Meritocracies, Rankings, Curricula: A Personal Take On Academic Philosophy

Some six years ago, shortly after I had been appointed to its faculty, the philosophy department at the CUNY Graduate Center began revising its long-standing curriculum; part of its expressed motivation for doing so was to bring its curriculum into line with those of “leading” and “top-ranked” programs. As part of this process, it invited feedback from its faculty members. As a former graduate of the Graduate Center’s Ph.D program, I thought I was well-placed to offer some hopefully useful feedback on its curriculum, and so, I wrote to the faculty mailing list, doing just that. Some of the issues raised in my email are, I think, still relevant to academic philosophy. Not everybody agreed with its contents; some of my cohort didn’t, but in any case, perhaps this might provoke some discussion.

Here, reproduced almost verbatim, is that email:

Perhaps I can throw my tuppence in the pile, by offering some remarks based on my experiences as a graduate of this Ph.D program, and by commenting on whether changing the curriculum to bring it into line with “leading” or “top-ranked” programs is a worthwhile motivation or not.

Firstly, I question the need to bring our curriculum into line with that of “leading” programs. I remain unconvinced that rankings of philosophy programs are a serious indicator of the education they provide. In the bad old days, rankings of philosophy programs seemed to be a set of indices that reflected the star power of the faculty. When NYU’s Ph.D program went “live”, its ranking magically jumped to 2 or 3, without that department having produced a single Ph.D, or having given any indicator whatsoever that their graduates were “better philosophers” than the ones produced by ours.

While the Leiters of this world have made their Reports more comprehensive, it is still not clear to me that the rankings are saying anything worthwhile about how well they *prepare* their students. If we had some solid data for saying that a particular curriculum is a significant causal factor in the philosophical acumen of its graduates, then I’m all for major change. Without that I’m a little reluctant to tinker so extensively.

A significant set of reasons why graduates of XYZ University (please replace with your favorite top-ranked department) are able to get good jobs is because they have had:

a) better financial support and are able to concentrate more on coursework and writing projects;

b) more institutional support for research activities like visiting conferences and building up a solid professional network;

c) more ‘star faculty’ at their disposal who are then able to tap into their rich network of professional contacts, write the important letters, make the important phone calls after the APA and ensure things like invited chapters in edited collections and the like.

The academy, like most other institutions in this world of ours, follows the Matthew Principle: those that have, get more.

I attended classes at NYU and Columbia, and interacted with graduate students from many of the programs in this region. My cohort was second to none in their philosophical chops. I never thought, “If only our curriculum was structured differently, then we’d be the ones with eight interviews at the APA’s Eastern Division Meeting.”

What we lacked the most perhaps was some sense of professionalization in our discipline. We spent most of our time wondering how we would graduate given our financial situation, how we would clean up those incompletes that had accumulated, and so on. Many of us were not bold enough to send papers to professional conferences or journals. We started to think about publications a little late in the game. This is what needs to change the most in my opinion.

I have a feeling some of this already has. I see more students from this program publishing in professional journals and conferences, learning the vagaries of the reviewing process, and most fundamentally, starting to see themselves as professors in training. May this process continue.

We can most help our graduates by making sure they produce scholarly output by the time they graduate. A publication in a top-ranked journal or two, possibly as a result of a semester long mentored study with a faculty member. Done right, this could be of considerable value to the faculty member as well. It seems this idea (or some variant thereof) is on the table, and I’m all for it.

My experience with the Grad Center‘s curriculum was largely positive. I enjoyed the Core courses and the broad grounding they provided in the central issues of the discipline. If I had a complaint–and this was echoed by many of my cohort–it was that the classes were often quite ahistorical. Some or most of the reading lists/syllabi were almost exclusively 20th century in content. I would be in favor of standardizing core reading lists so as to make them more comprehensive and rigorous, but I’m not overly optimistic that any sort of consensus would be reached.

My exam experiences were mixed. I enjoyed studying for the written and oral exams because again, I felt I gained a synoptic perspective on the discipline. Of the exams the oral exam was the most useful. I felt one of the written exams had become a little silly because its questions had become predictable. And the other exam was so out in left-field, I felt blindsided by the lack of a definitive reading list. But this problem has been taken care of–I believe–thanks to structured reading lists. I’m not against getting rid of the comprehensives because the education they aim to impart can be provided by other requirements.

