Epistemic Injustice in Philosophy Classrooms, An Experience

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My experiences as a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow (MMUF) helped inform my beliefs about academia. Prior to becoming a Fellow, I didn’t even use the word “academia” nor did I have any idea that programs like MMUF existed. When I applied to the fellowship as a “continuing education” student in my mid-twenties I was certain I’d be rejected. Sure, I always loved learning and was a lifelong bibliophile but I wasn’t a great student by any means. Just a curious one. After a five year period of 60 hour work weeks and random internships I returned to college to finish my BA for the sole purpose of getting a degree. To say I’d done it. To check that milestone off of a to-do list, that I didn’t even write myself, so that I could have more job prospects. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life but I knew that I needed a degree in order to get a job that would help me afford my medical bills.

For a bit of context, I’m a working class, Black, queer, Jewish, femme, survivor living with chronic illnesses. I’m also a parent to a toddler who works an additional job everyday while enrolled in graduate school. In an ideal world none of that would matter to this story at all but we don’t live in one of those. So I figured I’d add that in because it’s relevant. So is the fact that I’ve participated in a few academic fellowship programs, like MMUF, aimed at diversifying the professoriate: like Leadership Alliance at Harvard, the CUNY Pipeline for Careers in College Teaching and Research at the CUNY Graduate Center, and the philosophy-specific COMPASS workshop at Princeton. I recommend all three of them highly because I wouldn’t have figured out my academia-related purpose in life as early as I did if not for the help of the incredible mentors and peers I met while in those programs. (I also want to extend my most sincere gratitude to Florence Cohen Rosen, Brooklyn College ’59, who awarded me a Rosen Fellowship which enabled me to obtain a certificate in Psycholinguistics from Utrecht University and participate in a life-changing, self-designed and self-guided, philosophical tour of Germany!)

From syllabus crafting workshops to mock graduate school admissions interview sessions to Responsible Conduct in Research Training courses to panels on navigating racism in academia during different stages of your career to weekly colloquia covering a wide range of topics about the institutional problems that impact academia generally, my years as an undergraduate student and researcher at Brooklyn College and beyond taught me valuable lessons about education and the responsibilities that come with being an educator and student. I take my education seriously both inside and outside of the classroom. As Assata Shakur said, “I didn’t want to be an intellectual, spending my life in books and libraries without knowing what the hell is going on in the streets.” And given my life experiences I simply didn’t have a choice. When your existence is seen as a threat to dominant global forces chances are you’re involved in social movements that exist outside of academia in some way.

Now, you may be wondering: where are you going with this? Let me be perfectly frank. What follows will be a stream of consciousness critique of a classroom experience (that happened some time in the last four years) that left me feeling thoroughly disgusted with what bell hooks, in Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, referred to as “bourgeois values in the classroom” that “create a barrier, blocking the possibility of confrontation and conflict, warding off dis­sent” in an otherwise “radical space of possibility.” I know there are countless people in my discipline who wouldn’t take what I type seriously unless I gave them a reason to. . .beyond just expressing my truth. To those people, unless you can prove that the academy recognizes you as someone worth listening to, someone capable of producing knowledge, you’re just another overly sensitive, ignorant maybe-person.

Since I’m trying to reach some of those people with this essay, I had to make sure I carefully detailed some highlights from my CV to gain some credibility in their minds. I shouldn’t have had to do that and you’re deep in denial if you rolled your eyes at my reasons for setting this essay up in that way. Once this paragraph ends the stream of consciousness critique of my previously mentioned classroom experience will begin. I want to be as transparent and honest as possible. In order to do that, I need to approach the memories of and notes taken during that class session in a fluid way.

Not only was I excited about class that day, I also came prepared with comments and questions intended to spark conversations about the cultural and sociopolitical evolution of the concept of the “human” in the world and in academic philosophy and how those conceptual changes could have impacted the author’s treatment of historical epistemology. In fact, I was assigned the task of choosing one of the questions that our class had to discuss so I felt compelled to bring up ideas from Black feminist epistemology and Black Male Studies that serve as important critiques of epistemology as such. Long story short, things didn’t turn out like I planned. My favorite moment in class was when our professor responded to critiques that me and fellow students had of the paper in question by asking us if the text was “too hard” to understand and apologizing for assigning another difficult text. Our professor also expressed self-directed disappointment for assigning a text that was so nuanced we students obviously couldn’t pick up on “obvious” things. What a great way to stimulate conversation and make students feel compelled to share their thoughts, don’t you think?

