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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Sam b
Sam b
3 years ago

Liao’s course is certainly unconventional, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Professors should feel free to shape intro courses however they want so long as they discuss philosophy and the course is relatively accessible (being an intro course). Intro is the best course to be experimental with so long as you are successful in introducing kids to the ways philosophers think in general, and it is best for philosophers to do that through content that they know well (and, as is often the case, that they are passionate about).

The accusation that he is politicizing intro to philosophy is ironic, since in itself it is indeed political to deny that the topic of the ontology of race is philosophy. Going back to Socrates, one of the social utilities of philosophy is criticizing the concepts that people take for granted and dominate our society. If a concept is taken for granted as something not worthy of analysis, we are implicitly claiming that it is a stone best left unturned thereby leaving the social and political consequences of the concept in place. Considering the importance of these concepts in contemporary debates and institutions, discussing them philosophically is valuable. If anything, viewing these things as “not philosophy” weakens the discipline by shrinking it, as well as serving to save these concepts from philosophical inquiry.

It is worth pointing out, the idea that philosophy should not be concerned with notions of social justice is laughable. Even if one thinks social justice is not an ends worth pursuing, presumably they must have a philosophical criticism of why, which thereby requires a charitable and intellectually honest interaction with the philosophers who argue for it. I wonder, too, isn’t it an implicit endorsement of racism to say that discussing race as a social and historical normative concept is harmful to the academy as a kind of indoctrination into “social justice ideology” or whatever?Report

David Mathers
David Mathers
Reply to  Sam b
3 years ago

‘ it is indeed political to deny that the topic of the ontology of race is philosophy’

How many of Liao’s critics in the thread actually did that? I agree that doing so is political (and racist and factually wrong) and I didn’t read the whole thread, but my impression was that most of the complaints were either that a) doing *only* race and gender stuff was inappropriate for an intro course, or b) that his reading list did not have enough political diversity on race and gender. Neither of those claims imply that philosophy of race/gender is ‘not real philosophy’. Report

Hegelian
Hegelian
Reply to  Sam b
3 years ago

Hijacking top comment for visibility; this is a response to Olberding.

I find it ironic that you decry the critical backlash against Liao’s syllabus (and his posting of it) in the comments section on this website, in particular their “level of discourse” and the anonymity on the part of some participants, while claiming that you “really prize—and prize above all—the younger members of the profession when it comes to talking pedagogy”.

First of all, these are internet comments, not essays (which are TL;DR for this medium). One of their functions is expressivist. I am surprised that you are surprised that people registered their disagreement, however affectively charged, with your and Liao’s views.

Secondly, of the 9 quotes you cherry-picked (apparently because you considered them the most rhetorically devastating), a majority were not anonymous (5 of 9). Similarly, a majority were by members of the profession more junior than you or Liao (3 by verifiable graduate students, 2 by “Onthemarket”). Only 2 were simply anonymous. And these are just the quotes you selected for strategic reasons! (And if anyone things this doesn’t accurately represent the comments on Liao’s post, I agree: if you read all the comments, there are even more non-anonymous posts and posts by graduate students that are critical of Liao’s syllabus and his posting of it).

Not to mention that the reason for the anonymity is obvious, and its reasonableness validated by your post: here you are, an established associate professor, assuming a platform on one of the most dominant online institutions for our discipline, in order to reinforce the dominant viewpoint. Not only is no opposing view given (why not invite that Joshua Reagan you quote several times to write a companion piece?), but you decry the only democratic aspect of this site, the comments—and indeed, comments many if not most of which were made by members of the profession more junior than you and Liao. Given that it only takes one offended member of a future potential hiring committee to ruin a candidate’s chances, it is not surprising that the philosophical “young” would opt for anonymity in these comments if they have any desire to go on the market at some point.

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Oliver Traldi
Oliver Traldi
Reply to  Hegelian
3 years ago

Gadzooks! Is it possible that these named vulnerable graduate students have been “symbolically conscripted” into the role of anonymous senior faculty bullies?Report

Amy Olberding
Amy Olberding
Reply to  Hegelian
3 years ago

Just to clarify a couple of issues. I selected the comments I did because those were the ones doing what I sought to describe. I wasn’t condemning the whole thread or all of the critical comments, only those I thought symbolically conscriptive. I recognize the affective dimension; I was arguing that it’s extreme and disproportionate.

