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.

A Rankings Tale (That Might Rankle)

This is a story about rankings. Not of philosophy departments but of law schools. It is only tangentially relevant to the current, ongoing debate in the discipline about the Philosophical Gourmet Report. Still, some might find it of interest. So, without further ado, here goes.

A half a dozen years ago, shortly after my book Decoding Liberation: The Promise of Free and Open Source Software had been published, and after I had begun work on attempting to develop the outlines of a legal theory for artificial intelligence, I considered applying to law school. For these projects, I had taught myself a bit of copyright, patent and trade secret law; I had studied informational privacy, torts, contracts, knowledge attribution, agency law; but all of this was auto-didactic. Perhaps a formal education in law would help my further forays into legal theory (which continue to this day). Living in New York City meant I could have access to some top-class departments–NYU, Columbia, Yale–some of whose scholars would also make for good collaborators in my chosen field of study. I decided to go the whole hog: the LSAT and all of the rest. (Yes, I know it sounds ghastly, but somehow I overcame my instinctive revulsion at the prospect of taking that damn test.)

An application for law school requires recommendation letters. I anticipated no difficulty with this. I knew a few legal scholars–professors at law schools–who were familiar with my work, and I hoped they would write letters for me, perhaps describing the work I had produced till that point in time. The response was gratifying; my acquaintances all said they’d be happy to write me letters.  I went ahead with the rest of my application package, even as I had begun to feel that law school looked like an impractical proposition–thanks to its expenses. Taking out loans would have meant a second mortgage and that seemed a rather bizarre burden to take on.

In any case, I took the LSAT. I did not do particularly well. I used to be good in standardized tests back in my high school and undergraduate days but not any more. My score was a rather mediocre 163 (in the 90th percentile), clearly insufficient for admission to any of the departments I was interested in applying to. Still, I reasoned, perhaps the admissions committees would look past that score. Perhaps they’d consider my logical acumen as being adequately demonstrated by my publications in The Journal of Philosophical Logic; perhaps a doctorate in philosophy would show evidence of my ability to parse arguments and write; and I did have a contract for a book on legal theory. Perhaps that would outweigh this little lacuna.

One of my letter writers, a professor at Columbia Law School, invited me to have coffee with him to talk about my decision to go to law school. When we did so, he told me he had written me an excellent letter but he wondered whether law school was a good idea. He urged me to reconsider my decision, saying I would do better to stay on my auto-didactic path (and besides, the expenses were not inconsiderable). I said I had started to have second thoughts about the whole business and had not yet made up my mind. He then asked me my LSAT score. When I told him, he guffawed: I did not stand a snowball’s chance in hell of getting into the departments I was interested in. But, surely, I said, with a letter and a good word from you, and my publication record, I stood a chance. He guffawed again. Let me tell you a story, he said.

A few years prior, he had met a bright young computer science student, a graduate from a top engineering school, with an excellent GPA, who had wanted to study law at Columbia. He was interested in patent law, and had–I think, if I remember correctly–even written a few essays on software patents, mounting a critique of existing regimes, and outlining alternatives to them. He had asked my current interlocutor to write him a recommendation letter for Columbia. There was just one problem: his LSAT score was in the low 160s. Just like mine, not good enough for Columbia. Time to talk to the Dean, to see if perhaps an exception could be made in his case. The Dean was flabbergasted: there was no way such an exception could be made. But, my letter writer protested, this student met the profile for an ideal Columbia Law student, especially given his interests: he had a stellar undergraduate record in a relevant field, he had shown an aptitude for law, he had overcome personal adversity to make it through college (his family was from a former Soviet republic and he had immigrated with them to the US a few years before after suffering considerable economic hardship). Couldn’t an exception be made in this case?