I did my 60 credits for coursework as follows: six cores (Metaphysics, Epistemology, Philosophy of Language, Ethics, Logic, Social and Political Philosophy); one independent study in Mathematical Methods for Physicists at NYU; one class on Space and Time at Columbia; one class on Film and the City at the GC; and eleven other classes from our Departmental offerings. I felt my education was well-rounded, and that I had numerous opportunities to specialize in many different fields. At no stage in my Ph.D or during the job hunt, did I feel the curriculum had been a problem.

I wished more professors had urged me to convert my term papers into conference presentations, or to take the germ of an idea in there and explore it further, possibly for a conference presentation or a journal article.  That’s what I felt was missing.

As always, I would be very interested in comments.

Philosophical Silencing: A Follow-Up

In response to my post on an act of philosophical silencing, Wesley Buckwalter wrote the following comment (over at the NewAPPS blog, where I cross-posted):

As you know, I was the gentleman that made that remark in a private facebook thread with a close friend. If I recall correctly, people in that thread were asking about whether certain kinds of thought experiments were typically referred to as “Gettier Cases”. I said that they were, despite how inaccurate or uninformative it might be to do so, in part because of the alternative traditions you cite. I’m sorry you interpreted my remark as silencing my friends on facebook. Personally I believe that philosophers should abandon the notion of “Gettier cases” and that the practice of labeling thought experiments in this way should be discouraged. If you are interested, I have recently argued for this in two articles here (http://philpapers.org/rec/BLOGCA) and here (http://philpapers.org/rec/TURKAL).

Many thanks to Wesley for his clarification. His initial comment, which I cited, did not acknowledge the content of the other comment I had quoted, and neither did it mention the presence of “alternative traditions” as a reason for the stance that he takes in the first of the two papers he refers me to. Those papers, if I remember correctly, were not cited in the thread. So, in the comment he had initially made, it had seemed to me that the amendment offered by the first commenter had not been taken on board.(In the Gettier case paper, Wesley refers to the following article–Turri, John. 2012. In Gettier’s Wake. In S. Hetherington (Ed.) Epistemology: The Key Thinkers. Continuum Press–as citing the Indian philosopher Sriharsa as someone who has offered similar examples. I am obviously very glad to see such an acknowledgment made in a published work.)

Let me go on to say that the attitude I was interested in highlighting, even if not instantiated in this particular token, is an existent type. (As you can tell, I was trained as an Anglo-American analytical philosopher.) Which is why I was not interested in naming individuals but in pointing to the existence of an intellectual stance. To the commenter Chris, who thinks he was ‘misled’, let me direct the following question:  What were you misled about? That an unnamed individual indulged in silencing or that the silencing of academic conversations about alternative philosophical traditions exists in academic philosophy? Perhaps my excessive familiarity with such acts of silencing, thanks to twenty-three years of utter failure in provoking a conversation about Indian philosophy, led me to the kind of conclusions I drew. I don’t think the conclusion to be drawn in response to my original post is that all is good, there is nothing to see here, and that we should just move on.

I started studying philosophy twenty-three years ago. In that time, I’ve only managed to provoke conversations about alternative philosophical traditions with the following demographics: one graduate school friend of mine who asked me a few questions about Indian philosophy while we were drinking beers, one senior professor who teaches Buddhism (among other things), my dissertation adviser (an Indian) who is a practicing Buddhist, and the attendees at a conference on Eastern philosophy a few years ago. In that same period, I’ve initiated several conversations about Indian philosophy, and have had them all shot down with varying degrees of skepticism and disdain. My worst mistake was to try to talk about Buddhist theories of relational consciousness with the members of a class on consciousness who were going down the usual Nagel-Block-Rosenthal-Ramachandran-Churchland et al route.