I didn’t commandeer the blog and omit opposing response. I made the post on Feminist Philosophers, Justin asked to re-post it, and I agreed. Presumably he might do the same for other posts appearing elsewhere if he so chose.

You seem to assume I was registering objections in defense of the substance of Liao’s post. I was not. I was objecting to the style, intensity, and vitriol of some of the commentary it generated and seeking to explain how I thought that style, intensity, and vitriol developed. In this light, any post “opposing” my own would need to defend the use of extremely condemnatory, shaming rhetoric directed at a (junior) colleague in the profession in a public forum. That is what I was expressing a view about, though I’m not convinced mine is a “dominant” view in the profession.

I’m not an associate professor, but full. I don’t have the sort of power you ascribe to me, but being full surely does influence my willingness to post under my name. You’re not the only commenter to say that the heated responses to Liao were coming from other junior members of the field. I’m not sure how that influences my own thoughts about this except to say it’s not much consolation. If anything, it’s just a sad comment on the lack of solidarity among junior members of the field. I wouldn’t expect you all to agree on things, but I would expect you all to get a little empathetic nausea to see an untenured junior excoriated in a professional public forum. Public online shaming in the profession (see not just Liao, but Tuvel) is one thing I’d hope you could all agree to dislike and avoid, though I grant that senior members of the profession have yet to pull off this kind of solidarity. So… a pox on all our houses, I guess.
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Joshua Reagan
Joshua Reagan
Reply to  Amy Olberding
3 years ago

Personally I think it would be great if we could stop pretending that graduate students and untenured faculty must be treated so delicately. We aren’t children! A mature adult understands that people have vigorous disagreements, particularly in a society as large and pluralistic as ours (USA). Behavior that one thinks is shameful will be praised by another, and vice versa. To pretend otherwise is disingenuous, and to lack understanding of this is to be narrow in precisely the sense I condemned in the other thread: being unable to see that there are other, radically different perspectives.

When someone behaves in a way some find particularly shameful, he’ll have to hear about it. Sometimes one is on the receiving end of this attention, sometimes the giving end. Unless one keeps one’s head down or is sure to adhere rigorously to consensus opinions, of course! Certainly we can speak in measured tones about mild disagreements, but what counts as sufficiently mild will depend upon the merits of a particular case as well as one’s point of view.

I don’t see how Prof. Liao was harmed. I think you’re just trying to nudge community norms more in the direction of acceptance of his radical understanding of pedagogy. Very well, it’s your right—but in this case I’ll nudge right back.Report

grad student
grad student
3 years ago

To those who suggested that Liao isn’t deserving of a TT job: I encourage you to take a peak at his CV. I dare say that he’s earned his place in the profession. Report

sahpa
sahpa
Reply to  grad student
3 years ago

Who suggested that? I can recall no examples.Report

grad student
grad student
Reply to  sahpa
3 years ago

See the long quotation on paragraph 4. The commenter seems to juxtapose Liao with “many fine philosophers who can’t secure employment anywhere.”

I’m a reasonably well-published grad student whose prospects in academia are dim. My research interests are that of a rather square epistemologist. But I don’t begrudge Liao for his well-earned position.

All I’m suggesting is: one can disagree with Liao’s approach, but one shouldn’t chalk it up to incompetence. Report

Joe
Joe
3 years ago

So I made a critical comment, and I am as untenured and junior as they come. The essay, on the other hand, was hosted by Weinberg (tenured) and has received support from you (tenured). My comment is going have zero net effect, your supportive post is going to ensure that Liao may remain secure and happy in his position. Please do not misrepresent the power dynamics, here. No-one is being eaten, no one’s employment is unsafe.

By the way, you might want to consider the fact that Tuvel has signed on to the Heterodox Academy, supporting the following statement: “I believe that university life requires that people with diverse viewpoints and perspectives encounter each other in an environment where they feel free to speak up and challenge each other. I am concerned that many academic fields and universities currently lack sufficient viewpoint diversity—particularly political diversity. I will support viewpoint diversity in my academic field, my university, my department, and my classroom.” She has not been “conscripted” into this camp, she has actively supported it, and there’s a certain irony in your claiming that your opponents are using her for their own purposes.

