Stereotype threat and Philosophy’s problem

by Harry on December 3, 2013

On the topic of Philosophy’s uneven sex ratios: Gina Schouten has a really interesting paper about stereotype threat as a possible explanation of those ratios (PDF). Her paper is, as she says, an armchair reflection on the hypothesis, but I think it would be useful to anyone wanting to study the causes of the sex ratios empirically.

The reason she has to do an armchair reflection is that Philosophy is a small discipline, and one the composition of which does not have huge social consequences, so the incentives for empirical researchers to give it the kind of attention they give the STEM subjects, the subjects for which the stereotype threat hypothesis was formed, and has been tested, and for which treatments have been devised, are small (Kieran seems to do it as a strange sort of hobby – but I don’t think his discipline promises great rewards for this part of his work).

Her reflections, though, are interesting and useful. She points out that the main leak in the pipeline is between the first philosophy course and the major. It would be really handy if it turned out that stereotype threat explained the exit of students at this point in the pipeline, because psychologists have devised interventions to counter stereotype threat that are extremely cheap and easy to implement, and seem to be highly effective (see footnote [1]). We could adapt some of those interventions relatively easily to Philosophy courses. (Then we could continue to be completely insensitive and rude in the way we teach, without suffering the consequence of depriving our discipline of talent!)

Problem is that we don’t have a lot of evidence, and some of the features of stereotype threat seem to be absent. For example, the fact that girls get lower average grades in any given STEM course is prima facie evidence that they are underperforming (one indicator of stereotype threat). I don’t have data on how well girls and boys do in intro level courses, but anecdote suggests that girls do not get worse grades than boys (Ok, ok, I’m writing this, and realize I should just get someone to check for my dept, and I’ll report back if it’s legal to). Of course, “underperformance” means something like “lower performance than the student should perform given his or her prior achievement”, and given that girls at most institutions have significantly higher prior achievement on most measures, they could be getting higher grades than boys and still be underperforming.

Another problem with the idea that stereotype threat explains why girls leave after the first one or two courses is that they just lack the stereotype. After all, philosophy is a found major, and because they have no experience of it, our students lack the relevant stereotypes: girls don’t think that philosophy is the kind of thing that girls do badly, or that others think that, because they don’t know what it is. In so far as they do have beliefs about what philosophy is [1], those beliefs are usually quite wrong, and we disabuse them pretty quickly.

However, as she points out, their first encounter with the subject might easily introduce a stereotype to them:

The first bit of data we provide is the gender composition of the disciplinary experts in the classroom: the instructors and teaching assistants. Many undergraduates will be exposed to only male experts during their first experience with philosophy. Especially in large classes with multiple teaching assistants, gender homogeneity may constitute a striking bit of data indeed. Students might explicitly infer from the prevalence of male experts that men tend to excel in philosophy, whereas women do not. Or they might reach this conclusion indirectly, noticing that the gender makeup of philosophy resembles that of math and science, and then applying gendered stereotypes from other disciplines to philosophy.

The second bit of data from which students may infer the existence of gendered stereotypes about philosophy is the course syllabus. Even the most well-meaning among us are likely to distribute syllabi on which men’s contributions far exceed those of women. Even if students do not notice this immediately, they are likely during the first few weeks of the course to notice that all the articles they are reading were written by men, if only because we refer to the authors using male pronouns.

The course content during the first few weeks of class often constitutes a third data point for students. Many of us begin our courses with a brief introduction to logic. From this, students may quickly come to believe that philosophy generally is similar to math, or that an important foundational component of philosophy is similar to math. They may infer that being good (bad) at math bodes well (ill) for one’s prospects in philosophy. Students may then apply gendered math stereotypes to philosophy, or simply experience anxiety at the prospect of confirming math stereotypes in the philosophy classroom, much as they have been shown to experience anxiety at the prospect of confirming math stereotypes in physics classrooms.

There’s a lot else in the paper, but I want to focus on this part of it. Among the interventions Schouten suggests are altering syllabuses to include more women authors, and doing our best to ensure that students are exposed to live female philosophers, both by assigning women teachers to classes where they are likely to teach a good number of female students and by using guest lecturers. [2]

