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.)


Blogger realkid said...

Somewhat to his credit, Leiter has, over the years, tried to overcome the "echo chamber" effect of the Gourmet Report by adding more and more evaluators and by adding more and more subject areas. The problem is (as James Bohman & others pointed out with phil of social science and others have pointed out with the American Philosophy evaluators that skew towards Peirceans), the echo chamber has just gotten larger. Leiter has an operant definition of what good philosophy is (or, perhaps more accurately, of who does good philosophy and where it is done) and this influences who is picked to be an evaluator (and who accepts). This, in turn, influences what the evaluators single out as good work. Try as he might to suppress it, this bias comes out over and over again in the report. For Leiter though, it appears to be more than just bias, extending to antipathy or even neurosis. What else can explain the way in which he starts a blog entry disparaging journalists for misrepresentation, then excuses a comment by Brian McLaughlin as obviously misrepresented, only to go on to take as obviously true and obviously idiotic the quote attributed to John Stuhr? What happened to the theme of journalistic misrepresentation? Obviously, if a statement seems to fit his prejudice, it must be true and it must mean what he says it means. Your suggestion that Stuhr may have meant any number of things is the correct one, but Leiter does not extend the charity he does to Mclaughlin or the suspicion that he gives the article as a whole.

9:02 AM  
Blogger hilde said...

I would raise this very simple question: what kind of philosopher would spend huge amounts of his time creating and maintaining a ranking system? I mean, really: is that the activity of a philosopher or a petty mandarin?

Musicians who write muzak or cheap tv themes are hacks. Philosophers who spend their time and energy ranking other people are hacks.

11:54 PM  
Blogger Joe said...

I'm not necessarily willing to endorse the echo chamber effect of the Leiter Report. Perhaps I'm missing your point.

Good departments aren't good because of their high ranking; they're good because of their faculty. The higher the quality of faculty translates into a higher ranking on the Leiter Report.

According to Leiter - generally speaking - departments are good because of the quality and reputation of the department's faculty members. Peers judge the quality of a department's faculty by the quality of their work. A department's high ranking depends on the quality of the faculty and their work, not on the ranking of the department.

If the echo chamber effect were true, then I gather that departments wouldn't be able to ascend (or descend) in Leiter's rankings. A few examples show that this is not the case, e.g., Miami, Cal-Davis, Cal-Santa Barbara, Wash. U (St. Louis), or Arizona.

11:59 AM  
Blogger Khadimir said...

I wish to make a comment as one who feels that schools like Rutgers, etc, "doesn't emphasize what we do" and in indirect response to Joe's previous post.

First, I find it surprising that Penn State, Stonybrook, and Northwestern neither rank highly on the Leiter Report nor gain his esteem whatsoever. Among my peers at Southern Illinois University and the correlative American and Continental philosophy peer group, each of these universities rank as exceptional, though one wishing to study American would do better at Vanderbuilt than Stonybrook. But then, is that not a potential point of Stuhr's comment? Philosophy is not uniform, self-same, as a discipline and study, hence the fact that Rutgers may cover many areas in the history of philosophy and its contemporary disciplines does not mean that it is a uniformly exceptional school *for academic reasons*.

To address the mobility of rankings as evidence to the quality of the Leiter Report .... My own institution did not rank at all in our specialty, which is American philosophy, despite housing the Dewey Center, having past and current presidents of the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy as faculty, and housing the archives of the Monist and Open Court in which much of classical Pragmatism was published. One could argue about where SIU would rank, but not to rank at all for years? Then, one day, SIU appears favorably in the rankings as inserted by special commitee. Besides the oddity of this, it is not indicative of something peculiar about the ranking process that an institution goes from not ranking to a favorable ranking by special appointment. Perhaps Leiter's system is not adequate to rank this domain of philosophy? Are there others?

It take it as no coincidence that the former Penn State and Vanderbuilt are also universities with a very strong showing in American philosophy. It seems that "we who emphasize" American philosophy are in this boat together.

12:59 PM  
Blogger phil77 said...

Is 'weak' supposed to be a relative or an objective term? It seems to me that ranking say the "top" 50 departments can only tell us that by whatever criteria are being used, the 50 or so departments that are ranked come out best. But how do one get to infer from that, that unranked departments are weak?

Maybe there are a good number more than 50 departments where one could get a very strong education and training in philosophy, and the 50 or so ranked departments happen to be the strongest.

12:22 PM  

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