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Feminist Philosophers

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Georgia Philosophical Society April 24, 2012

A guest post from Shay Welch:

Dear Colleagues,

 

Let me tell you a story about my interaction with the Georgia Philosophical Society:

 

I was first introduced to the organization in Fall 2011 by a colleague at a nearby college.  I was invited to attend the Fall semester meeting at Emory University and I decided to go and take my Spelman students so that I could meet local philosophers while introducing my students to professional philosophy. 

 

When I attended the meeting, all presenters were white males.  Aside from my students, I was the only female member in attendance (there was one female grad student who attended one of the talks).  And aside from undergrad students from HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities), there was only one person of color present, and he was from another state.  As you can imagine, I had quite a bit of explaining to do to my students when we returned to class. 

 

While I was at the conference, I was approached by one of the committee members and asked if I would be willing to host the Spring 2012 meeting on Spelman’s campus.  I readily agreed.  Yet I did not do so unconditionally.  I made it very clear to the conference organizers that they would have to conduct a representative conference that had a diverse set of presenters.  I explained that Spelman College is an all-women’s HBCU and an all white male set of presenters would be contrary to the College’s mission and contrary to my own position as inclusive philosopher and student role model.  I made it very clear from the beginning that if the program were not diverse, Spelman—via me—would revoke the use of its facilities. 

 

I did not simply state that they would have to include women and/or people of color on the program regardless of quality of work.  I did, however, provide them with a number of ways in which to recruit more diverse submissions.  Some of the recommendations I included were the following: reach out to women philosophers list serves with the call for papers, include a line about diversity on the call for papers, select papers from a broad range of philosophy areas since it was an open topic conference, instead of the philosophy of language theme they seemed to have running at the Fall meeting, and send personal invites to local women philosophers.  From what I could see, they did none of that. 

 

As the conference date approached, I did not hear from any of the committee members.  As it got dangerously close, I sent emails reminding them of the specific nature of Spelman College’s student body and ethico-political commitments and I did not receive a response.  I finally got a response asking me to clarify, at which point I reiterated my stance.  The program was sent to me less than a week before the date of the conference.  Much to my surprise, the list of presenters was all male, though there was at least one man of color.  I immediately responded to the committee and revoked Spelman’s invitation to the organization to host the conference on our campus.  I explained, as I had numerous times, that an all male conference could not justly and ethically be held on an all women’s college campus.  One slightly amusing response was that the conference would not be all male given the women who would be in the audience (again, my students and myself).  Needless to say, that did not sway my position. 

 

Relatedly, and disturbingly, our neighbor philosophy department at Morehouse College scooped up the conference.  This is highly upsetting because Morehouse College is our brother HBCU.  This conveys many problematic messages to professional philosophy and male students in philosophy.  First, it cements the cultural acceptance of women’s absence from philosophy.  By immediately supporting the Georgia Philosophical Society in light of Spelman College’s refusal to do so, the philosophy department at Morehouse College made a clear statement that they were not concerned with gender inclusion and that the conference should go on with its business as usual.  Second, like Spelman College, Morehouse College is institutionally committed to resisting discrimination and exclusion in academia.  Their involvement with this conference seems quite contrary to the mission of the College writ large

 

While this conference was a submission-based, rather than invitation-based, conference, I think it is important to draw attention to the issue in light of the current Gendered Conference Campaign initiative.  I think it is important to address such problems because much gender exclusion in philosophy is masked by the submission process, where all male reviewers are able to argue that there were not enough women submitters or good enough women authored papers.  While there are fewer women in philosophy and sometimes it may be difficult to recruit female presenters, I think that a total of eight presenters in two conference meetings presented opportunity to explore processes of inclusion.  I would like for a discussion to develop around the processes and actions that organizations can implement to increase the number of female presenters at submission-based conferences. 

 

 

35 Responses to “Georgia Philosophical Society”

  1. HRR Says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I’ve run into similar situations and sometimes I wonder, “is it just me?”. So thank you.

  2. nicandr4 Says:

    Good work Shay!

  3. cdaigle Says:

    I am just appalled! Good job on standing up!

  4. In nursing, reviewers of conference submissions are blinded. Not so in philosophy? Blinding seems like a simple, albeit partial, solution to the problem.

  5. Nemo Says:

    I think that to state categorically that no submission-based conference with all male speakers can ever justly and ethically be held on an all women’s college campus is to overstate the case. Same goes for saying that by scooping up the conference, Morehouse “made a clear statement that they were not concerned with gender inclusion and that the conference should go on with its business as usual.” That said, the way that the organizers interacted with the guest poster here seems inexplicable.

    I see that the keynote speaker at the Georgia Philosophical Society’s meeting a year and a half ago, though that was well before the guest poster’s involvement with the organization, was a woman (Beth Preston).

  6. Nemo Says:

    Oh, and the hosting prof at Morehouse is one of the Society’s officers, so Morehouse picking up the conference on short notice was a pretty predictable outcome; I find it hard to interpret it as a “statement” by the prof’s department.

