Monday, March 30, 2009

When NOT To Compromise

As compromises go, this doesn't seem to be a good one: the State Board of Education in Texas recently approved its science curriculum standards, which Board members describe as "a compromise between those who are critical of teaching evolutionary theories without scrutiny and those who feared attacks on evolution would lead to the teaching of creationism in Texas schools." Now, I'm all for scrutinizing science, but according to reports, the new Texas standards actually REMOVED the requirement that students be taught the "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theories and replaced it with a requirement that teachers have students scrutinize "all sides" of the theories. That includes the sides with no "scientific" evidence. The Discovery Institute, which advocates teaching that the universe is the product of Intelligent Design, called the vote "a huge victory for those who favor teaching the scientific evidence for and against evolution." Of course, the immediate question that should arise for the Discovery folks is: What is the scientific evidence against evolution?

[Insert sounds of crickets, chirping.]

I am equally amused and frustrated by the vigilance with which the religious Right continues to deploy the language of scientific integrity to defend creationism and Intelligent Design. It seems to me that their fight would be a far easier one if they just took the problem head-on, that is, if they just fought to have religion taught in schools (instead of slipping religion in through the back door of science classes). I might even support religious instruction in schools if it followed the same standards set forth by the Texas Board for science instruction: scrutiny of "all sides" of religious speculation. But what is being called a "compromise" here is just a ruse, and one that severly handicaps what students understand as critical scrutiny.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Catching Up

I was a bit delinquent in my posts this last week, so here's a brief update on what's been going on:

(1) The University of Memphis Tigers basketball team suffered a humiliating loss to the University of Missouri Tigers in the NCAA Tournament and were eliminated... making two years in a row that Memphians have had their hopes dashed. My analsis: we were totally outcoached. And we STILL can't make free throws. Argh...

(1a) BUT... the Villanova Wildcats are on a roll in the same tourney, after beating the Duke Blue Devils like a redheaded stepchild and then squeezing out a buzzer-beater win over Pitt, putting 'Nova in the Final Four. GO NOVA!

(2) I presented the results of the research grant I received last summer to the faculty of my college. My project was entitled "Terror, Torture and Democratic Autoimmunity." The presentation went well, though I realized several times what a completely different world we are in now than we were in when I was writing most of it. That's a good thing.

(3) Attended the Tri-State Philosophy Symposium at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas (and presented the same terror/torture paper). This was a gathering of the philosophy departments at liberal-arts colleges in the area. It was a really great experience, reminding me how nice conferences can be when they're small and allow for plenty of discussion. Looks like Rhodes will be hosting it next year, and I'm kind of excited about that.

(4) Had our annnual Spring majors/minor meeting in the Philosophy Department. The room was overflowing! No seats left! This is really great news, as the number of majors/minors one has is a very good indication of the health of the department. Our department is definitely on the rise!

(5) Finished reading Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Best book I've read in years. Absolutely brilliant.

(6) Following the example of AnPan, I started trying to track where I get most of my information on the internet. This is an interesting project. I recommend your checking out AnPan's post on the topic.

(7) Getting ready for the big Scholars in Critical Race Studies conference next weekend, "The Obama Phenomenon: Race and Political Discourse in the United States Today." (I've been affectionately referring to this conference as "ObamaRama.") When we started planning ObamaRama about a year ago, Obama was not even President yet, so this is very exciting. Also, the keynote address is being delivered by Rev. Jeremiah Wright, which pretty much assures that the conference will reach more people than just scholars. I will report back on that sometime next week.

So, lots of things going on in the River City. Good thing, too, since if there wasn't, I would probably be sunk into the great black darkness of Basketball Depression.

