Thursday, November 29, 2007

Enough of the "Right Wing as Liberators of Women" Crap!

Back in the Fall of 2003, I was at a conference in NYC and arranged to meet up with a good friend from college, who was a NYTimes journalist. Over fancy cocktails in a Sex in the City like enclave in the West Village, I told her what really bugged me about the Bush Administration's appropriation of feminist rhetoric to justify their invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. All of a sudden, US foreign policy cared about how women were treated under radical factions of Islam like the Taliban. (Never mind that the US was all too happy to support warlords and the Taliban to drive out the Russians in Afghanistan). My friend told me I should write something about this. I was flattered, but demurred, figuring that what I was saying was obvious.

I was reminded of this episode today as I read over an article from FOX News sent to me for comment. The article is about a British teacher who incited the wrath of Sudanese Muslim Clerics for allowing a young boy to call his teddy bear Mohammad. The point of view of the article is outrage for the backward way in which Muslim clerics treat this innocent teacher and exasperation in general for how Islam treats women. Then, toward the end of the story, the following line of analysis shows up:

In the U.S., a spokeswoman for the National Organization for Women said the situation is definitely on the radar, and N.O.W. is not ignoring it.

But she added that the U.S.-based organization is not putting out a statement or taking a position.

Radio personality Tammy Bruce, former president of the Los Angles chapter of the National Organization for Women and past member of their board of directors, criticized the organization for not taking a stand.

“We have a duty to make a difference for women around the world,” Bruce told FOX News. “The supposed feminist establishment is refusing to take a position in this regard because they have no sensibility of what is right anymore. They're afraid of offending people. They are bound by political correctness.”

“The American feminist movement has not taken one stand to support the women of Iraq, the women of Afghanistan, the women of Iran,” she said. “It is the United States Marines who have been doing the feminist work by liberating women and children around the world.”

So this comes at the end of a news article and turns it into a denouncement of U.S. Feminism. How does that happen? Enter Tammy Bruce, the Fox News correspondent, who pretends to be a progressive feminist who hates NOW. Who is Tammy Bruce? A good place to start is to read this account of her at the Daily Howler. Essentially she is a shock jock, with Don Imusesque racist tendencies, who has been propped up by Fox News as a token progressive in the pathetic effort to appear "fair and balanced."

Bruce's claims above are totally factually inaccurate at best and meaningless rhetoric at worst. Notice the classic Fox Newspeak buzz phrases "political correctness" "no sensibility of what is right." She has said, essentially, nothing. And, the sad fact of this article is that it gives the irresponsibly false impression that U.S. feminists have not been championing the rights of women around the world.

Of course, as the basis of my idea for an article that I never wrote, I was going to demonstrate how the U.S. feminist movement and organizations like Feminist Majority and magazines such as Ms. Magazine had been decrying the treatment of women under horrific regimes such as the Taliban for a decade before "W" decided to bomb them. Did anyone listen? Did US foreign policy give a fig about the dire situation of women in Afghanistan under the Taliban or other Warlords who we supported in our fight against Russia?

What has been the main US foreign policy contribution to aiding women's plight by the Right Wing? The global gag rule. That is right. Women find themselves beaten, raped, kidnapped, tortured and sequestered by ruthless regimes and we tell prevent NGOs from mentioning abortion as an option for a woman who was brutally raped.

It pains me to know how many well-meaning folks get their propaganda from Fox News. I so rarely read or listen to Fox that I lose sight of how insidious their influence is. History, facts, real balance and journalistic ethics are abandoned by these folks in order to spin a particular world view that denounces all they disagree with.

If you are a Fox News reader/listener and find yourself here, then do yourself a favor and spend a few minutes studying what U.S. Feminist organizations have been doing for women around the globe for decades.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Should Female Profs Insist on Being Called Dr.?

