Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain and I’d like to welcome you to the fifty-ninth installment of Dialogues on Disability, the series of interviews that I am conducting with disabled philosophers and post to BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY on the third Wednesday of each month. The series is designed to provide a public venue for discussion with disabled philosophers about a range of topics, including their philosophical work on disability; the place of philosophy of disability vis-à-vis the discipline and profession; their experiences of institutional discrimination and personal prejudice in philosophy, in particular, and in academia, more generally; resistance to ableism, racism, sexism, and other apparatuses of power; accessibility; and anti-oppressive pedagogy.
I acknowledge that the land on which I sit to conduct these interviews is the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee and Anishnaabeg, covered by the Upper Canada Treaties and directly adjacent to Haldiman Treaty territory. I offer these interviews with respect and the aim of decolonization.
My guest today is Cecilea Mun. Cecilea is an independent scholar, the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Philosophy of Emotion, and the Director of the Society for Philosophy of Emotion. Her primary area of specialization is the philosophy of emotion and mind. Her edited collection, Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Shame: Methods, Theories, Norms, Cultures, and Politics was recently published by Lexington Books. She loves learning about history, science, enjoying the arts, including make-up, fashion, and graffiti art, as well as eating delicious food. Above all, Cecilea loves spending time with her family and friends.
Welcome back to Dialogues on Disability, Cecilea! I’m delighted to interview you again for the series. When we conducted your first interview in October 2016, you were looking for a tenure-track position in philosophy and working as an adjunct philosophy professor. In the interim, you have shifted from adjunct teaching to tutoring. Although you are glad that you made the shift, you nevertheless regard your situation as unsustainable. What motivated you to make this shift and why are you glad that you did so? What makes your current situation unsustainable?
Hi Shelley and thank you. I am really happy that I was asked for another interview. I also think this is a great question. I would like to share what I learned from my experiences as an adjunct who is a disabled woman of color in order to help people understand the difficult situation in which the (bad) business model of education has placed many very well-qualified and much needed educators.
I have been adjuncting for approximately fifteen years. I started when I was working on my first M.A. in Ethics and Policy Studies, and I have dealt with people’s biases since the beginning. Much of it has had to do not only with my race (Asian), gender (female), stature (short and petite), but also the fact that I seem a lot younger than I am. Even now, people usually think I’m in my mid-twenties. I am actually in my early forties. Things improved when I moved to teaching online courses. In fact, at one point, shortly before 2014, the chair of one of the departments for which I adjuncted recommended to a fellow faculty member that they observe my online course in order to help them improve their own courses.
A very distinct turn of events occurred around 2014, however, and that very same chair terminated my contract shortly after the semester began. During this time no change was made in my online courses, compared to previous years, except for the fact that I had a new set of students. From my calculations, given that the No Child Left Behind Act was implemented in 2002, most of my students were most likely the first of the No Child Left Behind students to go to college. I believe that these students were not accustomed to my style of teaching, at least from someone like me, and various unsubstantiated complaints were made. So, given the business model of education, my chair cancelled my contract.
As an educator, I expect my students to take responsibility for their learning process. I expect them to do the work that they have been assigned by the given due dates and to ask questions when they need help. If such expectations are necessarily regarded as asking “too much” from students, then I fear that our system of education is not only broken but that it also cannot be fixed.
Given the business model of education, the kind of “teaching” to which No Child Left Behind students are accustomed, my rank as an adjunct, and my status as an underrepresented educator, it seemed that it was not only the case that many students believed that I was asking too much of them, but at least some department chairs believed so too. Such methods might be tolerated and appreciated when practiced by white male colleagues, but when practiced by a disabled woman of color, many students end up complaining. I recommend that your readers and listeners refer to the research on student implicit biases and student evaluations if they are surprised by my claim.
So, I came to the conclusion that rather than continue to let such students and chairs ruin my career and my well-being, especially by teaching in conditions where my teaching style was not appreciated, I would stop teaching as an adjunct under short-term contracts that would not encourage students and chairs to fully comprehend and value my teaching method.
