Diversity in Philosophy. Martin Lenz in conversation with Catherine Newmark (podcast)

[Catherine Newmark kindly invited me for a conversation with the radio station Deutschlandfunk Kultur. Here is a link to the audio file and a brief summary in German.* Below you’ll find a rough translation of the summary.]

Diversity in Philosophy: Who is read, who belongs?

How diverse is philosophy? The canon is still dominated by European white men. The establishment is remarkably homogeneous in terms of gender, origin and class. There are solid reasons for this, says philosopher Martin Lenz.

Is the history of philosophy really just a collection of “dead white men”? For some years now, criticism has increasingly been voiced against the canon of texts that are authoritative for seminars, curricula and public debates: The perspective is much too narrow. Female thinkers and people of colour, for example, are not represented enough with their points of view. Non-European perspectives are ignored.

Competition for very few jobs

The diversity of those who do philosophy is not balanced either. In the workplace, it is still predominantly white men, mostly of European descent, who set the tone, is one reproach. Moreover, in the competition for the few positions at universities, it is mostly people with an educated middle-class background who come out on top, while applicants from other social classes are left behind.

The philosopher Martin Lenz, professor at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, has himself had ambivalent experiences with classism in academia. In a short text for the blog “FirstGenPhilosophers – Philosophy in the First Generation” of the Free University of Berlin, he looks back on his educational path: how often he, whose parents did not study, was tempted to hide his origins, he says, he only realised in retrospect.

Reduction of equal opportunities

“When I studied, signs were pointing to permeability (Durchlässigkeit),” says Lenz. In the 1970s and 80s, there were “active attempts to attract people from all backgrounds to the university.” In the meantime, however, this development is being pushed back in the name of “elites”, “excellence” and competition. Today, the standard of “employability” is increasingly being applied internationally, i.e. the demand that studies must optimally prepare students for a specific profession, according to Lenz. The classical educational ideal is thus giving way more and more to a “training ideal”.

As far as the canon of philosophical texts and topics is concerned, Lenz observes that diversity in teaching itself is already quite advanced. For his students in Groningen, it is “now completely natural” to look beyond the horizon of Western philosophy. “They are growing up with the fact that philosophy is a global occurence,” says Lenz.

Too little incentive for discovery

The fact that the inclusion of new voices in the canon is progressing only very slowly, however, also has very practical reasons, Lenz emphasises. For example, established figures of the history of philosophy simply benefit from the fact that their texts are critically edited, translated, annotated and flanked by extensive secondary literature, i.e. they are easily accessible.

In order to edit and publish texts that have received little attention up to now, one needs strong qualifications, experience and a great deal of time. However, this important work is hardly rewarded in academia. No one earns permanent positions or professorships with it. Another factor in the cementing of the canon is the tendency towards conservative appointment procedures at universities.

“We choose our past”

The current debates on diversity at least show that a canon is never set in stone, says Lenz: “Our commemorative culture is not designed to be complete. We don’t try to think of everything, but we try to think of what we take to be important.” And the question of what we consider important is definitely subject to changing insights and interests, so in this sense we “choose our past”.

So if today, for example, we want to remember a thinker like David Hume not only as “a great philosopher”, but strive for a more differentiated view and “just also remember that this is someone who was involved in the slave trade, then that is also a choice of how we want to remember.”

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* Here the audio file can be accessed directly:

Diversität in der Philosophie Wer wird gelesen, wer gehört dazu? (Deutschlndfunk Kultur)

Education versus employability. A reply to Daniel James Țurcaș and others

Common sense: why don’t you practise your violin more? You are really talented.

Also common sense: why would you waste your time practising a musical instrument, if you can’t sustain a living from it?

***

Taken together, these two questions express everything that is wrong with our education system. The reason is that there are two largely disparate sets of values at work: while the first question expresses educational values, the second is driven by concerns of what now often goes under the heading of employability. While many European education systems pride themselves on fostering the first set, they ultimately honour the second set. The two questions jumped at me when trying to figure out what’s wrong with meritocratic hero narratives designed to empower first-generation students. In reply to my previous piece a number of people have pointed out that it’s basically a Good Thing to spread stories by first-generation academics, the reason being that it might ultimately allow for sharing struggles and rasing awareness. I agree that such stories might be empowering etc. but something keeps nagging me. So here it is:

Academic success as a student follows a different logic than success as an academic employee. Performing well as a student can be honoured by, by and large, academic standards. Even if studying is often competitive, students do not need to compete, because, at least in principle, grades, even good ones, are not a limited resource. By contrast, academic employment is strongly limited. Therefore, academics compete in a zero-sum game. Arguably, then, empowerment for first-gen students might work very well for student success, but it probably has nothing to offer when it comes to employment. My worry is that empowerment through first-gen stories might be taken as a recipe or empowerment for the job market, when in fact it mostly speaks to values that hold or should hold in educational contexts.

