Saturday, November 28, 2009

Reasons to Study Philosophy: Be a Detective

The Times Higher Education supplement reports that "Being philosophical may be limited to the leisure classes."

I'm truly worried that there may be something to the connection between philosophy degree programs being closed down and university education becoming more vocationally directed. I don't think that there is any inevitability, though, for philosophy being at odds with economic usefulness.

The Times quotes Stephen Mumford as saying
"I have no doubt that if I were young now, from a working-class background, having to take a big student loan would prevent me from studying philosophy because of the sense that it's non-vocational."
In philosophical circles, too, there is a sense that the students who do well in their philosophy courses aren't really successes unless they complete graduate school in philosophy.

But of course philosophy is every bit as relevant as an English degree (still one of the most popular majors in the US). No, it's more relevant. In English courses, students read literature. In philosophy classes, they learn about public policy and logic and Western history and all sorts of complex argumentation. And they learn how to write.

When I was in college (early 1990's), there was a rumor going around (how did rumors spread then? We didn't have the internet!) that the largest employer of American students with bachelor's degrees in philosophy was the LAPD!

Surely that can't have been true? If philosophy students really do make great detectives, shouldn't the largest employer have been the FBI?

In a recent New Yorker article on Jules Kroll, founder of a corporate intelligence firm, William Finnegan writes
Detective firms, on the whole, hire mostly retired cops. In 1981, Kroll hired Tommy Helsby, a failed [???] philosopher--he had abandoned a dissertation at Cambridge University on "the metaphysical basis for formal logic."... He is still at Kroll, serving as regional chariman for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, out of the company's London office. I asked Helsby if his training in metaphysics had helped him as an investigator. He thought it had.

Eh? The metaphysics had helped with the detective work, not the logic?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Climate Change and Population Growth

A student from my ethics course sent along this link to a Yahoo News article on the relationship between climate change and population growth.

The news article starts with a strong, clear statement:
The battle against global warming could be helped if the world slowed population growth by making free condoms and family planning advice more widely available, the U.N. Population Fund said Wednesday.

But then the majority of the article goes into criticisms of this policy and, indeed, casts doubt on any need to control population growth at all:

On Wednesday, one analyst criticized the U.N. Population Fund's pronouncements as alarmist and unhelpful. "It requires a major leap of imagination to believe that free condoms will cool down the climate," said Caroline Boin, a policy analyst at International Policy Network, a London-based think tank.
She also questioned earlier efforts by the agency to control the world's population.

I've been teaching this topic in my ethics class, and the best work I've seen on the issue
supports a position like the UN's while acknowledging caveats such as the higher priority on reducing energy consumption in developed countries as well as the priority that must be put on preserving women's reproductive choices. But since providing access to family planning is generally agreed to increase rather than reduce women's control over their reproductive lives, I was surprised at the negative tone of the article. I retrieved the originals here.

Indeed, this seems to be a clear case of a news article that is slanted to favor an ultra-conservative political angle. The quoted expert is a writer for Britain's Conservative Party, and the other experts were simply misquoted as being cautious about the UN policy when in fact their editorial is strongly supportive of it.
The paper by Bryant et al., however, is the first to provide strong support for the third point – showing that the majority of the least-developed countries cite population pressure as an important determinant of their vulnerability to climate change. The fact that the affected countries themselves identify this as a local priority avoids the conflict that comes from framing population regulation as a way of reducing global greenhouse gas emissions.

This is how business is done?

After hearing about Sally's paper scheduled for the APA next month (see below) and strategizing my holiday plans, I was thinking that I might swing by the conference for a day or two, even though I'm not presenting (and not--hooray!--interviewing or being interviewed). New York can be fun, even if expensive.

BUT, not having the print program to hand (it's at home--I do pay my dues!), I thought I'd do it the 21st century way and pull up the website.

No doing. The undated message on the website says:

The APA National Office is in the midst of transitioning our website and its services to a new hosting facility. Due to the transition, some features of the APA website may be temporarily down for a few days.

Wasn't this supposed to be accomplished in October? Is there another site that Google isn't finding?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Publishing Philosophy

All professional philosophers are invited to participate in a survey on publishing in philosophy. It should take about 10 minutes. It will be useful to have your CV handy as you fill it out. Please go here to find it:
If all goes well, Sally Haslanger will report on the results at the December APA in the symposium on philosophy publishing (Wednesday December 30th, 11:15-1:15).

