Archive for the 'Philosophy' category

Inclusion is a challenge all over. The Ada Initiative has resources to support women in *your* community.

Note that we haven't really reached our goal until we've hit 250 donors!
Ada Campaign Progress

Real inclusion of women in a variety of professional and public spheres in a continuing struggle. We hear a lot about this struggle in the tech sector, but it's a problem well beyond tech. The Ada Initiative has awesome resources to support women and their meaningful inclusion. You might assume that these resources are just for women in tech, but you'd be wrong. I want people in my communities -- the scientists and science communicators, the philosophers, the academics, the freelancers, the parents -- to discover, use, and support the Ada Initiative's resources.

Let me tell you why, and then I'll tell you how.

I have spent most of my life dealing with the default assumption that stuff I'm interested in -- stuff I'm passionate about -- is not for me, because I'm female. I've dealt with this in math and science, in philosophy, and online. I have dealt with harassment (in academia, online, in the wider world) that my male colleagues don't face and often don't even see when it's happening right in front of them. I have grappled with my impostor syndrome in a cultural climate where others are already doubting my competence simply because I'm female.

This state of affairs is not OK with me.This is not a situation my daughters should have to deal with.

The Ada Initiative has resources we can use to make things better.

For example:

  • The Ada Initiative has been tireless in advocating for the adoption and enforcement of conference anti-harassment policies. They offer sample language that organizations can adapt as needed, plus guidance on implementation so a well-intentioned policy doesn't become mere words on a page.
  • The Ada Initiative offers Ally Skills Workshops to teach men simple ways to make their workplaces and communities more inclusive of women.
  • The Ada Initiative offers resources and training to address impostor syndrome, that pervasive feeling so many women have, nurtured by our dominant culture, that they don't have the expertise, intelligence, or skills to do the work they are doing.

These are awesome resources for the tech and open source communities, but they're awesome resources for the rest of us, too! If you are a scientist, a philosopher, an academic, a freelancer, an educator, a parent, anyone who cares about meaningful inclusion in your profession or community, these resources are for you.

These awesome resources didn't just pop into existence, though. They are the result of the work of dedicated people and an organization focused on making meaningful inclusion of women a reality. So I'm asking you to support the Ada Initiative with a donation.

Donate Now

To encourage you to give, and to spread the word, I'm putting up two challenge grants.

Challenge #1: When donations to the "Ada Initiative for All of Us" drive reach $1000, it will unlock $500 of challenge funds. (Watch our progress on this goal!)

UPDATE: CHALLENGE #1 UNLOCKED! We've crossed the $1000 threshold!

Challenge #2: When the number of distinct donors to the "Ada Initiative for All of Us" drive reach 250, it will unlock another $500 of challenge funds.

If you can't donate, you can still help by spreading the word! Tell people in your workplace or community about the resources the Ada Initiative provides and point them to my drive.

If you can donate $128 or more, you can also score a cool sticker, pictured here!

Ada F-word sticker

Deadline to unlock the challenges and lighten my wallet by $1000 is 11 PM (Pacific Time) Friday, September 19, 2014. But, if Challenge #1 and Challenge #2 both fall much before the deadline, we may figure out a third challenge…

Edited to add:

If you are a scientist, a philosopher, an academic, a freelancer, an educator, a parent, you can use the resources that the Ada Initiative provides -- but you may not be as flush with cash as the folks in the tech sector. So, on the donation page for the "Ada Initiative for All of Us" drive, you may be freaking out a little that $128 is the lowest donation level listed.

If $128 is too rich for your budget but you still want to kick some financial support to the Ada Initiative, don't freak out! Click the radio button next to "Other amount" and fill in a donation amount that works for you -- maybe $64, or $28, or $16, or $8, or $4, or $2.

Any amount that's a tile in 2048 will do the job. We'll put them together and make something bigger. (You also can choose a dollar amount that's not a power of two. Who am I to stop you?)

And, of course, if you're tapped out, you're tapped out. Boosting the signal on the drive helps, too!

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A thought for those who are mindful about their legacy in their discipline.

It is possible that, once you shuffle off this mortal coil, people will remember you for your scholarly contributions to your field.

However, it is also possible that they will remember you for your consistently inappropriate behavior, your thoroughgoing lack of respect for the boundaries of the students you were supposed to be nurturing rather than exploiting.

It is possible that, in the fullness of time, the people in your discipline who were given the academic equivalent of the "Grandpa is just that way" excuse for your behavior will come to the conclusion that there was no good excuse for your behavior, that, rather than speaking no ill of the dead, they will describe your conduct for what it was.

As well, they may start to recognize the complicity of the other "grown-ups" in their field who offered the "Grandpa is just that way" excuse for what it was.