Here is what I wrote about these different sets of values two years ago: Most education systems hold a simple promise: If you work hard enough, you’ll get a good grade. While this is a problematic belief in itself, it is a feasible idea in principle. The real problem begins with the transition from education to employment relations in academia. If you have a well performing course, you can give all of your thirty students a high grade. But you can’t give thirty applicants for the same position the job you’ve advertised, even if all the applicants are equally brilliant. Now the problem in higher education is that the transition from educational rewards to employment rewards is often rather subtle. Accordingly, someone not getting a job might draw the same conclusion as someone not getting a good grade.

It is here that we are prone to fallacious reasoning and it is here that especially academic employers need to behave more responsibly: Telling people that “the best candidate” will get the job might too easily come across like telling your first-year students that the best people will get a top grade. But the job market is a zero sum game, while studying is not. (It might be that there is more than just one best candidate or it might be impossible for the employer to determine who the best candidate is.) So a competition among students is of a completely different kind than a competition between job candidates. But this fact is often obscured. An obvious indicator of this is that for PhD candidates it is often unclear whether they are employees or students. Yet, it strikes me as a category mistake to speak about (not) “deserving” a job in the same way as about deserving a certain grade or diploma. So while, at least in an ideal world, a bad grade is a reflection of the work you’ve done, not getting a job is not a reflection of the work you’ve done. There is no intrinsic relation between the latter two things. Now that doesn’t mean that (the prospect of doing) good work is not a condition for getting a job, it just means that there is no relation of being deserving or undeserving.

Or to put the same point somewhat differently, while not every performance deserves a good grade, everyone deserves a job.

Between coming out and self-praise? The meritocratic ring of first-generation stories

Recently, I took part in an initiative concerning first-generation academics. As I took it, the idea was that established professors take the lead in talking about their special experiences and career paths in view of their non-academic backgrounds. The idea strikes me as good and empowering. Although people from non-academic backgrounds have significantly fewer chances of upward social mobility, let alone landing a sustainable position in academia, it is not impossible. Given this, it makes sense to raise awareness for the specific obstacles and stigma, yes, stigma, and perhaps to encourage those sitting on the fence about giving it a try. All the power to empowerment, of course. But is that really the effect of this kind of initiative? Here are some doubts.

“Aren’t you mostly engaging in self-praise?” Thus spoke my interlocutor after reading some of the professorial testimonials showing that they “had made it”. I explained at length how I hoped that these stories would help starting a conversation, eventually empowering some people from similar backgrounds and enlightening those unaware of first-gen issues. What’s not to like? “Well,” my interlocutor retorted, “of course, these are good intentions. But who is the intended audience of these testimonials?” Initially, I took my interlocutor’s criticism of self-praise to be totally unfair. In my view, class separations had tightened rather than loosened, so what could be wrong about raising awareness?

Listening to myself, my answers began to ring hollow soon, though: Who would read this? And wasn’t my story really just like patting myself on the back. Would it not just come across like any old meritocratic hero story? ‘Look, I’ve made it, despite …’ The American Dream all over again. Of course, this sounds too harsh. Reading all the stories by others (and not just professors), there were lots of intriguing perspectives. So one effect of this initiative might be that of normalising talk about diverse backgrounds. That would be good indeed. But while normalisation of such talk might be desirable, it doesn’t shed any light on the actual mechanisms obstructing social mobility. Indeed, thinking back, what really made a difference for me was not the opportunity to talk about my background but the political efforts allowing for social mobility within schools and financial support.

Now you might object that I’m misunderstanding such initiatives. While social mobility is hampered by lack of political and financial support, it is also hampered by stigma and more subtle forms of social oppression. These issues are addressed by such initiatives. The situation for first-gen students and academics will not only be improved by throwing money at it, but by normalising such backgrounds. But will it really?

