Archive for the 'Academia' category

A thought for those who are mindful about their legacy in their discipline.

It is possible that, once you shuffle off this mortal coil, people will remember you for your scholarly contributions to your field.

However, it is also possible that they will remember you for your consistently inappropriate behavior, your thoroughgoing lack of respect for the boundaries of the students you were supposed to be nurturing rather than exploiting.

It is possible that, in the fullness of time, the people in your discipline who were given the academic equivalent of the "Grandpa is just that way" excuse for your behavior will come to the conclusion that there was no good excuse for your behavior, that, rather than speaking no ill of the dead, they will describe your conduct for what it was.

As well, they may start to recognize the complicity of the other "grown-ups" in their field who offered the "Grandpa is just that way" excuse for what it was.

If some of those enablers, still living, are mindful about their legacy within their discipline, they might want to reflect on that and make some amends before they, too, go to the great beyond.

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Job offer negotiations and relationships with our future colleagues.

Many pixels have already been devoted to discussing the case of W, the philosophy job candidate who says her job offer was rescinded after she inquired with the department making the offer about what adjustments in start-date, salary, new teaching preps per year, pre-tenure sabbatical, and maternity leave might be possible. Rather than indicating which requests were just not possible, the department's response to the inquiry withdrew the offer of employment entirely with the justification that the items about which W asked indicated "an interest in teaching at a research university and not at a college, like ours, that is both teaching and student centered."

In case you've been glued to your grading instead of the internet, The Philosophy Smoker has a nice round-up of the commentary. It's worth noting too that some have expressed doubts that this try to negotiate/lose the offer scenario could really have happened as described. Whether it did or not, I think this is a good opportunity to examine the relationship at the center of negotiations between a hiring department and a job candidate -- namely, the relationship between future colleagues.

When an academic department is conducting a job search, it is trying to hire someone to address the department's needs. These needs may include teaching particular courses, developing new curriculum, advising students, spreading out committee work, contributing to a department culture that supports good pedagogy, productive research, and so forth. The specific needs of a department and the specific culture its members create are very much connected to facts on the ground -- whether it is part of a college or university that is teaching-focused or research-focused, how willing the administration is to release funds to the department, how many students the department serves, how many faculty members there are to take on the shared work.

Search committees looking for a good "fit" between job candidates and the faculty position they are trying to fill seek not only candidates who can address the department's needs but also candidates who show some grasp of those needs, some awareness of (or at least interest in) the facts on the ground that constrain how those needs can be met. If the department's primary need is for a new faculty member to teach a significant part of the curriculum and the candidate asks to be excused from all pre-tenure teaching duties, that would probably indicate that the candidate didn't grok the department's needs and might not be able to contribute enthusiastically to meeting them.

However, a new faculty hire is not like a wireless learning-delivery device. A new faculty hire is a human who, in the course of helping to achieve the shared goals of the department, can be legitimately expected to pursue goals of her own.

Some of these individual goals ought to be goals shared by the department hiring the job candidate, chief among them creating conditions in which the new hire can contribute to meeting the department's needs in a sustainable way over the long term. One of the big advantages here for the department is that creating such conditions can help obviate the need for another faculty search, a time- and labor-intensive process in the best of circumstances.

When you've gone through the trouble of a search, you don't want to hire a candidate who'll end up leaving in a few years for a job somewhere else that she perceives as a better fit for her needs. Neither do you want to hire someone who you'll have to replace in six or seven years because she cannot do what she needs to do to get tenured.

Ideally, you want a job candidate who has been reflective about what she may need to be able to do a good job meeting the department's needs and meeting her own needs -- including being able to establish her case for retention, tenure, and promotion.

A job candidate who hash't given this thought may put herself in situations where she cannot do an adequate job meeting the department's needs -- or where she can meet those needs, but only by courting burnout or ignoring other tasks she needs to do to get tenured.

This is a place where the case of W suggests to me a candidate who demonstrated thoughtfulness about how to support a department's teaching mission in a sustainable way. In a small department, faculty members each need to do significant teaching to cover the curriculum. But preparing a course that works well with the actual population of students to be taught benefits tremendously from feedback from those actual students and modification in response to that feedback. W inquired whether it was possible to cap her new course preps at three per year for the first three years. Preparing three new courses per year requires substantial labor in itself. Road-testing them to make sure they meet the students' needs as well in practice as in imagination is the kind of thing that ensures the prepared courses really are serving the needs of the department offering them. As well, limiting new preps while the new hire is getting immersed in the culture of the department is a reasonable way not to spread her too thin.