It wasn’t the first time that our professor silenced students and, as hooks would say, undermined the “possibility of constructive dialogue.” hooks explained that “this censoring process is only one way bourgeois values overde­termine social behavior in the classroom and undermine the democratic exchange of ideas.” Kristie Dotson might refer to the acts of our professor as unconscious (racial) microinvalidations stemming from testimonial incompetence. A friend and fellow classmate joked that our professor might have “lacked the range” to engage with the questions I was asking and the criticisms I had of the text in question. Either way, experiences in other classrooms proved to me that it was possible for a professor to be transparent about gaps in their knowledge. They also proved to me that even in cases where the issue isn’t related to testimonial incompetence or gaps in knowledge, professors have the power to prevent the silencing of students. They can, and should, cultivate a learning environment that is both liberatory and epistemically nonviolent.

In a different class session with the same professor the zoom floor was opened for questions and, since I was struggling with a crying, nursing toddler who was refusing to nap, I sent a private zoom message that included an explanation of my situation and a question when the classroom was silent. Not only did I not receive any acknowledgement that my question was received, even though I watched our professor’s face get visibly annoyed while reading it upon receipt, the question was ignored entirely even while we waited for any student to speak up. It’s probably just a coincidence that my question happened to include a critique of the ahistorical assumptions embedded in the text. . . that happened to be written by our professor.

Before I continue I want to add that one thing I value as a reader and researcher is charitable readings of texts and behaviors. In the case of known racists in the history of philosophy it’s a bit more difficult to do that, but I try. I really do. Every time. Every text.

With respect to behaviors, particularly in learning environments, my charitable readings involve prioritizing empathy over conclusion-jumping. Be that as it may, there are some moments when it’s obvious that you’re experiencing a microaggression or microinvalidation. Especially when your interlocutor is in a position of power and even if your interlocutor claims to center justice and democratic values in their work. Unfortunately, centering justice and democratic values in one’s work does not automatically equate to centering justice and democratic values in one’s pedagogy. Or behavior generally. Which reminds me of another moment involving our professor in which it was brought to the attention of me and the other virtual event participants that Thomas Pogge was in the audience. I knew I had to hold my tongue when I learned that he was more than welcome in the space by every other person still left in the zoom room. But I digress.

I’m reminded of a section of chapter six of Miranda Fricker’s Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing in which she explained how testimonial injustice deprives subjects of fundamental forms of respect and is akin to objectification. In cases like these, as Fricker argued, “the subject is wrongfully excluded from the community of trusted informants, and this means that [they are] unable to be a participant in the sharing of knowledge (except insofar as [they] might be made use of as an object of knowledge through others using [them] as a source of information).”

Long story short, my experiences in that classroom have not only served as harsh reminders that I’m constantly navigating spaces not built or intended for marginalized people, they’ve also helped me realize the kind of professor I want to be one day. And the kind of professor I don’t want to be one day. I feel privileged, though, to have had the opportunity to build meaningful and deep professional relationships with professors and academic mentors who make me feel like, and ensure that I believe that, I have actually do have important things to contribute to learning environments. Enough to the point of refusing to silence myself. Still, as Audre Lorde explained in Sister Outsider, “the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation, and that always seems fraught with danger.”

course, that transformation is also an act of opposition and power reclamation in cases involving subjects facing, combating, or responding to epistemic injustice. When bell hooks described the emancipatory qualities of learning environments in which students are allowed and encouraged to “raise critical questions about pedagogical process” she added that “that small acceptance of critical interrogation [in the classroom] was a crucial challenge inviting [students] to think seriously about pedagogy in relation to the practice of freedom.” To me, it’s important to acknowledge the fact that many classrooms are microdictatorships masquerading as democratic polities. Injustice in learning environments doesn’t just come down to hurt “feelings,’ contrary to what John Rawls would say. It’s about so much more. It’s about power, control, and the perpetuation of cultures of domination. So, when professors “enact ritu­als of control that [are] about domination and the unjust exer­cise of power,” as hooks said, you learn about the kind of professor you do not want to become.

Don’t get me wrong, the professor this essay references is one that I admire for reasons unrelated to pedagogy. There is so much for me to learn from this professor and I am thankful to have the opportunity to do so. As a future professor interested in the philosophy of education as such, I think of learning environments as objects of inquiry. I want to become a professor to uplift the voices and ideas of marginalized students in an effort to encourage the equitable exchange of ideas in my discipline, challenge dominant narratives about who is capable of producing knowledge, and engage in collaborative projects of decolonization in an institution that thrives on epistemic violence.

It’d be great if professors didn’t get in the way of these projects. So, here’s another serious proposal to the professors, especially professors who claim to be committed to justice and democratic values: interrogate your own biases, think about the ways you may be perpetuating cultures of domination in the classroom, and accept the fact that you’re in a position of power who is capable of deeply impacting your students and, in turn, the world. For better or for worse. You have a duty to dismantle oppressive structures upheld in academia if you’re interested in engaging in harm reduction practices in the oppressive institution that is the academy. But what do I know?

NYC-based philosophy graduate student whose work covers Genocide Studies, Repro + Enviro Justice, Discard Studies, and Critical Race Theory. @moontwerk

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