My teaching method is the kind of teaching method that students come to appreciate mostly in hindsight, especially if they are used to the kind of education that does not expect much from them; that is, the kind of education that deepens their anxiety by both providing them with 24/7 access to educators for any reason whatsoever and capitulating to them whenever they have a complaint—the kind of education in which educators have rarely given them any feedback on their papers; in which educators simply give students “the” answer when they ask questions during office hours (rather than help them understand how to answer their own question); in which professors often only read the first three pages of a paper before assigning a grade; in which students are rarely, if ever, asked to take the time to revise their papers; and in which students are encouraged to simply send their educators an email at all hours of the day or night, even if their question can be easily answered by simply reading the syllabus.
At one institution, I had students who caused an uproar over my “no email” policy, which is especially intended to help students combat their anxiety. A considerable number of students experience anxiety nowadays; if students, educators, and administrators took the time to read the research on anxiety, they would find that the way to help those suffering from the kind of anxiety that students typically experience is to not yield to the demands of their anxiety. The proper solution is to gently force these students to contend with their anxiety, while also providing the proper tools and encouragement to succeed. That is how they begin to learn that their anxiety is misplaced. Simply giving-in to their anxiety only feeds it and makes it worse.
Several students complained as if they could not deal with the fact that they could not email me, which seemed unreasonable because I offered the students alternative means for interacting with me. I gave them the option of posting their questions in an online Q&A session for their course, made myself available before and after class, and also held office hours. I did not change my email policy in light of their complaints. The students eventually got over it. There were no fires; and everyone survived. Of course, some students remained unhappy that they could not email me whenever they wanted. The business model of education had taught them that “access” to their educator is a “service” to which they should have a “right,” a right that some of them readily abuse.
When I gave students at this one particular institution an 8-page writing assignment toward the beginning of the semester, I discovered that they were not prepared to meet the expectations I had initially set for them. This was a writing-intensive course. I ended up grading their first paper based only on word-length and nothing else. I then restructured the entire course in order to respond to their needs, including offering students in-class writing workshops where they were able to work on their papers while I was there in-person to answer their questions. I agree that sometimes educators fail to have an appropriate level of expectations for their students, but my teaching method also includes adjusting my initial expectations in order to ensure that I give students an appropriate level of challenges.
Several students rarely showed up to these classes and some later complained about not having enough feedback from me. I also gave them extensive feedback on their papers. I often spent a half-hour or more doing so on each paper. I required students to respond to all of my comments. It was part of their grade to do so. And, I required students to revise and improve upon their first papers for their subsequent papers.
Students who are not used to such teaching methods, invariably, initially hate the way that I teach. Often at this point, complaints begin to roll in. It scares them because my teaching method is intended to challenge them. There have been numerous occasions on which students resisted my teaching method and complained about it early in the semester, only to appreciate it by the end of the semester. The business model of education, however, has nothing in place to correct such problems, and the implicit biases that students are furnished with, along with their fragile egos, kept them from taking steps to correct their mistakes, other than personally apologizing to me at the end of the semester. Little do they know that their personal apologies hold no weight regarding an educator’s career compared to their institutional complaints.
At this one institution, pretty much all of the students were taken back by my teaching method, stating that no teacher had ever required them to do any of the things that I required of them. By the end of the semester, many students learned the value of putting time and effort into improving upon their work, but most of them attributed their growth and learning to themselves. As the saying goes, “Teaching is a thankless profession.” It is especially thankless, however, for an underrepresented educator. I did have at least one student who, inculcated by the business model of education, preferred to simply “write a paper and forget about it.” Now, think about the kind of approach to life that this student has been taught. The development of expertise and the achievement of excellence are not part of this approach. This, then, is one way that the business model of education works to sustain the inequalities that currently exist in our society. The marginalized have been inculcated to reinforce their own marginalization.
At one point early on in the semester at this institution, the chair of the department suggested to me that I was unreasonable in my unwillingness to give in to my students’ demands. He said something like: “Since I have to, you should as well.” The business model forces many educators into a position whereby they must compromise the quality of their teaching in order to meet their students’ demands. The way I see things, he was asking me to contribute to the further corruption of our educational system which the business model of education had fostered. But there has to be a point in which someone refuses to do so, and I decided that I would be such a person.
