Diversity and Inclusiveness Women in Philosophy: The Work of the APA Graduate Student Council

Women in Philosophy: The Work of the APA Graduate Student Council

By Zoë Johnson King

Graduate school in Philosophy can be hard, in many ways, for everyone. But some of the ways in which graduate school in Philosophy can be hard disproportionately affect members of under-represented groups, including women. For example, to the extent that our academic discipline remains under the influence of the genius myth, and the associated ideology about what sort of demographic profile a genius can or cannot have, we can expect seminars and conferences to be environments in which the intellectual contributions of women and minorities are too readily dismissed. This makes the tasks of speaking up in class and asking questions during Q&As – which can be scary and stressful for any junior scholar (and for some mid-career ones!) – extra-scary and extra-stressful for those whose contributions are likelier to be dismissed. Furthermore, to the extent that we as a discipline remain enthralled by the view that good Philosophy is essentially combative, we can expect philosophical conversations both in and outside of class to favor an aggressive conversational style focused on beating the other person down with the awesome power of your massive argument rather than on thinking carefully together about what might be true. This makes the tasks of talking to people about things you’ve read and discussing your ideas – which can be scary and stressful for any junior scholar (and for some mid-career ones!) – extra-scary and extra-stressful for those to whom this confrontational style comes less naturally, which often includes women. And to the extent that departmental schedules revolve around evening seminars and/or social gatherings in bars, we can expect even the minimal task of being present at regular departmental events to be more difficult for graduate students with caring responsibilities – again, often women.

These are some of the more obvious ones. But we can add some less widely-discussed issues to the list. For instance, financial difficulties and mental health difficulties are extremely widespread in graduate school but infrequently discussed. Financial difficulties are also likely to disproportionately impact students with caring responsibilities and may arise as a result of these responsibilities. Mental health difficulties can affect anyone, of course. Nonetheless, in my experience, the ubiquity of these issues can create an undue burden on women in a graduate program, who are expected to do the lion’s share of the work in looking after people and/or in organizing social events to improve the camaraderie of the graduate student body as a whole. Indeed, my anecdata suggests that women in Philosophy graduate programs often do far more service to their departments than their male peers across the board – running reading groups, organizing conferences and talks, establishing and running outreach programs, and so on, in addition to social organizing and disproportionately adopting whatever administrative roles are built in to the department’s official internal structure.

I hear tales of departments in which a handful of graduate students are earmarked as The Organized Ones and asked or simply expected to do the lion’s share of the service work, while their peers are exempted from such work by feigning a kind of incorrigible incompetence such that it would be unwise to ask them to do anything because they’ll probably do it poorly. In all of the cases of which I’m aware, the students earmarked as Organized Ones are women or minorities. And this is all to say nothing of the task of learning how to teach – a gargantuan task for every graduate student, but one that includes additional hurdles for women given the research that shows women are often slammed or belittled in teaching evaluations and that we often suffer from credibility deficits in the classroom mirroring the effect of the genius myth in class and during talks.

The author with GSC Secretary Sahar Joakim at the APA Board of Officers Meeting.

I’m very happy to be a part of an organization that is taking some small steps toward addressing some of these issues. I am the Chair of the APA’s inaugural Graduate Student Council (GSC). Last year, I was nominated for the GSC by a former PIKSI-Rock mentee, elected by the APA’s student members, and then elected Chair by our twelve Councilmembers. The GSC was created with the simple instruction to meet at least twice per year via web conference and to report to the APA’s Board of Officers on “matters of interest or concern to graduate students”. This is, obviously, quite vague. So, I was initially unsure about how much power we would really have; the GSC has no budget and no ability to set policy on its own, and it was unclear how seriously the Board would take our ideas. I also wasn’t sure how active the Council would be. Most other members were people that I had never met before, so I didn’t know what their priorities were, or what amount of time and effort they would be able to commit. Happily, though, things are working out great. I could not have asked for a more committed, reflective, conscientious group of colleagues than the eleven other members of the inaugural Council. We decided immediately to try to meet once a month (via web conference), and in our initial meeting we shared the primary concerns that we hoped to address through the GSC – all twelve Councilmembers said that they had joined in part because they are passionate about addressing issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the profession. Our priorities include: improving graduate training, both academic and pedagogical; addressing financial issues in graduate school; addressing mental health issues in graduate school; making the MA/PhD application process more humane; and making the job market more humane.

Our first proposal to the APA Board concerns safety and inclusion for LGBTQ+ members at Divisional meetings. We have written a mission statement, created a website, launched a Facebook page with weekly discussion topics, and created an email address (contact-gsc@apaonline.org) for graduate students to contact us with their questions or concerns. We have: advocated to the APA for a nationwide graduate student survey to help identify problems in the field and provide an evidence base that the GSC can use to set future priorities, received approval to create GSC sessions at all future Eastern, Central, and Pacific APA meetings, begun pursuing opportunities to collaborate with MAP and with the Academic Placement Data Agency, motivated the APA to create permanent graduate student ”liaisons” to four of its six standing committees – Diversity, Teaching, Academic Career Opportunities and Placement, and the Status and Future of the Profession – and written a set of Bylaws to codify our policies and procedures for future generations of the Council. As the end of the Council’s inaugural year draws to a close, I am immensely proud of what twelve unpaid volunteers (who are doing this all on the side while pursuing our PhDs!) have achieved.

Inaugural GSC-MAP session at the Central APA, February 2018.

Going forward, the Council will continue to focus on efforts aimed at reaching out to graduate student philosophers who previously felt alienated from the APA, particularly those from non-traditional backgrounds and those working in non-traditional subdisciplines. We are very well aware that the APA can seem distant and uninteresting to graduate students, and we want to do what we can to bring all graduate students in Philosophy programs into the fold, and to help them to feel welcomed, encouraged, and supported.

I am about to graduate, but I look forward to seeing the good work that the GSC will do to improve the position of women and minorities in Philosophy. Of course, I don’t expect that the GSC can fix all the issues in the profession on its own; this will be a long-term effort that requires the buy-in of philosophers at every level. Nevertheless, the work of the inaugural Council gives me hope. I strongly believe that going through an experience leaves someone unusually well-equipped to identify things that can make it easier for others who will go through the same or similar experiences, and I am excited to see graduate students committed to helping graduate students to succeed.

Zoë Johnson King is a graduate student in the Philosophy department at Michigan. She is just about to finish her program, following which she’ll be a postdoctoral fellow at NYU for two years, and then an Assistant Professor at USC. Before coming to Michigan, she did a BA and an M.Phil in Philosophy at Cambridge, and then completed the UK’s “Teach First” program, earning a teaching degree and working full-time for two years at a secondary school in Croydon. Zoë has been co-organizer of the Michigan High School Ethics Bowl since its creation five years ago, and in her spare time she enjoys cooking, lifting heavy things, and going on adventures. Zoë is originally from Nottingham and is absurdly proud of it.

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