We spoke to Susmita Dave of People for Womxn* in Philosophy (pwip) and Alicehank Winham of Oxford Public Philosophy (opp) about how their organisations are challenging and changing ideas of how philosophy should be studied at Oxford.
Note regarding capitalisation: we use capital letters strategically (who controls and monitors the form of YOUR language?)
What are your groups and why are they important?
pwip: people for womxn* in philosophy is a group that strives to provide an inclusive space for all who study philosophy as well as embracing all types of philosophy, with a particular emphasis on supporting marginalised groups. to meet its aims of catering to needs, pwip is non-hierarchical and project-based – encouraging a variety of forms and levels of involvement. pwip aims to support marginalised groups in imminently surviving their degrees (flourish beyond ideally!) and to create long-term systemic change.
opp: the intentions and effects of opp are more important than its exact continuation as one society or in a particular form. opp strives to provide space for students involved, from any walk of life, to cultivate a self-reflective, critical, less insular philosophical community. we often phrase this as questioning the field of philosophy’s concern, as we encounter it, in form and content. no doubt, participants might variously identify specific qualities as important to practising or attempting to practice certain values but these are in place as investigations for how to live with the insights philosophy might provide, even to itself. its projects and structurings are therefore adaptable and open to discussion, which will come to light in some of the following responses. interested in the real conditions of our embedded philosophical practices (as displayed in methods & institutions) and their effects in the world, we therefore outlined some initial conditions we seek to cultivate for critical inquiry & as a collective continue to discover emergent fields of inquiry that prove valuable to our understanding, such as critical pedagogy. we talk more about these visions on our homepage.
Why and how did it begin?
pwip: pwip formed after the founder’s first year. fortunate enough to have been exposed to philosophy beyond oxford, ze noticed an obvious and disappointing lack of diversity on the reading lists correlating starkly with the similarly-identifying (on the whole, not completely!) undergraduates becoming disinterested in philosophy. Ze plunged into summer research independently & with the help of the wonderful Mary Marshall who made available shocking information on the gender gap in philosophy. amazingly intelligent students were flooded with crippling self-doubt and other difficulties not being heard or addressed.
pwip arose in solidarity as folk got talking, inspired by the ‘Quartet’ of womxn philosophers who are also rarely on our reading lists despite being prominent intellectuals at Oxford 50-70 years ago. if such close-to-home womxn* barely made it, what chance did others have? with the newly arrived Professor Alice Crary (now visiting fellow) supporting us, we met over hot chocolate to begin understanding and addressing our aims outlined above. we are open to continual development to prevent marginalised groups from becoming unnecessarily disinterested in philosophy, especially from a mere 3 years at oxford.
How is your group structured? Who gets involved?
pwip: our group is a non-hierarchical group, fielding a variety of backgrounds and interests, coalescing around our aims in an environment of mutual support and respect that allows communication, care, and growth. anyone can join the group that nonetheless serves to create a space for oppressed voices. allies welcome. since the group focuses on oxford’s structural issues, nonetheless embedded in the world, mainly undergraduate oxford students cooperatively organise with those further afield, such as with global thinkers for our lecture series or graduate students for our mentoring scheme. in addressing the otherwise lack thereof, pwip centres undergraduate concerns. many of us are witches, but there’s no pressure.
opp: at risk of taking up too much room, we link here to a more detailed discussion of our non-hierarchical structure that promotes creative interaction in roles that denote organising responsibilities for smooth functioning rather than hierarchical power. this is an ongoing experiment for how to practice collective action and community in ways that have not been clearly demonstrated to us. we’re not claiming to get anything ‘right.’ we are not even sure that statement could be resolved. we’re aiming for a more inclusive, caring, attentive, creative, and critically rigorous arena of philosophical community. anyone is welcome, from oxford or not, in philosophy or not. we do take applications alongside hosting open discussion groups related to the turn’s currents themes. additionally anyone is welcome to submit poetry, art, or prose to the blog or the turns of the journal (and also reviews to the blog). we’re hoping to expand more than we currently function beyond the euro-american sphere of discourse and to confront our own learned limits in this work.
