Student Evals Are In

I have had such an indescribably shitty past few days but today I was finally able to access student evals from my very first semester of teaching and right now my heart is so happy! I didn’t expect to love teaching so much, but it has truly been one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in grad school so far. To know that my students think of me as a helpful, enthusiastic, and capable instructor means so much.

Because of the aforementioned shitty past few days, I need a bit of positivity in my life. So here is a collection of a few of my favorite comments students left:

“Ms.Balance is absolutely the best TA I’ve ever had. Not only does she go above and beyond for her students by making little reading guide handouts to clearly outline a philosopher’s ideas in order to make sure we understand the topic, but she readily makes herself easy to contact out of class for any help at any moment. She really did more than she had to do as a TA […]. She really wants her students to succeed and it really shows in her work and the effort she puts into the class.”

“Brielle is a very passionate instructor in the Philosophy department. She made this very clear throughout this semester to everyone around her. I also believe that she truly cares about all of her students. […] I believe she provided many different useful tools and mentoring over the semester that really is an asset to UNC’s Introduction to Ethics course and students in the class.”

“Cool hair style :)”

“Gabrielle Balance’s help was the only reason why I passed the class. Her mentoring and individual care was above and beyond anything asked of for a TA. She really cares for her students and her recitation greatly approves the understanding of all of her students.”

“BRIELLE IS AMAZING! This recitation saved me in this class. She is one of the best teachers I have these semester.”

“Gabrielle did a very good job in her TA position. She had a great understanding of the ideas at play, she also did an excellent job of conveying those ideas to her students. She went above and beyond what the other TA’s for this course did. She did an amazing job in making sure her students had a good handle on the ideas in class with her in class discussions. I would not have done nearly as well in this course without her as my TA.”

“Gabrielle Balance was an amazing TA. I would not have understood the course without her. She very clearly explains hard topics and it is evident she cares about her students.”

“One of my favorite TAs I have had so far. She broke down the lectures very well to help us clearly understand it. She asked for our feedback a lot, and made sure she answered any questions that the class had. She is willing to work with you outside of class and held a couple of review sessions outside of class to prepare for finals or papers. Not only is she a good TA, she is also a great person who makes sure you feel included and supported which helps me feel more comfortable in class.”

“I loved this course, Ms Balance was an awesome TA that even people from other sections would try to attend her office hours. She was extremely helpful and made the material engaging”

I know this blog post is something I’ll come back to again and again whenever school gets tough to remind me why I do this and motivate me to keep going. ❤

Should everything be philosophized about?

One thing that I think philosophers as a whole struggle with is discerning which topics are appropriate to philosophize about. Many philosophers are very gung-ho about pursuing all lines of inquiry – if there’s a question to be explored, they’ll explore it. While I love the zealousness and unabashed approach that philosophers take to doing research (“Are there objects?”, “Is there a blue or are there just blue things?”), I strongly believe that there are just some topics philosophy ought not touch.

For example, in exploring the metaphysics of gender, an unsettling number of papers have been published which essentially come to the conclusion that trans identities are not valid. These inquiries are masked in questions such as “What is gender?”, but at their base imply that respecting trans identities is up for debate.

In general, I think any line of inquiry which essentially puts the humanity of a group of people, especially marginalized groups, into question ought not exist. If are to philosophize about the metaphysics of gender – or about anything, really – our exploration should begin with a baseline of respect.

It’s no secret that the discipline of philosophy is filled with over-privileged people, and oftentimes this leads to work which is disconnected, offensive, and ignorant. We as a collective need to do a better job at being conscious of these issues – in checking ourselves and our own work, but furthermore in refraining from adding legitimacy to the work of others which does not meet this baseline of respect.

How I Organize My Planner

So, first things first: I use a Happy Planner in the mini size (4.5″ x 7″) with the vertical week-per-2-pages spread.