I grew up in an era during which the educational system in the United States did not inculcate an entitled attitude that encourages some marginalized students to work against their own well-being. Given my disability, I was a marginalized student. Thankfully, I had professors who were willing to reach out to me and give me the encouragement that I needed in order to succeed. They demanded that I excel by challenging me and refusing to let me quit when I wanted to. I remember one professor at Arizona State University (ASU) who gave me the option to take a B+ on a paper, or to receive an extension to revise and improve my paper. I chose to take the B+. Then, the professor reneged on his offer and required me to revise my paper. I did not complain. I simply stiffened my upper lip and did what I needed to do. To this day, I am so thankful for what he did. He did not let me give up on myself. This lesson has stayed with me ever since, and it is partly responsible for the resilience I now have that allowed me to achieve what I have so far achieved. Today, what would most likely happen is that the student would file a complaint against the professor and the professor would be reprimanded for doing what he did.
The business model not only encourages students to give up on themselves by ultimately placing in their hands the limits to which they ought to be challenged; it also allows students to punish the educators who refuse to let them give up on themselves. Again, this is how the business model of education reinforces the structural inequalities of our society. It habituates marginalized students to be the mechanism of their own marginalization by promoting in them the idea that they are “consumers” and that being “happy” in the moment about their educator’s teaching methods is what really matters.
So, I decided to transition from teaching as an adjunct to tutoring, while continuing my search for a tenure-track job. Sadly, under certain conditions, one can actually make the same amount, or perhaps even more, tutoring less students than one would teaching as an adjunct. I discovered, however, that the problems that led me to quit teaching as an adjunct also led to problems with me tutoring. On many occasions, I noticed that “tutoring” for students means giving them the answers rather than teaching them the skills to figure out the answers for themselves, or having someone correct their work for them rather than having someone help them figure out what they did wrong and how they can correct their own work. Some students refer to what they want from a “tutor” as “editing” their work. These ideas about learning are also encouraged by a business model approach to education.
Some parents contribute to this kind of problematic reliance on “tutors.” As far as they are concerned, as long as their kids are getting the “help” that they need in the time that the parents require, their kids are “learning.” I wouldn’t be surprised if a mass of students proved to be far less competent than what their grades indicate if for some reason educational institutions decided to no longer implement any take home assignments, and required all assignments and exams be completed in class, in the presence of an educator. Doing so might be one solution to help stop the United States educational system from becoming even more corrupted due to the consequences of the business model of education and the failed No Child Left Behind Act.
I am an educator and, as such, I not only teach my students the facts about a particular topic, but also teach them to think. I refuse to contribute to an educational system that encourages educators to not to do so, and encourages students to get by in their courses by paying others to give them the answers or “edit” their work for them. In this day and age, “tutoring,” unfortunately, is simply a tool that leads to grade inflation and buttresses systemic inequalities. The business model of education has increased class sizes, thereby lowering the amount of time an educator can spend with each student. Under such conditions, students do not receive the kind of in-class attention that they need in order to meet the kinds of expectations set by their educators. Among those struggling to keep up, only students who can afford “tutors” to “help” them or who have influential parents willing to bully department chairs benefit. So, tutoring is also unsustainable, at least for me.
In addition to tutoring, you continue to engage in research. Your research is primarily concentrated in philosophy of emotion. You recently published an interdisciplinary edited collection on shame. Please describe this collection and tell us about your contribution to it.
I am very excited about my edited collection, Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Shame: Methods, Theories, Norms, Cultures, and Politics. The purpose of this edited collection was to bring together a collection of papers that would highlight aspects of shame and topics about shame not readily discussed within the scholarly discourse and to appropriately connect these concerns with the mainstream research on shame. So, the best way to use this edited collection is to read it as an addition to the mainstream literature. The collection covers the breadth of the discourse on shame, including meta-questions about how shame ought to be conceived and how research on shame ought to be pursued. I believe the best audience for this edited collection would be upper-level undergraduate students, graduate students, and professionals who are interested in conducting research on shame.
