Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Category Archives: Professional Life


Georges de la Tour MagdaleneThe sorts of conversations that have been possible on this blog, and on the other places I’ve stumbled across since starting this site, have been more important to me than I can easily express. Online interactions can be difficult to navigate – misinterpretations are easier, conflicts can escalate more quickly, discussions can spiral in more negative directions, than similar face-to-face interactions. I’ve been active in online discussions of various sorts since back in bulletin board days, and so I have a fair sense of what can go wrong.

When I realised people were actually reading this blog, that conversations would be possible about my work here and at other sites, I wanted to see whether it were possible to incubate different sorts of interactions than I had had in the past – interactions where contention and debate could take place without the sometimes ugly spirals that can characterise online discussions. And I also wanted to escape some of the constraints of face-to-face discussions, to feel free to extend myself intellectually in ways that often aren’t possible in traditional institutional settings, to make an advantage out of some of the depersonalising elements of online discussion, in order to have conversations that can explore ideas in a way that separates those ideas more from the person who puts them forward, than is generally possible in face-to-face interaction. None of this is some sort of ideal of communication – I don’t think communication “ought” to be so abstracted from the personal – but it was the specific form of communication I was seeking out here, as a form of interaction less available – for me – in face-to-face settings.

I’ve discussed in earlier posts the reasons that, initially, I posted pseudonymously here and why, even when I decided to “out” my identity, I still didn’t use my first name, even though it was easy at that point for anyone to look it up: previous experience in online discussions had shown very clearly how quickly things could go in very ugly gendered directions – I wanted at least the buffer provided by gender not being immediately evident to drive-by visitors to the blog. To the extent this is ever possible, I hoped people might deal with my ideas, and not with “me”, unless we were having a discussion where something about my personal background was relevant. Again, I’m not stating an ideal here – not suggesting that this is what discussions “ought” to be, or that it’s inherently better to differentiate ideas from their bearers, or anything like that. I’m just describing what I see as a very personal motive for seeking out a very specific kind of interaction that is difficult to find elsewhere, where for a period I can worry much less about gendered interpersonal dynamics than I often can in everyday life.

Gender issues aside, I also made a decision, which perhaps I follow through on better at some points than others, to try not to take offence at the things people say or the way positions are articulated – to try to find the best point I can see, in whatever position I’m addressing, and respond to that. This doesn’t prevent miscommunication. Sometimes the best point I can see, still isn’t what the other person meant – sometimes other people are offended by what I intend to be a positive restatement of what I take them to be saying – things still go wrong. Generally, though, on balance, and with most people who have landed here, I hope I’ve been largely successful at communicating that I’m interested in taking other people seriously, in de-escalating and redirecting conversations that seem in danger of getting a bit heated, in having largely productive discussions, where it becomes possible – for me at least – to learn something from them. It’s what I’m looking for from blogging, and largely it’s what I’ve managed to find here.

Sometimes it fails spectacularly. One recent interaction – I won’t link to it, but have screenshotted it, blanking out the other person’s photo and identifying details. I stumbled across a blog referring to an event in which I participated recently. The post plugged the event, and then quoted some text from my blog, made fun of the complexity of my writing, and then asked a question about what I was trying to say. Part of what I mean, when I talk about trying to respond to the best point I can find in something, is that in general I seriously don’t take criticisms personally, even when they are voiced disrespectfully – and, if I’m going to respond, I address my comments to the substantive points raised, and generally aim for discussion, rather than for self-defence. So I responded; and the reply then consisted of this blogger’s description of the kind of sex he fantasised having with me (if folks care about this sort of thing in deciding whether to click through, it’s not a subtle comment).

My main reaction to this is a feeling of tired familiarity at how often exactly this sort of thing used to happen when I posted in discussions where my gender was more evident than it is here. There are some other complicating factors, which I won’t go into here, which make this incident less removed from my real world life than I would like. I don’t know what sort of discussion I’m looking to open, by posting about this… Incidents like this are depressing, in what they show about the ready-to-handness of this kind of behaviour. But I think what is striking me about this incident, is the way it reinforces something I’ve been feeling about publishing (as, of course, we all need to do) in settings other than the blog. Although this guy quoted some material from the blog, he knows my name – and therefore gender – from the conference program, where, along with all the other presenters, I spelled the name out in full. Every time I have provided details for a conference program or other material I knew would end up online, I’ve felt very conflicted over doing this, because it means that my full name now circulates, immediately gendering my work – taking away the possibility of the less pronouncedly gendered interactions that I’ve been able to cultivate online. I think I’ve been telling myself, as I hand over what should be this least personal of personal details, that I am being ridiculous – that I’m experiencing something as a loss, when nothing is really taken away. I think this incident stands out for me as an indication that I wasn’t entirely wrong – that something has been lost, and that a further level of anonymity – at least to casual readers – has been taken away.