A discussion with a (feminist) colleague who teaches ethics at another institution indicated how difficult the first suggestion – changing the sex ratios of the assigned authors – is on some approaches to philosophy. Said colleague teaches her introductory ethics course using the historical approach (the same I used the first time I taught it): but on the historical approach, you are going to teach the historical figures: probably a couple out of Plato, Hobbes, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Marx and Rawls and definitely all of Aristotle, Hume, Kant and Mill. No women. You can force women in – both times I taught it that way I used Mary Wollstonecraft, and my colleague ended her course with Philippa Foot. But neither of these figures has the stature of any of the men I’ve mentioned, and my guess is that the students can pretty much see through the token gesture (and if you teach it chronologically, the women come along pretty late anyway). It is, obviously, much easier to change the ratios if you take a problem-based approach – teach about realism and relativism, the significance of consequences, integrity, virtue ethics, partiality, sexual morality, forgiveness, the significance of death, etc. Keep it mainly focused on contemporary authors and you could easily design a sensible syllabus, using only very high quality philosophical literature with just one man on it (Williams is who I would find indispensible – I’m not suggesting that it would be a good idea to have only one man on the syllabus, just pointing out how easy it would be to alter the sex ratios). The same is probably true for an intro to philosophy course (I say probably because I’m not sure I could do it, but I’m not sure I could design a good syllabus for an Intro to Philosophy course, period.

Couldn’t a department experiment with this? My guess is that the historical approach is dominant in many departments as things stand, and that it should be possible to persuade a few colleagues to adopt a problem-based approach with significant numbers of female authors on the syllabus, and see whether rate at which girls take a second Philosophy course changes (using colleagues who have not changed their approach as a control). Of course, an experiment like this would require finding out what people are actually teaching, which goes against the grain, but might be valuable for other reasons.

[1] Sorcery maybe?

[2] I’ll disclose that Schouten herself has been used (by me) in exactly the latter way – for about 3 years she was my go-to substitute for numerous reasons, including that my large classes are largely female and I want those students to see a female philosopher in action (esp. one who is evidently extremely talented both as a teacher and as a philosopher). Also, that both she and I see the limitations of and problems with this suggestion.

{ 54 comments }

1

Derek Bowman 12.03.13 at 3:27 pm

When I recently taught an introduction to ethics course, I did a kind of hybrid historical/topics approach, organizing things topically, but starting each section with a historical author (Mill, Kant, Aristotle) before moving to more contemporary readings.

One problem was that, as I had organized the course, the first few weeks were still male dominated, so that by the time we got to female authors, students were calling every new author ‘he’ until corrected.

So the next semester, I changed things up. Although I started with Plato, the next readings were by Valerie Tiberius and Susan Wolf (on well-being and on meaning in life). Students still defaulted to ‘he’ with these authors.

2

Andrew F. 12.03.13 at 3:46 pm

Well, can we compare the rates at which female students major in philosophy at all-female schools to the rates at which female students major in philosophy at mixed-gender schools?

If the rate is roughly the same, and the intro courses are relevantly similar (male/female ratio of authors read, sex of teachers, etc.), then that might strengthen the argument that the issue is not so much how male students behave as it is something else (possibly related to the assigned readings and teachers, but possibly more broadly cultural, or some combination).

3

Harry 12.03.13 at 3:47 pm

I know! Last week my class had an online discussion of Susan Okin’s work on gender and justice, with most posters referring to her as “he”, until one poster, not very gently, corrected them.

Why not just start with Wolf?

4

mdc 12.03.13 at 4:37 pm

One thing I’ve noticed: sometimes there are students who right at the start appear to the untrained eye to be thriving in a philosophy class. They have a lot to say, are enthusiastic about arguments, seem quick on their feet, seem adept at the sort of speech-combat discussed in previous threads. But often these types don’t have a philosophical bone in their body, and will flounder when it comes to close reading and imaginative speculation (until, best-case, they reorient their approach). These types tend to be male. My worry is that some female students (and of course some males students, too) of a less facile, shallow persuasion look on mildly appalled by the sort I’m talking about and conclude, ‘well, if that’s philosophy, it isn’t for me.’ If they stick with it for at least a few weeks, the floundering of the shallow blowhards becomes apparent. But I worry that some have already checked out by then.

5

Alan Bostick 12.03.13 at 4:43 pm

Sorry for the off-topic interjection; but John Quiqqin’s post about the trolley problem isn’t loading in my browser (Firefox 25.0.1 for Mac, yadda yadda); I get a blank page. Other posts (like this one) load just fine.

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magistra 12.03.13 at 5:34 pm

I don’t want to criticise Schouten’s suggestions for change, which seem eminently sensible, but there’s something about the framing of her paper that rubs me (as a non-philosopher) up the wrong way. To caricature her argument slightly:

1) We don’t have empirical data about the leaky pipeline and we’re not likely to get any

2) But philosophers have skills!

3) Some bits of the STH do fit better with philosophy than they appear to do at first sight

4) One of the key bits of the hypothesis doesn’t hold, however. (Schouten explicitly says that she doesn’t think women do underperform in philosophy).

