by Jesi Taylor
The applicant pool for Philosophy department faculty positions, makeup of graduate Philosophy cohorts, and undergraduate Philosophy enrollment statistics depend on the existence of undergraduate students interested in studying Philosophy and beginning a career in academia. While undergraduate enrollment trends are affected by various structures and systems that, complexly, intensify the ‘structure versus agency’ debate, there exist local, smaller scale phenomena that can influence agents.
As a current undergraduate Philosophy student, and President of my college campus’s Minorities and Philosophy (MAP) group (which, despite its infancy stage, had already made great strides to draw students to reading groups and discussions), I have the opportunity to experience the realities of academic Philosophy from an often ignored perspective: the undergraduate student interested in studying Philosophy and beginning a career in academia.
Two months ago I had the opportunity to attend two east coast MAP-sponsored events: the COMPASS workshop at Princeton and the 2nd Annual Non-Western Philosophy conference at the University of Pennsylvania. While both inspired me in various ways, I took away from both of them the same key theme: the importance of insisting that our professors, at the graduate and undergraduate level, diversify their syllabi.
Even a slight change can make a huge difference. Sometimes just dipping your toes into the lake of diversity can make your transformative space, the classroom, a more inviting environment that can, to some students, feel emancipatory. Many conversations with fellow students have made it clear to me that students feel inspired to learn and compelled to engage with the text when they see or feel a bit of themselves in the syllabus. At Brooklyn College I was thrilled to read Fanon and Beauvoir in my Existentialism and Phenomenology course and Mary Astell, Elisabeth of Bohemia, and Anne Conway in my Modern Philosophy course. We even read a piece by Eileen O’Neill entitled “Disappearing Ink: Early Modern Women Philosophers and Their Fate in History”. With those texts as the topic of discussion, we were able to discuss issues related to race and gender as they relate to ancient and contemporary issues in Philosophy.
The Eurocentric, masculinist knowledge-validation process is dangerous and it could be driving your syllabi choices. Patricia Hill Collins discussed this issue in her research on the importance of black feminist thought. The issue, though, affects all underrepresented and often ignored voices in the philosophical conversation. During the 2nd Annual MAP Non-Western Philosophy Conference at the University of Pennsylvania, in his comments on “Why is There No Quine in Latin American Philosophy?” by Susana Nuccetelli, Alex Guerrero listed historical and sociological factors that affect publishing trends within the discipline, which in turn affect what is considered canonical text. That includes biases and prejudices in terms of what should be taught, what is considered philosophically important, the lack of translations, and overly narrow conceptions of what counts as philosophy in terms of form, content, or logic.
While there are various overarching power structures at play that affect departmental and institutional cultures, professors – especially tenured professors – have the power to make progressive choices that promote diversity and inclusivity. It’s as simple as adding a few supplementary readings by women and philosophers of color. If you’re teaching Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic, why not pair that with some Fanon excerpts? If you’re teaching the mind-body problem, why not introduce your students to the correspondence between Descartes and Elisabeth? If you’re teaching anything by Kant, why not supplement with a reading of Rae Langton’s “Duty and Desolation”? If you’re teaching Russell on Metaphysics, why not supplement with Karen Bennett’s “There is No Special Problem with Metaphysics?” Infuse your lecture on the Presocratics with some Wang Bi or Zhuangzi! Maybe mention A. C. Mukerji during your Buber or Heidegger lecture! It might also be quite radical to inform your Ancient Philosophy students that, in addition to the Greeks, Chinese, Indian, African, and Iranian thinkers were participating in exciting scholarship. My personal experiences as student and peer have opened my eyes to just how powerful diversifying a syllabus can be! While mostly observational, I’ve learned during conferences and colloquia and in the hallways and lounges of various college campuses, by word-of-mouth, how students’ lives are changed when they can recognize any part of themselves in required text. There’s an act of decolonization of thought occurring every time you broaden your idea of what the canon could possibly mean or even just whose work you feel could inspire a new generation of students to discover their love of wisdom. Whether or not you take my word for it, adding new thinkers from diverse backgrounds to your syllabus would certainly make for lively classroom discussion or, at least, some changed minds!
I’m not advocating for the silencing of the myriad important figures of the canon; I’m advocating for the amplification of voices that have historically been silenced. The future of Philosophy depends on incoming cohorts of undergraduate students passionate and driven enough to enter academia as an unstoppable force. If every single Philosophy professor stopped to think about how much power they have to change the minds and lives of minority students who could contribute to the field dedicated to asking (and attempting to answer) questions about truth, reality, beauty, nature, and being…our discipline could become the scholarly model for social justice and true academic integrity.
Just as a small hole can sink a great ship, a single push can start a powerful movement. We students are but tulips in a garden; you can provide us with much more fertile ground within which to grow and transform our discipline into a vibrant field.
Jesi Taylor is an undergraduate philosophy major and poet currently attending Brooklyn College. Her areas of interest are pyrrhonian skepticism, philosophy of language, metaethics, and anything related to Aristotle or Heidegger. Particularly, she is interested in how language and culture affect belief-formation processes. She is the president of the Brooklyn College chapter of Minorities and Philosophy and looks forward to applying to graduate programs in Philosophy.