The thing is, the way I’ve carved out a space here is, I know, a very apolitical response to a political problem – I’ve opened a level of freedom for myself by creating a small space of personal ambiguity, which has meant that it’s generally only the folks who stick around, who have some curiosity and interest in what I’m writing, who know much about me personally. This strategy doesn’t hit at the fundamentally political issue of how knowledge of the personal is wielded. So there’s a sense in which this sort of temporary shelter I’ve erected here has perhaps never been appropriate. But it has been more important to me than I can adequately explain to be able, for a time, in one part of my life, not to need to worry about such things…

We’ll see if I keep this post up 🙂 I’m not sure yet whether I’ll think better of it and take it down…

Europe in May/June – Suggestions?

I’ll be presenting to a conference in Rome in late May, and am hoping to be able to stay in Europe for at least a few weeks after. I hadn’t initially been certain this trip would happen – otherwise, I would have liked to put in proposals for other events. I’ll be at a point where it would be helpful to have opportunities to workshop thesis-related materials. Unfortunately, it’s a bit late to put in proposals to present to other events of which I’m aware. I’m not planning to spend the entire visit in Italy, but am trying to decide where else I might wander. That decision might boil down to whether there are interesting critical theory related events to sit in on, while I’m in the vicinity. If anyone knows of events that might be of interest, feel free to pass things on. (And, yes, in fact, critical theory events are actually what I do for leisure, even in Melbourne… ;-P)

Demanding Literature

Joseph Kugelmass has tagged me (cross-post at The Valve) to respond to a meme, explaining: Why do you teach literature?

I feel guilty about being tagged for this meme for several reasons. First, thinking of responding causes me to look back over my shoulder guiltily at Claude, whose own tag still somehow eludes me.

Second… perhaps a delicate matter… I… er… don’t teach literature – at least in the sense implied by the posts I’ve read thus far in the discussion, and by Joe’s tag itself, which mentions hoping to hear reflections about the value of teaching in the humanities… I am instead a lurker and reader of the blogs of those who teach literature and the humanities, parasitic on this community for intellectual stimulation, while I myself study and teach… sundry fields – often of the sort that would fall on the “social science” side of the line. As my lurking and, perhaps, writing habits indicate, I don’t place much stock in the social science/humanities divide, and don’t affiliate myself in a strong sense with any particular discipline. I’m nevertheless conscious that, unlike the other respondents to this meme, I have never formally taught a literature course (what happens informally… well, that’s another matter…).

Third, this meme has attracted some truly fantastic responses already, originating in the reflections posted at Reassigned Time, being born as a meme at Free Exchange on Campus, and then viralling its memetic tendrils through Citizen of Somewhere Else, A White Bear, and other sites, no doubt due to increase greatly in number in the near future. Very good discussions have broken out around these posts, and both the original posts and the comments are well worth a read. [Updated to add: Free Exchange on Campus is now maintaining a running archive of contributions.]

Fragonard The ReaderThese earlier posts, and those spiralling out from them, open onto a number of interesting questions about how we engage students with complex materials. Dr. Crazy from Reassigned Time opens the discussion with a reaction against an MLA panel whose justifications for teaching literature appeared too closely bound to the student populations and teaching loads of elite universities:

Those who make claims about why we teach literature often teach very little and teach to a very specific sort of student population; those who talk about trends in the discipline often have very little connection to the vast majority of practitioners within the discipline.

And then suggests the following reasons for teaching literature to a much more diverse range of students, in conditions in which much teaching follows a “consumer model of education”:

– to inspire curiosity;
– to disrupt the consumer model of education;
– to insist on complexity and fine distinctions for understanding the world;
– to give students a vocabulary for discussing things that are complex, which is ultimately about socializing them to talk, think, and feel in ways that allow them to be upwardly mobile; and
– to offer students a break from the other demands on their lives.