SteveG tackled a rather interesting issue yesterday concerning the unconscious sexism wielded by our students when they refer to female professors as Mrs., Ms. or Miss. I am calling this behavior "unconscious sexism" for a specific reason. It has always been my belief that students do this because from an early age they have had female teachers, starting with pre-Kindergarten. By the time they arrive at college they most likely have had far more female teachers than male teachers and the etiquette of elementary, middle and high school dictates that they call these teachers by Miss or Mrs. There is another component involved in why it is more "natural" for students to call female profs by these titles: the cultural image of a college professor is still stereotypically male (as SteveG described himself). So the unconscious sexism stems from the lingering effects of overt sexism that segregated the education field.

The far more interesting question is whether female professors should insist that students refer to them as Dr. Like SteveG I have always found this etiquette to be outmoded , if not silly. Our department culture is casual on purpose: it is more successful for educating. Steve is right to point out that we have moved beyond pedagogical models that erect Herr Doktor Professor above the class and force the underlings to bow to his authority. This model is horrible for good teaching outcomes, except in cases where the student doesn't really need a teacher because he or she is quite bright and self-sufficient.

I always aim to create a community in my classroom. I want students to know each others' name, feel safe and comfortable about asking me a question (so many are too intimidated to ask questions for fear of looking stupid). I also want my students--particularly my female students--to be able to imagine themselves in my role. Perhaps more of them will attempt a PhD if they can relate to me personally . I also agree with Steve that you shouldn't earn students' respect simply because you got a PhD; that accomplishment says nothing about whether or not you are a good teacher. So I do not insist or care if they call me Dr. Aspazia.

Having said that, I do agree that SteveG often gets more instant respect from students. Probably what is more important, however, is that students do not challenge SteveG's policies, arguments, and assignments as much as they do female professors. I am sure he gets this stuff, but not in the same numbers that female professors do. What is at the base of well-meaning advice from the more seasoned female faculty suggestion to insist on the title Dr. is a clear reminder to students who is the expert in the room and who has the skill to design the course and assignments.

SteveG writes:

I especially wonder about this advice coming from academic feminists, one of the central concerns of the field being the corrupting epistemological influence of uneven power structures. I fully get the irony that just when these women reach positions of power and prestige, we want to eliminate power and prestige; but the further irony is that their works document the harm from alienation based on power and prestige of being in a socially elite group which surely includes holders of a Ph.D., if it includes anyone. I'm not arguing that any professor doesn't deserve respect for their work and accomplishments, but to flaunt the title as a marker of superiority strikes me as unhelpful in getting students, who are just people (well, some of them anyway) like us to a place where it is most likely that they will see the world in new, wondrous, and disturbing ways. It seems to be emblematic of the old order where professors professed from behind a lectern, pouring their wisdom into the minds of those hearing their lectures -- a model of learning none of us thinks works very well.

The only--ever so slight--disagreement that I have with his assessment here is that what feminists are after is the right to be included in the socially elite group of PhDs. As I said above, I think they are looking for ways to remind students that these women are competent and knowledgeable.

I have chosen to ignore this well-meaning advice because I don't think that insisting on the title is the best way to clue students into my qualifications for being their professor. I have found that students are far more likely to give you respect if you actually show that you care about them. This means you are careful to explain well the point of assignments, the goal of the course, and offer help if they seem to be struggling. You also try to understand a little bit about their situation (I mean this is in the good old Existentialist way); you see these students as embedded in a world. Our students have all sorts of fears and obstacles about learning hard material. They also have real constraints on their time as well as resources. Acknowledging these realities while still being really clear about your expectations, your policies, and your goals is--to my mind--the best way to earn respect.

What is sad, but true, is that very few of our students care if we have published in the last year, or if we have been invited as a plenary speaker at a conference. They do often get wide-eyed if they find out we have written a book, but that stems more from the fact that they cannot imagine writing something that long, let alone getting published. They respect the hardwork, not so much the fame. I think if we landed on Oprah, Survivors, or Jeopardy, they might respect us more.

