Teaching Diversifying the Canon: Interview with Robert Sanchez

Diversifying the Canon: Interview with Robert Sanchez

This post is part of a series of interviews dedicated to diversifying the canon. We’d love for you to share your thoughts. Please contact us via the interview nomination form here to nominate yourself or a friend.

Robert Eli Sanchez, Jr. is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Mount Saint Mary’s University, Los Angeles. He specializes in Mexican and Latin American philosophy, existentialism, and social/political philosophy. His Mexican Philosophy in the 20th Century: Essential Readings (co-edited with Carlos Alberto Sánchez) was recently published as the inaugural volume of the Oxford New Histories of Philosophy series.  He is also editing An Introduction to Latin American and Latinx Philosophy (under contract with Routledge), working on a monograph on la filosofía de lo mexicano (the philosophy of Mexicanness), and co-hosts a blog on Mexican philosophy (mexicanphilosophy.com). He earned his Ph.D. in philosophy at UC, Riverside in 2012.

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

I try not to think of diversifying the canon in terms of adding authors here and there for the sake of diversity. This way of looking at diversity takes for granted the centrality of certain figures or traditions and makes it sound like we’re doing someone a favor. That is, it has the potential of reaffirming the very thing we want to call into question (i.e., that we start with the Western or Anglo-American, male dominant tradition and work outward) and it can come across as condescending. Instead, I try to rethink courses and the curriculum from the ground up. I’ll give you a few examples.

I teach American Philosophy, but rather than add some Latin American, African-American, or Indigenous philosophy to the standard survey of Pragmatism and Transcendentalism—for the sake of diversifying—I approach the course thematically without giving priority to any tradition within “the Americas.” For example, when we discuss the philosophy of education, we read Samuel Ramos and John Dewey, Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois, Paulo Freire and bell hooks. Dewey and pragmatism are in there, and they should be, but they don’t serve as an axis. (I should add that I borrowed my approach to American Philosophy from a forthcoming reader The Philosophy of the Americas, edited by Kim Díaz and Mathew A. Foust).

Even where certain authors are and will remain central to the development of a tradition, as Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau are to the modern liberal political tradition, their centrality can and should be called into question. So when I teach Social and Political Philosophy, I focus on social contract theory, starting with Hobbes, but I spend at least half the course on Charles Mills’s The Racial Contract and Carole Patemen’s The Sexual Contract, in order to demonstrate that the tradition is built on forms of exclusion—racism, sexism, nationalism—that we now have to confront head-on.

Finally, I regularly teach courses on Mexican, Mexican-American, and Latin American philosophy because they are my area of specialty. But I want to put the emphasis on regularly, since if we teach courses like these only occasionally, that conveys to students (and colleagues) that they belong on the margins—that they are topics we might take up only in our spare time.

What’s your favorite piece to teach and why?

I don’t have a favorite but I enjoy teaching José Ortega y Gasset’s Meditations on Quixote and The Modern Theme. Ortega (depicted above) is one of the great authors in the Spanish language and students sympathize with his definition of philosophy (“the general science of love”). For Ortega, philosophy should encourage us to pay attention to the small things that surround us and bring out their full significance, since “for the person for whom small things do not exist, the great is not great.” These texts also invert students’ expectation that philosophy is an abstract discipline only concerned with universals and conceptual analysis. Overall, I find that Ortega is a great introduction to the idea of comparative philosophy, specifically the idea that philosophy is always a view from somewhere, is always tied to cultural identity, and never requires us to choose between it and the local things, peoples, and issues that we care about.

What are the biggest challenges and rewards of working to diversify the canon?

For me, the biggest challenge and reward amount to the same thing. Like most of us, I have a relatively standard background in the history of western and analytic philosophy. So being committed to diversifying the canon means that I am always having to learn something new and, in some ways, starting over. This can be disorienting and it’s always a challenge, since it requires having to look at the old anew and trying hard not to look at the new a-old. But I have come to see the discomfort of this form of travel as part of the growing process. For me, the never knowing what philosophy really is, is the beginning of philosophy.

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

Be willing and maybe even proud to fail. There’s simply no way of knowing in advance what will work, and although the uncertainty can be daunting—and a bit of failure dispiriting—it gets easier across iterations of a course. We do too large a disservice to our students, especially those who are hungry for literatures that they identify with, by letting the fear of failure get the best of us.

Sometimes colleagues will ask me, “Can I teach Latin American philosophy, even if I’m not Latinx? I’m worried that I’ll come across as an impostor or that it will be taken as cultural appropriation.” I appreciate the worry, given that so many of us in comparative philosophy do identify with the philosophy we specialize in. And cultural appropriation is a real danger, especially if someone specializes in a tradition for the sake of advancing their career. But your students will appreciate a genuine effort to learn alongside them, so let me just put it out there: Yes, OF COURSE you can teach Latin American philosophy or whatever else. And now there are plenty of resources to do so on your own.

Which leads me to a final piece of advice. Ask for help! The APA is doing great work in making resources available, such as sample syllabi, but there are quite a few of us who can help you or your department answer specific questions. So email us or invite us to give a talk or help build a course. We can help you start small by recommending themes or authors to consider for already-existing courses. And we can help you think about the questions diverse practitioners ask, such as what it means to do philosophy from identity. In the end, diversifying the canon is fundamentally a collaborative project.