The Constructivist, from Citizen of Somewhere Else, discovers analogies between the teaching of literature and the coaching of golf, focussing on cultivating readers who are more attentive to themselves and to texts. The coaching metaphors allow The Constructivist to talk about the important limits of pedagogy:

I’m not trying to indoctrinate my students into what I consider to be the one best way of swinging a club, playing a hole, and thinking your way around a course. Sure, I’ll demonstrate a few shots, show them clips of how various golfers have played a given hole, and give them advice on playing a particular course. But I can’t play the game for them. What I can do is to try to give all my students the tools and the opportunities to practice making their own decisions on how, when, and why to play the game. Because I know from experience that each round of golf is different, even when played on the same course by the same person, I take for granted that every person is going to have their own experience on each reading of a literary text. That doesn’t mean they designed the course; it just means they’re following a fairly unique path around it. And it’s worth their time and effort to keep track of their path, compare it to others’, and reflect on the similarities and differences, not just to modify their techniques and strategies for the next round, but to get a better sense of the range of experiences and emotions golf offers, as well.

This limit, reflected upon, becomes a realm of possibility, a means for students to become aware of the intrinsically social character of our encounter with literature:

Reading is not just the personal and individual and private process of experiencing a text, it is also the social and collective and public process of sharing one’s experiences with others.

A White Bear comments on the need to break through her students’ orientation to texts as commodities, noting students’ tendencies to analyse texts as though reflecting on their potential mass audience commercial appeal, at the expense even of registering their own personal likes and dislikes:

To teach students to approach literature (and language and culture in general) as analysts, with a sense of history, and tools, and expertise, is to give them the power to think as individuals in the face of a large and difficult set of problems. It offers them a way out of obsessing about consensus and marketability. It leads them past the narcissism of personal taste. It makes them ask why things are the way they are and how they got that way. Who benefits? Who suffers? To read and think clearly is to see authors, characters, and even other possible readers not as an undifferentiated mass with spending power or cultural capital, but as individuals, with specific, often conflicting, desires and needs. Reading literature analytically is about making necessary distinctions and prudent, fruitful comparisons, maintaining difference where there is difference, and spotting a false note or an obfuscation for what it fails to represent.

Her post also offers the one-sentence version of this argument:

I teach literature in a desperate plea to my students not to be suckers.

Joseph Kugelmass offers some critical reflections on Dr. Crazy’s original post, pointing to a potential tension within the list above, between moments that attempt to disrupt the consumer model of education, and moments that would seem in some ways to reinforce the core assumptions of that model. Joe searches for a means to cultivate, through literature, a “social and empathic curiosity” through a pedagogical practice that aims explicitly to be impractical in both an economic and (narrowly understood) political sense, aimed squarely at any form of instrumentalisation of the teaching of literature. Joe seeks to open doors: his students must walk through them on their own. At the same time, he playfully appropriates A White Bear’s concept of “the sucker” to suggest the sort of disjoint he wants to achieve through this technique – knocking his students just slightly out of kilter with the straight plane of an instrumentally-oriented world:

A White Bear writes, very wittily, that she teaches in order to plead with her students not to be suckers. I do love the salty, healthy skepticism that aesthetic training provides. Nonetheless, I have to admit that most often books make readers look like suckers. They bore their friends with the details of character and plot. They buy tributary, explanatory books with annotations or critical essays. They name various things after books or parts of books, including cats, computers, and their personas on the Internet. Whenever a reader is acting most naturally, minus the solemnizing accessories of a leather chair and a study, she looks like a dreamer, a fool, or both. Yes, that’s what I teach. It’s not always dignified, but it’s irreplaceable.

These are wonderful reflections, and I’m unsure that I would find much to add, even if I were not a student of sundry fields, who spends much of my time teaching social science methodology and economics – with the occasional foray into planning theory as the closest approach to humanities subjects (and here under heavy duress to suppress the connections I do make to the humanities). Yet the concerns raised in the posts above do resonate for me – and not simply abstractly, but as matters of direct pedagogical urgency.

chimeraOne of the things I find myself thinking about often is a strange tension in at least the local variant of the consumer model of education. Courses should be “practical” – shouldn’t stray too far or fast from what is necessary to equip students for the professional demands of their careers. This position is justified with reference to the claim that the students are the consumers, and their demand drives toward greater and greater practicality and professional relevance for their coursework. This rationale, however, is a chimera. When students – undergraduate students – come to us, they do not know what their professions will demand of them, what it means for coursework to be “practical” in a professionally-relevant sense. They also don’t know what professions exist – or what sorts of work might be possible within the professions they have heard something about – and thus what sorts of “practices” might be relevant, somewhere, somewhen, in some professional space. They also don’t know what university is – what university “ought” to be. And they don’t know what they are – or what they might become, as possibilities are opened for them through their encounters with one another, with teachers, with texts, at university.

