Sunday, August 31, 2008

Social Web-building

I've been visiting two new web applications.

Sympoze is a social bookmarking site designed by philosopher Andrew Cullison where we can pool our collective judgments about online writing and resources. The site has multiple uses: you can visit just to see what other people are talking about, or you can contribute by adding your recent reads or evaluating what others have posted.
I'm excited to see this application and curious to see how it works over the long run. A recent study published in Science showed the counterintuitive result that electronic research databases have led to fewer rather than more published works being cited, in spite of easier and wider access. I hope that Sympoze will have a different effect--widening rather than narrowing the range of recognized philosophical writing and democratizing our field rather than concentrating the recognition of elites.

Academia is a social networking site for academics, also developed (in part) by a philosopher. The model, of course, is facebook, but with just what academics need and none of the chucking and quizzing that we don't. Also, it's public and transparent, as knowledge rightly should be. I'm not yet sure if the site will develop into a strong presence, since it seems to me that it's precisely the exclusivity of facebook that contributes to its appeal--that is, the parade of "friends."
One note, which is that Academia has a preset--and rather strange--list of "interests." On the science side, there is no distinguishing among life science, though what I do with ecological history shares very little overlap with someone working in genetics. On the humanities side, though, one can pick between English or World Literatures. I think this site would become more useful for networking if it were possible to enter (and search) for very narrow specialties like "social epistemology," "historical ecology," and "public participation GIS." (Those are three that I would sign up for!)

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Philosophy Podcast

Public Ethics Radio, a thought-provoking listen and a great resource for classroom use.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Feminist Theory: What's Coming Up

Here's a round-up of deadlines for U.S. conferences and cfp's in feminist philosophy:

Pacific SWIP is hosting a session at the Pacific APA in Vancouver on April 8-12. Essays for the session are being solicited on the topic of "FEMINIST POLITICS FOR DEMOCRATIC ELECTIONS." Deadline is September 14 (coming right up!) and can be submitted to Christina Bellon. More info. here.

The 3rd FEMMSS conference will be March 19-21 at the University of South Carolina. This year's theme is "THE POLITICS OF KNOWLEDGE" and the deadline for submitting paper abstracts or panel proposals is September 15 (Yikes! Also coming right up!). Info here.

Midwest SWIP is September 19-21 at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. Program here.

A CFP on reasoning and political engagement:
Call for Papers

We invite submissions for a special issue of the journal Informal Logic that will address the relationship of reasoning and argumentation to political change and progress.

Informal Logic ( is a peer-reviewed open access online journal. It addresses topics related to reasoning and argumentation in theory and practice. It is multi-disciplinary, welcoming theoretical and empirical research from any pertinent field.

This issue of Informal Logic will focus on “Reasoning for Change.” Whether we seek to redress existing social inequities such as sexism and racism or halt the decay of our natural environments, the operations of reason can aid the achievement of social and political progress. In turn, political engagement can affect how people reason, and be involved with theories about reasoning and argumentation.

Possible topics include but are not limited to the following:
What forms of reasoning are most effective in bringing about change in social, political, or environmental circumstances?
What forms of reasoning encourage or discourage activism and political engagement?
Which types of reasoning entrench existing views and which encourage change?
How may activism affect a person’s or a community’s reasoning and argumentation?
Do specific models of argumentation help or hinder understandings across differences (social, cultural, political, or religious differences, for example)?
What are the liberatory potentials of monological as opposed to dialogical models of reasoning and argumentation?
What are the political implications of the distinction between formal and informal logic?

The editors for this special issue are Catherine Hundleby, Department of Philosophy, University of Windsor, Ontario, Canada (, and Phyllis Rooney, Department of Philosophy, Oakland University, Michigan, USA (
The submission deadline is Monday, February 10, 2009 and submission information is available at

Christina Bellon has asked for volunteers to write articles for the INTERNET ENCYCLOPAEDIA OF PHILOSOPHY in their areas of feminist theory expertise. She's posted a wishlist here.

Monday, August 25, 2008


A few times in the last year I've noted the projects of my Congressional representative, Louise Slaughter, who especially supports women and whose work is scientifically informed. She recently wrote an opinion column for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle laying out some reasons why opening up more places for domestic oil drilling will not solve our energy problems.

I last wrote about Slaughter in relation to her support for people who are sexually assaulted during their military service. In comments a reader rightly pointed out that victims of sexual assault are not limited to women and bravely writes about his experience here.