Looking back at the situation I was met with as a student, what helped me most was, among many other things, the then widespread idea that it doesn’t matter where you come from. This idea is ingrained in countless songs, stories, and pop culture at large that accompanied my youth. It carries an enticing promise: the promise that you can just invent yourself – irrespective of who your parents or your ancestry are. Rather than highlighting my background (which I didn’t feel very connected to anyway), then, I felt empowered by the assumption that my background doesn’t matter. When I say in my testimonial that I was lucky to have grown up in a politically empowering environment, I partly refer to this idea. The political birth of this idea is probably linked to 1968, stressing a cut with previous generations especially in Nazi Germany. By the 1970s and 1980s, it probably had taken some hold in educational institutions.

Now you might rightly object that this idea, while perhaps desirable, is not true of the class differences that now rule many educational decisions. To this I’d reply that even back then ‘when I was young’, this idea was not true of most political mechanisms. The ties to the Nazi past were not really cut and we still had strong class differences. The point of the idea that your ancestry doesn’t matter is that it was a normative idea. It shouldn’t matter where you come from, even if it still did.

But if your class or ancestry shouldn’t matter, then what good does it do to focus on the differences in backgrounds? Thinking about this, I realise I’m torn about first-generation initiatives. On the one hand, I really believe that normalisation of such talk might help individuals in navigating through their environments. On the other hand, I worry that I end up normalising meritocratic drivel instead.

Yet again, while class origins (and the meritocratic hero narratives about overcoming them) shouldn’t matter, they do make a difference. While good education should be available to everyone and not hampered by origins, educational paths are often construed as stories of overcoming one’s origins. The Latin roots of “education” in the verbs “educare” (“to train”) and “educere” (“to lead out”) insinuate as much. If this is correct, education means at least partly leaving behind one’s origins.

In this sense, stories about educational paths will probably remain, at least to some degree, stories about leaving one’s origins behind. The very term “first-generation student” or “academic” has this narrative baked into it. So yes, keep talking about origins, but don’t forget to fight for political and financial support.

***

Many thanks to Daniel James Țurcaș and Barbara Vetter for launching the recent FirstGenPhilosophers initiative of the Gesellschaft für Analytische Philosophie (GAP), and to Marija Weste for inspiring conversations on the topic. – As it happens, this blog is now nearly four years old. So special thanks also to all my readers and interlocutors.

#FirstGenPhilosophers

FirstGenPhilosophers is a webpage (in German) curated by Daniel James Țurcaș and Barbara Vetter. It is about and for philosophers with a non-academic background and intended as a forum for sharing stories and ideas. Currently, it hosts stories by Elif Özmen, Andreas Hütteman, Christian Neuhäuser, and yours truly. The curators welcome further contributions.

***

In case you’re interested, here is a quick translation of my contribution:

My parents fled from Pomerania and East Prussia to West Germany as children at the end of the Second World War. My mother worked there as a cleaner and shop assistant, my father as a lorry driver. My ambitions surprised them. Nevertheless, they tried to support me as much as they could. During my studies and afterwards, I was not really aware of any particular difficulties. It was only much later that I realised that I had often tried to hide my origins and that my life was often associated with a certain shame in this way. When my academic teacher once pointed out how selectly I was dressed, I was somewhat startled because I realised how well I had learned to disguise myself – even from myself. Seeing how much it can encourage others to know about this shame and other difficulties has encouraged me to address my experiences occasionally. So I have stayed well in touch with my “inner student” and like to bring him out to understand and address certain problems. On the one hand, perhaps for this very reason, I realise today how much I personally owe to the democratic education orientation in the Germany of the 70s. On the other hand, it is frightening to see how much this orientation is now being fought politically. In this sense, the still claimed meritocratic orientation in academia appears as a toxic fig leaf. For philosophy in particular, it is essential to regain a democratic and pluralistic educational orientation. That is why I try to keep these issues present in my blog and through active work in the union. So if there is one experience that I associate in a special way with my background, it is this: Promoting academic work requires living in solidarity rather than competition.

Philosophy, language, and my long road to tenure (podcast)

After one of my lectures on the history of philosophy for students from other faculties, Daniel Rebbin and Colm O’Fuarthain, two psychology students participating in the lecture, kindly invited me to a conversation on their Mental Minds Podcast.