The old ways of earning respect just don't, in my view, apply. We are teaching a new generation of students and we have to adapt in ways that will really show them that we deserve their respect.

I should add that my post in no way should be construed as being "soft" or "squishy" when it comes to students. I am sure that my students who read this blog can attest to that. I think it is important to be consistent, clear, and firm. But, those qualities alone are not what makes students respect you.


Monday, November 19, 2007

What Diversity Costs Diverse Students

Za called me up a few days ago with a rather interesting ethical dilemma I thought I would share (I especially want to hear from Dean Dad and Lesboprof on this one). The situation is this: he teaches at a very small Catholic women's college that extends partial scholarships to some of the poorest women from a very urban area (hence, the majority of these women are African-American). The scholarship gives these women just enough money to interest them to attend this college, but not enough to fully cover tuition. Hence, most of these women have to work one or two jobs on top of attending classes to cover all of their expenses.

Za learned about this situation while having a conversation with some of colleagues about why some of his students are doing so poorly. He gave them two chances to take an examination that really required putting in the hours to memorize bones. The only way to do well on this exam, unless you have an amazing memory is to sit there and work with flash cards or whatever mnemonic device to know your bones. After two exams, a great portion of the African American students failed. He was surprised since many of them seem engaged in class, hard working . . . rather than accept the racist explanation that these women were not intelligent enough, or the default explanation that they did not have study skills, he sought out the real explanation. All of these students have to work so many hours that they literally do not have enough time to be good, or even average, students.

Za really sees this as an ethical dilemma for the college (one for the nation as well!). One could argue that the ethical good here is getting these women a college degree, regardless of their G.P.A. or level of mastery of the material (hat tip to SteveG on this). On the other hand, the college is admitting students that they know full well will be unable to really excel or just do average work because they will have to work so many hours to pay for their education. So, they are paying thousands of dollars to the institution and barely passing their classes. I should add that the college is wholly committed to its mission to educate women from impoverished backgrounds and stresses diversity. 45% of their student population is diverse (a statistic that my LAC wishes it could accomplish).

Given that this (and many) institutions simply do not have enough money to give these women full rides, they stick to their mission by giving these partial scholarships that force them to work. Is this really living the commitment to their mission?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

I Don't Like to Emote, Do You?

I don't like to "emote." I probably wouldn't have chosen to use the word "emote"; I would've said that I don't like to throw tantrums, bully people into agreeing with me, employ guilt, or blow off steam when I am frustrated. But, let's stick with "emote," since its the word that my mom and I agreed on. We had a conversation about how much my family likes to "emote," except for me. Another "psychobabble" way to talk about it is my family likes to "externalize" emotions, while I prefer to "internalize" them. The difference is they express anger and frustration quite well; I just get sad and depressed.

Anyway, what interested me in this psychological evaluation of how I differ from my family was how it related to my decision to study philosophy. I remember when I first read Plato--it was the Meno. I was taking a course on Metaphysics while studying in Rome and rather than cut class to head up to Amsterdam or Berlin (to chip away at the wall, which had just come down), I wanted to read Plato. I found myself totally in love with Socrates. I especially liked how he put the stubborn, arrogant Meno in his place. He had a way of sticking to reason, consistency, and logic that I found to be safe.

I was telling my mom the other day that the reason I studied Philosophy was because I found the way of argument to be a refuge from the way things got hashed out in my family. I never could "win" an argument in my family because to do so, you had to either out "emote" everyone else, or know how to hit below the belt.

My mom was intrigued by this revelation. She pointed out that she used to worry about my "emotional" development when I was a teenager and younger. I was enthralled with science and math, which she found to be unusual in a young girl. I think I just enjoyed that these subjects had nothing to do with being able to shout down your opponent. I guess my move from science and math to Philosophy was "fated in the stars." Philosophy gave me the ability to argue about things that mattered to me--emotional things--in a way that required careful deliberation, soul searching, evidence, and moral courage. Sure, plenty of students of philosophy still "emote"; we are human after all. But, at base, there are rules and principles for fair discussion.

