NSSR Philosophy

Month: October, 2013

new library

The New School is finally getting a library! In 2009, then-president Bob Kerrey moved the library and graduate faculty to make way for a gargantuan and extremely expensive building project on Fifth Avenue between 14th and 13th Streets. That building project, which is now the “university center,” will officially open early next year. Unfortunately, now-president David Van Zandt has made it clear that the graduate faculty will not be allowed to return to offices that were once on the grounds now occupied by the grandiose new building but will remain (in exile!) on 16th St. Obviously it is unpleasant to be marginalized but at least Van Zandt is not openly hostile to students and faculty in the way that his predecessor was. (Kerry left the New School after he received a vote of no confidence from the faculty. An article in counterpunch gives some details about the related occupation movement. An illustrative quote: “Kerrey, who at one time termed his students as ‘customers’, later called the students who occupied ‘terrorists'”)

But it was not just graduate students, faculty, and staff who were displaced by the university center. The library was also eviscerated, most of the books were put into storage, and the few remaining ones were dispersed throughout various buildings held by the New School. It was not exactly the burning of the library of Alexandria, but the motives were not dissimilar and the action was justified in pretty much the same way. Philosophy students now generally use the NYU library, although there is a pitifully small selection of books available in the Raymond Fogelman “Library” in Arnhold Hall.

According to an official blog post, all of this is about to change. Early next year, the school plans house the collection on the sixth and seventh floors of the university center. This is potentially wonderful news for philosophy students at the New School. The only thing that worries me is the plan to keep a significant part of the collection offsite. The blog post quotes university librarian Ed Scarcelle:

First, much of the university’s impressive library collection has been digitized. “Historically, students looked to a library as a place to find reference materials, but now a vast amount of information can be accessed from virtually anywhere in the world through MyNewSchool,” explains Scarcelle. That doesn’t mean The New School libraries will be devoid of books: Frequently requested works will be housed onsite, and other texts will be kept at a facility upstate, easily shipped to any New School location within two business days.

Putting digitized texts offsite seems to me to encourage students to print out whole books rather than just taking them out of the library. This is environmentally dubious, as is the constant shipping of books that could already be on library shelves (though calculating just how many sheets of paper and watt hours would be used under different scenarios would require something like a randomized controlled trial).

In addition to environmental issues with a big E, what about the internal environment of the library? I have made some of my best “discoveries” while looking for one book, only to find another (sometimes unrelated) book in the process. The notion that digitization and fast shipping can replace a room full of books assumes that people always know what information they need in advance. Preposterous! Good scholarship often has roots in simple curiosity, and sometimes in unexpected encounters with other thinkers. When so many thinkers are not (spatially and temporally) close by, it is extremely beneficial to have their works on shelves, where we can unintentionally bump into, mistakenly reach for, and curiously leaf through them. The fact that this is not obvious to everyone who works in or studies at a university never ceases to amaze and shock me.

I’ve been on a bit of a diatribe about the way the old library was disappeared and the way in which the new library has been announced with the typical “brave new age of steam and steel” rhetoric. But I should stress that two stories of books and study space is basically great news. The New School has a lot of great things about it and a lot of problems. Building a solid library is taking a big step in the right direction.


justice for adjuncts

In the article referenced in the last post,  Davis alludes to an adjunct professor Duquesne University who died in poverty. Her name was Margaret Mary Vojtko. According to NPR, “After 25 years of teaching French at Duquesne, the university had not renewed her contract. As a part-time professor, she had been earning about $10,000 a year, and had no health insurance… Vojtko died Sept. 1 after a heart attack at the age of 83, destitute and nearly homeless.” Vojtko’s death is seen by many as a rallying cry for adjuncts who, the NPR articles notes “make up a whopping 75 percent of college instructors, with their average pay between $20,000 and $25,000 annually.”

This 75% can be a largely invisible (though by no means secret) part of the university labor force. Now there are some people interested in improving conditions and there are some resources for current or prospective adjunct professors. Here is an article about the attempt of Duquesne adjuncts to unionize. Here is a place to read about the conditions some adjuncts work under and what they are doing about it. Finally, here is an online tool that shows adjunct salaries by institution. In my view, the “proletarianization” of the university may undermine good scholarship and perhaps even academic freedom. These are welcome movements against a big social problem.

neoliberal education reform

My friend Owen Davis just published an article called “6 Ways Neoliberal Education Reform Is Coming to a College Near You.” It argues colleges will increasingly be evaluated and funded based on quantitative indicators such as graduation rates and test scores. This will create incentives for schools to “game the system,” that is to manipulate the standards and to dismiss underperforming students, who are often those most in need of support and…education. Owen’s background is in secondary education, which gives him an interesting (and to me a sometimes unfamiliar) perspective on the university environment.


women in philosophy

A series of five articles published last month in the New York Times’ blog The Stone  (moderated by the New School’s own Simon Critchley) has served as the center of the current conversation about disproportionately small numbers of women and minorities on philosophy faculties. In the first article, Sally Hasslanger notes that the most recent (ten year old) data, only 16.6 percent of university philosophy faculty members are women. Hasslanger goes on to argue that the dearth of women (and implicitly, also of minorities) in philosophy faculty positions should be attributed not so much to the real but relatively rare cases of overt of sexism (racism) as to the environment that makes possible those occasional behaviors. Hasslanger writes of the small number of female and minority philosophers,

With these numbers, you don’t need sexual harassment or racial harassment to prevent women and minorities from succeeding, for alienation, loneliness, implicit bias, stereotype threat, microaggression, and outright discrimination will do the job. But in a world of such small numbers, harassment and bullying is easy.