The Dean listened with some sympathy but said his hands were tied. Admitting a student with such a LSAT score would do damage to their ‘LSAT numbers’ – the ones the US News and World Report used for law school rankings. Admitting a student with with an LSAT score in the low 160s would mean finding someone with a score in the high 170s to make sure the ‘LSAT numbers’–their median value, for instance–remained unaffected. God forbid, if the ‘LSAT numbers’ were hit hard enough, NYU might overtake Columbia in the rankings next year. The fate of a Dean who had allowed NYU to slip past Columbia in the USNWR rankings did not bear thinking about. Sorry, there was little he could do. Ask your admittedly excellent student to apply elsewhere.

Nothing quite made up my mind not to go to law school like that story did. Still, my application was complete; test scores and letters were in. So I applied. And was rejected at every single school I applied to.

Once More: ‘Intellectual Property’ Breeds Confusion; Drop it

Rarely, if ever, does the term ‘intellectual property’ add clarity to any debate of substance–very often, this is because it includes the term ‘property’ and thus offers an invitation to some dubious theorizing. This post by Alex Rosenberg at Daily Nous is a good example of this claim:

Locke famously offered an account of the justification of private property, one that Nozick brought to our attention in Anarchy, State and Utopia. The account worked like this: morally permissible private property begins with original acquisition, and that happens when you mix your labor with nature, and leave as good and as much for others. Alas, this “Lockean” proviso is impossible to satisfy. Or at least it is in every original acquisition other than the case of intellectual property. Here one mixes one mental labor with nature—empirical facts about reality, including social reality. Since there are an infinite number of good ideas, the creator of intellectual property leaves as much and as good for others, and therefore has an unqualified right to what he has created.

Brian Leiter’s ownership of the PGR satisfies the most stringent test of private property I know. It’s his creation and he excluded no one else from mixing his or her labor with nature to produce a substitute for or for that matter a complement to his creation.

In light of this fact, the effort to separate him from his intellectual property owing to disapproval of his emails and posts seems rather preposterous.

It has often been proposed–most notably by Richard Stallman, free software‘s most fiery proponent-that the term ‘intellectual property’ be junked in favor of more precise usage. That is, when you are tempted to use the term ‘intellectual property’ use ‘copyright,’ ‘patents,’ ‘trademarks,’ or ‘trade secrets’ instead. Doing this would enable immediate grappling with the precise nature of the issue at hand–in each named domain there are separable legal and policy issues at play.

For instance, the granting of copyright is not the recognition of an abstract property right. It is a utilitarian policy decision–to allow the collection of monopoly rent for a limited period of time–with a very specific objective in mind: the creation of more artistic works. If someone’s copyright rights have allegedly been violated, we may begin by trying to identify the concrete expression that was supposedly copyrightable, the identification of the nature of the infringement–unauthorized reproduction or the production of derivative works–and so on. Incidentally, matters become a tad confusing because Rosenberg talks about ‘mixing mental labor with nature.’ Locke did not have ‘nature’ in mind, rather he had in mind fallow land. Which is precisely not the nature of artistic creation, where the creator does not interact with ‘fallow land’ but mixes his ideas with the ideas of others to create a new work.

In the case of the Philosophical Gourmet Report, it relies for its content on the availability of a great deal of openly available material; collation, processing, and analysis turns this into a new work–the PGR, the new concrete expression. There is indeed a copyright in the particular concrete expression of the PGR–the individual blog pages and the material in them–its author’s commentaries, analysis, and summaries. The unauthorized copying of the content of these is indeed prohibited, as is the production of derivative works–for instance, an unauthorized abridgment of his explanation of the rankings. But the current proposals aimed at changing the ‘management’ of the PGR aim to do nothing of this sort. Prof. Leiter’s concrete expressions–the current content of the PGR–remain his; he could continue to produce them, retain his copyright, and proceed as before. And indeed, an entirely new set of rankings may be produced, using the same ‘raw material’ available to the current authors of the PGR, subjected to new analysis and commentary, and thus resulting in a new concrete expression, a new set of rankings. Also copyrightable.

Analytic philosophers–who are so proud of their claims to provide conceptual clarity–shouldn’t continue to traffic in a term as obfuscatory as ‘intellectual property.’