A friend guided me to the Angry Professor's blog, who has also responded to the Chronicle's article defending male privilege. Ahhh, would that I were so angrily eloquent.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Trees, We Love Them

A friend called my attention to the NYT's profile of Diana Beresford-Kroeger, a medical researcher who has written books about trees, including Arboretum America: A Philosophy of the Forest.

Her ideas range from the common-sensical to the visionary (and perhaps beyond, to the wishful).
She tries to bring together aboriginal healing, Western medicine and botany to advocate an unusual role for trees. She favors what she terms a bioplan, reforesting cities and rural areas with trees according to the medicinal, environmental, nutritional, pesticidal and herbicidal properties she claims for them, which she calls ecofunctions. Wafer ash, for example, could be used in organic farming, she said, planted in hedgerows to attract butterflies away from crops. Black walnut and honey locusts could be planted along roads to absorb pollutants.
One thing the article's author focuses on is the speculative nature of some of her proposed uses for trees. Many are based on folk medicinal lore, some of which has been confirmed by science and some of which are certainly far-fetched.

© Scot MacLean

But the real challenge of her ideas seems to me to be something different--it is a radical idea that we should look to the particular uses of trees and plan which trees grow where based on their uses rather than their appearance. For one thing, most forests aren't planned, they just grow. Urban forests are partly planned, as when city foresters pick street trees to create an aesthetic and disease-resistant mixed forest. (This is a top concern ever since our monoculture street trees were devastated by Dutch elm disease.) But urban forests are mostly unplanned. Norway maples, at least in my New York neighborhood, grow wherever they find soil and aren't pulled up or mowed down. And people make aesthetic decisions about planting trees which are based on fashion and availability.

Planning a forest, outside of the context of plantation planting or restoration projects, is a novel idea. I think that some might jump on this idea and worry that too much planning undermines the agency of nature. That is not my worry. The agency of nature is already working against a great burden. Apathy is the real force that would work against it. For instance, some would not see the point in growing medicinal or food trees when we are living in such a time of plenty. A half dozen times last month, neighbors saw me and my kid grazing on mulberries and asked "You really eat those?"

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Explaining the Persistence of Inequalities in Philosophy

Noumena has posted a deep analysis of the reasons for resistance to moves toward gender equity in physics, theoretical math, engineering, computer science, economics, and philosophy.

Although I said yesterday that I believe that the majority of such resistance, at least in philosophy, is passive rather than overt, it is sometimes given expression. It comes up, particularly, in conversations about the Larry Summers controversy or discussions sparked by comments like John Tierney's last month that women simply prefer less analytic and conceptual work.

This blog as well as others (and the SWIP list) have been keeping track of the research that needs to be done in order to make a strong case that the underrepresentation of women in philosophy represents an injustice. That case has been made strongly in scientific disciplines, as science institutions (departments, universities, federal agencies) actively work (and succeed at!) correcting participation inequities.

One thing that we need in philosophy is good evidence that women are in fact underrepresented. We have this for undergraduate education, from the U.S. Dept. of Education. The data that we have for graduate education is on graduation rates by gender. Some have claimed that without figures on graduate school application and acceptance rates, though, the data is incomplete because we don't know if the pipeline leaks in decisions to go to graduate school or if it leaks during time enrolled in graduate school. (I would claim that these data are relevant to implementing an efficient solution given our discipline's limited financial resources, but are not relevant to establishing the existence of the problem.) Likewise, we have federal employment statistics which show that professorships are male dominated. That type of data could be improved by knowing more about job application rates (by gender), job acceptance rates, and the part-time labor pool. The APA has said that some of this missing information is being collected for the latest job cycle.

Something else we need is a clear understanding and explanation of the persistence of inequalities in our field. Noumena's analysis is clearly motivated by the practical (that is, the rhetorical as opposed to philosophical) problem of convincing the resistant that 1.) unequal gender representation is a problem; 2.)
unequal gender representation is a problem that we collectively ought to take responsibility for; 3.) unequal gender representation is a problem that our institutions have a duty to address.

There are two hurdles to be overcome. One is in the nature of trying to overturn a status quo. Even passive resistance to change can be enough to quell it. The second is that the causes of gender inequality are very likely irrational.

When we look at other struggles for justice, there are strong forces working against rational persuasion. We might hope that this is not the case for philosophers--that philosophers are more likely to change their beliefs and practices based on reflective consideration of rational argument. Although that is perhaps too optimistic, it suggests another avenue for research--collecting and responding to the reasons that are given for failing to address our professions inequalities.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

What's the point with gender diversity?