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Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
Reply to  Joe
3 years ago

I take it you didn’t read the Tuvel post (obviously correct me if I’m wrong, but your reply to it suggests as much); here’s a snapshot:

“Here, then, is my plea: Please stop symbolically conscripting Rebecca Tuvel into the role of personifying all of these systemic issues that attach to the profession at large. I here do not wish to weigh in on the quality of Tuvel’s scholarship; what I want is to urge that we cease treating her article and her as the personification of issues that are all over the discipline. I here issue no judgment of Tuvel’s work but ask that we all recognize this: Even if you judge Tuvel to have done all of the things that have been laid at her door, she would not be unique in any of them. The problems that have been attached to her, that she has come to singularly personify in all these debates, are ones that her own critics would, I think, freely acknowledge exist all over the discipline. Yet she has been uniquely singled out for public opprobrium.”Report

Amy Olberding
Amy Olberding
Reply to  Joe
3 years ago

Joe, yeah, this is the sort of thing I was trying to describe. Apparently you’ve associated me with a host of views I haven’t actually offered, conflating me with a THEM presumably constructed out of a cluster of views you disdain. You’ve even assigned me “opponents” that have nothing to do with anything I actually said (at least as far as I can tell, as I don’t know anything about Heterodox Academy). I think if you read my post about Tuvel, you’d see that what you describe does not actually apply here.

One of the broader points I was trying to make is that conversations in philosophy too often have this pattern: Someone offers a discrete and usually limited point of view about a limited, particular matter. That point of view is then taken as the foundation for a series of inferences about a whole host of matters not raised at all in what was initially offered. We have all sorts of us vs. them speak, in other words, and ending up in a THEM doesn’t require much. In this conversation right now, presumably I could cast you as my “opponent” by ascribing to you a bunch of views I dispute and could associate with you, but that you have nowhere here avowed. I could take the fact of our present disagreement as grounds to see us as abjectly and utterly opposed in every particular, conscripting you to play the “bad guy” in my own narrative about what’s wrong with the profession. The point of what I originally offered was to hope that we could stop doing this sort of thing, quit weaving such narratives out of each other’s discrete claims, contributions, and interactions. I just want to interact with fellow professional philosophers about issues of common concern and be able to disagree without totalizing ideological war ensuing. The bifurcating conscription practices make public professional discourse a minefield that only the brave or foolhardy or those with a death-wish will enter. (Ok, I exaggerate, but the martial metaphors just carried me away… Still, lots of people just won’t participate and that’s a shame.)Report

Oliver Traldi
Oliver Traldi
Reply to  Amy Olberding
3 years ago

“I just want to interact with fellow professional philosophers about issues of common concern and be able to disagree without totalizing ideological war ensuing.”

This is a marvelous goal and one that I share completely. I am (genuinely) curious about something: Do you see it as a similar instance of “conscription” when somebody is accused of complicity with white supremacy, patriarchy, imperialism, colonialism, neoliberalism, etc.? (Note that people accused of this often explicitly disavow these systems.)Report

Amy Olberding
Amy Olberding
Reply to  Oliver Traldi
3 years ago

Honestly, I don’t have a fully fleshed out conception of “symbolic conscription,” but what I have in mind is the way that someone can be taken (on modest, slight, and partial evidence or a single, discrete instance) as personification of a whole cluster of perceived problems. My sense was just that both Tuvel and Liao, in different ways, had each been treated as if they singularly represented a cluster of phenomena and views, and then each were assailed with considerable heat disproportionate to what they, as individuals, had done/said/avowed. An individual gets drafted to symbolize a whole cluster of issues or a “side” in complex debates and then the individual is subjected to all the furor the issues or debates contain. I.e., I’m trying to refer to a converstional form or pattern, not to reference particular content, ideological or otherwise, in any “conscription.”

That’s not answering your question, I know, but there’s no reason why someone couldn’t be “conscripted” in the sense I mean for the reasons you articulate. Would I be correct to think that you’re asking if I meant “symbolic conscription” to apply only in cases where the conservative assail the liberal, the “right” conscripts a “left”? If that’s the direction of the question, then no, I don’t think this is a left or right phenomenon, but something people across the political spectrum can do. (And there’s probably some academic term already for what I’m describing. I just don’t know what it is… so I’m winging it here, thinking it through from unfortunate exempla.)

