Sunday, October 19, 2008

Women's challenges as philosophy instructors

I am posting this as a separate thread (I hope that this does not come off as being patronizing) because I think that Becko has brought up a very important issue regarding the challenges that women face in philosophy and academia. Coming from the business world into philosophy I am well aware of the challenges faced by women in that sphere of human activity and interaction. I would think that it must be difficult to be taken seriously when historically the overwhelming majority of philosophers are men and course readings are focused on these figures. We do set the tone by what and whom we choose to teach so I am wondering how we can effectively deal with the damaging effects of gender stereotyping when I suspect that most, if not all, required readings for intro courses are from men. I am reminded of my introduction of the history of philosophy through the readings of Copleston who discussed in his introduction that philosophy as a discipline arose as a result of a slave-based economic system that allowed for the development of a leisure class. It has been argued (correctly) that this system also rested on the subjugation of women. I would be very interested in how Becko and others deal with this issue in their intro courses, as I am sure I am dealing with it inadequately.


  1. John, can you say a bit more about what you take "this issue" to be? Your post seems largely concerned with the paucity of women throughout the history of philosophy, whereas Becko's earlier comments mentioned the pedagogical challenges women face due to being women:

    "There are challenges we female teachers face that male teachers don't (and vice versa, I'm sure) that are best met with the fear of God approach than any other - if you can pull it off. But mostly they have to do with classroom conduct, etc."

    I take these to be slightly different concerns, though they may be related as a matter of actual fact. Perhaps the absence of women in the profession is at least partly explanatory of the challenges women face as philosophy instructors. Becko seems to endorse this:

    "A young female instructor often must do more to convince her students about her expectations. Unfortunately, this is more true in philosophy, where one of the preconceptions our students arrive with is that philosophers are men (usually old men who look vaguely like Bertrand Russell)."

    But on the other hand, perhaps these challenges are related more to systemic features of academic life or of philosophers' attitudes.

    So could you articulate a little more the problem you'd like to discuss?

  2. First of all -- to the question in the post.

    I'm female and teach a lot (5/5 load, 200-250 students per semester, no TA). There are a few things I do to combat this problem..

    1) I include modern women writing on these topics.
    2) I include my own work, where appropriate.
    3) We discuss the cultural influences on every work and everything we discuss includes the dates of the philosopher's life.
    4) We discuss how a woman's perspective might be similar or different.

    As for the broader challenges of being a female philosopher -- as I get older, I don't find classroom control to be much of a problem. I have had cultural problems with certain students, but those were resolved as soon as they figured out that not listening to me and ignoring assignments written on the board would result in their failing the class.... funny how the prospect of a low a grade can override deep culture-based sexism.

    I think every young college prof has similar challenges in setting expectations. I found that being very clear with those expectations is the only solution. Communicate them from day one and then enforce them as they aren't met. This may mean giving low grades and more comments on grading -- but either they will learn to meet your expectations or their parents will be disappointed with the D they get in your class. That isn't your concern.

    As for the systemic problem of a low number of female philosophers, I can see exactly how that happens -- and when I finally defend my dissertation and land a job in my area, I might choose to talk about it -- until then, sorry... I have no comment.

  3. At a deeper level of analysis I am interested in how questions are framed and whether or not the framing of issues, maybe even the identification of ‘important’ questions, is determined, or at least deeply influenced, by one’s gender. Take the abortion issue for example; it is often presented as a problem as follows:
    It is wrong to take thee life of an innocent human being
    A fetus is an innocent human being
    Therefore it is wrong to take the life of a fetus. (Singer)
    We are drawn into the discussion at a certain level of abstraction established by the framing of the related questions, such as what is an innocent human being? But, what if we had been taught to view the problem thru the eyes of those who actually had to make the decision to have an abortion? What if we are introduced to the problem thru the experiences of those that have been raped and become pregnant as a result of the rape, discussing the options that were available to them and the reasons why they choose as they did? Would the framing lead to a different and more realistic perspective of what constitutes the issue?