One of the most important things about scholarly research and discourse is not determining what is true, although this is also important, but the open exchange of ideas. I am firmly committed to this principle of scholarly research and discourse and it motivated me to publish this edited collection, as well as to found both the Journal of Philosophy of Emotion, which published its inaugural issue last month, and the Society for Philosophy of Emotion. So, the edited collection is intended to contribute to the mainstream discourse on shame by opening it up to alternative perspectives that have been mostly ignored.
I contributed two chapters to the collection. One of these chapters is intended to be a counterpoint to Dolichan Kollareth and James A. Russell’s chapter, which argues for an approach that treats shame as a cluster concept. I argued instead for a unified approach to shame. In comparing and contrasting Kollareth and Russell’s approach with my own, I hope readers will make some interesting discoveries about the kinds of assumptions and arguments that people have been making, especially with regard to the import of concerns regarding the nature of shame, any other kind of emotion, or even emotion in general.
My other chapter in the collection is a slightly revised version of a paper that I published in Hypatia. Within the context of its placement in the edited collection, however, I hope that what gets emphasized is the paper’s point that the particular theory of shame to which one subscribes—e.g., whether one believes shame necessarily entails a negative self-assessment or not—can have detrimental, real-world consequences on how one conceives oneself and others, especially with regard to one’s rationality. This is where theory meets practice, and it is here that things, as far as I am concerned, get really challenging. This is where the decision that one makes can have real life consequences for many ordinary people. Simply following the “logical” implications alone is not always helpful. One needs an understanding of how people work, and one needs to do empirical research in order to figure that out. In the past, many philosophers said that applied philosophy was the “easy stuff.” But this claim mostly reflects their own biases and ignorance about good applied or empirical research. Good applied philosophy is one of the most challenging areas of philosophy in which one can work. It is where the lives of many ordinary people can actually be saved or lost.
At present, Cecilea, you are working on a proposal for a monograph on shame and recognition. Please tell us about your work on the proposal, where you intend to submit it, and how the monograph will develop your theory of shame.
I finished the proposal and submitted it to Oxford University Press (OUP), which declined it; so, the proposal is now in development with Rowman & Littlefield. Despite OUP’s decision, I am very excited about this monograph and hope that Rowman & Littlefield will publish it. It will be my first monograph that is written for a general audience. I think the proposed book will be an excellent addition to the Rowman & Littlefield’s current collection of works on shame. It would also make a much-needed contribution to the current discourse on shame, offering a contrast to Krista K. Thomason’s perspective in her most recent OUP publication, Naked: The Dark Side of Shame and Moral Life, among other things. I also applied for a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar grant as a back-up plan to help me complete the monograph, just in case all the job applications that I submitted this year are unsuccessful.
The monograph primarily explicates the theory of shame that I introduced in my edited collection, with the two chapters that I contributed to the edited collection serving as the foundation for my theory. I am therefore uniquely positioned to write this monograph. The central purpose of the monograph will be to share with the general public a unified theory of shame that can help elucidate experiences of shame, especially from the perspective of marginalized members of a society that does not regard as irrational at least some of the experiences of shame that traditional accounts have rendered irrational. I will also argue for the benefits of such a conception of shame by demonstrating how the central moral value of shame lies in its function as a mechanism through which individuals and their respective community negotiate the values of their community. What I refer to as standard accounts of shame—accounts that regard shame to necessarily entail a negative self-assessment—cannot make such an argument. Thus, one of the strengths of the unified theory of shame that I, through my edited collection, initially introduced into the discourse on shame is that it allows us to do so.
Another aspect of the monograph that I am very excited about is that it will connect concerns regarding human sexuality, the workings of misogyny, what I refer to as recognitional injustice, and epistemic injustice in an analysis of the #MeToo Movement and South Korean demands for reparations from Japan for the sexual slavery of South Korean women during WWII. Doing so will enable me to demonstrate the fruitfulness of my account and the significance of understanding the moral value of shame as a mechanism through which we negotiate the values of our community with fellow community members. These connections will also allow me to share some recommendations about how we in the United States can move beyond the conflicts registered by the #MeToo Movement and how South Korea and Japan might move beyond the conflicts at the root of South Korean demands for reparations. Like any recommendation, mine may prove to be unhelpful. Again, this is why applied philosophy is so challenging. You can do everything “right,” but still fail. Nevertheless, I believe that I can help, at least to a certain extent, and one can always learn from one’s failures.