What I admire about my family and their ability to "emote," however is that they all seemed rather anchored to the world. They feel passionately about their worldview and will defend it with abandon. I think it is important for us to begin from somewhere. We need some fixed point of reference from which to begin to make sense of the world. I am not saying that I don't have such a standpoint. I fear, however, that mine is constantly under revision based on new evidence, better arguments . . .

What I don't like about those who feel so free to "emote" is how out of control they can get. I found myself victimized by the rants and tantrums of my family when I was younger. I don't think they were always setting out to terrorize me. They just felt less inhibited to express anger, frustration, or passion. The effect, however, was that I felt it was my duty to calm the situation; to stay cool headed--to help soothe them all to a calmer state of mind. But being the self-appointed peace keeper takes its toll. My heart always races when people start to get wildly emotional. Moreover, I have always been terrified of mentally ill people out in the world, fearing they would explode their rage upon me and I would be trapped by them, heart racing and panic attacks setting in (this, by the way, is partially why I am so interested in the Philosophy of Psychiatry).

The bottom line is that I escaped to philosophy because I wanted to find spaces where rules counted and one couldn't win just by shouting down the rest. Philosophy became my refuge from those who like to "emote."

Sunday, November 11, 2007

I Am an Insignificant Microbe . . .

. . . at least that is my new ranking according to The Truth Laid Bear. How did I fall so low you might wonder? Well, its pretty plain to me. If you don't generate content, you lose traffic. I am not surprised at this plummet in the ecosystem, but it has given me occasion to consider how concretely motherhood has affected my ability to write, think, and generate ideas.

Studies on how motherhood affects the lives of academic women have become routine, most often focusing on women in the sciences (thanks to Larry Summers). The recent issue of the APA Newsletter on Feminism and Philosophy focuses specifically on how to balance--or just survive--as a philosopher and a mother or a commuting spouse. (I recommend reading these pieces; they are fascinating and very well written).

I realize that blogging is not the same as academic research. But, for me the regularity with which I can blog is correlated with how much I am thinking, reading, and writing research oriented projects. So, becoming an insignificant microbe is a telling indication of how far I am from the kind of productivity that I have enjoyed for a decade. I am grateful that I am already tenured; I really cannot imagine how mothers without tenure survived, unless they had lots of lots of resources that enabled them to get round-the-clock child care.

I am definitely starting to feel a great deal of anxiety as January approaches and I am heading back to work. I have not yet figured out the day care situation and if I cannot do so, I will be really struggling to get my classes prepared and grade papers and whatnot. I am starting to fantasize about just bringing my baby girl with me everywhere rather than drop her off at some group care facility. I wonder if my students would be as distracted by her as they are by my colleagues' beagle? The thought is partly motivated by a wish to really challenge the system. Why not let women bring their children to work? After all, every time I eat lunch at the local tacqueria, the woman running the cash register has her little daughter with her, who loves to come and play with Maddie.

In any case, I am going to have to re-enter the academic workforce while still tending to a tiny infant that needs me. And, I am freaking out. It is not so much that I am so infected by mommy mush brain that I don't have things to say, but rather I don't have time to write them down. An hour or two to myself is such a luxury that I really have to prioritize what I want to get done in that hour and intellectual work hardly makes it to the top of the list.

Ok, I am going to play with my daughter. I hardly think this post is going to return me to the popularity I once enjoyed.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

I Hate, Therefore I Am

A recent email exchange with Hanno got me thinking more about self-deception. In particular I was thinking about how we tend to construct the narrative of our lives very differently at different stages in our history. What I mean by this becomes clear, I hope, when you think of how you tend to reevaluate your own life history in the face of someone that you despise. Let's say you despise someone--if you are being really honest--not because they are evil, bad, hurtful, or any other good reason, but because they have hurt you/you are jealous/or you feel rejected. I think these latter psychological processes are more interesting in relation to self-conceptions and self-deceptions (again, something Nietzsche was quite brilliant on in The Genealogy of Morals).