So we talked about many things: for instance, about my approach to philosophy, the importance of being confused, language, dialogue, my way into academia, pretence, anxiety, and the meaning of life. Enjoy the conversation and check out their other podcasts. Below I added a rough table of contents (the times might not always be correct):

Contents:

00:00 Introduction              

01:40 Why should we study and how did I get into philosophy?                      

03:15 On confusion and expectations

10:10 Do we always focus on what people say rather than on phenomena?

12:36 Language as a mode of direct perception

15:31 Interaction through language

18:37 Limits of language, and how we share experiences

29:19 On going into academia and the relevance of philosophy for our lives

43:05 The role of luck, chance, and shame

52:34 Intrinsic motivation? – Adolescent wishes

56:30 What have professors gone through to become professors?

1:21:30 My anxiety disorder

1:30:40 What advice would I give my younger self?

1:42:00 What gives me meaning in life?

On being a first-gen student, hierarchies and harassment. A conversation about meritocratic ideology with Nora Migdad (podcast)

On being a first-gen student, hierarchies and harassment.
A conversation about meritocratic ideology with Nora Migdad (podcast)

This is the second installment of my still fairly new series Philosophical Chats. In this episode, I have a conversation with Nora Migdad who majors in Biology and minors in Philosophy. Like me (but a long time ago), Nora is a first-generation student. While being a first-gen student is often (rightly) treated as lending itself to disadvantages, it also offers intriguing perspectives on the peculiarities of academic life.

Following up on a guest post about being a first-gen student, Nora eventually initiated a conversation about this topic. After some exchanges about possible questions to be addressed we finally found time for the virtual meeting recorded above. Among the issues we covered are:

  • being a first-gen student 0:00
  • work-pressure and hierarchies 11:17
  • hierarchies, misconduct and prestige 12:32
  • protecting harassers 15:00
  • dealing with harassment outside and inside academia 22:40
  • criticism within hierarchies in academia 31:52
  • depending on others 34:50
  • ideas for improvement 38:06
  • dealing with sexism and racism 41:55

“We don’t need no …” On linguistic inequality

Deviations from so-called standard forms of language (such as the double negative) make you stand out immediately. Try and use double negatives consistently in your university courses or at the next job interview and see how people react. Even if people won’t correct you explicitly, many will do so tacitly. Such features of language function as social markers and evoke pertinent gut reactions. Arguably, this is not only true of grammatical or lexical features, but also of broader stylistic features in writing, speech and even non-linguistic conduct. Some ways of phrasing may sound like heavy boots. Depending on our upbringing, we are familiar with quite different linguistic features. While none of this might be news, it raises crucial questions about teaching that I see rarely addressed. How do we respond to linguistic and stylistic diversity? When we say that certain students “are struggling”, we often mean that they deviate from our stylistic expectations. A common reaction is to impart techniques that help them in conforming to such expectations. But should we perhaps respond by trying to understand the “deviant” style?

Reading the double negative “We don’t need no …”, you might see quite different things: (1) a grammatically incorrect phrase in English; (2) a grammatically correct phrase in English; (3) part of a famous song by Pink Floyd. Assuming that many of us recognise these things, some will want to hasten to add that (2) contradicts (1). A seemingly obvious way to resolve this is to say that reading (1) applies to what is called the standard dialect of English (British English), while (2) applies to some dialects of English (e.g. African-American Vernacular English). This solution prioritises one standard over other “deviant” forms that are deemed incorrect or informal etc. It is obvious that this hierarchy goes hand in hand with social tensions. At German schools and universities, for instance, you can find numerous students and lecturers who hide their dialects or accents. In linguistics, the disadvantages of regional dialect speakers have long been acknowledged. Even if the prescriptive approach has long been challenged, it’s driving much of the implicit culture in education.

But the distinction between standard and deviant forms of language ignores the fact that the latter often come with long-standing rules of their own. Adjusting to the style of your teacher might then require you to deviate from the language of your parents. Thus another solution is to say that there are different English languages. Accordingly, we can acknowledge reading (2) and call African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) a language. The precise status and genealogy is a matter of linguistic controversy. However, the social and political repercussions of this solution come most clearly into view when we consider the public debate about teaching what is called “Ebonics” at school in the 90s (Here is a very instructive video about this debate). If we acknowledge reading (2), it means, mutatis mutandis, that many English speakers raised with AAVE can be considered bilingual. Educators realised that teaching standard forms of English can be aided greatly by using AAVE as the language of instruction. Yet, trying to implement this as a policy at school soon resulted in a debate about a “political correctness exemplar gone out of control” and abandoning the “language of Shakespeare”. The bottom-line is: Non-hierarchical acknowledgement of different standards quickly spirals into defences of the supposed status quo by the dominant social group.

