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APA Good Practices Guide Public Discussion Series: About the Guide and how to use It

by Amy Ferrer

This post is the first in a series of eight posts that will appear on the blog over the next few weeks. The posts are part of a public comment process on the APA’s newly released Good Practices Guide. In the series, I will be briefly discussing each of the sections of the draft Good Practices Guide and inviting your thoughts, suggestions, questions, concerns, etc. You can share your feedback in the comments to each post or via email to goodpracticesguide@apaonline.org. We will also host three listening sessions in the coming year—one at each of the divisional meetings—so that we can receive feedback in person and have conversations about how to make the guide as useful and effective as possible.

Since late 2014, an APA task force has been working toward the development of what was originally called a “Best Practices Guide.” The task force—Peter Railton (chair), Mi-Kyoung “Mitzi” Lee, Diane Michelfelder, and Robin Zheng—was originally inspired by the Good Practices Scheme (GPS) created by the British Philosophical Association and the Society for Women in Philosophy in the United Kingdom; the board’s vision in creating the task force was to build on the foundations the GPS provided and expand them to other contexts. As the task force worked, its goals evolved, and in the end, it proposed a new guide, a somewhat different strategy than the GPS but with some of the same aims—specifically, to help philosophers “realize the sort of academic community we aspire to.”

Last fall, the draft guide was presented to the APA board of officers. The board decided to open a period of public comment on the guide before finalizing it, and this post marks the beginning of that public comment process, which will continue into next spring. At the end of this public comment period, we will revise the guide in light of feedback received and distribute it broadly. However, even then, the guide won’t be finished—we see this Good Practices Guide as a living document, one that will be revisited, reviewed, and revised from time to time as the needs of philosophers and the field of philosophy change.

In this first post, by way of introduction to the guide, I invite your feedback on the preface, the list of topics, and the first section of the guide, which discusses how the guide might be used. I will briefly describe each below, but I encourage you to read them in their entirety.

The preface explains how the APA, and the task force specifically, views the Good Practices Guide:

A Good Practices Guide—we decided this was more accurate than “Best Practices”—does not attempt to draw lines regarding what is strictly permissible or impermissible. Rather, it is a set of recommendations based upon the accumulated experience of faculty, administrators, and students, intended in part to address some of the underlying conditions that can give rise to the problems with which a Code of Conduct deals. More positively, these recommendations are meant to suggest policies and practices that may help us to realize the sort of academic community we aspire to—a community of mutual respect and fairness, of commitment to scholarship and learning, of open-mindedness and inclusivity, and of concern for nurturing the next generation of philosophers and members of the society at large.

The preface goes on to explain that interpretation of these values will differ and that the guide is not “a definitive statement, but… a starting point, and a basis for continuing discussion.”

In the list of topics that follows the preface, the guide outlines the areas in which it will attempt to offer some good practices:

  • Use of the Good Practices Guide
  • Teaching, supervising, and mentoring
  • Professional development and placement
  • Interviews and offers of employment
  • Implicit bias
  • Social events
  • Professional communication
  • Mental and emotional health

And the first section of the guide, titled “Communication and Implementation of Guidelines for Good Practices,” outlines how philosophy departments might consider using the guide. It begins,

We would encourage departments and other academic units to circulate this guide to faculty and students and hold open discussions of the issues herein. The governing idea of such guides is that it is not enough for a department to affirm values or goals—there must be a continuing commitment to developing and implementing policies and procedures that can give these values or goals reality.

Departments might consider formally adopting their own good practices guides, perhaps adapting or building upon (sections of) this guide. Departments might keep copies of the APA Good Practices Guide in department offices for reference when planning social events or hiring processes. Departments might offer trainings related to topics in the guide, such as mentoring training and professional development workshops. There are myriad possibilities—and we hope to learn from you how you use the guide in your own departments and institutions.

I look forward to receiving feedback on the more substantive sections of the guide in the coming weeks. For now, though, I hope you’ll offer your thoughts about these first parts of the guide. In particular,

  • Is the intent of the Good Practices Guide clear? If not, how could it be clarified?
  • Are there other topics not listed that you would like to see the Good Practices Guide cover?
  • How do you think you or your department might use or benefit from the Good Practices Guide?

