Wednesday, January 17, 2007

What Makes a "Good" Philosophy Department?

The New York Times had an article about the Philosophical Gourmet Report. It focuses primarily on Rutgers' high ranking which, I suppose, might surprise some people who are more familiar thinking of Rutgers as New Jersey's state university. (People at my high school in New Jersey would always say, condescendingly, about Rutgers "Oh, that's a good school" when what they really meant was that they wouldn't be caught dead going there.)

The article also touches on the fact that some departments, at good universities, aren't ranked by the Gourmet Report, or rank very low. And so there's this quote from John J. Stuhr, from Vanderbilt:

“Schools like Rutgers and N.Y.U. emphasize analytic philosophy, and most of the evaluators emphasize that, so schools like Vanderbilt and Northwestern and Penn State, which don’t, aren’t going to do as well,” said John J. Stuhr, a philosophy professor at Vanderbilt. “It’s like asking about the best painters of all time. If you asked Cubists, you would get a list of Cubists; Impressionists, the same thing. I’m sure Rutgers has a good department. It just doesn’t emphasize what we do.”
Brian Leiter responds to this as follows:

But most breathtaking is John Stuhr's idiotic comment that Rutgers "doesn't emphasize what we do," where "we" means Vanderbilt. It is true that Rutgers doesn't much emphasize history of philosophy or Continental philosophy (that's why NYU is #1, and Rutgers #2), but how could that explain why Vanderbilt has never been close to the top 50 and barely rates in any historical areas? The difference between Rutgers and Vanderbilt isn't "emphasis": it's that Vanderbilt has a weak faculty, even in most of the areas it purports to "emphasize" like post-Kantian Continental philosophy. (Rutgers, by the way, is obviously much stronger in the history of ancient and early modern philosophy than Vanderbilt; only in American pragmatism does Vanderbilt have an edge.) One would need only ask the dozens of philosophers specializing in those areas who completed the PGR surveys, after all.
I think that's pretty incendiary, actually.

I'm not quite sure what Stuhr meant when he referred to "what we do" at Vanderbilt. And I don't have any inside knowledge of the Vanderbilt department. But I do get suspicious with statements like "Vanderbilt has a weak faculty."

The Gourmet Report is a measure of faculty quality. Here's what that means:

"Faculty quality" should be taken to encompass the quality of philosophical work and talent represented by the faculty and the range of areas they cover, with the two weighted as you think appropriate. Since the rankings are used by prospective students, about to embark on a multi-year course of study, you may also take in to account, as you see fit, considerations like the status (full-time, part-time) of the faculty; the age of the faculty (as a somewhat tenuous guide to prospective availability, not quality); and the quality of training the faculty provide, to the extent you have information about this.
So to say that Vanderbilt has a weak faculty is to say, for the most part, that their faculty produce work that is not high quality.

When Stuhr said that Vanderbilt doesn't "do" what Rutgers does, that could mean a couple of different things. First, it could refer to more than just what the faculty publish. Maybe faculty at Vanderbilt approach their jobs differently, maybe they try to create a different atmosphere...there are lots of possibilities. Second, it could mean that, while Vanderbilt and Rutgers cover the same topics, they do it differently, perhaps with different methodologies or guiding assumptions.

Again, I don't claim to know what Stuhr meant -- but I think there are ways of reading his statement that are more charitable than Leiter's interpretation. What he says isn't obviously "idiotic" to me.

And, of course, this raises the question of how the departments in the Gourmet Report are ranked. The danger is that the Report is just an echo chamber. A good department gets a high ranking -- and what makes it a good department? Well, its high ranking, of course.

One problem with the Report is that everyone has a horse in the race. Even though you can't rank your own department, or the department where you earned your degree, we all have reasons (maybe unconscious) for wanting to give a bump to some department or other. Maybe a friend teaches there, etc., etc. And while I suppose philosophers are best able to judge other philosophers, we're also the most likely to bring bias to the exercise. Again, we all have horses in this race.

One idea I've been wondering about is how other academics would rank philosophy departments. If you asked some sociologists, or physicists, or literary theorists, or political scientists which are the best philosophy departments, you might get a measure of how well regarded a department is outside of philosophy. That's a ranking I'd be very interested in seeing, since it would be an antidote to the excessive navel-gazing to which much academic philosophy is prone. Maybe it would correspond to the Gourmet rankings, but I'm not at all sure it would. (Of course, some of the philosophers who've had the most influence outside philosophy are no longer members of philosophy departments. That's a sad reality, and the topic of another post.)

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Changing Perceptions of "Pragmatism"

I've been struck by how often Gerald Ford has been described lately as a "pragmatist." This is usually in the context of his pardoning Nixon: that this was the pragmatic thing to do, and it was good that Ford did it. I'm not sure it was a good thing to do, but I'm glad to see Ford's pragmatism treated as a virtue.

Now, I'm not sure I can back this up, but I don't think it was always so. When I started getting interested in pragmatism, in the mid-1990's, I think pragmatism was sort of a pejorative. If someone was pragmatic, that meant they didn't have strong convictions or principles. I remember Stephen Breyer being described as a pragmatist when he was a new Supreme Court Justice, and it wasn't meant positively.

I'm not sure, either, what has changed. Has the meaning of "pragmatism" changed in the last 10 years? Or has the meaning stayed the same, but not our attitude toward it?

Of course, there's also a difference between pragmatism, used colloquially, and pragmatism, the philosophical method. But there's enough overlap that when the former becomes a virtue, it may bode well for the latter, too.

P.S. I've been thinking a little more about this and I think my original thoughts may have been naive. Another way of looking at it is that "pragmatism" is good when Republicans embrace it but bad when Democrats do. So the recent mentions of Ford's "pragmatism" would be little more than another example of hypocrisy.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Job Interviews and a Great Idea

I just got back from the APA Eastern meeting in Washington D.C. As usual, it was focused around the job market. That's a bad thing because a) it puts a lot of pressure on the people being interviewed and b) it detracts from the conference because i) lots of people don't have time to attend sessions and ii) the main topic of conversation is the job market. At least that's been my impression.

Finally I came up with a good--no, great--solution: doing interviews through video conferencing. This would have a lot of advantages. First, there wouldn't be the same hassles for people interviewing:

1) the expense and hassle of traveling between Christmas and New Year's
2) the pressure to glad-hand at the "smoker" after interviews
3) the frustration of seeing and being surrounded by your competition

Second, this would also be easier on the interviewers: again, no need to travel between Christmas and New Year's, to go to a conference where one will spend 12-15 hours interviewing.

Finally, I think the technology is just about where it needs to be so that video interviews wouldn't be that hard to do.

The interesting question is this: if it weren't for the job market, how many people would come to the Eastern APA? My theory is this: so significantly fewer that it would make sense to move the conference to another time. Mid-November? Another problem solved.

In fact, the more I think about this the harder it is to find reasons not to do the interviews over the web. I honestly can't think of one reason why the present system is better for the people being interviewed.