Supposed standards and deviations readily extend to styles of writing and conduct in academic philosophy. We all have a rough idea what a typical lecture looks like, how a discussion goes and how a paper should be structured. Accordingly, attempts at diversification are met with suspicion. Will they be as good as our standards? Won’t they undermine the clarity we have achieved in our styles of reasoning? A more traditional division is that between so-called analytic and continental philosophy. Given the social gut reactions to diversifying linguistic standards, it might not come as a surprise that we find equal responses among philosophers: Shortly before the University of Cambridge awarded a honorary degree to Derrida in 1992, a group of philosophers published an open letter protesting that “Derrida’s work does not meet accepted standards of clarity and rigour.” (Eric Schliesser has a succinct analysis of the letter.) Rather than acknowledging that there might be various standards emerging from different traditions, the supposedly dominant standard of clarity is often defended like an eternal Platonic idea.

While it is easy to see and criticise this, it is much more difficult to find a way of dealing with it in the messy real world. My historically minded self has had and has the luxury to engage with a variety of styles without having to pass judgment, at least not explicitly. More importantly, when teaching students I have to strike a balance between acknowledging variety and preparing them for situations in which such acknowledgement won’t be welcome. In other words, I try to teach “the standard”, while trying to show its limits within an array of alternatives. My goal in teaching, then, would not be to drive out “deviant” stylistic features, but to point to various resources required in different contexts. History (of philosophy) clearly helps with that. But the real resources are provided by the students themselves. Ultimately, I would hope, not to teach them how to write, but how to find their own voices within their various backgrounds and learn to gear them towards different purposes.

But to do so, I have to learn, to some degree, the idioms of my students and try to understand the deep structure of their ways of expression. Not as superior, not as inferior, but as resourceful within contexts yet unknown to me. On the other hand, I cannot but also lay open my own reactions and those of the traditions I am part of. – Returning to the fact that language comes with social markers, perhaps one of the most important aspects of teaching is to convey a variety of means to understand and express oneself through language. Our gut reactions run very deep, and what is perceived as linguistic ‘shortcomings’ will move people, one way or another. But there is a double truth: Although we often cannot but go along with our standards, they will very soon be out of date. New standards and styles will emerge. And we, or I should say “I”, will just sound old-fashioned at best. Memento mori.

You don’t get what you deserve. Part II: diversity versus meritocracy?

“I’m all for diversity. That said, I don’t want to lower the bar.” – If you have been part of a hiring committee, you will probably have heard some version of that phrase. The first sentence expresses a commitment to diversity. The second sentence qualifies it: diversity shouldn’t get in the way of merit. Interestingly, the same phrase can be heard in opposing ways. A staunch defender of meritocracy will find the second sentence (about not lowering the bar) disingenuous. He will argue that, if you’re committed to diversity, you might be disinclined to hire the “best candidate”. By contrast, a defender of diversity will find the first sentence disingenuous. If you’re going in for meritocratic principles, you will just follow your biases and ultimately take the properties of “white” and “male” as a proxy of merit. – This kind of discussion often runs into a stalemate. As I see it, the problem is to treat diversity and meritocracy as an opposition. I will suggest that this kind of discussion can be more fruitful if we see that diversity is not a property of job candidates but of teams, and thus not to be seen in opposition to meritocratic principles.

Let’s begin with a clarification. I assume that it’s false and harmful to believe that we live in a meritocracy. But that doesn’t mean that meritocratic ideas themselves are bad. If it is simply taken as the idea that one gets a job based on their pertinent qualifications, then I am all for meritocratic principles. However, a great problem in applying such principles is that, arguably, the structure of hiring processes makes it difficult to discern qualifications. Why? Because qualifications are often taken to be indicated by other factors such as prestige etc. But prestige, in turn, might be said to correlate with race, gender, class or whatever, rather than with qualifications. At the end of the day, an adherent of diversity can accuse adherents of meritocracy of the same vices that she finds herself accused of. So when merit and diversity are taken as being in opposition, we tend to end up in the following tangle:

  • Adherents of diversity think that meritocracy is ultimately non-meritocratic, racist, sexist, classist etc.
  • Adherents of meritocracy think that diversity is non-meritocratic, racist, sexist, classist etc.*

What can we do in such a stalemate? How can the discussion be decided? Something that typically gets pointed out is homogeneity. The adherent of diversity will point to the homogeneity of people. Most departments in my profession, for instance, are populated with white men. The homogeneity points to a lack of diversity. Whether this correlates to a homogeneity of merit is certainly questionable. Therefore, the next step in the discussion is typically an epistemological one: How can we know whether the candidates are qualified? More importantly, can we discern quality independently from features such as race, gender or class? – In this situation, adherents of diversity typically refer to studies that reveal implicit biases. Identical CVs, for instance, have been shown to be treated as more or less favourable depending on the features of the name on the CV. Meritocratists, by contrast, will typically insist that they can discern quality objectively or correct for biases. Again, both sides seem to have a point. We might be subject to biases, but if we don’t leave decisions to individuals but to, say, committees, then we can perhaps correct for biases. At least if these committees are sufficiently diverse, one might add. – However, I think the stalemate will get passed indefinitely to different levels, as long as we treat merit and diversity as an opposition. So how can we move forward?

We try to correct for biases, for instance, by making a committee diverse. While this is a helpful step, it also reveals a crucial feature about diversity that is typically ignored in such discussions. Diversity is a feature of a team or group, not of an individual. The merit or qualification of a candidate is something pertaining to that candidate. If we look for a Latinist, for instance, knowledge of Latin will be a meritorious qualification. Diversity, by contrast, is not a feature, to be found in the candidate. Rather, it is a feature of the group that the candidate will be part of. Adding a woman to all-male team will make the team more diverse, but that is not a feature of the candidate. Therefore, accusing adherents of diversity of sexism or racism is fallacious. Trying to build a more diverse team rather than favouring one category strikes me as a means to counter such phenomena.

Now if we accept that there is such a thing as qualification (or merit), it makes sense to say that in choosing a candidate for a job we will take qualifications into account as a necessary condition. But one rarely merely hires a candidate; one builds a team, and thus further considerations apply. One might end up with a number of highly qualified candidates. But then one has to consider other questions, such as the team one is trying to build. And then it seems apt to consider the composition of the team. But that does not mean that merit and diversity are opposed to one another.

Nevertheless, prioritising considerations about the team over the considerations about the candidates are often met with suspicion. “She only got the job because …” Such an allegation is indeed sexist, because it construes a diversity consideration applicable to a team as the reason for hiring, as if it were the qualification of an individual. But no matter how suspicious one is, qualification and diversity are not on a par, nor can they be opposing features.

Compare: A singer might complain that the choir hired a soprano rather than him, a tenor. But the choir wasn’t merely looking for a singer but for a soprano. Now that doesn’t make the soprano a better singer than the tenor, nor does it make the tenor better than the soprano. Hiring a soprano is relevant to the quality of the group; it doesn’t reflect the quality of the individual.

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* However, making such a claim, an adherent of meritocracy will probably rely on the assumption that there is such a thing as “inverted racism or sexism”. In the light of our historical sitation, this strikes me as very difficult to argue, at least with regard to institutional structures. It’s seems like saying that certain doctrines and practices of the Catholic Church are not sexist, simply because there are movements aiming at reform.

Fit. A Note on Aristotle’s Presence in Academia

Since the so-called Scientific Revolution and the birth of modern science, our Western approach towards the world became quantitative. The precedingly dominant qualitative Aristotelian worldview of the Scholastics was replaced by a quantitative one: everything around us was supposed to be quantifiable and quantified. This, of course, seems to affect nowadays academia, too. We often hear “do this, it will be one more line in your CV!” 

Many will reply “This is not true, quality matters just as much!” Yes, it (sometimes) matters in which journal one publishes; it has to be a good journal; one needs to make sure that the quality of the article is good. And how do we know that the journal is good or not? Because of its ranking. So if you thought I will argue that this is Aristotle’s presence in Academia… you were wrong. The criterion is still quantitative. Of course, we trust more that an article in a respectable (i.e., highly ranked) journal is a good one, but we all know this is not always the case. 

