The Climate of Climate Studies

Nov 9th, 2011 | By | Category: Featured Articles

Linda Martín Alcoff

There appears to be a groundswell of demands in numerous philosophy departments across the country for climate studies, studies that will be specific to departments, that will gauge the climate for women and other underrepresented groups, that will include students, and that will try to collect more comprehensive data while also being more specific to a local context than this guide can be. This is fantastic, and in many cases the folks pushing for and organizing the studies are untenured, or are even students! It indicates what has been under the surface the some time but has lately, for a variety of reasons, come to the surface: the need for a more open gathering of assessments and sharing of information about how we are doing in philosophy in relation to questions of diversity and pluralism.

Some of us have done climate studies before, sometimes in departments and sometimes in whole universities. I hope we can share the experiences of these earlier studies with the newer folks engaging in them, building a base across the generations, as a way to give further impetus to this development. We want to make this site a space for such accounts—please send them to us at our website email address:

Let me begin by sharing my own story, which is instructive in a couple of interesting ways. A few years back when I was teaching at a different institution, a female colleague and I decided to conduct a comprehensive climate survey of all the women in our department, including graduate students, faculty, and office staff. This was prompted by our fatigue at being on the constant receiving end of complaints from women, mostly students but some staff, who regularly asked us to ‘keep this private.’ Such steady complaints and reports are part of daily life for many women faculty and faculty of color who find their offices the go-to place for climate of complaints. We often feel like we are perceived to be the social workers of the department. But always with the plea not to tell anyone what we are hearing.

So my colleague and I decided we needed to try to do something proactive. We surmised there was a general climate problem, rather than a single bad apple. This was a department that did not have a long history of having women faculty or students—there had been one senior (and excellent) woman for a long time, but we were the first junior female faculty hired in roughly 25 years. So the department was unused to having women faculty around, did not have a way to talk about climate issues, and did not really understand climate issues. It also contained more than one faculty member who engaged in borderline sexual harassment fairly regularly. So after hearing several complaints, my colleague and I researched surveys, studied the AAUW reports on gender climate, consulted with our local social scientists, and sent out our survey.

We made the survey anonymous, even to us, then assessed the results and published the findings just to our department members. We reported what we took to be significant, general findings. We made suggestions for improvement. We strove for a tone of’ ‘we are a community with shared values and we are all in this together and together we can make things better.’ We strove to avoid self-righteousness or an attitude of holier than thou. In my own conversations I often shared the idiotic comments I had made to male students without thinking, (such as, when I was trying to move a bookcase in my office and a male student poked his head in, I said “I need a man”). We strove to interpret our colleagues as generally sharing our commitment to equality. We stated that our goal was to open up a conversation. We did this. When we were untenured.

You might well wonder, what was the result?  An angry focus on and dissection of our methodology, and a demand to know who exactly had said or done what exactly to whom. We had written our results up in a way to show that there was a department wide climate problem, that it needed a department wide collective response rather than isolated instances of individual sanction. (This is obviously not always the case, nor was it the case later on in the life of that department when an individual was sanctioned, but it was true at that point in time).

Yet few collective and constructive responses actually resulted from our efforts. Just an attack on methodology and an insistence that we tell which individual accused which individual about what exactly. I have heard this story repeated elsewhere. Bad news is often met with a firing squad set up for the messenger, and in our more sophisticated era, a firing squad can be set up for the methodology by which the message is established. This is obviously a defensive response. This is not to say that methods should never be of concern, or should be free from debate. Of course not. We are philosophers, after all! But it is to say that even if one does a comprehensive internal survey of all faculty, graduate students, and staff within a department the result may be, guess what, an attack on methodology as a way to disengage with the substantive issues of climate.

My colleague and I, nonetheless, received tenure, but she retired early (very early!) just a few years later. I suspect the climate was getting to her.

The Pluralist’s Guide to Philosophy is not meant or able to replace or replicate such comprehensive internal climate surveys. It is meant to produce results that may, however, prompt such a survey. Go for it. My story is about 18 years old. We are in a different time and place, and who knows what will happen? Let’s find out, and let’s share our results together on this site. We will construct a new page for this information as it comes in.

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