Grad Traps! (Guest Post by Daniel Silvermint)

Grad students of philosophy! And other relevant parties! Behold! Daniel Silvermint, assistant professor of philosophy and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at the University of Connecticut, has developed a list of unhelpful thoughts that might occur to you every once in a while. He calls them “grad traps,” and the idea is that if you are able to recognize them, you can better avoid the trouble they bring. He explains what he’s up to, below, and asks for your comments on and additions to the list. Take it away, Daniel.

I’m helping out at my department’s orientation for new grads this Saturday, and I wanted to distribute a list of Grad Traps, or ways in which we burden ourselves early in our careers with thoughts and habits that make work and life harder.  The examples are all drawn from my own (only slightly exaggerated) experiences, and I hope that sharing them publicly can help students avoid similar mistakes.  I’m guided by two convictions here.  One, I can’t be the only one that had thoughts like these, right?  Second, success in graduate school is often as much psychological as it is intellectual, and effective mentoring engages with the person, not just their project.  When such traps go unacknowledged, grads have an incentive to hide and conceal their struggles, for fear of being considered not as good as others.  But if these kinds of traps are both common and avoidable, then an environment that openly acknowledges them is worth having.

Of course, there’s nothing essential about my own experiences.  That’s why I’m posting a draft of the list here – to encourage discussion and solicit additions.  Do you see yourself in any of these traps?  What are the traps I missed?  What do you wish you had been able to share?  What did you share, and did it help?

Grad Traps! Lessons drawn from the graduate career of one Daniel Silvermint

  1. “I’m smart. I aced undergrad with barely any effort, aside from some last minute scrambles.  Grad School is like undergrad, but more advanced.  So surely the same work habits will suffice here.”
  2. “The best way to get started on a big pile of work is to obsess about just how much there is to do and how little time I have to do it all in. Of course, another option is to break everything down into small, manageable tasks that I can then cross off a to-do list, but my way is better.”
  3. “I couldn’t bring myself to work the last couple days, and now I feel behind, which makes me really stressed, which makes it even harder to work, which makes me feel even more behind, which makes me too paralyzed to work, which makes me feel even more behind, and, yep, there went another month.” Continue reading

Ferguson & Philosophy Class

It is the beginning of the school year. Some professors start off their first class with deep puzzles, or thought experiments, or polls. Others begin with definitions of philosophy or by reciting and discussing inspiring passages from great philosophical works. Still others, strangely, hand out syllabi and read through them. There are those, though, that like to bring current events into their classroom, and right now, in Missouri, we have a current event that brings into view a version of the United States that doesn’t match up with the typical college student’s understanding of how our society works. One of the things a philosophical education does is disturb the ordinary, and the events in Ferguson seem to do that all on their own—even if they are all too ordinary for some segments of the population (as many have remarked: if this is how the Ferguson police behave when the entire world is watching, imagine what they do when we’re not). So the Ferguson story may make for a valuable and timely opening-day conversation with your students.

While the recent conflicts in Gaza attracted the attention of several philosophers (see the collection here) from what I can tell, philosophers have not yet published opinion pieces on what has been happening in Ferguson, and not many have substantively blogged about it (see Leigh Johnson’s “Ferguson and American Apartheid” for one exception; please share others you know about in the comments). Still, the lack of reading material should not deter in-class discussion. How, if at all, can philosophy help students understand what is happening and what is important about what is happening in Ferguson? If you were to discuss the events there in your class, what would you ask? What ideas would you explore? What would you hope to achieve?

Gillian Bennett, Dementia, and Assisted Suicide

I will take my life today around noon. It is time. Dementia is taking its toll and I have nearly lost myself. I have nearly lost me. Jonathan, the straightest and brightest of men, will be at my side as a loving witness….

We do NOT talk much about how we die. Yet facing death is thoroughly interesting and absorbing and challenging. I have choices which I have reviewed, and either adopted or discarded. I think I have hit upon the right choice for me.

