Teaching Diversifying the Canon: Interview with Julia Borcherding

Diversifying the Canon: Interview with Julia Borcherding

Julia Borcherding is currently a Bersoff Faculty Fellow in Philosophy at NYU. In the fall of 2019, she will take up a position as a Faculty Lecturer at Cambridge University.  She specializes in early modern philosophy, with a focus on G.W. Leibniz and on women philosophers of the period.

What are you doing in your own classroom to diversify the philosophical canon?

Note: In what follows, I’ll mainly speak about my experiences in teaching Western history of modern philosophy, and my attempts to incorporate more women thinkers into these courses. Of course there are many more ways of diversifying the canon!

On a very general level: I make an effort to avoid following traditional or very set narratives when teaching, because they often have a tendency to perpetuate patterns of exclusion. In my early modern courses, I try to either enrich these narratives by adding some new strands or adding new dimensions that are better suited to incorporate of the many women philosophers of the period. I have found, for example, that incorporating more of the Platonist tradition can be a good way to go, since quite a number of the English-language women philosophers that we are now rediscovering for our teaching (such as Anne Conway, Damaris Masham, or Margaret Cavendish) have strong connections to it, and their texts become much more accessible to students once they’re no longer read in isolation, but embedded into this intellectual context.

I also try not to follow too closely on the heels on the old paradigm that treats the epistemological and metaphysical dimensions of early modern philosophy as separate from moral. Instead, I try to emphasize the many ways in which metaphysical and epistemological thought for early modern thinkers are not isolated pursuits, but are deeply embedded in their ethical, political, and social concerns, areas where women at certain points have been able to contribute more freely. Sometimes, I also abandon the narrative structure altogether, giving courses a thematic focus instead. Next term, for example, I’m teaching a course on early modern debates about love, freedom, and happiness. In all of those endeavors, I’ve found Project Vox’s website to be a tremendously helpful resource.

Besides trying to find ways to reshape content, in upper-level history courses, I also invite students to reflect on questions of canonization, and on our use of methodology that may seem sound enough, but sometimes also prevent a more diverse range of perspectives from entering into our lines of thought (consider, e.g., the conservative bent of coherence principles such as the principle of charity).

Which pieces do you find resonate most with students? 

This really isn’t news, but I’ve had very good experiences with incorporating material that provides students with the means of identification, and provides them with ways to connect. It makes a huge difference if students can feel that the material they read can reflect or engage their own standpoints. It’s really sad to see the all-white-male line-up on a modern syllabus for many reasons, but one important one is that it makes any student who is not that feel like philosophy just is not for them, and isn’t something they can do.

Andrew Janiak recently wrote on this blog about teaching Emilie du Châtelet, and – apart from much intriguing philosophy – I’ve also found that teaching thinkers like her can be a great way to let female students discover that in this period seemingly so full of great men, there is this brilliant woman and philosopher of science, fluently engaging with (and sometimes getting the better of!) those great minds of Leibniz’s or Newton’s. For similar reasons, I love teaching Conway – I’ve had more than one student detect elements of queer theory in her move to on the one hand identify the male with the mind, and the female with the body, but then proceed to deny, against the Cartesians, that there is any essential difference between them – or Cavendish, who in her time was seen by most as a crazy lady, but is now being rediscovered as a serious philosopher. Cavendish, like numerous others, also well illustrates the point that much of the philosophy done by women in the early modern period, for instance, isn’t done in monographs and articles, but will be found in forms and venues thought acceptable for women at the time: letters, stories, education manuals, novels, plays, or poetry. This can be great for teaching – I’ve found that students love to try to extract and reconstruct philosophical arguments from plays, novels, or poems, even if it can be challenging (and it can be a welcome change from the at least equally challenging task of extracting them from Kant’s Critique…)

I also get the impression that it can be very rewarding for students to realize that this period – which in many ways is the hour in which many of the foundational questions of analytic philosophy today originate – was a lot messier, and therefore also a lot more intriguing, than the “analytically cleaned up” version that we often teach today suggests. I recently taught an introduction to Leibniz that was entirely centered on parts of his correspondence –  with noblemen and noblewomen, unknown clerics, the daughters of unknown clerics, with French skeptics as well as with Jesuit missionaries in China. Structuring a course in this way can help open a window into the period that lets students experience it as the truly diverse and lively exchange of ideas that it really was, and you even get to draw some connections to Chinese philosophy.

What advice do you have for other philosophers interested in these pieces you’re recommending? 

