The academy and (threats of) violence

I am visiting the Gender Studies Department at the LSE for the term. They were kind enough to extend an invitation while my partner was invited to be the Susan Strange Lecturer in International Relations. In exchange for the pleasure of sharing their space and their company, I am participating in an evening discussion of Feminist Epistemology with some members of the department.

I was delighted to receive an invitation to attend a workshop for Gender Studies masters’ students on intersectionality given by Kimberlé Crenshaw. Rather than giving a standard academic talk on the topic she offered a narrative composed of autobiographical vignettes — moments that informed her coming to the idea of intersectionality. She is a wonderfully engaging speaker and this was a fresh approach to an idea that I have been grappling with for several years in relation to my work on feminist standpoint theory. Her main point was the specificity and the concreteness of the idea as it grew out of very specific experiences and her responses to them.

At the end of the talk, the students broke into small groups to talk about how Prof. Crenshaw’s presentation and the readings of her work they had been assigned fit together. The plan was to reconvene after tea when a broader discussion would take place — including a question and answer period.

The students — 120 of them, mostly women — are from all over the world and doing masters degrees in a variety of specializations: Women, Peace, and Security; Gender, Media, and Culture; Gender, Policy, and Inequalities; Gender, Development and Globalisation; and various different broader specializations under the heading ‘Gender’ (Sexuality, Research). I left them while I ran some errands and then returned for the afternoon session.

It begin in a fairly ordinary way. Prof. Crenshaw took questions and was in the process of answering them. Questions like “What is the right way to do intersectional research?” (Answer: “There is no formula.”) She was in the process of offering a somewhat more complicated question when white man standing next to me who looked to be in his 50s interrupted. It seemed at first that he had just been impatient and was jumping the question queue. Kimberlé went on speaking, but he got louder and more insistent — in fact, belligerent. I was right next to him and it crossed my mind to get up and ask him to leave — I was one of the older people in the room and technically faculty and so I felt some sense of responsibility for the students — but at that point I realized that Clare Hemmings, the department chair, was moving towards us and was going to handle the situation. Kimberlé stayed focused and continued trying to answer the question although at that point I could no longer focus on what she was saying. Clare was asking the man to leave, politely but strongly, and I though he would of course go now, but he did not. They moved behind me and in a moment he had bashed into my shoulder and quickly moved to the front of the room, where Kimberlé was still speaking, although now she stopped — everyone frozen, tense. Perhaps because there was no exit at the front of the room, he moved back towards where I was sitting nearly as quickly as he had gone to the front and Clare now told him he had to leave and walked him out.

It felt that the whole incident had only been a few minutes. It turns out it all took 15 minutes — documented by Kimberlé’s media assistant. We were all shaken — although, in truth, it is unlikely that he was a real danger. It seems he was a known disrupter at the university. But we did not know that at the time. The only physical contact he had was with Clare — whose arm he grabbed during the confrontation, which had, in turn, caused him to fall over me. I was hurt — not badly – a slight bruise on one shoulder, but the pure shock of the physical pain suddenly felt in my safe, privileged world — the academy — was more startling than the physical pain warranted. I was not alone in this.

It was over — the disruption had passed — but we all were shaken, including Kimberlé. She said “Let’s talk about it.” And she led us in processing the experience. I suspect her thought was to speak about it till we will settled and then move back to the workshop agenda but it was soon apparent that lots of people wanted to talk. We wondered why we had not all responded more immediately. Why hadn’t we all insisted that he leave? Why hadn’t we all stood up? The norms of the lecture hall? Or was it a gendered response? Or simply fear? Fear of escalation, fear of violence.

Students spoke of reacting out of their experiences. One student had lost hearing in one ear in a violent encounter and immediately feared she would lose hearing in the other ear as well. One student said he looked like a man who had attacked her and her friends last year (although he was not) — she was still shaking. One student thought that if she spoke up she would just be ignored because she was Asian. Another thought it might be an active shooter — a situation that she had already experienced once in another academic setting.

