The impotence of hierarchy

Want to know a secret? There is this recurrent fear that many people in leadership positions told me about: “Now that I am in this position, I fear that people around me won’t speak their mind anymore, that they won’t dare criticising me. For all I know, they might think I am a fool but never tell me.” I think the first time it was my PhD supervisor who told me, and he even told me that this was also the worst fear of his supervisor. So there is a chain of fear passed on down the line. If I ask my students to be frank, I could also add that my supervisor … It’s a bit of a sad story, because we know how it goes. Back in the day, I wasn’t very open to my supervisor, and the times I tried, I often regretted it. – These fears are woven into the fabric of our hierarchies. Understandable as they might be, they are dangerous. The can preclude open discussion and correction. Given that I’m spending much of my time in universities, I am struck by how often I encounter this. In what follows, I’d like to look at a few instances and ask whether there are any remedies.

Before walking through some examples, let’s begin by looking at the phenomenon. Power imbalance is often portrayed as unidirectional state. The boss or supervisor has power; the employees or students dependent on the boss fear the boss. But as I see it, the fear has a reciprocal structure: You are afraid to criticise your boss because he or she might reproach you for doing so. Knowing your fear, the boss is afraid that you will hide your criticisms. This might spiral into a number of refined and uncomfortable assumptions. “I’ll rather tell him something nice about himself.” – “She only said that because she wants to divert attention from her criticism.” – “He doesn’t take me seriously.” – “She doesn’t take me seriously.” Mutual mistrust might follow.* If this kind of setting is large enough, the mistrust might translate into full-blown conspiracy theories. But I think the problem, at root, is not the hierarchy itself. The problem is that we often treat a hierarchical position as a personal rather than an institutional feature. But your boss is not your boss because he or she is a better whatever, but because the design of our institutions requires this function.** In this sense, hierarchy is owing to ways of dividing labour. However, while some contexts might require hierarchical division of labour, certain processes cannot function in the presence of hierarchy. Collective deliberation, for instance, is not possible if someone in the collective intervenes qua greater power. If my thoughts are taken to carry more weight because I’m a professor rather than a student, then we do not need any discussion. Or do we? Let’s look at some instances then:

  • Deliberation in science. – It’s often noted that the current corona crisis makes our shortcomings obvious. So let’s begin with policy design in the corona crisis. Given the complexity of the problems in this crisis, you would expect that decision makers listen to a number of voices. But in the Netherlands, for instance, the opposite seems to be true: “There is no discussion … Because there is a crisis, it is not allowed to have a discussion.” These are the words of Microbiologist Alex Friedrich. Rather than following the guidelines of the government, he caused quite some stir by speaking up against the Dutch strategy and partly changed the course of action by demanding more testing in the north. His point is that scientific advice is too hierarchical and focused on too few voices. Instead, it should be run like a “jam session” where everyone speaks up. I guess you don’t have to be a jazz lover to appreciate the fact that you are more likely to hit on crucial facts when you listen to as many people and disciplines as possible. But the example shows that collective deliberation is still obstructed rather than enhanced (see also here).
  • Transitions in the university. – Borrowing a quote from a British colleague, the president of our university recently noted that implementing change in universities were like ‘reorganising a graveyard: “You don’t get much support from the inside”.’ The idea seems to be that changes like the current transitions to online teaching require an “external shock”. While shock might indeed be an occasion for change, I think that the comparison to the graveyard has clear limitations. I doubt that successful transition works without calling on the employees who actually do the implementing. So when we plan the details of this transition, I am sure our success will depend on whether we will listen carefully to the experiences and insights “the inside” has to offer. Indeed, the digital infrastructure that we now rely on increasingly provides great tools to implement change with the necessary transparency and participation of everyone involved. Sometimes this comes with comic relief: At the mercy of advanced technology, hierarchies of seniority are quickly turned upside down.
  • Hierarchy in teaching. – As I have noted earlier, my status as a professor should not enhance the status of what I have to say. And yet we all know that when I enter the lecture hall, the institutional powers put me in a special position, whether we like it or not. The fact that I am grading the very students who might criticise me seems to settle the intellectual hierarchy, too. Can this be evaded? Should it be? As I see it, the hierarchical power of professors over students is limited to the educational tasks they set within the institutional setting they share. I can give you a task and then tell to what extent you solved it well, whether you drew on all relevant resources etc. But an educational task, to be dealt with in an exam or essay, is different from the complex problems that confront us. Once we go beyond the confinement of exercises, students are fellow philosophers and citizens, where hierarchy should no longer apply. For the reasons noted above, the hierarchy might still be effective. But it is to our detriment if we allow it to happen.

Hierarchy, taken as a personal trait, then, obstructs true deliberation, diversity and learning. In an ideal setting, archangels could openly learn from the devil’s criticism. That said, it’s hard to figure out how we can evade the traps and fears that hierarchies foster. But we should be weary whenever discussion is closed with reference to hierarchical position. It harms all sides, those with more and less powers. But of course it’s hard to bypass something so deeply ingrained in our system. Yet, if someone politely asks you to shut up and listen, it might be best to go along and listen. In the same vain, those with more power should seek, not shun, advice from everyone. Acquiring knowledge and finding solutions, even if governed by good methods, is an accidental and collective process. You might have no idea what you’re missing. So keep asking around and encourage others. It’s always an institution, not you, that grants the power over people. The more power you exercise over them, the more likely it is that people refrain from telling you uncomfortable truths.

