As another shopping period comes to a close, students with a wide range of interests and experiences will finalize their course schedules. But not all departments draw evenly across Yale’s many communities — some will be more demographically homogeneous than others, such as Yale’s Philosophy Department, which has historically been majority white and male.
Philosophy has struggled as a discipline to attract students from diverse backgrounds, and faculty and students within Yale’s Philosophy Department told the News that while the department is not as diverse as it could be in terms of racial and gender makeup or curricular offerings, ongoing efforts to remedy the problem are a cause for optimism.
“[Lack of diversity] has inspired a lot of soul-searching in the discipline in recent years,” said Joanna Demaree-Cotton GRD ’21, co-coordinator of Yale’s chapter of Minorities and Philosophy which works to combat issues faced by minorities in academia. “Lots of departments, including ours at Yale, have started asking tough questions about the cause of this drop-off in the representation of women and racial minorities, and how we might go about ameliorating the problem.”
Kenneth Winkler, a philosophy professor and the former philosophy director of undergraduate studies, provided the News with gender breakdowns for the most recent graduating classes of philosophy majors as well as mathematics and philosophy majors.
In 2017, the two majors had a combined 21 graduates, 13 of whom were male and eight of whom were female. The previous year, there were 13 men and seven women in the majors.
Based on data from a department evaluation conducted in the fall of 2010, Winkler said the class of 2012 was comprised of 32 total graduates in both majors, 21 men and 11 women. The class of 2011 included 28 philosophy or mathematics and philosophy majors, 22 of whom were male and six of whom were women.
“There is no question that as a field, philosophy is significantly less diverse nationally in terms of race and gender than we would like it be,” said Stephen Darwall, philosophy professor and former department chair.
He said that 2 percent of philosophy graduate students at Yale are black, and that there are no black faculty members currently in the department. One faculty member of color, Chris Lebron, who had a secondary appointment in philosophy for several years while also an assistant professor in African American Studies, left Yale to teach at Johns Hopkins University this fall.
According to Darwall, out of the four most recent graduating classes, roughly 35 percent of undergraduate philosophy majors — including combined philosophy majors with math and physics — have been women. And by his count, Darwall said, 40 percent of Yale’s current philosophy Ph.D. students are women.
Gender disparities also persist at the faculty level. Darwall said that five out of 18 philosophy ladder faculty, or 28 percent, are women. He added that the department focuses on identifying and recruiting talented women and philosophers of color to the doctoral program.
“For example, although over the last four years women have represented less than 25 percent of applicants to our Ph.D. program, they represent about 40 percent of students currently in our program,” Darwall said. “Obviously, we are not immune from national trends.”
The small size of the graduate program means that a decision by two potential prospective graduate students can significantly shift the percentage of women and minorities, said Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Tamar Gendler.
Gendler said that from 2006 to 2010, Yale had one of the highest percentages of female philosophy professors of any leading department in the country. Currently, she said, it is right in the middle.
“The Yale Philosophy department has been a leader among philosophy departments in some dimensions, but has faced challenges in others,” Gendler said.
Deputy Dean for Diversity and Faculty Development Kathryn Lofton said that Yale is working hard to “rethink diversity” across the University, and has encouraged every academic unit to look closely in peer departments across the country to both to identify potential recruits and to discover strategies for “shifting the demographic paradigm” for students and faculty.
Each academic department and program, not just philosophy, must engage with this topic, Lofton added.
“The protests in the fall of 2015 showed that our students believe we have work yet to do to achieve this ambition,” she said. “The University has responded to their call with a strong strategic vision. But this work takes time to accomplish.”
Jocelyn Wang ’18, who transferred from MIT to Yale partly because of its larger philosophy department, said that while the issues she sees in the department are similar to those of others across the discipline, there are some problems specific to the Yale department that philosophy, as a field, does not share.
For instance, Wang said that many undergraduate introductory philosophy classes are history-based and focused on “dead white men,” which is not necessarily as accessible to students from varied backgrounds.
“I think the way that the undergraduate philosophy curriculum is structured contributes partially to the demographic composition of the major,” Wang said.
She added that in her experience, students can create a “culture of intimidation” by making references to philosophers without explaining them, thus setting up a barrier for people who are not familiar with that background. Wang said she thinks gender dynamics also play a role in department culture.
Rita Wang ’19, a philosophy major, said the department has room to improve, but added that the situation is not as dire as she has heard nonmajors portray it.
“I’ve always heard nonmajors describe philosophy as a white, male department, and we have some white males, but we also have a lot of people of color, queer people and queer women of color in the major,” Wang said. “There have definitely been times where I’ve been the only person of color in the room, but at the same time, the philosophy professors that I’ve had who specifically included race or gender in their syllabi have deeply changed how I view race or gender.”
Wang added that she thinks philosophy professors should be more aware of how they structure their syllabi, noting that philosophy written by women, queer people and philosophers of color is often relegated in departments to questions of “theory.”
Still, she noted several classes that delved into questions of race and gender, such as a class on American philosophy that included the writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. and another course on G.W.F. Hegel that discussed his interpretation of the Haitian Revolution.
“I think syllabi are quicker fixes than hiring and retention, which are separate monsters in themselves,” Wang said, adding that she was disappointed to see Lebron leave Yale.
This year, new faculty members who have joined the department will teach courses that diversify the curriculum, Gendler said. Philosophy professor Robin Dembroff, who is genderqueer, is teaching a social ontology course next semester that focuses on questions surrounding social construction and the nature of social categories.
Demaree-Cotton of Minorities and Philosophy said philosophy is one of the worst humanities disciplines in terms of gender balance, with only about a fifth of American professors being women.
She added that efforts are ongoing at Yale, particularly through MAP, to discuss and alleviate these problems.
“One thing that I have found really encouraging at Yale is that I have been made to feel as if the graduate student community as a whole — including white men — truly cares about working together to create positive change,” Demaree-Cotton said. “This really makes a big difference. The importance of all students and faculty — not just minorities — taking an active interest in these issues should not be underestimated.”
Rachel Treisman | firstname.lastname@example.org | @