Philosophers from Poverty 2: Suggestions


The post, “Philosophers from Poverty,” is still growing, with a range of interesting, informative, and often moving accounts of the lives of philosophers from poor and lower class backgrounds. As that discussion continues, it may be useful to expand upon suggestions for how, if at all, we might alter our thinking, behavior, practices, policies, and the like, in light of what we’ve learned from it.

The discussion about philosophers from poor backgrounds began here in response to comments about the UPDirectory, by noting that class or proxies for it, such as “First Generation College Student” were not among the categories available. I followed up with the UPDirectory team about this. They considered the question and wrote back:

The UPDirectory focuses on the categories of gender, race, disability and sexual orientation. To allow for expression of greater intersectionalities, however, we have added a write-in for people who meet one of the main self-identification categories to indicate further information such as ‘economic hardship’, ‘first-generation college student’, ‘Muslim’, ‘atheist’, ‘full-time caregiver’, ‘single parent’, and so on.

We are a group of individuals who have worked on a volunteer basis to create a resource that we believe would be useful to the profession. We don’t pretend to represent anyone or the profession at large. We’ve done our best to balance competing considerations, but the result is necessarily imperfect. We welcome efforts by others to create resources that highlight other forms of social disadvantage.

I understand how some people might be disappointed about this, but I would urge commenters to refrain from excessively criticizing this decision and instead focus on offering constructive suggestions.

guest
17 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Tim O'Keefe
6 years ago

I think that admissions committees at PhD and MA programs shouldn’t put emphasis on undergraduate pedigree in their decisions. Lots of people from low SES background, and first-generation college students, are going to go to the closest campus of their state university system after taking classes at local community colleges.Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

I appreciate the service the UPDirectory is providing to the profession. I encourage the UPDirectory team to remain open to including more categories, such as those involving socioeconomic status, to their searchable list. The list already includes 15 items. It doesn’t seem the addition of a few more would cause any harm, and it could be a first step in providing support to the members of the categories included.Report

ER
ER
6 years ago

I tend to think academia is beyond repair, probably because it supervenes on a capitalist social system which is at odds with academic values (let alone other values). Nonetheless it would help if we could remind ourselves of this, and stop behaving as if the academic “meritocracy” was something to be proud of.Report

Here Is A Name
Here Is A Name
6 years ago

Speaking from experience, the most important thing faculty can do vis-a-vis graduate and undergraduate students is to stop being judgmental and condescending. Take something as simple as an accent: A Southern accent is cause for immediate and ugly judgment among a significant percentage of academics (including many of the most grandstanding moralizers in a moralizing profession). One would think that philosophers, knowing that there is no Platonically correct way to speak, wouldn’t judge people (especially students) harshly, but I can’t even begin to count the number of times in my education (tenure track professor these days) I was openly mocked for the way I sound (and my accent isn’t all that strong).

It gets worse: Consider an article in Teaching Philosophy a few years back concerning how “modernity” had yet to reach the students of Appalachia but how we could “teach modernity” to them…including a story of asking a gathering of students if they have indoor plumbing. Seriously. How do you think those students felt? I know how I felt when asked similar questions as an undergraduate. Fortunately, I had just enough confidence to change to subject to Carnap or whatever my hillbilly self was reading that semester.

There are disadvantages that unavoidable in academia for people from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Life’s tough that way and often there’s just nothing to be done except for the student to work through it. But there is never a need for professors to make it worse.

One last bit of advice: If you’re a professor and you’re not happy about the place you’ve ended up–maybe it’s too rural, too Southern, too many under-prepared students or whatever else–you need to not openly complain about it. Yes, you attended the fanciest of fancy PhD programs, studied with Bertrand Russell himself, and yet ended up at Nowhere State to live out your days (in a secure and cushy job). You’re upset you’re teaching at the school. The students are ATTENDING the school. This is where they are being educated. How do you think hearing all this from you makes them feel?Report

Grad Student
Grad Student
6 years ago

I feel devastated by that decision. I think that the first step to making people from low class backgrounds feel less isolated in the profession is to give them resource to communicate with others of similar experiences. My only constructive suggestion is that someone else make a list for class like what the UPdirectory provides for other issues.Report

Anon grad student
Anon grad student
6 years ago

This is extremely disappointing. It seems the purpose of the website is less to provide a directory of groups that are traditionally or currently under-represented in philosophy, so much as to uphold a particular brand of identity politics.