I realized over the years that most people I talked to in philosophical academia conflated ‘Eastern philosophy’ with ‘mysticism’. In response, I would sometimes point to the ‘harder’ schools: Samkhya and Lokyata (or Carvaka). The latter, in particular, was materialist in its orientation; perhaps that would appeal to the hard-edged analytical types I hung out with, the ones so enamored of science? Sometimes I would try to talk about Nyaya;  you know, logic and inference, and all that good stuff that analytical types like and love? No dice. It never worked. I was perceived as either indulging in a kind of facile ‘We’ve done it all before!’–perhaps like someone invoking the glories of the Nubian empire in a modern conversation about technological and cultural achievements–or dragging in wishy-washy pale imitations of the real thing.  (Logic only started with Frege, Russell, and Wittgenstein, dontcha know?)

But, of course, those traditions were not the only ones so dismissed. Within ‘Western philosophy’ I have heard graduate students who had never read Foucault dismiss him as ‘useless’, describe feminist theory as fundamentally misguided, and the less said about critical race theory, the better.

A few weeks ago, I posted a photograph of an old family friend, a former professor of philosophy, with the following caption:

A photo of my brother and myself with Dr. Dhirendra Sharma, a man I deeply admire and respect. He is the author of _The Negative Dialectics: A Study of the Negative Dialecticism in Indian Philosophy_, _The Differentiation Theory of Meaning in Indian Logic_, a critic of India’s nuclear program back in the 1970s, (when he was writing about “appropriate technology”), an environmental activist working to preserve the Garhwal Himalayas, and going back further, an anti-Vietnam war activist when he had tenure at Michigan State. He is now in his 80s, fit as a fiddle, bright as ever. I aspire to his health and wisdom.

Posting that photograph reminded me of an incident that occurred during my thirtieth birthday. On that day, many of my graduate school friends showed up to help me celebrate. Some of us moved to my room to drink beer and smoke cigarettes. I then owned one of Professor Sharma’s books and I took it down from the shelves and thrust it toward one of my friends. Because it featured ‘meaning’ in its title, and because all of us, as analytical types, seemed suitably obeisant toward philosophy of language, I thought it might get someone interested in opening it and taking a look. Instead, it was contemptuously waved off, even when I desperately said that it invoked distinctions that were reminiscent of the Fregean distinction between sense and reference. No one accepted the book held out, and it remained unopened.

Silencing exists.

An Act Of Philosophical Silencing

A few months ago, I noticed an interesting and telling interaction between a group of academic philosophers. A Facebook friend posted a little note about how one of her students had written to her about having encountered a so-called “Gettier case” i.e., she had acquired a true belief for invalid reasons. In the email, the student described how he/she had been told the ‘right time’ by a broken clock. The brief discussion that broke out in response to my friend’s note featured a comment from someone noting that the broken clock example is originally due to Bertrand Russell. A little later, a participant in the discussion offered the following comment:

Even though the clock case is due to Russell, it’s worth noting that “Gettier” cases were present in Nyāya philosophy in India well before Russell, for instance in the work of Gaṅgeśa, circa 1325 CE. The example is of someone inferring that there is fire on a faraway mountain based on the presence of smoke (a standard case of inference in Indian philosophy), but the smoke is actually dust. As it turns out, though, there is a fire on the mountain. See the Tattva-cintā-maṇi or “Jewel of Reflection on the Truth of Epistemology.” [links added]

In response to this, one gentleman wrote:

[T]here are countless cases that are standardly referred to as gettier kinds despite author, radical diversity, historical inaccuracy

I found this response peculiar, and yet, interestingly revealing.

Naming a particular fact-pattern, one used in a standard pedagogical example, as a “Gettier case” is not an innocent act. It is fraught with significance. It attaches the name of a person, an individual philosopher, to an entire range of philosophical cases used to illustrate epistemological principles. That person, that philosopher, does not come unattached; his name brings in its train an entire philosophical tradition and serves to stamp its institutions and its personnel with the imprimatur of philosophical innovator, as worthwhile contributors to a hallowed–and well-established and recognized–tradition. Because of this naming process, in part, an entire area of philosophical work is marked off and stamped with a certain kind of ownership.