Back to my hypothesis. So you despise someone because they are a threat to you and the first thing it seems you do is redo your self-conception in a way that maximally highlights the ways in which you are different from the despised one. An example might make this clearer. Let's say that I despise Jane because she has successfully won the affections of a man who I have been pining over for months. I have never confessed my feelings to--let's call him--Dick. I was passive, waited for Dick to notice me, etc. But, Jane seduced Dick. I am hurt that Dick has chosen Jane rather than me and I grow to despise Jane.

Perhaps one of the first things I do is represent Jane as a big ole' Ho. She has no decorum, is unladylike, and requires male affection and attention to feel better about herself. Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that there is some truth to this view of Jane. However, a more compassionate person might find a way to relate to Jane's behavior and acknowledge her own weaknesses. But, a person hurt by Jane can only see these traits in the most negative light and then quickly work to build a self-conception that sees herself as the antithesis of Jane. I either omit, delete, or forget the parts of me that are like her and/or I trump up the moments in my life where I behaved better than Jane.

The reason I have been mulling over this is because Hanno suggested to me that perhaps our entire self-conception is nothing but fiction (or lies). We reinvent ourselves all the time given new events, challenges, or losses. My sense was if this is true, then we are likely to find relationships to others almost impossible and a downright miracle when they succeed. The capacity for truth-telling that is required, in my view, to foster needed compassion to approach people without fear and loathing is either non-existent (which I think is Hanno's view) or only certain angels can have this kind of moral courage and intellectual honesty.


Sunday, November 04, 2007

Psychiatry Sure Has Its Critics

Not too long I wrote an article for a newsletter aimed at psychiatrists interested in a dialogue with philosophers. In this article I acknowledged that those of us trained as philosophers might seem rather cold and heartless to clinical psychiatrists when we start to talk about case studies. We often think in hypotheticals or we talk about mental diagnoses or illnesses in rather abstract terms and belie our lack of day to day interaction with those suffering from crippling illnesses.

I am not sure I want to justify what we do, but what I did say was that we aren't the only ones doing this. In fact, these days psychiatry has plenty of critics--perhaps those critics should take aim at the pharmaceutical industry. One of the regular features of the new criticism of psychiatry is the claim that mental illnesses diagnoses are fuzzy, are too inclusive of normal people, and that the DSM is an unfortunate compendium of mental illness diagnoses that the pharmaceutical companies exploit to sell new illnesses such as social anxiety disorder. I pointed this out to my colleagues in psychiatry in order to point to how philosophers might be helpful to psychiatrists these days when so many critics--ranging from scientologists to well-respected psychopharmacologists--are trying to delegitimize--once again--the profession of psychiatry. Philosophers might be able to clarify what it means to define a disorder, how classification works, why the DSM is not as evil as the critics want us to believe it is, and more importantly, how clinical psychiatrists differ from Big Pharma marketers.

Many of the psychiatrists responding to my article tended to dismiss my concerns as overblown or of little value to their "real" work. Perhaps they are right. But, when I found this article today over at the Wall Street Journal, I couldn't help but think that I was right. Unless someone steps in to explain why mental illness classification is not simply driven by Big Pharma, is not wholly arbitrary, or is not pseudo-scientific, we are likely to see many regular Americans totally turned off to the profession (even though they happily demand the drugs they see in TV ads).

Consider this book excerpt from Christopher Lane, an English Professor and author of Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness.