Most professional philosophers, Hasslanger concludes, are neither sexist nor racist. But the environment of professional philosophy nevertheless licenses bad behavior by the few who are.

An alternate “explanation” of these small numbers has been that women and minorities tend not to thrive in professional philosophy because of its confrontational and competitive culture of debate. In the second of the Stone articles, Linda Martín Alcoff dismantles this argument.  It is not debate per se that is off-putting to many women in philosophy but rather its style:

Too many philosophers accept the idea that truth is best achieved by a marketplace of ideas conducted in the fashion of ultimate fighting. But aggressive styles that seek easy victories by harping on arcane counterexamples do not maximize truth.

In other words, the culture of academic machismo, however exciting it may be to those who enjoy a certain kind of aggressive debating style, has nothing to do with truth: cut and thrust generally favors the loudest voice in the room, regardless of whether that voice is speaking sense or nonsense.

The other articles in the series fill out the picture of the challenges faced in professional philosophy by women and propose alternate, generally complementary explanations of the dearth of women in university philosophy departments.  Rae Langton discusses the psychological effects (particularly priming effects) of syllabi and faculty lists consisting mainly of men’s names. Louise Antony explores the phenomenon of male anxiety in academia, or the worries that some men have about “new” sexual harassment policies and PC attitudes. In the last article, Peg O’Connor argues that the moral burden to change the current culture of academic philosophy lies not with women but with male faculty members.

In all the essentials I think that Haslinger and Alcoff’s detailed, convincing descriptions of the culture of professional philosophy are correct. Nevertheless, their explanations of the dearth of women in academic philosophy are based solely on factors that are endogenous to the field of philosophy. It would be interesting to find out whether there are also exogenous factors, i.e. influences from outside of academia that discourage women and minorities from entering into or persisting in careers in philosophy.

The reason I think exogenous factors might be partly explanatory of the lack of women in academic philosophy can be understood by analogy with a closely related but quite different discipline: mathematics.  The European Mathematical Society Committee on Women and Mathematics reports huge variations in numbers of female mathematicians among different European countries – as of 2005, for example, nearly half the mathematicians in Portugal were women whereas in Norway females accounted for less than 12% of mathematicians. Are Norweigian mathematicians more sexist than Portugese mathematicians?  Do Swiss mathematics departments, in which just under 7% of the faculty are women, have more of an “ultimate fighting” culture than their Italian counterparts, which have five times the number of female faculty?

Even if the answer to these questions is “yes,” it seems plausible that factors external to the university mathematics departments have an effect on whether the number of female mathematicians is somewhat representative or unacceptably low. Exogenous factors might include the expectations parents place on their children, the kind of encouragement (or discouragement) children get in elementary education, and media portrayals of “successful” womanhood.  From anecdotal evidence (i.e. from asking my students why they say “I’m horrible at math” when they say it), I think some women’s confidence in their mathematical abilities is unintentionally eroded by parents, teachers, and peers. As for media portrayals: “A Beautiful Mind” was a fun movie –  but where is the biopic on Emmy Noether? (Incidentally, some also inexcusably old numbers on the gender of members in the American Mathematical Society are available here).

My question is whether something similar is going on in philosophy. On the one hand, it seems that there are not a lot of stereotypes that would discourage women from going into philosophy. Women make up a large part of other departments in the humanities and social sciences, and increasingly in the natural sciences. Although the canonical authors (Aristotle, Descartes, Kant) have been men, even they were corresponding with women (Elisabeth of BohemiaMaria von Herbert; ok- I don’t have any evidence about Aristotle but some of his fellow students in the Academy definitely were women). In the twentieth century, there have been a number of very accomplished female philosophers (Arendt, Anscobme, Millikan, Marcus, Kristeva, Butler, to drop just a few big names). If there is a widely held stereotype that discourages women from entering philosophy, I doubt it is a stereotype about female philosophers.

An alternative is that there is a negative stereotype about philosophy that is particularly discouraging to women. The negative stereotypes about philosophy seem to me mainly to be: (1) Philosophy is useless (grad school version: it is not a progressive field). (2) You won’t make any money if you study philosophy (grad school version: what are you going to do with that, teach?). (3) Philosophy is subversive (grad school version: I can’t believe you philosophy people still read X . – where X is Freud, Marx, St. Paul, or any other thinker who was supposedly proven wrong a long time ago. It is of course difficult to get a coherent explanation of what it means to be proven wrong, and how exactly this proof was made against X’s theory. But by this time you are having a philosophical conversation and the critic is leaving the room).

If there are exogenous factors that discourage women and/or minorities from careers in academic philosophy, then I would expect some or all of (1), (2), and (3) to be more discouraging to women than to men, and to students of color than to white students. (A white, male PhD student in philosophy, I certainly find them quite discouraging.) Is there, for example, more pressure on women and minorities to do something “practical” or “pragmatic” (neither is meant in a philosophical sense) in their studies and careers  than there is on white men?  Does our society tell certain of its members that “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” is not for them? Or does it offer equal opportunity discouragement to all?

I realize that all of this could come across as just what Antony and O’Connor warn of, i.e. a white guy trying to avoid responsibility by explaining away the small numbers of women in philosophy as a sociological phenomenon over which he has no control. But I am not opposed to changing the environment within university departments. Rather, the question I am trying to raise is of whether it is enough to change departmental dynamics or whether we need also to change the way gender and race enters into our thinking in more basic and widespread ways, inside and outside the ivory tower. Perhaps we need to reconsider the way we use  our concepts of knowledge on a more fundamental level.