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* A perfect illustration is Paul Watzlawick’s “Story of the Hammer”.

** However, one might doubt whether hierarchies really obtain because of a functional division of labour. The economist Stephen Marglin famously argues that “the capitalist organization of work came into existence not because of superior efficiency but in consequence of the rent-seeking activities of the capitalist.” (I wish to thank Daniel Moure for pointing me to the work of Marglin, especially to the seminal paper “What do bosses do?”)

Precarity and Privilege. And why you should join a union, today

Reflecting on the personal impact of the corona crisis, a close friend remarked that things didn’t change all that much, rather they became obvious. I then began to hear variations of that idea repeatedly. If you live in a complicated relationship, that might very well show right now. If you have made difficult decisions, their consequences might be more palpable now. If you live in a precarious situation, you will feel that clearly now. On the other hand, there might be good stuff that you perhaps hardly noticed, but if it’s there, it will carry you now. On social media, I sense a lot of (positive) nostalgia. People remember things, show what mattered then and now. Things become obvious. The crisis works like a magnifying glass.

This effect also shows how well we are prepared. As an adolescent, I used to smile at my parents for storing lots of food cans in their basement. Of course, most of us also laugh at people rushing to hoard toilet paper, but how well prepared are we for what is coming? Perhaps you think that if we’re lacking things and certain habits now, this is owing to individual failures or laziness. But if we experience precariousness, hardly any of that is an individual fault. Habits need collective stabilisation and consolidation to persist. That said, I’m not going to focus on the state of your basement or hygiene measures. Rather, I’m worried about the question of how well we are politically prepared. Many people around me are facing really dire situations. And our political preparation (or lack thereof) leaves us with very few means to address them properly. So what can be done? I’ll begin with some general considerations and try to finish with some practical advice.

If we look around, we see that a lot can be done. Slowing down the economy like that without immediate chaos ensuing is a huge success. But very soon, people will start telling each other that certain things “cannot” be done, because they are “too difficult”, “too expensive” or “against the rules”. While a lot of good is happening, the bargaining and gaslighting has already begun. Being a highly competitive culture, academia has a notorious problem with collective action (role models in the UK who have been on strike for enormous amounts of time notwithstanding). But this crisis requires collective measures, both in terms of hygiene and in terms of politics.

What’s the problem? Precarious employment (not only) in academia has been a growing factor for a long time. As I see it, this jeopardizes not only political but also academic goals, because it leads to an unwelcome dissociation of teaching and research. But at the present moment, this precarity might turn into something much worse. We already see furloughs and dismissals especially of people on fixed term contracts and the flimsy justifications rolling in on a fairly large scale. At the same time, we witness what we have already seen in the medical sector. We lack transnational policies and thus people are being treated very differently, depending on where they happen to work and what sort of contract they have. Add to this that many ad hoc measures, such as online teaching, are now used as a pretext to introduce lasting changes that may be detrimental to both employment conditions and educational standards. So the precarity and educational standards might worsen to a tipping point where education might become largely disposable. Indeed, mass education is of course disposable already, unless you have democratic tendencies.

What can be done? The first thing I find striking is that, while people continuously talk about online teaching and other means of continuing work, hardly anyone addresses the question of precarious employment. Given the current firings and freezing of hirings, we know that the job market is going to be brutal. If you are, say, an international postdoc or teaching fellow whose contract runs out after the summer, it will be very difficult to find or even seek employment. While I see people readily exchanging advice on zooming, I’ve seen hardly anything so far on how to address this problem. The exceptions to this rule are labour unions and some employee organisations some of which are currently collecting data and push for measures. (You know of more exceptions? Please spread the news widely!)* Now let me ask you: Are you a member of a union? No? You’re no exception. In the various places I worked during and after my PhD, I have never been encouraged to join a union. It’s almost as if there were no awareness that there is such a thing as the representation of employees’ interests. In fact, I guess it’s worse, and it’s something I’ve not only noticed in academia but also in much of the growing freelance and start-up culture. Going from my own experience, I’d say that people always have been and still are (more or less subtly) discouraged from joining such organisations. So when employees encounter difficulties in their employment, they typically will be portrayed as not being tough enough for the job. You are overworked? Well, if you don’t blame yourself already, you’ll likely be shamed into avoiding publicity. Being overworked is still portrayed as a personal lack of stamina, to be addressed not by collective industrial action but by courses on time management or mindfulness. This way, failing to secure (permanent) employment can still be blamed on the individual rather than on the way higher education is run.

The individualisation of such problems does not only affect people’s (mental) health, it also keeps people away from engaging in collective action. In turn, this means that unions etc. will remain weak because they can easily be portrayed as not representing anyone. If people keep blaming themselves, the unions don’t have a case for building an argument in favour of better employment conditions. I see this as one of the main reasons why we are politically not well prepared for addressing economic problems in this crisis. So what should we do now?