That is Gillian Bennett, a former clinical psychotherapist and wife of philosopher Jonathan Bennett, writing at a website she created to describe her situation and advocate for legalizing assisted suicide. She killed herself this past Monday.

On her website, she urges people to get living wills (advanced directives), and asks for a change in the way that suicide is treated.

Three outsize institutions: the medical profession, the Law, and the Church will challenge and fight any transformative change. Yet we all hear of changes in each of these professions that suggest a broader approach, guided and informed by empathy. My hope is that all of these institutions will continue to transform themselves, and that the medical profession will mandate, through sensitive and appropriate protocols, the administration of a lethal dose to end the suffering of a terminally ill patient, in accordance with her Living Will.

A news story about Gillian Bennett’s decision, which includes remarks from Jonathan Bennett and their children, Sara and Guy, is here.

Update on Barnett

David Barnett, whom the University of Colorado is attempting to fire based on claims that he retaliated against a graduate student for her accusations of sexual assault by fellow graduate student (previously), “has been given relief from teaching duties, with pay, until he is given a hearing on the allegations against him,” according to his attorney. Barnett, an associate professor of philosophy, had created a 38-page report related to the sexual assault and its investigation by the university. Barnett denies most of the accusations, saying that he had not “described the alleged victim as ‘sexually promiscuous’…  did not inquire into the alleged victim’s sexual history, and made no generalizations about the alleged victim’s character or past behavior.” Barnett is appealing the termination decision, and his hearing is scheduled for sometime this fall. The rest of the story is in the Daily Camera.

Virtual Dissertation Writers Groups

Joshua Smart, a philosophy graduate student at the University of Missouri, is coordinating the formation of virtual discussion groups for dissertation writers. He writes:

Here’s the basic setup. Interested students can fill out the contact form… and at the beginning of each semester I will email all participants with the information for their three-membered group. Each full month of the semester, one member of the group will submit some of their in-progress dissertation work to the others. Those other members will then email comments in response, hopefully generating some fun exchanges in the process. I’ll send out email reminders when it’s time to circulate work and return comments.

In order to maximize the usefulness of these groups, here are some general guidelines.

  • Circulated writing should be kept to around 5,000 words
  • Writing should be related to one’s dissertation, as this is the basis for groupings
  • Comments should be returned within 10 days
  • Comments should be constructive and encouraging

You can sign up here.

Heap of Links

1. What should we think about the ice bucket challenge?
2. Al Mele (Florida State) and Eddy Nahmias (Georgia State) talk about free will and science at Philosophy TV.
3. The challenges for an analytic feminist philosopher of religion.
4. Free for you to use: a Prezi tour through the history of Western philosophy, by Mark Alfano (University of Oregon).
5. Why a philosopher teaches about privacy, in Forbes (via Robert Long), and a forum in the NYT about your possible violations of your children’s privacy.
6. The connection between “love for humanity” and human agency.
7. The potential condescension of informed consent.
8. A video installation based on Plato’s Timaeus. Watch it in the dark.
9. Against authenticity, part 8729. (via Colin Farrelly)
10. Feel better about your job, instantly. (via Molly Gardner)
11. Don’t philosophize like my brother! Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers, take up epistemology.

Moral Philosopher Busts Fraudster

Jonathan Glover (KCL) can add “crime-fighter” to his list of accomplishments. The Hampstead & Highgate Express reports: 

A fraudster is facing jail after a bungled attempt to dupe a world-renowned philosopher into handing over his bank cards. Nishathur Chowdhury was arrested at the Primrose Hill home of Professor Jonathan Glover, a best-selling author and leading moral philosopher, who alerted police after realising he was being “taken for a ride”. By the time Chowdhury, 28, arrived at the philosopher’s house in Chalcot Square – posing as a courier sent by the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) – plain clothes police officers were waiting to pounce.