Here is what a typical weekly spread looks like for me. This is the current week and not yet completely filled out:

Inkededit 2_LI

  • I pencil in the times (7 am-9 pm) and use the Happy Planner vertical layout as an hourly scheduler
  • I note the week of the current semester in the top left corner
  • In blue ink I write events and in black ink I write smaller notes (event info, to-dos, etc.)
    • One thing I really like is writing in tasks that I complete, especially course assignments and blog posts, to have an idea of what and when I get things done.
      • Filled out as I do them and not ahead of time
  • I use the following color-coding system (which may be slightly off in the above photo due to the filter I used):
    • Green: courses I am in (student or TA)
    • Light blue: department events (invited talks, meetings, etc.)
    • Red: non-departmental appointments
    • Purple: social events
    • Light pink: workouts
      • Usually filled out as I do them and not ahead of time
    • Yellow: highlighting important black ink notes (not pictured) and crossing off to-do checkboxes
  • At the top I write very important events or reminders

I also have a separator tab in the back for lined paper. I use the lined paper for my to-do lists, as the main body of the agenda doesn’t have room for me to write all of my to-dos:

edited

  • One page (left) lists my course assignments for the week
  • The other page (right) lists my non-coursework-related to-dos, which I try to do as much as possible over the weekend

I’ve been using this planning system since the beginning of the school year and it’s been working really well for me so far. My planner holds so much information about my schedule, to-dos, and workouts, and yet it remains visually appealing, organized, and compact. Thought I would share it 🙂

“Teaching is never neutral.”

Recently my department held a teaching workshop, and we brought in someone from the School of Education to present to us. One of the topics that came up was how to approach politically-charged topics in the classroom as the teacher, the worry being that, as instructors, we want to portray a sense of neutrality to our students while still touching on important and relevant issues.

The presenter responded with with a simple yet striking assertion:

Teaching is never neutral.

This sparked a lot of discussion at the workshop and what was said has given me a lot to think about.

Firstly, I think our workshop leader is right. Teaching is never neutral, nor should it be. This doesn’t mean that instructors should start taking time at the beginning of each class to campaign for their favorite presidential candidate, but I do believe there are many ways in which instructors can and ought to take a stance.

Here are some things I do as an instructor which carry political significance:

  • Dress casually. Especially as a woman, how I present myself to students in terms of dress makes a big difference. I know lots of people who purposely dress more professionally on the days they teach to make an impact on how their students perceive them. I thought a lot about what kind of teacher I wanted to be and what kinds of values to espouse, and concluded that “appearing professional” wasn’t one of them. I want my students to respect me, but I don’t want it to be in part because of how I dress.
  • Include my pronouns in my email signature. I am obviously a woman, but I think the practice of being explicit about your pronouns anyways is a good one. It normalizes it for everyone and keeps it from being a burden that only trans people have to bear.
  • Instruct my students to address me by my first name. Again, I thought a lot about what kind of teacher I wanted to be, and concluded that I feel a lot more comfortable with my students calling me by my first name instead of using “Miss”. This is a barrier that some TAs (understandably and justifiably) want to keep up, but I personally don’t want it between me and my students.
  • Comply with accessibility requests. Okay, so, granted, this one is kind of required of me to do by my university, but even just the fact that this is a university-wide requirement sends a political message of anti-ableism.

The Bad Days

Yesterday I was feeling really, really shitty. My mental and emotional state was at a solid -5. Anyways, like I’ve said before, part of my intention in keeping this blog is to honestly document the experiences I have during grad school. So, here’s a transcription of what I wrote in my journal yesternight, as unpolished and raw as it gets:

I woke up at noon with unbearable feelings of depression and anxiety. Actually, I woke up at 8. I was too unmotivated to do anything so I drifted in and out of sleep until noon. Eventually I forced myself out of bed because I had office hours at 2 and class at 4.

I was pretty productive between those hours. No one came to my office hours and I managed to finish up a post for this blog on the ethics of body modification and made some progress on planning my MA thesis. Finally a bit before 4 I dragged myself away from my laptop and headed to class. It was impossible for me to focus. I ended up skipping out halfway through because I was just feeling so terrible and tired. I got home and slept some more.

I finally dragged myself out of bed at 8 pm. Usually when I’m feeling really depressed, doing things helps. I did the dishes and cleaned my room. Then I did laundry. (And folded/put it away right after!) I went for a run, then showered and got ready for bed. Then I lit a candle and did some meditative yoga. I used a guided meditation focused on depression and self-soothing.

