Sunday, October 05, 2014

Alan Richardson's Open Letter To Professional Philosophical Associations On the PGR

This doesn't knock me out.
I've already expressed concern about the anti-Leiter jihad. I'm hardly a fan of the PGR, and I don't know Brian Leiter, so I have no opinion of him personally. I do know that he has stood up against some nefarious goings-on in the profession, in particular the SPEP "Climate For Women" report. However, it seems clear that he's also been rather an asshole to people. There have been clear exaggerations of that--but people who are paying more attention to this stuff than I am are apparently convinced that there's enough unexaggerated evidence to conclude that he is, at least on the internet and to people he doesn't know and disagrees with, not a nice guy.
I probably shouldn't say anything about all of that given that I find it all too tedious to pay very close attention to...but anyway...
I don't find Richardson's arguments to be very strong.
Richardson emphasizes concerns about the "paternalistic" and "authoritarian" governance of the PGR, and he worries that the PGR is not sufficiently democratic, and that "the profession" has no "rights of sovereignty" with respect to its governance. He also asserts that the APA will fail to make good on its claim to be "active in the defense of the professional rights of philosophers" if it fails to do something to make PGR governance more democratic.
At first glance, this seems to me to largely miss the point, and some of it simply doesn't seem right.
It seems to me that the main question should be "are the PGR rankings accurate?" If they are accurate, then the rest of this seems beside the point. Perhaps the buried point is: we can only maximize the likelihood of accuracy in the long run if PGR governance is democratic. That's not an unreasonable point, but it's also not clearly true. At most, it's worth thinking about.
Furthermore, it's in no way clear to me that the PGR somehow violates my professional rights, so it is not clear that the APA is remiss if it doesn't step in somehow. I don't know what professional rights I have with respect to someone who chooses to rank philosophy departments. Even if they were wildly inaccurate, I don't see how that's a violation of my professional rights.
I continue to worry that part of what's motivating all of this is that Leiter is insufficiently politically correct. That's of particular concern since he seems notably to the left of me...
Note that I really am merely expressing a concern, something no weightier than a hypothesis. I'd be ecstatic to be proven wrong on that point.
As I've said, I don't like the PGR because I think it promotes a People Magazine-ish view of philosophy. There's a lot of breathless inside baseball guess-what-well-known-epistemologist-is-moving-from-department-A-to-department-B?-type crap. Blech. OTOH, when students are applying to grad school, I tell them to look at the PGR (but to take it with a grain of salt.)
As for whether the pluses outweigh the minuses...I don't know, but my guess is that they do.
I'd be a lot more sympathetic to all of this if the anti-Leiter forces were saying something more like "look, Leiter, stop being an ass to people." Or: "stop being an ass to people or we won't participate in your little ranking thingey." But leaping right to the shaming and boycott seems a bit too much like a so-called "call out." Again: IMO. So why not a warning first? One response might be: "Leiter has shown himself to be such a bad guy that he can't be trusted, so he has to go. No warning shots." I find that implausible, but not utterly daft.
My opinion might be very different if I paid more attention to the details, if I were on less of a hair-trigger about political bias in the profession, etc.

9 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The PGR should be abolished. Insofar as that's compatable with Leiter's right to publish whatever he wants, that means that departments need to stop cooperating with him. If philosophy professors cannot be motivated by the damage the PGR does to their grad students but will be motivated by Lieter's personality or politics, then it will have to do, however badly it reflects on the priorities of the professors. The end of the PGR would be a good thing, regardless.

10:43 AM  
Blogger Dark Avenger said...

Yeah, Winston, I'm more concerned about the way he's treated others than his running and governance of TPG.

The other thing is that they don't have the excuse that he's got some sort of psychological problem: The last time I checked, asshole wasn't in the DSM-IV.

I'd be a lot more sympathetic to all of this if the anti-Leiter forces were saying something more like "look, Leiter, stop being an ass to people." Or: "stop being an ass to people or we won't participate in your little ranking thingey." But leaping right to the shaming and boycott seems a bit too much like a so-called "call out." Again: IMO. So why not a warning first? One response might be: "Leiter has shown himself to be such a bad guy that he can't be trusted, so he has to go. No warning shots."

Winston, if you noticed on the the thread that you linked to in your earlier piece, there were a lot of Disqus commentators who all happened to have registered to comment on the article to defend and/or testify that as a 'former student' what a great guy he is.

It's not that he's a bad guy per se, since filling comment threads with sock-puppets is only counter-productive to ones' cause, and there are more serious charges than that to consider in his case.

The reason I bring up the sock-puppets is that it demonstrates that he's bull-goose loony at this point. Being an asshole is one thing, being a counter-productive asshole is something else. I don't know how one defends pathological behavior, or whether a warning would've been enough before bringing down the boom. IMHO, it wouldn't have worked, again, not because he's the Snidely Whiplash of Philosophy professors, but because he's demonstrating that he has some issues with self-control, discretion and judgement, and probably shouldn't be in charge of anything bigger than the onion chopping table at McDonalds.



11:53 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

A,
I don't like the PGR much, but I don't see that it's doing harm to grad students. Can you fill in the details there?

DA,
Are those known to be Leiter sockpuppets? Is there any reason to think they are?
You seem to know more about the situation than I do...but...knowing what I know, I have to say, I just don't follow you. Sock puppetry is not a crime. It's *weird*...but it's not even assholery... He's said some asshole things to people...but some of those things are being radically overblown.