It may be that facts on the ground mean that the new hire will need to have more new course preps than this or else the department's needs will not be met. But for a candidate to recognize the labor involved in doing the job right should be an advantage, not a disadvantage, in meeting those needs.

The dance between search committees and candidates is complicated and emotionally fraught, each side trying to evaluate "fit" on the basis of necessarily incomplete information since many questions are only answered when the new hire actually succeeds or doesn't in meeting the particular needs in the particular circumstances. In the absence of a perfectly accurate view of the future, evaluating how well a candidate fills particular curricular needs, understands and can support the mission of the department, and will be able to pursue their individual goals (with respect to pedagogy, scholarship, professional development, work-life balance) in this environment requires honest communication on both sides.

Candidates should be honest about their long-range aspirations and should not pretend to be a good fit for a position if they are not. Search committees should be expansive in their recognition of the plurality of individual goals that probably fit with the department's needs. Both sides should understand that job candidates are frequently in a moment where they are legitimately poised between -- and open to -- different professional environments and trajectories, different people they could become within their professions.

It's suboptimal for a department when a candidate pretends to be a good fit and accepts a job merely to stave off unemployment until her dream job somewhere else comes along. By the same token, it's suboptimal for a candidate when a department cares only for its own needs rather than taking the candidate's individual needs into account.

A job candidate is not a mere means to fulfill your department's ends. Buyer's market or not, a job candidate should not be treated as a supplicant deserving of punishment for asking questions in good faith. A job candidate is your potential colleague. A job candidate to whom an offer of employment has been extended should be treated as your future colleague.

Punishing your future colleague for asking what kind of support is available for her professional endeavors (including her professional endeavors that directly address needs your department hopes to meet by hiring her) suggests there is something badly wrong with your understanding of your relationship with that future colleague. It suggests that you are OK with using her, and it probably doesn't bode well for your relationship with any new colleagues you manage to hire.

Whatever the facts on the ground may be, exploiting members of your professional community as mere means rather than recognizing them as legitimate ends in themselves is bad behavior -- the kind of behavior job candidates should not expect from hiring departments. If that's the relationship you expect to enact with your new faculty hire, you should at least have the decency to spell this out when you make an offer so job candidates will have no illusions about what it is you're offering.

(Crossposted at Academe Blog)

One response so far

Analyzing to avoid.

From the American Philosophical Association's Committee on the Status of Women report on CU-Boulder philosophy department, this paragraph on page 7 really jumped out at me:

The Department uses pseudo-philosophical analyses to avoid directly addressing the situation. Their faculty discussions revolve around the letter rather than the spirit of proposed regulations and standards. They spend too much time articulating (or trying to articulate) the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior instead of instilling higher expectations for professional behavior. They spend significant time time debating footnotes and "what if" scenarios instead of discussing what they want their department to look and feel like. In other words, they spend time figuring out how to get around regulations rather than focusing on how to make the department supportive of women and family-friendly.

(Bold emphasis in original.)

What the report is pointing to here is the chronic rules-lawyering, the looking for an exception to defeat any attempts at formulating useful descriptions, the valorization of the critical project to the exclusion of even a glance towards the positive project -- in short, the kind of stuff that makes people hate being around a certain kind of philosopher (or "skeptic," or debate team champion).

The complicated hypotheticals and counterfactuals and Devil's advocacy get in the way of acknowledging actual things happening to actual people and working out something like a strategy (even if it's an imperfect one) to change things so people don't have to experience that sort of bad thing so much going forward.

Also, maybe not coincidentally, such pseudo-philosophical analyses keep the people engaging in them in their comfort zone (framing arguments, looking for counterexamples) rather than making them do the uncomfortable work of changing how they treat each other.

We can do better than that.

4 responses so far

How we construct 'failure' and professional communities.

Bethany Brookshire (perhaps better known in the blogosphere as SciCurious) has posted moving personal musings on her experience "failing" as an academic scientist and of being failed by the system that trained her to be one. She notes that grant-writing was the canary in the career coal mine for her. While she loved doing research, and still loves writing (which has become her professional focus in the aftermath of her tenure track faculty aspirations), she found she couldn't generate new, important, and fundable ideas to drive a research agenda. Indeed, Brookshire's experience of scientific training was that mentors weren't teaching her how to generate such ideas, nor even giving her many opportunities to try doing so. It wasn't until her postdoctoral research that she discovered that what felt like an essential ingredient for success as an academic scientist was not a tool in her toolbox.