Female Science Prof examines a CoHE essay which manages to sneak in an especially silly defense of male privilege. Do read the comments on her post!

In philosophy, it is rare that anyone out of undergraduate study will dare to make such comments (except in blog comments). And yet, with the explicit attention our profession gives to justice, equality, objectivity, and complex explanation, there are numerous blatant cases where women are excluded from professional networks or taken less seriously than their male counterparts. There has been little systematic attention from institutions, whether that be our universities, our funding agencies (which, granted, are mostly without funds), or our professional societies. This is a problem where ignoring the problem is an effective means of continuing it.

I will say that one useful thing that the Woods essay does is to implicitly treat the absence of women as a scientific problem. Even in denying that this is appropriate, he assumes that others see it that way. Likewise, the absence of women in philosophy is both an educational problem (particularly since the gap is initiated at the undergraduate level), and it is also a philosophical problem. 

Monday, August 11, 2008

Teaching Sustainability

In a few weeks I'll be teaching a lower-level Introduction to Ethics course, and one of the texts I'm using is Bill McKibben's Deep Economy. The book is not particularly philosophical, so I'll provide the classical ethics material separately--Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Kant, and Mill.

I hope that what this book will provide are some concrete and pertinent questions that are still unanswered about how individuals should live and how societies can organize themselves around ethical goals. The book seems fairly (though not entirely) neutral as far as the American political spectrum goes. That is, conservative communitarians may find something attractive about McKibben's emphasis on communities, and some liberals may be squeamish about the nonchalance with which personal liberties and life goals take second place to community traditions.

One thing that reviewers have noted is the Vermontesque quaintness of so many of McKibben's examples and tropes. Farmer's markets, bike paths, eco-communes.

About those farmer's markets. McKibben uses Farmer's Markets as a unifying trope. When something works well and promotes sustainability, it's like a farmer's market. But how useful is this metaphor, even to those of us who do shop at a Public Market?

Even the Internet, McKibben says, is kind of like a Farmer's Market (p. 174).
This gets it backward!
What is more central to my experience, to my students' experience? the Internet? or the farmer's market?
Well, obviously.
And as much as I see the reason behind McKibben's fixation on farmer's markets to illustrate local exchange, it leads him to overlook the power of technological infrastructure in determining higher-level structures like economies. (Besides, it comes off as Ludditism.)

The Internet, with its redundant and open architecture, has taught us much about the qualities that make networks work. In particular, what has been innovative about the internet is how it is distributed and accessible. It has created networks where people exchange ideas and labor, not always for economic reasons (think of open source software, Flickr, blogs).

If farmer's markets are the model for the future, it is some of the features that they share with the internet which we should be noticing: low cost of entry, low investment in infrastructure, open to the public, personal, and offering a diversity of goods.

Likewise, it makes sense to think of distributed power generation as modeling the Internet: a flexible infrastructure that accepts multiple types of power inputs, can track microcosts, directs the commodity in the most efficient path, and is resilient against localized failures.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Hooray for Rep. Louise Slaughter

Louise Slaughter is my representative, and yet again she is taking a strong stand on an important issue.

Last week she testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommitte on sexual assault in the military. She said that in 2003:
The sheer number of incidents was disturbing. More than that, however,the military's responses to victims who came forward were antiquated, often punishing the victim rather than the perpetrator. It was shameful.

She goes on to commend Congress and the DoD for recent attention to sexual assault. However, she says that changes in reporting procedures have obscured the gathering of statistics so that there is no accurate estimate of whether the problem is actually getting better.

Failure to uniformly gather and report information related to the investigation and disposition of sexual assault claims complicates Congressional policy-based efforts to address sexual assault in the military and frustrates the purpose of the Department of Defense’s existing programs.
This week, in a column for the Huffington Post, Slaughter shares her opinion of the sincerity of the Department of Defense's participation:
Kaye Whitley, director of the Department's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, had been subpoenaed to testify at Thursday's hearing, but apparently Department of Defense officials instructed her to stay away from the hearing. I am very disturbed by the DoD's resistance to Congressional oversight on sexual assault.
Kudos to Slaughter for making this an issue before Congress and for publicizing the inadequate procedures for reporting sexual assault in the military.
Quite simply, the current structure makes women who have suffered sexual assault choose between confidentiality and justice.

It is unconscionable that women who serve their country in the military should have to make that decision. For three Congresses, I have introduced the Military Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Act. This legislation will ensure greater protections for service members and their families if they become victims of sexual assault or domestic violence.