How did Glover know he was the target of an attempt at fraud? He figured it out while “I was in a half-suspicious, half-naive state,” he said, providing an apt description of the usual philosophical mindset. The rest of the story is here.

Loeb Classical Library — Online Soon

Harvard University Press is digitizing the entirety of The Loeb Classical Library and putting it online. While a free trial will be available, permanent access to the collection will be through paid individual and institutional subscriptions. For book lovers, the familiar little red and green hard copies will remain in print. There is an article about the online version here and a video and screenshots here.

The Best Articles on Aesthetics

In a comment on the post about Philosopher’s Annual and articles in philosophy of race and gender, Tom Cochrane (Sheffield) writes: 

Note that they haven’t selected article on aesthetics/philosophy of art since 1982 (William Freedman: The Relevance of the Truth-Standard from The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism). And the only other one I see is Stephen Davies on music in 1981. As a standard of comparison, Phil Papers currently indexes over 22,000 articles in aesthetics, compared with 10,000 on gender and race, and 15,000 in epistemology.

That seems to be a good enough reason to get a thread on the best aesthetics articles since 1982. Have at it.

The Best Philosophy Articles on Race and Gender

The selections for the latest Philosopher’s Annual, which takes as its goal “to select the ten best articles published in philosophy each year—an attempt as simple to state as it is admittedly impossible to fulfill” have been made. At the Philosop-her blog, Meena Krishnamurthy (Manitoba) notes that the latest volume, unlike any over the past decade, includes articles in mainstream political philosophy. However, she also notes that Philosopher’s Annual has included only four articles on the philosophy of race or philosophy of gender since 2000. These four are:

· Sally Haslanger,”Gender and Race: (What) Are They? (What) Do We Want Them To Be?” (2000)
· Robert Bernasconi, “Who Invented the Concept of Race?” (2001)
· Karen Jones, “The Politics of Credibility” (2002)
· Sally Haslanger, “But Mom, Crop Tops Are Cute! Social Knowledge, Social Structure, and Ideology Critique” (2007)

Counting Haslanger’s 2000 article twice (once for gender, once for race) Krishnamurthy writes:

It cannot possibly be true that of the very best articles in philosophy since 2000 that only 5 of the best articles are in the area of race and gender. That we are led to this conclusion by the PA may suggest that there is something wrong with the methodology behind the PA.  

Not that there aren’t better or worse philosophy articles, but certainly there is going to be disagreement over what we could possibly mean by the best philosophy articles, a difficulty that Philosopher’s Annual seems to acknowledge with its goal statement, quoted above. So rather than attempt to suggest fixes to the methodology behind the Philosopher’s Annual, let’s instead create a helpful list for those looking for what’s missing there. Besides the four articles noted above, what have been “the best” articles on the philosophy of race and/or the philosophy of gender since 2000?

Ignorance “Justifies” Ignorance (More on Non-Western Philosophy)

It is… worth inquiring why classical Chinese philosophers are not especially influential in contemporary U.S. philosophy. One possibility is historical accident: Because the dominant culture in the United States traces back to Europe, the classical Chinese philosophers were not taught to, and thus not read by, the succeeding generations. Ignorance thus apparently justifies ignorance: Because we don’t know their work, they have little impact on our philosophy; because they have little impact on our philosophy, we are justified in remaining ignorant about their work.

Eric Schwitzgebel reprints and updates a piece he wrote back in 2001 for the American Philosophical Association’s Newsletter on the Status of Asian & Asian-American Philosophers & Philosophies that is relevant to recent discussions here.

UPDATE: I apparently forgot to include the link to Schwitzgebel’s post, yesterday. It’s here.

