A Surprisingly Overlooked Gap in Philosophy (guest post by Bob Fischer)


Bob Fischer is an assistant professor of philosophy at Texas State University. In a brief conversation over the summer, he shared with me an observation about a problem teaching philosophy to college students and I thought, “no, that can’t be correct.” But he was right, and he was doing something about it. In the following guest post, he explains the problem and how he addressed it. 


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A Surprisingly Overlooked Gap in Philosophy
by Bob Fischer

I just finished assembling College Ethics: A Reader on Moral Issues That Affect You, which is devoted to topics such as hate speech on campus, academic ethics, casual sex, accommodating gender identity, and the ethics of entertainment. What surprised me, after many sets of comments on multiple drafts, is how many philosophers seem to be sure that a philosopher has written on some topic which would certainly be of interest to students, despite the fact that no one has.

Or, at least, no one has written on it where I could find it. I searched on PhilPapers and The Philosopher’s Index; I looked through every table of contents for Philosophy Now, The Philosopher’s Magazine, and Think; I scanned all the pop culture and philosophy books; I poked around in edited volumes, old newspapers, and much else besides. Still, I had a hard time finding material that explores the ethics of making demands to university presidents, or the ethics of getting drunk, or ethical issues associated with living in rental properties and having roommates, or whether paying for college gives parents a moral—if not legal—right to some information about how their children do in class. I also struggled to find material on issues that students certainly frame as moral, and complain about regularly: mandatory campus meal plans, indecipherable student fees, “boring” professors, being taught by graduate students.

Of course, philosophers have said a lot that’s relevant to these issues (as I’ll be the first to acknowledge), and plenty of non-philosophers have said things about them. But what I wanted—and what you’d want, if you were trying to help students think more clearly and critically about such things—is to have the stars align. The texts would be philosophically astute, on point, and accessible. Good luck.

Granted, it isn’t terribly surprising that we’ve not spent much time on the kinds of questions that occupy the minds of our students. I don’t get drunk, or have roommates (unless you count my children), or find myself forced to buy a meal plan. So, I don’t think much about these things, and as a result, I don’t write about them. What’s more, there are some good reasons not to think about them. Aleppo is awash in blood, we kill some sixty billion land animals for food each year, and white nationalism seems to be on the rise. In circumstances like these, who cares about student fees?

Well, our students do. And although I think that part of my job is to help them see that their worries aren’t always the most important ones, I also think that I owe it to them to take their worries seriously. Additionally, it’s good pedagogy. It lets me model charitable dialogue, as I’m put in a position of needing to listen, not just lecture. And it lets students draw on their real and rich understandings of their own lives, providing depth and texture to moral discussion. (By contrast, consider our conversations about capital punishment, which follow a ten-minute primer on “some relevant background information.” Which topic is likely to invite more critical engagement?)

All that said, I’d like to encourage the philosophical community to write about the moral concerns of college students. It’s too late for my sake, as the book’s done. But it isn’t too late for your future students, who will benefit from being challenged to think more carefully and seriously about the everyday moral questions they face. I hope you’ll help them out.

 

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Aspasia
Aspasia
5 years ago

Although I have never taught about issues facing student life directly, I do try to take philosophy out of the its rarified environment, and show how it in fact does affect their lives. I am sure I am not alone in this, but I think it’s as important to bring philosophy to bear on everyday lived experience as it is to make everyday lived experience a topic of philosophical investigation. For instance, appealing to the Gambler’s fallacy can allow you to tell the cheerer-uppers who say things can only better to go…somewhere. Likewise, Rawls’s veil of ignorance can be used as a basis for deciding what kind of world you want your baby to be born into. Kripke’s epistemic argument against descriptivist theories of proper names even can be seen as a call for the democratization of theorizing. Moral luck, or just luck, can be used to encourage students to be more empathetic, open-minded, fair, and tolerant. Kantian ethics can help one mend and maintain relationships with persons who do things contrary to their own interests. Theories of the mind can encourage students to think more broadly and inclusively about what kinds of minded things there might be, and to treat certain beings with more care or respect due to such reflection. Ditto for theories of personal identity. And so on and so on. So, I guess my point is we should strive to go in both directions. And, so as to avoid hypocrisy, we also ought to strive for consistency in our actions, philosophical, and non-philosophical beliefs as rational agents in general. To allow philosophy to affect our own lives in the ways we hope it will affect others. I’m glad to see a book like this out.Report

Shelley Tremain
Shelley Tremain
5 years ago

Hi Bob Fischer,

insofar as disabled students are (also) racialized, gendered, and sexualized, the contributions to this collection will be relevant to them, that is, disabled students will, or may, feel that the “You” in the book’s subtitle encompasses them in some way or another. Nevertheless, I have to wonder why there are *no* chapters that specifically address the ethical issues that arise for many disabled students, such as issues with respect to ableism in general, inaccessibility, “accommodations,” exclusion, isolation, perceived asexuality, infantilization, and so on.

