Friday, June 8, 2018

Why I Do Not Want A Tight-Knit Middlebury Community

Many colleagues at my institution think that, unlike larger universities, we at Middlebury College ought to be a tight-knit community. In a series of posts, I hope to describe and recommend an alternative, loose-knit community that I envision. Since I am most familiar with the academic faculty’s role in the College’s community, I focus on this, though future posts may anticipate some of its implications for other members of the community. Ideally, each post would stimulate discussion, which in turn would help me to sharpen my formulations, so that I (and perhaps others) might better understand the costs and benefits of different communal structures at liberal arts colleges in general, and Middlebury in particular.

In this post, I first clarify the distinction between tight- and loose-knit faculty communities. I then consider and reject the idea that faculty members' obligations to teach effectively entails a further obligation to form and maintain tight-knit communities. I conclude by providing some general contours for other arguments in favor of tight-knit faculty communities that I intend to criticize in future posts.

1.    Drawing a Distinction

I begin by characterizing the distinction between tight- and loose-knit faculty communities.
As a first pass, we might think that an ideal tight-knit community is one in which every community member knows every other community member. Knowing another means having accurate information about his/her motivations and beliefs, at least as concerns the workings of the College. I should say that some colleagues seem to suggest that knowing a coworker also requires knowing that coworker outside of his/her professional capacities. However, this strikes me as rather invasive. I take it as obvious that not every coworker should know about every other coworker’s personal life. I do not know if all of my colleagues share this opinion.

As mentioned above, I focus on faculty members’ role in the College community. Faculty members’ responsibilities fall into three broad categories: teaching, research, and service. Thus,
to know a faculty member in his/her professional capacity is to know his/her motivations and beliefs about his/her own teaching, research, and service. So, as a utopian ideal, every faculty member of a tight-knit community would have accurate information regarding every other faculty member’s motivations and beliefs regarding teaching, research, and service. Of course, a more realistic goal for a tight-knit community would only require most faculty members to have accurate information about majority opinions of the faculty regarding these three domains of faculty responsibility. Hereafter, I shall take this less utopian description of a tight-knit community as my working definition.


So, let’s simply take a loose-knit community as the negation of a tight-knit community: it’s a community in which no more than a few faculty members have accurate information about the majority opinions of faculty concerning teaching, service, and research. Note that a loose-knit community need not entail that every faculty member is completely ignorant of every other faculty member. For instance, a loose-knit community might consist of several tight-knit sub-communities who are unaware of other sub-communities’ institutional motivations and beliefs. One obvious loose-knit community that has this structure is one in which the only tight-knit sub-communities are departmental, but this is neither the only such loose-knit community of this kind, nor do I think it is the best of this kind.

Finally, there are some imprecise terms in these formulations. What counts as “many” and “few” faculty members? As it turns out, very little will hinge on this. Indeed, my arguments below will mostly work the extreme case of a loose-knit community in which no individual has knowledge of majority opinions among the faculty. One might also worry about how to characterize a “majority opinion.” Is it a simple majority or a supermajority or something else? However, in a realistic tight knit-community, we should not expect a faculty member to have anything more than imprecise knowledge, e.g. “A majority of faculty members believe that…, but some have argued to the contrary on the grounds that…,” even if they cannot quantify “majority” or how many are opposed.

2.    Do Tight-Knit Communities Improve Teaching?

In this post, I critique one argument for a tight-knit community. I conclude this post with a framework for generating other arguments in favor of tight-knit communities. In subsequent posts, I hope to criticize these arguments as well.

The following assumption animates much of what I say. Forming and maintaining loose-knit communities is less resource-intensive than forming and maintaining tight-knit communities. In short, in loose-knit communities, time and effort spent getting to know faculty opinions can be allocated to other pursuits. Hence, unless there must be sizable benefits to a tight-knit community in order to offset these costs. I shall argue that there is nothing so obviously beneficial of a tight-knit community that fits this job description. Hence, faculty members are under no obligation to form and maintain a tight-knit community.


I think it obvious that there is at least one aim shared by all College constituencies: the teaching of students. No other institutional aim enjoys this kind of consensus. As a result, an argument that tight-knit communities are an effective means of improving teaching would be especially persuasive. So, let us consider whether tight-knit communities produce better teaching than loose-knit communities in such a manner as to obligate faculty members to form and maintain such a community. (Spoiler alert: this argument does not work.)


One might think that if most faculty members knew what other colleagues were doing pedagogically, then everyone would have more resources for improving their own teaching. In short, there would be a repository of best practices that could be shared among the faculty. However, this rests on the following assumption, which I will call the Principle of Pedagogical Transferability (PPT):


A teaching practice successfully wielded by one liberal arts college professor in a particular class, discipline, etc. has a high probability of succeeding when wielded by another liberal arts college professor in a different class, discipline, etc. 