Of even more interest to me is the response I made note of. A philosophical discussion is underway, proceeding along familiar, well-worn lines. Names of well-known philosophers from well-known traditions roll off everyone’s lips. Then, an interjection is made: politely pointing out that the nomenclature in use has an etymology that is not always acknowledged. This reminder is provided, I repeat, politely. There is no snark, and pointers to references are provided for the interesting reader. It is the very model of a respectful academic contribution to a philosophical discussion; I dare say I’d call it a useful philosophical contribution for the interested scholar of philosophy.

The response to this contribution–the first one, before any welcoming acknowledgments can be made–is, roughly, to cease and desist. There’s a conversation going on; it’s following the usual well-worn path, and you’d like us to look elsewhere? The nerve. There is no acknowledgment of an alternative tradition.

This is what silencing looks like.

Addendum: In response to my post, Professor Alan Richardson of the University of British Columbia wrote to me saying:

I find it interesting that the stopped clock example, which Russell mentions in a sentence of his 1948 Human Knowledge (on p 154 of the 1948 Simon and Schuster edition) would have been known to Russell (indeed to have been derived by Russell, one imagines) from Lewis Carroll’s little 1898 essay “The Two Clocks.”

Here’s a version of the Carroll essay from the web. 

So, Russell’s example gets subsumed under “Gettier cases” and what I have to think is the inspiration for it (the Carroll essay) goes missing.  Yes, just another example of “the Matthew Effect” but given what your post was about, it seemed interesting enough.

‘Don’t Call Me A Philosopher’

I cringe, I wince, when I hear someone refer to me as a ‘philosopher.’ I never use that description for myself. Instead, I prefer locutions like, “I teach philosophy at the City University of New York”, or “I am a professor of philosophy.” This is especially the case if someone asks me, “Are you a philosopher?”. In that case, my reply begins, “Well, I am a professor of philosophy…”. Once, one of my undergraduate students asked me, “Professor, what made you become a philosopher?” And I replied, “Well, I don’t know if I would go so far as to call myself a philosopher, though I did get a Ph.D in it, and…”. You get the picture.

I’m not sure why this is the case. I think folks that have Ph.Ds in mathematics or physics or economics and who teach those subjects and produce academic works in those domains have no hesitation in calling themselves mathematicians or physicists or economists.

Part of the problem, of course, is that in our day and age, in our culture, ‘philosopher’ has come to stand for some kind of willful pedant, a non-productive member of society, content to not contribute to the Gross Domestic Product but to merely stand on the sidelines and take potshots at those who actually produce value. The hair-splitter, the boringly didactic drone. (Once, shortly after a friend and I had finished watching Once Were Warriors, we began a discussion of its merits. As I began pointing out that the director’s explicit depiction of violence toward women might have been necessary to drive home a broader point about the degradation of Maori culture, my friend interrupted, “There you go, being philosophical again! Can’t you just keep things simple?”).

But this modern disdain for the ‘philosopher’, this assessment of her uselessness, her unemployability, is not the only reason that I shrink from being termed one. There is another pole of opinion that I tend toward: ‘philosopher’ sounds a little too exalted, a little too lofty; it sounds insufferably pompous. It comes packaged with too many pretensions, too many claims to intellectual rectitude and hygiene. Far too often, that title has served as cover for too many sorts of intellectual prejudice. To describe myself thus or allow someone else to do would be to permit a placement on a pedestal of sorts, one I’m not comfortable occupying. (This situation has not been helped by the fact that when someone has described me thus in company, others have giggled and said “Oh, you’re a philosopher now?” – as if I had rather grandiosely allowed such a title to be assigned to me.)

This discomfort arises in part from my self-assessment of intellectual worth, of course. I do not think I am sufficiently well-read in the philosophical literature; there are huge, gaping, gaps in my education. I remain blithely unaware of the contours of many philosophical debates and traditions; the number of classics that I keep reminding myself I have to stop merely quoting and citing and actually read just keeps on growing. I do not write clearly or prolifically enough.  And so on. (Some of these feelings should be familiar to many of my colleagues in the academic world.)

For the time being, I’m happy enough to make do with the opportunity that I’ve been offered to be able to read, write, and teach philosophy. The titles can wait.