And yet, her scientific training seemed to have a singular focus on pointing trainees toward a career as an academic scientist, preferably at a research-focused university. She writes:

I drank the academic koolaid HARD, and believed that "success" looked like a tenure track position. It doesn't help that other people drank the koolaid, too. I have been called a failure, a quitter. I've been told that it's my fault that I didn't stay to be a role model to women in science. Every time I interact with people from my "former life", I feel like I failed them, failed my training, failed myself. I feel like I should have worked harder, worked more, maybe not had a blog (something that has been mentioned to me many, many times) or studied harder or been more careful, somewhere.

I know now that 80% of PhDs won't get a TT position. I think I always knew, deep down, that I wasn't in the top 20%. And I like what I do now! I'm good at it! It's fun! It's interesting! I like the people I work with and the things we talk about and the atmosphere. I feel like I am learning and growing every day. I think I can be successful in this. I think I can still make a difference in the world, maybe a really, really powerful one. Possibly a bigger difference than I ever could have made in science. But it's not academia, and sometimes, it still feels like failure.

Maybe academia failed me in more than one way. Maybe it would have been better had I NOT had that koolaid to drink. If it had been openly acknowledged and "ok" for people to go after non-TT positions (everyone SAYS it's ok, of course, if asked, they will always SAY it's ok and encouraged. But what they say, and what they do, are very different things).

As someone who earned a Ph.D. in chemistry and then promptly leaked out of the science pipeline myself, I can identify with the feelings Brookshire describes. I recognize the anxiety involved in plotting a career trajectory and then trying to discover or decide whether you're suited for the form of life of that career. I also remember seeking, but not always finding, the information I would need to make this discovery or decision. Getting that information earlier, rather than later, could make a difference, informing how you invest your time and effort -- and whether you cling to your original plans or explore other possible trajectories instead.

I'm using both "discover" and "decide" above because I recognize there are differences of opinion here, and though I have my own hunches, the jury's still out. "Discovery" suggests to me that there are objective facts about the skills and inclinations required to succeed as an academic scientist, as well as hard limits to what someone lacking them could do to get them. "Decision," on the other hand, frames things in terms of the ends one sets for oneself (given one's skills and inclinations, but a whole mess of other factors besides).

The setting of ends as a feat of human agency matters here, since "failure" is always relative to some particular goal. The hard question that those training new scientists (or new members of other disciplines more broadly) really should grapple with is who is setting the goal? Who is judging particular trajectories worth pursuing or not?

For those being trained in a discipline at the Ph.D. level, it is very hard not to internalize the voice of the advisor with respect to what "success" looks like. It is also very common for the definition of "success" against which you are judged -- against which you come to judge yourself -- to be very narrow indeed.

This is a problem for the people being trained who discover (sometimes quite late in the process) that the odds of "success" after all of their hard work are much lower than they imagined. It creates conditions where social ties forged in the crucible of one's training become fragile because of the Malthusian competition in conditions of increasing scarcity.

Academic science red in tooth and claw may not have much of an actual body count, but not succeeding in the one approved trajectory (and further, believing that success in that trajectory is a matter of pure merit rather than of non-deterministic factors) can render you someone discounted, dead to your chosen profession, forgotten by those you trained with and those who trained you.

This is a problem for people being trained in these disciplines, but it isn't just a problem for them. It's also a problem for their disciplines.

I imagine at this point someone might pipe up and assert that the point of Ph.D. training is precisely to produce additional academic researchers in the field -- in other words, that it is nothing more and nothing less than career training for the One True Path.

If that were so, of course, it might surely be humane to train fewer people, or ethical to admit that the cynics are right that Ph.D. programs in the sciences exist largely to recruit throngs of relatively cheap laborers to do research for the scientists advising them. As well, if the whole point of the Ph.D. program were to provide job training for the One True Path, then the training offered is often pretty deficient, missing vital components like serious attention to grant writing, working with the IACUC or the IRB, teaching, mentoring, or being an effective member of a collaborative team or a committee.

Maybe we should recognize that another reason for engaging in Ph.D.-level training is to learn how new knowledge is built in a discipline by actually participating in building some.

Further, we could acknowledge that, while the skills developed in learning how to build new knowledge in your field are essential in pursuing the One True Path (in which you would devote your career to building new knowledge in your field), these skills also have the potential to be applicable in a wide range of other situations and careers. We could notice that people might have an interest in seeing the knowledge-building from the inside without wanting to make a lifetime commitment to building more knowledge.

Recognizing broader value and utility of the lessons learned from being immersed in knowledge-building is the kind of thing that could change both the experience of being a Ph.D. trainee and of being part of a professional community.