  7. Larry Peck Says:

    Georgia Philosophical Society’s Response
    To this Post by Dr. Shay Welch
    The April 24, 2012 post on this blog by Spelman College Professor Shay Welch misrepresented the Georgia Philosophical Society (GPS). Worse yet, some of the respondents on the blog seem to be uncritically accepting Dr. Welch’s word on this matter as true. As a result, we at the GPS need to set the record straight, and we offer this response.
    The GPS is an organization for philosophers teaching at Georgia’s public and private colleges institutions of higher education. The society meets biannually at Atlanta metro area institutions; in recent years, at University of Georgia, Agnes Scott College (a college for women), Clayton State University, Emory University, Morehouse College, Georgia State University, Oglethorpe University, and Georgia Perimeter College. Philosophers from colleges and universities around the state take time off from their busy schedules to come to GPS conferences to present or to just to attend. The conference is small, usually with a morning and early afternoon program of four to five papers.
    The GPS policy for evaluating submissions is blind review – the reviewers do not know the name, gender, race, etc. of any of the authors. However, as is well known, the subject area of philosophy has fewer women than men teaching in it. For GPS conferences, as for almost all philosophy conferences, there are fewer submissions from women than from men, and as a result we usually end up with fewer female presenters than male ones. Occasionally, a conference will have no female presenters.
    The GPS has looked for ways to increase the involvement of women in our conferences. We make sure that there is a diversity of papers presented at each conference. (Dr. Welch said there “seemed” to be a “philosophy of language theme” at the Fall, 2011 conference. There was no such thing, as the online record of past programs demonstrates). At times, we have invited a well-known woman philosopher as the keynote speaker, with hopes that doing so would increase participation by and submissions from women.
    Our idea to have the spring, 2012 conference at Spelman college was partly motivated by this goal: we hoped that a GPS conference at Spelman – a historically Black college of women of African descent – might lead to an increase in female and African-American involvement in the GPS and philosophy generally. Besides, Spelman was one of the few Atlanta metro area institutions that had not yet hosted a GPS conference. We would have been honored to have the spring meeting at Spelman.
    In Dr. Welch’s account of the exchange at the Fall, 2011 GPS conference, she lists a number of points about Spelman’s requirements that she claims she “made very clear from the beginning,” only needing to “reiterate” them, and “remind” GPS officers of them, at a later date. In reality, she made none of those points at that GPS meeting itself, the ones she did make were close in time to the spring, 2012 conference, and some of them she never made at all: these claims can be verified by reviewing the email paper trail, if anyone is interested in checking the facts.
    As the spring conference approached, we at the GPS were hoping that the blind review process would produce some female presenters for the program. For some time, we all, including Dr. Welch, reasonably believed that it did: we believed that we had produced a program of four papers that included a female presenter and a presentation on African philosophy from an African man. Thus, it is important to notice that we all believed we had achieved a rather diverse program and had met the desiderata that Dr. Welch communicated to us, as best as we understood them.
    It turned out, however, that the presented we believed to be female was in fact, male: unfortunately, names are not always a reliable guide to someone’s sex! Even Dr. Welch admitted on (3/15) that she too was “thrown” by this name: like us, she mistakenly assumed this presenter was female. At that point, Dr. Welch canceled Spelman’s participation in the conference due to its (contrary to our intentions and goals) not having any on the program and, presumably, she thinks any college concerned with fairness and justice should have done the same.
    There was indeed some miscommunication between her and us in the process, but it was not one-sided, as Dr. Welch maintains that it was.
    Factual errors aside, what bothers us most is the false and provocative way Dr. Welch portrays both the GPS and Morehouse College. By labeling a conference where all of the presenters are male an “all-male conference” she conjures up the vision of good-old-boys with good-old-boy attitudes. She claims that both the GPS and the Philosophy Department at Morehouse are “not concerned with gender inclusion,” and blames the whole of Morehouse College for not “resisting” the “discrimination and exclusion” that she attributes to the GPS. Finally, she writes of male reviewers who use the submission process to “mask” their project of “gender exclusion,” apparently associating the GPS with that group.
    All of this is deeply offensive to male professors who for years or decades have had mutually supportive relationships with female colleagues, have engaged their female colleagues at philosophy conferences and in the pages of journals, and have nurtured hundreds or thousands of female students, including encouraging many of them to pursue teaching philosophy as a career path. As has been made clear above, the GPS does not discriminate against anyone or exclude anyone, and indeed makes a serious effort to include everyone. Far from pointing to a real case of discrimination, Dr. Welch is using verbal sleight of hand and a selective, false interpretation of what happened in this case to create an illusion of one, and her casual use of inflammatory and libelous phrases and claims is unlikely to be any real help in achieving the goals of greater inclusion that she says she believes in.
    In our view, Dr. Welch and would do well to focus less attention outward, and more attention on her own college and its policies (however, whether Spelman has any official policies disallowing any conferences without female presenters has not been verified). Dr. Welch protests the way Morehouse did not agree with her judgment about what should have been done in this case, but, in lending a helping hand to the GPS, Morehouse was just doing what any Atlanta college or university would have done. Indeed, in refusing to host, and perhaps to participate in, GPS conferences, Spelman is utterly alone among Atlanta institutions of higher education. And unfortunately, when the spring 2012 GPS conference finally took place, no Spelman faculty or students attended (and no Spelman faculty submitted papers either). Is this self-imposed isolation a good thing for the college or does it do a disservice to its faculty and its female philosophy students? Do policies like those advocated by Dr. Welch really reflect the underlying values of that college? We submit that this might be a good time to consider these questions.
    Beyond these local concerns, there is the broader and deeply important question of how to increase diversity in professional philosophy. We acknowledge that this is a challenging and complex issue, and welcome all creative and constructive attempts at addressing these problems. We are certain, however, that telling “stories” that contain half-truths, omit relevant truths and make false, inflammatory, and libelous claims against philosophical societies, departments and entire colleges is not the way to make progress here.
    Sincerely,
    Larry Peck, Current GPS President, Laurence.Peck@gpc.edu
    GA Philosophical Society: http://sites.google.com/site/gaphilosophy/

