Can Small, Non-Mainstream Philosophy Departments Flourish?

“It has been painful to witness the end of a programme in which we invested so much of our energy and creativity, a programme that was praised by students and external examiners, that featured innovative modules and assessments, that defied being classified as either European or analytic, that was for the larger part run by two women, neither of whom identify as ‘White British’, at a university that is in the lower parts of the league table.”

Those are the words of Yasemin J. Erden and Hannah M. Altorf, two former professors at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham, writing about the closure of the philosophy program there in “Difficult Women in Philosophy: Reflections from the Margin” (Symposion 7(2), November 2020).

[Becky Kolsrud, “Group Portrait with Security Gate”]

They consider themselves philosophers “at the margin”, in terms of institutional status, demographic status, and approach to philosophy, and their article is an attempt to express how these various institutional, professional, and social forces can work together to further marginalize some kinds of philosophy and philosophical instruction.

Here’s part of their self-description:

Our approach to teaching and doing philosophy has developed in response to a diverse student body. For that reason, we have been careful not to relegate diverse voices to the last classes of modules, but instead let it inform our modules from the very start. An important inspiration has also been our activities as public philosophers and especially a practice of Socratic dialogue (cf. Altorf 2019). Philosophy we recognise to be about understanding this deeply puzzling world”, as Mary Midgley (2013) once put it. It is to find one’s own position, to know where you stand and to assess your reasons. This is not easy. It is not easy to find your voice, rather than to express a general opinion or to demonstrate book learning (cp. Jantzen 1998, 1). It is also not easy to know where you stand exactly in a situation that is concrete rather than abstract or imaginary. This asks for careful perception and imagination and it makes you vulnerable (cf. Bolten 2003, 39; Altorf 2019, 5-7, 8). It is difficult especially for people in the margin, because there may not be a vocabulary yet to describe where they stand. Thus, in our philosophy programme we tried to create a community in which mostly first-generation students were introduced to philosophical ideas and philosophy’s history, without losing themselves in clever puzzles.

And here are some of the factors they believe contributed to their program’s demise:

League Tables/Rankings
We locate the beginning of the end of our philosophy programme with management’s increasing concern with league tables. During one academic year we were repeatedly urged to explain the programme’s low place in the league tables. We wrote a 6-page response, that included a short executive summary for busy managers. In the end, we were never given a chance to discuss it, as all the meetings inviting us to do so were cancelled. A year later the programme’s closure was announced, because of ‘numbers’, though which numbers was not specified… It is not certain what league tables measure exactly and it is highly questionable that what is being measured can be reduced to a single score… League tables add pressure to academic staff who are already balancing a heavy workload. Too often, the lecturers or the team are tasked with changing the programme’s position in the league table and yet their influence is very limited.

Professional Philosophy’s Modeling Itself After “Objective” Science
It is clear that philosophy within the analytic tradition prioritises scientific methods, broadly construed… [and] the expectations of
objectivity, and of working within these contexts of expectation, have impacted… us in practical terms… For the philosopher in the margin, it can be difficult to provide definitive evidence, or even to pinpoint the kinds of inequity associated with marginalisation. This is tied up with the fact that marginalisation can occur as a result of apparently minor decisions and actions… or that one’s work is judged outside of the context from which it derives its value and meaning, as can happen with interdisciplinary work, for example…

In our work and our teaching, we each (in different ways and for different reasons) sought to offer a challenge to the primacy of objectivity in philosophy. At the heart of this endeavour, as the above account implies, is the idea that the philosophical is not easily detached from the person who develops it. From this is a related claim, namely that the requirement in some philosophy to, above all else, maintain distance from one’s own philosophical ideas can not only engender the kinds of biases and limitations we note above, but also result in positions that are disingenuous. Marilyn Friedman (2013, 28; Tuana 1992) suggests that learning to distance oneself from a philosophical position “promotes a superficial and shallow attitude towards philosophical ideas.” If correct, then the prioritising of such methods can, and perhaps already has, caused harm to philosophy as practiced in the analytic tradition. Especially where it has seen the promotion of the apparently objective over the development of the individual as a philosophically embedded person with specific preferences and intuitions. That our programme gave weight to the latter was not and could not be captured in the league tables against which its value was judged, that much is clear. That philosophy as a discipline has lost something seems to us clear, but as we note above it is not easy to prove. 

Professional Marginalization
To work in a small programme in a lower league institute is to experience few opportunities for networking. It is to experience even fewer of the apparently everyday, informal, yet important interactions that impact on one’s daily life, one’s professional career, and on one’s programme. This includes the kinds of conversations that happen in corridors about league tables and the Research Excellence Framework (REF), a national research assessment exercise which generates research-based league tables. Such conversations also prepare someone to play the games that each involves… Spaces where philosophers can meet, such as conferences, or as offered by societies like the British Philosophical Association (BPA), can on the one hand offer a way to bridge these gaps….

