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Land-grant universities can reinvigorate philosophy's focus on societal challenges (essay)

In recent years, we’ve seen a surge of articles, essays and blog posts by professional philosophers on the future of philosophy. While it isn’t surprising that people who reflect professionally would reflect on the future of their profession, this surge is symptomatic of a deeper anxiety that some philosophers, and many humanists, have felt in the modern, outcome-oriented academy.

Some of the reflections are more conservative, defending the status quo and arguing that philosophy is just as strong, if not stronger, than it ever was (e.g., Scott Soames, “Philosophy’s True Home”). Others are more progressive, contending that the profession must be diversified if it is to be capable of responding to the complex challenges of a pluralistic world (e.g., Minna Salami, “Philosophy has to be about more than just white men”).

Such anxieties are not unfounded. The university’s role in a globally interconnected world is changing, and we need to be responsive to that change. Without sustained, intentional efforts to engage the challenges of a global public, philosophy will languish.

In a New York Times essay, Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle argue that philosophy as an endeavor lost its way when, in an effort to be integrated into the modern research university, it sought to establish itself as a specialized discipline alongside other disciplines. Although controversial, their position rightly identifies a source of philosophy’s current crisis: to turn inward to disciplinary concerns is to turn away from the questions that the world asks of us.

Before its emergence as a department within the modern research institution, philosophy had in fact long been deeply engaged with the world. At its heart, philosophy is a broad human activity requiring a heightened attunement to the environment we inhabit and a cultivated ability to respond to complexity with nuance and a sense for what is just. If it sacrificed this broader scope of concern as a price of legitimacy in the modern research university, then the “purified” discipline of philosophy was indeed significantly different from the embedded practice of gadflies and other lovers of wisdom. Philosophy, disciplined in this way, is not well positioned to live up to the public commitments it has embodied from its earliest beginnings.

But not all modern research universities are the same. Consider, in particular, how philosophy has taken root in the American land-grant universities that emerged in the 19th century to provide all citizens with access to higher education, democratizing an institution that had been available only to a select few. The land-grant mission directs all of higher education, including philosophy, to the lived realities of the world, emphasizing our shared responsibility to support citizen leaders in grappling with difficult challenges from a diversity of perspectives.

To the extent that philosophy lost its way by turning inward, perhaps it can find its way again in the contemporary public land-grant university by returning to an outward focus that addresses the most complex and intractable challenges of our time. Unlike traditional research universities or, for that matter, liberal arts colleges and other four-year institutions, land-grant universities are charged with the responsibility of reaching out to their states and to the broader regions in which they are situated. Further, they maintain statewide extension networks that support the flow of knowledge and information with the public.

In this context, philosophy can draw on its deepest historical roots as a publicly engaged activity while cultivating the synthesis of a wide range of disciplinary perspectives. Our vision of a philosophy at home in the public land-grant university requires the disciplinary pursuit of a progressive research agenda that emphasizes democratic and inclusive public engagement with real-world issues, such as food security, climate change and environmental justice.

To speak of the disciplinary pursuit of a progressive, inclusive and democratic research agenda is to affirm both the theoretical (and often esoteric) accomplishments of philosophy as an academic discipline and the imperative to be responsive to the world we share. It is a call for an engaged philosophy that recognizes that theory is best informed by practice and that practice is always enriched by theory -- such that the segregation of the two always results in the impoverishment of both.

So understood, engaged philosophy is different from a common conception of applied philosophy, according to which one works out the theory in isolation from the messiness of the real world into which it is then deployed. This conception encourages the antidemocratic view that academic philosophers work out solutions on their own and then merely deliver them to the masses; it is a renunciation of the dialogue that enriches the work. By contrast, engaged philosophy emphasizes the coordination of a broad range of voices, which secures responsiveness to complexity, sensitivity to differences in core values and beliefs, and a robust commitment to justice.

Philosophy has a well-earned reputation for analysis, but the practice of engaged philosophy in the land-grant context requires a cultivated capacity for synthesis -- of philosophical approaches, of philosophy with other academic disciplines and of academic with nonacademic perspectives. This capacity entails commitment to two key principles.

First, engaged philosophy is committed to cross-disciplinary research, understood as including both interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary activity. Complex problems such as food security and environmental justice have important conceptual and empirical dimensions that require input from a wide range of other disciplines; at the same time, they are problems for people outside the academy, and any adequate response will require input from nonacademic stakeholders. Philosophers can and should play a fundamental role in these cross-disciplinary responses, illuminating the nature of the values in play and providing common ground that facilitates the integration of the various perspectives, both inside and outside the academy. But we should also always come prepared to listen and learn, so our own disciplinary approach is enriched by our engagement with others as we respond to the challenges we face. For example, the Michigan State University-based Toolbox Project uses philosophical concepts and methods to facilitate communication and collaboration in cross-disciplinary projects, ranging from work on transplant rejection in pediatric patients, oil and gas inputs into the Gulf of Mexico, and climate resiliency in western Michigan.

Second, engaged philosophy is committed to inclusivity. A commitment to cross-disciplinary research entails inclusivity in the research response, but research represents only one mode of engagement. Sustainable and just responses to complex social problems require cultivating the habits of inclusive practice and solidarity on a broad scale. This involves ensuring the participation of those who are affected by the problem in all stages of the research process, as well as before research begins and after it concludes. Unless engaged philosophers, and university researchers more generally, work shoulder to shoulder with activists and community members on efforts such as those that involve environmental justice, climate policy and indigenous peoples, the responses they develop will lack the trust and respect needed to ensure long-term viability.