Bringing into discussion the qualitative and quantitative distinction is crucial for assessing job applications and the ensuing hiring process. While it used to be easier for those in a position of power to hire whom they want, it has become a bit more difficult. Imagine you really want to hire someone because he (I will use this pronoun for certain reasons) is brilliant. But his brilliance is not reflected in his publications, presentations, teaching evaluations, grants (the latter because he did not get any)… You cannot even say he is a promising scholar, since that should be visible in something. At the same time, there are a lot of competing applications with an impressive record. So what can one do? Make use of the category ‘better fit’, ‘better fit’ for the position, ‘better fit’ for the department.[1] But when is someone a ‘better fit’, given that the job description did not mention anything to this effect? When their research is in line with the department? No, too much overlap! When it complements the existing areas of research? No, way too different!

And here is where Aristotle comes into the picture. It is not the research that has to fit, but the person. And we know from Aristotle and his followers that gender, race and nationality are the result of the (four elemental) qualities. Who can be more fit for a department mostly composed of men from Western Europe than another man from Western Europe? As a woman coming from Eastern Europe, I have no chance. And Eastern Europe is not even the worst place to come from in this respect. 

There is a caveat though. When more people who fit in the department apply, the committee seeks refuge in positing some ‘occult qualities’ to choose the ‘right’ person. ‘Occult’ in the Scholastic sense means that the quality it is not manifest in any way in the person’s profile.[2]

How much is this different from days when positions were just given away on the basis of personal preference? The difference lies in the charade.[3] The difference is that nowadays a bunch of other people, devoid of occult qualities, though with an impressive array of qualities manifest in their CVs and international recognition, spend time and energy to prepare an application, get frustrated, maybe even get sick, just so that the person with the ‘better fit’ can have the impression that he is much better than all the rest who applied.

So when are we going to give up the Aristotelian-Scholastic elementary and occult qualities and opt for a different set of more inclusive qualities?


[1] Aristotle probably put it in his Categories, but it got lost.

[2] I am rather unfair with this term, because the occult qualities were making themselves present through certain effects.

[3] The Oxford dictionary indeed defines charade as “an absurd pretence intended to create a pleasant or respectable appearance.”

On being a first-generation student

First off: the following is not to be taken as a tale of woe. I am grateful for whatever life has had on offer for me so far, and I am indebted to my teachers – from primary school to university and beyond – in many ways. But I felt that, given that Martin invited me to do so, I should probably provide some context to my comment on his recent post on meritocracy, in which I claimed that my being a first-generation student has had a “profound influence on how I conceive of academia”. So here goes.

I am a first-generation student from a lower-middle-class family. My grandparents on the maternal side owned and operated a small farm, my grandfather on the paternal side worked in a foundry, and his wife – my father’s mother – did off-the-books work as a cleaning woman in order to make ends meet.

When I got my first job as a lecturer in philosophy my monthly income already exceeded that of my mother, who has worked a full-time job in a hospital for more than thirty years. My father, a bricklayer by training, is by now divorced from my mother and declutters homes for a living. Sometimes he calls me in order to tell me about a particularly good bargain he stroke on the flea market.

My parents did not save money for my education. As an undergraduate I was lucky to receive close to the maximum amount of financial assistance afforded by the German Federal Law on Support in Education (BAföG) – still, I had to work in order to be able to fully support myself (tuition fees, which had just been introduced when I began my studies, did not help). At the worst time, I juggled three jobs on the side. I have work experience as a call center agent (bad), cleaning woman (not as bad), fitness club receptionist (strange), private tutor (okay), and teaching assistant (by far the nicest experience).

Not every middle-class family is the same, of course. Nor is every family in which both parents are non-academics. Here is one way in which the latter differ: There are those parents who encourage – or, sometimes, push – their children to do better than themselves, who emphasize the value of higher education, who make sure their children acquire certain skills that are tied to a particular habitus (like playing the piano), who provide age-appropriate books and art experiences. My parents were not like that. “Doing well”, especially for my father, meant having a secure and “down-to-earth” job, ideally for a lifetime. For a boy, this would have been a craft. Girls, ostensibly being less well-suited for handiwork, should strive for a desk job – or aim “to be provided for”. My father had strong reservations about my going to grammar school, even though I did well in primary school and despite my teacher’s unambiguous recommendation. I think it never occurred to him that I could want to attend university – academia was a world too far removed from his own to even consider that possibility.