Friday, March 20, 2009

A Piece of the Pie

For all the talk of overpaid and overindulged professional athletes in this country, it's a wonder that we so seldom seriously discuss whether or not college athletes should be paid. As a matter of fact, the subject only comes up two times a year as far as I can tell: first, during college football's Bowl season and, second, a few months later during March Madness (the annual NCAA Basketball Tournament). Why? My educated guess is because that's when a lot of people have a lot of (wagered) money tied up in these sports and, hence, have to think about how much money these sports generate. The truth is, NCAA athletics is a big money pie-- not as big as professional athletics, of course, but that's only if you don't include the almost 5 BILLION dollars generated by (still illegal) gambling on collegiate sports-- and the way that NCAA pie gets divided up makes no sense. The New York Times blog is running a discussion forum on the topic right now under the title "March Money Madness," in which they've solicited positions on the topic from academics, experts and former college athletes. As I've said before on this blog, I think college athletes should be paid. Here's why:

Basically, I see college athletes as unpaid (or grossly underpaid) workers for the university. Sure, they get scholarships (which sometimes are equivalent to upwards of $200K over four years of eligibility). Sure, they basically receive a "free" education (no small deal in these times, when more and more college graduates find themselves smothering under student loans for most of the rest of their lives). And, yes, for the athletes who go on in their sport (which is very, very few), they get the best "pre-professional" training available. In conferences like the SEC and the Big Ten, the very best among them live the lives of demi-gods. But what are they trading for those "perks"? And is the trade fair?

These kids generate a LOT of money. They make money for the school, for the sponsors, for the NCAA, for the conferences, for the other sports programs, for university libraries, stadiums and buildings--not to mention the big-time flow generated for all the bookies and gamblers. But the NCAA regulates college athletes' lives (especially football and basketball players) with an iron fist. They can't be taken out to meals or be bought a pair of shoes or a watch (or a Hummer). They have curfews and meal restrictions and insane travel schedules. Every one of their minute misbehaviors are subject to (sometimes national) scrutiny... AND they still have to study, maintain decent grades, and try to be "regular" college students with families, friends, boyfriends/girlfriends, and all of the other stressors of collegiate life.

So they get scholarships... but a lot of college students get scholarships. Do we expect the same sacrifices from the non-athletes? Hardly. Most college scholarships don't come along with the rigorous personal restrictions that athletes sign off for, nor do they come along with the constant threat of life-altering injury or public humiliation. Other students who enjoy scholarships aren't forced to miss holidays with their families, or try to manage end-of-semester exams and assignments in the midst of conference playoffs or Bowl games or March Madness. And no other recipients of collegiate scholarships are constantly treated as if they aren't "real" students.

I actually think that ALL college athletes should be paid, though I genuinely believe there's a stronger argument for paying football and basketball players than the others. (And this is not an attempt to promote even more collegiate gender disparity... at universities like UT and UCONN, the women basketball players are as important as any male athlete.) College athletes secure the "brands" of their colleges--and, thus, help to promote their schools and recruit for them--more than almost anything else. Division 1 universities endlessly promote the myth that college sport is "amateur," but the only thing that confirms that myth is the fact that the athletes aren't paid. Everything else about college sport is professional.

I don't have a ready solution to this problem. I like Allen Sack's suggestion that the athletes should be allowed "to endorse products, to get paid for speaking engagements and be compensated for the use of their likenesses on licensed products." I also like Stephen Danly's idea of guaranteeing a fifth year to athletic scholarships. If college athletes aren't going to be equitably compensated for their work, they should at the very least be provided with scholarship money that doesn't fall an average of $2000 short of their basic living expenses. As someone who works at a Division III college (where no athletic scholarships are awarded), I find that my athlete-students are some of the best students, mostly because their extra sports responsibilities require that they be very disciplined and committed. It's not hard to see how much stress this puts on them, but it is hard to cry foul about it since they knew what they were getting into when they decided to attend a Div. III school. For Division I athletes, though, we should cry foul. It's just not fair.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Why I Don't Care About Cheating

First, a few caveats about this post, just for clarification:

(1) By "cheating," I mean academic cheating. Plagiarism, mostly. I don't mean relationship cheating, or sports cheating, or cheating on your taxes. I do actually care about those... well, two out of three of them, anyway.
(2) The title of this post is (obviously, I hope) hyperbolically stated. By "don't care" I don't mean that I won't still enforce the rules. So, if you're a student of mine and you've happened upon this blog, don't get any ideas.
(3) I'm not absolutely committed to my position on this. I would say that I'm about 80% committed. I can be dissuaded, but it's going to take some convincing. That's what the comments section is for.

