious studies classes and a professor convinced me to not drop out as a sophomore. I used those credits so that I could still graduate in four years. During the fall of my junior year I took a crucial class that introduced me to a different approach to philosophy. Then I attended PIKSI at Penn State before my senior year. It was there, not in my department, where I saw what I could do with philosophy and what philosophy could do...I write more about this journey to academic philosophy and what to do with it now, here).  And I'm one of those people whose passion for philosophy is so strong--how it can change us, empower us, help shed new light on our lives and experiences--that I can't even imagine "talking about" philosophy in the usual way. So, with teaching, I've just had to wing it. Ironically, winging it has worked best. Maybe that's because I start from a place that avoids conventional assumptions about teaching...

Whereas some professors above me have said (quite unfavorably) that I am bull-headed about how I do philosophy, I have wished all along that I didn't have to force my way against such resistance, but that there were more mentors and examples around me who supported and demonstrated how to talk with people and students without excluding them or shooting them down, how to ask questions that invite critical thinking rather than dismissive or defensive apathy. But since I see these unhelpful tendencies around me all the time in many professional philosophy settings, I have started to think that many academic philosophers simply don't know how to relate to others on philosophical issues without it turning into a very narrow, unproductive event. I hesitate to even call them genuine dialogues of philosophical exchange.

If philosophers really want to start teaching in new ways and engaging the public in new ways, then we should probably put more effort into making sure that we are the sort of people with whom others (students included) want to and feel like they can have meaningful, enriching conversations. In other words, I agree with Marilyn that professional philosophers should give more attention to teaching graduate students how to teach. But it has to start with cultivating a sensibility for how to communicate, how to listen, how to openly engage with others, and how to encourage people who aren't familiar with philosophy to think philosophically. These are skills that you simply can't learn from reading the work of your favorite thinker in the history of philosophy or from mulling over one specific philosophical problem for years on end. Being the sort of people who can actually do the kind of philosophy that we are all hoping for and talking about through listservs and higher-ed articles requires a different kind of work. A different kind of cultivation of character that, frankly, most philosophers lack.

And here's the real kicker. The "crisis in philosophy" isn't just about being poor teachers who can't engage students. It's also about the very work that we do. Part of how I keep my classes interesting and relevant is by teaching interesting and relevant material (so, thanks, to you who publish such material). And part of how I keep myself motivated to do philosophy and finish my degree is by working on questions that are professionally and personally important and relevant to me. Trust me, I know that there are risks for how I am doing things. People might say that I am too unprofessional in how I teach because we talk about things very openly and casually, but they could not deny that we are also very philosophical. And thanks to the push back that I get from professors above me who don't seem to like or get what I do (I don't know which is worse), I am constantly reminded that I have to do what is "standard" and "conventional" in philosophy so that I can eventually get a job. Put simply, I probably won't get a job after writing my dissertation, which uses contemporary feminist work on affect and Nietzsche's views on physiology and philosophy to reframe how we can think of philosophical practice (in the old school sense of reading and writing theory) in ways that embrace its potential for therapeutically transforming those who do it as a mode of resistance to oppression.

So let's talk about risks. If people in tenured positions are worried about the crisis in philosophy, the budget cuts in the humanities, or what it means for their livelihoods, what are they doing to respect, support, encourage, and defend young scholars, un-tenured faculty, and graduate students who lack any kind of job security (or jobs at all), but are committed to doing philosophical work that stays true to the notion that philosophy is an intrinsically valuable practice, a way of life? I see how the work that I do is especially risky, but I am unwilling to jump through the hoops of conventional standards of philosophy in order to get a tenured position with the supposed promise that I will eventually be able to do what I want to do. (By the way, so far many of the comments from even the top feminist philosophers are making me question the tenability of such a promise.) Yes, I'm bull-headed on this. But let's face it. There aren't a whole lot of jobs out there to begin with. And if I had compromised on how I do philosophy at any point leading up to now, I know that I wouldn't have lasted this long in the discipline or in my program. I would have burned out, thrown up my hands, and said, "Fuck this, it's not worth it"  (which I almost did, multiple times, much like most people I know who've gone through this whole process).