  8. Nemo Says:

    Ouch.

    When I was commenting yesterday, I noticed there was a male presenter with a name more common among women, and I wondered if this might have led to some confusion of the sort described by Larry Peck above. The only way I had been able to determine the presenter’s gender was from his “Rate My Professor” comments.

  9. CC Says:

    After reading the rebuttal, I’m left without any real answers to the questions I had hoped the GPS would address: 1) What steps, in particular, were taken to increase the number of papers submitted by women, and to make the conference easy for women to attend (e.g., provision of childcare if necessary)? As Dr. Peck notes, the GPS was well aware of the gender imbalance at previous conferences, whatever Dr. Welch may have said. 2) What steps, in particular, will the GPS take in the future?

  10. Theda Bara Says:

    GPS: Your shift of blame is really quite astonishing. First, you argue that Dr. Welch would “to focus less attention outward,” but I’m finding your response to be defensive and lacking in explanation about any other approaches she asked you to take. Your focus is also outward.

    You suggest that she should somehow “check the official policies” of Spelman about whether or not it disallows all-male presenters–this is absurd. The disagreement, here, isn’t about checking policies or cracking open rule books, it’s about the nature of Spelman’s student body. It’s cultural and, as she said, ethical.

    I also find it interesting that Dr. Welch is genuinely inquiring into the nature of both philosophy as a discipline and your organization–it’s lack of representation with regards to people of color and women–and you are responding that men are somehow hurt by this post. Men. Men are hurt.

    What I’m hearing you say is that you, somehow, make serious efforts to represent and yet you come up with nothing–as if the problem wasn’t about methods but….somehow there just aren’t any women or people of color in philosophy.

    Someone hold a conference about philosophy as a discipline and not just its subject matter?

  11. Theda Bara Says:

    “do well” was left out unintentionally in the post above…..which, by the way, is kind of condescending.

  12. Nemo Says:

    If the facts are as GPS alleges – which is unverified, but at least they have offered to produce the paper trail if anyone’s sufficiently interested – then regardless of whatever blame may rest with GPS, Shay Welch had no honest business presenting the facts in the particular way she did.

  13. Jender Says:

    I’m not sure how to go about keeping things nice here, but let’s try. I think we can do better than this.

  14. profbigk Says:

    Nemo, I’m not understanding what you are aiming to say with comment #12. After all, if the facts are as Shay Welch claims, then GPS has no honest business, etc., either. Wouldn’t it rather be the case that they both have such business? They are engaged in an earnest dispute.

    The only fact that many of us can easily verify is the resulting conference, which was an all-male lineup. So like CC says in comment #9, I’m left wondering what the GPS did after the mutual realization that the one presenter believed to be a female was not, and what the GPS believed they did that promoted such gender inclusion in the first place. I’m unclear as to what is deeply offensive about saying that appealing to anonymous review as the only possible thing one can do masks problems. I assume that it is offensive to say X masks Y is offensive because masking of problems is depicted in the GPS response as intentional (witness “use” and “their project of exclusion”), but the OP does not describe the organizers as using things to accomplish projects of exclusion.

    If I were hosting a short conference at one of the U.S.’s HBCUs, and the few papers selected turned out to be entirely white, I’d suggest extending the deadline, contacting non-white scholars to alert them to the undesirability of our interim selections, and turning to knowledgable sources of alternatives. Did the GPS take such measures re: gender? Did involved scholars do similar things, was there a vigorous pursuit of excellent measures to expand participation? I can’t tell. The response so far is that men in the GPS are offended and that they have longstanding histories of good mentoring, collegiality and so on of women. I believe this but it doesn’t actually rebut the concerns outlined in the OP.