Next to grading, one of the things that my colleagues complain about the most is cheating. The details of the complaints differ, of course, but they usually come down to some variation on: Students are so LAZY! It's a frustration that humanities profs know very well, since not only is it disappointing and disheartening to read a plagiarized paper, but also a little insulting. Badly plagiarized papers are usually pretty easy to spot: the prose style changes dramatically mid-essay, or the level of insight demonstrated is beyond the capacity of the student-writer, or there are references to works/ideas/thinkers that were either not included in the assignment or obviously a part of some other pre-fabricated essay. Often, there are truly epic mistakes that basically serve as big, flashing, red-hot neon signs that read: I DID NOT WRITE THIS! (True story: I read an essay from a former student that included a paragraph that began "Thirdly,..." The problem is there was no "firstly" or "secondly." Oy vey.) But not all plagiarized papers are badly plagiarized-- in fact, most aren't, I would say-- and it's those in the gray area that are the most frustrating and time-consuming to identify.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, plagiarism is not only on the rise... it's big business. Pay-per-page "paper mills" and other one-stop-shop CheatMarts are readily available to students on the Internet (or, if you're a student at Penn State, just across the street from campus), allowing students to skip the whole tiring process of actually researching, studying, going to class, and doing work by "buying" papers, exams, lectures notes, and a variety of other products-of-other-people's-labor. What's more, these CheatMarts are no secret. We all know they're there, and we all know what they do. So, the poor, beleaguered Professorate has been driven to slowly transform itself into a police force, spending inordinate amounts of time tracking down and rooting out intellectual criminals every time they assign a paper.

Why do student's cheat? There are lots of reasons, of course, not all of which amount to laziness. They're under a lot of pressure (especially in an age of so-called "grade inflation"). They're often underprepared by their high schools for the rigors of higher education. They're over-committed and don't have the discipline or time-management skills to handle all of their commitments. Or they've actually bought into the total commodification of knowledge and education and just don't see cheating as a significant ethical concern. There are the "lazy" ones, of course, but there are far more who would be better categorized as "confused" (how DO you cite Wikipedia?) or "sloppy" (what DOES count as common knowledge?). There used to be an old-saying that went: as long as there are tests in schools, there will be prayer in schools. I say: as prayer goes, so goes cheating.

Why do profs care if students cheat? Seriously, duh.

So, what does Dr. J mean when she says she "doesn't care about cheating"? That's complicated, but here's a go at it:

(1) Let me begin with a truly old-school answer: cheating hurts the student. At the end of the day, this is still the reason (I hope) that we all care so much that students cheat. If they're cheating, they aren't learning... and that's what they're in our classes for, after all, right? The reason we have honor codes and academic integrity policies and the like is because we want to create an environment in which students actually have to do the work of learning, without shortcuts or cheatsheets or undue assistance. If a student plagiarizes a paper in my class, gets an "A," but still learns nothing, who is really hurt by this? Not me. Not really. At the risk of sounding way-too-Ward-Cleaver-ish, that student has really cheated him- or herself. They've robbed themselves of a chance to learn something, and they've exchanged that invaluable opportunity for something that in the long run matters very little (i.e., the grade they got in a philosophy class in college). And, the truth is that, for most of them, they also had to suffer the stress and pangs of conscience that come along with cheating in order to get that (mostly insignificant) grade. So, their loss.

(2) My next answer requires a slight reformulation of the original claim. It's not so much that I don't care about cheating itself, but I don't care enough to spend a lot of time tracking down cheaters. Why? First, because it takes a LOT of time! But, more importantly, I'm not sure that the time invested is equal to the supposed benefits. I have colleagues/friends who read every single paper with suspicion, assuming already that it is plagiarized or partially-plagiarized, and they describe this vigilance as a "real commitment" to academic integrity. At my college, where we operate under an Honor Code, I feel like it's crucial that not only the students, but the professors too, hold our collective commitment to the Code in good faith. That means, for me, that I ought to trust that students are not cheating. If I don't, if I read all my students' papers as if they're plagiarized, then I might as well be teaching at an institution that doesn't have an Honor System. Of course, that doesn't mean that I should (or do) simply look the other way when there is obvious evidence of an honor violation, but I don't know how I can honestly expect the students to take their Pledge to be honorable seriously when I don't take it seriously. If I catch a student plagiarizing, then the penalty for that violation ought not to be merely a failing grade, but also the shame that comes along with dishonoring oneself and betraying the shared values of a community that relies on honorable people acting honorably. When I approach my student's work as if it is already suspect, I'm dishonoring those values and that community, too. So, whatever satisfaction I may find in my "real commitment" to academic integrity comes at the cost of creating an environment in which my actually honorable students are treated the same as my dishonorable ones. That's a lose-lose, in my view. And a very time-consuming lose-lose.