Hiring and “Unofficial” Information

The recent story about East Carolina’s offer to Colin McGinn has generated a variety of reactions, some of which concern what kinds of information it’s permissible for academic employers to take into account in deciding whether to make someone an offer. Of particular concern here is the status of information about a candidate’s past behavior that could be categorized as sexual harassment, sexual assault, or otherwise threatening. Must there have been an official institutional or legal finding confirming a candidate’s problematic behavior for potential employers to take such behavior into account? That might protect against the impact of false accusations, but it ignores the fact that some problem cases are “resolved” by informally pressuring the offender to seek employment elsewhere, or with confidentially agreements forbidding the disclosure of relevant information. There are, of course, worries about “mere” accusations and rumors ruining people’s careers. Yet there are also, I’ve learned, vast differences between who knows what about who has done what, and what seem like mere rumors to some seem like well-confirmed facts to others. Do hiring departments have a duty to investigate the “climate impact” of potential hires? If so, how could they go about doing so ethically?

There are a variety of legal and moral issues here, which readers are welcome to discuss. I would strongly prefer that we stick to hypotheticals and general statements, and avoid mentioning specific cases and persons.

More on McGinn’s Offer

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on East Carolina’s offer to McGinn (previously). The article confirms the earlier report, saying “The philosophy department had chosen Colin McGinn for a one-year appointment, but administrators declined to accept the department’s choice, without saying why.”

The appointment was for the “Whichard Distinguished Professorship” which “is awarded for up to two years to a faculty member associated with a humanities program at East Carolina. This year was the philosophy department’s turn to choose a scholar, and after months of consideration, it decided on Mr. McGinn.” On August 1st, however, Marilyn Sheerer, who was then the university’s provost and senior vice chancellor for academic affairs, announced that the administration would not approve the offer. 

Some of the faculty defend their choice in the article. “After reviewing the evidence, Miami never even accused him of harassment… So I don’t see how anyone could justify denying him a position because of any of that,” says Michael Veber, an associate professor of philosophy at East Carolina. Nicholas Georgalis, a distinguished research professor there, adds, “We felt this was a great opportunity.” The rest of the article (currently behind a paywall) is here

More on the Homogeneity of Philosophy

Continuing on the theme of the homogeneity of philosophy:

I strongly believe that it is central to a thorough education in the human sciences that we be compelled to learn in detail about traditions that precisely and obstinately do not speak to us…. I want to move myself somewhere other than where I started out. I agree that it is most urgent for the ‘white men’ who dominate philosophy to take up this challenge and to belatedly acquire a proper humanistic education, but the cosmopolitanism to which I’ve already committed myself prohibits me from maintaining this expectation only vis-à-vis other ‘white men’….

Even my allies who are pushing for greater demographic inclusiveness in academic philosophy frequently express condescension toward the variety of scholarship that takes an interest in low-status expressions of culture such as the oral traditions of nomads… This is because they continue to share in the prejudicial view that philosophy concerns itself exclusively with high-status, rarefied expressions of human culture, so rarefied in fact that they are not really part of human culture at all, but rather exist on a trans-historical, immaterial plane of ideas. It is nothing more than the history and economics of institutions that gives certain expressions of ideas this rarefied appearance, and, I maintain, it is precisely the prejudicial attachment to these expressions that is the cause of philosophy’s current exclusive character.

That is from a recent post by Justin E.H. Smith (Université Paris Diderot) at his blog. Meanwhile, Tricycle Magazine has a long and fascinating interview with Evan Thompson (University of British Columbia) about Buddhist philosophy of mind and science. From the interview:

Buddhism has very sophisticated and technical traditions of philosophy, every bit as sophisticated and technical as Western philosophy. Here we enter the arena of concepts, analysis, abstraction, models, and arguments, all of which bring us closer to science. Buddhist philosophy is very concerned with analyzing cognition, concepts, and consciousness—the subject matter of cognitive science….