For instance, where there is a chance to meet together with smaller programmes before a larger meeting, as the BPA has offered in the past. On the other hand, some meetings can inadvertently reify gaps. Especially where there is no space to learn and practice unspoken social conventions in advance of such meetings, to know who is who beforehand, among other details that can help to lubricate these interactions. For those who occupy the margins for intersectional reasons (university status, gender, ethnicity, and so on), not having those valuable experiences in advance can mean it is easy to say the wrong thing, or to the wrong person, and to not even know that you have done so. For instance, to say that you have never had a sabbatical can be difficult to hear for colleagues in universities with established sabbatical systems and funding successes. It can lead to awkwardness, and sometimes stops the conversation. To speak about the enormous pressure that is put on academics at small institutes to ensure that students do not fail (and what it is to be made responsible when students do fail) has led to responses of incredulity as well as of silence. And to acknowledge in a meeting of your peers, for instance at the BPA Head of Department meeting, that some philosophy departments hold enormous power over others is not to ingratiate oneself well into the conversation, nor does it endear you to those about whom you have complained, or those who are their friends. 

Biases Against Smaller Institutions
As with the league tables, much about a small university can be counted against the philosopher at the margins, but in ways that they cannot control. For instance, we have each been told that the institution’s lack of status further diminished one’s own, from which follows that one’s own career is cyclically stunted. In one funding application it was made abundantly clear that the university resources were not sufficient for the project, though an explanation of what those resources were was not given, nor were recommendations to remedy this offered.

Issues of inclusion, exclusion, and associated power dynamics are central to marginalisation. Career progression, for instance as offered via funding grants, is protected by the same gatekeepers, e.g. senior academics, editors, and referees, who already hold significant power within the philosophy profession, especially over those who are lower on the academic ladder (Friedman, 2013, 23). Gatekeeping is also visible in publishing (Yang 2003; Sato 2012), and it would be naïve to think that individual and institutional characteristics play no role in further marginalisation during the publication process.

Mutual Reinforcement of Biases and Obstacles
The incidental and the systematic overlap. In fact, it seems to us that they do not simply occur simultaneously, but rather that they reinforce each other. On this account the prejudice against a research method or approach, e.g. towards feminist philosophy, can be tied up with a systemic identity prejudice, e.g. towards female philosophers. Similarly, for the philosopher with a foreign name who works at a ‘lower’ institute, lack of recognition can be understood as not merely coincidental but as a compound of prejudices. Demonstrating this process of reinforcement can be difficult, yet, regardless, the lack of recognition remains. This account fits within the “identity-prejudicial credibility deficit” (28) model that Fricker proposes. Disentangling the correlation or causation question is no easy feat. When such tasks fall to the philosopher in the margin, here is yet another way in which we must undertake emotionally draining labour. What is key therefore is that it ought not to be incumbent upon the person who suffers credibility deficit to accurately locate the source of the deficit.

Problems with Reliance on “Merit”
As academics in the margin we have at times been fortunate enough to each have a notional ‘day a week’ for research (actually, for one of us it was cut to ‘half a day’ for a while), with the rest of the week apportioned to the usual academic tasks of teaching and admin etc. But even this notional day has rarely been protected in normal times, and in recent years has instead been filled with the closure of our programme. [Yet, neither the lack of time nor] the quality of the time as it is experienced accounted for [on league tables or the REF]… 

In this way, a meritocratic system not only “defends its particular results as fair” but develops a system of assessment through which lens “its results will appear as unquestionably and exclusively valid” (Jenkins 2013, 95). This creates and sustains inequity, while systemising and perpetuating imbalance, and thereby also shaping the identity of the philosopher in the margin. Representation requires presence: to have a voice in philosophy requires time, as covered above, effort, resources as well as people who believe, invest, and offer support in both public and private spheres (Collins 1996; Dotson 2011).

That we must make time to write this particular paper for instance, with the pain and sadness it brings each of us, offers further evidence of the emotional labour required to draw attention to what would otherwise not be seen. It is especially difficult to do this while knowing that the burden of proof will remain on us, that  our perspectives may not be taken as true or accurate, and knowing that our credibility may be doubted in other rather unpredictable ways.

These are just excerpts, of course; you’ll have to see the full paper, which is publicly accessible, for further details.

Discussion welcome, particularly from those who are or have been in smaller philosophy departments at smaller institutions. It would be useful to hear more about the challenges such departments face, but also about small, non-mainstream philosophy departments that have managed to flourish.

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Marcus Arvan
3 years ago

My university is no longer small: we’ve grown from something like 6,500 students when I started in 2009 (not all that much larger than the university in the OP) to 9,300 students today. However, our department (philosophy & religion) *is* small, and is to the best of my knowledge still the smallest academic department of our university. Despite this, and despite real worries about the future of humanities departments like ours given trends in higher education, we are flourishing by just about any relevant measure. And, in many respects, I think we are accurately described as ‘non-mainstream.’