Would you mind explaining your editorial decision in this regard? That is, would you please explain why you chose not to include chapters that address issues of particular concern to disabled students?Report

Bob Fischer
Reply to  Shelley Tremain
5 years ago

Shelley,

Thanks for your question. You’re right: the book ought to include something on disability and college life. This is one of many cases where I couldn’t find something that seemed quite right–which I certainly regret. If there’s a second edition, I’ll do my best to include readings that specifically address issues that arise for disabled students. (A commissioned piece is always an option. Would you be interested?)

BobReport

Shelley Tremain
Shelley Tremain
Reply to  Bob Fischer
5 years ago

Hi Bob,
I would be interested because I do think that it is very important for philosophers to begin to standardly include contributions on disability in anthologies of this sort, especially when many other categories of identity are represented. Feminist philosophers have, over the last few years, become more conscientious about doing so. The rest of the profession needs to follow suit. In any case, please write to me at [email protected].
Thank you,
ShelleyReport

Bob Fischer
Reply to  Shelley Tremain
5 years ago

Sounds good, Shelley! Will do.Report

Mark Lafrenz
Mark Lafrenz
Reply to  Shelley Tremain
5 years ago

It would be a good idea to include some material on challenges faced by disabled students. It seems to me that including some of Martha Nussbaum’s work on capabilities and justice would be useful.Report

Bob Fischer
Reply to  Mark Lafrenz
5 years ago

Good suggestion! Thanks.Report

Plutarch
Plutarch
5 years ago

As a university teacher with lots of young students I think this is an important topic and personally I’ll definitely read it once it’s out, but at $70 I doubt my students will buy it, and at 600+ pages I doubt if they read it, so the publication is somewhat self-defeating.Report

Bob Fischer
Reply to  Plutarch
5 years ago

Plutarch,

That’s a fair concern. However, I’ll mention that I received an OUP marketing email according to which “[s]tudent purchase options begin at $34.95.”

https://services.blimessaging.com/201208/viewaswebpage/viewaswebpage.aspx?unqid=057f4141-2884-e611-95c6-0050569f409f

Presumably, that’s for a digital copy. I’d still like it to be less, but $34.95 is certainly progress.

BobReport

Chris Rawls
Chris Rawls
Reply to  Bob Fischer
5 years ago

I am starting to work more on and in the philosophy of education. Thank you for your work. I will buy the book and pass along this article to my colleagues at UTRGV.Report

Jussi Suikkanen
Jussi Suikkanen
5 years ago

I can recommend Thomas White’s Right and Wrong – a Practical Introduction to Ethics. The 2nd edition is just coming out. Here’s the preface:
“One of the major challenges of writing an applied ethics book is selecting cases. Humans have such a proclivity for behaving badly that there is never a shortage of examples from which to choose. However, because new scandals crop up on virtually a daily basis, cases quickly become dated and obsolete. In this book, I aim to get around that problem by using ethical dilemmas that represent constants in university life. Matters of academic dishonesty, partying, and relationships (more prosaically, “sex, drugs, crib, and cheat”) are as central to the student experience as they were in the eleventh or twelfth century. These cases are all genuine ethical issues that some student or other faced. They were submitted through a website I created…”
The book then goes on to do what it says on the tin and what the author of the post was looking for.Report

Bob Fischer
Reply to  Jussi Suikkanen
5 years ago

That looks like a great volume, Jussi! Thanks for sharing.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

What a great idea! This is a splendid example of reaching out to people with philosophy. We need more such innovation. Way to go Bob Fischer! I wonder if a class based on a book like this might attract students. I’ll be seeing if I can get hold of a desk copy. If Fischer decides to follow this up, I hope the next one is a cheap paperback to encourage students to pick it up on a whim. I also wonder what other groups we might potentially be able to target like this.Report

Alex Howe
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

My 2 cents on students’ response to these sort of approaches (FWIW):