(3) I'm not the police. I'm a philosophy professor. I care about students learning philosophy and, more generally, learning how to think. If they don't learn philosophy because they don't care, or they're lazy, or they cheat, then I'm disappointed in myself as much as I might be in them. My job, as I see it, is to teach courses in which students don't want to cut corners because cutting corners doesn't seem like a net gain... NOT to carry around a big, threatening bad-grade-gun to scare them into being honest. Even more than that, my job is to create an environment in which students can actually experience the joy of learning, especially learning something "hard," in which they can see the value of honing otherwise tedious skills like critical reading/thinking/writing, in which they can take pride in their work more than their grades, and in which they can decide for themselves, in a mature and informed manner, which ethical rules they are willing to break and which they aren't.

(4) Twenty years after the average non-major student leaves my class, I don't expect that they will be able to recite the second formulation of Kant's categorical imperative. What I do hope, however, is that they will care to know why people do the things they do and whether or not those actions seem rational. In the long view, the difference between a student who turns in a plagiarized paper on Kant's categorical imperative and a student who turns in an honest paper on the same topic is very little... at least in terms of what they know about Kant. But, of course, there IS a difference between these students. The first never learned to ask or to think about questions of Kantian morality, and the second did. My (admittedly idealistic, possibly naive) belief is that the first student suffers something far worse than the failing grade s/he might have received from me. S/he suffers a paucity of reflection, a diminishing of his or her deliberative capacity, an incomplete and crippled world-view. Again, see (1) above.

(5) Finally, I worry that constant and ubiquitous surveillance actually weakens students' ethical sensibilities, rather than strengthening them. My (admittedly idealistic and possibly naive) approach to students' work probably does allow more offenders to slip through the cracks unpunished, but I think it also raises the bar for the whole. Treat students like adults, and they act like adults. Treat them like children, and you will spend all of your time trying to corral cheating, whining, grade-grubbing children.

In conclusion, I'm not losing any sleep over the alleged spike in cheating and plagiarizing. The students who do it are already losing, and the time it takes me to google every suspicious sentence is not worth the mostly-insignificant punishment they will recieve. What's more, my pandering to the kind of hyped-up fearmongering of Academic Integrity Vigilantes forces me to alter a lot of things that I believe are sacred in the classroom. Sure, I could make my tests and paper-assignments more cheatproof, but then I would be handing out assignments that have no hope of accomplishing the kinds of learning experiences that I want them to accomplish. Does that make it easier to cheat in my classes? Probably so.

But frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


I forgot to mention that Angela Davis visited my institution a couple of weekends ago and delivered the keynote address for the Women's and Gender Studies Conference that we hosted. (Aside: I'm not generally inclined to be star-struck, but I definitely was a little around Dr. Davis. I was charged with taking care of her and transporting her back to her hotel after the keynote address, so I got to spend time and speak at some length with her one-on-one. It was awesome.) Anyway, while she was here, a few of our students "protested" her visit, standing outside of the building with signs that read (among other things) "My Tuition Shouldn't Pay For Communists." I had been told earlier in the day by one of my (non-protesting) students that this might happen, and when I asked "why are people protesting Angela Davis?!?", he responded "Because she was a Black Panther and she is a Communist." For the record, Davis was exceptionally gracious with-- and more than a little amused by-- our student protesters. On her way into the lecture hall that night, she stopped and spoke with them, inviting them into her lecture so that they could (in her words) "come to a better understanding of one another." (They declined.) I'm still a little shocked that there were protesters, especially given Davis' prominent role in the Civil Rights struggle and our institution's emphasis on service and civic responsibility. (We made the President's Community Service Honor Roll.) But the more I think about it, the less shocking it is.