5) But that doesn’t matter because there may be some other mechanisms, so it might be true, and we should still act as if it did.

What worries me here is not the lack of data, but the underlying assumption that philosophers don’t really need it because they have their armchair logic, and they can ignore what data they do have if it doesn’t fit. And if expressed by a man, that would be the classic academic male know-it-all attitude: they know best, even if they clearly don’t. I wonder if part of the issue of asshattery is that philosophy encourages its practitioners to believe that their superior thinking can solve any problem, regardless of their knowledge of it?

7

Scott S. 12.03.13 at 6:04 pm

If the historical way of teaching ethics is a bad way of introducing the subject, then it should be modified. But I don’t think that it should be modified for the sake of a political end, even a laudable one. (As an aside, many teachers of philosophy and the humanities have felt considerable pressure not just to attract more women to their classes but to attract more people, period. No doubt there’s any number of ways that one could do that.) If it’s merely a “token” gesture – and an insulting one, in my view – to throw in Mary Wollstonecraft with Aristotle and Kant just to have a woman in the mix, why should one scrap the historical approach to teach yet lesser figures simply so that the gender balance is appropriate? I’ll risk sounding politically and economically naïve and say that teachers of philosophy should ask themselves, “What’s the best way of introducing this subject?” not, “What’s the best way of attracting certain groups to major in the subject?”

8

Chris Bertram 12.03.13 at 6:35 pm

the main leak in the pipeline is between the first philosophy course and the major.

This isn’t true for the UK (even making allowances for the different undergraduate structure), but there is still a big gender imbalance when you get to people in permanent teaching jobs.

9

FuzzyFace 12.03.13 at 6:45 pm

Um… but haven’t most subjects, including many in which women now dominate, previously been dominated by men? So that the same dynamic (most cited authorities are male) should obtain? And yet it hasn’t discouraged women from interest in those subjects?

Why is this an issue for philosophy when it wasn’t one for, say, literature?

10

Derek Bowman 12.03.13 at 7:04 pm

Scott S,

Your response is based on two mistaken assumptions.

First, it assumes that there is one unique best way to organize an introductory level philosophy class. When I teach those classes, I aim to introduce students to a way of thinking, reading, and writing. But that’s a task that can be done well with a wide range of different selections of topics, authors, and thematic organization. There are certainly better and worse ways of doing this, but there is actually a wide range of leeway in choosing from a couple thousand years worth of material. And that leaves plenty of room for additional considerations, such as what I enjoy teaching, what is available in the anthology I’ve chosen, or what will make the class more inclusive.

More importantly, your second error is assuming that combating stereotype threat is not itself a pedagogical goal. Making students interested in philosophy is an important part of the learning process. If students aren’t interested, or if they don’t think they’re any good at it, they may power their way through the class, but they won’t be able to really understand what it’s like to engage with philosophical questions. But without that engagement, they can’t learn what we’re trying to teach.

Indeed, what conception of “the best way of introducing a subject” would allow that standard to be established in a way that is independent of the affective and cognitive effects of that mode of presentation on students?

11

Dan 12.03.13 at 7:18 pm

One thing that might be interesting in the context of this debate is considering the UK, where philosophy is available, if not especially common, as an A-level subject. I’d be curious to know if the evidence there is consistent with the stereotype threat hypothesis. If so, the “leak” will presumably manifest itself after the first encounter with the subject, so what’d be relevant is the proportion of men vs women who take philosophy at AS-level and go on to A-level, or who take it at A-level and go on to study it at university. Anyone know if this data is available?

12

Scott S. 12.03.13 at 8:27 pm

Derek,

First, I don’t make the assumption that there’s one best way to teach something in my comments. I’m sure that there are many good ways of doing it, though I think that “introducing students to a way of reading, writing, and thinking” is a thin goal for philosophy, one that’s gotten the humanities into trouble generally.

Second, my point is that to abandon great thinkers to overcome a gender stereotype is a bad idea. Obviously, one doesn’t want to purvey inaccurate stereotypes, nor does one want to put off any kind of student in a thoughtless manner. If one believes that teaching a contemporary topics course is a good idea, as good as teaching the essential thinkers to the subject, fine, then teach the best contemporary topics course you can come up with. But I don’t think that the subject matter should itself be subject to affirmative action.

13

Collin Street 12.03.13 at 8:37 pm

Second, my point is that to abandon great thinkers to overcome a gender stereotype is a bad idea. Obviously, one doesn’t want to purvey inaccurate stereotypes, nor does one want to put off any kind of student in a thoughtless manner. If one believes that teaching a contemporary topics course is a good idea, as good as teaching the essential thinkers to the subject, fine, then teach the best contemporary topics course you can come up with. But I don’t think that the subject matter should itself be subject to affirmative action.