If there is One True Path that defines success, that makes it harder to explore other trajectories or to seek the training, experiences, or information one might want to evaluate them. Doing so is viewed as defeatist thinking or a distraction from preparation for the One True Path (not to mention from generating results from your advisor's research projects).

If there is One True Path, advisors and graduate programs can convince themselves that they have no individual or collective responsibility for providing any of the training, experiences, or information relevant to other career trajectories. Why would you need any of that in a program focused on preparing you for the One True Path? Indeed, the people training you, those who have succeeded on the One True Path, may say, "What know I of other paths? Information about requirements of those paths I have not. Train you for them I cannot." (Like Yoda, advisors sometimes speak with syntax that is challenging for trainees to follow.)

If we embrace the One True Path as defining both what counts as professional success for trainees and who even counts as properly in our professional community, we doom large proportions of those trained to failure and professional death. In so doing, those charged with the task of training new members of the profession squander the potentially rich network they might be building of people trained in their discipline who have succeeded in other paths -- people who could, among other things, share training, experiences, or information with those in the process of learning how to build new knowledge in the discipline, with those still in the process of deciding their own trajectories.

Recognizing that some of the people engaged in learning how to build new knowledge in the discipline may end up choosing other trajectories for themselves doesn't lessen the value of your discipline. Recognizing that the skills developed during Ph.D. trainings have broader applicability doesn't lessen the value of Ph.D. training. Indeed, noticing the utility of those skills in a wide array of situations would argue for greater value. Sending the tentacles of your disciplinary community further into the world would speak to the relevance of your discipline.

Cedar Riener explains this quite nicely:

The gatekeeping scientists that have told Sci she is a failure, or not a real scientist, think the currency of science should be creating new knowledge (and new, expensive, fundable knowledge, at that). What they don’t realize is that by denying the multiplicity of ways of being a scientist, in seeking to carefully guard the prestige they have so carefully amassed, they are diminishing their own status. In chipping away at their own exclusive island, they are ignoring the public sea levels of discontent with science that continue to rise. The biologist might snicker, as political science gets its entire NSF funding cut, thinking “Well, it wasn’t a real science after all.” But the biologist ignores that just because he is standing on higher ground, doesn’t mean that the logic of people like Tom Coburn will spare basic biological science. Too many legislators are happy to call biology science, but really what they want is immediately applicable medical research. Which results in idiotic statements like Sarah Palin mocking fruit fly research and real harm to basic science funding.

So here’s my challenge to Sci (and hearty defense of my own work): You ARE a scientist. Stand on that island and say “I am Science, hear me roar!” and do the things you love to do, promote science, explain science, call out shady science, etc. This too is science. If it is not we are all lost. Science will not regain public trust through careful exclusivity and identity policing.

Defining success for those training in a discipline in terms of One True Path -- even if we only do it implicitly (say, by describing everything else as an "alternate" career path and professing our helplessness to prepare trainees for those) -- means setting up most trainees for failure. It means recognizing a much smaller and less diverse professional community, one that is less well-positioned and less able to interact with the larger society than it might be if success were defined more broadly.

It means disrespecting trainees' abilities to set their own ends. It means undervaluing their happiness.

Why on earth would anyone want to join a professional community that did that?

(Crossposted at Academe Blog)

2 responses so far

Figuring out why something makes me cranky.

For some time I have been aware of my own discomfort in situations where I'm talking about certain challenges for girls and women in their educational trajectory, or the difficulty of the academic job market, or the challenges of the tenure track.

Sometimes I'll note, in passing, my own good fortune in navigating the difficult terrain. Sometimes I won't. Yet, reliably, someone will chime in with something along the lines of:

"Yeah, it's hard, but the best and the brightest, like you, will survive the rigors."

This kind of comment makes me extremely grumpy.

And I know, usually, it's offered as a compliment. Frequently, I think, it's offered to counteract my residual impostor complex, to remind me that I do work very hard, and that the work I do actually has value by any reasonable metric of assessment -- in other words, that my talents, skills, effort, and determination have made some causal contribution to my successes.

But I know plenty of people with talents, skills, effort, and determination comparable to mine -- maybe even surpassing mine -- who haven't been as lucky. I'm not inclined to think that for every single one of them -- or even for most of them -- that there's a plausible causal story about some additional thing they could have done that would have made the difference.

Assuming there is amounts to assuming that our systems "work" to sort out the meritorious from the rest. That is a pretty serious assumption hanging out there with pretty scanty empirical backing.

And this morning I finally figured out how to articulate why I get cranky about the personal accolades and affirmations offered in response to my discussions of challenging systems and environments: they shift the discussion back to the level of individuals and individual actions, and away from the level of systems.