  15. lois210 Says:

    I mainly want to agree with profbigk, but I feel like one important issue is left out there.
    So, while I do find the ‘countersuit’ by the GPS to be uncalled for and frankly rather weird, I can understand why they feel unfairly affronted. Yes, under the circumstances they should be making and should have made a more concerted affirmative effort to include women and people of color. But if the communication between them and Prof. Welch is as described in the GPS response, then Prof. Welch has unfairly excoriated the society, and perhaps slandered them. I expect I might lash out under such circumstances, too (I like to think I would not, but I think I might).

  16. profbigk Says:

    Libel, not slander (libel’s written, slander’s oral). Yes, I pondered this when I saw the post and the response, too. (We’re a volunteer blog so there’s no resources here to be sued for, but one must at least think about libel.) But then I thought that what the OP contains is largely a moral argument about effects of actions. The response is a deep disagreement about the facts re: some of the actions, and a deeper disagreement about the moral valences of those actions. Is it possible to dispute the facts without either side being false? I don’t know. If a centrally disputed fact is that a point of the story was left out, then this isn’t clearly false. It would really depend on the content of an argument that something in the post is libelous.

  17. nwgergir Says:

    profbigk – exactly! GPS, you have to do more to encourage women to submit. I think Dr. Welch had some excellent recruiting ideas in the original post. Another idea – make the next topic about wives or mothers, you might just have an all female line-up.

  18. lois210 Says:

    Libel, yes, damn — I paused briefly over which it was but then didn’t check. Sorry.
    I actually don’t understand the last couple of sentences, profbigk. But in any case I’ve made my point and don’t think you are disputing anything I meant to be emphasizing.

  19. lois210 Says:

    “Another idea – make the next topic about wives or mothers, you might just have an all female line-up.”

    Is that serious? Sorry, I can’t tell. If serious, I find it pretty offensive.

  20. Nemo Says:

    Profbigk, that was directed more in response to Theda Bara’s post in #10 that GPS’ “shift of blame is really quite astonishing” and professing not to understand how GPS would feel hard done by this post. The answer, I think, is that if the facts are as GPS suggests, GPS *has* been, as lois210 said, “unfairly affronted”. Thus my post was in answer to Theda’s implied query “What reason could GPS have for taking umbrage at what Welch wrote”?

    Obviously, if GPS has not outlined the facts accurately, then of course they have no honest business misrepresenting them either. As for how earnest the dispute is, who can say. Anyone feel like taking up GPS’ unilateral offer to make the correspondence available? I think it would quickly resolve a few of the underlying factual questions, though it would leave some of the moral questions.

    Re libel – and just out of curiosity, not because I think anyone has been libelled – is FP organised as a separate legal entity with limited liability?

  21. profbigk Says:

    Nemo, good question, because I was just thinking about FP’s organization. No, we’re not organized as a separate legal entity. Having said that, the results of emergent and ad hoc journalism law have tended to be in our favor. As a blog subtitled “News you can use,” we seem to fall under the same rules as HuffPo, which is to say that as a form of news, we’re not more liable than the Washington Post for op eds. Thank Teh Interwebs, because if we were, then we’ve now hosted both the OP by Welch and the GPS response, and we’d be in a contradiction!

  22. nwgergir Says:

    Sorry Lois210, I was kidding. But it would be very interesting to be a fly on the wall at an all-male-society meeting discussing how to encourage women to become more involved in their society. I wonder what kind of ideas they would have or what “serious efforts” they have made.

  23. profbigk Says:

    EDITED TO ADD: Whoops, sorry gang, since no one’s available to moderate comments for the next few hours, the bloggers decided to close comments until one of us is back on duty. Comments will re-open when a blogger is available.

    Sorry, readers and commenters, but I deleted a comment attributing attitudes/motivations to GPS. I remind you of the parameters of the commenting policy, and note that last sentence: “BE NICE. Engage arguments, but do not insult people you’re arguing with. When engaging with arguments, do so respectfully. Don’t attribute nasty motivations to people unless they really make it clear that they have those motivations. Try to be as charitable as possible.” As charitable as possible. Seriously. We’ve got a moral argument against an all-male event followed by an offended party suggesting libel. This is the time to be as charitable as possible. It really is. I am confident that philosophers can handle serious disagreement.

  24. redeyedtreefrog Says:

    Comments open again. Remember please be nice.

  25. lois210 Says:

    nwgergir,

    Well, now I feel silly, but I’m certainly glad! :-)

  26. H Says:

    The initial exchange was verbal. While only the parties that participated in that conversation (which sounds as if it was one-on-one), might know for sure, it has been recognized that a) sometimes people don’t understand what the other person is trying to get across and Ms. Welch may have been speaking obliquely, and 2) women’s voices are dismissed more readily (by both genders!), so the person on the GPS side may not even remember that part of the conversation because he(?) was considering his next sentence or something along those lines.