Don’t be afraid of the seemingly strange and unfamiliar (after all, philosophy itself is a form of estrangement from – and, hopefully, reflective return – to the world one inhabits). It can be very challenging to teach material that falls outside of our traditional narratives – seems often more foreign to students, because it doesn’t seem to fit in so neatly with “our” immediate philosophical concerns and ways of framing questions (which of course have been shaped by what we have been reading, not by what we haven’t), and because it might introduce traditions foreign to them. However: while this can be a challenge, it can also be hugely rewarding. For one, while experiencing a text as unfamiliar may present an obstacle, it also can be a very effective way of drawing people in, especially when combined with the “Indiana Jones” moment you can achieve by telling students that they might be the first ones discovering this argument in Astell, or the first ones helping to translate that text by Madame Dupin into English.

What general advice do you have for other philosophers interested in diversifying their syllabi?

On the one hand: Be willing to engage. I’ve had colleagues, very often well-meaning ones, ask me (and it’s not just me) how to reconcile the goal of doing “serious, good philosophy” with the goal of incorporating “minor” thinkers for the sake of diversity. Often, I believe it really is the case that – no matter how well-meaning we are – we’re still in the throes of certain biases and bents that let us assume, for example, that early modern women philosophers often just aren’t as good or serious as their male counterparts, without actually knowing much of there work (keeping in mind that much of it has never been translated, written upon, or maybe even read by academic philosophers). Happily, there’s now a growing amount of secondary literature on many of these female thinkers to mitigate this lack of information (see, e.g. the two new volumes on early modern women philosophers that have just come out: “Women and Liberty” edited by by Karen Detlefsen and Jacqueline Broad, and “Early Modern Women on Metaphysics”, edited by Emily Thomas.)

But on the other hand: Don’t force it. In my experience, students very quickly realize it when a piece is just added on for the “diversity effect”, and the results can often be counter-productive. As Sara Uckelman recently pointed out in a very nice talk at the Dublin SWIP conference, sometimes there really just isn’t enough material to go around (women in medieval logic, anyone?), and it simply is an unfortunate truth that Western philosophy at certain points, with respect to certain questions, was largely the business of white upper-class men. In these instances, adding more diversity to one’s secondary literature can be a great way to go (and it surely sends a great message though having such topics in particular be taught by women). At the same time, however, I believe it is important for us to acknowledge to our students – and to openly invite discussion about – the gaps and biases that a lack of diversity in certain parts of a syllabus may reflect. In this way, we may perhaps ultimately turn another weakness into a strength: if we openly acknowledge these shortcomings, we can invite our students to embark with us on the exciting project of reshaping our discipline, and to make them realize the vital role they have in ensuring that diversity in philosophy ultimately will amount to something more meaningful than just a few added names on a syllabus – though for now, these names certainly do matter.

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This series of the APA Blog is dedicated to understanding what our fellow philosophers are doing in and out of the classroom to diversify the canon. If you would like to nominate yourself or someone else to write a post for this series, please contact us via the interview nomination form here.

Header image: Portrait of Margaret Cavendish, Wikimedia Commons

1 COMMENT

  1. While I realize that diversity is the popular politically correct hot button topic cause of the day, is it reasonable to ask the reasoning behind prioritizing that topic over our relationship with knowledge, which is the foundation of modern civilization, the heart of the human experience, and the determining factor in what kind of future, if any, today’s students will experience?

    I’m not dismissing diversity, or claiming it doesn’t matter, for it clearly does. We don’t have to argue that.

    The question I’m asking is, how much does a subject like diversity matter in comparison to other subjects? What is the reasoning process which concludes that teaching and writing about a subject like diversity is a more pressing matter than say, investigating the traditions, assumptions and group consensus mindset which allow us to largely ignore thousands of hair trigger nuclear weapons aimed down out own throats?

    I realize that everyone has their pet interests, and that I’m no different in that regard. But I sincerely don’t understand why philosophers in general (not just this author) find a subject like diversity more interesting than our relationship with knowledge, and all the pressing implications of that relationship.

    There appears to be a sincere interest in diversity among philosophers. No one has to prompt you to write about it. Ok, fair enough.

    But I can beg for discussion of our relationship with knowledge in the comment section of every philosophy blog on the Internet without ever stirring up a conversation that lasts longer than a few quickie comments, if that. I truly do not understand this.

    What is it about our relationship with knowledge that you find to be so trivial? Why is that subject not the primary focus of your investigations??

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