Philosopher and Activist


Lisa Guenther (Vanderbilt) is profiled in The Chronicle of Higher Education (paywalled) for both her teaching of philosophy in prisons and her activism regarding “the carceral state.”

She had been researching “the politics of confinement and the ethics of torture,” and their connection to academia, when “suddenly I realized that I really can’t do this work by simply reading 40-year-old books. I needed to engage,” she says. “I needed to be in conversation with people who were directly affected by that system.” Owing to her work with prisoners, she “has metamorphosized from an office-bound theorist into a self-described social activist. She is an outspoken critic of mass incarceration and the death penalty, and an advocate for radical penal reform.”

Her first experience teaching in prison was hosting a reading group on death row:

Every week, 10 death-row inmates and a revolving group of three to six volunteers, usually graduate students from Vanderbilt, read and discussed philosophy. In short order, though, the gathering became less of a curated book club and more of a social-justice discussion group, complete with subcommittees focused on domestic violence, the school-to-prison pipeline, prison medical care, and death-penalty law…

Guenther insists she is not interested in turning all of the graduate students who volunteer with her at Riverbend into political activists, nor is she of the mind to abandon the philosophical lessons and discussions she pursues with inmates. Her goal is to create an atmosphere for unfettered critical engagement, which she believes is the centerpiece of both learning and living a full life. “There’s a broader ethical horizon of education as a radical project,” she explains. “Not radical in the sense that you have to hold specific, radical political ideals, but that some sort of transformation, and some sort of engagement of your whole personhood should happen in the classroom, wherever that classroom is.”

The article also discusses how her work is perceived by others in her department and in academia more broadly, raising the question of how public service work should be recognized in the academy:

Her colleagues at Vanderbilt are, for the most part, supportive of her work at Riverbend and beyond. Still, Guenther senses that her peers consider many of the activities she participates in with community activists and other movement scholars around the country to be extracurricular. 

That mentality is typical in academe, says Marie Gottschalk, a political-science professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a champion of prison reform. In her view, it’s also unfortunate. “The attitude is still: This won’t get you tenure, this won’t advance your degree, so don’t do it,” Gottschalk says. “We need to evaluate people differently. That’s not to say everyone should do public service, but if they are doing things in the wider public arena, that should be counted.”

Readers of Daily Nous may recall earlier posts on the subject, including reflections from several philosophers who teach in prisons and student course evaluations from a philosophy in prison program.

guest
5 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Rebeka Ferreira
5 years ago

More on the Philosophy of activism please! Our ethical and/or social obligations to engage others, collective responsibility, civil disobedience, etc. Very interesting.Report

recent grad
recent grad
5 years ago

I would also like to see more posts on stuff like this. One thing that might be helpful–maybe you’ve done it before–is to have someone outline how to get a program like this started at a prison or juvenile detention center nearby.Report

Random
Random
5 years ago

If I am a chemist, should activism count towards tenure? If I am a county clerk, should activism get me a raise? If am a janitor, should “radical” activity get me a promotion? The latter two are obviously not the case, and I’ve never seen anyone make a good case that the former should be different.

Insofar as a specific school has adopted a mission of civic or community engagement, I can understand making such activities a part of the tenure process. But, frankly, I think a lot of people in academia, especially in the humanities, simply want to turn their profession in a hotbed of left wing political activity even at the expense of their actual job of research and teaching. Or are we to count any and all political activity? Does donating to the Republican Party count? Working for the Romney campaign? Picketting against affirmative action? Starting a discussion group with prisoner’s about individualism and personal responsibility? Of course not, but if you accept that those activities don’t count then neither should “radical activities.”Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Random
5 years ago

Certain sorts of activism could be a form of teaching and research, and as such, might reasonably count for tenure. I think you are right that a lot of philosophers want to be a part of a “hotbed of left wing political activity,” but if we care about political philosophy, that seems natural enough. I applaud your point that if we count political activism as work, we must do so regardless of whether the activism is left wing or otherwise. Too often, these conversations are framed in terms of the importance of supporting various leftist causes, with no consideration of how to treat activism for other causes.Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
5 years ago

Random, if you were chemist and you started a summer STEM college prep program for underprivileged high school students, don’t you think that might cogently fulfill the kinds of expectations we typically have of academics? Actually, I think a janitor could make a case that experience implementing green initiatives and the like (I don’t mean to only be using “lefty” examples, I just can’t think of something else similarly related to job expectations off the top of my head) could be cause for promotion too.Report