What I’d like to see is a collaborative effort to develop a much richer understanding of the human mind—a cognitive science of wisdom, for lack of a better term. For example, although self-knowledge is a topic of cognitive science research, it has yet to be informed by the kind of ethical and contemplative perspective that Buddhism upholds. We need to bring into cognitive science the recognition that the human mind can cultivate mature emotional and ethical capacities of benevolence along with cognitive capacities of deep insight and understanding. Right now cognitive science has a view of the mind that’s rather narrow, where the database for mental function is mostly college students. Also, informed by that kind of cognitive science endeavor, I’d like to see a much more critical perspective on what’s happening with the commodification of mindfulness and… social looping effects.

The rest of the interview is here.

McGinn Offered Visiting Professorship

Colin McGinn, who left the University of Miami last year amid allegations of sexual harassment, was recently offered a one-year Distinguished Visiting Professorship in the Department of Philosophy at East Carolina University. Apparently, the faculty in the department were in favor of the offer, however, the vice-chancellor of the university has interfered with the appointment, and it now seems that the offer has been rescinded. (via Hilde Lindemann)

Heap of Links

1. Do athletes need more philosophy?
2. Bertrand Russell plays himself, being interviewed, as part of a 1967 Bollywood movie. A Buddhist monk explains, and links to the clip.
3. Are people abusing Jonathan Bennett’s Eric Schliesser comments.
4. What do our students want from us? For us to challenge them, and for us to care.
5. A review of a new novel composed entirely of fictional letters of recommendation, itself written as a letter of recommendation.
6. Plato’s Symposiumlive!
7. Berlin didn’t ask what makes foxes into foxes and hedgehogs into hedgehogs, but Alison Gopnik does, in the Wall Street Journal.
8. Peter Worley gives a TEDx talk on doing philosophy with children.
9. Relatedly, this three-minute animation is a great introduction for kids to cogito ergo sum.
10. The Philosopher’s Diet, by Richard Watson, starts with “Fat. I presume you want to get rid of it. Then quit eating so much.” I have no idea where it goes from there. It came out in 1985 and is still available at Amazon and also as a free Google doc of unknown legality.
11. Not the, uh, deepest thing you’ll read about holes.

Philosophy Banned in Northern Syrian City

The Islamic State (IS) Sunni extremist group has banned the study of philosophy and chemistry in schools in the northern Syrian city of al-Raqa and established an “Islamic curriculum” for students, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said Friday.

Of course, the absence of philosophy in the schools is probably the least of the problems in that region, but if you are interested, the rest of the story is here.

Heap of Links

1. Nicholas Kristof, writing in The New York Times, defends the value of the humanities by explaining how he has been affected by the ideas of Isaiah Berlin, John Rawls, and Peter Singer.
2. CBS will be airing a television drama that “centers on a brilliant bioethicist [based on Arthur Caplan] who is called in at crisis moments to solve the most complicated, dynamic, and confounding medical issues imaginable.”
3. Speaking of TV, the Series Philosopher brings a little philosophy to bear on television shows, such as Veep, Breaking Bad, Orange Is the New Black, The Big Bang Theory, and many more.
4. Pigliucci on Priest on Buddhism and logic — a critique.
5. Gricean Pragmatics, explained clearly and concisely, in a short video by Karen Lewis (Columbia).
6. Are you a philosopher who just doesn’t care about what to wear? Sure.
7. A physics writer takes up “why is there something rather than nothing?
8. Step-up! The bystander effect and culture.
9. Counterfactuals are tricky.

The Homogeneity of Philosophy

In my own department, I tried to stimulate discussion about what could be done to increase diversity. The faculty and my fellow graduate students were, to their credit, perfectly happy to have more women and minorities in the department. In fact, many spoke openly about their desire to see a more diverse department. This desire, however, seemed to be a desire mostly for a cosmetic change in the look of the department. When it came to making changes that might bring about a much deeper sense of diversity—i.e., changes in the culture and intellectual environment—there was less accommodation. In attempts to open up a discussion about diversity, I found myself repeatedly confounded by ignorance and, at times, thinly veiled racism. To various faculty, I suggested the possibility of hiring someone who, say, specializes in Chinese philosophy or feminist philosophy or the philosophy of race. I complained about the Eurocentric nature of undergraduate and graduate curricula. Without exception, my comments and suggestions were met with the same rationalizations for why philosophy is the way it is and why it should remain that way. To paraphrase one member of my department, “This is the intellectual tradition we work in. Take it or leave it.”

