Dayton Conference to Explore Diversity in Philosophy

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by Ronald Roach

Philosophy

Dr. Margaret Urban Walker (left), a professor of philosophy at Marquette University, and Dr. Peggy DesAutels, a professor of philosophy at the University of Dayton, are encouraged that their peers agree on the need to focus on diversity. (Photo courtesy of Peggy DesAutels)

Roughly 150 philosophers will gather at the University of Dayton next week from Wednesday to Friday, convening what will be the first diversity in philosophy conference to have the backing of the discipline’s leading membership organization, the American Philosophical Association (APA).

Organizers have high hopes for the message that APA sponsorship will be sending to the roughly 11,000 Ph.D.-holding philosophers largely working in U.S. colleges and universities. They also anticipate frank and honest discussions about what some say has traditionally been a less-than-friendly climate for gender and racial diversity in many philosophy departments around the nation.

“This is the first time the whole profession has agreed that we need to focus on this issue,” says Dr. Peggy DesAutels, a conference co-organizer and professor of philosophy at the University of Dayton.

“I’m hoping that there will be a real energy and that together we’ll come up with additional energy and additional strategies for how to move the profession along. And I’m hoping for all of us to get to know each other better. Once you know each other you can work together,” she adds.

The conference will examine and analyze the underrepresentation of women and other marginalized groups in philosophy. Participants “will focus on hurdles and best practices associated with the inclusion of underrepresented groups,” according to organizers.

DesAutels says there’s little evidence the discipline of philosophy is becoming more diverse. A recent APA research paper estimates women are 21 percent of professionally-employed philosophers. “We wish that things were getting better. There’s no evidence that it is getting better,” she notes.

As chair of the APA’s Committee on the Status of Women, DesAutels says the conference was partly organized to coincide with the launching of an academic site visit program by the committee. Immediately following next week’s diversity conference, DesAutels and others will host a site visit workshop for 24 scholars who will be learning, among other things, how to assess “the range and variety of women’s and minorities’ experiences in philosophy that contribute to the ongoing underrepresentation of women and minorities” in philosophy departments.

DesAutels says the site visit program is modeling what the National Science Foundation has done for women’s advancement in academic science departments, pouring “millions” into universities to help women in the sciences. The National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH), however, lacks the funding capacity of the NSF, she notes.

“In their defense, we haven’t asked the National Endowment of the Humanities to do anything” but they don’t have a program like the NSF “to try to help with women’s issues,” DesAutels explains.

Dr. Tina Fernandes Botts, an assistant philosophy professor at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, will be presenting research papers at both the diversity conference and the site visit workshop. She notes that it is highly significant for the APA to be “sponsoring a conference completely dedicated to grappling head-on with these issues in a scholarly way and in a collegial way.”

“From my perspective the climate for women and minorities in philosophy is chilly,” says Fernandes Botts, who is the associate chair of the APA’s Committee on the Status of Black Philosophers. She estimates there are 200 to 300 African-American men and fewer than 35 African-American women with Ph.D.s in philosophy working in academic positions.

During the conference, Fernandes Botts will be presenting a paper on the silencing effect of hate speech on women of color philosophers entitled, “Women of Color Philosophers: Hate Speech and Social Harm.”

“In my paper on hate speech, I’m saying that some philosophers bandy around racial epithets without realizing the effect that doing so has on members of historically marginalized and oppressed groups. That’s basically it,” she says.

“Ignorance about diversity issues in philosophy is a common complaint amongst philosophers of color. The culture of hate speech I speak about in my paper is part and parcel of the grander problem of a kind of ignorance about diversity issues that pervades the discipline of philosophy,” notes Fernandes Botts.

“And it has to do with the fact that philosophy understands itself as operating on this hyper-abstract level for the most part. As a discipline, philosophy—in its quest for universal truths—inherently ignores the lived realities of oppressed groups.”

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One Response to Dayton Conference to Explore Diversity in Philosophy

  1. While I applaud the efforts of the APA, it seems to me that the philosophers in attendance would benefit greatly from presentations by Lewis Gordon, Robert Bernasconi, Tommy Lott, David Theo Goldberg, Richard Popkin, Charles Mills and others who are doing groundbreaking work in the interdisciplinary fields of critical race theory and philosphy. These scholars’ work elucidates the manner in which modern philosophal thought has been inextricably bound to racialist and racist discourse since the eighteenth century. By revisiting the history of Western philosophy’s Eurocentric and exclusionary origins, contemporary scholars can begin to have an honest, and potentially, illuminating discussion about bridging the diversity gap in this highly influential field of academic discourse.

    LaRose T. Parris
    May 21, 2013 at 9:30 am

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