Now it’s midnight. I feel a little better. Still shitty, but proud that I was able to engage in these healthy forms of self-care.

It’s so stupid that my life is going great on paper and yet I still feel this way. I’m ahead on my reading assignments and coursework, ahead on my MA thesis planning, I’m exercising regularly, and my space is clean and orderly. But I spent most of my day in bed, and I only ate one meal today and I’m not even hungry. I just feel numb and sad. I hope I feel better tomorrow. This is the worst day I’ve had in a while.


I called my boyfriend after I wrote this and we talked for a while. Just hearing his voice and feeling his presence made me feel a lot better, and I was able to fall asleep relatively quickly. This morning I woke up feeling okay. Today was loads better.

Body Modification: How Far is Too Far?

One thing I find myself idly wondering about sometimes is how far it is permissible to modify someone’s body – with their consent, of course. (I want to clarify here that I’m specifically wondering about cases in which A is seeking a modification to be done by B (who is qualified), and I am focusing on the permissibility of the actions done by B.)

There are some things which are obviously permissible to administer to others: braces, corrective surgeries, manicures, and hair cuts/colors to name a few. I would also place most tattoos and piercings in this category.

Less clear are more dangerous/higher-risk body mods. Eyeball tattoos, for example, might be questionable because of the lack of knowledge about their long-term risks – permanent blindness and glaucoma being very real worries. Facial tattoos on young people who do not yet have a stable source of income or have no other tattoos are also questionable. Some tattoo artists go so far as to refuse to do them under these conditions.

My intuition is that most people would not blame a (qualified) mod artist for administering the above procedures, though. I think most of the judgement would fall on the recipients. That is, it’s not the provider’s fault for offering these mods so much as it is the recipient’s fault for seeking them out.

If we push this to an extreme, though, I think it’s possible we do cross the boundary from blaming recipients to blaming mod providers. There are, for example, people diagnosed with a condition called Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID), who feel an intense disconnect from their abled bodies and wish the removal of (a) limb(s) or sometimes their sight. Lots of energy has been spent within the field of medical ethics attempting to settle the question of whether or not it is permissible for doctors to carry out such a person’s wishes. Even more controversial (but perhaps less plausible) are people who do not have BIID but nonetheless want to modify their bodies in similar ways. What are we to say of body modification providers (I don’t know whether use of the term “mod artist” here is appropriate) who carry out these requests? My intuition here is that many people would not merely be willing to say that it is still just the recipient’s fault for seeking out the body mod; this time, some of the blame does rest on the provider.

I suspect the permissibility of the mod artist’s actions in cases like these are largely dependent on 3 things: First, the intensity of the desire for modification – Is it a desire which, if left unfulfilled, leaves the potential recipient with psychological damage? Second, the preparedness of the potential recipient – Are they aware of the impact this mod will have on their life? Will they still be able to earn a steady income? Do they have any dependents? And lastly, the intentions of the mod provider – Have they shown appropriate concern for the potential recipient?

Going from here, I think a really interesting question to ask is whether or not it’s ever permissible for a mod artist to modify someone’s mental state rather than just their physical state. We already permit some forms of this – hypnosis, for example. But what about, say, lobotomies? What if someone of sound mind were to ask a mod provider to alter their brain such that some of their mental functions were to diminish? And, if technology advances far enough in the future, what if we were able to modify very specific mental traits, like the ability to feel emotions, or wiping certain memories? Would it be permissible to perform such procedures? (I realize this last bit may be a bit of a reach to fall under the umbrella of “body modification”, but strictly speaking it is a modification to a part of the body.)

A Check-in: The Beginning of Year 2

3 weeks in. So far, so good – great, actually! I’m not really sure where to start, so I guess I’ll just go in order.

I spent the summer living with my partner in Santa Barbara, California. I really missed that place, and getting to spend so much time there was healing. Living in my favorite city with my favorite person did a lot to undo all of the mental and emotional stress I felt throughout my first year, and ultimately I think this recovery set a really solid foundation for the start of my second year.