I’d be all for efforts to calm instances of this wherever and however it appears, not least because I think assailing symbolic draftees tends to provide a pernicious, unhealthy substitute gratification for wrangling with the problems they get drafted to personify. Not to mention the unfairness to the conscripts.
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Oliver Traldi
Oliver Traldi
Reply to  Amy Olberding
3 years ago

Thank you for that very thorough and thought-provoking response!Report

Concerned
Concerned
Reply to  Joe
3 years ago

Joe – Please tell me what is objectionable about Heterodox Academy’s statement. Do you disagree that universities should be places where people with “diverse viewpoints and perspectives encounter each other in an environment where they feel free to speak up and challenge each other”? If not, are you at all familiar with the phenomenon of groupthink? The very fact that you find such a benign statement so alarming is suggestive. And would you rather universities be places where anyone with a dissenting view is terrified to share it? I tend to find myself in disagreement with many views on the right; yet I can’t know that I disagree with such views if I am not exposed to them. To think that an educational environment should NOT encourage the exposure of such views is astonishing and deeply depressing. Report

Joshua Turkewitz
Joshua Turkewitz
Reply to  Concerned
3 years ago

Some views are incorrect, and do not deserve equal time. Spending one class explaining the science of climate change and one class giving arguments against the reality of climate change presents (ceteris paribus) a misleading picture of the debate.Report

DK
DK
3 years ago

I must confess to being confused somewhat by this post. It’s true that Liao is untenured – but it was his syllabus that was (with his approval, and presumably endorsement) offered for evaluation. Leaving Liao’s status aside, it strikes me that if Liao’s syllabus is indeed reflective or representative of larger issues in the discipline, it is perfectly appropriate to point out the ways in which it is.Report

Shen-yi Liao
3 years ago

I am thankful that many friends and colleagues have taken the time to check in. I am totally fine. My misspent youth on internet message boards has done more than enough to prepare me for the philosophy blogosphere comments. And I definitely appreciate the place of concern that Professor Olberding is coming from, even though I think there are some significant differences between Tuvel’s situation and mine.

For whatever it’s worth, I have no interest in portraying myself as a victim. This is mostly just noise. (Though I admit that I was mildly concerned when a National Review writer tweeted the post out, but luckily it was not picked up more widely.) My social positions (gendered as a man, racialized as Asian, employed on the tenure-track, etc.) do not make me a particularly vulnerable target.

My predicament is in contrast with predicaments faced by people like Professor Tommy Curry. (See http://dailynous.com/2017/07/27/targeting-philosopher-tommy-j-curry/ .) Those are the serious types of material harms that I think we academics need to worry about. While I have your attention, I want to recommend these two posts by Tressie McMillan Cottom on when academic outrage goes digital:

1. https://tressiemc.com/uncategorized/everything-but-the-burden-publics-public-scholarship-and-institutions/

2. https://tressiemc.com/essays-2/academic-outrage-when-the-culture-wars-go-digital/

In particular, Professor Cottom encourages us to be proactive. So, please don’t waste any of your precious time and resources on me. Talk to your local faculty governance / union / whatever instead about setting up procedures for protecting truly vulnerable professors when they get attacked by much more resourced and orchestrated forces. Again, Professor Cottom’s posts contain some ideas, but it probably makes the most sense to think about your own institutional context in developing a proactive response strategy.Report

Amy Olberding
Amy Olberding
Reply to  Shen-yi Liao
3 years ago

I agree that Professor Curry’s situation is far more serious and am happy that you’re unbothered by the heat of the exchange your post generated. I would like to suggest, though, that the problems I identify attach more broadly. You mentioned The Deviant Philosopher in your post and it may be worth mentioning that the last time the blogosphere had an eruption like this, we lost some good submissions to the site from junior members of the profession who decided they didn’t want their pedagogy exposed to public view and risk ugly critique. So I do think exchanges like this are costly. We end up losing the input and insight of talented colleagues who don’t, for a host of good reasons, want to risk incurring public professional opprobrium. I also worry that becoming accustomed to this sort of interaction in professional fora may promote apathy or indifference to more serious online problems, such as that faced by Professor Curry. It risks coarsening the sensibilities, making things normal that shouldn’t be, and thus reduces the chances we can well rally in solidarity when urgent needs to do so arise.Report

Shen-yi Liao
Reply to  Amy Olberding
3 years ago

I definitely appreciate those worries and the broader concerns. I absolutely recognize the costs you describe. I only mean to emphasize that (a) I am fortunate to occupy social positions that allow me to absorb those costs, while many others do not, and that (b) we need to think proactively about procedures in place, not just in philosophy but in academia more generally. I hope both are in the same spirit as your post. Thanks again.Report