I regularly teach Marx in my Ethics and Social/Political courses, and I have found over the years that students know very little about communism or socialism before coming into class. Actually, it's worse than that, as students often have gross misconceptions about communism and socialism before coming into class. Many of them think that "communism" = "atheism" (full stop). Or they think that the only historical instantiation of communism (the USSR) was an unqualified moral, political and economic failure. Or else they believe that everything they learned in ECON 101 about the merits and meritocracy of the Free Market is true. So, I find that it takes a little bit of massaging to get their minds open to some of Marx's critiques of capitalism, which are in reality quite consistent with their fundamental ethical and political sensibilities. And with a little more massaging, it's usually not that difficult to demonstrate the "socialist" elements present in our own democracy. It's not about Stalinist totalitarianism or hedonist atheism, I tell them, it's about poor people. Believing that Marx might have been right doesn't mean you have to give up your iPod, dress in all grey, and stand in a bread line. It just means, at the very least, that you might object to the exploitation and alienation of your fellow human beings.

I'm particularly interested in this as a sociological phenomenon. Why are today's students-- who were, for the most part, not even born until after the "fall of communism"-- so hostile to it? I would think that people of my generation would be more so, since we grew up with the Wall still in place, but it doesn't seem like we really are. When I was an undergraduate, I didn't have anywhere near the access to information about global poverty, or multi-national corporations, or any of the other collateral damage of capitalism as students today have. And, oh yeah, the entire economic infrastructure of my country didn't collapse, either. My formative years were the cushy, consumerist, mostly peaceful, Clinton years. What gives?

Monday, March 16, 2009

God Plays Laser Tag

One of the true crazies of the religious Right in this country is the Reverend Fred Phelps, bona fide hatemonger and pastor of the Westboro (Kansas) Baptist Church. He's the man who claimed that 9/11 was God's payback to America for its tolerance of feminists and homosexuals, as was Hurricane Katrina, and he regularly drags his congregants all over the United States to let people know just how much "God hates fags." (His words, not mine.) His group also protests funerals of soldiers and hate-crime victims (like Matthew Shepherd) for the same reasons. When the Westboro folks showed up in Chicago recently, this is what they looked like:

I can only imagine the good Reverend's surprise when his flock was met by a hoarde of counter-protestors from the University of Chicago bearing their own signs, with messages like: "God Hearts Netflix" and "God Hates Gen Chem" and "God Loves Red Lobster" and -- admittedly, my favorite-- "God Hates the New Facebook." Here they are in all their glory:

There's a lot to be said for sardonic mockery. This truly is the Jon Stewart Generation.

Tourney Time!

It's that time of year again. March Madness. The Big Dance. Win or Go Home. The single most exciting time of the annual sports calendar. The NCAA Basketball Tournament.

And my beloved and beleaguered University of Memphis Tigers are there again.

Coming off a truly heartbreaking loss last year in the Champoinship Game to the utterly undeserving Kansas Jayhawks, Memphis is hoping to set things right this year as the less-favored but equally-formidable #2 seed in the West bracket. That means they will most likely have to go through both UCONN and our arch-nemesis Louisville in order to get back to the Finals... not to mention other possible contenders like Wake Forest and, ahem, freakin' Kansas. It won't be an easy trip to Detroit.

Like any true UMemphis fan and alum, I'm putting all my hopes in the Tigers again this year. I'm glad they're not seeded #1, if only because I'm superstitious and I don't want to repeat any possible bad luck conditions from last year. I think we're in one of the "easier" brackets, though anyone familiar with the Big Dance knows that the pre-tourney rankings and seeds matter very little if you happen to run up against a team that has the mojo on their side that night. (See: 2008 Kansas Jayhawks) This year's brackets are all over the web right now, but here's one for your handy reference.