I am someone who loves to work at all levels of philosophy (meta-theory, theory, and practice). I believe that doing so is necessary in order to do philosophy well at any of these levels. I also want my life to make a contribution in bringing about a better world. I think that I would have regrets if I didn’t at least try to do so. I also think that my life would be a waste if I didn’t at least try to do so. Yet I am also someone who is not willing to sacrifice myself and my well-being to do so. I don’t think such sacrifices are necessary and a system that requires them is oppressive. So I refuse to contribute to the operation of such systems. I am only willing to make such contributions as long as doing so helps bring about my own flourishing. Writing this monograph could help me help others while allowing me to flourish, but only if I receive the proper financial support.
What do you think full-time philosophy faculty members or the university in general should begin to do to improve the situation of precariously (under)employed, underrepresented philosophers?
My experiences with adjuncting and tutoring reflect at least some of the experiences of members of underrepresented groups in academia and, as such, it is evidence for the marginalization of underrepresented groups. So, I think my answer to why I stopped adjuncting answers at least part of your question. I will add, however, that although non-marginalized educators are also susceptible to the abuses of a business model of education, people should consider how such abuses are amplified for underrepresented educators, especially due to student, faculty, and staff biases. I also wrote about what I think full-time philosophy faculty members and universities in general should do. People can read the details about my thoughts in this regard at the Blog of the APA. In short, departments simply need to hire more underrepresented professors—and not just those who are nondisabled white women—into full-time, tenure-track and tenured positions. Even nondisabled white women should agree with this conviction if they are truly committed to diversity and inclusiveness in philosophy and academia in general; those who don’t are just like students who have been inculcated to reinforce their own marginalization. Departments and institutions also need to stop using student evaluations to make hiring decisions, and they need to support and protect their marginalized faculty against student biases.
You have indicated to me that you are considering a life beyond philosophy, that is, considering the possibility of another kind of life. Please share your reflections on the possibility of this other life and your inclination to create it.
Since graduating, I have adjuncted, tutored, and held non-academic part-time jobs in order to sustain myself while on the full-time academic job market. As an early career academic, it’s very difficult to have a full-time job outside of academia and still do what one needs to do in order to land a full-time, tenure-track academic job. So, my situation has always been temporary. It has, to a certain extent, been a choice—an investment. If I wanted, given my Ph.D. and what I have accomplished so far in order to land a tenure-track position, I can find a non-academic job that pays me a sufficiently good amount of money within a very short period of time. This is also a reason why I do not regret getting my Ph.D. and pursuing a tenure-track academic position as an early-career philosopher. Regardless of whether or not I get a tenure-track job, my Ph.D. and subsequent experience were all investments in myself.
My precariousness as a disabled woman of color in the academic job market is not that I would not be able to find a job, but more so that my pursuit for an academic position that would allow me to flourish is not very probable regardless of what I achieve as an academic. It’s possible, yes; but not probable. As I noted above, there are many things, including the academic traps of the business model, that stand in the way of us doing so. In short, I am realizing that regardless of my publication record and how much I contribute to philosophy as a discipline, the cards have been, and always will be, stacked against me. Academia is racist, classist, ageist, and ableist, and philosophy is racist, classist, ageist, and ableist. Let’s just call it as it is. Although there are many people in academia who are working against this racism, classism, ageism, and ableism, in general it still exists. To refuse to admit this fact is to simply reinforce it. It is willful ignorance about the history of our educational system.
One reason why I became an academic was to make a difference, and part of that meant making a difference by doing what I could in order to succeed as a disabled woman of color. By doing so, I could be a role model and I could be some proof that there is hope for marginalized people in philosophy and academia. For this reason, I still self-identify as a disabled applicant in all of my applications. If I cannot succeed by doing so, then I would rather leave philosophy and academia. If philosophy and academia is not willing to accept me as I am and provide me with the conditions for me to flourish, then it is not somewhere I need to belong, and it is not somewhere in which I can make a difference.
