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Branden Fitelson: Taking Grassroots Efforts to Build Inclusive Communities of Scholars

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Branden Fitelson has been a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy in Northeastern University’s College of Social Sciences and Humanities since 2016. His research focuses on logic, philosophy of science, and epistemology. He has two decades of experience using grassroots organizing techniques to build diverse and inclusive networks of scholars in these fields.

Fitelson framed his current vantage of his commitment to public ethics to the 2016 presidential election, its lead up, and its aftermath. He describes the current socio-political landscape as hostile because people have become empowered to say things that actively exclude others from communities. He sees the current discourse on public speech as too concerned with what one is allowed or permitted to say, rather than with ethics: what we should say, how we should behave, and how we should live and practice, as scholars and as people.

Fitelson has noticed this same trend in academia, a trend that is distilled in his discipline of philosophy. According to Fitelson, the problems to be addressed in the field of philosophy are not only problems of representation, like its white-male dominance, but also in the everyday discourse of classrooms and scholarly debates that is egocentric. In a field so concerned with publicly debating ideas, he explains, the stance tends to beget a competitive and exclusionary culture, rather than a supportive and inclusive one.

To begin to address the problems he sees with the disciplinar culture of philosophy, Fitelson helped to found and run the transnational Formal Epistemology Workshop (FEW) at the University of California, Berkeley. The workshop is centered on collaboration and network-building. Applicants send provisional work that, if accepted, is intensively workshoped by other participants, representing a range of career stages, intellectual standpoints, and demographics. Scholars who have participated in the workshop over the years send one another work, and older scholars write recommendation letters for younger scholars. Scholars are selected to participate in the competitive program in part by their likelihood to contribute positively to its existing culture. By refereeing of FEW, Fitelson has helped to foster the attitude of support lacking elsewhere in the field and establish a community of scholars that collectively value inclusivity, avoiding harm to the community they’ve built together.

To Northeastern, Fitelson has brought this experience with building inclusive communities that welcome diverse populations of students. He most recently worked with Maureen Eckert (University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth) to organize a satellite of the Philosophy in an Inclusive Key Summer Institute (PIKSI) here . The large scale, Mellon-funded project was initially brought to Boston by Sally Haslanger (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). Leveraging PIKSI’s established reputation, Fitelson raised funding from and the Mark Sanders Foundation, which were matched by Northeastern’s College of Social Sciences and Humanities. He drew from the networks of scholars associated with FEW in order to solicit ten volunteer instructors, who would mentor ten students hailing from a range of national backgrounds — a one to one student to faculty ratio.

Published On: January 10, 2019