They learn the answers – or, perhaps more accurately, the boundaries or limits on the acceptable types of answers – largely from us. From their encounters with marketing materials, recruitment staff, orientation, the courses we require – and the courses we allow them to choose. We create our own consumers – whose constructed demands we then somehow manage to position as forces that exist outside of us, forms of domination to which we must comply. Of course, we don’t create our own consumers in a vacuum – given my own work, I can’t help but be aware of the pressures on students and universities alike to instrumentalise education in the service of employability, accountability, direct applicability in some professional sphere. When we start inflecting these complex structural pressures, however, in terms of some rhetoric of “consumer choice” – as though we are reacting to a “given” presented by the autonomous decisions of our students – we greatly diminish our appreciation for our own institutional agency in constituting, and in failing to engage critically with, certain forms of “demand”.

My classes, generally, are hard. They involve a great deal of reading and writing. The texts are not easy. The concepts are difficult. The students are often initially extremely sceptical, having been socialised (not least by their university experiences) to be distrustful of anything too “academic”. This reaction, though, isn’t fixed and frozen, as suggested by the model of “consumer driven” education. The course itself transforms the nature of student expectations and demands – not for all students, of course, but for a significant number. How much more might this be possible – and how many new and interesting “demands” might our “consumers” place upon us – if more opportunities for such exploration were built in to the curriculum? I’m not sure if this exactly answers the question posed, but these concerns certainly do shape how I teach – which is with an eye to opening possibilities that students could not otherwise encounter, outside the confrontation with difficult material, taught in a way that attempts to demystify this difficulty, and in the process show students something about themselves and their world that they could not have dreamt without at least a bit of… philosophy…

Okay. I think I’m supposed to tag people now… ;-P Not sure whom to tap. Nate, Wildly, the folks at Perverse Egalitarianism (do you count as more than one? or do you get out of this entirely, since you write so often and so well on pedagogical issues?), ZaPaper, and – can I tap someone who doesn’t have a blog? – would perhaps rob be willing to comment on this?

[Note: images from Wikipedia, with original sources linked above.]

Hobart Roundup

The conference just finished, with the final day including: some excellent presentations (as in all other days of the conference); an AGM for the Australasian Society for Continental Philosophy, which has existed as an informal organisation for some years, but which is this year incorporating itself as a formal body, which led to some interesting organisational discussions; and a fantastic, provocative closing panel on the future of continental philosophy that, for an interloper like me, was incredibly useful, quite aside from the issues officially being debated, in providing background information on the history and institutional organisation of philosophy in Australian universities.

I found myself sketching a number of notes during the final day in particular, relating to how to explain “what I do” in terms that might be intelligible to other people (of course, this just means that I’ll get back to Melbourne, try to talk to a sociologist, and find that now I’m making no sense to that discipline… ;-P). It’s a funny feature of a conference like this, how much it makes me feel like a sociologist – at the same time as I enjoy and believe that I follow the papers and the discussion, I inevitably find myself wincing at how “sociological” my own material sounds compared to anything else I was hearing. If I were attending a sociology conference, of course, I’d be feeling like a philosopher or an historian… Such is interdisciplinary life…

I was amused to find myself fielding the following questions over and over again at the conference:

First, when people learned we were presenting on Brandom (and assuming the reaction to this wasn’t “who?”), the question was: “Are you presenting on the big book?” Answer: yes, indeed, we read the big book – and, in fact, have also read the “little” book, which, for some currently unreconstructable reason, motivated us to tackle the big book… Unfortunately, I also read what appears to be the unknown book, at least to most folks attending this conference – but only after we had presented our paper (for some reason, this struck me as a logical form of leisure activity after the presentation – don’t ask…). In that book, I found what seems to be a relatively clear answer to some of the questions LM and I had been debating with one another before our presentation, debates which led to much last-minute revising on both our parts, in the hope of being a bit clearer about what we weren’t certain we yet understood. This whole experience suggests to me that, next time around, I should perhaps try to read, not only the “big” book, but indeed all the books, before scoping a presentation topic… ;-P