If some of those enablers, still living, are mindful about their legacy within their discipline, they might want to reflect on that and make some amends before they, too, go to the great beyond.

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Pub-Style Science: Is a scientist without philosophy like a fish without a bicycle?

There will be a Pub-Style Science discussion of why scientists might want to think about epistemology in particular and (perhaps) philosophy more generally on Tuesday, April 8, 2014, starting 9 PM EDT/6 PM PDT. You can watch the hashtag #pubscience for more details (including the link that will let you watch the Google Hangout once it's hanging out).

I've heard it said that an understanding of philosophy of science is about as useful to a scientist as a hydrodynamics textbook would be to a fish. Indeed, I've heard it said that philosophy of science is worse than useless to a scientist -- that it a malign influence on one's ability to do science.

I'm disinclined to believe these rejections of the value of philosophy for the scientific practitioner. Then again, I left a path as a scientific practitioner to become a philosopher. You do the math.

Anyways, in advance of the discussion Tuesday night, I thought I'd point you toward a couple ancient posts I wrote on philosophy of science and science, plus some other things worth reading before the conversation:

A branch of learning that 'need not be learned'?: In which I examine a claim by scientist, Nobel Laureate, and notorious pre-internet troll Sir Peter Medawar that "scientific methodology" (which might be the picture delivered by philosophy of science) "need not be taught or, if taught, need not be learned".

Does writing off philosophy of science cost the scientists anything?: In which I argue that philosophy of science may be useful to scientific practitioners who want to communicate productively with people outside their narrow scientific disciplines.

You might find the comment threads on both of those posts interesting (depending on your tolerance for interlocutors committed to talking past each other).

You should also read Michael Tomasson's post setting the stage for Tuesday's discussion.

On the question of whether postmodern strands of philosophy might have a particularly malign impact on one's understanding of science, I recommend this Storify'd conversation.

No matter what we end up deciding, I expect it will be an interesting conversation.

4 responses so far

Job offer negotiations and relationships with our future colleagues.

Many pixels have already been devoted to discussing the case of W, the philosophy job candidate who says her job offer was rescinded after she inquired with the department making the offer about what adjustments in start-date, salary, new teaching preps per year, pre-tenure sabbatical, and maternity leave might be possible. Rather than indicating which requests were just not possible, the department's response to the inquiry withdrew the offer of employment entirely with the justification that the items about which W asked indicated "an interest in teaching at a research university and not at a college, like ours, that is both teaching and student centered."

In case you've been glued to your grading instead of the internet, The Philosophy Smoker has a nice round-up of the commentary. It's worth noting too that some have expressed doubts that this try to negotiate/lose the offer scenario could really have happened as described. Whether it did or not, I think this is a good opportunity to examine the relationship at the center of negotiations between a hiring department and a job candidate -- namely, the relationship between future colleagues.

When an academic department is conducting a job search, it is trying to hire someone to address the department's needs. These needs may include teaching particular courses, developing new curriculum, advising students, spreading out committee work, contributing to a department culture that supports good pedagogy, productive research, and so forth. The specific needs of a department and the specific culture its members create are very much connected to facts on the ground -- whether it is part of a college or university that is teaching-focused or research-focused, how willing the administration is to release funds to the department, how many students the department serves, how many faculty members there are to take on the shared work.

Search committees looking for a good "fit" between job candidates and the faculty position they are trying to fill seek not only candidates who can address the department's needs but also candidates who show some grasp of those needs, some awareness of (or at least interest in) the facts on the ground that constrain how those needs can be met. If the department's primary need is for a new faculty member to teach a significant part of the curriculum and the candidate asks to be excused from all pre-tenure teaching duties, that would probably indicate that the candidate didn't grok the department's needs and might not be able to contribute enthusiastically to meeting them.

However, a new faculty hire is not like a wireless learning-delivery device. A new faculty hire is a human who, in the course of helping to achieve the shared goals of the department, can be legitimately expected to pursue goals of her own.

Some of these individual goals ought to be goals shared by the department hiring the job candidate, chief among them creating conditions in which the new hire can contribute to meeting the department's needs in a sustainable way over the long term. One of the big advantages here for the department is that creating such conditions can help obviate the need for another faculty search, a time- and labor-intensive process in the best of circumstances.

When you've gone through the trouble of a search, you don't want to hire a candidate who'll end up leaving in a few years for a job somewhere else that she perceives as a better fit for her needs. Neither do you want to hire someone who you'll have to replace in six or seven years because she cannot do what she needs to do to get tenured.

Ideally, you want a job candidate who has been reflective about what she may need to be able to do a good job meeting the department's needs and meeting her own needs -- including being able to establish her case for retention, tenure, and promotion.