I’ve italicised your conclusion, and bolded all the evidence that you’ve used to come to it [that is, evidence that excludes other possibilities.]

14

Harry 12.03.13 at 9:19 pm

I agree that we should not be trying to induce people to major in Philosophy for whom it wouldn’t be a good fit. The issue is whether we are repelling people for whom it would be a good fit, and I suspect (though evidence would be nice) that the standard historical approach does that, relative to problems based approach. I confess I also think that a problems-based approach gives a more accurate picture of what the discipline really is, and, in addition, is more likely to equip students who are not going to major in Philosophy with valuable intellectual resources (on average).

I taught Wollstonecraft because, in fact, she is really interesting — and, like Nietzsche, a nice contrast to the others. And I think it is sensible to teach Foot who is as good as any other post-WWII moral philosopher (except maybe Anscombe and Thomson). So its not as though I don’t think they were good choices, per se, just that I doubt that including them achieves much.

magistra — that’s not the way I read her. She’d like the evidence, but, given that we don’t have it, we have to make the best judgments we can, which is a familiar situation for all decisionmakers! The problem with philosophers (and most professors!), I would say, is that when it comes to undergraduate instruction they make the status quo the default, the thought being something like: “it worked for me, so it works for smart attentive students, so if it doesn’t work with my students that’s either because they are not smart or not attentive”.

15

dbk 12.03.13 at 10:08 pm

This looks to me like a pretty decent survey of the situation in Great Britain:
http://www.bpa.ac.uk/uploads/2011/02/BPA_Report_Women_In_Philosophy.pdf
I skimmed it; the percentage of women undergrad majors was 45% a couple years ago.

16

stubydoo 12.03.13 at 11:29 pm

In the one philosophy class I took in college (one that ran chronoligically startng from Plato) the token woman whose material was covered was Carol Gilligan. It was a bit of an awkward shoehorning to use a psychologist among all the philosophers, and I think a tokenism approach can backfire by just drawing more attention to the maleness of all the others. Though I think anyway the stereotype threat effect is at least somewhat diminished when dealing with material that’s hundreds of years old – every college student has some awareness that those were different times.

Echoing @9 abote: your local english department ought to know something about this – they have much more options for changing the gender makeup of authors than philosophy does.

17

Mary 12.03.13 at 11:34 pm

But Classics teaches primarily male authors, and women make up a substantial portion of majors, graduate students and faculty.

18

JanieM 12.04.13 at 12:09 am

But Classics teaches primarily male authors, and women make up a substantial portion of majors, graduate students and faculty.

Not having studied either the classics (beyond some basics in college) or philosophy, I wonder whether it makes a difference that classics students do not become classic authors, whereas philosophy students do become philosophers.

Or is that a naive misunderstanding of either or both fields?

19

Katherine 12.04.13 at 12:36 am

the percentage of women undergrad majors was 45%

Do excuse my being pernickity, but if you are referring to the UL, there is usually no majors and minors structure, so an undergrad is studying one subject area.

20

Harry 12.04.13 at 1:26 am

Good point about Classics. But not literature, surely — the great English novelists may have had male names like George, etc, but they were mostly women. Poets and dramatists less so, but novels are at the heart of literature as it is taught, no?

CB: yes, I see that. Does the ratio of undergraduates skew male? And — how bad is the imbalance among grad students, and faculty? My impression is that it is not as bad as in the US, but the impression is based on pretty much nothing.

Also the point about A levels made me think that finding out what stereotypes, if any, undergraduates hold really shouldn’t be tremendously difficult.

21

Tim O'Keefe 12.04.13 at 1:31 am

At Georgia State, this year we implemented a policy requiring grad students teaching intro to philosophy to include at least 20% female authors on their reading lists. I don’t think it’s been onerous to implement (about twice as much as what most had last year). We did surveys of our intro students Fall of last year to discover (among other things) what attitudes they had about various things in order to find out hat might explain the leaky pipelines for female philosophers between intro and subsequent classes, and we’re conducting it again this year to see if the proportion of female authors has any impact. Here is a fuller description of what we’re doing.

22

JanieM 12.04.13 at 2:03 am

CT is behaving in increasingly weird ways. The “Recent Comments” section lists a comment of Harry’s following Katherine’s @19, but if I click on that listing, or the heading of this thread, Katherine’s is the last comment shown. This is true in both IE an Firefox on my Windows 7 machine.