For an intro ethics course, I made a concerted effort to use topics and material relevant to students’ everyday lives. It went really well! For example, I used college hook-up culture as well as broader sexual depictions & cultural norms centered exclusively on male pleasure to anchor discussion on rights (e.g., the right to pleasure, Kant’s “always as an end”, the negative/positive distinction). That unit was a success! I also used the Terms of Use for Tinder (an ubiquitous hook-up app) to illustrate issues like digital privacy and contracts, but that one didn’t work as well. …I think I overestimated both the GenEd interest in contracts and the general population’s belief in “digital privacy” as a coherent notion. A second unit that went quite well, however, was a unit on abstinence-only vs. harm reduction approaches to both sex and drugs. That topic generated great papers. I also found that topics outside of just ethics could be “spruced up” to engage students. For example, I used materials such as a poem called “How to Make Love to a Trans Person” by Gabe Moses in the unit on argument reconstruction. Generally, I wanted to show the students that they encounter arguments ever minute of their day. It also went over well!

I stretched the rules a bit on course content for a general intro ethics course, but the class engagement was significantly more robust than I’d experienced before, and the papers were genuinely interesting.Report

Alex Howe
5 years ago

Hi Bob,
Apologies for the delayed response, but I got sidetracked watching Will Ferrell’s Spartan Spirit/Bobby Fischer skit.

What sort of outlets would you recommend people use to write about these topics? During my time in grad school, I have worked extensively on topics such as supplemental fees, automatic crediting of student fellowships/scholarships/financial aid against outstanding university balances, the timing of tuition/fee deadlines vs. stipend payment dates, sexual assault, campus safety, unionization, food insecurity, internal policies that hamper dept. grad student orgs from forming and being awarded monies from central campus resources, health insurance, non-academic career resources, student bills of rights, campus protest policies, formal language for writing student governments into shared governance models mostly with respect to administration rather than faculty (in non-binding but mandatory advisory capacities), administrative contract transparency beyond just salary & trust deficits, barriers to inclusivity, the interaction between campus policies designed for undergrads and the very different grad student experience, housing and childcare, how administrations balance their time and public image amongst their stakeholders (i.e., parents, undergrads, staff, faculty, legislatures, alumni, donors), advocacy methods for specific proposals such as stipend increases, coalition-building strategies for effectively navigating the power structures of a university, “educational data” collection on students using their student ID numbers and cards on campus, and others.

I’d be eager to write about these topics, or to collaborate with others in doing so. But I don’t know where to go!Report

Bob Fischer
Reply to  Alex Howe
5 years ago

Great question, Alex!

There are lots of places to consider. Most obviously, you might submit essays to the venues I mentioned: Philosophy Now, The Philosopher’s Magazine, and Think–none of which focus on these issues, but all of which are open to them, at least if the essay is pitched appropriately. Additionally, consider the Journal of Academic Ethics (http://link.springer.com/journal/10805) and the Journal of Moral Education (http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/cjme20/current), both of which tend to publish empirical work, but do publish theoretical stuff. And, of course, many standard philosophy journals publish work in applied ethics, and so should be willing to accept papers on topics like the ones you mention.

I suspect that there’s also room for some edited volumes on these sorts of issues. Cahn’s Moral Problems in Higher Education (https://www.amazon.com/Moral-Problems-Higher-Education-Steven/dp/1439906580/) is the most recent one in the ballpark, but it’s really pitched to faculty, not students. If you (or anyone else) would be interested in proposing a volume to a press, please get in touch!

BobReport

Alex Howe
Reply to  Bob Fischer
5 years ago

Fantastic information–thank you, Bob! I will be in touch before too long.Report

DocFEmeritus
DocFEmeritus
5 years ago

Good observation. Years ago I taught a seminar on Philosophy and Controversil Constitutional Issues. Included were issues such as abortion, free speech on college campuses (included hate speech and areas of restricted speech), racism and current state of civil rights, the death penalty , assisted suicide, and others. There are, of course, many philosophers who wrote on abortion, asst’d suicide, and the death penalty. But I had to use mostly articles or books written by lawyers or other non-philosophers on hate speech, racism and free speech, Brown v Board of Education and other issues. That might have changed now, but I understand the dearth of publications by philosophers on current issues, as those mentioned in the article.

Partly, I think is the fact we are an anti-intellectual society and philosophers are not well received when they speak out (e.g. Peter Singer) – who wants that? Second, do Phil depts reward a member who writes about popular culture and its issues just as they reward publications in the prestigious journals on technical philosophical issues? Not that I’ve seen, but maybe I am off on this since being retired a number of years.

One can not only write but speak on such issues, which I often did at churches, clubs such as Rotary, other organizations’ meetings. True, not published, but still philosophers speaking out.Report

NATHAN NOBIS
4 years ago