Even if you're not a basketball fan, the NCAA Basketball Tourney is a fun time of year, because it's the time that we all get to try our hands at bracketology (the process of picking the winners in the tournament). Most people enter into some or another form of a Bracket (betting) Pool. My many, many years of experience with bracket pools is that the person who wins is almost always the person who knows and cares the least about college basketball, and also usually the person who has the most ridiculously idiosyncratic formula for picking winners. My mom used to pick winners by their team colors. One of my college classmates picked winners according to his utterly unscientific rendering of the animal Kingdom (if I remember it right, it was dogs, then cats, then other mammals, then birds, then fish, then variations on the human). My friend and soon-to-be-colleague Kyle once picked his bracket by imagining who would win if the mascots of the two competing teams actually battled. That method may seem easy when you're dealing with games like Memphis Tigers vs. Gonzaga Bulldogs, but it gets exponentially harder when you run into bouts like Syracuse Orangemen vs. Wake Forest Demon Deacons, or Illinois Illini vs. Purdue Boilermakers. And then what do you do with birds? I mean, wouldn't they win most battles by avoiding conflict until their antagonist tired out? Kind of like Rocky did with Apollo Creed?

So, if you get a chance to do so-- and chances are not hard to find-- try to get into a pool and send me your heterodox formulas for picking winners. The person with the most ridiculous method wins, and if I get the formula before the tourney games start on Wednesday, I may even enter a bracket using your formula myself. It sure can't hurt my odds!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Science v. Values

According to President Obama, I was solidly within the majority American opinion last Monday when I breathed a sigh of relief upon hearing his decision to lift the ban on federal funding for stem-cell research using destroyed human embryos. In his trademark careful and conscientious rhetoric, Obama acknowledged the deep moral difficulties this issue poses, while at the same time reaffirming his steadfast commitment to "sound science." Here's what our President said:

At the same time as his executive order on stem cells, Obama also issued a memo on "Scientific Integrity," in which he called for the removal of "politics" and "ideology" from science. I think it's safe to assume that what he meant by "politics" and "ideology" there is the sorts of political ideologies that might view some scientific advances (like stem-cell research) as fundamentally amoral or immoral. And that's where things get tricky...

As I've stated numerous times before on this blog, it's a mistake to think that politics and ideology can be completely divorced from science. Science harbors all kinds of hidden normative values that dictate what counts as "scientific integrity," just like every other domain of human inquiry does. Not only do I think that there isn't such a thing as apolitical or non-idelogical scientific inquiry, but I'm not even sure such a thing would be desirable. So, the real challenge is to be clear what sorts of moral and political ideologies are informing the direction that science takes or doesn't take. Obama seemed to suggest that we've basically hog-tied science for the last eight years with utterly unscientific moral concerns (a claim that I basically agree with), and that the quicker we can dispatch with those concerns, the better for science (a claim with which I couldn't disagree more). That seems to me to be overstating the case, to say the least.

I agree with William Saletan's argument in his recent Slate article ("Winning Smugly"), in which he (rightly) points out: "you don't have to equate an embryo with a full-grown person to appreciate the danger of exploiting them." Simply removing these sorts of ethical concerns from the debates about what science ought and ought not do amounts to writing a blank check to scientists. Saletan's article takes even greater exception with Obama, as Saletan compares the President's rhetoric to the Bush/Rove rhetoric about torture, in which we were effectively instructed to lay aside our moral concerns about mistreating enemy combatants because, quite simply, the stakes were too high to permit that kind of bleeding-heart posturing. Saletan writes:

The same Bush-Rove tactics are being used today in the stem-cell fight. But they're not coming from the right. They're coming from the left. Proponents of embryo research are insisting that because we're in a life-and-death struggle—in this case, a scientific struggle—anyone who impedes that struggle by renouncing effective tools is irrational and irresponsible. The war on disease is like the war on terror: Either you're with science, or you're against it.

It's a harsh comparison that Saletan makes, but also an accurate one, unfortunately.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Tell 3 (Philosophers)

There's quite a bit of chatter going on in the American Philosophical Association right now concerning that organization's antidiscrimination policy-- more specifically, it's policy forbidding institutions from discriminating against homosexuals in hiring. Professor Charles Hermes (University of Texas- Arlington) authored a petition, which now has over 1300 signatures, calling for the APA to either (1) enforce its current antidiscrimination policy and prevent colleges/universities who are in violation of it from advertising in the JFP ("Jobs for Philosophers," the multi-annual publication that lists open positions in philosophy departments) or (2) to clearly mark the discriminating institutions as institutions who violate the APA's policy. Currently, the APA's antidiscrimination policy reads as follows:

The American Philosophical Association rejects as unethical all forms of discrimination based on race, color, religion, political convictions, national origin, sex, disability, sexual orientation, gender identification or age, whether in graduate admissions, appointments, retention, promotion and tenure, manuscript evaluation, salary determination, or other professional activities in which APA members characteristically participate.