I should also note that L Magee seemed somewhat displeased by my efforts to reassure people that the “big” book perhaps wasn’t quite as difficult as it seems on first glance: some first impressions, apparently, are best left undeconstructed… ;-P

The second question we consistently received – more of a startled observation, really – came bursting out when people learned where we’re currently studying: “Really?! I didn’t know they had a philosophy department!” *shuffle shuffle* Yes, well… There might be a reason for that…

Onto other topics:

For those wanting something substantive to read, Nate has a question up at what in the hell…, which relates to how “my” Marx – the Marx I’m claiming becomes an immanent, reflexive critical theorist – maps onto more standard periodisations used in Marx scholarship: assuming that it’s plausible to think of Marx as an immanent reflexive critical theorist (which, I realise, some readers may find to require a bigger leap than others), is this interpretation something that can be plausibly applied to his entire corpus? If not, when did his work begin to express recognisably immanent reflexive characteristics? When did his work most completely express these characteristics? How would this map on to other ways of interpreting the periodisation of Marx’s corpus?

I’m very tired at the moment and, tiredness aside, I’m not sure my answer to this question is as “strong” as it perhaps should be. I’m comfortable reading the first volume of Capital as an immanent reflexive critique in the sense in which I use this term. I see some aspects of Capital as critical of some earlier positions Marx would have held – as a sort of self-diagnosis or self-critique, of what I think Marx comes to characterise as insufficiently historicised positions. So I see him as retaining a great deal from his earlier work, but only by transforming it into a much more historically specified perspective made available immanently within the context he is criticising.

I tend to see the Grundrisse as a major transition point, where Marx shifts to a more explicitly immanent perspective – but I’m not an expert on the evolution of Marx’s thought, and so this is an impressionistic position. There are moments in earlier works that are very consistent with what Marx does in Capital. There are also, just to keep things interesting, moments in Capital that aren’t consistent with what I’m claiming Marx is doing in Capital. I tend to read these moments as eddies in and around a main argumentative current – and to interpret them variously as vestiges of earlier positions (Marx often lifts passages from earlier works into Capital – sometimes, I think, being so fond of a formulation that he doesn’t fully reconsider how it might need to be worked to be adequate to its transplanted context), or incautious polemical statements, or conjunctural passages where Marx seems to have a very specific context in mind, without explicitly marking that context. Of course, it also doesn’t necessarily trouble me that there should be inconsistencies: I’m trying to explore what the work can suggest about a particular potential for theoretical work, rather than claiming perfection or completion in the realisation of this potential.

I haven’t done sufficient work to feel confident about what I think Marx does after publishing the first volume of Capital. I read the second and third volumes as compatible with the way I read volume one, although the incomplete nature of these works means that the sort of careful textual unfolding I’ve been doing with the first volume, wouldn’t be able to proceed in exactly the same way: the form of presentation is muddier, as are a number of substantive theoretical issues. Marx spends his final years doing intensive anthropological studies, and it would be extremely interesting to look into whether any of that reacts back on what he then thought would be required for an adequate critical theory – but this issue remains something that I’m curious about, but have never looked into directly.

Apologies for not being more coherent on this – it’s hitting me as I type how tired I am from the conference. Time, I think, for me to go play in Hobart, and let others say what they think about this question.

“Mainstreaming” Academic Blogging

I have all kinds of responses owing to various people – apologies for this: I’m booked absolutely to the gills this week, conducting field interviews for a community development project, and then involved in an annual planning process within my university. I really do want to pick up on the various hanging threads, but may not find the time to do this for several days.

Evidently, I don’t believe that my comment debt has grown large enough, however, because I did want to toss up one new question for consideration. I just received this from my university:

The project we’re working on is an amalgamation of current blogs produced by academics into a best of the best style tumblelog ( that can work as a place where people can see the ideas coming out of the University.

This is the first step in creating an atmosphere of blogging throughout the University to help build a community based around academic thought and its relationship to the world. It will help to build a reputation … as a place for experts.

This is an achievable goal but only with your participation.

In this first stage, the tumblelog will link directly to existing blogs and feature posts from those blogs as they are updated.

My impulse, I have to admit, is to decline to participate in this project. I feel somewhat perverse in saying this, as I’ve put some effort into promoting the concept of academic blogging within the university, and defending the potentials of the medium for serious intellectual exchange. I have no idea how widely read my blog is within the university, but most people who know me, have probably heard that I maintain an academic and a course blog. So it’s not as though I’ve kept the blog secret, or assumed that what I write here would have no ramifications for my professional work. I think it’s generally a good thing that blogging become accepted as a potential medium for serious intellectual exchange, and I personally use blogging to try out most of the concepts I later use in more formal work. All of this suggests, I suppose, that I should be comfortable with the idea that my posts might be syndicated through something like the project above.