I moved back to the east coast for the start of the school year after the first week of August. My dog, Luna, stayed with my partner in California with my partner, so I moved alone. My lease ended on my old apartment and I moved into a new place with one of the people in my department. She’s incredible, and she’s got the sweetest boys (a dog and a cat). She’s big into home decor and customization, so she’s got rugs and pictures and plants everywhere. It’s a complete 180 from my old place, and I feel so much more at home here. I think living with her has also been good for my mental health in general; she’s a great roommate, really cheery, and nice to spend time with. (She’s also the one who deals with the cockroaches – an endeavor I had to undertake by myself when I lived alone.)

The diversity workshop I had been planning and co-organizing for the better part of a year took place a week before classes started. We had a great group of participants and we received great feedback! This being the first time we’ve organized it, it was really really rewarding to hear good things from them. Despite how much stress and work went into putting this workshop, I’m really excited to build on what I’ve learned this time around and move forward!

I increased my dosage for antidepressants. I started taking them about 7 months ago and stumbled around a bit trying to figure out kind/brand worked best for me. I saw some small but definite changes back then but now that I’ve settled on a particular brand, I was able to increase my dose about two weeks ago. The effects have definitely been noticeable! My anxiety can still be pretty bad at times, but it’s less debilitating overall. Most significantly, my depression is comparatively non-existent! I can get up to work, get myself out of the house, keep my space clean, go to the gym, enjoy the company of other people, and keep generally good spirits throughout the week! It’s an incredible feeling – even more so because it’s been consistent. I’m very, very pleased about how I’m responding to these meds.

I’ve been working out consistently and it’s done a lot to help with my perception of my health and body. Because of my eating disorder the way I’ve viewed my body has always been a bit warped and toxic, but whenever I’m working out consistently I experience less anxiety about it – even if the physical changes aren’t too noticeable. I try to do yoga most mornings, run 3x a week, lift 3x a week, and have one day off to rest and recover. I’m really proud of myself keeping this schedule up; I think a lot of it has to do with increased motivation from my antidepressants working really well.

I starting teaching! (TAing, technically.) It’s an intro to moral theory course and I have two discussion sections every week. Being the only person in my cohort having never taught before, I was pretty nervous my first week. But I’ve really come to enjoy it! It’s incredibly rewarding, and so nice to see my students engage in class discussion. I’ve had several students tell me that what I’m doing is really helpful in their understanding of the material and it really encourages me to be the best teacher I can be. My undergrad Intro to Ethics TA was who ultimately got me interested in pursuing philosophy, and I hope I can impart some of that passion onto my students now that I’m in that role.

Overall, I’ve been keeping on top of my work. My time management and prioritization skills have gotten way better since I was a first year and I feel very much on top of things. I haven’t yet felt overwhelmed about my workload and I’m completing all my reading assignments on time. One thing I’m particularly proud of so far this year is my participation in classroom discussions. I had trouble with this last year because of anxiety and impostor syndrome and just fear/timidness in general, but this year I feel like I’m doing a lot better in getting over that and convincing myself that I have valuable things to contribute.

Like I said, so far, so good! 🙂

I don’t like meta-ethics.

Ethics is divided up into (at least) two parts: normative ethics, the goal of which is to provide action-guiding theories of right and wrong (or permissible, impermissible, and obligatory) action; and meta-ethics, the goal of which is to answer questions about morality itself (Is it something objective or subjective? What do we mean when we say something is wrong?).

I really don’t like meta-ethics.

Firstly, I don’t like meta-ethics because it’s really hard.

On a less petty note, I also don’t like it because I’ve consistently found it to be something that “the folk” (non-philosophers, the everyday person, whatever) fall back on to defend themselves when there isn’t really anything else going for them.

“That’s just your opinion! Who’s to say you’re right and I’m wrong?”

“Well I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree on what’s right.”

This tactic is especially troubling when deployed in political or social justice discussions, because it stops the conversation from going any further (like we’re supposed to answer one of the great meta-ethical questions succinctly and sufficiently in the context of a conversation?!) on matters that we really need to do something about.

I hate that people use meta-ethics as fallback and I hate that there’s not really anything you can do in response.

This has been my rant of the day.

