What Northwestern is Doing About What It’s Like

October 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

Axel Mueller writes:

Under the somewhat silly but effective name “WiPhi” (pronounced ‘wye-fye’, like the wireless technology certificate), at the department of philosophy at Northwestern, we started an initiative. “WiPhi” stands for ‘Women Into Philosophy’, so it captures [when read as a directive] the desire to get more women to join who really would like to do philosophy as well as [when read descriptively] the only entry-requirement and common trait of those already in philosophy, viz. being into philosophy. Finally, it could also be read as a directive to search for the readings, writings, work, contributions of women to philosophy and bring them into, e.g., one’s curriculum or syllabus. I told you it was sort of silly. Here’s what the initiative consists in: (1) An all-women, cross-career-stage group that holds quarterly ‘plenary’ meetings that the department is committed to funding as regards coffee and snacks; these group-meetings have no particular structure prescribed, but we suggested that they choose something either reading-group or work-group like, or may be even a theme connected to class-material that the group would like to get a deeper insight into. Getting the female graduates and faculty on board was, as one might imagine, easy, but getting female Undergrads/majors involved is more of a challenge; I could count on the support of the Undergraduate Philosophy Society and our female staff to send around messages, reminders, and so on, to publicize and make known the presence of this initiative. As of now (a month into the thing), numbers keep growing as word gets out. (2) In between these plenary meetings, we hope for a natural “buddy-system” to grow between the more senior and the younger women in the group that provides for continuous cohesion and mutual support among the members, and thus to foster the emergence fo some sort of group-identification and -structure. (3) To set a claer and unmistakable sign of the department’s commitment for women in philosophy, and also to stimulate a middle-term project for the emerging group to work on, we have secured funding for a lecture, towards the end of the academic year, of a Great Women in Philosophy, whom the group selects, invites and hosts. The particulars of the hosting process here are important, as the group will interact with this great woman philosopher in a brunch, a dinner and a workshop for WiPhi members only, before the speaker gives the aggressively marketed public “Gertrude Bussey Lecture” (Gertrude Bussey was the first female PhD, in fact, the first PhD awarded at NU philosophy, and she became president of the WILFP [Jane Addams’ institution], so that we have a role model right at the start, and a story to tell, but also to live up to and a narrative of women in philosophy at NU to continue and re-create). These activities, as well as the speaker honorarium and accommodation are sponsored, again, by the department (although I am currently casting around for more involvement by the Humanities Center, the College and the University) but to be entirely determined by WiPhi itself. (4) We (erm, that’d currently be mainly me, but hopes are that this gets on its own feet soon) also take care of continuously keeping the community at the department aware that WiPhi is around, in order to let it be known that the fly in the ointment of male-dominated environs isn’t tired yet. As to the atmospheric change, this proved to be quite important, since it’s an easy to capture element in the environs, which increases the energy of female passers-by and members of the community and discourages conitnuing male misbehavior or unawareness on the basis of just going on as usual. (5) Finally, we are also lucky to begin this initiative at the point where oe of our graduates, Rebecca Mason, acts as the host organizer of the Midwestern SWIP in November, which, in featuring speakers at all career-stages, has already been found by the members of WiPhi I talked to as a major and much anticipated event. (Lesson: hosting some sort of conference, talk, event seems to be most envigorating for UG students, since it makes them aware of beign part of something that’s bigger and more academic and important than a simple department coffee-klatsh.)

Let me know of ways to improve this, and to add or subtract infrastructure. I just wanted to post this so others may see that with a couple of relatively small and simple commitments and infrastructural tweaks, a lot can happen. Of course, it always takes some energetic people; but be sure: the energy is around, it just needs to be tapped into. E.g. our (all-female, what would you extpect, …) staff is totally on board and enthused, and this percolates really quickly to students (along the “have you already heard of” mechanism); one of them created our logo for the messages and postings, etc. It just takes a starting, and then awareness and mindfulness to capture just how much want there is for things to change. Given the obviousness of the 30% vs 70% distribution, this degree of want is high, guaranteed.

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