Ultimately, PPT is an empirical proposition that, to my knowledge, has not been confirmed, and would be difficult to confirm without clear methods of individuating teaching practices, classes, and pedagogical success. Indeed, my own experiences tell me that a teaching practice wielded by me in one philosophy class doesn’t have a high probability of being successful when wielded by me in another philosophy class. In slogan form: most pedagogy is local.


Since PPT is not obviously true, the question then becomes one of whether the resources allocated for achieving a tight-knit community are worth it given that the prospects of pedagogical improvement are uncertain. It seems to me that there can be reasonable disagreement about this. Hence, there is no obligation to participate in a tight-knit community on the (shaky) grounds that it will improve your teaching. Hence those who do not opt in to a tight-knit community have done nothing wrong or bad.


Furthermore, one might very well boost the probability in question by devoting more time and effort to getting to know only those faculty members who have teaching practices that look most relevant to one’s own. Hence, it may very well be that the best way to improve one’s teaching is to form tight-knit sub-communities, and to largely ignore what those in vastly different pedagogical contexts are doing. 


Thus, I conclude that the argument that tight-knit communities should be formed and maintained in order to improve teaching is unsound.

3.    A Look Ahead

As mentioned above, this is only one of several arguments in favor of tight-knit communities to consider (and in my case, criticize.) I conclude by providing a framework for generating other arguments of this sort. 

First, one may offer different definitions of a tight-knit community. I have opted for one that seems to impose relatively modest demands on the faculty, in the hopes that any shortcomings with this definition would apply, a fortiori, to more demanding conditions. However, since my arguments are of a cost-benefit variety, there may be a sweet spot where a more demanding conception of a tight-knit community would yield greater benefits. An interesting question is whether such conceptions are realistic or feasible. 


Second, one may challenge my claim that forming and maintaining loose-knit communities are less resource-intensive than tight-knit communities. I personally do not see how this could be defensible, but this may merely reflect a lack of imagination on my part.


Third, one may look for other potential benefits of tight-knit communities than their effects on teaching. I think that this is the most fruitful source of generating more arguments for tight-knit communities. Here, I briefly sketch a typology of such benefits. Above, I considered an argument in which tight-knit communities are a means to better teaching. However, tight-knit communities might be a means to other ends. Since I’m focusing on faculty’s obligations to contribute to a tight-knit community, it would be natural to explore arguments for tight-knit communities as a means to better research and better service. Additionally, it may be that a tight-knit faculty community does not serve the faculty’s ends, but serves some other College constituencies ends (such as the Trustees’, administration’s, staff’s, or students’). And, finally, it may be that tight-knit faculty communities are not a means to some further end, but are ends unto themselves. More on these arguments in the future.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Stop the Non-Confrontational Bullshit

I have recently been struck by a segment of the population that holds the following commitments:
(a)  The Free Speech Principle: Free speech should not be restricted, even in cases where this involves the expression of racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. ideas.
(b)  The Anti-Bigotry Principle: Racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. are bad, and we should seek to eliminate them.
(c)   The Non-Confrontational Principle: Because discussions about racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. are uncomfortable, we should seek to avoid them.
The tension between these three principles should be evident. In particular, the tension between free speech and anti-bigotry are the topic of much debate. For the sake of argument, I will grant that they can somehow be reconciled, such that we know how to handle the tough cases in which they offer conflicting counsel. Let me also say that, even beyond the sake of argument, I am sympathetic to both.
            I am more interested in how the non-confrontational principle interacts with these two commitments. The non-confrontational principle doesn’t have quite the air of moral authority of the free speech and anti-bigotry principles. Of course, ceteris paribus, we should not make people uncomfortable, but very rarely is ceteris paribus in any discussion that matters. For instance, we should not avoid talking about colon cancer because thinking about someone’s ulcerated GI tract makes some of us squeamish. Similarly, we should not avoid talking about racism simply because highlighting its mechanisms and effects makes some of us self-conscious.
There is also something especially hypocritical about outspoken advocates of free speech and anti-bigotry being non-confrontational. After all, if one believes that free speech is important enough that one is willing to grant it to bigots, whom one recognizes are doing a bad thing that should be eliminated, then it seems very odd to discourage others from exercising their free speech with the aim of identifying bigotry and its effects—these would appear to be good things given one’s opposition to bigotry.
Yet, I think that a nontrivial segment of the left espouses precisely these three commitments. Given that the non-confrontational principle does not appear to enjoy the same status as the free speech and anti-bigotry principles, and also seems to invite legitimate charges of hypocrisy, why would one hold it? I speculate that, in some cases at least, a plausible explanation is the phenomenon known as white fragility. Robin DiAngelo nicely summarizes the core of this phenomenon:
White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as White Fragility. White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.
If white fragility is in place, then the non-confrontational principle is a plausible ideology for reinforcing “white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress.” If we’re to avoid uncomfortable conversations about race, as the non-confrontational principle recommends, then real talk about race is taboo, uncouth, etc.
However, I want to point out that white people aren’t alone in this. Many victims of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. also want to recruit the non-confrontational principle. However, there are good reasons to think that there is no black, female, etc. fragility that explains their invocation of the non-confrontational principle. First, people in marginalized groups do not enjoy the same kind of “comfort” that DiAngelo attributes to those exhibiting white fragility. Second, members of marginalized groups experience racial (and other kinds of) stress more routinely than those who exhibit white fragility. Third, one’s opportunities to display emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation, are often an artifact of not being the victim of racism, sexism, etc., i.e. of privilege. (To choose an example close to home: an Arab guy with a shaved head, deep voice, etc. is only allowed to display a limited range of anger and frustration before he comes across as ‘intimidating,’ ‘threatening,’ etc.) I think that all of this points against the idea that non-white fragilities explain marginalized individuals’ use of the non-confrontational principle.
Now, perhaps these considerations make marginalized individuals’ invocation of the non-confrontational principle more justified. Furthermore, members of marginalized groups are generally more consistent than their more fragile counterparts: they frequently deny that bigots should have unlimited free speech. This removes much of the hypocrisy. However, it does not erase the initial shortcomings of the principle, namely that it lacks a sound justification. For instance, even if one is routinely made uncomfortable by discussions of other people’s GI tracts, that is no reason to avoid talking about colon cancer. Similarly, even if one is the victim of routine bigotry, that is no reason to avoid conversations about bigotry.