Trying to collect ideas, I have written to a number of friends and colleagues who kindly provided me with suggestions. Let me briefly summarise some crucial points:

  • Generally, permanent / tenured people should take it upon them to make a move. We should be aware that people on fixed term contracts are vulnerable and should not be expected to lobby for their interests alone.
  • Try to see who is in or is likely to get into trouble and talk about the situation. Bring it up with your colleagues and managers whenever the opportunity arises. If you have department meetings or exchanges with funding agencies such as the ERC, ask what can be or is done to ameliorate the situation.
  • Join a union and encourage others to do so, too. In the Netherlands, the unions are taking it upon them to make a case for employees in precarious positions.
  • As I see it, it would be good for universities to invest in staff rather than reduce numbers. Wherever possible contracts should be extended, as is in fact done by various funding bodies.
  • If there are no financial resources for staff, measures should be taken to reallocate budgets, especially travel and overhead funding for the extension of contracts or hires.
  • Universities in Austria and Switzerland have created hardship funds for employees facing precarious situations. This should be done proactively, as people in vulnerable positions might feel discouraged to come forward.

These are just some ideas. I’d be grateful to hear more. But to my mind, the most important point is that we need to pursue such steps in a collective effort. Right now, these steps should be taken because we are in an emergency. Ensuring stability is what is required for providing a safe working environment.

Ultimately, taking measures of solidarity is also about helping academia to survive beyond this crisis. Whenever recession hits, education is often considered disposable. If we were to allow for the reduction of staff without resistance, it would just signal that academia could do with even fewer people and resources. Dictatorships would certainly welcome this. The way we treat our colleagues and students will contribute to determining the political system that we’ll find ourselves in after the crisis.

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* Of course, there have been initiatives addressing the adjunct crisis. But I havent’t noticed that precarity has been an issue of great public concern in this crisis, even less so among tenured academics, as a recent piece by Emma Pettit notes:

“While tenured professors have typically stood by silently as their nontenured colleagues advocated for themselves on the national stage, they have watched their own kind dwindle. Positions are remaining unfilled. Tenure lines are getting pruned. There’s still the same service work to do, but fewer people to do it, and those who remain shoulder the burden.

And today, as a global pandemic has devastated budgets and led college leaders to freeze hiring and furlough even tenured professors, the cause seems especially urgent.

The structural changes that preceded the pandemic helped set the stage for those austerity measures, and manufactured a growing — if uneven, slow, some would say glacial — recognition among the tenured that relying on contingent labor hurts everyone, activists and higher-education researchers say. …
How much tenured professors have cared, historically, about their contingent colleagues, is difficult to measure. Everyone knows the caricature: the older, typically white, typically male full professor whose non-tenure-track colleagues escape his vision, who still believes merit rises to the top and those who fail to land tenure-track jobs lack work ethic, intelligence, or both. …
Even if tenured professors might not pay attention to the adjuncts who walked their hallways, they couldn’t help but notice the fates of their graduate students, who were being sent into a bottlenecked academic-jobs market to compete for slimmer pickings. They started to connect the dots.”

Two kinds of philosophy? A response to the “ex philosopher”

Arguably, there are at least two different kinds of philosophy: The first kind is what one might call a spiritual practice, building on exercises or forms of artistic expression and aiming at understanding oneself and others. The second kind is what one might call a theoretical endeavour, building on concepts and arguments and aiming at explaining the world. The first kind is often associated with traditions of mysticism, meditation and therapy; the second is related to theory-building, the formation of schools (scholasticism) and disciplines in the sciences (and humanities). If you open any of the so-called classics, you’ll find representations of both forms. Descartes’ Meditations offer you meditative exercises that you can try at home alongside a battery of arguments engaging with rival theories. Wittgenstein’s Tractatus closes with the mystical and the advice to shut up about the things that matter most after opening with an account of how language relates to the world. However, while both kinds are present in many philosophical works, only the second kind gets recognition in professional academic philosophy. In what follows, I’d like to suggest that this lopsided focus might undermine our discipline.

Although I think that these kinds of philosophy are ultimately intertwined, I’d like to begin by trying to make the difference more palpable. Let’s start with a contentious claim: I think that most people are drawn into philosophy by the first kind, that is, by the desire understand themselves, while academic philosophy trains people in the second kind, that is, in handling respectable theories. People enter philosophy with a first-person perspective and leave or become academics through mastering the third-person perspective. By the way, this is why most first-year students embrace subjectivism of all kinds and lecturers regularly profess to be “puzzled” by this. Such situations thrive on misunderstandings: for the most part, students don’t mean to endorse subjectivism as a theory; they simply and rightly think that perspective matters.* Now, this is perhaps all very obvious. But I do think that this transition from the one kind to the other kind could be made more transparent. The problem I see is not the transition itself, but the dismissal of the first kind of philosophy. As I noted earlier, the two kinds of philosophy require one another. We shouldn’t rip the Tractatus apart, to exclude either mysticism or the theory. Whether you are engaging in the first or second kind is more a matter of emphasis. However, interests in gatekeeping and unfounded convictions about what is and what isn’t philosophy often entail practices of exclusion, often with pernicious effects.

Such sentiments were stirred when I read the confessions of an ex philosopher that are currently making the rounds on social media. The piece struck many chords, quite different ones. I thought it was courageous and truthful as well as heart-breaking and enraging. Some have noted that the piece is perhaps more the complacent rant of someone who was never interested in philosophy and fellow philosophers to begin with. Others saw its value in highlighting what might be called a “phenomenology of failure” (as Dirk Koppelberg put it). These takes are not mutually exclusive. It’s not clear to me whether the author had the distinction between the two kinds of philosophy in mind, but it surely does invoke something along these lines:

“Philosophy has always been a very personal affair. Well, not always. When it stopped being a personal affair, it also stopped being enjoyable. It became a performance.