I think that my upbringing has shaped – and shapes – my experience of academia in many ways. Some of these I consider good, others I have considered stifling at times. And some might even be loosely related to Martin’s blogpost about meritocracy. Let me mention a few points (much of what follows is not news, and has been put more eloquently by others):

  • Estrangement. An awareness of the ways in which the experiences of my childhood and youth, my interests and preferences, my habits and skills differ from what I consider a prototypical academic philosopher – and I concede that my picture of said prototype might be somewhat exaggerated – has often made me feel “not quite at home” in academia. At the same time, my “professional advancement” has been accompanied by a growing estrangement from my family. This is something that, to my knowledge, many first-generation students testify to, and which can be painful at times. My day-to-day life does not have much in common with my parents’ life, my struggles (Will this or that paper ever get published?) must seem alien, if not ridiculous, to them. They have no clear idea of what it is that I do, other than that it consists of a lot of desk-sitting, reading, and typing. And I think it is hard for them to understand why anyone would even want to do something like this. One thing I am pretty sure of is that academia is, indeed, or in one sense at least, a comparatively cozy bubble. And while I deem it admirable to think of ways of how to engage more with the public, I am often unsure about how much of what we actually do can be made intelligible to “the folk”, or justified in the face of crushing real-world problems.
  • Empathy. One reason why I am grateful for my experiences is that they help me empathize with my students, especially those who seem to be afflicted by some kind of hardship – or so I think. I believe that I am a reasonably good and well-liked teacher, and I think that part of what makes my teaching good is precisely this: empathy. Also, I believe that my experiences are responsible for a heightened sensibility to mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion, and privilege. I know that – being white, having grown up in a relatively secure small town, being blessed with resilience and a certain kind of stubbornness, and so on – I am still very well-off. And I do not want to pretend that I know what it is like to come from real poverty, or how it feels to be a victim of racism or constant harassment. But I hope that I am reasonably open to others’ stories about these kinds of things.
  • Authority. In my family of origin, the prevailing attitude towards intellectuals was a strange mixture between contempt and reverence. Both sentiments were probably due to a sense of disparity: intellectuals seemed to belong to a kind of people quite different from ourselves. This attitude has, I believe, shaped how I perceived of my teachers when I was a philosophy student. I noticed that our lecturers invited us – me – to engage with them “on equal terms”, but I could not bring myself to do so. I had a clear sense of hierarchy; to me, my teachers were authorities. I did eventually manage to speak up in class, but I often felt at a loss for words outside of the classroom setting with its relatively fixed and easily discernable rules. I also struggled with finding my voice in class papers, with taking up and defending a certain position. I realize that this struggle is probably not unique to first-generation students, or to students from lower-class or lower-middle-class backgrounds, or to students whose parents are immigrants, et cetera – but I believe that the struggle is often aggravated by backgrounds like these. As teachers, I think, we should pay close attention to the different needs our students might have regarding how we engage with them. It should go without saying, but if someone seems shy or reserved, don’t try to push them into a friendly and casual conversation about the model of femininity and its relation to sexuality in the novel you recently read.
  • Merit. Now, how does all this relate to the idea of meritocracy? I think there is a lot to say about meritocracy, much more than can possibly be covered in a (somewhat rambling) blogpost. But let me try to point out at least one aspect. Martin loosely characterizes the belief in meritocracy as the belief that “if you’re good or trying hard enough, you’ll get where you want”. But what does “being good enough” or “trying hard enough” amount to in the first place? Are two students who write equally good term papers working equally hard? What if one of them has two children to care for while the other one still lives with and is supported by her parents? What if one struggles with depression while the other does not? What if one comes equipped with “cultural capital” and a sense of entitlement, while the other feels undeserving and stupid? I am not sure about how to answer these questions. But one thing that has always bothered me is talk of students being “smart” or “not so smart”. Much has been written about this already. And yet, some people still talk that way. Many of the students I teach struggle with writing scientific prose, many of them struggle with understanding the assigned readings, many of them struggle with the task of “making up their own minds” or “finding their voice”. And while I agree that those who do not struggle, or who do not struggle as much, should, of course, be encouraged and supported – I sometimes think that the struggling students might be the ones who benefit the most from our teaching philosophy, and for whom our dedication and encouragement might really make a much-needed difference. It certainly did so for me.