Symbolic Conscription, Part II (guest post by Amy Olberding)

The following is a guest post* by Amy Olberding, professor of philosophy at the University of Oklahoma, in response to the discussion of Sam Liao’s post here, “How Is This Course Intro to Philosophy?” A version of it first appeared at Feminist Philosophers.

Symbolic Conscription, Part II
by Amy Olberding

Last year I wrote a post reflecting my view that Rebecca Tuvel had been drafted as symbolic stand-in for a host of disciplinary issues and now I find my reactions much the same regarding the recent essay and guest post by Shen-yi Liao here at Daily Nous. Some details, first.

Professor Liao posted an essay describing his recent efforts to create a novel introduction to philosophy course, one that engaged students in much recent work on biases, silencing, slurs, and a cluster of related issues. Liao detailed some of the responses from students he received and was moved to post about it in part because he took these responses as evidence that pre-college assumptions about what philosophy is and can do are strong—indeed, that students may arrive at college with assumptions about the discipline that work to promote less interest in demographically underrepresented students.

So, the post had a twofold purpose: Share some creative pedagogy and query how intro courses might shake loose assumptions that discourage participation by a broader range of students.

The essay was re-posted at Daily Nous and thus began Professor Liao’s conscription. Some commentators there leapt on the course as “professional misconduct;” “indoctrination;” “threatening the very survival of our discipline in the academy;” as evincing “affected naivete” about how his own pedagogy operates; parting hardworking undergraduates from their tuition money for while failing to provide “genuine, lasting knowledge.” Liao’s syllabus was read as “transparently ideologically motivated pedagogy,” even as other commenters noted that a syllabus does not betray enough detail to level such judgments. The damage Liao was charged with inflicting or assisting was great: Liao was damaging the discipline writ large, creating conditions under which we ought expect further budget cuts to philosophy and helping render “universities into social-justice madrasas.” The upshot of all this wasn’t apparently enough so at least one commentator assailed Professor Liao as undeserving of his job and unworthy of being a philosopher: “How could anyone look at this syllabus and still wonder why the University has died? There are many fine philosophers who can’t secure employment anywhere, and all the while people teaching foolishness like this are granted a soapbox to propagandize impressionable youth with their warped perception of reality. If you can’t help yourself from cramming this nonsense down the students’ throats, at least take it over to one of the other Humanities departments, where you’ll fit right in.” A comment “liked” 159 times said in part of Liao: “The proper emotion, having comported himself in this way, is shame.”

There were of course comments that pushed back at all of this and a special place in heaven ought be reserved for Justin Tiehen, chair of Professor Liao’s department, who wrote a careful and tempered yet energetic defense of his untenured colleague. What I want to address here, though, is how, once again, the profession has an untenured scholar being held up to public disdain in our professional fora.

Like Tuvel, Liao has been symbolically conscripted as stand-in for far-reaching and contentious debates within the discipline. What place ought the traditional canon have? What does an introductory course do and what role ought it play in recruitment? What does “diversity” in views and content mean in practice? How does the political intersect with pedagogy? How much academic freedom is permitted in crafting standard items in curricula? But, rather than address much of this hard stuff, the post generated blunt outrage that manifested in simply insulting and deriding a single junior colleague who had the temerity to post about his experiments and experiences with intro.

The conversation likewise freely conscripted Liao into an amorphous “them” that all but guaranteed he would be held accountable and blamed for all sorts of “social justice” maneuvering his critics wanted to additionally deride. That is, the conscription was pretty total. It didn’t simply treat Liao as the personification of The Problem With The Discipline, it aligned him with all sorts of issues about which he was utterly silent, his syllabus apparently enough to conscript him into playing the role of the “social justice” THEM in its entirety.

I would have hoped that the disciplinary norms were shifting to discourage this kind of thing, but here we are again with a junior, untenured member of the profession conscripted into symbolizing one “side” in complex debates that generate our most heated and uncivil professional interactions. Perversely, even as many commented about the horrors Liao represents, they insisted upon the necessity of anonymity to protect themselves while doing so. I have no trouble with the anonymity in principle, but it’s more than a little rich to assign the need to it to fear while performing *exactly* the kinds of interaction that do inspire fear. What junior member of the profession wants to be the next Tuvel or Liao—held up for scorn and ridicule by the anonymous (but fearful!) commentariat of philosophy’s blogosphere?

My great dismay in all of this is partly the general worry with how it mistreats junior colleagues to have them stand-in for enormous problems we regularly fail to address or even debate intelligently within the profession.  I also just plainly don’t understand why our professional interactions need be so hostile or what good end all that hostility ultimately serves.

The other part of my dismay is with how these blog outbursts reasonably and understandably quash innovation in the discipline. Liao presented a version of intro to philosophy that aims to try something new. Like Liao’s approach or not, approve of it or not, work in the undergraduate intro trenches is exactly the sort of work that can get most tired, most stale, and least enlivened in our teaching. It’s where people are most likely to “phone in” their pedagaogy and thus is also where recruiting new majors can be particularly damaged. I see this in myself as the years have taught me that habituation in teaching is hard to resist.

I really prize—and prize above all—the younger members of the profession when it comes to talking pedagogy. They tend to be our most creative voices, our most energetic teachers, and the most adventurous among us. So I am disappointed by what this blog commentary on Liao’s work represents. I expect it will depress the chances that the young people in the discipline will risk showing aspects of their pedagogy that could teach us older folk new approaches.

Philosophy, the discipline that eats its young.

Art: Francis Bacon, “Head VI” (detail)

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