… Somewhat paradoxically, academia made me dumber, by ripening an intellectual passion I loved to engage with into a rotten performance act I had to dread, and that I hurried to wash out of my mind (impossible ambition) when clocking out. Until the clocking out became the norm. Now I honestly do not have insightful opinions about anything — not rarefied philosophical problems nor products nor popular culture nor current events.”

What the author describes is not merely the transition from one approach to another; it is transition plus denial. It’s the result of the professional academic telling off the first-year student for being overly enthusiastically committed to “subjectivism”. While we can sometimes observe this happening in the lecture hall, most of this denial happens within the same person, the supposed adult telling off themselves, that is, the playful child within. No doubt, sometimes such transition is necessary and called for. But the denial can easily kill the initial motivation. – That said, the author also writes that he has “never enjoyed doing philosophy.” It is at this point (and other similar ones) where I am torn between different readings, but according to the reading I am now proposing the “philosophy” he is talking about is a widespread type of academic philosophy.** What he is talking about, then, is that he never had an interest in a kind of philosophy that would deny the initial enthusiasm and turn it into a mere performance.

Now you might say that this is just the course of a (professionalised) life. But I doubt that we should go along with this dismissal too readily. Let me highlight two problems, unfounded gatekeeping and impoverished practices:

  • The gatekeeping has its most recognisable expression in the petulant question “Is this philosophy?” Of course, it depends on who is asking, but the fact that most texts from the mystic tradition or many decidedly literary expressions of philosophy are just ignored bears witness to the ubiquitous exclusion of certain philosophers. It certainly hit Hildegard of Bingen, parts of Nietzsche and bits of Wittgenstein. But if an exaggerated remark is in order, soon anything that doesn’t follow the current style of paper writing will be considered more or less “weird”. In this regard, the recent attempts at “diversifying the canon” often strike me as enraging. Why do we need to make a special case for re-introducing work that is perfectly fine? In any case, the upshot of dismissing the first kind of philosophy is that a lot of philosophy gets excluded, for unconvincing reasons.
  • You might think that such dismissal only concerns certain kinds of content or style. But in addition to excluding certain traditions of philosophy, there is a subtler sort of dismissal at work: As I see it, the denial of philosophy as a (spiritual) practice or a form of life (as Pierre Hadot put it) pushes personal involvement to the fringes. Arguably, this affects all kinds of philosophy. Let me give an example: Scepticism can be seen as a kind of method that allows us to question knowledge claims and eventually advances our knowledge. But it can also be seen as a personal mental state that affects our decisions. As I see it, the methodological approach is strongly continuous with, if not rooted in, the mental state. Of course, sometimes it is important to decouple the two, but a complete dismissal of the personal involvement cuts the method off from its various motivations. Arguably, the dismissal of philosophy as a spiritual (and also political) practice creates a fiction of philosophy. This fiction might be continuous with academic rankings and pseudo-meritocratic beliefs, but it is dissociated from the involvement that motivates all kinds of philosophical exchange.

In view of these problems, I think it is vital keep a balance between what I called two kinds but what is ultimately one encompassing practice. Otherwise we undermine what motivates people to philosophise in the first place.

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* Liam Bright has a great post discussing the often lame counterarguments to subjectivism, making the point that I want to make in a different way by saying that the view is more substantial than it is commonly given credit for: “The objection [to subjectivism] imagines a kind of God’s-eye-perspective on truth and launches their attack from there, but the kind of person who is attracted to subjectivism (or for that matter relativism) is almost certainly the kind of person who is suspicious of the idea of such a God’s eye perspective. Seen from within, these objections simply lose their force, they don’t take seriously what the subjectivist is trying to do or say as a philosopher of truth.”

Eric Schliesser provides a brief discussion of Liam’s post, hitting the nail on the following head: “Liam’s post (which echoes the loveliest parts of Carnap’s program with a surprisingly Husserlian/Levinasian sensibility) opens the door to a much more humanistic understanding of philosophy. The very point of the enterprise would be to facilitate mutual understanding. From the philosophical analyst’s perspective the point of analysis or conceptual engineering, then, is not getting the concepts right (or to design them for ameliorative and feasible political programs), but to find ways to understand, or enter into, one’s interlocutor life world.”

** Relatedly, Ian James Kidd distinguishes between philosophy and the performative craft of academic philosophy in his post on “Being good at being good at philosophy”.

Silent academics and the decline of (higher) education

Yesterday alone, about three articles about manifest maltreatment of university staff came my way: The SOAS University of London “sacked all of its casualised academic staff in one go”; the University and College Union published a report about “dehumanisation” of casualised staff, and a group of researchers on higher education published a paper revealing “an acute situation of endemic bullying and harassment, chronic overwork, high levels of mental health problems, general health and wellbeing problems, and catastrophically high levels of demoralisation and dissatisfaction”. Academics read such news a lot, but three articles of that sort in one day are a bit much. Now there are many good analyses of the situation, but I’m increasingly convinced that many of the problems come down to one simple issue: silence. By and large, academics seem to remain silent about these issues. And the silence signals or translates into a lack of solidarity with those under threat. Given the articles above, you might think that the community is rather vocal. But my impression is that this is the tip of the iceberg. Only, the iceberg has become quite huge by now.

