Wednesday, May 21, 2014


From the late 1980s through the mid 1990s, the ethics of care was a predominant theme in feminist ethics. Based ultimately on an essentialist view of femininity, the ethics of care focused on human relationship, need, and care responses, as an alternative to the Western philosophical tradition's rights and law based approaches.

It might be expected that, raised masculine in a patriarchal society, I would think about ethical responsibility in terms of my autonomy and authority, and I do. But for me, this is not entirely a matter of gender. I was raised also to think of care as an alarmed response to an abnormal situation, rather than an ongoing, basic response to the ordinary human condition of need and interdependence. Seeking care, that is, admitting need, initiated a conflict or crisis, and the response was to that immediate emergency. Once resolved, the moment passed, both need and the care response were considered settled and finished.

While this may be underlying the patriarchal masculine notion of autonomy and independence, I also know that my own upbringing was profoundly lacking in ordinary and ongoing care. It was always better to remain in need than to ask for care. Admitting need is, for me, admitting pathology and vulnerability. Need exposes me to harm, terror, and chaos. Metaphorically speaking, sirens would blare, everything would need to come to a halt, until the care was provided.

My response to need is similar. Although I am better at caring than being cared for, my caring is still based on sensing the situation as abnormal. I worry over making sure I have provided the proper care for the particular need of the moment. I am driven to reach the point when care is done.

Of course, the feminist ethics of care tells us that care is never done, because care and need are ordinary, everyday, and fundamental to the human condition. It took reading Susan Wendell's chapter on care and disability in The Rejected Body for me to realize this about myself, and about what I had not really understood about the ethics of care.

It's really awfully sad, isn't it? Oh well.

(By the way, The Rejected Body is very good, and although the care discussion makes it rather dated, I plan to use it in Bioethics next year. My undergrad students won't have read any feminist ethics, so it won't be dated for them.)

Monday, May 12, 2014

lifestyle vs. academic freedom

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have fired chosen not to rehire a contingent faculty member named Kilgore, following a local newspaper story revealing that Kilgore had been a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army and had been jailed. Kilgore had informed university officials about his past. As Christopher Kennedy, board chair, explained:

"But our general position is clear. We want to be respectful of the fact that we operate on taxpayer's money and tuition ... and people paying tuition who have will have concerns about underwriting this lifestyle." Kennedy also said that because Kilgore is an adjunct, there are not academic freedom issues at stake. "We're not reacting to public pressure. If this was an issue of academic freedom, we would stand up for it. This is an hourly employee who doesn't have tenure. It's completely different," he said. And Kennedy said he has been "very clear" in sharing his views about the issue with university administrators.
We can tell more or less precisely when the board gained this clarity about how to act on their devotion to the Great Taxpayers of the Great State of Illinois, based on the facts presented in the Inside Higher Ed piece. It was after the news story publicized Kilgore's past.

We can also tell to whom the board is willing to extend whatever they might understand by "academic freedom": tenured faculty.

Frankly, I'm willing to take their word on that. As this starts to become a topic of email conversation among contingent faculty across the country, the lack of academic freedom for an "hourly employee" is the focal point. For good reason, contingent academic labor are insulted by this avowal that they are sub-citizens. But I believe Kennedy and the Illinois board are telling the truth about their understanding of the role of contingent faculty and the extension of "academic freedom." That may be the only thing they are telling the truth about, in fact.

Kennedy's assertions that the board is "not reacting to public pressure" is flatly contradicted by his statement that the decision was based on the concerns of the Great Taxpayers of the Great State of Illinois regarding Kilgore's "lifestyle." (I'm delighted by the conceptual mush implied by the use of lifestyle in this context. Is being a member of an anarchist terrorist group a lifestyle? It's easy to imagine Kennedy explaining the equivocal meaning of the word is.)

Anyway, no, this isn't an academic freedom case, but not because Kilgore doesn't have the right to academic freedom (which he doesn't, because the board says so). It's a lifestyle case. The board has asserted that, at least for contingent faculty, public "concern" about a faculty member's "lifestyle" can be valid grounds for not renewing the contract, even one who is supposedly very good at the job. There's no currently prevailing concept of academic freedom that I'm aware of that pertains to lifestyle or even mentions it.

Why, after all, should the Great Taxpayers support the lifestyle of a faculty member about which they have concerns?

So, in the interest of being completely above board and candid, and so the Great Taxpayers of the Great State of California can decide whether or not they have concerns, some details of my lifestyle follow.

