“Good Practices”

by Daniel A. Kaufman

____

I am mostly out of the philosophy profession and have been for several years now, so but for Justin Weinberg and his Daily Nous, I would be unaware of the vital goings-on of professional philosophy’s Bright Young Things and their fellow travelers. I would have never have known, for example, of the landmark White Paper that was issued several years ago or that Kukla, Fran, and Ollie had been non-consensually co-platformed by the Institute of Art and Ideas. I might have remained ignorant of the fact that Jason Stanley expects his work to retain its influence for at least 200 years (and likely more), and I certainly never would have known that innocent-appearing, middle-aged, lesbian philosopher Kathleen Stock is in fact a terrible menace to the health and safety of transgender philosophers everywhere.

And now, once again, dispatches from Weinbergia have saved me from not knowing about Important Developments in the Profession: this time, a “Good Practices” guide for professional philosophy to increase “diversity” that has been released in a series of drafts, produced by the Demographics in Philosophy Project, and which “draws on ‘good practices’ material from the American Philosophical Association (APA), the Society for Women in Philosophy (SWIP), the British Philosophical Association (BPA), and the University of Oxford, among others.” [1]

My stomach churned a little when I saw that Sally Haslanger was involved. This is the person who tried to use her influence and position to pressure Notre Dame Philosophy Reviews to “revisit their standards” for publishing a book review by then-Professor Stock (i.e. prior to Stock having been driven out of her job at the University of Sussex by activists), so I found her a surprising choice of advisor for this guide, as appreciating diversity doesn’t seem to be Haslanger’s thing. But Eric Schwitzgebel, one of the project directors, looks a decent, tolerant man, so I told the old bowels to check themselves and determined to carry on.

I started writing when only three installments were available and wondered whether I should wait for the entire thing to be released, but after a quick glance through what was there, I decided against it. You see, I’ve embarked on a much-needed self-care regimen, and the amount of stupid in just two of these documents is more than I would ask even my worst enemy to endure. And as it will have no impact on anything anywhere anytime — much like the aforementioned “White Paper” — the Guide is little more than an elaborate, albeit useless bit of performance, somewhat reminiscent of this recent Spectacular at the European Parliament, except of course for the fact that the authors are not 14 years old.

Trouble appears along multiple vectors. Some of the guidances read as if they were written by people with no experience or understanding of university administration and management whatsoever (or teaching, for that matter). [2] Others insult and diminish the people on whose behalf they allegedly are being promoted. In numerous places, the guidances are sufficiently mutually contradictory to induce a kind of mental whiplash. And throughout, we are told that the purpose of all of this is to address, resist, combat, and eliminate the pernicious influence of “implicit bias,” the science of which the writers seem unaware already has been discredited. For years. [3]

One guidance, #10b from the document on hiring and tenure/promotion — “Support mentoring and provide support networks for people you hire from underrepresented groups” — reminds me of when I first arrived at [then Southwest] Missouri State in 1999 and was taken around to “meet the Jews,” under similar auspices. This is a terrible idea, of course, and if you are unsure, just replace ‘Jews’ with ‘blacks’, read it out loud, and see how it sounds. Related guidances suggest that being black or a woman or gay is akin to being mentally and physically disabled, as well as meaning that one is impoverished and undistinguished, as in #2c from the guide on Hiring, which says, “When asking diversity officers and members of underrepresented groups to take on these roles, consider relieving them of correspondingly difficult committee-related obligations or otherwise compensate them for their efforts” and #8a, which reminds us that “being a member of an underrepresented group in philosophy can require additional labor, burdens, stressors, and expectations.” Along the same lines, #3L from the section on conferences recommends that “When possible, offer funding to members of underrepresented groups and those with specialized needs,” as “Underrepresented groups may well be at lower-prestige institutions and/or in lower-ranked jobs.”

Confusions and logical contortions regarding racial and other minorities run throughout the document. Guidances repeatedly maintain that “good practices” require prioritizing, centering, incentivizing, showcasing, promoting, supporting, advocating, etc., individuals by virtue of their being members of “marginalized” and “underrepresented” groups, but then also tell us that we should “treat students as individuals and not as representatives of a category” (#5, under “Teaching”) and that “the presence of underrepresented groups on [a committee] on its own will not correct for bias.” (Guidance #2b, under “Hiring.”) Meanwhile, in a dramatic split with the Standpoint Epistemology crowd, we are told that despite the fact that we must increase the representation of people from marginalized and underrepresented groups in our classes and faculty rosters, we should “not assume that the person’s place of origin … makes them an expert on that particular place.” (Guidance #5 under “Teaching.”) Any poor soul who manages to make his or her way through the Guide’s numerous instructions and recommendations, broken down into sub- and sub-sub categories in seemingly endless numbered lists, besides wanting to jump off the roof, will find that the reasons for increasing “diversity” in the University have become less comprehensible, rather than more.

