Philosophy department diversifies

Photo courtesy of Xavier University | Dr. Myron M. Jackson, one of three new philosophy professors, is the new Besl Family Chair of the Ethics, Religion, and Society program.

Xavier doubled the number of female professors in the philosophy department for the 2018-19 school year by hiring Dr. Bethany Henning and Dr. Charlie Gustafson-Barrett. Dr. Myron Jackson was also hired as the Besl Chair for the Ethics, Religion and Science (ER/S) program. He was hired for a three-year term, while Henning and Gustafson-Barrett currently hold one-year temporary positions. According to Dr. Timothy Quinn, the chair of the philosophy department, hiring in the philosophy department is rare, “especially (in) the last several years. (Xavier) hasn’t been able to really hire anybody extra or just one other full-time person… because of the bad economy and its effect on our budget.” However, because of the record-breaking Class of 2022, there is a need for professors in the philosophy department and in the College of Arts and Sciences as a whole.

The College of Arts and Sciences is growing so rapidly that the philosophy department must also hire a new tenure track professor to start in the fall of 2019. Quinn hopes that Gustafson-Barrett, Jackson,  Henning and the upcoming hire will continue the department’s goals to “maintain philosophy’s role at Xavier and the general education of all of our students, (continue to) find ways of enhancing our outreach to other departments on campus and participation in other programs like the Philosophy, Politics and the Public (PPP) program and the Honors Bachelor of Arts (HAB) program… and finally… to increase (both racial and gender) diversity in the department.”

Henning, originally from the Chicago area, specializes in American philosophy with a focus on aesthetics.  She most recently instructed at Southern Illinois University and at her undergraduate institute, North Central College.

Gustafson-Barrett specializes in philosophy of literature. She also focuses on aesthetics from a different angle than Henning. Gustafson-Barrett’s dissertation concerned Shakespeare and Plato, so she brings a different background of philosophy to the table, adding diversity of knowledge to the department.

“I think we hired well. I think we found two really, very strong women for the classroom,” Quinn said. “They’re both women, (which) helps diversify our department. I think that (it’s) also really important for young women to see women professors in the classroom… I’m happy on all accounts right now.”

While working toward her doctorate, Henning said she experienced self-doubt and imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is a state of mind where one believes that they have not succeeded on their own merit and fear being exposed.

“When I walk into any philosophy classroom before the professor walks in, I expect the professor to look like an older white man with a beard,” Henning said.

“I always defy expectations by looking like… a younger woman. We don’t expect philosophers to be female. We don’t expect them to be people of color, but they often are, and I think that has kept people who would be interested in the study of philosophy away from both the profession and from the major.”

From her own experience, Henning knows the value of having a professor whom students can identify with and the effect it has on discussion in the classroom

“I think that having a female philosophy professor or a person of color (as a philosophy professor) can open up the conversation in surprising and unexpected ways,” Henning said, “and I think it can also put the philosophy classroom at ease.”

Henning sees value in opening up philosophical conversations to all people. “It can make it feel… that philosophy is something that belongs to everyone, not just the people who are in power, and it also has the effect of making the Western canon be more accessible to more people.” she said. “It is not just an area of thought that is guarded by what we think of as the mainstream intelligentsia. It now belongs to women, LGBT people, people of color, younger people perhaps, too.”

Henning feels that a diversity of professors brings more to the table for students, not only in philosophical knowledge and ideas, but also by means of inspiration.

“Practicing philosophy with female professors or professors of color can help assuage imposter syndrome. The more I did philosophy with other women in my company, the less I was likely to feel that my ideas were not philosophical enough and that my arguments were not solid enough,” she said.

Quinn believes that diversity is needed in the student body and in Xavier staff. He believes the philosophy department has taken great strides by doubling the number of female professors within its staff.

“(Hiring) is one of the most important things we do as a university,” Quinn said. “It’s absolutely critical, absolutely critical, to get strong teachers, good scholars and good colleagues,’’ as they are the people who help Xavier students pave their futures.

By: Maddy Goodman | Guest Writer