Strangely, though, I’m finding myself having a negative reaction to this request.

A large part of what makes blogging valuable to me is precisely that difference in style, tone and content that differentiates it from other forms of academic writing. And I find myself wondering how that difference in style, tone and content meshes with the notion that the blogs of university academics will somehow showcase the university as “a place for experts”. Something about this formulation sits very poorly with how I understand blogging – which, among many other things, I value for its (occasional and partial, but still important) puncturing of claims to expertise. And not simply due to the risk that someone might leap from the ether with some kind of devastating critique, but also because the sort of intellectual production that takes place via blogging is often raw, and dynamic, and strangely collective in extremely complex ways – my felt experience of blogging, and my personal motivation for persisting with the medium as a major medium for my intellectual work, don’t mesh well with the notion, tacit in the formulation above, that blogs might be a means for experts to disseminate their views to a broader (passive?) audience.

I may be over-emphasising the focus on expertise in the invitation above – this may be more of a throwaway line, with unfortunate unintended connotations.

I am curious, though: how are other people struck by this notion? Would other bloggers be happy for their posts to be syndicated on a university-branded site? What impacts would you expect such a formalised syndication arrangement to have on your writing? What problems – and what benefits – would you anticipate?

Do You Believe in Me?

Via Acephalous: my author function has been analysed! Critical Theory and the Academy, a course blog that provides the nucleus for several student blogs that explore major themes in critical theory, has assigned the following task this week:

First, you will discuss a specific point in Barthes’s “The Death of the Author” or Foucault’s “What is an Author?”. Second, you will venture out into blogworld, find a post on an academic/theory blog that discusses authorship (the author function in literature, blog authorship, pseudonymity, etc.) in some way, link to the post in your post, and offer commentary on the linked-to post. You may handle this in one long post or in two separate posts.

Ozzman5150 finds inspiration for this assignment at Rough Theory. After an extended discussion of the concept of the “author function”, Ozzman suggests:

The second part of the assignment for this week was to find a blog from the internet on the idea of what an author is or what makes an author. I did some research and I think that I found one right from the main page of Dr. Mcguire’s blog. The blog is titled Rough Theory and I think that it provides some good insight on the idea of what an author is. I think that this blog makes some assumptions as to the ideas of what an author is and how it helps to shape our understanding of the “author function” and texts. This blog seems to hint through various posts that the author is more a work of fiction rather than acting as a function from which we can better understand the texts that we come across.

Over at Acephalous, Scott Eric Kaufman concurs:

One student insists N. Pepperell’s fictional, and I’m inclined to agree. No actual person could write that much that quickly and remain sane.

So, now I really must know: how many of my readers truly believe that “N. Pepperell” is, as Ryan/Aless might put it, “a real (material, historical) person”?

Read more of this post

No More Teachers…

Final day of my teaching year!!! Well, not quite – my postgrads have decided I should come back and teach one final session in the pub during the break. And I’m supervising an Honours thesis. And I have piles of marking still to do. And somehow I’ve let myself be talked into doing a few days of interview work for a community group. And people are already queuing up, asking whether, now that the term is coming to an end, I can’t give them just a brief bit of my time. And I shudder to think the number of things I’ve committed to write over the “break”. But still – ahhhhh, to have a relatively open schedule into which I can pour these various commitments – I floated home from work this evening.

The “break” begins for me with a quick trip to Macquarie University this coming week, for the Recognition and Work conference. I’m not doing anything meaningful at this event – just lurking and… er… trying neither to work nor to be recognised. Actually, to be honest, I’ll be taking lots of work up with me – mainly for a paper on Brandom and Habermas intended for the ASCP conference later in the year. And, if anyone is planning to be at the conference next week and wants to catch up for a coffee, I might compromise on the not being recognised part too… Not sure what the net access situation will be up there – if I’m able, I’ll try to blog some of the sessions.