A lack of institutional understanding and awareness, as well as legal illiteracy and clueless privilege are pervasive. We are told that we should consider “requiring diversity statements” despite the fact that such requirements are clearly and demonstrably unlawful. [4] We should “ensure that all aspects of the class are accessible to everyone – for instance, that classrooms are big enough and accessible by wheelchair, that there are captions in videos, that extra time and private rooms are available for students that need them during exams” (#9), as if faculty or even department heads have any control over what rooms are in the buildings they work in or what accommodations those rooms include. (We don’t.) Guidances are offered regarding hiring and tenure and promotion policies — as they are in 2, 7, 8,  9, 13, and more in the guide on Hiring — that are typically not within a faculty’s or department head’s jurisdiction (and certainly not solely within it) but are largely determined by upper administration, Human Resource, and Equity and Diversity officers. Only places with graduate programs and a lot of money can “consider creating post-docs aimed at recruiting philosophers from underrepresented groups or philosophers who work in underrepresented areas of philosophy,” as we are told to do in #5 (and again, only with the blessing and support of upper administration). And finally, faculty are instructed to be “mindful of [our] body language and what it signals” (#2E, under “Conferences”), while institutions are advised to “adopt a consistent approach to handling private letters and conversations, outside the normal review process” (#3, under “Tenure and Promotion”), as if this sort of micromanagement of people’s bodily movements and personal interactions and correspondences was either possible or desirable. (It is neither.)

Who knows what will become of the Guide, though as already mentioned, I suspect it will go the way of the ignominious and ultimately ignored “White Paper,” as its guidances are equally unworkable, unethical, and hubristic. It’s funny — and a little depressing — that such ostensibly bright people continue to engage in these kinds of performances, but it is what it is, I guess.

Notes

[1] https://dailynous.com/2022/05/11/seeking-feedback-on-good-practices-guide-part-2/

https://dailynous.com/2022/05/12/seeking-feedback-on-good-practices-guide-part-3/

[2] I have been a Department Head, chaired and served on more hiring and tenure/promotion committees than I can count, as well as having served multiple terms on Faculty Senate, College Council, and other university governing bodies. As for teaching, I have been doing it at the university level for thirty years, now.

[3] https://wires.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1002/wcs.1569

[4] https://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2021/10/diversity-statements-again-this-time-in-phd-admissions.html

10 thoughts on ““Good Practices”

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  1. Perhaps above all the raft of indignities and confusions you correctly point out, the good practices guide has one overarching defect: it’s aimed at managing a symptom, not at curing the disease making the symptoms appear.

    This is precisely what makes it the (mere) performance you observe. Count it as another manifestation of the technocratic-managerial tendency in academia to proliferate administrative organs, trainings, and para-educational programs in response to perceived problems. This metastatic response is advertised as problem-solving but in fact works only to make it look like something is being done, in order to satisfy the unquestioned needs of the customers academia has little choice but to pander to.

    If diversity by any relevant definition is desirable in philosophy, and if the pajama class were truly committed to such diversity, they would direct their energies away from these self-congratulatory branding exercises and toward the on-the-ground material and political changes needed to get a real diversity of elementary, junior high, and high school children into philosophy and to make it possible for them to remain there if they wish.

  2. Thanks for posting Dan. Well, the folks involved are clearly upset by the lack of black philosophy majors and graduate students. As the other commenter notes, this problem is not going to be resolved or addressed at the university level, and it’s surprising they don’t seem to see that.

    Here in Seattle, about every five years or so, they hire another superintendent who is steadfast in his commitment to “close the achievement gap”. After a few years, when it becomes clear the gap has not budged, he/she fades away, and the Seattle Times announces a new arrival with great fanfare and identical aspirations. After years (decades) of bad news, the schools simply quit providing data about the gap, but the superintendent is still under tremendous pressure.

    https://www.seattletimes.com/education-lab/seattle-public-schools-has-a-new-performance-report-the-achievement-gap-isnt-part-of-it/

    When I go over to the University of Washington, I just don’t see many black students. And, as with California, when they scaled back affirmative action, the number of Asian students went way up. I don’t have a solution to offer (and no one else seems to either). If you are out on the left like Haslanger, it is clearly white people’s fault and some serious finger wagging (and “good practices”) is called for. If you are on the right like Glenn Loury and John McWhorter, the need is for a cultural change in the community. I lean toward the latter view, but I don’t know how you can bring about any substantive change, And, as such, I regard these “manifestos” as just so much hand waving

  3. I am not a philosophy professional. Having admitted this, I also attest to what I have been reading of so-cAlled good practices. My beef with those is not that they are wrong, no. I will contend they are merely no more effective than earlier efforts to sensitive and ‘train’ people to leave others alone and stifle libidinous impulses—especially in the workplace. Corrective measures did little, even in the days of the ERIC’s now-forgotten(?) guidelines. You can sensitive and train people, until the cows come home. Many, if not most of them will nod and wink—and keep doing what they want to do. Desire, you see. It is highly propositional. That is neither a pun, nor a double entendre. It is a last-century notion of a professional philosopher.

  4. Dear Prof. Kaufman,

    Apologies if you’ve already written about this, but I’d be very interested in a post discussing your thoughts on the value of philosophy, and perhaps a reflection on your philosophical career.