For my part, I remain committed to giving everyone fairly august rights to free speech. I want to know what the bigots are thinking, and want to use every means of nonviolent expression available to tell them the twenty-seven different ways that they’re horrible people. I also want to tell all those fragile white people to get over themselves. So, I say to everyone: let’s stop it with all this non-confrontational bullshit.

Monday, April 24, 2017

How to be a Pragmatist in the Philosophy of Science (Part I)

I recently attended a workshop called “The Pragmatic Alternative.” The big question of the conference was “What is pragmatism in the philosophy of science?” Here I offer my own answer to that question. As I see it, pragmatism’s main foil is representationalism. I define representationalism as the philosophical doctrine that scientific representations’ capacity for mirroring stuff in the world accounts for the success of scientific practices. Here, representations are theories, models, etc.; mirroring includes relations of correspondence, similarity, and various kinds of iso- and homomorphisms; and stuff in the world includes objects, properties, and structures. I take the phrase “accounting for” to include, but not be limited to, philosophical analysis, explication, and explanation. At root, representationalism is a commitment about the direction of such accounts: mirroring accounts for scientific success.

The traditional reason to reject representationalism concern so-called “placement problems.” Very roughly if part of our successful scientific practice entails that X exists, then representationalists must explain the success of the practice in terms of its ability to mirror X’s in the world. However, some of our scientific practices entail modal stuff: laws, causes, necessities, possibilities, chances, etc. How to place modal stuff into a naturalistic worldview is widely thought to be problematic. For some, this is reason to abandon representationalism.

Enter my brand of pragmatism, which turns representationalism’s account on its head: successful scientific practices account for scientific representations’ mirroring the stuff in the world. So what does this look like? Here’s a schema for one version of this:
1.     Science provides solid reasons for p.
2.     So, p.
3.     p if and only if p is true.
4.     So, p is true.
Regarding the first premise: this is a proxy for actual, first-order scientific reasons for a given claim. So, for instance, if p is bacteria causes ulcers, then the first premise of this schema will be nothing more than the gastrological, bacteriological, etc. evidence for this causal claim. This also means that, in an overwhelming number of cases, the inference from the first claim to the second will be inductive. The general thought here is that science provides us with our best reasons for thinking that the world is the way that it is. The next thing to note is that one can perform a number of trivial inferences in between the second and third claims of this schema. For instance, in our toy example, we can infer that, e.g. bacteria exist, something causes something, and ulcers exist. The schema’s second claim, along with all of these trivial consequences, furnish us with a “naturalized ontology.” As naturalists, we realize that our chances of getting our ontology right once and for all no better than those of the scientists from which that ontology is derived. This is just to say that our ontology “falls out” of scientific practice.

Finally, consider the last two steps in this schema. In Step 3, we adopt a deflationary account of representational success, i.e. one in which the mirroring relationship does no heavy-lifting. Note that nothing hinges on choosing truth as the kind of representational success. It’s only that we have a very clear account of what a deflationary theory of truth would look like in this case. A full-blooded pragmatism would also provide deflationary accounts of representation, reference, and the like, any of which can be used in the third step. The move from the third to the fourth step is what allows us to say all the things that the representationalist wants to say, without according those claims the same elevated status that the representationalist seeks to give. It thereby accounts for representational success (fourth claim) in terms of scientific practice (first claim).

This is a sketch, and raises several questions, which I hope to address in another post:
A.    Can we make sense of successful scientific practice without already smuggling in some assumptions about mirroring? In other words, how do we vindicate the first claim in this schema without “cheating”?
B.    How does this brand of pragmatism compare with others?