Changing Philosophical Career Paths

I began my academic philosophy career as a ‘logician.’ I wrote a dissertation on belief revision, and was advised by a brilliant logician, Rohit Parikh, someone equally comfortable in the departments of computer science, philosophy and mathematics. Belief revision (or ‘theory change’ if you prefer) is a topic of interest to mathematicians, logicians, and computer scientists. Because of the last-named demographic, I was able to apply for, and be awarded, a post-doctoral fellowship with a logics for artificial intelligence group in Sydney, Australia. (In my two years on the philosophy job market, I sent out one hundred and fourteen applications, and scored precisely zero interviews. My visits to the APA General Meeting in 1999 and 2001 were among the most dispiriting experiences of my life; I have never attended that forum again. The scars run too deep.)

During my post-doctoral fellowship, I continued to write on belief revision but I also co-authored papers on belief merging (which has the same formal structure as social choice theory), non-monotonic logic, and dynamic logic (in the area known as ‘reasoning about actions.’) Some papers went into the Journal of Philosophical Logic and related journals; yet others went into the refereed proceedings of the most important artificial intelligence conferences. Because of my publication record and because of my stellar job hunt numbers in the philosophy job market, I decided to apply for a computer science job at Brooklyn College. I interviewed, and got the job; I was assured I could teach in the philosophy department as well. (So, in philosophy, my numbers were 0-114; in computer science 1-1.)

A few years later, around 2005 or so, I stopped working in logic. I declined invitations to conferences, I dropped out of co-authored projects; I put away, on the back-burner, many unfinished projects. (Some of them still strike me as very interesting, and if a promising graduate student would ever want to work on them, I would consider advising him/her.) This was not a very smart move professionally; I had finally, after five years of work, acquired a cohort of like-minded researchers (and friends); I had become a member of academic and professional networks; some of my work had become known to people in the field; I had managed to secure funding for release time, conference visits, and academic visitors; my work was generating problems, like the ones mentioned above, which could be worked on by graduate students; and so on. This was especially not a clever move given my impending tenure and promotion review in 2007; I would have to begin anew in a new field and make headway there.

But I just couldn’t work as a logician any more. I wasn’t an incompetent logician but I wasn’t as good a logician as the folks I regularly interacted with in the course of my work. Working in logic didn’t come easily to me; I had to work harder than most to get anything done in it. I had also realized that while I enjoyed puzzling out the philosophical and conceptual implications of the various models for belief change, belief merging, and reasoning about actions that I worked on, I did not so much enjoy working on producing rigorous proofs of the various propositions these models entailed. I did not feel, as it were, a ‘flow‘ in my work. (I continued to enjoy teaching related material; I taught discrete mathematics, artificial intelligence, and the theory of computation for the computer science department, and loved every minute of it. Well, I exaggerate, but you catch my drift.)

So I turned my mind to something else. I have no regrets about my decision. And I have no regrets about having spent six years working in the areas I did work in prior to my ‘departure.’ I learned a great deal of logic; I grew to appreciate the work of mathematicians and logicians and theoretical computer scientists; straddling disciplines was a deeply edifying experience; I am happy I did not spend all my time talking to philosophers. But I couldn’t stay there.

I continued to teach in both departments, and then finally, in 2010, I transferred from the computer science department to the philosophy department. I was finally ‘home.’

I wonder if readers of this blog have changed their career paths for reasons similar or dissimilar to mine. Perhaps you found yourself no longer engaged by the central problems in your area of interest; or perhaps something else altogether. I am curious, and interested.

Fiction On Philosophy Reading Lists

Last week, over at the NewAPPS (Arts, Politics, Philosophy, Science) blog, where I’ve started blogging as part of a group of academic philosophers, I posted the following:

In my post yesterday, I had written of how discussion centering on a classic philosophical debate could be sparked by a reading of fiction. (The upper-tier core class I’m teaching, Philosophical Issues in Literature, is of course, all about that!) But fiction features in another reading list of mine–via Walter Kaufman‘s eclectic anthology, Religion from Tolstoy to Camus–which I am using in this semester’s philosophy of religion class. We talked about The Death of Ivan Ilyich yesterday in class and it induced a fascinating, wide-ranging discussion covering religious feeling, existential crises, metaphysical rebellion, philosophy’s relationship to death, Tolstoy’s critique of organized religion and so on. I have too, in the past, used fiction in my philosophy of feminism class (Ursula Le Guin‘s The Left Hand of Darkness). I wrote about that experience over on my personal blog; it was a wholly positive one.