Looking at the situations worldwide, it is clear that universities are under threat in many places: Hungary and Brasil look particularly bad, but Turkey, Romania, the US and many other places seem to fare no better, when it comes to systematic attacks on higher education practices.* The articles mentioned above are about the UK. I am writing from the Netherlands. While our system struck me as fairly good on arrival in 2012, I now begin to see rather worrying signs. Whenever I say that the attacks on the education system are systematic, I get a number of frowns: “Surely, it’s bad, but no one wants to harm universities”, is what people want to say. – I’m not so sure. Education is a pillar of democratic participation, and that makes it a nuisance for those who just would like to have things their way. Anyway, what strikes me as systematic is the following ubiquitous chain of events: (a) The government reduces the education budget and incentivises research competition among universities (via grant agencies). (b) Universities compete by setting up staff to fulfil incentives; neglect of teaching follows. (c) Fulfilment entails increase of incentives and casualisation of teaching-oriented tasks. (d) Research grows while the outsourced teaching is pushed to the fringes so much that the field of study might be perceived as irrelevant for students and thus for other stakeholders. (e) Finally, people note the irrelevance, close the pertinent departments and repeat from (a). The upshot is: the business model of universities feeds on research and casualises teaching. Rather than forming a unity, teaching and research (or rather the pertinent performance indicators) are played off against one another.

Wherever the chain sketched above or some variation is seen as the proper business model of universities, the silence among staff members follows almost automatically. Of course, no one really seems to want the outcome (e) or even the decline of teaching. Thus, it will get portrayed as an undesired result of focus on research. At this point, however, we have already forgotten that what is being measured most of the time is not really research but performance indicators, in other words: jumping through hoops. Jumping through hoops and worries about failing to do so ultimately block collective action and promote silence instead. Mariya Ivancheva describes this as follows:

“It is quite difficult to unite and organize resistance around a common cause while higher education has a huge reserve army of workers on precarious fixed term and fractional contracts, unsure if they will have secure employment and bread on their table in a few months. And this while even permanent academics feel ever more vulnerable and threatened …”

Dutch academia is currently addressing this issue in the guise of overwork. While overwork was already a topic a while ago, the government recently intervened by reallocating (and effectively cutting) money for universities. Thus, gone are all the measures thought out for balancing the situation. Ingrid Robeyns explains the situation as follows:

“Colleagues report negative effects on their mental and physical health, sleep deprivation, constant worrying, deterioration of their friendships and other social relations, insufficient time for self-care including doing exercise, and so forth. The main problem is that the notional hours that are given to teach a course or do supervision … are inadequate, and hence a 70% teaching load leads to a more-than-fulltime workload. And since everyone also wants to, needs to, and/or is expected to do research, that also still needs to be done. Add some administration and/or leadership tasks, and societal outreach, and we easily make 55 hours a week. For colleagues who only teach, and who are on the lowest pay scales, this also means they have troubles buying a house or starting a family, since those contracts are almost always part-time, and hence also create financial stress. … [T]he Minister of Higher Education has acknowledged that the universities need a structural increase of their yearly budgets with 1.000.000.000 Euro (one billion!) but she claims she doesn’t have that money available.”

Too bad, isn’t it? You would think that this would create some momentum, but it doesn’t. But why not? I have no clear idea, but my first hunch is that it has something to do with the way criticism is portrayed. You would assume that criticism is mainly seen as a means to spot problems or weaknesses in a system. But in a competitive system, spotting weaknesses is likely turned against the critic. If you spot a weakness in the system, then you are too weak for the system. Arguably, academia is therefore often driven by the pretence that everything is just fine. A second reason might be that political criticism in universities is currently framed as an indication of left-leaning biases or even what is called “Cultural Marxism”. Accordingly, criticising the system can be framed as a political attitude that is deemed unfit for academics, who are taken to be sworn to dubious standards of neutrality. If you want a whiff of this just listen in on Trump likening climate scientists to “foolish fortune tellers”.

It seems, then, that there are three mechanisms that govern the silence in academia: (1) The competitive set-up incentivises pertinent priorities among staff members. This is not per se an incentive to remain silent; it just directs the focus on performance rather than cooperation. However, the following two points might reinforce adherence to the status quo more strongly: (2) In a competitive set-up, criticism can be portrayed as the display of a weakness (“oh, this is too much for you?”). (3) The ‘external world’ frames criticism as “left-leaning politicisation” of academia.

How can this be countered? Given the well-founded worries, it should be on the tenured staff members to speak up first. But contrary to common opinion we should also be reminded that university administrators are not enemies by default. It is clear that such framing helps dividing different university staff groups, but it is by no means a given that people involved in administration are enemies of researchers and teachers. In fact, many people in higher administration have condemned the policies of the government in the clearest terms. (Here is an example from the president of Groningen University.) So a second measure would be to doubt the common construal of academics against administrators, not least because administrators often are academics. We should return to seeing ourselves as a community with quite a number of shared goals and interests. In this spirit, criticism should not be construed as putting blame on someone else or oneself, but as a normal way of detecting problems. Reinstating vocal criticism with this aim would hopefully reinstate some trust between different status groups and stakeholders. But, yes, as Ingrid Robeyns pointed out already, one of the first things one should do is: join a union.

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* Just over the last two days there were a lot more reports. Let me just name France, where a new research law is under way: “France’s new research law is yet to be made public. But judging from preliminary discussions, Professor Huneman feared it could make the previously permanent positions of assistant professor and CNRS junior researcher temporary.”