My university had discontinued the philosophy in the 1990’s, and for over a decade there was no major. The philosophy major was then reintroduced in 2007, and I was hired in 2009. Prior to my hire, our department only had 19 majors and 2 full-time faculty members. In contrast, as of today we have grown to 48 majors and 5 full-time faculty members. In terms of demographics, consistently over 60% of our majors are women, and a good proportion of our majors appear to be from historically marginalized groups. As for our five full-time faculty, one of us works squarely in ‘analytic’ philosophy, another on asian philosophies, another on philosophy of race, another on feminism and ‘Continental’ philosophy, and another on applied ethics (particularly bioethics). A fair number of our courses also seem to me to be ‘non-mainstream’, at least in the sense described in the OP. For example, we have a very popular undergraduate course on Yoga & Philosophy that combines the study of written philosophical material with actual body practice (e.g. yoga) in the classroom.

I do not know for sure why our department has flourished as much as it has (until now, at least). I can only speculate. But for my part I do think a lot of it has to do with our embracement of philosophical and demographic diversity and inclusion. For example, I have seen some students clearly be ‘turned off’ by a course in analytic metaphysics (the kind of course that might dominate ‘mainstream’ departments), but nevertheless become majors because our other courses better suit their interests and experience. I also think the respect that our faculty have for our philosophical and pedagogical differences probably plays a role. Having sat in on some of our other instructors’ classes as an observer, it’s clear to me that our students received a rich and diverse variety of experiences in the classroom (such that, in a very real sense, there is ‘something for everybody’ in our department).

Have I encountered some of the obstacles described in the OP? Absolutely. But, as my comment details, I don’t think those obstacles have stopped our department from flourishing–not yet anyway. I do have concerns about the future, given the obvious trend in the academy toward marginalizing and eliminating humanities programs, as well as given the higher-education enrollment cliff expected to hit by 2025 (when overall enrollment is expected to drop by 10-15%). I guess I’ll say: check back with me then. I’ll also note that I think philosophy departments at smaller institutions are probably much more vulnerable than we are. But, in any case, my own experience thus far is that given the right conditions, a small and ‘non-mainstream’ philosophy department can flourish.

Jonathan Westphal
Jonathan Westphal
3 years ago

This is a saddening story. I see a lot of valuable things in it, which also apply to philosophy as a whole. The story is very valuable because we are all marginalized in one way or another, though not all in the serious professional ways the Erden and Altorf record. They also draw attention to apparently small things that are very important for professional development, so called. ‘For instance, to say that you have never had a sabbatical can be difficult to hear for colleagues in universities with established sabbatical systems and funding successes. It can lead to awkwardness, and sometimes stops the conversation.’ But I hear in what they are saying the authentic voice of philosophy. What a sodding shame that the league tables and what have you work against people like this who evidently provide something for their students that money can’t buy.

Doug Anderson
Doug Anderson
3 years ago

The problem is, and has been for almost a century, analytic or “mainstream” philosophy. It is boring, tied to deductivist theses, and is mostly irrelevant to most students. I also think it happens to be wrong and misguided in most instances. Until philosophy returns to its Greek humanist roots, it will remsin a candidate for obsolescence. The sad fact is thst the centrality of the mainstream tedious nonsense will lead to the closing of departments and programs that are actually useful and culturally relevant.

alexander holford
alexander holford
3 years ago

witness the death of philosophy. Only the philosophical historian remains. derrida vs searle was the opening bell and those with searle has won. i find it sad but also very predictable in a society who uses science as a stand in fir religion. rather then eveything is God, everything is science. A verbage cloaked in a lab coat rather then a white collar. Daniel Dennett was correct on this but in more ways then he could consider. This war on analytical vs. Continental has waged for years but it seems the analytical has found more places to hide and find support in the ranks of academic philosophy. Both surprised because of western individual thought is a antagonist to free thought, but also not a surprise since the masses of postmodern media embrace “science” as a god to replace all gods. replace all things even philosophy, rip Friedrich Nietzsche for surely god is not dead but has a new name. I fear for modern philosophy fate. Torn asunder by each wave until it is washed to the sea, only to be traveled upon by those pass ships in the night. will their be a new dawn for new philosophy to grow on as it washes ashore?

3 years ago

Humanities departments are in precarious positions because of the relentless corporatization of the modern university and its corresponding takeover by a managerial class obsessed with metrics. They are not under threat because Frege and Russell and Carnap wanted philosophers to write statements that at least seem to follow from one another.

That managerial class would be more than happy to leave us to squabble about what “relevant” philosophy is, rather than for us to collectively ask, in a unified voice, why we are being subjected to increasingly restrictive and absurd “relevance” requirements in the first place.

James P Grace
2 years ago

As an undergraduate majoring in Philosophy, and having spent a semester in an independent study on St Augustine, I was asked to address a class on St Augustine the following semester. When I began speaking on his Confessions, the professor interrupted to inform me to only discuss his City of God. I did not then nor do I now, some 50 years later, believe that you can understand St Augustine without understanding his Confessions – his search or even Monica for that matter. When I expressed an interest in Existentialism, I was told that was more for the English department. Seeking relevance by adopting a “scientific” approach to Philosophy is in itself a metaphysical limitation, a reflected relevance. Wittgenstein’s belief that he had solved all problems of Philosophy in his Tractatus was, as is Analytical Philosophy in general, a metaphysical determination in itself and a constraint. Now, I tell my grandchildren simply that in Philosophy the questions are the answers, and that in Philosophy is a searching for meaning by Humans.