23

JanieM 12.04.13 at 2:03 am

So for the record, posting 21 make Harry’s 20 appear for me.

Strange.

24

Witt 12.04.13 at 3:28 am

(Feel free to delete this comment if it’s too much of a derail).

I wouldn’t have been the target of the interventions being discussed — I’m fundamentally temperamentally unsuited to philosophy, and would never have majored in it. But I wonder whether some of these interventions might have made me come away from my sole intro course a bit less* frustrated and disdainful of the whole enterprise.

(*I suspect that the primary contributing factor was that the young man teaching my class was inexperienced and did not know how to communicate his love of the subject.)

I remember that classes felt like countless pointless arguments over irrelevant issues. Obviously 90% of that is my own personal biases talking, but I do remember very clearly that any time I tried to drag in any real-life context it was ignored.

E.g. a discussion on what people could be compelled to do, in which I cited the famous Wisconsin v. Yoder Supreme Court case (ruling that Amish children could be required to attend school until 8th grade) as an example of societal compromise. Less defensibly, I remember several times trying to raise the issue that Descartes’s philosophical conclusions might be somewhat influenced by his everyday circumstances — that is, that he had someone cooking and cleaning and taking care of his household, to be sitting around thinking about thinking, and that the very fact of NOT having to do those daily chores might cause him to think different things were “obvious” or “true.” This went over like a lead balloon, probably because it is not actually philosophy — but it did not leave 19- or 20-year-old me very enamored with the field.

As I said, this may not be germane to the discussion, so feel free to delete.

25

Jacob McM 12.04.13 at 4:40 am

@20. “the great English novelists may have had male names like George, etc, but they were mostly women. “

While there are no doubt some great female novelists in the English language, isn’t this statement a bit of a stretch? Fielding? Defoe? Thackeray? Collins? Trollope? Hardy? Lawrence? Forster? Ford? I may include Meredith, Kipling, and Waugh as well. Others would include Dickens, but I’ve never been a big fan.

If we include giants who weren’t English but often get taught in English Lit courses, it becomes more lopsided: Joyce, Beckett, Conrad, et al. Not to mention Scots like Sir Walter, Stevenson, and so on.

26

Jacob McM 12.04.13 at 7:53 am

By the way, any chance that this might partially explain why men and women, on average, are drawn to different fields of study?

http://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/dec/02/men-women-brains-wired-differently

27

Chris Bertram 12.04.13 at 9:48 am

Harry: my *impression* for the UK is that at undergraduate level things are pretty even, even tilting female; that there may be a slight preponderance of men that the postgraduate level and that teaching staff – and especially senior professors – are still overwhelmingly male, though things have been shifting. Somebody else may have some actual numbers to refute or confirm that impression.

28

Harry 12.04.13 at 10:32 am

Mrs Gaskell, George Eliot, several Brontes, Jane Austen, Mary Shelley — just staying pre-20th century, I’d rate all of them above any of the men except Hardy (and, maybe, Trollope). For sure, I was exaggerating, but the contrast with philosophy is stark. If you saw syllabus on the history of English literature without several women on it you would suspect that Jeremy Clarkson had been meddling with it (then you’d remember that he is, himself, only a fictional character so it couldn’t have been him).

29

Blissex 12.04.13 at 12:55 pm

In Italy 90% (ninety percent) of mathematics undergraduates are women in many universities. There is a reason for that (huge percentages of women studying physics too; very tiny studying engineering).

BTW they do very well, as women’s analytical, cold, calculating, unemotional, persistent characters are well suited to the subject :-).

30

Barry 12.04.13 at 1:31 pm

Andrew F. 12.03.13 at 3:46 pm

” Well, can we compare the rates at which female students major in philosophy at all-female schools to the rates at which female students major in philosophy at mixed-gender schools?”

That is a great idea!

31

Barry 12.04.13 at 1:32 pm

Blissex 12.04.13 at 12:55 pm

” BTW they do very well, as women’s analytical, cold, calculating, unemotional, persistent characters are well suited to the subject :-).”

Well, that’s better proof than most Ev Psych one sees.

32

Chris M 12.04.13 at 4:07 pm

When you mandate that a certain percentage of x people are included on a syllabus, I think you’ve veered into the violation of academic liberty.

In general, I think Steven Pinker’s explanation, which relies on research by Diane Halpern, , explains much of what’s going. Here’s the Pinker/Spelke debate on the topic:
http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/debate05/debate05_index.html

The average woman and man seem equally talented at every subject, but their levels of interest seem to vary such that the average woman is more interested in subject dealing with people or living things. Hence there is an approximately equal or pro-female gender ratio in medicine, veterinary medicine, and public health, which are all sciences in my opinion. There is a great deal of variability about the average, so it’s useless to deal with individuals based on averages, but at the same time it shouldn’t be surprising to see population distributions that reflect the average differences in interest.