In the meantime, protests in the UK include a growing number of academics refusing to act as external referees: “29 professors said they were resigning as external examiners and refusing to take on new contracts because of pension cuts and insecure contracts throughout the sector, as well as gender and ethnicity pay gaps, heavy workloads and stress.”

 

“I have no idea what I’m going back to.” Travelling in times of the climate crisis

Last week a good friend from Sydney came to visit Groningen and give a paper at a small workshop on early modern philosophy. We met the evening before to do some catching up. Not having had a proper chat for about a year meant that there was quite a bit to talk about, but our conversation was dominated by the climate crisis. Although we enjoyed the meeting, we soon realised that it is hard if not impossible to pretend that all is well. Many people’s lives are more or less directly affected, the news are full of it. But here we sat in a cosy restaurant when my friend spoke the words that continue ringing in my head: “I have no idea what I’m going back to.” Just re-read that sentence, will you? In the meantime, I try to ponder on what it might mean.

Listening to my friend’s account of what had been going on over the last months was scary enough.* But that sentence made it sound like we’ve moved beyond a so-called tipping point. I guess no one needs a reminder of the bushfires that are destroying enormous parts of Australia, while the government is still in denial of the facts. (Here is a recent account by John Quiggin. And if you’re up for it, try the hashtag #AustraliaBurning on Twitter.) Of course, there is much talk about tipping points in relation to climate change, but there are also “personal tipping points” that one will confront. Imagine that you will soon return from a different continent but have no idea what your home will look like or whether it will still be there, whether your friends and family are ok, and what will become of your plans. Whatever might happen, whatever help will be available – there is a sense of reality altered. Something has already changed, but you don’t know exactly what it is and what it will involve. All you know is that it happened, and perhaps sooner than expected or hoped. Such moments are to some degree ubiquitous, while they can also be deeply personal. One might experience personal tipping points in relation to all sorts of things: encounters with others, diseases, loss, war, I don’t actually want to go through all the options. The effects of climate change might be experienced on an equally personal level, but they still feel different in that we know how much they will equally affect others: not only current animals, human and non-human, our ecosystems and cultures, but also, and in much worse ways, our children. Let alone further future generations.

And yet, here we were, getting ready for what has been a most common event, an academic meeting of the sort of which there have been many. One thought that eerily struck us was the idea that people would get on with their business as if nothing were happening. Of course, we do that, too. But how common will that be in a few years from now? My friend told me of recent academic talks in Australia, speaker and audience trying to supress coughing while the smoke is creeping in from under the door. No acknowledgement in the face of the obvious. But indeed, what can we do?

There are a number of things that can be done. Whilst there is much public debate and still a grotesque amount of denial, climate scientists and social scientists have designed concrete plans of action, policies that try to keep the social and economical costs at a minimum. (The PIK in Potsdam is one such institute studying the impact of climate change while working on plans of action. Listen to them in addition to other media outlets!) While I admire a lot of individual action, putting collective pressure on governments to act in accordance with such plans should have priority. In the news, measures to counter the climate crisis are still too often presented as either-or scenarios, while there are in fact many nuanced approaches available. In this sense, the credo of movements like Fridays for Future strikes me as just right: Listen to the science! And keep talking, not least to those who don’t listen or sit on the fence. I often hear the accusation that these movements make high-brow demands and nothing else. This is a lie. They are advised by scientists, and they are pointing to institutions that do have worked out policies. But discrediting climate activism and even climate science is currently rampant. While no surprise, I am struck by the increasing amount of unfounded accusations and hate directed at institutions and individuals.

Like many others, I have been wondering a lot what do. Whenever I listen to the news, my attempts at writing something (e.g. here, here, here and here) strike me as futile. So I guess overcoming the feeling of powerlessness and keeping up hope is vital. That will probably involve amplifying the voices of well-informed politicians and movements, countering denial and silence both as a citizen and philosopher, wherever possible. (My colleague Diego Castro has written an instructive piece about countering denial.)

It’s likely that our habits and ways of interaction (not least in academia) will (have to) change. Sooner than we think we might be travelling around the world for quite different reasons. But we have to be careful. At the moment, we see a lot of incentives to change our forms of travelling. Some people not only take the train rather than the plane, but also begin to refrain from travelling altogether. I’d worry if that should signal a tendency towards gradually cutting ourselves off from others, at locally distant places. Especially now we have to keep in touch.

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* I can’t possibly give a recollection of even the most crucial things that my friend mentioned. But here is a quote from a different, enormously helpful and detailed personal account I found through a Twitter search today, which corroborates many of the facts my friend mentioned (and which you might want to read in full): “Even in our cities, where we are safe from the worst of the fires themselves, many days the acrid taste of smoke in the air has been so hazardous it’s risking your health to even go outside. Many days have been designated as total fire ban days. Even many of National Parks have been closed for fear of having to evacuate visitors. […] Since the bushfire season started in September 2019 we have had:

  • 28 lives lost – another fire fighter was lost on 12th January
  • Over 2000 homes lost, not including other buildings such as sheds, barns, and community halls
  • 17.9 Million hectares of land burnt out – already 46% more than the Brazilian Amazon fires
  • Over 1 billion animals lost – including much of Australia’s distinctive wildlife
  • Possible extinction of up to 20 threatened species in just one day of fires on Kangaroo Island (part of South Australia)
  • The largest peace time evacuation in Australia’s history to move thousands of Summer tourists trapped in coastal towns in NSW South Coast and Victoria

Much of this has only happened since New Year’s Eve. We are only 2 weeks into the start of the new year. There’s at least another 2 months of bushfire season to come.