(It’s extremely unclear what the criteria for inclusion are. Certainly, being an under-represented group is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition: as far as I know there’s very little evidence that LGBTQ philosophers are under-represented, and plenty of evidence that, e.g. working class or conservative philosophers are. The quoted response is, well, fairly unresponsive. Of course no-one is begrudging the authors their right to create whatever kind of directory they see fit. But if they explicitly represent it as a directory of *under-represented groups*, it seems justly open to criticism on the grounds that it doesn’t make much of an effort to track that.)Report

Sigrid
Sigrid
6 years ago

This isn’t something that we, as individuals, can implement, but it was tremendously valuable to me as an undergraduate, and it would be wonderful if more universities would do this:

The University of Kansas has long had a system of Scholarship Halls, which are residence halls for about 50 students, who must qualify both in terms of financial need and academic excellence. A spot in a hall is considered financial aid, as they are much cheaper than other university housing. The financial need test wasn’t extreme, so there were lower middle class students like me (father was an oil field worker, 1st gen student on GI bill) as well as students with greater financial burdens. But everyone was on a relatively tight budget, and all were relatively serious students. So you absolutely felt that you belonged in a community of thinkers, surrounded by people with similar background, challenges and goals. The network of Schol Halls Even partied together, so you could also count on a very inexpensive social life, too: hall dues paid for a keg and popcorn, and you didn’t even have to drive.

I wonder how common this sort of set-up is?Report

Shen-yi Liao
6 years ago

One pro tanto, pragmatic reason for not including self-identifications of SES status in such a database is that there is less reason to think that people are reliable in their self-identification. In contrast, I think people are really good at identifying their gender and LGBTQ status, and less so but still acceptably reliable at identifying how they get racialized.

One measure that often gets used is the MacArthur Scale of Subjective Social Status ( http://www.macses.ucsf.edu/research/psychosocial/subjective.php ). I think that is one idea for the UP Directory organizers, but it is less clear to me how it could be operationalized into more familiar categories such as “working class”. Moreover, even using this scale, it is unclear that people’s SES self-identifications are reliable. For example, Operario et al (2004) note that the test-retest reliability is rho = 0.62; the authors take it as a good sign, but I take it as a sign that people are actually not very good at even being consistent in their SES self-identification.

And this is not to even bring up many other aspects that make self-identification tricky. In the US context alone, being working class in mid 20th Century where there is decent social mobility is very different from being working class today where there is little to no social mobility. This is not to mention all the difficulties that come with the international context: as was remarked in the other thread, being working class in a developed country still places you at the very top of global wealth. Moreover, as was mentioned in many stories in the other thread, one’s class status might change even from childhood to adolescence.

(Notably, speaking of intersectionality, when researchers look at what objective measures that the SES self-identification correlates with, “In the US, predictors differ for White and Black participants in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA). Financial security, material deprivation and education are significant predictors of ranking on the SES ladder for both white and black participants. However, household income and wealth predict subjective social status for Whites in CARDIA but not for Blacks (Adler, Singh-Manoux, Schwartz, Stewart, Matthews & Marmot, 2008). Unlike the results in Whitehall II where psychosocial factors were not related to ladder scores, in CARDIA ladder rankings were associated with optimism for both groups, and with control in Whites and mental health for Blacks.”.)

I am grateful to everyone who has posted their stories. I am grateful to Daily Nous for hosting this discussion. I am grateful to the UP Directory organizers for undertaking an impossible effort to try to account for under-privilege along many different dimensions. And I am sure there are many aspects of these issues I have not thought of and I welcome others’ corrections.

However, to emphasize again, the minimal point I want to make is just that while it is possible to have some measure of SES self-identification, this is something that is very complicated, and both sides would do well to look at the empirical research that’s been done already (which I’ve only begun to do so, prompted by this discussion.) Again, the website for the MacArthur SES scale is a good starting point: http://www.macses.ucsf.edu/research/psychosocial/subjective.php .Report

Tim O'Keefe
6 years ago

Shen-Yi Liao, I appreciate the worries about self-identification, although–to be honest–even if some people ‘wrongly’ self-identify their SES as lower than it is, I think that having such a self-identified list would still be a useful resource for people. In any case, it was for this sort of reason that I had suggested earlier that “first-generation college student” would be a possible category to add, as inclusion would be more straightforward. (Still some borderline cases–e.g., your father went part-time to CC for a year and never received a degree and worked a blue-collar job–but the point stands.)Report

Matt Drabek
Matt Drabek
6 years ago

I’d like to second Tim O’Keefe’s suggestion about de-emphasizing pedigree in graduate admissions. I think the same thing could be said of hiring committees and pedigree in hiring practices. I don’t know off the top of my head how to accomplish that, but I’d certainly welcome suggestions, etc.Report

anon
anon
6 years ago

Agreeing with people above, addressing the problem brought up by this http://schwitzsplinters.blogspot.ca/2011/10/sorry-cal-state-students-no-princeton.html would go a long wayReport

Roadster
Roadster
6 years ago

The point in Schwitzgebel’s post is crucial: meritocracy is a joke when admissions to top grad programs correlate so strongly with undergrad pedigree. This is even more evident in the UK, where so many permanent faculty at good programs come from just two undergrad programs (Oxbridge, where half the undergrads are privately educated).Report

Zara
Zara
6 years ago

Here are some serious suggestions both to graduate students and faculty from the upper middle class. Do not casually assume in conversation with a graduate student at your institution that

(1) they have been to Europe;
(2) they have ever dined at a restaurant with entrees above the $10-$15 range;
(3) they have parents who were in a position to help them financially;
(4) they went to summer camp as a kid;
(5) they had music lessons available to them as a kid;
(6) they know anything about wine or expensive liquor; or
(7) they spent their summers in high school and in college doing anything other than boring low-paying jobs.

