Female-Friendly Philosophy Departments

Julie van Camp has a short paper posted about Female-Friendly [Philosophy] Departments. It’s framed as an evaluation of how sensitive the Gourmet Report is to gender considerations, but that part of the paper was fairly inconclusive in its conclusions, and at some points in its arguments. But towards the end there are several good points raised that seem like worthwhile considerations for people wanting to choose grad departments. The points are framed as considerations that women might take into account before picking graduate departments, but presumably they are more general than that. If the main downside of faculty dating students is that it leads to other students receiving less attention, and (in practice) most such relationships involve male faculty and female students, then that looks like a consideration male students should be equally worried about. Having said that, there are enough actual case studies of this to look at that we shouldn’t have to be quite as hypothetical as Van Camp is in her discussion about what the possible costs of such relationships are.

11 Replies to “Female-Friendly Philosophy Departments”

  1. Wow, that “report” is very long on innuendo, but rather short of evidence for the impression, which it seems to want to communicate without of course saying so explicitly, that Brian Leiter has been engaged in systematic discrimination against women.

    The thing that particularly ticked me off, though, was that the entire discussion proceeded as if US graduate programs were the only ones there were. The most obvious instance of this is when Van Camp tries to work out whether the number of women on the advisory board is proportional to the number of “research active” women faculty employed in the United States, in order to tell whether they are proportionally underrepresented or not. Van Camp knows, of course, that several of the members of the advisory board work outside the US, and that the Gourmet Report ranks graduate programs outside the US (though this is perhaps not always as systematically as would be ideal).

    The polite word for treating “graduate programs in philosophy” and “graduate programs in philosophy in the US” as amounting to the same thing is “parochialism”. Or, to parody the style of the article:

    “Is the fact that graduate programs outside the United States entirely ignored by the article, despite the fact that they appear in the rankings and their members appear on the advisory board, evidence of an arrogant ethnocentric assumption of American superiority? Our information is incomplete, so while we cannot claim that this neglect shows that the author considers non-American philosophy beneath her notice, we also do not have information which would prove that this is not the case.

    Let us hope that articles containing a greater breadth of vision and less unsupported innuendo will some day be recognized as better articles, period.”

    (When I said the previous two paragraphs were parody, I meant it – I rather doubt that Van Camp thinks that the only graduate programs worth worrying about are in the US. But a barrage of “troubling questions” about whether Van Camp is a racist would rightly be considered an inappropriate smear, even if – perhaps especially if – it was hedged around with claims that the evidence currently available doesn’t settle the question definitively one way or another. Accusations that Leiter’s methods embody gender bias, published in an official publication of the APA, should be backed up by more than the equivalent if they are going to be aired, I think.)

    The recommendation that women should take into account whether a department appears hostile to women when deciding on a graduate program, on the other hand, is sensible. Hostility is ceteris paribus bad. I do wonder whether it will be advice that anyone won’t have worked out for herself.

    Some of the measures of this need to be taken with a grain of salt, though. The sample size for recent female graduates of most PhD programs will be small (single figures, typically, I expect), so drawing inferences from e.g. their success in getting good jobs to conclusions about the chance that one will oneself get a good job if one is a female graduate of the program seems to me rather unsafe.

    And I’m not sure whether the number of courses in feminist philosophy is much of an indicator of friendliness to women – is there much evidence that departments who welcome and support female graduate students have noticeably more courses specifically on feminist philosophy on offer? And if there is a positive correlation, is it any stronger than the correlation between “female friendliness” and number of women on the tenured and tenure-track faculty?

    One final caution about the list of indicators – when deciding whether having only “one or two” women on the faculty is evidence of tokenism, it’s important to keep in mind the size of the department being considered. A faculty of eight, for example, with two women is 25% female – well above the apparent overall US average on the faculty of graduate programs. And if such a faculty is below average, it has to drop right back to 12.5%, at best – but that need not be evidence of tokenism rather than big percentage swings in a small population.