Against White Fetishization of Non-violence: Justifying POC Aggression

I recently shared this screenshot of a tweet to my Instagram story with the caption “A WHOLE MOOD”:

wp

A friend of mine replied, “The lit base on this topic is huge, and many academics (of all sorts of backgrounds) think non-violence is the best strategy for defeating oppressive power structures. Not sure why you think these arguments are only made in bad faith by racist white people.”

I think the dangers of the “fetishization of non-violence”, as it is put, is something a lot of (white) people Just Don’t Get™, so in what follows I will recount my response to my friend and explain my stance. My aim is to facilitate a better understanding of why I and many other POC oppose the “always be kind and peaceful and respectful” ideology privileged and/or white people push.

So, the first thing to address is that “violence” here is vague. When we think of violence we often think of aggressive actions (rioting, use of weapons, fighting), but the concept of violence could also be expanded to include aggressive words (candidly expressing anger, blunt language, etc.). And indeed, it seems people often do consider this to be a form of violence – especially within this context: Whenever I see a POC angrily express a general statement about white supremacy or use the terms “YT”, “cracker”, or “wypipo”, there is inevitably a white person who will respond with something along the lines of, “This is a big too aggressive. No one is going to listen to you if you talk about them like that. You need to be more respectful if you actually want people to hear what you have to say.”

So if we’re talking about what sorts of things to include under the umbrella of “violence” in this context, it seems more than fair to include the blunt, harsh, or aggressive manner of speaking that POCs sometimes use when discussing white people, white supremacy, and white privilege. Lastly, this conclusion is further supported by the fact that Twitter user uses the term “non-violence” in response to a piece of paper with the heading “BE KIND”. To avoid confusion between the colloquial sense of violence and the sense of violence I am using here, I will hereafter refer to the latter as POC aggression.

With this in mind, we now turn to the second thing: The mistaken assumption that the only – or even the primary – goal of PoC aggression is to end oppressive power structures, namely, white supremacy and white privilege. There is, I suggest, another purpose for POC aggression: affirming self-worth.

In a society in which POC are systematically oppressed, we are constantly receiving (both implicit and explicit) messages that we are less valuable and less respected than our white counterparts. Our accents are mocked, we feel pressure to assimilate, our cultures are stripped or appropriated, and we do not see ourselves represented in the media, government, or other powerful institutions. I could go on at length about how POC are disrespected and mistreated in modern day American society, but this is not the place for that. The point is that we are.

Thus, POC aggression can also serve as a means of affirming one’s self-respect and self-worth. The idea here is that the transgressions POC face are not to be taken “sitting down”, that is, not to be passively tolerated. In responding aggressively, POC are sending the message, not only to others, but more importantly, to themselves, that they are valuable, and that the way they are viewed in society is unacceptable.

It was at this point that my friend admitted that he found a lot of what I said compelling, but nonetheless insisted that it doesn’t justify what is said in the tweet: that white people use the promotion of non-violence to attack POC.

My reply to this is simple: POC aggression is an important means – and sometimes, the only means – with which POC can affirm their self-worth in a society that systematically denies them that. Thus white insistence on non-violent expression is a form of attack because it denies POC these means.

Thus we can draw two conclusions. The first is that POC aggression is permissible and justifiable as it serves an important and necessary purpose for the aggressor. The second, probably more shocking, conclusion is that it is wrong for white people to attempt to suppress this aggression, as it is in effect an attack on the dignity of POC.

A potential objection which could be raised against the second conclusion is that white people are not intentionally attacking POC by denouncing and suppressing their aggression. Their intention in doing so, rather, is something else: perhaps to facilitate more peaceful and productive discussion, to defend themselves because they feel unfairly generalized – whatever the case may be, it is something else. They are ignorant that their actions are in effect attacking POC. Thus, they are not doing something wrong in pushing for non-violence.

This objection relies on ignorance as an exculpatory factor, but I do not see why we should accept this outright. Surely there are times when ignorance can function in this manner, but it seems just as clear to me that surely there are times when it does not. Take, for example, someone who leaves their infant in their car on a hot day while they go grocery shopping. The parent did not realize the car would be several degrees hotter than the air outside nor did they know this is a dangerous situation for the baby to be left in, but nonetheless this is wrong because they should have known.

