Creating a culture of genuine care

May 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

From Mark Lance, Georgetown:

This is about an event we just held, one that is not so obviously on topic and the explanation of which has to be a bit long.  Please bear with me.

The first day of classes this term, my department received the horrible news that a recent PhD, currently in a non-tenure track job, but with a few campus visits scheduled, was dying of liver failure at the age of 31.  The news pretty much stopped us all in our tracks and we gathered around her, some literally traveling to where she was, and others joining in virtual space.  A few weeks later she died.  She was an amazing person, a truly inspiring figure in our community, and a woman, but those things are not really relevant to the story as I’m confident the same things would have been done for any of us.

I don’t even remember who first made the suggestions, but it was proposed that we start a memorial fund, that a few of us complete some of her work for publication, and that we hold a departmental colloquium in honor of her life and work.  This was not discussed, in the sense of debated as a proposal.  It was apparent to everyone that these things needed to happen.  The discussion was simply of how best to carry them all off.  The fund is up and running, the article is in the works.

Yesterday – a few days after the end of classes – we held the memorial.  14 close friends and family members of our dear friend, student, colleague, and comrade came to DC for the event.  It began with Alisa Carse reading aloud a reflection paper that Lauren had written for a graduate class, on the topic of the moral significance of remembering the dead.

Then we all cried a bit.

Then Tea Logar and Margaret Little, Lauren’s director, gave an overview of Lauren’s dissertation research – on the possibility and significance of undertaking personal moral commitments that are genuinely normatively binding – teaching it so that the family and friends would have a basic understanding of what was going on.


Then we had two afternoon sessions in which faculty developed various ideas. In the first, Karen Stohr and Dan Levine discussed ways to fill in issues that were left unfinished in her dissertation.  Then Rebecca Kukla and I presented on political dimensions of her work – looking at ways that it illuminated crucial issues of social exploitation and the possibility of autonomy.  This latter tied together the philosophical side of Lauren’s life with her deep commitment to working for social justice.

Throughout, it was a philosophical discussion, a pedagogical exercise, and a collective step from grief to healing.  Her family felt comfortable asking questions and making comments throughout.  There was none of the “arguing to prove I’m smarter than you” behavior.  None of the “arguing to score points” behavior.  In fact, it was rather a marvel of people paying attention to many dimensions of appropriateness at once. A brother asked what Maggie meant by “moral psychology” and Henry Richardson explained, highlighting ways that Lauren’s work gave us some new thoughts.  You get the idea.

After the last session, we went to a dinner on campus where we ate, drank, and shared memories of Lauren and our gratitude to her.  Much more crying ensued.

Near the end, person after person in Lauren’s family said how important this had been for them, that it had exceeded their wildest expectations, that it showed them this world that had been so central to Lauren, and why she loved it.

So… Why mention this here.  It wasn’t a session specifically designed to deal with sexism in the profession.  But I think one can see that the fact that a department would pull together to do this, and to do it well is a symptom of a department that cares for its members, a department that is humane.  It is a symptom of a department in which many of the stories on WILTBAWIP are simply inconceivable.

This was a ton of work.  Some of us wrote talks.  Others arranged the dinner.  Our chair found money to fly Tea in from Slovenia because she had been Lauren’s closest friend in grad school, and she needed to be here. Some bought wine. Many pitched in to set up, to clean up, to show the family around and help them find buildings on campus. This is the busiest time of the term, but we all pitched in, and no one really ever thought of anything else, including new grad students who had never met Lauren. It’s who we are – or at least who we try to be and are at our best.

But there is, of course, no clean separation of symptoms and causes in such matters.  For just as the existence of events like this express our collective identity, so the periodic effort expended in constructing such events is what constitutes that identity, what keeps it going, what sets the tone for those who join us.

So my thought is that if a department wants to be non-sexist, it would help to just in general be a kind, caring, hard-working, competent community.  (That’s the kind most likely to deal quickly with any sexism that arises, after all.)  And if one wants to be this sort of community, the best way to be it is to start doing it.  Just start taking care of each other in all the small and large ways, and do it as collectively as possible, and after a while, you will have a different culture.


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