  27. annejjacobson Says:

    The question of libel suits has been raised. Just for the record, I think the situation this blog or one of us could face with respect to libel is quite complicated. I looked into this matter some a few years ago, since a group on a political blog really took after me. I did get some legal advice, but nothing complete or totally up to the minute now. But here are some considerations that are at least a bit interesting.

    First of all, there isn’t, as far as I know, any international libel law. Getting sued for libel is quite different in the US than it is in the UK. The US is very keen on unfettered speech; the UK seems to be less so, so it is generally easier for a complainant to win in the UK. Someone suing this blog or one of us could probably choose the country.

    As far as I know, someone might sue the blog for libel, but they might also sue the individual poster.

    One very bad thing about getting sued is that it can be extremely expensive to mount a defense. In the States we are talking tens of thousands, just for starters. Even lawyers working on a contingency may want a large sum up front, which one can lose even if one wins the case. That is, if there is no cash settlement, then there is no contingency, and the lawyer may keep the deposit.

    You really, really don’t want to get sued by a university. They have staffs full of lawyers, and they can often put in a great deal of effort. That means that as a defendant one can spend a huge amount in defense fees, and it can take years to get through the courts.

    Limited liability in the US protects one in most US jurisdictions, but not all, I understand. In addition, I don’t believe it protects one at all in the UK or elsewhere.

  28. Suzy Says:

    Did anyone from the GPS tell Prof. Welch that, “the conference would not be all male given the women who would be in the audience”? If that fact is true, it gives some indication of how the group might have responded to suggestions that they advertise for submissions in ways that could increase the number of female participants. Female philosophers in Georgia do exist, as do female grad students, and as do philosophers of different races and ethnicities. I’m sure it couldn’t be all that hard to induce some of them to submit a paper, knowing that the next conference is going to be at Spelman? If the attitude was that female audience members counterbalance an all-male program of presenters, though, I am not particularly sympathetic to the GPS’s claims of being misrepresented and mistreated. The burden of proof is on them, I would say, to either deny that factual evidence or explain what they did to solve the problem beforehand.

  29. BR Says:

    “The GPS policy for evaluating submissions is blind review – the reviewers do not know the name, gender, race, etc. of any of the authors. However, as is well known, the subject area of philosophy has fewer women than men teaching in it.”

    As if the content of submissions does not affect decisions regarding what (and thus, who, in many cases) is accepted for presentation. As a recent graduate of UGA, and as somebody whose main interests lie within queer and feminist theory, I can attest to the hostility of white, male, heterosexual “philosophers” towards those they find offensive or threatening to the cannon. Their lack of critical thinking should be astonishing, but unfortunately it’s so predictable.

  30. Jack Says:

    The GPS is a multi-million dollar organization run by wealthy, elite, high-powered whilte men. They spend millions of dollars organizing these conferences, and have lots of free time to make sure that the conferences go exactly according to plan. The conferences are organized far in advance, with a carefully selected panel of philosophy experts who know everything that there ever was to know about philosophy…

    Oh come on Shay. Everything I wrote in the previous paragraph is false. The GPS hangs on by a thread, with the poor volunteers working without pay to try their best to keep philosophy alive in Georgia. Why don’t you become a member and help them out, organize a conference. At the last meeting the organizers talked about how to make sure that there were more women presenters. They have lots of good ideas. But here is the best idea: join them and help them.

  31. CC Says:

    Since I guess someone else familiar with the GPS has shown up, perhaps he can finally shed some light on (a) the concrete steps that were taken to increase diversity at this particular conference; (b) the steps that the GPS anticipates taking in the future. If you’re involved with this organization and trying to convince people that it takes very seriously the underrepresentation of certain groups, and is working to correct this however it can, it might be wise to distance yourself from the “silly feminists think a conspiracy of rich white men is keeping them down” trope. (Is the GPS unaware of implicit bias?)

  32. Devon Belcher Says:

    I’ll bite.
    I’m the recent VP of the GPS, which I think means that I get the privilege of reviewing a ton of papers, in addition to my work at a small underfunded college.
    (B) What were the steps taken to increase diversity at the last conference?
    i) As a start, the decision to host it at Spelman. We very much hoped that that would encourage Spelman faculty to submit papers and attend. (I’m pretty sure we got no paper submissions from any Spelman faculty).
    ii) The roster we thought we had was one (white male) classical phil guy talking about Heraclitus. One woman talking about Rawls. One (white male) talking about phil of mind. One (African male) talking about African philosophy.
    I would say that was a pretty diverse group, on several axes. As it turned out, we were wrong about some assumptions. As “Nemo” pointed out, the Rawls speaker had a name much more commonly associated with women, and in fact even Dr. Welch was taken in.
    So, what steps were taken in the past conference? Some – we really tried (given blind review) to be inclusive. And we thought we were. Can we do better? Absolutely.
    (B) What are the steps we can take in the future?
    It’s pretty difficult to get submissions in the first place. Believe me, GPS is open to any and all suggestions. In the end, it has to be a broad-based conference (even though I’d love it to be tailored to my own narrow interests).