The concreteness of the individual responses had gelled into the one non-response from the collective — the threat of violence held us still, but the experiences of violence gave that threat a reality. Sharing the moment allowed for a recognition of our fear and Kim finished it with deep breathing and reaffirmation, taking back the day, and keeping us together.

Clare describes the incident here.

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London work and travel

Although retired from teaching I am still working as a philosopher. At the moment I have quite a number of things keeping me busy. I am editing a book series with a colleague (Feminist Strategies: Flexible Theories and Resilient Practices) and the Handbook of Feminist Philosophy of Science (Routledge) with another colleague. In addition, I am working on several papers. I am continuing to think through standpoint theory as both a methodology and epistemology, while at the same time writing a piece of feminist methodology. My other research in philosophy of political science has been focused on narrative and then another piece exploring some new work on measuring democracy.

All of this is taking currently taking place in London where I will be till the end of March. We are staying in a lovely little row house near King’s Cross. The area is revitalizing (or gentrifying depending on your perspective). Because of the proximity to King’s Cross there’s a lot of foot traffic, much of it involving people dragging wheelie suitcases to and fro. It’s lively, interesting, diverse — foods from all over, languages from all over, and much to do.

We are about a 25 minute walk from the LSE where we are both visiting for the term. I am in the Gender Studies Department.h The department offers a wide variety of masters programs. It’s been very welcoming and I look forward to getting to know the people who work there a bit better. The view from my office is to the right.

My introduction to the Gender Studies department proved somewhat more “exciting” than I would have expected. I will post on that soon.

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3 years

It’s three year since I last posted. The last few posts were from my walks — my travels as I began them in my retirement.  Quite a lot has happened since then — in the world — in my life.

The trip that included Matera (previous post) was the first of many of this sort that I have taken since.  This is what people do in retirement these days, so it seems. And indeed I find myself intersecting with other similar walking groups. I am deeply ambivalent about these trips. To travel to a country as a tourist is always complicated.  One is peering in on other lives –other ways of living — and so I can’t help but feel that I am a bit of a voyeur. I travel self-consciously and sometimes uncomfortably as a result.

But I am, at least sometimes, an invited observer, although those who are letting me into their lives do so with mixed motives as well.  On the one hand they want to share the parts of their lives that they love — the bits of their worlds that make them proud. On the other hand, they sometimes find themselves doing so because other options to support themselves are in short supply. It is no secret that the economies of Greece, Italy, Portugal (some of the places that I have traveled) are struggling and tourism is a mixed blessing.

Sicilian farmer making cheese

There are many ways that this plays out though.  Sometimes it is that other options are just not that appealing (working in an office as opposed to spending one’s days leading walkers through the countryside) and sometimes it is someone who just does something that their family has been doing for generations that is now fascinating to tourists. I am thinking in particular of a cheese maker in Sicily who laughed loudly and often with us (and maybe at little at us) as he made ricotta next to his goats while puffing away on his cigarette. Although he has shown lots of tourists how cheese is made he still finds it amusing and hard to believe that we are interested and so mystified.

I am aware that the relative wealth and the freedom to travel that I have is a privilege. The tensions have not stopped me so far even though I always have a point on these trips when I wonder what on earth I am doing and why. This has not yet been enough to prevent me from booking the next one.

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Travel: Italy and other thoughts

Probably the most fascinating part of the trip to Italy this fall was the city of Matera. It’s an ancient city carved into the side of a magnificent limestone ravine. The homes are actually caves, although from the outside you might not realize this. The town was forcibly vacated — that is the residents were forced to leave — in 1954 because they were living in such poverty and in caves after all. But now it is revitalized as a historic marvel and tourist destination — although still a bit off the beaten track.


Evening in Matera

Although this was a highlight, the entire trip was somewhat like this. There were tourists but they were mostly Italian, occasionally German, only rarely American.  It was early fall, so passed the summer crowds, some rain, always a bit moody and isolated, but beautiful.