A job candidate who hash't given this thought may put herself in situations where she cannot do an adequate job meeting the department's needs -- or where she can meet those needs, but only by courting burnout or ignoring other tasks she needs to do to get tenured.

This is a place where the case of W suggests to me a candidate who demonstrated thoughtfulness about how to support a department's teaching mission in a sustainable way. In a small department, faculty members each need to do significant teaching to cover the curriculum. But preparing a course that works well with the actual population of students to be taught benefits tremendously from feedback from those actual students and modification in response to that feedback. W inquired whether it was possible to cap her new course preps at three per year for the first three years. Preparing three new courses per year requires substantial labor in itself. Road-testing them to make sure they meet the students' needs as well in practice as in imagination is the kind of thing that ensures the prepared courses really are serving the needs of the department offering them. As well, limiting new preps while the new hire is getting immersed in the culture of the department is a reasonable way not to spread her too thin.

It may be that facts on the ground mean that the new hire will need to have more new course preps than this or else the department's needs will not be met. But for a candidate to recognize the labor involved in doing the job right should be an advantage, not a disadvantage, in meeting those needs.

The dance between search committees and candidates is complicated and emotionally fraught, each side trying to evaluate "fit" on the basis of necessarily incomplete information since many questions are only answered when the new hire actually succeeds or doesn't in meeting the particular needs in the particular circumstances. In the absence of a perfectly accurate view of the future, evaluating how well a candidate fills particular curricular needs, understands and can support the mission of the department, and will be able to pursue their individual goals (with respect to pedagogy, scholarship, professional development, work-life balance) in this environment requires honest communication on both sides.

Candidates should be honest about their long-range aspirations and should not pretend to be a good fit for a position if they are not. Search committees should be expansive in their recognition of the plurality of individual goals that probably fit with the department's needs. Both sides should understand that job candidates are frequently in a moment where they are legitimately poised between -- and open to -- different professional environments and trajectories, different people they could become within their professions.

It's suboptimal for a department when a candidate pretends to be a good fit and accepts a job merely to stave off unemployment until her dream job somewhere else comes along. By the same token, it's suboptimal for a candidate when a department cares only for its own needs rather than taking the candidate's individual needs into account.

A job candidate is not a mere means to fulfill your department's ends. Buyer's market or not, a job candidate should not be treated as a supplicant deserving of punishment for asking questions in good faith. A job candidate is your potential colleague. A job candidate to whom an offer of employment has been extended should be treated as your future colleague.

Punishing your future colleague for asking what kind of support is available for her professional endeavors (including her professional endeavors that directly address needs your department hopes to meet by hiring her) suggests there is something badly wrong with your understanding of your relationship with that future colleague. It suggests that you are OK with using her, and it probably doesn't bode well for your relationship with any new colleagues you manage to hire.

Whatever the facts on the ground may be, exploiting members of your professional community as mere means rather than recognizing them as legitimate ends in themselves is bad behavior -- the kind of behavior job candidates should not expect from hiring departments. If that's the relationship you expect to enact with your new faculty hire, you should at least have the decency to spell this out when you make an offer so job candidates will have no illusions about what it is you're offering.

(Crossposted at Academe Blog)

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Analyzing to avoid.

From the American Philosophical Association's Committee on the Status of Women report on CU-Boulder philosophy department, this paragraph on page 7 really jumped out at me:

The Department uses pseudo-philosophical analyses to avoid directly addressing the situation. Their faculty discussions revolve around the letter rather than the spirit of proposed regulations and standards. They spend too much time articulating (or trying to articulate) the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior instead of instilling higher expectations for professional behavior. They spend significant time time debating footnotes and "what if" scenarios instead of discussing what they want their department to look and feel like. In other words, they spend time figuring out how to get around regulations rather than focusing on how to make the department supportive of women and family-friendly.

(Bold emphasis in original.)

What the report is pointing to here is the chronic rules-lawyering, the looking for an exception to defeat any attempts at formulating useful descriptions, the valorization of the critical project to the exclusion of even a glance towards the positive project -- in short, the kind of stuff that makes people hate being around a certain kind of philosopher (or "skeptic," or debate team champion).

The complicated hypotheticals and counterfactuals and Devil's advocacy get in the way of acknowledging actual things happening to actual people and working out something like a strategy (even if it's an imperfect one) to change things so people don't have to experience that sort of bad thing so much going forward.

Also, maybe not coincidentally, such pseudo-philosophical analyses keep the people engaging in them in their comfort zone (framing arguments, looking for counterexamples) rather than making them do the uncomfortable work of changing how they treat each other.

We can do better than that.

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Bystanders won't always interpret you as charitably as I do.