    Honestly? This has been an issue for us long before Dr. Shay’s jeremiad. We welcome any ideas, and especially, we welcome any submissions. We’d especially welcome any women in GA to serve on the paper review board. We are fully aware that “blind review” does little to remove some biases.

    The previous poster was snarky and inflammatory. But he did have a point: GPS is a tiny organization struggling to stay alive and do philosophy. If you want to change the GPS, come on in. Help us.

  33. Jender Says:

    Thanks for your snark-free response, which is much appreciated. We’ve collected some suggestions for conference organisers here: https://feministphilosophers.wordpress.com/2011/03/26/how-to-avoid-a-gendered-conference/. Hope some of them will be useful to you!

  34. Dr. Welch really engages in a good deal of tendentious reasoning.

    To start, it seems that she wants to blame the GPS for the fact that there was only one other woman (a female grad student) and one “person of color” (aside from her and her students) in the audience at the 5 Novemeber 2011 conference. She seems not to understand that people go to conferences for various reasons, and even when they want to go, they may have other engagements. There is also the question of the variety of philosophical activity in the area: her colleague, Dr. Gonzalez de Allen, gave a talk at Emory on 3 November 2011; maybe people didn’t want to go to another event two days later. The trouble she took to find out who the people in attendance were shows that, without justification, she took the race and sex of the members of the audience as the same sort of social and moral fact as the race and sex of the members of the panel, and both scandalized her.

    Dr. Welch does not seem to think it morally significant that someone from the GPS asked her if her department would be willing to host the Spring 2012 meeting at Spelman; that act did not count as any recognition of her as a colleague in philosophy or as an expression of any commitment “to include” black women in the conversation of philosophy, IF one is going to think of the matter as one in which white men and white men alone have the initiative; instead, she represented that conversation as a meeting between a mere member of a committee of the GPS and the plenipotentiary representative of Spelman College, the embodiment of its ethical and political commitments, someone who had absolute moral authority to dictate all the conditions to be met for Spelman to deign, as it were, to serve as host to the GPS. Clearly she thought of herself as having absolute moral authority because she sketched the course of action that OTHERS and THEY ALONE would have to follow to ensure that Spelman’s moral and political imperatives, which “VIA her” the GPS were unconditionally bound to obey, were fulfilled; and she did nothing at all to assist them.

    Although Dr. Welch conceded that ultimately the quality of the papers should be the final criterion for selection, her suggestion for helping the GPS include women or black philosophers in a process of blind review was that the papers not be restricted to “philosophy of language,” but be selected “from a broad range” of areas in philosophy. She seems not to understand that it is the people who actually write and submit papers who determine how broad the range of topics will be that faces the GPS selection committee; no matter how many philosophers might be experts in the social, ethical, or political topics that presumably interest her, they don’t have an obligation to submit their work just so that the GPS selection committee has a “broad range” of work to choose from.

    Dr. Welch seems to think that the statement “there were no women on the program” is equivalent to or entails or presupposes the statement “the women who submitted were excluded,” which is not so, so that the GPS (not the selection committee) was morally at fault for a blind review process which “excludes” women and black philosophers, but she gives no reason for thinking that women or black philosophers submitted any work at all. Just because there are women and black philosophers in Georgia doesn’t mean that they have a moral obligation to submit their work to each and every particular conference; and Dr. Welch has no grounds whatever for the presumption that just because there are women and black philosophers they will have submitted work to each and every conference.

    If there are women and black philosophers who have put their work into circulation and received enough criticism to know that it is presentable if not yet quite publishable, yet who have found that the GPS selection committee has never chosen their work, then they and they alone are the ones who have primary moral standing to level criticisms; Dr. Welch might of course join her voice with theirs, but in her post she has not shown that she did the detective work necessary to prove that, in fact, women and black philosophers have submitted such good papers in such large numbers that the only reasonable conclusion is that, somehow, the blind had been breached, and they were excluded. Her presumption seems to be that her moral authority is so perfect that no one can dispute her imputation of moral fault to the GPS (not the selection committee) because no process in which they are involved can be fair if it does not give women and black philosophers an even chance to overcome highly uneven odds. To use one of James’ images, she wants to back the dark horse against the field, and expects the dark horse, in two trials, to beat the odds, even though she cannot know whether any dark horse even ran the race.