Eugene Sun Park, a filmmaker, explains how the narrowness of what counts as acceptable philosophy in Western departments led him to leave the discipline. Read the rest here. (via Hippo Reads and Fritz J. McDonald)

UPDATE (8/15/14): Owen Flanagan (Duke) writes: “Duke has just inaugurated a Center for Comparative Philosophy, co-directed by David Wong and myself. We are partnering with the outstanding group of philosophers at City University of Hong Kong and the Center for East Asian and Comparative Philosophy, CEACOP, directed by P.J. Ivanhoe.” More here.

On Moderation

Here at Daily Nous, comments are moderated. Over the past several months, I have heard some complaints and received some questions about the moderation here, so I thought I would take a moment to speak to these.

Question: Why do you moderate comments at your blog?
Answer: Because I am no fun. Anti-fun, actually.

Question: No, seriously. Why?
Answer: Because I must have complete and total control over all of philosophy. All of it. Have you seen how many Facebook followers I have? That is only the beginning. Now, it is simply a matter of time before you and every other philosopher will be subject to my iron-fisted rule! Bwahahaha—-

Question: I don’t think you are taking this line of questioning serio—
Answer: —hahahahahahaha.  Bwahahaha. aha. ha. ahem.

Question: Are you finished?
Answer: Can I say, “Oh I’m just getting started”?

Question: No.
Answer: Fine.

Question: So now that you’ve gotten that out of your system, perhaps you can tell us why you moderate comments at Daily Nous.
Answer: Because philosophers are people, too.  Continue reading


“It seems that, if you just present the correct information, five things happen,” he said. “One, students think they know it. Two, they don’t pay their utmost attention. Three, they don’t recognize that what was presented differs from what they were already thinking. Four, they don’t learn a thing. And five, perhaps most troublingly, they get more confident in the ideas they were thinking before.”

Confusion is a powerful force in education. It can send students reeling toward boredom and complacency. But being confused can also prompt students to work through impasses and arrive at a more nuanced understanding of the world.

“Common wisdom holds that confusion should be avoided during learning and rapidly resolved if and when it arises,” wrote a team of researchers in a paper published earlier this year. While this might be true when it comes to superficial tasks such as memorizing facts and figures, “Confusion is likely to promote learning at deeper levels of comprehension under appropriate conditions.”

In other words: If teachers want students to learn the really important stuff, like comprehending difficult texts and modeling complex systems, they should put their students in confusing situations.

That’s an excerpt from an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. How is it that philosophy is not raised once in this article? Confusion of the sort described here is one of the central tools of standard philosophical pedagogy, going back to Socrates. It is good to have some research on its effectiveness, but it is certainly disappointing that the connection to philosophy was not obvious enough for the article’s author to mention.

Updated Contemporary Moral Problems

Many colleges and universities offer a lower-level course on “contemporary moral problems” or “ethics and social issues.” These courses typically include topics like free speech, affirmative action, abortion, drugs, same-sex marriage, capital punishment, poverty, treatment of animals, and the environment—and have for several decades. While these are important topics, there are no doubt other, newer issues that would work well and perhaps better capture the attention of undergraduates. What newer topics are you thinking about incorporating into your contemporary moral problems course? And, if you know, which readings would you use for them?

The Top 267

Eric Schwitzgebel (Riverside) has combed through the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy to learn the names of the 267 most-cited contemporary philosophers in it. Are you on the list? Anyone you know? There’s also a separate post up at his blog discussing the demographic aspects of the list.

UPDATE: Some further analysis and a post about “Jewish, Non-Anglophone, Queer, and Disabled Philosophers.”