    As I have indicated before, I came to teaching philosophy by a very non-traditional route. When I started teaching philosophy I was in my 40’s (I had earned my MA degree in philosophy in my early 30’s) and had spent over 20 years in manufacturing. The courses I taught were to students in BBA and BSN completion programs who were older then traditional students and brought to the classrooms years of experience. In the BSN completion programs the vast majority to students were female. I once asked students to write a paper on a lie they had told and why they told it. I got a response from two of my students that they lied to their family, friends and neighbors about their husbands beating them because they feared that if they told the truth their children would be beaten. Another time we were discussing the right of women to sell their bodies to others as surrogate mothers, one of the women said that her womb did not work and she should be grateful if another woman would offer to become a surrogate so she could experience being a mother. Each of these experiences (and many more) has convinced me that men see and construct issues differently then women and when confronted by the female perspective they are at a loss on how to respond. (I failed miserably in my response to the two women, for which I still feel shame after 20 years.) I know, or at least have been told, that there is a body of literature to support this, but I have not read much of it so that is why I asked the original question.

    So, I am wondering how women learning and/or doing philosophy view philosophy when all (or predominately all) they experience in the introduction to the subject are the views of males? It would seem to me that it negates, or at least minimizes, the value of the female perspective because there are no comparable female contemporary figures to Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the list goes on and on thru the centuries until the 19th century when women begin to find their ‘voice.’ But, I will bet that if one looks at any text that has historical documents dealing with philosophy one will be hard pressed to find the works of women presented as being equal to the work of males. Does this result in women thinking they have to hide their true thoughts on important subjects in order to become accepted into the club? Now, I may be coming off as naive or patronizing, or both, but this seems to me to be an important issue. And, It is also pedagogical in the sense that if recent work in psychology, sociology, and anthropology, (also including experimental philosophy), indicates (as I think it does from what I have read) that gender influences philosophical perspective then should we not include this perspective in our introductory courses when we discuss the works of Plato, Descartes, Kant, etc? Maybe things are different to the point where this is no longer an issue, but if that is the case then tell me so.

  4. I'm a female grad student, far enough along to have taught a few classes.

    In my experience, it's not hard to get taken seriously, regarding either classroom discipline or setting work-quality expectations. What is hard is doing all of that without being perceived as shrill, nagging, or as a witch (or a rather similar word).

    I often feel that I have to be very very nice to my students before I can do anything that resembles laying down the law. They must perceive me as being on their side, as rooting for them. I have to put an enormous amount of effort into paper comments, so that my criticisms are phrased as nicely as possible, and so that the sheer quantity of what I've written makes clear that I cared about each and every student individually. Sometimes my comments on a (short) paper will end up longer than the paper itself.

    Now, I think some of this is just good pedagogy; one should care about one's students and put a good deal of effort into marking their work. But the bothersome subtext is that I think my male colleagues can get away with doing much less. Because they are men, they are perceived as authority figures, and so criticism from them is more likely to be received as legitimate. Similar criticism from female instructors is much more likely to be written off unless it is surrounded by a greater degree of coddling.

    At times, these sorts of worries have caused real trouble. I know some students have taken advantage of my kindness, e.g. by offering lousy excuses for failure to do work, or by putting no preparation into class presentations. And I've caught myself once or twice tempted to bend my own rules just because I didn't want students (who had broken the rules) to dislike me.

    What this set of concerns adds up to, I think, is not that female instructors are prevented from employing certain pedagogical techniques. It's just that we have to put much more effort and thought into these techniques than assumed-authoritative male instructors do.

  5. I believe it can be a bit much for female students to endure, having to sit through lectures about the likes of Russell or Heidegger and not be represented by women, except for de Beauvoir or Iragaray, and possibly Rand.