33

Harry 12.04.13 at 5:09 pm

Nothing proposed by anyone in this thread, and nothing proposed by Schouten, violates any plausible principle of academic liberty. Or if it does, I want to see the argument!

34

Dan 12.04.13 at 6:23 pm

The policy mentioned by Tim O’Keefe at Georgia State very plausibly does violate academic freedom. From the AAUP’s “Contours of Academic Freedom” (http://www.aaup.org/i-need-help/workplace-issues/contours-academic-freedom):

In a course for which you are the only instructor, you have the right, under principles of academic freedom, to determine the texts (and other materials) the students will be required to read. Your right in this regard is not absolute, however. The texts should be related to the subject of the course and practical concerns about availability and cost should be considered. Still, the principle is clear that the faculty member who is solely responsible for the course has the freedom to select readings for it.

35

hix 12.04.13 at 6:29 pm

Generals keep fighting the last war.

36

Eddy Nahmias 12.04.13 at 8:11 pm

Just to clarify, the experiment we are trying at Georgia State involves requiring our graduate student instructors to include at least 20% women authors in our Intro class and we suggested to faculty who teach the course that they might do the same (some faculty did, and others didn’t). I don’t know if grad students are, or should be, protected by the principles Dan mentions, but the paragraph after the one he quotes says, “In a multisection course taught by several faculty members, however, responsibility is shared among the instructors for identifying the text(s) to be assigned to students.” That description seems to apply to our intro course, and we have a handbook with suggestions about what the course must include (e.g., some topics in ethics, in metaphysics, and in epistemology). In any case, trying this one semester and seeing what the climate survey data show does not seem particularly problematic.

37

Sigal 12.04.13 at 9:43 pm

Having studied philosophy, and worked in philosophy, political science and education departments, it seems to me that beyond Schouten’s reasonable references to stereotype threat there is just a lot more old-boys atmosphere in philosophy than in other disciplines. The discussion style is more aggressive, which I sometimes enjoy but like many other women can also find unwelcoming. To the extent that this style characterizes classroom discussions as well, I can see why it would turn away many young women.
Then of course there are the general issues women have to deal with in mostly-male disciplines.

38

Collin Street 12.04.13 at 9:59 pm

When you mandate that a certain percentage of x people are included on a syllabus, I think you’ve veered into the violation of academic liberty.

Well, it’s a trolley problem, innit.

39

Harry 12.04.13 at 10:41 pm

Dan — yes, I guessed that the AAUP definition of academic freedom might be violated by mandating that 20% of the texts of some course be by women (though, as Eddy N clarfies, the GSU practice doesn’t do this for faculty, and only does it for multi-section course, so its not clear whether their policy violates it). That’s why I modified the word “principle” with the word “plausible”. For example the proposition stated in this sentence:

Still, the principle is clear that the faculty member who is solely responsible for the course has the freedom to select readings for it.

seems indefensible, so much so that I don’t understand why anyone who thought about it would believe it.

40

Jacob McM 12.05.13 at 2:44 am

@32 “The average woman and man seem equally talented at every subject, but their levels of interest seem to vary such that the average woman is more interested in subject dealing with people or living things. “

Agreed. In fact, this was discussed in detail in the Norwegian documentary “Brainwashed”. You can watch the entire feature here:

http://vimeo.com/19707588

This documentary caused such a ruckus in Norway that the Nordic Gender Institute ended up getting closed as a result:

“A devastating blow for “Gender Theory”: the Nordic Council of Ministers (a regional inter-governmental co-operation consisting of Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland) has decided to close down the NIKK Nordic Gender Institute. The NIKK had been the flagship of “Gender Theory”, providing the “scientific” basis for social and educational policies that, from the 1970s onward, had transformed the Nordic countries to become the most “gender sensitive” societies in the world.

The decision was made after the Norwegian State Television had broadcasted a television documentary in which the hopelessly unscientific character of the NIKK and its research was exposed.

The producer of the series is Harald Eia, a Norwegian comedian, who had gained some popularity in Norway with his satirical TV shows. Besides being a comedian, Mr. Eia also holds a degree in social sciences. He was puzzled by the fact that, despite all efforts by politicians and social engeneers to remove “gender stereotypes”, girls continued to opt for typically “female” professions (such as nurses, hairdressers, etc.) whereas boys continued being attracted by “male” careers (such as that of technicians, construction workers, etc.). Indeed, rather than being reversed by “gender equality” policies, the trend became more accentuated.