Sydney is known for being the first major city for New Year’s Eve fireworks. This year it felt like we were the first major country for severe climate change impacts.”

Showing other(s) ways to read situations. A response to Martin Lenz

When learning how to interpret texts, we often tend to focus on the author’s intentions. What did they mean to communicate to readers? If you are trying to understand how the author views or perceives something, this seems like a good approach. However, what brought about the other interpretations in the first place? Certainly, people have a motivation for their reading of a text. Maybe they can make connections that both you and the author have not seen.

It can definitely be interesting to see why other people read a text another way and maybe you can even learn something from their reading. In this response to Martin Lenz, I first want to argue that the reason we have different readings of text and, hence, also different readings of situations is because our past experiences ‘teach’ us to read situations a certain way. Second, I want to consider whether communicating how we read situations can help us recognize power inequalities.

In a recent blog post, Martin sketched the following fictional situation:

Standing by

She knew she shouldn’t have come. But now it was too late for her to change her mind. In fact, it was getting late and the afternoon wore on, but there she was, stuck in his office and in a flow of words that was whirling around her head. He kept repeating himself and the repetition made his proposal sound friendly, even funny.

Later that evening when she remembered the episode she hated herself, again. Why had she not just left the office? It would have been easy to fabricate an excuse, and he didn’t really seem to care anyway. As it was, she had agreed to help him, just to get away. Now she was stuck in a project that no one seemed to want, she didn’t anyway.

Now, as Martin mentioned in his post, a lot of people, including myself, immediately read the situation described as having something to do with sexual harassment and could also pinpoint whence this interpretation came. This does not mean that this is what happened nor does it necessarily mean that there were bad intentions involved. But what did it mean? Why did I, and some others with me, see signs of sexual harassment where you maybe did not? According to Meno’s paradox, you can only find things if you know what you are looking for. Knowing what sexual harassment looks like or could look like means that you are able to recognize small details that could trigger such a reading. However, just as not everything that glitters is gold, not all situations that leave you to be alone with someone else doing something you would rather not be doing are sexual harassment. Still, certain things might trigger people, reminding them of previous bad experiences, despite nobody involved in this specific situation actually having bad intentions. More generally, this means that a situation can be undesirable (as perceived by one party), without the other party having bad intentions.

Where does this leave us with our interpretation of the situation pictured by Martin? Firstly, it means that what we think happened, is not necessarily what happened. Secondly, it means that our reading of a situation as undesirable does not necessarily mean that bad intentions were involved.

Leaving this reading of sexual harassment to the side, I want to focus on the power inequalities displayed, since they are a pervasive phenomenon in academia. Many of the same things apply here. Those who have suffered under power inequalities or have been told to look for certain signs, will be more likely to recognize them. Because such a situation is not one that we want to either go through or put others through, the latter option of having been told to look for these signs is certainly preferable. Speaking for myself, I have been told at the beginning of my masters to think twice when people ask me to do something. This advice was offered to me as a ‘woman in philosophy’, but people of all genders can end up in these situations.

I was told that I should not feel inclined to say ‘yes’ to things unless I actually want to do the thing. At the time I might have thought it to be a redundant talk. However, after reading Martin’s fictional account, I was reminded of the conversation. On numerous occasions I have put off saying yes to things, not because I felt like I was being persuaded to do something I did not want to, but because I was once told to make sure I wanted to do it. In other words, I was doing what I was instructed to do. This shows to me that it was not redundant to tell me this, on the contrary, it has convinced me that more people should hear this.

Just to be clear, I in no way want to claim that our professors are trying to trick us into doing chores for them. Actually, I think that often, they might not even be realizing that our reasons for agreeing to do something are not because we feel enthusiastic to take on the task at hand. This is not anyone’s fault in particular. This is how power inequality works. Being conscious of these forces at play is a good first step to choices being made for the right reasons. Telling students to think twice before saying ‘yes’ and teachers ensuring their students know that saying ‘no’ will not have bad consequences, might help ensure that fewer people agree to do things they do not want. After all, you can learn things from having gone through them yourselves really effectively, but in cases like these it is probably better if you don’t have to.

Have I been harassed? – Interpreting events through (fictional) texts

Having written a number of blog posts about interaction in academia, I recently began to wonder whether I should try out a different mode of writing. Examples and illustrations often help anyway. So why not extend these examples and use fictional scenes to get my point across? To tinker with the genre a bit I wrote a small sketch and shared it on facebook.* The responses were at once shocking and intriguing. They show that interpretations of texts (and described events) can be vastly different. Now, that in itself is probably not newsworthy. But what I find intriguing is that they shed some light on the fragility of authorship and on how this fragility might affect and alter interpretations of events. So much so that I now wonder whether I should see myself as a victim of harassment. In what follows, I’ll (1) present what I shared on facebook and briefly summarise some of the responses. (2) Then I say how I had come to write the sketch and what I had intended. I know that the reading intended by the author is just one possible reading. But the reactions make me wonder whether other readers might be in a better position to understand the events. So here goes.

(1) On facebook, I wrote the following:

Dear Hivemind,

I have a sort of interpretational request. Please read the following fictional sketch and let me know what comes to mind, be it a view of the situation, a feeling of what’s going on or something that is triggered in you, an association, whatever. You can just write a single word or phrase in the comments or be more elaborate. Many thanks in advance!