When I Upgrade, I Want to Be…

I’ve been doing a lot of writing recently, mostly on a laptop that I cart around and perch precariously on my knees while I sit in various ergonomically-dubious positions. Today, my son walked up, wanting to sit on my lap. He expressed this by saying: “Could I be a laptop now, please?”

ouch, ouch, ouch…

Gender and the Culture of Academic Philosophy

Rushing, and unfortunately I don’t have time to write on this in detail at the moment, but I wanted to point those who hadn’t yet seen it to Sally Haslanger’s piece “Changing the Ideology and Culture of Philosophy: Not by Reason (Alone)”, which begins:

There is a deep well of rage inside of me. Rage about how I as an individual have been treated in philosophy; rage about how others I know have been treated; and rage about the conditions that I’m sure affect many women and minorities in philosophy, and have caused many others to leave. Most of the time I suppress this rage and keep it sealed away. Until I came to MIT in 1998, I was in a constant dialogue with myself about whether to quit philosophy, even give up tenure, to do something else. In spite of my deep love for philosophy, it just didn’t seem worth it. And I am one of the very lucky ones. One of the ones who has been successful by the dominant standards of the profession. Whatever the numbers say about women and minorities in philosophy, numbers don’t begin to tell the story. Things may be getting better in some contexts, but they are far from acceptable. (from the online version posted here – final published piece in Hypatia Spring 2008)

She continues:

Why there aren’t more women of my cohort in philosophy? Because there were very few of us and there was a lot of outright discrimination. I think a lot of philosophers aren’t aware of what women in the profession deal with, so let me give some examples. In my year at Berkeley and in the two years ahead of me and two years behind me, there was only one woman each year in a class of 8-10. The women in the two years ahead of me and the two years behind me dropped out, so I was the only woman left in five consecutive classes. In graduate school I was told by one of my teachers that he had “never seen a first rate woman philosophy and never expected to because women were incapable of having seminal ideas.” I was the butt of jokes when I received a distinction on my prelims, since it seemed funny to everyone to suggest I should get a blood test to determine if I was really a woman. In a seminar in philosophical logic, I was asked to give a presentation on a historical figure when none of the other (male) students were, later to learn that this was because the professor assumed I’d be writing a thesis on the history of philosophy. When I was at Penn as a junior faculty member and told a senior colleague that I was going to be married (to another philosopher, Stephen Yablo, then at UM), his response was, “Oh, I’m so sorry we’ll be losing you.” This was in 1989.

I’ve written here before about the frank discussions people feel comfortable having in front of me about whether “young women” – especially “young mothers” – can handle this or that position for which I’m being considered. I’ve been getting the “are you really female” jokes (or the simple declarative: “you aren’t really female”) since I was a young child. In my previous program, I found myself continuously having to explain that being female, and having theoretical interests, did not mean that I considered myself a “feminist theorist”: people kept asking whether, instead of working on whatever I was trying to work on, I wouldn’t rather “do something about women” instead. At any rate – not enough time to discuss this properly now, and the topic tends to evoke non-productive fury. I’ll leave it here for the moment: go read the article and the discussions, which will be more useful than what I would rant about right now…

The discussions at Inside Higher Education, Lumpenprofessoriat, and Crooked Timber are also worth a look.

A Friend in Need

Naive netiquette question. I have a Facebook account, which I don’t use (I created it some months back for some specific reason I have now forgotten, but which didn’t involve an intention of using the account actively for the near future). I occasionally glance in to look at some of the discussions about my university, but have generally avoided learning much about the whole thing because, frankly, I have well and truly exceeded my personal quota of opportunities for online distraction for the foreseeable future. (I need something like a carbon trading scheme for units of online procrastination: disciplined people could fund their dissertations by trading their unused procrastination credits – they’d probably finish sooner and live more comfortably during their write-up – and so would the procrastinators!, having been appropriately incentivised to ration their procrastinatory impulses. Can everyone tell I’ve been sick and am still slightly delirious?)

At any rate, one consequence of not having paid any particular attention to Facebook is that I have no real idea of the internal norms and etiquette within the system. This morning, I got an email letting me know that a student has added me as a “friend”. Since I have hitherto remained friendless in Facebook, and am therefore actually reading the boilerplate text on notification mails, I noted with some amusement that Facebook: “need[s] you to confirm that you are, in fact, friends with [x].”

My question is this: is it normal for students to add faculty to their “friends”? Is it normal for faculty to confirm that they are, in fact, “friends”? I normally follow an expansive “when in Rome” policy on such things – in this case, though, I haven’t read the travel guide. Perhaps more Facebook-active folks can give me a sense of their experiences?