Rethinking the curriculum

May 11, 2011 § 3 Comments

There’s been lots of discussion on this blog (and others) of how to get women on the syllabi for undergraduate courses.  I am teaching intro in the Fall, and I have found it difficult to appropriate articles to “shoehorn” into the topics I supposed an intro class should cover– the ontological argument, skepticism, etc.  But rather than let that force me to have an all-male syllabus, I just rethought what an intro class should be.  I picked a few classic moral philosophy papers by Elizabeth Anscombe, Susan Wolfe, and others and redesigned the syllabus to have a strong focus on ethics.  True, it doesn’t quite fit the typical intro mold (though we’ll do a bit of metaphysics and phil religion too).  But the mold has never been particularly accommodating to women philosophers, and I’d rather my students read great papers written by philosophers with diverse perspectives than hit a certain prescribed set of topics.

I’d say if you too are struggling to get gender balance on your syllabi, it may also be time to rethink some of your assumptions about the curriculum.


§ 3 Responses to Rethinking the curriculum

  • Dani says:

    This seems wrong to me. I agree that representing women on an intro syllabus is an important goal, however reforming an “intro” class to “have a strong focus on ethics” changes it to an “intro to ethics” class. This takes away from students the opportunity to learn in a survey environment about important foundational issues in philosophy, and to determine whether they want to go on to take more advanced classes in, for example, epistemology.

    A far less destructive idea, it seems to me, would be to have a topical intro course which included a section on the topic of feminist philosophy. You could also have a section (of appropriate size) on ethics, in which you utilized some of the other papers you mention. It may simply be the case that there will be SOME topics in an intro class for which you can’t find appropriate papers by women. But rather than eliminating those important topics from your syllabus, why not simply balance them with other topics in which papers can be found?

    It seems to me that it is important to strike an appropriate balance between trying to represent women philosophers and making sure the curriculum you are providing your students is adequate. If we start to sacrifice philosophical education to the promotion of “women in philosophy,” it is not clear to me that we aren’t doing more harm to women in philosophy than good. It gives all of those closet or unconscious sexists another opportunity to disparage feminism, its goals, and its ultimate effects.

  • Helen says:

    It is always possible to come up with women philosophers, and importantly, I don’t think we need to resort to compromises between an adequate philosophical education or placing women in the curriculum. It’s not an exclusive or.
    In my intro of philosophy of science class (undergraduate level) I have begun to introduce women philosophers. Although philosophy of science is an overwhelmingly male field (most fields in philosophy are) – I found it useful and refreshing to introduce women, such as Alison Wylie, Nancy Cartwright, Helen Longino, Nancy Nersessian, and many others. All of these writers have done excellent work in mainstream general philosophy – there was no need at all to compromise on the balance of the curriculum. Quite on the contrary, these authors are often underrepresented in standard philosophy of science intro courses. I’ve had many positive comments about this in my class. Similarly, in my classes in epistemology and philosophy of mind last year, I introduced Ruth Millikan, Kathleen Akins, Elizabeth Fricker, and several others. Even in a particularly woman-scarce field like philosophy of religion, there are plenty of mainstream writers to include in the syllabus:
    I think that relegating women in philosophy to a special feminist section is not a good idea. That makes it look as if women can only do valuable work in feminism, which is demonstrably not the case. So, I think the original postwriter could provide a balanced general intro class that
    (a) has women philosopher in it
    (b) has women philosophers, not just on feminism, but also epistemology, ethics, philosophy of religion, etc.
    (c) is balanced and provides a good general overview

  • David says:

    I can relate to the OP’s difficulty in finding papers by female philosophers on the topics I’ve already chosen for a particular course. I’m also sympathetic, however, to Dani’s concern about shifting the course to focus primarily on ethics. (An additional reason for concern: It might suggest to some students that women can/do only do good philosophical work in ethics.)

    How about this as an alternative? Pick the subdisciplines that you want to cover. Choose at least one piece by a female philosopher for each subdiscipline, and then pick the remaining pieces to produce a balanced range of topics in each subdiscipline. The result might be a slightly different set of topics than you would choose if you just started with topics and then looked for readings. (After all, your choice of topics would presumably be guided by the relevant philosophical canons, and those are stacked full of men.) You would still end up with pieces that are (a) of high quality, (b) on a wide range of important philosophical topics, but (c) better balanced in terms of gender.

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