Prize for Feminist Scholarship

The Catharine Stimpson Prize
for Outstanding Feminist Scholarship

Call for Entries: The Catharine Stimpson Prize for Outstanding Feminist Scholarship

Deadline: September 20, 2008

The University of Chicago Press is pleased to announce the competition for the 2009 Catharine Stimpson Prize for Outstanding Feminist Scholarship. Named in honor of the founding editor of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, the Catharine Stimpson Prize is designed to recognize excellence and innovation in the work of emerging feminist scholars.

The Catharine Stimpson Prize is awarded biannually to the best paper in an international competition. Leading feminist scholars from around the globe will select the winner. The prize-winning paper will be published in Signs, and the author will be provided an honorarium of $1,000. All papers submitted for the Stimpson Prize will be considered for peer review and possible publication in Signs.

Eligibility: Feminist scholars in the early years of their careers (less than seven years since receipt of the terminal degree) are invited to submit papers for the Stimpson Prize. Papers may be on any topic that falls within the broad rubric of interdisciplinary feminist scholarship. Papers submitted for the prize must be no longer than 10,000 words and must conform to the guidelines for Signs contributors. Guidelines for submission are available here.

Deadline for Submissions: The deadline for submissions for the next Catharine Stimpson Prize is September 20, 2008.

Please submit papers online here. Be sure to indicate submission for consideration for the Catharine Stimpson Prize in the cover letter.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Shackling Women During Labor and Delivery

Forcing induced labor, forcing C-sections, using shackles during labor and restraints during delivery. These sound barbaric, surely not current practice, surely not here. Can a baby in the US, in the 21st century, be born to a mother in leg irons?

Via Feminist Law Profs (and
here): a circuit court has ruled that shackling a pregnant inmate in labor does not constitute a violation of the 8th Amendment (that's the amendment which forbids punishments that are excessive or cruel and unusual). Only 2 states (Illinois and California) have legislation regulating the restraint of laboring women (and legislation is pending in my state, New York).

Never mind that restraints during labor, and especially shackles, pose a risk to the welfare of both mother and baby. An Amnesty International report notes that women in labor should be free to assume different positions and should be easily transportable to an operating room. Read a moving account and a 2006 NYT article. Lest you think that this applies to only the rare case, keep in mind that about 2,000 babies are born to incarcerated women each year.

That this could happen in the USA is no doubt linked to unfortunate and unethical intersecting social trends:

— erosion of prisoner rights
— denial of adequate health care to prisoners in the US
— the common practice of constraining laboring women to labor on their back for the sake of fetal monitoring
— lack of recognition of human rights for pregnant women

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Teaching Ethics and Sustainability

I'm teaching a lower-level Introduction to Ethics course this year (4 or 5 times), and I have a grant to design it with a sustainability focus. A focus on sustainability fits well with RIT's recent (baby) steps toward energy conservation, and the school's "common book" this year is Bill McKibben's Deep Economy.

I'll use Deep Economy in the course alongside selections from classic primary texts (the usual suspects: Mill, Kant) and some recent but equally common selections on environmental ethics and lifeboat ethics.

I'm pleased with the university's pick of this common text because it provides a framework to bring a discussion of some of my long-time personal interests into the classroom--food ethics, media consolidation, and distributed power generation. There is a confluence, of course, between my pragmatic, pluralist, and empirical philosophical commitments and these issues. And the sustainability framework gives a reason to emphasize social/political philosophy as much as the standard ethical approaches (Aristotle, Kant, Mill). I also like having a unified problem-based framework rather than a grab-bag of issues, some of which seem outdated or distant from my (and my students') experience, such as euthanasia and capital punishment.

But designing the course is not without problems:
1. The problem of burn-out and closed-mindedness on environmental issues. Although I don't think these issues are strictly partisan, people who listen to conservative talk radio have been told that they are. And an Institute-wide emphasis on sustainability could make philosophy seem mainstream rather than exciting and subversive.

2. There are many special events coordinated by the university and related to the Deep Economy book and the topic of sustainability. Bill McKibben is coming to talk, and so is Peter Singer. There will be tours to local farms and to Ithaca's EcoVillage. I can't make these course requirements because of the time slots they are in. But the topic of the course lends itself well to experiential learning, and I can make that a requirement. However, I have large sections of this course--2 sections of 40 each--so I can't exercise the guidance that I do in an upper-level Environmental Philosophy course. How will self-guided experiential learning projects go over in a lower-level course? Does anyone have experience with this?

3. Of course, there are no ready-made textbooks. I'm putting together a coursepack and, even at this late date, would love to hear reading suggestions!