    Dr. Welch also conceded that the far greater number of male philosophers than female and white than black might make it difficult “to recruit” female philosophers, but she seems not to understand that it isn’t the duty of the GPS, let alone the selection committee, “to recruit” or even “to encourage” anybody. Once the GPS announces its conference and asks for open-topic submissions, their official work is done; Dr. Welch seems to think that women and black philosophers are so isolated from networks of communication that they would never hear of an opportunity to submit their work, but she gives no reason for her presumption. But she seems to think that she has the authority to impose on others supererogatory efforts which she considers to be duties, even though the four officers of the GPS are already engaged in supererogatory efforts. Since she does not indicate that she herself did anything to encourage any women or black philosophers to submit work, it seems that she believes that, simply by dictating her conditions, she was sufficiently a part of the solution, but that the GPS was only part of the problem, and not deserving of any help.

    Dr. Welch’s claim that it would be unjust and unethical for a program of all male presenters to present papers at a women’s college is opaque, to say the least, because it is not clear what claim to equal and fair treatment or what regulative ideal of recognition and respect such a program could violate. A college cannot have a political mission (it cannot be in the business of mobilizing citizens at large to effect changes in state or federal legislative, judicial, or executive or administrative office), but its moral mission is to give its students the chance to inform and perfect their intellects in doing intellectually demanding work of the sort that initiates them into the central endeavors and problems of some field, and to give them a chance to acquire social capital—connections to people in their fields. Now, I take it that, since of course it is necessary for students at a women’s college to meet and hear about the work of professional women in their fields, Dr. Welch and her colleague have told their students about the Collegium of Black Women Philosophers and other organizations for women philosophers, that their students know about the various work of women philosophers, that they encourage their students to go to public philosophical events at Agnes Scott, Emory, Georgia State, and other schools in easy commuting difference, and to take the initiative in introducing themselves to philosophers both male and female, so that it would be impossible to take a panel of white male presenters as some sort of categorical denial that women or black philosophers do or can succeed in professional philosophy; but Dr. Welch represents the matter as if her students’ social-intellectual universe is so restricted and impoverished, as if they are psychically so insecure and vulnerable, that every single public professional event must carry the entire weight of their well-being, and that at least one woman is necessary to carry that weight, for if she is not there to do it, the students face some ruin to their belief in their prospects, as if a program of male presenters represented some absolute loss in the total opportunities students could have to meet other women philosophers, and did not give them any chance at all to perfect their intellects. Her students aren’t in the situation that Joyce Mitchell Cook, Anita Allen, and other pioneering black women philosophers were in when they had no “role models,” but only their interest in philosophy and their confidence in their ability to learn from and criticize all the male philosophers of the canon and any of their formidably talented male contemporaries who could manage to provoke conversations about their own philosophical ideas. Dr. Welch writes as if her students have never had the only experience that matters, no matter how many women or black philosophers work in general or present at this or that conference, and that is the discovery that they have a good sense of where any philosopher’s thought is useful or importantly in error, and that they have the ability to develop or correct someone’s thought. Since a panel of male philosophers gives the same opportunity to students to perfect their intellects as a panel which includes one woman, since it is important for Spelman’s students to have male philosophers in their social network, no opportunity to do either of these things can be a wrong to them.

    In expressing surprise that Morehouse hosted the conference, Dr. Welch seems to have presumed that, because it is a “brother” HBCU, it owed some perfect duty to Spelman not “to cement” the “cultural acceptance of women’s absence from philosophy.” What “cultural acceptance” is she talking about? Philosophy does NOT have the same cultural presence in the United States as it has, say, in France; true, the names of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Nietzsche might appear in television shows or movies, but this is just a recognition that there are philosophers, not the understanding that philosophy is a living force in our society—the names Rorty, Dworkin, or Singer don’t raise shouts of praise or outrage on Main Street; true, those who read the NYRB and other serious periodicals will at least be aware of Martha Nussbaum and Anita Allen, but there is a difference between there being women who philosophize and there being a presumption in American society that philosophy matters. Dr. Welch seems unwilling to distinguish the number of women in philosophy, the awareness that other academics and intellectuals in general might have of famous women philosophers, and the VARIOUS LEVELS of public profile intellectuals can acquire when they publish popular books or write opinion pieces, and are willing to take such frequent public stands on topical controversies that columnists mention their opinions and serious talk show hosts or documentary filmmakers solicit their views. Only this last could issue in any general awareness of women philosophers, and it isn’t anybody’s duty to secure that awareness because it can’t be: no one has an obligation to help any individual philosopher, man or woman, black or white, to address themselves to the public so successfully that they become emblems of the presence and power of philosophy in America; and no woman who wanted to do that could do it by actually trying to establish “the presence” of women in philosophy: she’d have to talk and write about things that meant something to millions of people. Nobody at Morehouse was guilty of any such act of “cementing” because the cultural possibility Dr. Welch envisions is not up to them and so cannot be their duty.