Standing by

She knew she shouldn’t have come. But now it was too late for her to change her mind. In fact, it was getting late and the afternoon wore on, but there she was, stuck in his office and in a flow of words that was whirling around her head. He kept repeating himself and the repetition made his proposal sound friendly, even funny.

Later that evening when she remembered the episode she hated herself, again. Why had she not just left the office? It would have been easy to fabricate an excuse, and he didn’t really seem to care anyway. As it was, she had agreed to help him, just to get away. Now she was stuck in a project that no one seemed to want, she didn’t anyway.

The responses to this sketch were quite different. The first tinkered with the genres and really made laugh. Most but not all suggest an academic setting. It’s clear that someone feels pressured into something undesired. A swapping of pronouns is suggested for a possible change of effects. One reading insiuates that we might be looking at an only “vaguely fictionalised account”. All of them strike me as careful readings, but there is a clearly dominant trend: Most people seem to read the scene as sexually charged or as one of (sexual) harassment. At least up until the last line: the word “project” seems to upset the sexual interpretation.

(2) Reading the responses, I thought it will be interesting to contrast them with how the story originated. Why? Not least because it allows for a comparison between the author’s intention and the dominant interpretation. So how did I come up with the sketch? – I wanted to capture a typical situation in academia: a regretful self-assessment of a situation in which we feel pressured into agreeing to something (of which neither our supervisor nor we might be really convinced). Although my time as a graduate student lies in the distant past, I remember some situations rather vividly.

So what was the material I drew on? I remembered a number of situations in which I sat in the office of my supervisor and listened to him detailing various ideas, sometimes repeating himself, either because he had forgotten about telling me earlier or for added emphasis. Sometimes he would come up with the suggestion that I might take on a certain task in a project that had some more or less direct relation to my own work. – I hasten to add that I have very fond memories of the discussions with my supervisor and think of the process with much pleasure. Moreover, the sketch does not draw on one particular situation; it’s rather coming out of a jumble of memories of several situations with him and other people. Yet, I also think that it can’t do harm to detail situations that, with hindsight, present us with what is called teachable moments. Remembering such situations, it didn’t take me long to write the above sketch. Looking at it again, I suddenly wondered what would happen if I used female pronouns for myself. Initially, I was pleased with the idea because, to my mind, it seemed to abstract away further from my situation and helped focus on the two things I wanted to capture: feeling pressured into a project, and the regret.

After reading the reactions, I notice a number of things. Although I know what I intended to say, I don’t think the deviating interpretations are wrong. Far from it, they construe the situation differently and make me wonder whether I should re-evaluate my experience. That said, I don’t think I have been harassed, certainly not intentionally. In fact, it took me quite while to even see how the sketch presents evidence for (sexual) harassment. Fortunately, the respondents took great care to argue for their readings. And at moments, their readings strike me as more plausible than my own. They highlighted a number of aspects that I didn’t notice myself, let alone intend to say, but that are still recognisable as features of the situation. The change of pronouns also hightens the creepiness that seems to figure in some of the interaction. Am I perhaps even gaslighting my former self? Being the author, then, does not make me the judge of interpretations or immunise my own reading against amendment by others. My intended take is but one reading. And in theory I could even give up on my own take. (Arguably, certain mental states might be indeterminate, such that we can’t say we are definitely in one state or have one thought rather than another.) Still, it takes some time to get used to the idea that others simply don’t read your stuff in the way you initially intended it. Yet while I agree that the description of the situation remains ambiguous, I know that I would not have called this behaviour harassment, neither at the time nor today.

But still, I wonder what to make of this kind of situation. The lesson I draw is that, clearly, the power imbalance between supervisor and student should not be underestimated. I am fairly sure that my supervisor thought that he would not pressure me into anything; he enjoyed chatting about ideas and wanted to pass on a task that occurred to him should be delegated. But while the set-up would have allowed me to refuse the task, my hierarchical inferiority facilitated the assumption that the refusal would have come at a price (that I didn’t want to pay). That might have been a false assumption, and perhaps that inferiority should not serve as an excuse for inaction or lack of honesty.

Yet, I tend to think that I would have been more at ease and in a position to refuse, had my supervisor done more to make clear that he didn’t see me under the (tacit) obligation to accept his ‘offer’. Perhaps. Perhaps not. On the other hand, I am well aware that he was raised in a culture in which is his behaviour would go through as entirely ‘normal’. In fact, there are good reasons to believe that he could have seeen his own conduct as an improvement over that of his former supervisors. On yet another hand, I also think we should be cautious when passing judgment on events that have ambiguous features. In the sketch, my self-assessment is dominated by regret over accepting a task. But as I see it, the pressure I felt was less founded in the actions of my supervisor than in the hierarchical structure. And as we all know the structures that not only surround but also carry us can become almost invisible, especially to those in a superior position.

In any case, it can’t do much harm to try harder and put ourselves into the shoes of others. Then again, it’s equally helpful to re-situate our stories in entirely different contexts. After all, the sketch can also be read as a snippet from a crime novel.

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* Many thanks to my (facebook) friends for chiming in, especially (in the order of appearance): Mariya Ivancheva, Naomi Osorio, Sara Uckelman, Maurice Nette, Michael Morris, Linda Ham, Anita van der Bos, Charles Wolfe, and Lucy Nicolls.