  • I am 45 years old. (I don't have concerns about this, myself, but I do have objections.)
  • I live in a 1472 square foot house on the edge of town. 
  • I live across the street from cows.
  • My spouse and I are intentionally childless. 
  • We intentionally have two cats, and unintentionally have one more, and a stray turtle.
  • I used to be a member of the Philosophers' Drinking Club, as an undergraduate at UNC-Charlotte.
  • I serially violate stop signs while riding my bicycle.
  • I own a dozen guitars.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

academic despair

A study of "academics" in the UK revealed what should come as no surprise to my friends in academia: lots of "academics" have mental health problems. The story tells us that "academics" have heavy workloads, pressures to publish, and are isolated; many face tenuousness as an everyday condition of employment. The story also tells us that, in the UK, 0.2% of people working as college faculty disclosed mental health problems to their employers. Now, why do you suppose that is?

I've written rather dismissively about faculty mental health in this space before. Today, I happen to be prepping for my last Intro to Philosophy classes for the semester, reading Sartre's essay "Existentialism is a Humanism." Under Sartre's influence, I am thinking that, although the mental health issues of faculty are not surprising, they should be understood also in terms of the way academic life is structured, not organizationally by management hell-bent on exploitation, but situationally by faculty themselves/ourselves.

From this perspective, a key factor is isolation. Marxist and quasi-Marxist criticism of industrialized labor aside, that is, without the presupposition of class division and alienation of labor, the isolation in which most faculty work is a situation created by the workers themselves.

In an ordinary workday, I come across maybe 10 other faculty on campus -- a campus of more than 400 faculty. "Come across" is the right description for these encounters, since they generally amount to passing by one another, on our way to our own offices, our own classes, our own "work," and, as the UK report would have it, our own mental illnesses. Of course, institution and discipline of academia promotes or generates this normalized sense of ownership, and that sense of ownership makes faculty good targets for exploitation. I don't mean to deny that. But inasmuch as this situation is experienced as isolation, I think an existentialist would want to ask some critical questions.

Let's say, following Sartre, that because there is no a priori law dictating how we should act, how we should work, or what meaning this situation should have, we choose what to do, how to work, and what it means. When we retreat to our offices (those of us who have offices), what choice are we making in regard to work and the intersubjective world of work? What values are expressed in this choice?

Isolation is a denial of the intersubjectivity of the world. It expresses excessive consideration of oneself, inflation of subjectivity to royal status, and denial of the situatedness of freedom -- as though only in isolation, only in my own research and my own classes do I have freedom. It is as if, in isolation from others, mental illness will set us free.

An existentialist interpretation of academic freedom, which I haven't come across yet, would center on the concept that freedom implies and requires the freedom of others, and is fundamentally intersubjective. It would remind us that freedom cannot be one's own at the expense of others or without regard to others. It would focus not on one's own research, etc., but on jointly shared responsibility for and determination of the situation of work.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

academic freedom vs. freedom

 “This much understood term refers to the set of practices such as tenure and faculty governance that allow academics to generate new knowledge in an unfettered manner and to disseminate that knowledge using pedagogic practices that inspire critical thinking among students. With this freedom comes responsibility: scholars must conform to the mores of their disciplines, and their behavior is monitored through a network of institutions that enforce such professional conduct.”
     -- Ashley Dawson, in “Columbia versus America” in Dangerous Professors, p. 227.

A very strange turn on academic freedom would be to consider freedom in Foucault’s sense. Freedom would be the “recalcitrance” and “intransigence” of the one to whom power is applied by various forms of governmentality. Freedom subsists in the shape of resistance to subjection, to the disciplinary regimes of social institutions/knowledges. For instance, freedom could describe the dubiousness of a person who avoids complying with a doctor’s firm advice to get a blood test, on the basis that this person is not eager to have the result, and not eager to be subjected to a regimen of treatment based on the result. Freedom could also describe the condition of incomplete or imperfect discipline of a person who has undergone schooling but resists proper performances of mandatory school tasks. Freedom is also the name of the condition of possibility of being disciplined through one or another regime of power. It is prior to discipline and power, and Foucault suggests that freedom is expressed by the choice of which regime to become subject to.

Freedom in this sense is certainly at odds with a demand of conformity to mores of a discipline — academic or otherwise. Dawson’s account suggests a freedom of means rather than ends, in as much as the “academics” will adhere to standards and practices of generating and disseminating knowledge. Obviously, the monitoring of behavior is subjection to surveillance in Foucault’s sense. So the situation Dawson calls academic freedom would be anything but. It would be academic autonomy, but not freedom.

Academic freedom, taking freedom in Foucault’s sense, might mean resistance to those very forms of discipline, responsibility, and moral normalization — not necessarily rejecting them, but treating them with recalcitrance.

I’m not sure where, if anywhere, to take this. I don't know if it makes sense to modify freedom with academic (or anything else).