Philosophy Department Responds to Gender Disparities

Jackie Brant, Opinions Editor

As I argued in the Review several weeks ago, women are underrepresented in philosophy, both in Oberlin’s department and the field as a whole (“Philosophy Departments Lack Diversity,” Feb. 10, 2017). Since then, I had the opportunity to meet with Professor Katherine Thomson-Jones, chair of Oberlin’s Philosophy department, to discuss Oberlin’s efforts to diversify the department.

I see three main causes for the lack of women in the field: underrepresentation of women philosophers in syllabuses, women being less likely to participate in class and a misunderstanding of what philosophy truly is as a discipline. Oberlin is addressing each of these components with specific strategies.

A study conducted by NPR found that 89 percent of readings taught in philosophy courses are written by men. This rings true for my experience at Oberlin, where the syllabuses severely lack authors of various genders and cultural backgrounds. However, the department is attempting to address this issue. After attending an Alliance to Advance Liberal Arts Colleges workshop at Reed College that covered how to improve the learning climate for women in the philosophy classroom, Professor Todd Ganson initiated optional syllabus sharing at Oberlin starting last semester.

Syllabus sharing allows professors to check each other’s syllabuses for diversity of authors and topics. This program could prove instrumental in increasing diversity in course readings if officially mandated. Half of the professors in the Philosophy department participated last semester. It is vital that the professors in the department be accountable in ensuring that many voices are represented in their syllabuses, since relevant philosophical pieces written by underrepresented groups are plentiful. For these reasons, I hope that all the professors in Oberlin’s Philosophy department will participate in syllabus sharing in the future.

According to research by Columbia University, women are less likely to participate in class, be called on and elaborate in class in general. Because of this, it is imperative that classrooms be made as comfortable as possible so that people of all genders, cultures and perspectives feel free to share their ideas and opinions. This can be particularly tricky in philosophy classrooms, where it can be intimidating to offer up your personal thoughts for critique, especially for women, who are often outnumbered. In response to this, Professor Martin Thomson-Jones is leading an initiative within the department to experiment with various teaching methods in the philosophy classroom. One of the main focuses is to make classes more activity-based and less lecture. Rather than hold large discussions, it can be useful for students to break up into small groups to discuss topics and then share their smaller discussions with the class. This way, those who may feel uncomfortable speaking in a large group setting will feel more encouraged to share their thoughts within a smaller group. This is a method Professor Dorit Ganson makes uses effectively in her course Reason and Argument. Another method being experimented with is addressing pedagogy. Specifically, professors are encouraged to discuss with their students the combative tendencies of philosophical discussions and help brainstorm ways to change this atmosphere in favor of logical and level-headed discussion.

Professor Martin Thomson-Jones and Philosophy Professor Owen King both devote time in their classes to discuss issues of underrepresentation of women and people of color in philosophy. As a student in King’s entry-level philosophy course last semester, I deeply appreciated this discussion. Bringing awareness to this lack of diversity can improve the atmosphere of the classroom and can create a more comfortable environment for underrepresented groups. Addressing diversity would be extremely beneficial for all philosophy classes, especially entry-level courses, and I would like to see all professors initiate this discussion in their classes.

Many students lack an understanding of what philosophy actually is and believe philosophy classes are similar to politics or English classes. In contrast to other humanities, a central goal of philosophy is the development of logical thought processes. One of the main reasons why misconceptions are so common is because philosophy is rarely introduced to students before the college level.

To address this issue, Katherine Thomson-Jones is introducing a new course this fall, Philosophy in the Schools Practicum, in which Oberlin students will make weekly visits to Eastwood Elementary School. During these visits, they will teach philosophy to elementary school kids through children’s literature. The PHITS Practicum and other programs like it are being implemented across the country. This program has the potential to be extremely beneficial in helping increase the diversity of the philosophy field in general. Through exposure to philosophy at an early age, individuals will be more informed as to what philosophy actually entails. The program will also help introduce philosophy to a diverse group of people; children from a variety of backgrounds will be exposed to philosophy, which will help in increasing diversity within the field.

Though there is still much work to be done, both at Oberlin and elsewhere, crucial steps are being taken. As an institution that has historically been dedicated to embracing diversity and progressiveness, Oberlin should lead the way in increasing diversity in the philosophy field. Under the leadership of Professor Katherine Thomson-Jones and other dedicated professors in Oberlin’s Philosophy department, we are definitely on the right track. However, all professors in the department should actively participate in syllabus sharing, address issues of diversity in each of their classes and experiment with different teaching methods. Professors have the ability to make huge strides toward diversity within their own classrooms and at Oberlin in general; they are accountable to do so in order to make their classroom as comfortable and productive as possible for students of all backgrounds.