Shortly after Hermes' petition got off the ground-- and got some publicity on Brian Leiter's blog and Facebook-- a counterpetition emerged, calling for the APA to maintain its existing JFP advertising policy. The counterpetitioners focus on the second part of the APA's antidiscrimination policy, which reads as follows:

At the same time, the APA recognizes the special commitments and roles of institutions with a religious affiliation; it is not inconsistent with the APA's position against discrimination to adopt religious affiliation as a criterion in graduate admissions or employment policies when this is directly related to the school's religious affiliation or purpose, so long as these policies are made known to members of the philosophical community and so long as the criteria for such religious affiliations do not discriminate against persons according to the other attributes listed in this statement. Advertisers in Jobs for Philosophers are expected to comply with this fundamental commitment of the APA, which is not to be taken to preclude explicitly stated affirmative action initiatives.

The debate so far, such that it is, can be summed up as follows: can "Christian" colleges and universities legitimately show disfavor to homosexual job applicants on the basis of enforcing certain "ethical standards" necessitated by their institution's religious commitments? and, if they do, does this constitute "discrimination"? The counterpetition argues that "institutions can require their faculty to agree to abide by ethical standards that forbid homosexual acts while not ipso facto discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation." And, of course, the original petitioners cry foul. There's been much haranguing over the meaning of "Christianity," the meaning of "homosexuality," the meaning of "discrimination," and many and varied appeals to the less-than-illustrious history of philosophy on all of these. As far as I can tell, the APA itself has remained very, very quiet.

Outside of the Ivory Tower, the American Civil Liberties Union has begun a campaign called Tell 3, asking people (of all orientations) to commit to talking to at least 3 people about what it's like to be or to know someone who is LGBT. The ACLU's idea is a good one, as we all know that studies show it's much harder to discriminate against someone you know than someone you don't. Although the debate surrounding the petition and counterpetition to the APA has been very interesting, it does often read like entrenched, intransigent philosophers talking past one another. Might be nice to see some of them talk to each other.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009


I'm reading Junot Díaz's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, about a New Jersey supernerd from the Dominican Republic, his family and the Fukú Americanus ("the Curse and the Doom of the New World") that plagues them. Díaz's prose is like machine-gun fire-- quick and lethal-- and his narrative switches back and forth between fiction and history, English and Spanish, first-person and third-person, with stunning agility. At times, it's laugh-out-loud funny, something I've been missing since I read Russo's Straight Man or Roth's Portnoy's Complaint. The novel is also full of David-Foster-Wallace-esque footnotes, provided for those of us readers unfamiliar with the details of DR history or the nuances of Spanish slang. And it's one of those footnotes (on page 97, for those of you following at home) that caught my attention...

Díaz's narrator, Yunior, is reflecting on what he calls the "natural antagonism" between writers and dictators in the context of recounting the story of Jesús de Galíndez. Galíndez was a Dominican exile and a graduate student at Columbia University, who had decided to write his dissertation on the Dominican Republic's most infamous and bloodiest dictator, Rafael Trujillo (aka, El Jefe or "The Chief"). Yunior writes:

Long story short: upon hearing of the dissertation, El Jefe first tried to buy the thing and when that failed he dispatched his chief Nazgul (the sepulchral Felix Bernardino) to NYC and within days Galíndez got gagged, bagged and dragged to La Capital, and legend has it when he came out of his chloroform nap he found himself naked, dangling from his feet over a cauldron of boiling oil, El Jefe standing nearby with a copy of the offending dissertation in hand. (And you thought your committee was rough?)

So, for all of my friends/readers still laboring under those horrible scarlet letters "ABD": take heart. It could be much, much worse.