But the habits of inclusive practice must not be cultivated exclusively in philosophy’s external relationships. They must also be embodied in the practices of academic philosophy itself. This means that a much more inclusive understanding of what “counts as” philosophy and of who “looks like” a philosopher is required. Philosophy has been accused of being a monoculture, both in terms of its thematic foci and its demographic composition. Engagement can reveal new contexts for philosophical work, increasing the diversity of philosophical problems and of the philosophical practitioners who engage them.

Just as universities must adapt to remain relevant and accountable in a changing world, so too must the disciplines that give academic depth to them. The anxiety of philosophers is symptomatic of a broader concern about our role in this changing institutional context. But the symptoms themselves point to possible remedies. Specifically, a more inclusive philosophy profession that acknowledges its potential as a partner in cross-disciplinary efforts could model a broader and more diverse understanding of academic excellence -- one rooted in publicly engaged initiatives that enrich the human experience.

Although land-grant universities have their own fraught histories, for the land granted was gained through the colonization of indigenous peoples, they remain ideal institutional sites in which to realize this synthetic vision, because they provide the infrastructure and the resources necessary to advance these commitments to an inclusive and engaged philosophy. The humanities more broadly, and philosophy in particular, are well positioned in the land-grant university to catalyze initiatives that can deepen our shared responses to the most difficult challenges we face.

Christopher P. Long is dean of the College of Arts and Letters and professor of philosophy at Michigan State University, and Michael O’Rourke is professor of philosophy and faculty in AgBioResearch at the university.

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Senator criticizes 20 federally funded studies

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Republican senator renews debate over federal support for studies whose significance is not immediately apparent.

Students Protest Professor's Rumored Termination Over Atheist Speaker

Pacific Union College students continue to protest the rumored possible termination of a tenured professor of psychology over his decision to invite an atheist and well-known critic of the Seventh-day Adventist church, with which the college is affiliated, to campus to speak. About 60 students marched across campus and several hundred attended a town hall about the matter last week, the St. Helena Star reported. Others have been active on social media over concerns that the professor, Aubyn Fulton, may be fired for asking Ryan Bell -- a former Seventh-day Adventist turned atheist who is critical of the church's position on such issues as gay rights -- to address a class he was teaching in the fall. The talk never happened, as Heather Knight, college president, canceled the event days prior, according to the Star. But Fulton wrote recently on his Facebook page that he would be fired at the end of the spring quarter for his role in the matter.

Fulton, who has previously clashed with administrators over comments about homosexuality, according to the Star, declined comment. Knight said the professor’s online comments had been “misleading,” and that she had not told him he’d be fired. She also said the college had set up a Academic Freedom Task Force to examine the college’s academic freedom policy. But she said that Fulton had praised Bell as “courageous” and “honest” in his Facebook post -- and that’s a problem.

“If you’re going to bring someone like that who’s repudiated church doctrine, who has publicly attacked the church and publicly attacked God, you wouldn’t want to seem like you’re making this person into a hero,” Knight said. Ideally, she added, faculty members would consult with colleagues or administrators before inviting controversial speakers to campus. There might have been an appropriate way for Bell to address students, she told the Star, but “there wasn’t enough time to figure it out. … We’re not saying students shouldn’t be exposed to these ideas.”

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How to avoid overinvestment in your job (essay)

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Overworked, exhausted, dejected? If so, you may be treating your job like it's your whole life instead of one piece of a much larger pie, advises Kerry Ann Rockquemore.

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Big Pay Differences Among New Male, Female Ph.D.s

Female Ph.D.s in science and engineering earn 31 percent less than their male cohorts one year after graduation, according to a new study in American Economic Review: Papers and Proceedings. When controlling for the fact that women tend to earn degrees in fields that pay less than those in which more men earn degrees, the observed gap dropped to 11 percent. And the gap disappeared when controlling for whether the women were married and had children. "There's a dramatic difference in how much early-career men and women in the sciences are paid," Bruce Weinberg, co-author of the study and professor of economics at Ohio State University, said in a news release. "We can't tell from our data what's going on there. There's probably a combination of factors. Some women may consciously choose to be primary caregivers and pull back from work. But there may also be some employers putting women on a 'mommy track' where they get paid less."

Weinberg’s co-authors were Catherine Buffington and Benjamin Cerf of the U.S. Census Bureau and Christina Jones of the American Institutes for Research. The researchers used previously unavailable data regarding 1,237 students who received Ph.D.s from four U.S. universities from 2007-10 and were supported on research projects while in school. Data included federal funding support the Ph.D. graduates received as students, the dissertations they wrote (used to determine their field of study) and U.S. Census data on where they worked and how much they earned one year after graduation -- as well as their marital and parental status.

Some 59 percent of women completed dissertations in biology, chemistry and health, compared to just 27 percent of men. Men were more likely to complete degrees in fields that tend to be more lucrative, according to the study, including engineering, computer science and physics. About equal percentages of men and women were married, and more men had children. But married women with children saw lower pay one year out of graduate school, according to the study.

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Wisconsin governor and university system president anger professors with comments on tenure

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System president's email criticizing tenure expectations and comparing professors to railroad brakemen adds to faculty frustration in Wisconsin. But the governor likes the email.

Ken Burns uses Jefferson Lecture to defend the humanities and the role of narrative

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Ken Burns, in the Jefferson Lecture, champions fields that are under attack -- and speaks of the value of narratives.

Communicating about teaching experience in job interviews (essay)

When you apply for jobs at teaching institutions, how can you best talk about your experience and effectiveness in the classroom? Melissa Dennihy provides some pointers.

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Applying research skills to explore careers (essay)

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You don't need to rely on an adviser or other people to answer all your career-related questions, writes Joseph Barber. You can just use your own research skills.

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Students and alumni at William Carey demand answers on dismissal of tenured faculty member

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Students and alumni at William Carey University want to know why a tenured faculty member was dismissed. Some fear it is because he taught Genesis as divine but not literal.

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