But that's a real shame, because I know lots of people like me who are passionate and dedicated to philosophical practice, but who just get tired of having to fight the uphill battle against philosophical conventions and hierarchical bullying from unsympathetic professors. However, I know that sticking to it is worth it because philosophy is worth it....when it's done in certain ways. At the very least I know what philosophy has done for me and I see how my students react at the end of every semester.

So rather than wringing our hands and worrying about the backlash that we might face if we actually try to do what we feel like we should do and want to do in philosophy, I think it's most important to actually support each other in doing precisely those things. Be bold with our teaching. Be ambitious with our philosophizing. Be humble with our profession. And be open to doing things differently.  We need to learn how to communicate, how to improvise, how to listen, how to really ask genuine questions (with our students but also with one another) without needing to know the answers ahead of time. Perhaps we could also accept the possibility that we won't get to a stable answers, and that's a good thing. We can make these changes much more easily if we know that we are not alone and that we have support from others in the field, even if they aren't in our departments. If we can trust that others are going to be constructive, helpful, and cooperative, rather than just trying to tear us down or prove us wrong, then we can let our guards down, be less defensive, and actually work with a kind of honest curiosity, interest, passion, and sincerity that seems to be so hard to find and maintain.

After writing all of this, I want to thank you again for having these conversations. When I was faced with a challenging question at my prospectus defense this week that basically asked, "So you mean to suggest that you will go into a room of people who are interviewing you for a job and tell them that what they do is boring and irrelevant?" I responded, "In a sense, yes, because it's a pretty safe bet that what I am doing is not what they are doing. Philosophy can do more than it has typically been given credit. And I know that it's a risky position to hold if one's on the job market, but I also know that I am not alone. There was an article in the Chronicle this week that raises this precise issue, and some of the top names in feminist philosophy have been discussing it on the FEAST listserv for the past couple of days."

Your support and encouragement on these issues are appreciated, even by those (like myself) who you may not know are reading along and following your leadership.


  1. cw, there is much to be said in favor of teaching how to do something rather than just teaching about something, esp. as relates to philosophy/ethics, and certainly part of such teaching how has to do with the instructors person-ality, but this would be a major reform in secular academic institutions (on a purely administrative front how would one hire along the lines of looking for personal maturity/social-skills, let alone what counts as desirable ends of moral teachings and then selling this to the public/parents?) and the research on adult development/habit-formation suggests that the kind of time/commitment limited encounters between faculty and students are not enough to generate real shifts in how people conduct themselves (we are notoriously bad self-reporters) and so you may be well served to team up with someone in psychology doing research that will back up your teaching claims so that they have some more objective footing.

  2. i appreciate and share in the concern about needing more "objective footing" to support the claims that I am making. I don't see any easy ways to collect such information, but I do have some ideas that I am working on... That's my next step, and I hope to have something in the very near future.

  3. very good, otherwise folks will write it off as youthful enthusiasm or some other such all too easy dismissal, if you could get someone like a josh knobe type to work with you on pedagogical issues it might appeal to deans/administrators if not other faculty. teaching is still an afterthought in higher ed especially as relates to hiring/advancement but surely that might change with the right research and political organizing. looking forward to seeing what's next for you.

  4. You're doing brilliant work. I attended PIKSI last August and it was a fantastic experience. I'm in the middle of grad school applications and doing work on a large senior project that brings Spinoza and contemporary queer theory together. The kind of work you do (philosophy!) is extremely important for living. Don't back down.

  5. I'm not sure why we need 'objective' research to support the idea that philosophers can and should engage controversial contemporary issues in our classes. Much less that the support of established, tenured faculty would be helpful in shaking up traditional teaching styles. Anyone who mixes things up in a classroom sees the results, as can anyone who visits such a classroom.

  6. hylas, how does one either show such results to others who aren't present (parents, administrators,colleagues,funders. etc) and or know that they extend beyond the classroom?
    if you don't understand the dynamics of seniority in dept politics I can't really help you there except to say ask some of the folks involved about how new ventures get supported or not.