Monday, March 02, 2009


In an article titled "Philosophy's Great Experiment," David Edmunds and Nigel Warburton (hosts of one of my favorite podcasts, Philosophy Bites) consider the recent rise in what has come to be known as "experimental philosophy" or "x-phi." Experimental philosophy is exactly as it sounds: a form of inquiry that makes at least partial use of quantitative research (i.e., measurable experiments) to answer philosophical questions. According to Edmunds and Warburton, there are three basic types of x-phi: (1) when philosophers use new brain-scanning technology to look for patterns in neural activity in subjects who are presented with philosophical problems, (2) when philosophers devise (social-science-ish) questionnaires and head out into the streets with a clipboard to interview people about their reasoning and intuitions, and (3) when philosophers go out and conduct "field" experiments, observing how people behave in certain situations, where that behavior may bear on philosophical speculations. If you're thinking that x-phi-(1) sounds awfully similar to regular old neuroscience, x-phi-(2) sounds like psychology, and x-phi-(3) sounds like sociology/anthropology... you're not alone.

Defenders of x-phi qua "philosophy proper" claim that it's long past time we put the kibosh on the dominant (Anglo-American) trend of armchair, unverified-intuition-driven, empirico-phobic speculation. Critics of x-phi respond that we're giving up the autonomy of philosophy as a unique domain of inquiry just to get our grubby paws on some of the scientists' (seemingly unlimited) research funding. There are, of course, merits to both sides of this debate. And neither side has the "history of philosophy" wholly on its side, either. Although there is a long tradition of philosophy as "pure" analysis or speculation, it's not always been that way. Descartes, Locke and Hume all performed their own philosophical "experiments," and there's no prima facie reason to dismiss the advantages of interdisciplinary work with natural and social scientists when we seem so comfortable working with all the products of historians, political theorists, artists, authors and the rest of the non-quantitative literati.

One of the truly booming areas of x-phi is in moral philosophy, partly a result of the explosion in "applied ethics" in the last half-century, but also led in part by American Philosophical Association Chair, Kwame Anthony Appiah (author of Experiments in Ethics). Moral philosophy is the home of many great "thought experiments": hypothetical situations involving some ethical conflict that are intended to aid in the articulation of moral reasoning and the formulation of moral norms. One of the most famous of these thought experiments is the "Trolley Problem." As everyone who teaches ethics knows, the Trolley Problem is eminently useful in drawing out the distinctions between different moral intuitions and models of moral reasoning (utilitarianism, deontology, virtue ethics, egoism, relativism, etc.). Now, neuroscientists and moral psychologists have jumped on the Trolley wagon, collecting extensive quantitative information on how people's minds and brains actually do think through the dilemma, sometimes in spite of what they may claim in terms of an ethical/philosophical position. And some x-philosophers are persuaded that the scientists' contributions to Trolley-ology are worth considering. What if your answer to the Trolley Problem, in fact, says less about your moral reasoning or moral norms than it does about the integrity of your prefrontal cortex, the obesity trends in your community, or whether or not you play too much Grand Theft Auto? What self-respecting philosopher could ignore those obviously relevant variables? And how can philosophers possibly know those variable without getting out of the office and going into the laboratory, or the streets, to measure them?

Edmunds and Warburton don't really come out in favor or against the merits of x-phi, though they do offer the following:
A philosophical problem is not an empirical problem, a fact is not an interpretation, an “is” is not an “ought,” a description of how we actually behave and think is not a rationale for how we should behave and think. Yet despite the critics, the clipboards and scanners are multiplying, with sometimes surprising effects on ancient debates.
I think it's absolutely critical that we don't lose sight of the meta-question here. We should keep asking "to what extent is x-phi 'philosophy'?" and "at what point does x-phi become a total derivative of the natural and social sciences with which it is collaborating?". Our discipline is notorious for its lead-footed slowness in keeping up with developments in other intellectual domains, which is probably why x-phi seems so strange to so many of us, and also why too many philosophers have chosen to bury their heads in the sand with regard to this obviously growing trend rather than to engage the very difficult question "what is philosophy?" again. But it cannot be ignored, and if philosophy wants to retain some kind of independent space in the liberal arts, it's going to have to carve out a proper space for x-phi.

It's here, it's queer, let's deal with it.