Interviews with Academics #6: Professor Alison Scott-Baumann on Coming to Philosophy

photo of Dr. Alison Scott Baumann

Professor Alison Scott-Baumann is a professor of society and belief in the centre of Islamic studies at SOAS. Her work combines social justice and philosophy, and she has researched extensively on the lives of Muslim students and staff at UK universities.

  1. How did you come to philosophy and your particular interests?

Half-way through my doctorate (on mentoring) I realised the topic had been done to death and was not of enough richness, significance and depth to bear the intellectual analysis of a strong doctoral argument. So I read Ricoeur and developed a strong critique of the field I was trapped in at that point. This allowed me to see the possibility of being motivated to action by ideas.

  1. What motivated you to stay in academia? If you encountered (or continue to encounter) obstacles, what supports have you found?

The opportunity to develop evidence on which to base a fairer world and amazing people are the motivations to stay in academia. At SOAS we have so many brilliant thinkers and activists who transform understanding of practices around the issues that matter; Fairtrade as a practice to be improved, migration in the borderlands of the Horn of Africa and the EU policies, historical slavery as a marker of current identity and decolonising the curriculum, to name a few. The great students are the motivation too: I’ve supervised to completion 15 fascinating doctorates and examined 12, I’ve established a cell of students and young academics for my influencing the corridors of Power  project (SOAS ICOP) that develops communication pathways between academics and parliamentarians. There is often mutual suspicion between academics and politicians and yet evidence-based policy is the only way to run a fair and democratic state.

You can see that I like ideas and, even more, I like putting them into practice. There is also a fascinating recursive loop that spins out from people’s actions to their reasoning: as David Hume argued, we act as we see fit and then justify it… Yet I believe that the ‘acting as we see fit’ is the point to analyse. Those who declined to vote in the Brexit referendum had particular ideas about democracy that should have been discussed. Emotions were aroused, and yet for some people evidence can be convincing and this requires concerted work: our SOAS ICOP briefings reach every MP and every peer (around 1,000), and this is a powerful conduit for involving student and young academics in dismantling the democratic deficit that currently muzzles universities. 

But there are obstacles to attaining such levels of access: when I was a young mum I was so busy juggling home and work that it seemed promotion and activism were a long way off. It was a mistake to think that – I should have been more tactical and for that I would have needed a feminist line manager: I have that now at SOAS, but earlier in my career it was not easy. Imposter syndrome is a very real issue, and it was only when I decided that I should become a professor that I pushed the system until it accepted my ambitions. To reach that state of mind I considered the women professors I knew of (not as many as there should be) and the men professors too… The women had to work harder to reach that level and, while there are brilliant professors there are also those who do not impress. Once I believed that my achievements were ‘good enough’ I was fully supported. There is both intrinsic and instrumental value in my status: I can now be a role model for other women and support young scholars, women and men, to realize their dreams.

  1. Have you had any particular role models, mentors, or favourite philosophers? If so, could you share some information about who, how, and why.

Paul Ricoeur is a very useful philosopher: like Iris Murdoch with her novels, he hopes his reader will be interested in behaving better as a result of thinking more clearly and more ethically. Paul Ricoeur offers us a philosophy for education, based upon the urgent and immanent need for us all to communicate better with each other.  The current surge in right wing populism, conspiracy theories and hate speech shows how important it is to create clarity and ethical balance in interpersonal discourse. Setting his work beside the forced polarities created by extremist approaches, we see that he offers a way to transform the modern university into doing politics. In 2021 the opposite is happening: in many countries the university sector is actively discouraged from engaging in viewpoints different from those of the national ruling party. This democratic deficit must be reversed, or it will hinder future generations from understanding and attempting to resolve world crises.

The current crises around free speech show clearly how urgently we need to implement Ricoeur’s pedagogy of hope. Yet with Ricoeur the gap between theory and practice is wide: Like many professional philosophers he built beautiful complex linguistic edifices of Escher-esque complexity. How can we apply his intellectually exciting philosophy to the reality of campus life? I have developed the work of Pragmatist philosopher C S Peirce to create a new version of Community of Inquiry (CofI) to bridge this gap by encouraging debate through careful management of group processes based upon a) the belief that it is both necessary and worthwhile to discuss intractable problems and b) the conviction that what I call ‘procedural values’ (clear, ethical, mutually agreed guidelines for conversational conduct) are paramount both for enabling productive discussion and also for understanding these intractable problems.  You can find out the philosophical underpinning to this practical approach and how to use it here.

  1. How have your expectations about what you want to and are able to achieve in academia changed over time?

I have seen that in some cases the emperor has indeed no clothes: some intellectual ideas are exciting but they may atrophy within the excitement they generate as they cannot be transformed into action.

Tragically this is also the case with extreme populism of both the left and right variety: constructionist thinkers Laclau and Mouffe both argued that populism is the life blood of all politics, yet currently there are extreme versions flourishing, each manipulating the other into futile (in)action. The public statues debate is a case in point: the conservative idea of protecting our ‘history’ is attacked by those who understand that past injustices should not be put on a pedestal. By moving away from statues to build a strong argument about building a better future, we could then return to statues once those who seek to protect them at all costs have lost interest. There are always exceptions to these manipulative culture wars and perhaps Rhodes is one. The need to give young people a voice in public affairs has become more urgent with the rise of right wing populism and the culture wars being waged to silence them. 

  1. How do you relate your philosophising activity to the life you are living as an academic and the dimensions of your life beyond this?

I am a wife, a mother and a grandmother – my parents are both dead so my daughterly identity has been subsumed by the other familial roles. In academia it is not possible to use these multiple identities to create a special pathway; parenthood is often as good as invisible as a marker of one’s identity, unless surrounded by colleagues with children. Thus I have to be good enough in my own intellectual functioning to justify my position, which is a fair situation in which to find myself.

  1. How do you wish philosophy had been taught differently during your studies? Do you teach your subject any differently than you were taught?

The tendency for philosophy to be taught as a dense subject that can only be understood by a few white males is somewhat on the wane, but still our cultural understanding is unconsciously bound to the belief that the male has the voice and the intellect.

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