I traveled with a group of women roughly the same age but all quite different – no other philosophers, no other college professors — lawyers, teachers, women employed in or running various businesses, retired women like myself.

And, of course, traveling is separates you from the mundane. It is addicting I think.  I have traveled a lot in 2015 and have thought about it a lot as well. One thing that I find rather disturbing about it is the way it becomes a topic of conversation among a certain class and people of a certain age (my age apparently). People “collect” places that they have been as a kind of marker of their — their what exactly?  Sometimes it seems that their trips are a mark of their worth – I have been to x, y, and z — more exotic is better — greater worth of course.  Is this a way of illustrating one’s wealth? One’s refinement?  One’s open mindedness? One’s adventurousness?  All I think. A certain amount of travel allows you entry into the conversation and then there is a little dance as people gauge to what extent you are worthy of further comparative travel talk. Some of this talk is a means to find out new places to go and new ways to get there –this is when it is at its least obnoxious I think.  But then there is sometimes a desire to trump others — better travel — and the standards by which it is better may vary so the conversation can get tricky.

I don’t really like these conversations but then I do like to travel and puzzle over my own motivations.  Some of my travel has been just for the sake of movement — exotic places haven’t mattered that much as just breaking routine and being elsewhere (this is another topic) — but lately I do find that there are things that I just want to see — places that I haven’t been that I just have a desire to go to. I could do without the conversation though.

But then at least there is something to talk about at holiday parties where you don’t know anyone.

More Italy:


Laterza Ravine


Pollino National Forest


Amalfi Coast

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Not walking much

IMG_4659That’s my foot and that whitish area in the fifth metatarsal with the little arrow pointing to it is a stress fracture. I am now at the end of 6 weeks of wearing a boot and being on crutches.  I walked on the poor bone for a month before submitted — an absolute necessity in my view since to have dealt with it earlier would have meant cancelling a hiking trip to Italy (which I will blog shortly) and a trip to Durham both of which were greatly anticipated and worth the pain the required walking entailed.

But that being said, the stress fracture has not been an auspicious beginning to my retirement. First, it is one of many things at this stage of life that has one musing about the fragility of the body. I didn’t do anything special to bring the injury about.  I was just running. But “just running” on an ankle that is no longer very flexible because of injuries at other stages of my life — wounds carried with me — means that too much repeated pounding occurs in one spot of my left foot. Second, I am feeling somewhat housebound in any case since returning from my travels.  I stay home while everyone else goes off to work. Now on the one hand I rather like this. I have my own little realm that I can use as I please, with no one interfering for most of the day. I can work at my own pace in as distracted or as focused a way as I like.  And I have managed to do quite a bit of work.  But on the other hand, the sorts of stimulations that the public work place provides are missing. I can’t help but feel somewhat dull.  If moving about were easier, I would be moving about more and I look forward to the moment when I am able to do so.

Any benefits? I suppose an appreciation of the fact that it is not permanent.  And maybe some patience – I have to move very slowly and plan what I am doing and where I am going. I tend to drop things and knock things over. I have to be patient with myself mostly and I supposed there is some virtue in learning that.


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Philosophers’ Walk


When I first had the idea that I wanted to start a blog it was shortly after a trip to Kyoto where I had walked along the philosophers’ walk. The name of the blog came to me while I was reflecting on that walk and how philosophy and walking have always been associated with each other.  And then there was an idea that I had that as a philosopher I might use the blog to comment on a variety of things that I came across in the media (press, internet, and so on) and so in that way it would be like walking along and talking with those reading the blog – whoever they might be.

But that was long ago when FaceBook was young and the idea of blogging seemed fresh and new. My students were one group of readers that I had particularly hoped to reach with the blog.  One of my goals when teaching introduction to philosophy has always been to try to show how philosophical ways of thinking could be useful, not just in philosophy class but in the world and I had hoped the blog might provide a way of modeling that idea.