This won’t help socio-economically disadvantaged undergrads get into grad school, but avoiding these assumption will make those few who make it in feel a little less isolated.Report

Anon rural
Anon rural
6 years ago

The impact of upbringing and background on how (un)comfortable people are in academic social climates should make philosophers more careful about the weight we give to interviews and to campus visits. We should try to be self-aware about whether we are actually tracking philosophical or pedagogical interest and ability or are just observing whether candidates have similar taste in food and drink, similar cultural consumption, similar political opinions etc. Sometimes candidate seem out of place because because they’re not as familiar with the social customs, references points, and assumptions of the academic class (or your particular department) as others. When many search committees put a big emphasis on fit, I worry that this often becomes a matter of picking the person who seems closest in their socio-demographic characteristics and outlook, something that can perpetuate the exclusion of various out-groups. As someone who grew up in a rural culture with a heavy emphasis on doing work but a low emphasis on social graces, it still takes a lot of effort to be at my social best, especially when I’m also trying to come across as a promising philosopher.Report

michaela
michaela
6 years ago

FWIW I think that it is the right decision to not include a measure of socioeconomic status or first generation college student status to the directory. Despite the significant disadvantages in our profession that come with a) not being white or b) being a woman, there is at least I think a clear commitment on quite a lot of people’s part to at least make some effort to diversify various things (conferences, contributed volumes, departments) (I should note that I think there is far less of a commitment in the profession as a whole to racially diversify things than there is to include (usually white) women in things, and I think that is unacceptable). But I strongly suspect that most people who come from poor or working class roots or even who are first-generation college graduates would not want to publicly identify that fact, because there is no corresponding effort to diversify with respect to socioeconomic status. This, I think, would result in the people who could afford to make this kind of thing known making it known, that is, the powerful tenured people, whereas I think most junior people (and even perhaps less well known senior people) would feel uncomfortable self-identifying this way. And I would worry that that would just contribute further to a lack of opportunities for those junior people. In short, I imagine that far more awareness needs to be raised about this issue before we start singling people out, even if it is purportedly to benefit them. And I think those senior people who would self-identify in such a forum can easily make themselves known, e.g. by commenting non-anonymously in the other thread, etc.Report

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
6 years ago

Amen to Matt Drabek,. I have posted extensively on Leiter and New Apps about why pedigree should not count in making hiring decisions. See for instance http://www.newappsblog.com/2014/04/hiring-academic-pedigree-and-exclusion-is-going-for-pedigree-racist-and-classist-.htmlReport

anonymoustenured
anonymoustenured
6 years ago

Everything Zara said at 13– including when you’re dealing with a faculty member as well. Here are a few others that occur to me (perhaps more later):
1- Do not assume that the faculty colleague who has not purchased a home in town-of-college/university is planning or hoping to move elsewhere. Perhaps it’s not lack of commitment, but lack of funds.
2- “Just put it on your card, you’ll get reimbursed”. Where “it” is an expensive meal for a guest speaker, or plane tickets or god knows what else. My card is probably at maximum; why are you putting me in the embarrassing position of having to say that, and naturally feel compelled to explain why in such a way that vindicates the fact that I’m not in some way economically irresponsible? Yes, I know very well that this is just how the system is set up at some universities/colleges (and the fact that one can sometimes get reimbursed for such things is itself great). But treating this as a non-issue [in the ‘just put it on your card’ way] is making presumptions about the economic status of those with whom you are interacting. More generally– want to set up a system that actually makes room for people from not-economically privileged backgrounds to participate equally and fairly? If you’ve already got a system where the department/college/university will cover such things, why not talk to the Dean/Provost/Person-with-the-money and explain that the reimbursement system is hardest on (some of) those who have had to work most to get to where they are, and ask for a department credit card to cover such things (or some such direct-pay alternative)?
3- “We’re collecting monetary donations for a retirement gift/gifts for the administrative assistants/worthy cause, and suggest the following donation scale (I’ve seen these measured to tenure status, to income–the latter is better than the former, but same amount of income does not equal same economic status– compare, e.g. a person with x income whose house was paid for by their parents (who has thus not even a mortgage), who has no student loans, and who is married to another professional with income, to a person with x income who rents, with massive student loans, medical costs that are partly a result of making up for the damage of a childhood without medical care or income…] Alternative? First, drop the suggested donation scale. Second, instead of having a *person* collect the money (which inevitably leaves folks like me in a quite uncomfortable position), why not just have a box in a secure location into which people are asked to drop *cash*.
–more later perhaps–Report