In his documentary, Mr. Eia just went, in the company of a camera team, and asked some innocent questions to the leading researchers and scientists of the NIKK. Then he took the replies and brought them to leading scientists in other parts of the world, notably in the UK and the US, asking them to comment on the findings of their Norwegian peers. As was to be expected, the results of the Norwegian bogus science provoked amusement and incredulity among the international scientific community – especially because it was based on mere theory, never supported by any empirical research. Mr. Eia filmed those reactions, went back to Oslo, and showed them to the NIKK researchers. It turned out that, when confronted with empiric science, the “Gender Researchers” were speechless, and completely unable to defend their theories against the reality check.

What is more, the bogus was exposed to ridicule in front of the entire TV audience, and people began to ask why it was necessary to fund with 56 million Euro of taxpayers’ money some ideology-driven “research” that had no scientific credentials at all.
As it turned out, a few innocent questions, asked by a comedian, were sufficient to bring down the pompous edifice of “Gender Theory”. It is hoped that the lesson will be heard in other countries, or in the EU and the UN, where this ideology still holds sway in the corridors of power…”

http://www.turtlebayandbeyond.org/2012/homosexuality/nordic-countries-defund-gender-ideology/

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Jacob McM 12.05.13 at 3:45 am

I’m shocked Hector_St_Clare has refrained from comment thus far.

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Dan 12.05.13 at 5:58 am

Harry,

I’ll concede that that principle is implausible. Still, there are far weaker and far more plausible principles that nevertheless clash with the Georgia State policy. For instance, I’d be attracted to something like:

a faculty member teaching a course has the freedom to set the syllabus as they please, provided that (a) the readings are on-topic and (b) all readings that are genuinely essential to an adequate treatment of the topic are included.

That seems clearly to rule out the policy, since it’s possible to have an all-male syllabus satisfying both conditions. (I think condition (b) is easily satisfied in light of the fact that there simply are no pieces that are essential for an intro to philosophy, i.e. for any article, there is an adequate intro to philosophy course that fails to include it.)

Eddy Nahmias:

I don’t know if grad students are, or should be, protected by the principles Dan mentions, but the paragraph after the one he quotes says, “In a multisection course taught by several faculty members, however, responsibility is shared among the instructors for identifying the text(s) to be assigned to students.”

Well, at least the AAUP seems to think that the principle applies equally to all faculty; (http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/11/08/aaup-asserts-instructors-should-control-classroom-curricular-decisions). Also, I don’t think I understand the sense in which your intro courses are multi-section courses in the relevant sense; if they were, then surely there would be no scope for the grad students to pick their own syllabi independently of the others (and hence no point in imposing gender requirements on them).

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Belle Waring 12.05.13 at 7:31 am

Jacob McM I have entrapped him with my feminine wiles into arguing about Maimonides, infra. Well, that’s not strictly accurate. We are discussing ideological conformity.

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Collin Street 12.05.13 at 7:46 am

(I think condition (b) is easily satisfied in light of the fact that there simply are no pieces that are essential for an intro to philosophy, i.e. for any article, there is an adequate intro to philosophy course that fails to include it.)

… but what is true for individual pieces is not true for classes of pieces.

Do you think you could create an adequate intro-phil course excluding all pieces written by men, given that none of them — by your own claim — is essential?

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Harry 12.05.13 at 1:37 pm

Yes, I just find that principle completely implausible too. The department, and the university, have interests that could legitimately entitle them to require, eg, that certain particular texts be used in several classes, to facilitate more uniform assessment practices, and help create an infrastructure for professional development. More importantly the department has a mission to serve all students well, and if having some percentage of texts written by women is needed to ensure that female students are as well served as male students, then the department should indeed require that. I haven’t seen a good defense of the idea — implicit in both the AAUP principle and yours — that the faculty member’s freedom trumps the interests of students in learning. Its true that our traditional practices prioritize the interests of faculty over those of students, but the job of a principle of academic freedom is not to simply endorse the status quo.

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Tim O'Keefe 12.05.13 at 4:28 pm

As Eddy Nahmias mentions above, all instructors of introduction to philosophy at Georgia State have to conform to several requirements. Among them:

* Include at least topic in metaphysics, from among (i) free will and determinism, (ii) mind-body problem, and (iii) existence of god.
* Include at least one topic in epistemology. No topics specified, but we list several plausible ones (e.g., perception and the external world).
* At least two major ethical theories.
* At least one issue in applied ethics.

I myself would be perfectly comfortable myself in including the 20% requirement among them, as reasonable expectations to improve student learning and advance other goals of the department, for the reasons Harry gives above.