    Part of the problem, I believe, is trying to apply pre-20th century ideals of what a philosopher-and philosophy is-to contemporary scholarship. >Outside Philosophy< is a group blog by philosophers not currently working in philosophy departments, but still producing excellent scholarship in their respective disciplines, and is a great resource for non-traditional contributions in philosophy, particularly by female scholars, that can be used in the philosophy classroom.

    To respond to the problem of classroom control being more problematic for the female instructor, I have noticed that when the students sense the teacher having to try really hard at being taken seriously, they react in a more predatory manner. When I came to the realization that I was taking myself too seriously, which was why no one else was, things got much better. I think if you have a passion for teaching philosophy then it will be evident and your students will take you, and philosophy, seriously.

  6. To answer John's comment question...

    To be honest, if I thought I needed female role-models in order to do philosophy, I wouldn't have taken my second undergrad course and I certainly wouldn't have finished grad school.

    Women are accustomed to the fact that most accounts of the world (and that is what philosophy is, no?) are from the male perspective. This is a fact of history and not something we can negotiate away. Often we'll read those accounts in order to understand that different perspective and then decide what our own perspective is on the issue. Personally, I think this situation could create stronger philosophers in the women who choose to continue -- but, much of that determiniation isn't up to us.

    My concern about gender and philosophy is a simple numbers problem, as evidenced by the APA study. I think the answer to why women aren't better represented is much deeper than the historical facts that men have done most of the philosophical writing.

  7. I apologize for being late to a discussion I seem to have set off.

    I can only speak to what I have experienced and I would not like to assume that it is representative of what other women in the profession have experienced.

    I often say that the very worst thing about being a person from under-represented group in philosophy is that you never really know if some incident or behavior is a function of your status as an individual from an under-represented group or whether it is a function of the usual ticks and eccentricities of our field. I always assume it is the latter unless it is so obvious that it is the former. Anything else would drive me nuts.

    I happen to disagree with the notion that philosophy is alienating to those of us from under-represented groups because of the lack of such figures in the history of philosophy. There may be something to the notion that the current under-representation of some groups in present departments leads to an overall quelling of enthusiastic students from those groups. I don't know.

    Honestly - and this is just speaking for me - I would feel odd including figures from the history of philosophy for the sake of portraying the discipline as having been otherwise than it is, i.e., a history of a discipline that has been peopled for the most part by those from the privileged classes.

    Speaking only for myself, I was drawn to philosophy precisely because it spoke to me as a human and not as a woman, or an Irish-American, etc., etc.

    I did intend to say that when it comes to teaching, there are some young males who are deeply threatened by our expertise in general. We have all had those students. I am merely guessing that this common problem is often exacerbated when the teacher whom the student finds threatening is a woman. I myself don't have such a hard time with this. As Inside has said, as soon as they realize that they have to choose between unwarranted pride and their grade, they usually choose the grade. I did have a harder time when I was younger and particularly anxious to have good evaluations.

    I'm glad we are discussing this, however.

  8. I think there are indeed two different issues - the dearth of female philosophers - and the problems of being a female instructor in a typically male dominated field. I am female and switched from English (mostly female colleagues) to Philosophy (one colleague - male).

    I don’t worry much about the lack of female philosophers; I’m old enough to have been taught literature as represented by the white, male cannon. You learn to separate the inexcusably sexist from the simply lacking a female perspective. I supply the perspective for my students in some instances.

    I have never felt disparaged or overworked because of my gender. Any extra work I take on is by choice.

    I suspect women are more likely than are men to want to be liked by students (this may be social issue). I take some of my cues from my sole male colleague who teaches philosophy. I consider myself lucky – he is more than willing to discuss classroom issues with me. I compare my techniques to his techniques. We teach similar things in similar ways. We differ on assignments – I prefer to schedule papers and have pre-determined topics. He prefers to suddenly assign a paper when he stumbles on a topic of interest. Ultimately the students do about the same amount of work in each of our classes. He leans towards Continental philosophy, I love the Greeks.