Thanks for your help. Please spread the word.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Thoughtful Missing, Again

Leiter posts again on women in the profession. Sure, his posts are helpful. And as always we philosophers use our reasoning skills to hash it all out in the comments, so that now we can move toward putting thoughts into action. Ahem.

One thing that's so very nice is that this conversation gets more sophisticated nearly every time we practice it. Sadly, though, the key points remain the same. Which to rehearse this time? That the constant stream of anecdotes about hostility toward women is sufficient to explain quite a lot? That philosophical exceptionalism can't stand up to counterexamples from law, from linguistics, from life sciences? That the success of other disciplines in moving toward gender parity has been the result of a lot of hard work and concerted programs at national, regional, and local levels?

Sure, that last one always deserves a good run and I haven't said much about the APA in a good long while.

Margaret Atherton says it so well:
Philosophy now stands out as having a peculiarly low percentage of women. What hasn't happened, of course, is any large-scale disciplinary wide effort to change matters. Periodically people notice the low level of women, speculate that women find aggression distasteful, and go about their business. I think if we want to actually alter the situation we have to stop speculating and do something that is specifically directed toward raising the number of women, perhaps by finding out first what steps successful disciplines have taken.

By having taken our sweet time talking rather than acting, we are in the good position of having a lot of practical research literature to draw on. Maybe our discipline hasn't been eligible for all those STEM funds from NSF (we're not so essential to economic growth as computer science and engineering), but we can benefit from the research in those fields nonetheless.

We have some good ideas about what supports women and what doesn't:

1. The most important finding across disciplines has been that offering early support to students who express a desire in a subject and breaking down unnecessarily competitive mores reduces the % of students changing their mind about majoring and supports students who are socially marginal, whether because of gender expectations, class, race, family educational history, or whatever.
2. All-female learning communities don't work so great. In general, interventions that call attention to gender in gender-divisive social situations get mixed results because they can undermine and differentiate as well as support.
3. The presence of role models is supportive but can't be expected to overcome other barriers.
4. Personal relationships with teachers are valuable, for reasons that stem from #1 above. For this reason, some departments write letters to their most promising intro students inviting them to consider a philosophy major.
5. Programs that focus on eliminating social obstacles benefit women without violating norms of fairness.
6. When someone is a problem to their colleagues, they are often a problem for students also. Informal interactions are the source of many of the career-breaking anecdotes that we see on blogs and around.
7. Achieving a threshold (around 30% participation by women) has been important in many disciplines.
8. Articulating clear career goals for majors increases interest in the major. Women in particular have responded well to increased information about careers and about the educational and professional tracks for getting into careers. They are also more often concerned about job security and flexibility than status and salary.
9. There is weak support (i.e., it's there but is still an area of some debate) for the idea that women (in general, on average, for the most part...) are attracted to career tracks where they "make a difference." "Making a difference" means different things to different people: having a hand in social change, so-called 'helping' careers, teaching careers, careers that reward creative expression.

I think these last two are important challenges for us.

My office is (anomalously) in the MicroElectronics Building. As a result, I see a lot of signs referring to "Technology for the 21st century" and announcing talks on "Restructuring Engineering to Build Careers in the 21st Century." I think this is not just banal navel-gazing rhetoric. There is some merit to thinking about what good a career will do for people in changing times.

How have philosophers changed what they do and how they do it for the 21st century? (Here are some hints: experimental philosophy, public philosophy.)

What careers do we prepare students for other than teaching philosophy? I would say there are a lot of careers, and that many of those careers "make a difference."

There's no good reason not to couple discussions of improving the gender ratio in philosophy with improving the profile of philosophy and growing the size of the discipline. Increasing the # of women in philosophy need not mean decreasing the # of men; it could mean growth overall.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Mathematical Ability and Environment

There's not much empirical evidence identifying systematic biologically-based intellectual differences between girls and boys, women and men, and what evidence there is doesn't reliably rule out the possibility of environmental rather than biological differences. One of the few points that hasn't been disproved is the observation that at the highest levels of mathematical ability (I'll wager, that means better at math than you are!), men and boys outnumber women and girls.

This new paper looks at the geography of the distribution of female math whizzes and finds that they come out of a surprisingly small number of high schools. And that suggests that there is something about the pedagogy or the social environment that helps the female math whizzes discover their talent.
Link here.