David Mathers
David Mathers
Reply to  Shen-yi Liao
3 years ago

Sorry if this is patronising, but I just want to say that while I was fairly strongly of the view that people were right to think the course was much too narrow from an intro, this strikes me as a model of dignified and sensible response to quite harsh criticism. Report

Dave Baker
Dave Baker
Reply to  Shen-yi Liao
3 years ago

Shen-yi, I’m very glad to hear that you’re doing well despite being on the receiving end of this mobbing. That said, I suspect that this has a lot to do with a combination of psychological resilience and courage of your convictions that many people, even people in more socially advantageous positions than yours, don’t necessarily share.

As you know, my own position is even more advantageous than yours along the axes you mention, yet I must admit, I live in fear that I’ll one day be subjected to the same sort of online mob you’ve had to face here–and that keeps me out of a lot of online discussions I’d otherwise gladly join.

I agree with Prof. Olberding’s perspective about both this case and the Tuvel one, and I hope people will listen to her, although this is ultimately a collective action problem that’s unlikely to disappear any time soon.Report

SPENCER JAY CASE
SPENCER JAY CASE
Reply to  Shen-yi Liao
3 years ago

“Though I admit that I was mildly concerned when a National Review writer tweeted the post out, but luckily it was not picked up more widely”

Is that my tweet you’re talking about? I didn’t notice any other NR writers in the thread. If so, then there wasn’t much luck involved, and I assure you that you have no reason to be even mildly concerned about it. None of my tweets has ever been picked up very widely. I am but a graduate student and a lowly freelance contributor. It’s not like I can summon legions of torch bearing, right-wing fanatics with my tweets. Usually, I can’t even summon an RT.Report

Oliver Traldi
Oliver Traldi
Reply to  SPENCER JAY CASE
3 years ago

One might almost say you were “symbolically conscripted” into the role of a right-wing provocateur by someone who has more power than you in the discipline.Report

Shen-yi Liao
Reply to  SPENCER JAY CASE
3 years ago

I am referring to https://twitter.com/theodorekupfer/status/951577746349715456 . I called the author of the tweet a “National Review writer” because his Twitter bio links to his National Review author page.Report

Joshua Reagan
Joshua Reagan
3 years ago

I’m the one who made the criticisms about (i) Prof. Liao’s “affected naivete” (which you misrepresented, but that’s a minor point) and (ii) the “social justice madrasas”. I am a grad student and hence I am junior to Prof. Liao professionally.

“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.”

I’m really glad that you prize my comments about pedagogy.Report

Scott Wagner
3 years ago

Modern philosophers think we get a pass when it comes to basic psychology- get to sidle around it using syllabic dexterity, and help people live well anyway. Dop…A site related to heterodoxy academy called civilpolitics.org picks away at pieces of how to deal with bitter, ideological embedding in discourse (that about sums up the matter here, by the way, with mild academic overlays.) There’s roughly zero that’s interesting or unique about the philo academic version of bickering of this kind. Let’s forget about all the bad people not reading this thread who need it, for a moment: let’s concentrate on our own ability to do and teach the right way to deal with this.

The first trick: be clearly, explicitly personally polite, and only as blunt as you need to be to get your idea across well. “Dr. xxx seems well-meaning and thoughtful.” “Ms. yyy has done some great work in zzz, so I don’t mean this criticism to extend past her treatment of aaa.” Why civility? Not “Because”, as an ethics professor once told me, but because making that point to be explicitly polite while delivering criticism is miraculous in clearing away what’s called the FAE in the literature (or, for philosophers, you get extra credit if you go into the detail of the correspondence biases as set forth by Gilbert, which are a wonderfully detailed superset of the FAE). We don’t do this to clear the FAE out of the other person (though it helps do that), but to purge some or most of it from ourself. Rudeness also limits your ability to push against confirmation biases and anchoring heuristics, so that you don’t change horses or shut the hell up enough in life. Finally, there’s strong evidence that removing these biases and heuristics from your execution of the post will serve to aid the removal of them in your addressee- biases flow around nonlinearly and linearly, but often quite predictably.