    I know you’ve discussed your philosophical and meta-philosophical views elsewhere (e.g., your “prolegomena” and recent “what can philosophy actually do” video.) But I’m left wondering whether you think philosophy is actually *worth doing*.

    I have some Wittgenstein-influenced colleagues who view their initial attraction to philosophy as a kind of mistake or illusion. Originally they thought philosophy was capable of XYZ, but now they view most of it as badly-written, poorly-informed (scientifically, artistically, culturally), and unpersuasive. Overall they’ve developed the attitude that the sciences, arts, literature, poetry, history, etc. have more to offer in terms of practical, theoretical, and aesthetic value. On the other hand, I know some Wittgensteinians who at least think that philosophy (when done well) can provide useful conceptual clarifications for non-philosophers. Perhaps PMS Hacker’s criticisms of neuroscientists is an example of this.

    So I’m curious how you’d describe your attitude towards philosophy and your own choice to pursue a career in the field. When you see the ridiculous antics of current philosophers, do you lament the decline of a once-great discipline? Do you think it was never that great to begin with? Are you glad you pursued a career in philosophy? Do you wish you had pursued another field instead?

    Sorry again if you feel you’ve already covered this.

    1. Yes, I do think it is worth doing, but I think (a) there should be a lot less of it; (b) the balance between technical and more literary work should be more even.

      I think philosophy is essentially conceptual analysis, employing a number of distinctive, though relatively narrow tools. I view it as primarily a critical modality, and not one all that well suited to establishing substantive positions.

  5. Dan, I think you deservedly hit a nail on the head here: “Any poor soul who manages to make his or her way through the Guide’s numerous instructions and recommendations, broken down into sub- and sub-sub categories in seemingly endless numbered lists, besides wanting to jump off the roof, will find that the reasons for increasing “diversity” in the University have become less comprehensible, rather than more.”

    You know that I often do support such diversity initiatives, or at least as in this case I am ambivalent about them. But, one thing to note – and you note it here – is that folks rarely reflect on the purposes of the diversity they want to seek. There are several possible purposes, and getting clear on the purposes also helps one select the means and metrics one will use to achieve the diversity. Also, certain purposes potentially conflict with one another.

    For instance, one could want to increase diversity of minorities in academia (a) as a barometer that one’s procedures (selection, promotion, tenure) are fair; (b) as a way to increase representation of viewpoints that homogeneous departments might lack, (c) for purely aesthetic or ‘cosmopolitan’ reasons, or (d) because you see diversity as an intrinsic good that need not be defended instrumentally.

    All four of those are different goals, and my experience has been that folks wanting to increase diversity sometimes oscillate between them. But think about just (a) and (b). (B) almost by its nature (and also maybe (c)) means that you will NOT go on to treat individual as individuals, because your desire to increase representaiton of different groups ties that representatiaon to viewpoint. (Can’t have a black candidate who doesn’t have a “black voice!’) That is not a concern that (a) or (d) might not necessarily have.

    So, what you say is completely conceivable: if the university doesn’t know what purpose(s) they have for increasing diversity, they will likely generate lists of means that will be confused and send those trying to follow them scrambling in different and thankles directions.

  6. What you are writing about also seems to be a great example of what Martha Minow calls a dilemma of difference. This is an idea I expose my Intro to Diversity students to because I think it is useful as hell, especially because Minow doesn’t try to resolve the dilemma; she just notes is status as a dilemma.

    The dilemma is that when there is some difference between folks that seems salient, we can either (a) try to overlook it in the name of treating everyone equally, or (b) allow it to influence how we treat others in the name of accomodating difference. In some cases – treating short colleagues the same as tall ones in department meetings – (a) is the obvious winner. In other cases – refusing to slow my speech down so that my deaf colleague can lip-read – (b) is the obvious winner. But in a good many cases, things are trickier and really, there are costs and benefits to each approach. IF, say, black colleagues face challenges that white colleagues don’t, trying to accomodate for those challenges might be good, but it comes at the cost of ‘reducing’ black colleagues even further to BLACK colleaguues rather than.. colleagues. On the other hand, not accomodating for those possible hurdles risks ignoring potentially real (and maybe to them, important) differences between them and their white colleagues.

    What I appreciate about Minow is that she gives us a really useful way to think about why these dilemmas are often quite hard, and how to think about them. But she doesn’t really give us “an” answer. Because different answers yield different costs and benefits, and different people (even within the ‘marginalized’ group) might themselves prefer different courses.

    1. Seems to me people used to know how to go to work without all this administrative detritus. It’s hard for me to believe that serious, grown people who have actually been employed produce these sorts of guidlelines.

      Like so many other things, all that this sort of stuff does is produce contempt for the target population, though everyone may lie about it.

      1. I think some administrative oversights can be useful in correcting (at the system level) for biases and the like that come from the informalism of “the way things used to be.” But, the flipside is that admin is often best at doing whatever satisfies and perpetuates admin, and that isn’t alway useful toward what is being administrated. It can also generate counter-productive practices, as when diversity initiiatives inadvertently perpetuate whatever stigmas they were trying to reduce.

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