  2. Daniel Nolan:
    I do wonder whether it will be advice that anyone won’t have worked out for herself.

    It’s possible. The most likely scenario is that of a student who has never really encountered bad educational experiences that at all relate to her gender. Such experiences are happily becoming more common, but students in that position seeking a graduate school then won’t think to check whether a department is hostile to women, because they don’t have any reason to believe that any such departments exist. (Often, in fact, they will actively believe that none exist. People who have never been seriously impacted by institutionalised sexism find it hard to believe in.)

  3. (Disclosure: I’m on the PGR Board.)

    I agree with some of DN’s points, but on this —

    The thing that particularly ticked me off, though, was that the entire discussion proceeded as if US graduate programs were the only ones there were

    — the fact that Van Camp’s report was for the APA may explain her focus. (Similarly, for example, one shouldn’t be ticked off if a report for the Illinois highway department focuses on roads in Illinois.)

    But even if this consideration helps to answer the charge of inappropriate parochialism, there’s still a question of proper methodology. It doesn’t seem sound to compare U.S. statistics to the make-up of a Board that is now getting pretty international without mentioning (unless I missed it) the fact that the Board & the Report itself are quite international. I guess that could be an instance of proceding, as DN puts it, “as if US graduate programs were the only ones there were.”

  4. I agree with Daniel that the section of Van Camp’s report on the Leiter report wasn’t particularly strong. In particular there seemed to be a few places where there were negative conclusions drawn (or darkly hinted at) when the evidence was quite equivocal. But I think these are worthwhile questions to be asking, if only as reminders.

    But I also agree with Mary about why the platitudes at the end might be worth repeating. Grad school can be a very different place to what students are used to previously, and some of the things we think are obvious considerations for incoming students just aren’t on some students’ radar screens. So pointing out things that seem obvious to us can be beneficial sometimes, I think. Remember one of the benefits of the Leiter report is that it points out things that might be obvious to everyone in the know, such as that Pittsburgh is a really strong philosophy program despite being nowhere near as strong a university, but are not known to all outsiders. That kind of thing has an important place I think, which is why I was saying positive things about this part of Van Camp’s article.

  5. I applaude Prof. Van Camp’s efforts to improve the situation for women in philosophy, and there are many points in her article which are spot-on. In particular, I agree with Brian’s comments that anything that helps younger students (be they women or men) understand that philosophy has a problematically sexist past (and no doubt present) cannot but be good for the discipline, by raising awareness of the problem. Here is not the place to speculate about the source of this problem.

    However, I am somewhat concerned that raising awareness is not Prof. Van Camp’s sole motive. After all, the last line of her article is not “Let us all hope that leading departments will have equally distinguished scholars of both genders in all areas of philosophy”, or “Let us all hope that philosophy can overcome its clearly sexist past to recognize the contributions of all of its members equally”, but rather:

    “Let us also hope that departments that are open to more voices, more methodologies, and more perspectives will some day be recognized as better departments, period.”

    This makes me suspicious that Prof. Van Camp might have a different agenda, namely the promotion of an alternative vision of what philosophy departments should be (that is, more like cultural studies or comparative literature departments in the topics they discuss and the manner in which they address them). Some evidence of this appears in the departments she discusses that she believes are underappreciated in the Gourmet Report (e.g. Duquesne and Penn State), departments that practice philosophy in a way that is most similar to what occurs in a comparative literature department (I’m a graduate of SUNY Stony Brook, and am quite familiar with this kind of department).

    Now, I have no problem whatsoever with comparative literature departments, or cultural studies in general. In every major University, far more resources are devoted to cultural studies than (e.g.) metaphysics and epistemology, and I have no complaint with such resource allocations. Nonetheless, I do think that there should be a department that pursues so-called “core areas” of philosophy (maybe it shouldn’t be called “philosophy”, since that seems to upset a lot of people). And I’m very concerned that this department is constituted equally by women and men. And I’m not certain that Prof. Van Camp has this concern centrally in mind.

    That is, my concern is that Prof. Camp runs together two very distinct issues:

    (1) The fact that philosophy has been, and no doubt continues to be, an area in which women’s voices are muted, and women’s contributions insufficiently recognized.