    Despite our differences, my colleague and I do one thing that is the same – we establish an atmosphere of trust with our students. In our classes, students are not only free to express opinions, they are encouraged to. Today my class covered a reading from Berkeley – I brought in little pieces of peppermint candy – I challenged them to explain the notion of sweetness. We had a lively discussion. I reminded them occasionally of the content of the reading – kept them focused – but let them talk. Later they will write a detailed analysis of the reading for me. Two students got up and left class. So what? If they don’t care to learn, so be it. I cannot please or teach to all students, nor do I care to.

    My greatest advantage is, I believe, my age. Twenty years of teaching puts student behaviors into perspective. Some come to learn, some don't.

    I think instructors who express some type of interest in students find themselves approached as confidants – the student who wanted my advice on her unplanned pregnancy for example. I’m not convinced this is a gender issue but something that arises out of the nature of our field. It provides a safe distance for discussing emotional issues. I don’t, by the way, ever give personal advice. I do allow students to talk until they reach their own conclusions, or I provide them with an introduction to a campus counselor.

    Finally – (I do apologize for this long post) – I do something that I suspect male professors don’t do as consciously – I pay close attention to my appearance. My size (I don’t exercise nearly enough) and my age (over 50) provide some preconceptions for my students. I consciously try to shape their initial perspective by how I groom and dress myself. I wear slacks or skirts – rarely jeans – when I teach. I wear interesting jewelry that can open conversations (today a necklace that represents the solar system). I never sit on the desk or a chair behind the desk or use a podium. I always move about making sure I make eye contact with every student in the classroom (fortunately my classes cap at 22). Some of my colleagues – male and female – think I worry too much about appearance; some of my students probably agree (but don’t say so). Yet, at the end of the day I respect myself for taking the time to put forward my best image; I believe my students too respect me for the effort.

  9. I don't think anybody thinks that the typical undergraduate female looks at a philosophy syllabus and thinks, "Wow, there are no women on this list. Philosophy must not be for me." But even if no one explicitly thinks this, that's not to say that there isn't some implicit signaling going on by a syllabus that contains no representation from females. While I agree with the commenter who said that we shouldn't try to make the history of philosophy something that it's not, that doesn't mean that there's no way to include female authors on your syllabus, even in an intro course that's focussed on the "greats". If you're doing Plato, you can supplement it with a contemporary piece by Julia Annas or Martha Nussbaum. If you're doing Descartes, why not include his correspondence with Elizabeth? Or if you're doing Reid, you can supplement it with a contemporary piece by this blog's own Becko. Etc. etc.
    And in classes on contemporary issues, there is no excuse whatsoever for having a syllabus including only works by men. I am agog every time I look at the latest anthology on Philosophy of Whatever, and notice a complete lack of works by females in the table of contents.
    In short, we all know how much we can convey to our students by modeling various things for them, rather than just telling them something. And since we want to model for our students the fact that philosophy is an inclusive discipline, the only way to do that is to have inclusive syllabi.

  10. Amy makes an interesting point -- especially in terms of selecting anthologies that do not contain only historical texts on a topic.

    I teach a lot of students (next semester will be a low semester with 160 with one course release -- and in the fall it could be 240) -- and according to the employment statistics, women more often teach larger classes and/or in community colleges and thus more classes. If we started to order textbooks that include a reasonable number of women and explicitly reject (.e. return with feedback) anthologies that are lacking contributions from women where appropriate, I wonder if the textbook companies would notice?

    I also suggest talking with textbook reps when they come around. If they want you to adopt a new book, ask to see the table of contents. If you have a text you like and that includes female philosophers, ask why you should switch to their mostly male text?

  11. Can anyone give any suggestions for intro to ethics anthologies that are especially good in these regards?

  12. Anon 6:08: I've not used this text personally, but May/Collins-Chobanian/Wong, Applied Ethics: A Multicultural Approach (Pearson) seems alive to these kinds of concerns.


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