But, as a matter of fact, we require the 20% only of our graduate students. (We also require them to use free readings posted to the course management site and not make their students buy a textbook.) And, whatever the AAUP says regarding grad student instructors, I do think that that it’s legitimate in certain cases to give them less leeway in the designing of their sections. The rhetoric of graduate school as an apprenticeship is often used as cover for exploiting grad students as cheap labor. But as instructors, they are apprentices. In Critical Thinking–the other class that we have many grad students teach–we have a common textbook, common exams, and the other elements largely though not entirely standardized. We think this makes it way easier on our first-time grad student instructors and helps improve the quality of our sections. They’ll have the chance to design their own classes later.

Our intro to philosophy instructors have more autonomy, but making them conform to a list of requirements is OK by me. It’s also worth keeping in mind that often there is a lot of path dependency in a person’s classes–if you do something one way at first and it works OK, you’ll continue to do it that way in the future to save yourself trouble. So I think it’s good to have our first-time instructors design classes that have a non-trivial proportion of female authors and don’t require a textbook purchase.

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mdc 12.05.13 at 4:49 pm

Re: freedom in choosing course texts- What if a school decided they wanted an intense and intimate learning community across all students and faculty in a department, and so mandated an all-required curriculum? I know lots of people might oppose such a move, but that is a pedagogical question, it seems to me, and not one of “academic freedom.”

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JanieM 12.05.13 at 5:01 pm

Re: freedom in choosing course texts- What if a school decided they wanted an intense and intimate learning community across all students and faculty in a department, and so mandated an all-required curriculum? I know lots of people might oppose such a move, but that is a pedagogical question, it seems to me, and not one of “academic freedom.”

You mean kind of like this, where we find this:

St. John’s College is a community dedicated to liberal education. Such education seeks to free men and women from the tyrannies of unexamined opinions and inherited prejudices. It also endeavors to enable them to make intelligent, free choices concerning the ends and means of both public and private life.

At St. John’s, freedom is pursued mainly through thoughtful conversation about great books of the Western tradition. The books that are at the heart of learning at St. John’s stand among the original sources of our intellectual tradition. They are timeless and timely; they not only illuminate the persisting questions of human existence, but also have great relevance to contemporary problems. They change our minds, move our hearts, and touch our spirits.

Or, as Wikipedia says about it, “Since 1937, it has followed a distinctive curriculum, the Great Books Program, based on discussion of works from the Western canon of philosophical, religious, historical, mathematical, scientific, and literary works; it is probably for this program that the school is best known.”

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musicalcolin 12.05.13 at 11:17 pm

I see that the Norwegian comedian interviews foreign experts like Steven Pinker and Simon Baron-Cohen with the goal of showing that it is the Norwegians foolish ideas that gender is primarily a product of nature and not nurture, whereas foreign experts hold that nature is privileged. It’s a really good thing that the comedian didn’t interview Elizabeth Spelke or Cordelia Fine; that might have led to a less funny conclusion. I love a comedian who pretends to be unbiased while making highly biased claims…

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harry b 12.06.13 at 5:13 am

Multi-section is ambiguous between a common lecture course with several discussion sections, and several different lecture courses with different students. The first just has one syllabus. The second might have one, or many. I’d like to see experiments with common syllabi and assessments (common enough in the sciences). Why? So we can figure out better what works. So we can learn more about the effectiveness of our assessments. So that we can develop an infrastructure within which teachers can learn from one another how to teach better. A conception of academic freedom that prevents that (by, for example, licensing a senior prof to defect and do his or her own thing) is defective.

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Chris Bertram 12.06.13 at 7:37 am

In my university, an instructor may no longer stipulate something as “essential reading” for a topic unless it is available to students at no cost: this, an indirect consequence of the new fees regime in the UK.

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JAB 12.06.13 at 2:08 pm

When I teach ancient philosophy I assign contemporary literature, which introduces and explains it to students. I use Rosalind Husthouse, Martha Nussbaum, Julia Annas, and Sarah Broadie. My impression is that students become as impressed by these interpreters of ancient philosophy as they are by the originals.

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phil 12.06.13 at 6:40 pm

My own anecdotal evidence suggests that a greater percentage of male students enroll in intro courses than do female students. So it can’t just be about trying to retain an already smaller percentage of students. Rather, it has to also be about increasing the percentage of female students who enroll at all in intro courses.

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joe koss 12.08.13 at 8:54 pm

“Of course, an experiment like this would require finding out what people are actually teaching, which goes against the grain, but might be valuable for other reasons.”

smiley face.

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