Amy Ferrer has been Executive Director of the APA since 2012.

11 thoughts on “APA Good Practices Guide Public Discussion Series: About the Guide and how to use It

  1. I am wary of the whole idea. It is hard for me to visualize it without seeing it as (eventually) a code that tries to give specific rules or codes about ideals that are not by nature specific. There are always people–whether in old Israel or city hall, who want a rule for everything, and I see this in every corporation also. Those who want to do what is right and good never do so because it is by the book–for the book has to be evaluated by our judgment also. Notice how “best practices” eventually become rules? I don’t think calling them “good practices” will change that.

    Of course, companies, governments, and universities do (and must) have rules, but my take on these is to see them the way Socrates (or St. Paul) would–as instances or examples of judgment rather than as guides for judgment.

    I suspect what is wanted is the Prime Directive (Star Trek), or categorical imperative (Kant) that guides us professionally. Three problems come to mind for me.

    First, the imperatives (even if expressed softly as “good to do”) would have to be very, very broad and general to do the job–and for that we already have the guide from Kant to respect others and self, or from Jesus at the Last Supper (“This law I leave with you, that you love one another.”) We can list some nice examples, but that must never be confused with making our ethics legalistic–as invariably it does, forcing us to do wicked things because it is the law, once people start a to-do list (or not-to-do list).

    Second, when we start laying out practices that are more particular than the Prime Directive, these will have to be specific to specific circumstances. In this case, I assume the guides are for professional philosophers in the way that medical ethics guides doctors, or legal ethics guides lawyers. But not all philosophers must be at universities or colleges, must they–professionals in that sense? Could they be like Socrates or Descartes, not operating in an institution? Are we really after good behavior for faculty at schools–or for philosophers as such. in general?

    And if so, third, must philosophers behave themselves differently from other faculty? Isn’t advocating for fairness and respect a common goal of all people, in all fields?

  2. It might be worth discussing how a document articulating a set of good practices can make a positive difference to the philosophical community. To that end, let me try to start with an answer to the final question in the first comment:

    Question: Isn’t advocating for fairness and respect a common goal of all people, in all fields?

    Answer: No.

    • OK–is it the verb “advocating” that is problematic, or perhaps I should have said “ought to be a goal”?

  3. Charles Osborne, the problem is that too much behavior in the philosophical community/communities falls short of good practices, sometimes very short indeed.

    My sense was that you don’t have a vivid sense of how bad behavior in department can be, along with how harmful even seemingly mildly bad behavior can be.

    I am finding myself unexpectedly short of time right now, so let me briefly and generally say that we need to think through a host of issues to encourage critical self-examination by departments and their members.

    • I agree, but the way to tell people what you think they ought to do or not do is to write a book about it, or an article. In some cases, a law might help–or law suits. And of course, if you can get into a position of power, you can fix other people’s behavior that way.

      I looked at the Draft Proposal, and to me some of it looks like a bunch of busybodies trying to tell us all what they think we ought to do. Other parts are trivial, like “be nice” (true but without content). Still other parts come from people in disciplines other than philosophy–education majors talking about teaching methods, etc.; or psychologists telling us about psychology; or other disciplines (even law about discrimination).

      I also agree that people can be very wicked, and that applies to philosophers, too. They should be ashamed of themselves. But those are the very people who typically get around all the manuals about being good.

  4. I think it is always possible to foresee problems with projects like these. It may be that philosophers are particularly good at doing so, but academics in general are very good as raising questions, worrying about ways things can go wrong, and so on. But, while I don’t want to exaggerate, there is a need for more critical self-reflection on the part of many formal philosophical groups.

    An acqaintance of mind from a different discipline complained about her experience in dealing with a particular philosophy department. “They are psychopaths with no social skills whatsoever. They just want to escape into their theories.” In discussing this statement with a number of pople in our profession, I was struck by the fact that no one was surprised, or thought it unusual. Looking at the field from the inside, I am surprised and do not agree. But I do think the need for critical self -reflection is certainly evident.

