Inspired by Charles Mills and Linda Alcoff, a Ph.D. Candidate Heads to the Tenure Track
Gregory Slack, whose research focuses on race and Black liberation in the philosophy of Karl Marx, is joining Middle Tennessee State University.
This fall Gregory Slack (Ph.D. ’23, Philosophy) will start a tenure-track position at Middle Tennessee State University — a position that, as he puts it, will allow him to be a “professional philosopher full time” just one month after defending his thesis. Slack worked closely with the late Charles Mills and Professor Linda Martín Alcoff, whose work inspired him even before he came to the Graduate Center. Slack recently spoke about his research and advice for students as they approach the academic job market.
The Graduate Center: What are your hopes for your new position at Middle Tennessee State University?
Slack: The Philosophy and Religious Studies Department I’ll be joining at MTSU has a strong commitment to teaching and undergraduate students. MTSU also has a lot of transfer and first-generation college students, who may not have much knowledge of philosophy when they begin university. So, first and foremost, I hope to inspire students who may be new to the discipline to consider deeper study of the subject. Beyond that, though, I am simply thrilled to be getting the opportunity to join the faculty and be a professional philosopher full time!
GC: What initially led you to your current area of research, and to the philosophy of race?
Slack: My primary research area at the moment is the philosophy of Karl Marx, with a focus on how issues of race and Black liberation play out in his work — this is the subject of my dissertation. Marx is often portrayed as a thinker who is concerned only with issues of class and class struggle, as opposed to race and racial struggle. While I think there’s a great deal of truth to this characterization, in my work I’ve tried to give a more nuanced take.
The philosophy of race is now a thriving genre of mainstream philosophy, branching out in many different directions. But the core question that has motivated much of the field is: What is race? (In fact, there is a recent book co-authored by four leading philosophers of race which takes this question as its title.) In philosophical terms, this is a metaphysical or ontological question, but obviously one with far-reaching ramifications, the nature of which vary depending on how the question is answered. In short, the answer to this seemingly descriptive question harbors prescriptive implications. For example, old-fashioned racists answer the question in a way that (for them) provides justification for their racially hierarchical view of the world. Modern philosophy of race of the past several decades has been premised on both the rejection of racism and the racist answer to the question. But that still leaves philosophers with a lot to argue about: Is race a fiction? Is it a purely social category? Is it biological, even if only in a weak and partial sense? And so on.
An interesting historical component of this enterprise, and one that links up with my own research, has been to interrogate the (typically Western) canonical philosophers of the past to determine their own answers to the aforementioned question. What comes out quite clearly in these enquiries is that, for the most part and perhaps unsurprisingly, these philosophers held racist views. But bringing such inconvenient truths to light has been immensely salutary for the discipline and has forced it to at least reflect on the weaknesses and limitations of a narrowly European (and American) canon and curriculum. However, not all of these canonical figures answer the question in the same way, or even in a racist way. And Marx, I think, is an example of a canonical European philosopher who represents a tradition of championing the common humanity of all races, for whom racial hierarchy was anathema, and who sought to promote transracial working-class solidarity.
What first drew me to the subject was a course I took with Chike Jeffers on the philosophy of race at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, where I did my master's. Chike was an excellent guide through the material, and actually was the one who told me that Charles Mills — who had been his dissertation supervisor — would be moving to the GC, and he encouraged me to apply here. So, thank you Chike!
GC: What was it like to study philosophy of race at the GC, and to work with Professor Linda Martín Alcoff?
Slack: Well, it's interesting, because when I took that course with Chike Jeffers there were two authors we read that really spoke to me: Charles Mills and Linda Alcoff. I never dreamed then that I was going to have the opportunity to work with both of them for the Ph.D. So, studying philosophy of race at the GC has been a dream come true. Charles Mills was my supervisor for over two years before he passed away. Linda was already on my dissertation committee, but when Charles left us last fall, she stepped in to become my supervisor. She has been incredibly generous and supportive in helping to shepherd me, both to the completion of my degree and through a difficult job market.
There are three things about my time at the GC that I think have been immensely beneficial: top faculty; top students; and teaching experience. Because the philosophy faculty at the GC are all top people in their fields working on cutting-edge stuff, they really pushed me to become a better philosopher. The same goes for my fellow students, who set an extremely high standard I felt I had to match. Finally, because GC students teach their own undergraduate courses, I amassed invaluable teaching experience. Without that teaching experience, I highly doubt I would have found a job.
GC: What was Charles Mills’ influence on your work and academic career?
Slack: I can't really overstate Charles’ influence on my career at this point. He was an incredible inspiration and mentor. His work has certainly shaped my thinking over the past several years. But above all, Charles was and is proof of what one can accomplish in mainstream, “analytic” philosophy. He was a real radical in a discipline that can all too often seem stuffy and conservative.
Charles began as a Marxist philosopher, or a philosopher working on the thought of Karl Marx. But he was always pushing Marxist ideas to try to accommodate issues of race and racial injustice. Finally, for various reasons, he decided he didn’t need to tackle these questions within what he found to be an increasingly restrictive Marxist framework. Almost overnight, he became one of the leading philosophers of race when he published The Racial Contract in 1997. My work has, in a sense, retraced Charles' steps, but instead of veering away from Marxism towards liberalism to try to deal with these issues, I have tried to stick with the Marxist framework. My strategy has been to try to address the concerns that led Charles to eschew the Marxist road.
GC: What advice do you have for current Ph.D. students who hope to follow a similar path?
Slack: First let me say that I have been immensely lucky. As everyone knows, the job market for newly minted Ph.D.s is simply brutal. There tends to be a huge oversupply of qualified candidates for the few positions that do open up each year. So, when I went on the job market last fall, I kept my expectations low. One thought I had repeatedly over the course of my job search was: Why don't I have a Plan B? Because I should have had one. As I said, I got lucky, but it could have gone the other way.
I would advise people to follow their dreams and be passionate about their field of study, with the hope and expectation that they can find an academic position. But I would also advise people to have a backup plan in case things don’t work out. Unfortunately, we live in a capitalist society where market forces possess overwhelming power to shape our destiny. Plan accordingly! But beyond that, I would offer the usual advice: Develop relationships with people in your field who can champion you in recommendation letters, try to publish, and get teaching experience. My impression is that most search committees will be looking for people with, at the very least, strong letters, some potential for publication, and demonstrated teaching ability.
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