It never really worked out like that.  One reason is simply the nature of my job. Working on teaching takes time and while there were moments that I devoted solely to that task, I have to admit that there was less time spent in that way than I believe would have been optimal. I was distracted by my own philosophical interests and by administrative tasks at the college.  Both kinds of work were really enjoyable and challenging for me in different ways and while I would promise to revise my courses and even sometimes do a bit here and there, the blog did not feature prominently in my revisions and I posted only rarely.

But now I am retired from my teaching position and this weekend I walked another Philosophers’ Walk – this time in Heidelberg – which reminds me that I am not retired from philosophy. I had forgotten that my original inspiration was the first such stroll until today.  And so perhaps it is time to start the blog up again.IMG_3494

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Maybe I Like CrossFit (Guest Post)


11134277_10152813312708157_1498054266_nIn May 2014, emboldened by my successful adventures in cycling – embarking on a new physical activity after 60 (see my Guest Post on this)– I decided that I should try CrossFit. Now CrossFit has many detractors, as well as possibly fanatical supporters, and I have to say I was skeptical. My life’s partner had been coming home looking very beat up after his workout sessions and I couldn’t help wondering why someone would do that to themselves. But he was telling me it was fun and I had read Samantha’s post on CrossFit and in April while cycling round Fiesta Island in San Diego during the Pacific APA, she cautiously – that is, non-fanatically – recommended it as well. She also suggested I blog about it and, as you can see, it has taken me a year to do that. Why?

Well let’s just say that CrossFit and I…

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New feminist philosophy journal!

New feminist philosophy journal!

Four fantastic feminist philosophers are editors of a new philosophy journal!

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Critical thinking and sex/gender differences: The persistence of belief

In the best of times I find teaching critical thinking tremendously frustrating. I do not teach it at all for long stretches as a result, but the five-five schedule of a full-time community college teacher means that I return (frequently) to courses that I find frustrating in order to avoid the insanity that can result from teaching multiple sections of the same course. Three sections of the same course can produce (in me at any rate) something that resembles sleep walking in the classroom and a constant state of déjà vu (didn’t we go over this last class?).

In any case, I believe in critical thinking. I feel like I am doing something valuable as we work our way through the importance of giving reasons and all the ways that our thinking can go wrong even when we do so. The class finishes with a discussion of how to think critically about science and this semester’s class ended with a convergence of ideas and events that illustrated many of the most important ideas in the course.

Last week students were to write one page arguments either for or against the hypothesis that females are more nurturing and compassionate than males. The assignment was connected to a discussion of fallacies and they brought their papers to class and exchanged them to search for fallacies in their fellow students’ papers  – many of which, so I discovered while grading them, they had also committed in their own papers. The assignment worked fairly well (although the original papers were not very good – at least that made finding the fallacies easy). But what was even better was that the exercise coincided with the release of an article on sex differences in brains and their purported link to behavioral differences published in PNAS. The results were picked up and reported in a variety of media outlets – actually “misreported” would be a better description. and the final unit of our semester on scientific method.

First, the current discussion providing an opportunity to illustrate a particular problem that had occurred in their own papers – the difficulties that arise from dichotomous thinking about nature and nurture when talking about sex differences in behavior. Second – the numerous critiques of the science provided a great opportunity to discuss a variety of issues connected to “scientific method”: choice of research question, the use of background knowledge in research design, the question of what counts as a significant difference in statistical information, and the general complexity involved in the production of scientific knowledge. There have been a number of excellent commentaries on this research that can be used to highlight these issues.  I offer several of them here: Cordelia Fine’s critique of the paper and I also recommend her Delusions of GenderBerit Broggard’s post on the New APPS blog, Sophia K. Scott (critiquing the science specifically), and a more humorous take by Dean Burnett from The Guardian.

I have used sex difference research as an ongoing example throughout a critical thinking course before – mostly research on differences in mathematical ability – and I strongly recommend using one or two specific examples as the core examples for a critical thinking course. It is particularly challenging as students have to confront their own persistent beliefs that gender differences must be hardwired.

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Guest Post-Cycling after 60

Please see my Guest Post-Cycling after 60 on Fit, Feminist, and (Almost) Fifty.


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