    It would be great to hear from someone who has had experience with the British good practices scheme.

  5. Charles Osborne – Guides to good practice, to professional conduct, or to similar topics are common in most professional settings. Do you mean to suggest that all such documents are inappropriate and unnecessary? Or merely that such documents are inappropriate and unnecessary in academia (or more specifically, philosophy)?

    If the former, it seems to me that there is a great deal of collective experience to the contrary. Many professions find such documents valuable in coordinating their practice.

    If the latter, on the other hand, I find myself wondering why we should see academia (or more specifically, philosophy) as an exception to what obtains in most other professional settings?

    • Of course this is a complicated issue, partly looking at facts (science) and partly looking at ethics (how we should act). It also raises the question whether our behavior should be regulated mainly by freely elected government (laws) or by social forces or private interests (clubs and so forth). Associations can be as tyrannical as governments, no matter how righteous their agenda. (The League of Catholic Women has taken films off the screens of theaters across the country; those who advocate Sharia law want everybody to obey their codes.) In this post, I will address this particular question, whether an association of philosophers should set standards of ethical behavior in the way that doctors and lawyers set standards in their practices.
      Notice that medical ethics, as set by AMA, is by and large about the practice of medicine only–how patients are treated; and when it crosses that line and tries to set standards of general righteousness for doctors, it is most likely to go astray–as when known homosexuals (or even women) were not allowed to practice medicine. Compare this to philosophy. Are the guides of good practice limited to philosophical debate and advocacy–or are they about things like teaching techniques, hiring practices, social opinions (which may indeed be good ones)? Whether a doctor should experiment on a patient is partly a question of science (is the procedure known to help, or a best attempt to help?), and partly an ethical question (did the well-educated patient consent, and so forth?). So let us ask, how a proposal helps one to make better arguments in philosophy or to practice philosophy advocacy more effectively (as people who practice it for a living might do)?
      The AMA made many mistakes in its ethical standards over the years, and probably still does–that is not my field. I am mentoring a doctoral student who is challenging the ethical standards today about doctors who accept favors from drug companies–legally and without violating AMA codes. Her work reveals some shocking practices, for most people. AMA is good when it comes to what treatment is best for a condition–not so good when it comes to broader ethical questions (philosophical ones), or not better than other people are.
      A similar situation applies to lawyers. The law associations give good practice guides in practicing law itself–but gets pretty dubious when it ventures into general ethics. I may not lie in court, but I can mislead in other ways in very critical ways. Anyway, the Proposal for a guide for philosophers makes advice that neither doctors nor lawyers practice today, yes? So saying that we should have professional standards as they do has questionable force, yes?
      First, ask if the proposal is really about philosophy itself (not some other social agenda, however good), and second, ask whether the association practices should be urged on people instead of using elected officials to develop proper laws for conduct. A third question is whether professional practices of philosophers should be governed by their institutions (in which they ought to have a voice), or perhaps by a professional body that contains faculty in general (not just philosophers). One might argue hiring practices, for instance, should be governed by a code for all faculty, not philosophers as such, etc.

  6. p.s.
    Nobody should object to an Association issuing statements advocating public policy, if the Association acts according to its rules.

  7. Just a note of clarification: it was not my intent in referring to “professional settings” to refer exclusively to medicine and law. Rather, my point was that shared standards of appropriate conduct are the norm in almost any professional setting: e.g., therapists, teachers (outside academia), nurses, etc., all employ them. Documents outlining such norms are imperfect, and always tailored to the particular goals and responsibilities of the practice. And of course, they can be abused. But it does not follow from these facts that they play no valuable role, are inherently inappropriate, or unnecessary.

    Like Anne, my sense is that many who are uncomfortable with the idea of a Guide aren’t fully appreciating the severity and significance of the problems the Guide is addressing.

  8. Should each point of a Proposal be voted on by all the members? And should the final Proposal say what percentage of members favor each point? Should reasons be included in a Proposal–and reasons against (a minority report)? In what ways or degree should institutions be free to set their own social agenda which might disagree with a professional association of some faculty members–or should the law be the standard for such things? Who tells an association when they are wrong? (Or right?)

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