The case of a white person pushing for non-violence, I argue, is also a case of such culpable ignorance. White people do not understand the anger of POC. They don’t understand it because they can’t; as white people they have never experienced systematic oppression due to their race. Furthermore they should recognize this fact. Just a man can never understand the fear of a woman walking alone at night, just as a person born into wealth can never understand the plight of the poor, a white person can never understand the societal and institutional harms that befall POC simply for being POC. And thus they also cannot understand their anger towards white privilege and white supremacy. The culpable ignorance comes in the form of criticizing something they cannot understand, and should know they cannot understand.

I stand by my conclusions, however uncomfortable they may be to stomach: POC aggression is justifiable. In most cases white people are wrong to attempt to stop it.


A note: I am considering expanding this into a paper. Please do not redistribute or circulate without permission.

Application Advice: Letters of Rec

This advice is specifically for philosophy undergrad seniors or BA/MA-holders who are applying to Philosophy PhD programs. Maybe it’ll also apply to other people in other situations in other fields. [Insert the usual disclaimer to take what I say with a grain of salt, every situation is different, etc.]

How to ask:

  • Ask early! At least a month in advance, but probably more. Professors can get pretty busy around application season, so you want to make sure you get your request in early, giving them plenty of time to work on it.
  • I recommend asking via email first, and then offering to meet in person later on if necessary. In the email, explain what you’re applying for and say when you will need the letter by. Include a brief statement about why you think this professor in particular would be a good letter writer for you. Finish the email by saying that you’ll give them all the necessary information (including application materials) if they agree to write you a letter.
  • A sample email:

Hi Professor!

I am applying to PhD programs in philosophy this upcoming cycle, and if you’re willing, I would love for you to be one of my letter writers. I took classes ____, ____, and ____ with you and enjoyed them immensely. From this I hope that you have a pretty good understanding of my academic abilities. (For reference, attached is a paper I have written for one of your classes that I am particularly proud of.)

If you feel you are able to write me a strong letter, I can email my application materials to you to aid in your writing: a draft of my writing sample, personal statement, statement of purpose, and CV. Additionally, if you would like to meet in person to discuss this further, I am available at ____.

(Also, please feel free to say no. Given how competitive admissions are, I would only want you to write me a letter if you feel you can write me a good one. Otherwise I am happy to find someone else.)

Thanks for your consideration! Sincerely, …

Who to ask:

  • Ask a professor you can depend on! From experience, I can say that nothing sucks more than your letter writing falling through on their agreement and dealing with the stress of missing letters from your application.
  • As much as possible, you probably want to ask people in the philosophy department and you probably want to ask people who are professors (as opposed to adjuncts or grad students). Also if possible, try to have at least one letter writer whose area of research is similar to or the same as your stated area of interest. Admissions committees take into account who is writing your letter – not just what it says!
  • Only ask professors who you have a good, strong relationship with, and who can speak positively to your philosophical abilities. This sounds like an obvious one, but it’s particularly important to keep this in mind when considering how many letters you should submit. Most places require three but accept up to five. Three strong letters is better than three strong and one mediocre one.

What to do after you’ve secured your letter writers:

  • Send along those application materials you promised. You want to give them some leads for what to write about, and also make sure that what they say about you is in line with what you say about yourself in the other parts of your application.
  • Send them gentle reminders one month, two weeks, one week, and each day up to three days before the letter is due. Sometimes professors get busy, and it’s ultimately your responsibility to make sure all parts of your application are submitted on time.
  • In the case that your letter writers fail to submit their letter on time (God forbid, but it happens), email the DGS of the school you’re applying to letting them know of your situation. Most places (at least in my experience) grant a short grace period/extension for professors to get their letters in. (You’ll still have to submit the rest of your application materials on time, though.)
  • After all letters have been submitted, write a sincere thank you note to each of your professors. Letters of rec are one of the most important aspects of your application, and hopefully they put a lot of thought and effort into writing them for you. (I recommend a handwritten note instead of an email – it’s way more meaningful!) Bonus: This keeps you on good terms with them if you ever need to ask them for a letter again in the future.
  • Several months later once admissions decisions have rolled in, make sure to let your professors know what happened! They played a central role in your application process and they should know the outcome.

Hope this was helpful! Best of luck to everyone 🙂