OPP has a journal – what themes have you chosen for your journal and why?
opp: the journal was the seed of opp, which has branched out to many more interacting and interactive parts. the group is young and releases in turns of the journal (rather than ‘issues’). each turn circulates around the values above in conjunction with current developments. as we aim to promote discourse, in turn 1 we asked 3 thematic questions about the very term ‘public philosophy’ we were propounding into the world, how we practice philosophy, and the role of educational institutions. turn 2 likewise poses 3 themes as we seek to expand the British analytic sphere we encounter and question, uncertain, how to do this. we focus on African(a) & South Asian philosophies and the value(s) of our education. the first arose in conjunction with a Zera Yacob conference being organised by Philiminality here, the second is inspired to further the discourse around the newly introduced undergraduate special paper on Indian Philosophy, and the last continues our ongoing questions. we considered all these before the prominence of the pandemic and BLM movement, making efforts towards decolonising our curricula and grappling with our institutional and disciplinary legacies. how the public has handled the recent events make these themes not so coincidentally salient in our consciousness, and as urgent as ever to discuss as a reflection for transformation and learning.
How has your group responded to the pandemic? What sort of events have you been holding in the past few terms?
pwip: we have moved virtually, like many groups, including our ‘theories of (non)violent revolution’ lecture series, mentoring scheme for undergraduates and graduates, and essay workshops. we are planning more communal events as well as discussions to focus on topics like race that the faculty might neglect without visible and present student pressure on campus. we are setting up our own youtube to make these available online & also share ongoing resources like interviews with academics and learning resources on our website.
opp: our most immediate and ongoing shift has been moving our discussion groups online, as initially organised by Ashley Singh during trinity term 2020, and this academic year organised by Srutokirti Basak. all are made available on our youtube with speaker consent. in particular, Martina Bani led a film-philosophy week over the winter vac for reflection on grief and isolation to build community care during the pandemic, co-hosted by Philiminality. we aim to touch upon inequalities brought to public consciousness during the pandemic through our work across the journal. we have some plans underway we can’t share yet but they intend to diffuse and share the power of education globally learning to speak across traditional lines of classroom learning.
What is the most rewarding part of being involved in your group?
pwip: being constantly inspired by the strength and intelligence of those in the group and hearing when the work makes a difference for even just one person. seeing womxn* become validated through their own thought and action. seeing projects come to fruition that uplift marginalised groups within philosophy and provide a platform for them to flourish. we are grateful to the strong witches around us who continue with us to construct a communally-caring philosophy space.
opp: constantly learning from those involved and being inspired by people’s care and critical engagement. confronting emotional and perceived limits to creatively expand beyond current conceptions and to look to unconsidered possibilities. to begin now and every moment working towards cultivating a considered and caring role of philosophy in the world & our own lives.
What is coming up next? Any future events planned?
pwip: we have an ongoing lecture series this term on theories of (non)violent revolution. Anita Avramides (St. Hilda’s, philosophy tutor) will host our first essay writing workshop of this year on the 3rd march. over the vac, we also plan to continue a discussion on ‘race’ as the faculty has specifically said it will not address this the rest of the year during a meeting despite a collective’s open letter on diversifying philosophy at oxford this past year. this is simply unacceptable. each session will involve watching a talk and reflecting together in addition to providing further resources, intended as a welcoming way to educate ourselves and keep the conversation going about our concerns so that we can take steps to further action. the discourse will not be silenced. in addition to continuing our lecture series next term, we are hoping to plan a more communally-oriented event to support students and the oxford community through the very real difficulties arising with the pandemic.
opp: we are intimidated and glad to be working towards reaching out to work with imprisoned intellectuals, as journal participants and otherwise. we could not seek a communally transformative philosophy without including those to resolutely and systemically silenced. research is underway to figure out how to go about this logistically, safely for our correspondents, and respectfully (any leads are welcome).
What is the best way that students can get involved?
pwip: anyone is welcome. you can contribute, learn and share in any way or form from leading a discussion group to creating or circulating graphics. we are a small group and so we would encourage more undergraduates to get involved and partake in events. this is a space to gain confidence and also embrace philosophy you may not be able to do in your course. do not be worried about not knowing historical facts about feminism and/or having strong philosophy interests. we help each other grow and use each other as a learning resource. no experience is needed, just enthusiasm. anyone interested can sign up here or contact us via email or message us on facebook
opp: we’ve just opened to a new round of applications which you can find on the opp website here (co-organiser, prose/poetry/art journal editors and editorial co-leads, podcast team, outreach team, access team). you can also get involved by submitting to the blog or turn 2 of the journal! more information here & check out turn 1 here to get a feel! you can contact us via email or facebook with any inquiries.