    But in raising the moral stakes so high, Dr. Welch really passes the bounds of decency. She decries Morehouse’s decision to host the conference at the last moment because, in her eyes, that act counted as a lack of concern “to include” women, and thinks Morehouse should have refused; Dr. Welch apparently thinks that the members of the Morehouse philosophy department were morally obligated to make it impossible for anyone to present papers or attend the conference unless the GPS satisfied HER unconditional conditions on the inclusion of women and black philosophers. Once more she represents herself as having the moral authority to dictate to others both what ends they are to pursue and under what conditions they are to pursue those ends with no reward other than her satisfaction; she represents herself as implicitly committed to the belief that, if the one unconditional good of there being women to present at conferences cannot be realized, then NO OTHER GOOD can have ANY claim on the attention, let alone on the allegiance, of those others whom she and she alone requires to think and act in solidarity with her ideals. That attitude puts her rather too close to the company of those segregationists who, rather than comply with Brown, insisted that the public schools be closed rather than admit black children.

    Dr. Welch thought herself justified in rebuking Morehouse as a whole because, as she sees it, “like Spelman,” the school “is institutionally committed to resisting discrimination and exclusion in academia.” That claim is absurd: neither school is in a position either to monitor incidents of discrimination and “exclusion” at other schools or to do anything about it; besides, as the case of Joe Reese, who brought suit against Spelman for discrimination shows, academics do have the sense to recognize when it is likely that they have been discriminated against; since such discrimination is against the law, it can’t be the duty of any HBCU to act as an unofficial arm of the Department of Justice. Since no person can have a moral obligation to do something that it is either impossible or unnecessary for them to do, Dr. Welch’s only reason for freighting the two schools’ mission in that way was to make the gods, so to speak, the witness to the blameless purity and mighty, embattled integrity of her position, and so to the perfidy of the oath-breakers at Morehouse.

    Worse still, it seems that Dr. Welch is committed to making Morehouse and the GPS personally and professional responsible for a situation which is completely beyond EVERYONE’S control. There are, after all, MILLIONS of white American women and, given their much smaller numbers and only recent entry in large numbers of their parents into the most intellectually demanding professions, hundreds of thousands, at the very least, of black men and women, who have the intellectual capacities and energies and talents and cultural capital to do the super-elaborate analytical and synthesizing work of philosophy, BUT WHO WOULD RATHER DO SOMETHING ELSE. Philosophers know that enrollment in the humanities is dropping everywhere, know that most philosophers do NOT work in large departments, but in small departments which are more likely than others to get the axe if the boards of directors at their school think the institution is in “financial crisis” (like Howard and UNLV most recently), so they would have to be very confident indeed to recommend to students that they pursue philosophy as a career; no matter how much any of us desires to see more women and blacks in philosophy, we know that we are too few in number in general, and that not enough of us are sufficiently genial writers to become philosophical columnists, to make the study of philosophy in general, or entry into the profession, a “live option” for enough women and black people in such great numbers that white men will no longer be so heavily in the majority. I imagine that it would take teams of sociologists and marketers to determine just how to make the case better than philosophers of any sex or race have done so far, so I cannot see why Dr. Welch thinks that EVERY individual philosopher, and EVERY department of philosophy, has a moral duty to take on the whole burden of the affair, and so stand vulnerable to the charges of a cosmic failure each time SHE thinks not enough women or black philosophers present at or attend some event.

    Dr. Welch not only does not respect the officers of the GPS or the members of the department of philosophy at Morehouse enough to distinguish these social difficulties from any question of anyone else’s AUTONOMOUS SENSE of their own duty in the matter, but in claiming that she “would like for a discussion to develop around the processes and actions that organizations can implement to increase the number of female presenters at submission-based conferences,” she implies that ALL such conferences are at issue, and writes as though NOWHERE are men or women doing enough. Does Dr. Welch really feel THAT embattled and alone? Dr. Welch is only one of less than forty black women philosophers in the United States, and her work with the CBWP may absorb a great many of her energies, but really she should see that she can’t expect others to share her sense of social burden.

    Dr. Welch does not see that nobody is at fault if more white women and black people do not become philosophers or do not participate in conferences; nobody has the moral obligation to see that they do. The GPS selection committee’s process of blind review isn’t perfect—anyone who writes about matters of sex and race using the convention of invoking autobiographical considerations to explore a point will obviously breach the review; but there is no reason why either Dr. Welch or other philosophers can’t ask the GPS to suggest more female key note speakers, or conferences devoted to philosophical problems that the social, ethical, political, or religious experiences of women and blacks generate, etc. This is a mundane affair and it doesn’t call for heroics, just time and connections and faith. But if Dr. Welch has no faith in anyone, if she raises the moral stakes so high that everyone has extraordinary moral duties which she and she alone has the moral authority to identify for others, so high that inevitable failures become disasters, then it is hard to how she can expect others to be willing to work with her.

  35. profbigk Says:

    I hate to disagree with the Count of Monte Cristo, but the statement that nobody is at fault if minorities don’t join a profession or participate in conferences is itself quite tendentious reasoning. I recommend reading the FAQ on the Gendered Conference Campaign, the page-tab of which is always available at the top of this blog. It does not raise the moral bar very high to say that even a random collective can be responsible, and the profession is not a random collective.


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