A Critique of a Diversity in Philosophy Conference

By Camisha Russell, Ph.D.

When it comes to diversity, it’s clear to me that philosophy has a lot to learn (as judged by a black woman who recently earned her doctorate in the field). Recently, some have suggested that we turn for wisdom to what may seem an unlikely source – the sciences.

Held May 29-31, 2013 at the University of Dayton, the Diversity in Philosophy conference posed the following question (among others): “What can Philosophy learn from National Science Foundation ADVANCE initiatives that address how to recruit and advance women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields?”

Of course, a turn to demographic data and documented best practices may not do the work of philosophical sub-fields like Critical Philosophy of Race, which seek to challenge what one commenter about the conference refers to as “the history of Western philosophy’s Eurocentric and exclusionary origins” (Roach 2013). The event does, however, offer an important corrective to an opinion of a roommate of mine at an American Philosophical Association conference. She felt that the biggest barrier to increasing demographic diversity in the field was philosophers’ belief that, having been made aware of the problems, right-thinking individuals can simply overcome bias and discriminatory practices with the power of their minds.

Philosophers tend to be big believers in will power

But if there is one thing any diversity conference attendee should have taken away from the weekend, it’s that that isn’t how the mind works. Discussions of phenomena like implicit bias and stereotype threat (well documented by social scientists) were staples in the plenary sessions and panels that I attended, making it clear that will power alone is not enough.

Deliberate and well informed institutional measures will clearly be necessary to increase the number of women (merely 21 percent of professionally-employed philosophers), blacks (fewer than 1.5 percent), and other underrepresented groups working in the field of philosophy.

One of the most exciting initiatives being borrowed from ADVANCE is a new site visit program – the first training for which was held directly following the conference – which will send small teams of tenured faculty to philosophy departments around the country (at their own request) to assess the climate for women and members of other underrepresented groups.

Still, it’s clear that there are important differences between philosophy and the STEM fields with regard to diversity best practices. For example, STEM departments have apparently found that leaving specializations open in an advertisement encourages a more diverse applicant pool. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that “open” job ads in philosophy (where the department is “just looking to hire the best philosopher”) can discourage applicants from underrepresented groups who may assume (often rightly) that they are not what the department wants.

[can] individuals…overcome bias and discriminatory practices with the power of their minds

I did have my frustrations with the conference. While many different forms of diversity were discussed – including disability, class, sexuality, and intersectionality – concurrent sessions made it difficult to hear from everyone and many sessions were inadvertently repetitive. I would have liked more time for participatory workshops on possible action. Also, though race was the most explicitly thematized issue after gender, I found that discussions of racial diversity in philosophy were underdeveloped.

In summary, there is still a lot to be done regarding diversity in philosophy. Nevertheless, this conference took several large and important steps toward transforming the discipline.

Reference

R. Roach (2013) Dayton Conference to Explore Diversity in Philosophy, DiverseEducation.com

Resources

Collegium of Black Women Philosophers

Society of Young Black Philosophers

Camisha Russell, Ph.D. is a President’s Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities Research Institute at the University of California, Irvine. She has a doctorate in Philosophy from Penn State University and a masters in Philosophy from the University of Memphis. She is an alumna of American University in Washington, D.C. Any opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

The citation for this article is:
C. Russell (2013) A Critique of a Diversity in Philosophy Conference.
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Published 4-Nov-2013