Second trick: take TIME to do emotional behaviors, like responding to a maddening article or maddening wife. Time is the primary aid in fighting distorted thinking- which philosophers should grok, but they don’t, because psychology and because who sweats the details when we’re trying to-fit Putnam’s notion of agency down a dumbass’s throat all day…Nietzsche didn’t mention politeness as miraculous, but Rorty did, though his version was an incredible personal unflappability, with the mantric overlay of “try not to assume that what you’re thinking about matters much.”, delivered with a shrug. Maybe that’ll resonate with y’all better than, ‘Either be freaking polite, or you’ll fail at your job to help humans live better.’ Whatever works.Report

SPENCER JAY CASE
SPENCER JAY CASE
3 years ago

You’d think to judge from this post that (a) Liao’s critics had absolutely no arguments to support their positions, but simply emotional outbursts and (b) whatever incivility was on display came entirely from his critics. But it was one of his supporters who announced that she was losing her temper, and another followed up by describing “these people” as “insufferable.”

A more fundamental point is this. Olberding writes:

“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.”

I actually think he had a much more ambitious purpose that explains the strong reactions against it. Consider this passage near the outset of his post:

“Questions like “how is this paper philosophy?” signals the existence of certain norms that make some philosophical works legitimate and others not. Crucial to the culture of justification is the assumption that such legitimation norms are commonly-held and univocally relevant. Given these assumptions, compliance with legitimation norms confers positive status; for example, papers that are norm-compliant are thought of as real philosophy.”

It seems pretty clear from the context that Liao means to challenge these widely held norms, this culture of justification. He wasn’t “symbolically conscripted” into this debate. This is what he set out to do. The “creative pedagogy” Liao advocates is meant, in part, to shift the discipline-wide standards of what academic philosophy is all about. That is what the critics were reacting so strongly to. That kind of change cannot be confined to just one classroom. It’s discipline-wide. So when critics say that Liao’s methods are “threatening the very survival of our discipline in the academy,” they are reacting to a direct challenge to the norms that (currently) govern academic philosophy.

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Amy Olberding
Amy Olberding
Reply to  SPENCER JAY CASE
3 years ago

Spencer, I wasn’t denying that Liao offered wider arguments or even that they’d be seen as contentious. I was trying to address a conversational pattern separable from the substance of his remarks. In that light, what Liao did was pretty unexceptional: He offered up an essay on pedagogy and curriculum. It’s a banal professional act or should be. I’d also hope that there’s a kind of banality in philosophers offering norm-challenging work. Some of the comments treated it so, blandly critiquing various aspects of Liao’s approach or querying it purposes. By terms like “banal” and “bland,” I just mean that fielding even radical work and directing ourselves to its critique is just ordinary, mundane philosophical business.

What wasn’t banal was vaulting from Liao’s essay to questioning his place in the profession, holding him responsible for the death of the discipline and university, all the insult I noted above. That’s the conscription piece: making him a stand-in for all sorts of wider perceived sins and ills, and then assailing him as if he IS all those sins and ills, as if to bring him low is to defeat the myriad problems he is conscripted to personify. In this light, I incline to think that focusing on the content of Liao’s essay as the reason or explanation he was treated ill is a mistake.

I think one feature of these dynamics is that we’re far too quick to license conscripting people who can stand in for views we dislike – i.e., we tell ourselves, “It’s bad generally to excoriate and shame someone as All That’s Wrong With The World, but hey, THIS GUY really is All That’s Wrong and HE deserves it!” I am trying to distrust myself when I feel that way. I think it too easily promotes self-deceptive tribalism along the lines of: when my “side” does it, it’s justified and righteous, when your “side” does it, you’re just mean, cruel, etc.
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sahpa
sahpa
3 years ago

Like many, many of Liao’s critics over on the other post, I also am a junior untenured member of the profession (hence the anonymity). It is simply a misrepresentation of the debate to characterize it as one of philosophy eating its young, as the young were lively participants in the debate itself (on both sides). Similarly, it is a misrepresentation to say that spirited debate over pedagogy is an instance of “quash[ing] innovation”. Debate is *part of the process* of innovation.Report

Alex C
Alex C
3 years ago

I don’t see anything wrong with including at the beginning of the syllabus something like, “Particularly, this course will be a robust introduction to contemporary social philosophy,” and informing the students that if they prefer a more traditional intro course, the university offers those in other sections of Intro to Philosophy.

That being said, as a m.a. student, I’m certain he was not deserving of the vitriol that poured out in that prior thread. But, not nearly as certain this was a case of conscription. This strikes me as a very political situation, and the debate (or insult-fest) also seemed more about politics and less about pedagogy.Report