Can you share any additional resources on diversifying the canon?

This is a large question and it’s hard to know where to begin. I imagine readers would like some practical advice on how to diversify their own courses or create new ones, so I’ll stick to my own area of expertise here. If someone is interested in teaching a new course on Mexican philosophy, I’d refer them to the “Introduction” to our Mexican Philosophy in the 20th Century: Essential Readings. Part of our aim in the “Introduction,” as well as with the volume as a whole, was to provide readers enough orientation, history, and resources to teach an entire course on the subject. In developing their course, readers should also take a look at the work of Carlos Alberto Sánchez, Amy Oliver, John H. Haddox, and James Maffie. I became interested in Mexican philosophy myself after reading Patrick Romanell’s Making of the Mexican Mind: A Study in Recent Mexican Thought.

Latin American philosophy is much broader and harder to pin down. I am currently editing An Introduction to Latin American and Latinx Philosophy (Routledge, forthcoming) whose primary purpose is to provide newcomers with a single, affordable text they can use to teach a course on their own for the first time. There are also several anthologies and collections take a look at, particularly those by Jorge J. E. Gracia and Elizabeth Millan-Zaibert, Susana Nuccetelli and Gary Seay, and Eduardo Mendieta. These are very different volumes designed for different purposes, so I recommend taking a look at all of them before picking and choosing what works for you. For orientation, the newcomer should also take a look at a special issue of the APA Newsletter on Hispanic/Latino Issues in Philosophy (Vol. 7, No. 1) devoted to teaching Latin American philosophy. There one will find sample syllabi.

In general, the APA Newsletter is probably the best online resource on Latin American philosophy. Since its inception in 2001, and still today, the Newsletter has attracted some of the best work in the field, in part because it was one of the few places many of us could publish without having to deal with (self-)censorship. Today there is also the Inter-American Journal of Philosophy, a peer-reviewed online journal designed to take an international approach to philosophy in the Americas. And for a brief overview, one should consult the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entries on Mexican philosophy, Latin American philosophy, and Latin American philosophy: metaphilosophical foundations. I’m hoping we’ll also see one soon on Latinx philosophy, and perhaps one specifically on Latinx feminism, which certainly deserves its own entry.

One of the dominant themes in 20th century Latin American philosophy is whether it exists (as something distinct from the philosophy produced in Latin America) and whether it is substantially or characteristically different from the philosophy elsewhere. For contrasting views on this issue, one might take a look at my “Strengthening the Case for Latin American Philosophy: Beyond Cultural Resources” in the APA Newsletter (Vol. 13, No. 2) and Manuel Vargas’s “On the Value of Philosophy: The Latin American Case” in Comparative Philosophy (Vol. 1, No 1). The SEP entry on the metaphilosophical foundations of Latin American philosophy has a long list of references to other discussions on the issue.

Finally, it is nearly impossible to teach Latin American philosophy without a familiarity with at least the contours of Latin American history. In this regard, I have found John C. Chasteen’s Born in Blood and Fire: A Concise History of Latin America to be a particularly student-friendly introduction.

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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: Painting by Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, 1918.

3 COMMENTS

  1. One method of diversifying the canon might be to spend less time having students focused on what somebody else said and more time on developing their own ability to reason.

    What challenges do they see in the world they are about to inherit? What do they propose doing about those challenges? How well can they analyze and evaluate any proposed course of action? It seems logical to assume that students will find philosophy engaging to the degree they find it relevant to the lives that they themselves will be leading.

    There is a danger involved in studying famous people such as well known philosophers. Once one has position, rank, authority, credibility, status and especially a philosophy department paycheck, one tends to become a prisoner of the status quo, because to challenge the status quo too much puts all those assets at risk.

    Those with position, rank, authority, credibility, and status can not afford to look like crackpots, but it is crackpot ideas, those outside of the current group consensus, which may have the most potential to successfully address emerging new realities which the students will inhabit.

    What students in their youth might be uniquely qualified to understand is that if the status quo ideas being circulated by their elders could successfully address the problems they will be confronting as they enter adulthood, those problems would already be solved.

  2. What Phil Tanny hinted at is very relevant. Whether science or philosophy, when taught as status quo, it become difficult for them to break the box and come out with their unique contributions. Students must be clearly explained that there is no way at present to know the exact truth about existence and life, hence all are ‘speculations’.

    Following is the Tweet-link this commentator has left at APA Blog’s Twitter page:https://twitter.com/jopan1/status/988593870031077377

  3. It is necessary to read “what somebody else said” to develop what we are reasoning about, or trying to say. I claim this since I am an undocumented student engaging in academic philosophy paying tribute to what others said, to intervene what I have to say.

    The challenges I encounter in the world, and what I propose to the discipline—independent of how thoroughly I can “analyze and evaluate any proposed course of action”—does hold importance with academic philosophy, both to my life and to the extent I influence the trajectory of the discipline.

    However, I do not side with your idea that those in a comfortable position of “authority and credibility” have the most potential to “successfully address the emerging new realities which” we will inhabit. We are at a pivotal point where taking a stance on the discourse on diversity and inclusion may be life-changing for undocumented students looking to immerse in academic philosophy, or not.

    I do not believe that the lived experience of an undocumented student in academic graduate philosophy is “speculation.”

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