I recently had occasion to chat with someone in my professional circle about a well-publicized case of a member of our field who is no longer employed in our field because of being a sexual harasser. Verily, I was anticipating that the extent of the chat would be, "Hey, how about that [now-famous-for-sexually-harassing dude]?" met with an eyeroll or an "Argh! That guy! Good riddance!"

And yet ...

My interlocutor somehow started along a path of harassing emails not being so bad, at least if the proper contrast class (physical assault) is considered, and from there we were off the path and into the weeds.

My best attempt at a charitable interpretation is that my interlocutor was trying to mount one of two arguments (or maybe both simultaneously):

1. That our professional field is no worse, when it comes to sexual harassment, than is the larger human community.

2. That sexual harassment in our field is not a sufficient condition for the truly dismal gender balance in our field, especially at the highest career levels.

And, you know, I'm actually inclined to accept both of these claims as true.

However, to (1) I must respond that "no worse than the larger human community" is a pretty low bar to set for one's professional community, especially when we hold ourselves to a much higher standard than that for things like analytic reasoning. And, to (2), I reckon that even if it's not sufficient to explain the relative lack of senior women in our field, being sexually harassed within our field before we make it to senior ranks sure doesn't help us want to stay.

But I'm not sure it matters that I could find a charitable interpretation for what my interlocutor was trying to do. Later, someone else who was in close proximity to our chat said to me, "Wow, that was really something, watching [my interlocutor] defend sexual harassment."

Perhaps this is one more reason colleagues like my interlocutor just aren't aware of all the harassment that happens to people in our field -- because they come off as minimizing or defending it, which doesn't make them a great choice as far as people in your field with whom you want to share that experience.

6 responses so far

Anonymous defenders of Colin McGinn don't care for feminism, apparently.

Jul 15 2013 Published by under Academia, Philosophy, Women and science

I do not know what it is about the train wreck of a comment thread on this post at the Philosophy Smoker that has rendered me unable to close the browser tab.

In addition to about 500% of the recommended daily allowance of Colin McGinn apologist nonsense (the build-up of which in one's organs cannot be good -- and sadly, the apologia is only sparingly soluble in ethanol) and the persistent difficulty in distinguishing continuing participants in the conversation from drive-by commenters (since the majority of the 200+ comments there are posted under the name "Anonymous"), it turns out there are people posting who have some issues with feminism.

Of course, it could just be one person (posting as "Anonymous") who has the issues, but in a discipline 80% of whose practitioners are male, that strikes me as unlikely … especially given what I've observed of philosophers in situ.

A selection from the comments (all bold emphasis added):
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SPSP 2013 Contributed Papers: Computation and Simulation

SPSP 2013 Contributed Papers: Computation and Simulation

Tweeted from the 4th biennial conference of the Society for Philosophy of Science in Practice in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on June 29, 2013, during Concurrent Sessions VII

  1. First up, Catherine Stinson, "Computational models as experimental systems" #SPSP2013 #SPSP2013Toronto

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SPSP 2013 Plenary session #4: Sergio Sismondo

SPSP 2013 Plenary session #4: Sergio Sismondo

Tweeted from the 4th biennial conference of the Society for Philosophy of Science in Practice in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on June 29, 2013.

  1. Last plenary of conference: Sergio Sismondo, "Toward a political economy of epistemic things," starts in ~10 min #SPSP2013 #SPSP2013Toronto
  2. Knowledge as a quasi-substance (takes work, resources to make; requires infrastructure; moves w/ difficulty) #SPSP2013 #SPSP2013Toronto

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SPSP 2013 Contributed Papers: Communities & Institutions: Objectivity, Equality, & Trust

SPSP 2013 Contributed Papers: Communities & Institutions: Objectivity, Equality, & Trust

Tweeted from the 4th biennial conference of the Society for Philosophy of Science in Practice in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on June 28, 2013, during Concurrent Sessions VI

  1. This was a session, by the way, in which it was necessary to confront my limitations as a conference live-tweeter. The session was in a room where the only available electrical outlets were at the front (where the speakers were), and my battery was rapidly running out of juice.  And my right shoulder was seizing up.  And I ended up in Twitter Jail (for "too many tweets today!" per Twitter's proprietary algorithm), which meant that the last chunk of tweets I composed for the second talk got pasted into a text file and tweeted hours later, while my notes for the third talk in the session went into my quad-ruled notebook.

    With multiple live-tweeters in a given session, this trifecta of fail (in my tweeting -- the session papers were a trifecta of good stuff!) would have been less traumatic for me.  But philosophers are not quite as keen to live-tweet as, say, ScienceOnline attendees ... yet.
    There was, however, a bit of backup!  Christine James was driving SPSP's shiny new Twitter account,   SocPhilSciPract, and she happened choose the same session of contributed papers to attend and to tweet.  She also tweeted some pictures.
  2. Continue Reading »

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