I guess if you think the systems are just fine, there's not much point in examining them or thinking about ways they could be different.

But the evidence suggests to me that many of our systems are not just fine. When that's what I'm trying to talk about, please don't change the subject.

9 responses so far

Bystanders won't always interpret you as charitably as I do.

I recently had occasion to chat with someone in my professional circle about a well-publicized case of a member of our field who is no longer employed in our field because of being a sexual harasser. Verily, I was anticipating that the extent of the chat would be, "Hey, how about that [now-famous-for-sexually-harassing dude]?" met with an eyeroll or an "Argh! That guy! Good riddance!"

And yet ...

My interlocutor somehow started along a path of harassing emails not being so bad, at least if the proper contrast class (physical assault) is considered, and from there we were off the path and into the weeds.

My best attempt at a charitable interpretation is that my interlocutor was trying to mount one of two arguments (or maybe both simultaneously):

1. That our professional field is no worse, when it comes to sexual harassment, than is the larger human community.

2. That sexual harassment in our field is not a sufficient condition for the truly dismal gender balance in our field, especially at the highest career levels.

And, you know, I'm actually inclined to accept both of these claims as true.

However, to (1) I must respond that "no worse than the larger human community" is a pretty low bar to set for one's professional community, especially when we hold ourselves to a much higher standard than that for things like analytic reasoning. And, to (2), I reckon that even if it's not sufficient to explain the relative lack of senior women in our field, being sexually harassed within our field before we make it to senior ranks sure doesn't help us want to stay.

But I'm not sure it matters that I could find a charitable interpretation for what my interlocutor was trying to do. Later, someone else who was in close proximity to our chat said to me, "Wow, that was really something, watching [my interlocutor] defend sexual harassment."

Perhaps this is one more reason colleagues like my interlocutor just aren't aware of all the harassment that happens to people in our field -- because they come off as minimizing or defending it, which doesn't make them a great choice as far as people in your field with whom you want to share that experience.

6 responses so far

Who hasn't lost something important?

Nov 01 2013 Published by under Academia, Passing thoughts, Pop culture

Seen on a bulletin board on my fair campus:

Picture of C3P0 and R2D2 with the caption "Have you seen these droids?"

The part that makes it art is the tear-off contact information at the bottom:


I don't know if that tells me more about Darth Vader or about AOL.

3 responses so far

Someone wasn't thinking about the optics

Jul 18 2013 Published by under Academia

In the aftermath of a university president using his soapbox to assert that universities should be more like Wal-Mart, maybe it's not such a red hot idea to have faculty members at commencement identified with badges that say:


Faculty Greeter

* * * * *
Let the record reflect that I added the stickers and I stand behind them.

4 responses so far

Anonymous defenders of Colin McGinn don't care for feminism, apparently.

Jul 15 2013 Published by under Academia, Philosophy, Women and science

I do not know what it is about the train wreck of a comment thread on this post at the Philosophy Smoker that has rendered me unable to close the browser tab.

In addition to about 500% of the recommended daily allowance of Colin McGinn apologist nonsense (the build-up of which in one's organs cannot be good -- and sadly, the apologia is only sparingly soluble in ethanol) and the persistent difficulty in distinguishing continuing participants in the conversation from drive-by commenters (since the majority of the 200+ comments there are posted under the name "Anonymous"), it turns out there are people posting who have some issues with feminism.

Of course, it could just be one person (posting as "Anonymous") who has the issues, but in a discipline 80% of whose practitioners are male, that strikes me as unlikely … especially given what I've observed of philosophers in situ.

A selection from the comments (all bold emphasis added):
Continue Reading »

15 responses so far

Baffling things I have read in blog comments discussing Colin McGinn's exit from University of Miami

Baffling things I have read in blog comments discussing Colin McGinn's exit from University of Miami

Sure, people are always warned not to read the comments. But in the philosophy blogosphere you might expect more thinking-through of positions, more recognition that what is metaphysically possible is not always plausible, and so forth. Plus empathy and stuff. And yet ...

  1. The baffling things presented here are mostly paraphrases (on account of Twitter's 140-character limit).  The commenters whose comments I'm paraphrasing would undoubtedly say I'm being uncharitable in my paraphrasing. I leave it to the reader to peruse the comments at NewAPPS, Crooker Timber, The Philosophy Smoker, and other fine blogs dealing with philosophy and/or academia that have commented on the McGinn resignation to see how many of these sentiments turn up.
  2. Continue Reading »

8 responses so far

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