One reason for the skyrocketing diagnoses is that doctors and psychiatrists require a very low burden of proof. They say social anxiety runs the gamut from stage fright to paralyzing fears of criticism and embarrassment. (The most common nightmare scenarios are eating alone in restaurants, with fear of hand-trembling a close second, and avoidance of public restrooms third.) Some doctors also include, as symptoms of the disorder, fears of sounding foolish and of being stumped when asked questions in social settings—fears that doubtless afflict almost everyone on the planet. Considering these elastic guidelines, we can grasp quite easily why the "illness" is so widely diagnosed, but it's harder to say why so many take the diagnosis seriously, much less accept its judgment of mental debility. The transformation of shyness into a disease occurred behind the closed doors of carefully vetted committee meetings. Over the course of six years, a small group of self-selecting American psychiatrists built a sweeping new consensus: shyness and a host of comparable traits were anxiety and personality disorders. And they stemmed not from psychological conflicts or social tensions, but rather from a chemical imbalance or faulty neurotransmitters in the brain.

Beginning in 1980, with much fanfare and confidence in its revised diagnoses, the American Psychiatric Association added "social phobia," "avoidant personality disorder," and several similar conditions to the third edition of its massively expanded Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In this five-hundred-page volume, the bible of psychiatrists the world over, the introverted individual morphed into the mildly psychotic person whose symptoms included being aloof, being dull, and simply "being alone."

The fact that psychiatrists often playfully call this reference manual their bible doesn't offset the reality that they follow its pronouncements chapter and verse. The influence of the DSM also extends far beyond psychiatry, to a vast network of healthcare agencies, social services, medical insurers, courts, prisons, and universities. It took the psychiatrists in question just a few years to update their manual and turn routine emotions into medical conditions, but their discussions—detailed here for the first time—rarely dwelled on the lasting consequences of their momentous decisions. Those expecting deep ruminations on what it means to call half the country mentally ill (the chief conclusion of the latest national survey), may be surprised to learn that the psychiatrists' fundamental concerns included how best to keep the Freudians out of the room, how to reward the work of allies, and who should get credit for plucking a term out of a dictionary. Tackling a vast array of human experience, the DSM drains it of complexity and boils it down to blunt assertions that daily determine the fate of millions of lives, in this country as in many others.

The fourth edition appeared in 1994 with four hundred more pages and dozens of new disorders. It sold over a million copies, in part because insurance companies require a DSM diagnosis before they will authorize reimbursement, while defense attorneys cite it as gospel when trying to explain or mitigate the charges against their clients. Until the 1990s, moreover, the DSM competed with a rival diagnostic system: the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), published by the World Health Organization in Geneva, is more favorably disposed to psychoanalysis and less reliant on ambiguous narrative. Since the publication of DSM-IV, however, the European system has lost some of its cachet. The DSM has by contrast assumed global authority, an outcome greatly increasing the importance of its once-local arguments about social anxiety and related disorders. Indeed, with managed care and the pharmaceutical industry, this reference manual has begun to transform how the world thinks about mental health. As one psychoanalyst recently lamented to me, "We used to have a word for sufferers of adhd. We called them boys."

Not all of what Lane says is wrong. But what is unfortunate is how easily these criticisms of mental illness diagnosis, mental illness classification, and Big Pharma venality tend to get conflated with what clinical psychiatrists do. No matter how hard psychiatry tries to make itself legitimate--such as jettisoning Freudian psychoanalysis and embracing neuroscience--critics always turn up to depict the psychiatrist as one who finds abnormality everywhere. Meanwhile clinicians are seeing people who are really suffering from disorders that they scramble to label, such as social anxiety disorder. These folks didn't just go knocking on doors to tell shy people they were abnormal. Rather, they spent hours with patients who were miserable, suffering, and found their life crippled. This story gets left out of the critics' sweeping condemnations.

I am somewhat sympathetic to Lane's project, and would like to read the rest of his book. However, when I talk critically about contemporary psychopharmacological usage, I see it as a new moral dilemma over the permissibility of enhancement. If shy people want to take Paxil, should they be denied it? I worry less that the psychiatrists are pushing this on patients. I would worry far more about the drug company marketers.

What do you think?