"MIT economists find a new reason to think that environment, not innate ability, determines how well girls do in math class"
Ellison made this basic observation the heart of a recently finished paper showing not only that girls are a small minority of elite high school math students, but also that the prevalence of high-achieving girls in math varies from school to school. Indeed, in research conducted along with Ashley Swanson, a PhD student in the Department of Economics, Ellison found that the best female math students across the United States come from a tiny number of institutions. The majority of the girls who have been chosen to represent the United States in international mathematics competitions come from a set of about 20 high schools with elite math teams.

This extreme concentration of talent strongly indicates the crucial role that environmental factors, not just innate ability, play in shaping the accomplishments of students. “It’s significant that the top girls are coming from a very, very small subset of schools with strong math programs,” says Ellison. “That suggests most of the girls who could be doing well, aren’t doing well. The thousands and thousands of other schools in the United States must have a lot of talent, too, but it’s not coming out.”

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Women Philosophers and Administrative Leadership

When thinking about the gender imbalance in philosophy, I tend to focus on direct support for undergradate students. But it's interesting to look at university leadership, too, as a place where women philosophers can wield influence.

I think the street tends to distrust administrators, and why not? While we deal with theory, they deal with nitty-gritty practices: budget decisions, personnel problems, deciding who gets the corner office. Ugh. Who would want a part of that?

But there are also certain kinds of (pro-woman, pro-family, pro-student, progressive) changes that can best be managed from a dean's, provost's, or president's office. Deans--and other administrators--do have a say on budget, personnel, and space decisions. The faculty may participate in self-governance, but it moves slowly and inefficiently by comparison.

Do the numbers:
  • About 23% of college presidents are women, while about 45% of upper administration more generally is female (not all of those are academic offices).
  • Fewer than 15% of doctorate-granting schools are headed by women.
The analysis could be encapsulated as "same old story," as in this article in Forbes:
Molly Broad, president of the American Council on Education, says the dearth of female college presidents comes down to the hiring process. Since a president is selected by an institution’s board of trustees--women, especially minority women, are virtually absent from most--tips on navigating the interview process and news about job openings tend to stay among the insiders: men.
Some of the reasons to get involved in administration converge with the interests of feminists and of people like us--theorists. This quote is from an article in the journal Women in Leadership:
Women presidents differ greatly in their approaches to leadership. In this report... [most women]...talked about their leadership in terms of their being trusted “to articulate the aspirations of my institution.” One reflected, “I’m almost entirely motivated by the desire to do meaningful and worthwhile work.” One said that she feels less pressure to be right than to “arrive at mutually satisfactory conclusions and decisions.”

Back to philosophy. Who are some current female philosophers in administrative positions? (Add more in comments!)

  • Amy Gutmann, President, University of Pennsylvania
  • Marjorie Hass, President, Austin College (my alma mater)
  • Dorothy Leland, President, Georgia College and State University
  • Cheryl Misak, Interim Vice-President and Provost, University of Toronto
  • Michele Moody-Adams, Dean of Columbia College and Vice President for Undergraduate Education at Columbia University
  • Onora O'Neill, President of the British Academy (OK, not a university post, but influential nonetheless)
  • Lynn Pasquerella, President, Mount Holyoke College
I know of others who have done a rotation in adminstration—Naomi Scheman, Kathleen Okruhlik—and have had positive things to say about the experience. It's a role that we feminist philosophers could keep in mind as we plan our career goals.

Pile It On!

Cross-posted from my Intro to Ethics course blog:

In Chapter 3 of The Ethics of Climate Change, James Garvey looks at the difficulties with assigning responsibility for the current climate change crisis. He identifies it as a sort of sorites paradox, also called the paradox of the heap.

The general idea is that when something is made up of many, many little things, it's difficult (if not logically impossible) to say that just one of those little things is what makes the big thing itself or, in another context, if very many minor actions cause something, then each of the individual causes is too minor to bother with calling it the cause of the major effect.

For example, if you have a few grains of sand, then it's not a heap, but if you have millions of grains of sand, it's definitely a heap. Say I take a heap of sand and start removing one grain at a time, at what point is the heap no longer a heap?

In the context of climate change, Garvey points out that what seems to absolve us individually from responsibility is that none of our individual actions is really contributing very much at all to the climate problem. In fact, this reason is sometimes given as a reason for inaction because if just one person stops adding to cumulative greenhouse gas emissions, that individual restraint won't do much of anything to curb the problem. However, since the heap is made up of individuals, the only way to face up to the problem is to somehow address the collective.

Here's a somewhat weird comic about the sorites paradox. Or maybe it's really about something else...

Source: Dinosaur Comics