I’m not a Plato, I am an Aristotle. I refuse to continue to drag my students out of their cave and I don’t sacrifice myself to save others. I can only teach students who want to learn from me. If a student doesn’t want to learn from me, they should not be my student. I love to teach, but I do not need to teach. My teaching is a gift, and I refuse to continue to give such a gift to students who do not appreciate it. Similarly, I work with people who want to work with me so that we can flourish and make a difference together. If my well-being is under threat, I will stop working with them. I know what I can offer philosophy, my students, my colleagues, a department, an institution, and academia in general. My C.V. is a testament to these facts, as is the success of the students who have benefitted from my teaching, regardless of whether or not they believe they did. If I am not appreciated, I know there are places that I can go where I am.
So, although I have yet to give up on my faith in philosophers and academic institutions altogether, I’ve recently started to simultaneously pursue more than one kind of life as an alternative to academic life. I find it necessary to do so given my precarious situation. I have back-up plans for my back-up plans. One plan is a life in research and public policy. I think that I could be really happy living this kind of life. Another kind of life is a life in South Korea teaching English or perhaps doing something else there. I think I would be very happy with this kind of life too. In any case, my life will be a happy life, primarily because I will make it so. Like I said, I’m not a Plato, and I don’t make unreasonable sacrifices. Sacrificing my well-being and happiness so that I can be an academic is an unreasonable sacrifice, and I refuse to do it. I will also guarantee that if I leave academia, there will be a void.
Cecilea, would you like to raise any other issues, add to remarks that you’ve made in this interview, or recommend some resources to our listeners and readers?
First, I’d like to announce that my monograph, Interdisciplinary Foundations for the Science of Emotion: Unification without Consilience, is forthcoming and will most likely be published at the end of this year or during next year. I received emails from a couple of different people about it, noting that they needed it to help them pursue their own research. I’m sorry for the delay. I can’t say yet, however, with which publisher it will be published.
I submitted my monograph to several publishers. Minkowski Institute Press, is a Canadian academic publishing company, and I really appreciate their ethos. They agreed to publish my manuscript. Lexington Books would like me to make some revisions and invited me to resubmit my monograph after doing so. I am also waiting to hear back from Palgrave Macmillan. I have very good reasons to publish my monograph with any of these three publishers but I know that I also need to think about how a department/institution would weigh my publication record, including showing that a range of publishers would be interested in my work, just in case I end up with a tenure-track job. So, as soon as I figure this out, make the revisions that I want and need to make, etc., the monograph should be on its way to production.
Second, I would like to invite readers to submit a chapter proposal for an edited collection on cultures of shame, which I am putting together for Springer/Nature’s Sophia Studies in Cross-Cultural Philosophy of Traditions and Cultures Series. The deadline for a detailed 500-word abstract has been extended to March 31, 2020.
Thank you again, Shelley, for this interview. I look forward to answering any additional questions that your readers and listeners might have.
Cecilea, thank you very much for your forthright and provocative remarks throughout this interview. I’m sure that many marginalized philosophers and other philosophers who want change in philosophy will agree with the sentiments that you have conveyed.
[Description of photo below: Cecilea and her mother, Cylvia Mun, whom she credits with teaching her how to work hard and strive, sit side-by-side, their heads tilted toward each other, looking into the camera and smiling. Cecilea is wearing a dark t-shirt with a cartoon avocado on it, which her dear friend, Kalahan Stoker, designed.]
Readers/listeners are invited to use the Comments section below to respond to Cecilea Mun’s remarks, ask questions, and so on. Comments will be moderated. As always, although signed comments are preferred, anonymous comments may be permitted.
Please join me here again on Wednesday, March 18th, at 8 a.m. EST, for the sixtieth installment of the Dialogues on Disability series and, indeed, on every third Wednesday of the months ahead. I have a fabulous line-up of interviews planned. If you would like to nominate someone to be interviewed (self-nominations are welcomed), please feel free to write me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I prioritize diversity with respect to disability, class, race, gender, institutional status, nationality, culture, age, and sexuality in my selection of interviewees and my scheduling of interviews.
Previous installments of Dialogues on Disability are archived on BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY here.
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