    (2) The role of so-called ‘core’ areas in philosophy in the profession at large.

    In many universities, the philosophy department receives pressure from other humanities to enter into the same discourse space as the practice of what is often called “theory”. This would rob philosophy of its distinctive subject matter and methodologies (which have led to, for example, fruitful and rigorous analytical work on feminism, which wouldn’t have a space in cultural studies departments).

    Anyway, I’m not certain whether this is one of Prof. Van Camp’s motives — I just don’t know enough about her research, work, and attitudes towards the profession. I applaud the intent behind much of her document. My purpose in writing this is that I just don’t want anyone to run together issues (1) and (2), and I worry someone might, after having read Prof. Van Camp’s article.

  6. Maybe I’ll have to go back and look for the value in this article. I found myself giving up on the “article” when it claimed (roughly) that the percentages of women in Gourmet-top-20 departments was “unavailable” but might be learned by examining faculty rosters at the relevant departments. Calling the effort an “article” as I did is my way of signifying that like many contributions to APA Newsletters, this one is really at the level of a letter to the editor. Such letters can be good or bad (this one seems bad) but should be properly identified.

  7. I haven’t much to add to the sensible points made above. I will just note a bit of context, which makes clear that Professor Van Camp’s goal was to smear by innuendo, rather than to illuminate issues about gender bias in the profession or the PGR. I have corresponded via e-mail with Professor Van Camp off-and-on over a good number of years about various matters, many related to the PGR, some related to law schools (she is Pre-Law advisor at CSU-Long Beach, and has a law degree herself). Not once did she mention she was working on this particular project, and not once did she ever ask me any of the questions posed in her piece. The answers to her questions would, of course, have spoiled most of her innuendo. Perhaps she suspected as much, perhaps not. But it was irresponsible to proceed as she did, and doubly irresponsible of the APA Newsletter to have published this. But what else is new? Alas…

  8. One other small thought about this, since its timing is ironic. As Keith and Fritz and Jason know, about two months ago I asked the Advisory Board to vote on the question of adding five new specialties to the rankings, including Feminist Philosophy. As it happens, Feminist Philosophy appears to be the only one that has won a clear majority of support from the Board, and so will be included in the fall PGR for specialits to evaluate. This will replace, accordingly, the prior listing of philosophers working on issues of gender, and will perhaps provide some aid to students trying to follow Professor Van Camp’s advice about choosing female-friendly departments at the very end of her piece.

  9. D. Nolan wrote:
    “And I’m not sure whether the number of courses in feminist philosophy is much of an indicator of friendliness to women – is there much evidence that departments who welcome and support female graduate students have noticeably more courses specifically on feminist philosophy on offer?”

    These are excellent points. Such rhetoric that equates number of feminists with ‘female friendliness’ does not speak for women who are not pursuing feminist philosophy nor looking for graduate schools based on the number of courses on this topic. This is a common problem, offensive to women who put ideas before gender, which occurs when feminist philosophers attempt to speak for all women in philosophy, ignoring the fact that they may be specialists in other areas, without bothering with a ‘feminist approach to…X’.

    As a matter of fact, I have found a different trend. Tenured women in a position to accept graduate students, are more inclined to accept women who are interested in feminism, rather than those critical of feminism.

  10. As a matter of fact, I have found a different trend. Tenured women in a position to accept graduate students, are more inclined to accept women who are interested in feminism, rather than those critical of feminism.

    I haven’t noticed that trend at all. I guess I’ve only had fairly limited experience with graduate admissions, though.

  11. Brian,

    You don’t really think that the main problem that comes from faculty dating students is lack of attention given to the other students, do you? I hope that was a joke. In general I agree w/ your points, and most of those said above. But surely you see that the problem is the unequal power situation, and the gross potential for abuse of power? Of course that doesn’t always happen, but surely it’s not too rare. (Several of the essays in the recent volume edited by Linda Alcoff, Singing in the Fire I believe it’s called, give good examples of the potential trouble here. Martha Nussbaum’s essay especially stands out.

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