By Stella Katsipoutis-Varkanis

Meghan Masto ’03, associate professor of philosophy

The Course: Knowledge, Power, and Justice

We don’t just develop philosophical skills here. We discuss issues that matter in the world. Today, we see uprisings for racial justice, a global climate crisis, a COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately affecting communities of color and people with disabilities, a society reckoning with the proliferation of conspiracy theories. We need to better recognize the ways in which privilege, oppression, and subordination impact these phenomena.

This course examines justice in the domain of knowledge, also known as epistemic justice. We study questions like who has access to knowledge, who gets to be seen as an expert and is able to meaningfully contribute to consequential conversations, and how the current distribution of knowledge is unjust. This class aims to develop scholars who can better understand how things are working in these domains and help lead the way to a more just world.

We might discuss things like how listening to disabled people could have lessened the impact of COVID-19 at residential care facilities. For example, we might note that work-from-home arrangements and other accommodations that many companies are now recognizing as advantageous have been requested by, and denied to, disabled people for years.

Additionally, the conditions driving the disproportionate effects of COVID-19 in communities of color existed long before the virus arrived. In this course, we might wonder whether greater attention to the reports of people living in these communities, and greater inclusion of people of color in policymaking positions, might have led to an improved outcome.

Regarding the alarming spread of conspiracy theories, we might ask: Who is spreading the misinformation? Who benefits from, and is harmed by, the proliferation of misinformation? Why are sources of misinformation trusted by others? Are lies being perpetuated by people in power? How can we individually make better judgments about credibility and expertise? And how can we structure our systems and institutions so that reliable sources are seen as trustworthy, and misleading sources are recognized as such?

If there is a group of people whose knowledge is systematically devalued because of a social group to which they belong, it can have widespread implications for them and others in that social group. But this injustice is often overlooked. Highlighting it can transform our understanding of social relationships and of where things are breaking down. In this class, we also talk about the ways in which sexism and misogyny, racism and white supremacy, classism, ableism, homophobia, xenophobia, transphobia, and other intersecting structures of power and subordination shape the landscape of knowledge.

Epistemic justice is currently one of the most rapidly developing areas of philosophy. I love that students can engage with and evaluate what others are saying, and contribute to emerging literature.

It’s been one of the most meaningful classes I’ve ever taught, and several students have mentioned that this has been one of the most transformative classes they’ve taken. After I taught the course for the first time in fall 2018, I did an EXCEL project on epistemic injustice with a student who took the class. A paper he subsequently wrote was accepted into the National Conference of Undergraduate Research. Another two students went on to present the work they had written for this class in other venues as well, such as undergraduate philosophy conferences.

Students learn to evaluate and strengthen arguments, recognize what’s taken for granted in ordinary life and subject it to greater scrutiny, and provide evidence to support one’s claims.

But what sets this class apart from any others is it develops a community of scholars.

  • Students lead class discussions. They don’t just lecture; they discuss ideas, consider responses, evaluate evidence, and more.
  • Students are asked to referee their peers’ work—a process scholars have to go through in order to get their work published in academic journals.
  • Instead of taking a final exam, students hold a three-hour class conference, in which they present and defend the work they’ve been developing throughout the semester.

Students of all majors should take the course. Not only would they get a lot from the class, but a group of students with a breadth of areas of expertise and background knowledge would bring a lot to the class discussion as well.