I would be interested in hearing from other folks on their use of fiction in their class reading lists. Where and how did you do so? What was your experience like? Links to sample syllabi would be awesome.

My post triggered a series of very interesting responses, which should be of value to academic philosophers and to anyone interested in the relationship between philosophy and literature. Please do check out the comments thread; you will find many recommendations for reading, pointers to how they may be used in the classroom, as well as an indication of their philosophical significance.

Academic Writing In Philosophy: On Finding Older Writing Samples

Yesterday, while cleaning up an old homepage of mine, I found some old papers written while I was in graduate school. Overcome by curiosity–and rather recklessly, if I may say so–I converted the old Postscript format to PDF, and took a closer look.

The first is titled ‘No Cognition Without Representation’; its abstract reads:

A critical look at the emulation theory of representation [due to Rick Grush] and its claims to have shown a) the dynamical thesis of cognition to be incomplete and b) to have provided a necessary condition on cognition.

The second is titled ‘Quantum Mechanical Explanation, Nonseperability and Causality’; its abstract reads:

Does using non-separable processes (as quantum mechanical processes might be understood) in scientific explanations violate some crucial methodological principle? I argue that the answer is no.

The third is titled ‘Folk Psychology, Connectionism and Constraints on Believers’; its abstract reads:

An examination of the argument that connectionism leads to eliminativist conclusions about the mind; I argue further that often, constraints placed on believers by proponents of folk psychology seem to be arbitrary.

The fourth is titled ‘Contextualism, Skepticism and Kinds of Possibilities’; its abstract reads:

A sympathetic examination of contextualist claims to have solved the skeptical puzzle.

As might be expected, as I looked through these papers (written between 1994-1999), I experienced some mixed feelings. One of them–the first above–was presented at a conference and featured in its proceedings; I submitted it later to Philosophical Psychology and was asked to revise and resubmit, but never got around to it; a publication opportunity missed.  I was advised to rework my conclusion to the third paper into a longer piece and submit to a journal; again, I was overcome by lassitude. Clearly, I didn’t seem to have been overly eager to add lines to my CV, a rather self-indulgent attitude.

Far more interesting, I think, was my reaction on reading my writing and its so-called ‘style’: I write very much like a generic Anglo-American analytic philosopher. There is a forensic quality to my analysis; I pick arguments apart with some care and precision, deploying the tools of the trade that I had learned, not just by reading journal articles but also by observing verbal disputation at philosophy colloquia (a paper I wrote on Michael Slote‘s From Morality to Virtue was found particularly devastating by my professor; he suggested I had ‘really gone to town on Slote’); I use standard turns of phrase; like all good ‘analytic types’ I sprinkle abbreviations and faux mathematical symbols throughout; my writing has little ornamentation or flourish; it is also not distinctive in any interesting way.

By that stage in my education–as I worked through the large amount of coursework required in my program–it is apparent I had started to learn some of the tricks of the trade: writing in a knowing voice, subconsciously taking on the verbal mannerisms and tics of the writing that I had been exposed to. I was seeking to blend in, to become part of this new group I was seeking admission to; emulation seemed like the best way to do so. There is little doubt in my mind that had I continued to travel in roughly the same philosophical neighborhoods as above–philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, and epistemology–I would have settled into a writing groove, perhaps churning out papers on what I saw as the latest trends and topics in philosophy. (Each of the four topics above was in ‘vogue’ in the 1990s.)

Success–such as it is–in academic writing can very often be a matter of writing in a way that does not induce too much dissonance or discomfort in your referees, your peers; these were, very often, trained just like you were. They regulate membership and admission; to be heard you often must sound like them.