The whole thing seems to me to be much more like a situation in which people might maybe want to start gently encouraging Leiter to think about leaving in the foreseeable future than one in which anyone has any legitimate grounds on which to demand that he MUST LEAVE IMMEDIATELY!!!111

Also: my main point was that the Richardson letter is thin gruel.

12:52 PM  
Blogger Dark Avenger said...

Are those known to be Leiter sockpuppets? Is there any reason to think they are?
You seem to know more about the situation than I do...but...knowing what I know, I have to say, I just don't follow you.


There is a history of sock-puppets popping up to defend Leiter, Winston, but I'm not your unpaid research assistant. If you can't be arsed enough to check him out except in a superficial way, I don't know why I should bother responding to your questions about him in the first place.

5:34 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Oh, DA, you certainly are full of shit, aren't you?

Asked whether you have any evidence for your unfounded speculation, you get all snitty...

So...that's a 'no' then on the evidence, eh?

7:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sure, details. The PGR is not an accurate measure of departmental goodness in any general sense. My own opinion is that there is no commensurable property of goodness for philosophy departments. It's not just apples/oranges, its apples/oranges/pears/mangoes/durian... But if were such a property, it would be epistemicly inaccessible even in the best case, much less where it's being measured by an ad hoc survey managed by a single person with all the statistical training required of a Nietzsche scholar.

I'm not saying anything you don't most likely believe. But then you likely consider the PGR to be a harmless bit of foolishness, like those AFI top film whatever lists. ("Diane Keaton above Barbara Stanwyk? What your methodology?!") The problem is that the PGR has become an increasingly accurate measure of one thing, and that is the ability of a CV to pass through the initial screen for faculty hires. The reason it's an accurate measure is the circular one that hiring committees use the PGR ranking to screen CVs.

Now that is a simple factual claim, and I'll be upfront and admit that I have no survey data or anything like that to back it up. What I have is an anecdote and a bit of inference to the best explanation.

First the anecdote: One Friday afternoon I was in a major university's philosophy department copy room. (Just hanging out, as you do.) The three members of the hiring committee came in to pick up the collated stacks of CVs, writing samples, statements, &c. that the secretary had copied and collated. The stacks were about eighteen inches high. The little post-it tabs suggested that there were about 150 CV packages. The hiring committee members looked at the stacks and each other with clear dismay, and then the most senior said "OK, let's agree to toss out all the applications from non-top-ten programs." The two junior faculty nodded with definite relief. (I tried to look like I was really interested in stapling.) Is there is any other list of top ten program other than the PGR?

3:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

[Part 2. I'm not the one with the problem!]

You could say that these were terrible, lazy people not doing their jobs, that the right thing to do would be to carefully go through each package to see which candidate was really best on a basis of their writing, even if that person came from U of Phoenix. (This is why we're not going to get accurate survey data on use of the PGR for screening.) But really, how on earth is the right thing doable? Judging thousands of pages of philosophy writing for quality and departmental "fit" (plus CVs to be analyzed, plus the half-hearted kiss-ass of the statements to ignore) would take many weeks of work to do well. Even if the bad philosophy makes itself evident on page one, most of the stuff that comes in will be at least good. And it's not as if the faculty stuck with the first screen hiring doesn't have other duties. No, some simple criterion or another has got to be applied to get an eighteen inch stack boiled down to something that can be read over a couple of weeks. You could go with your own personal feelings about schools ("Duke? Creeps.") or style (I would toss out candidates whose dissertation title began with the word "Toward"), but then employing your own gut reactions is transparently arbitrary from your perspective. You might feel bad knowing you're punishing potential innocents for the crimes of Duke. Moreover, any systemic biases resulting from your arbitrary criterion are your responsibility. Hey, did you notice that application of your gut threw out every candidate with a Spanish last name? Far better to use an arbitrary measure with the all the opacity granted by numbers. Plus, the fault of any systematic bias is now on the schools on the list. Did you notice that no candidate from the top-ten schools has a Spanish last name? Harvard really needs to look at its graduate admissions.

From what I have heard, just about every tenure-track job opening is as ridiculously over-applied as the one whose stacks I saw. I infer that the same dismay that drove one hiring committee to use the PGR rankings is likely to have driven others, especially as its the only game in town. Without some generally used quick screen, it's hard to see how the current situation is supportable on the hiring side.

So what? Weren't there always initial screens, and weren't they always arbitrary? Sure, but the old screens were relatively decentralized and were prior to the application. The way I believe it worked was: a spot becomes available at you university, then you and the other hiring committee members call up your old supervisors and grad school mates, and let them know a spot is open and that they should have some of their more likely students to send in CVs. From this you get about ten or fifteen CVs and then you proceed. In all likelihood many fine candidates were ignored in this process, sure. However, there's a lot more room for accident in a process like that, so even if most of the time the system just ships PhD's up and down Mass Ave in Cambridge, the prospect of an unusually clever graduate student at Podunk jumping to Famous U isn't hopeless. Maybe your adviser impressed Susan Haack at a conference, and when the need for someone in Phil of Math comes up, she calls him. I won't lean too much on whether the old regime left hiring more or less stratified, since that's not the main strike against the PGR. The real problem is that, in a word of mouth, old chums initial screening process, the dozens of potential candidates who never had a chance never took part in the application process at all. Now, they do.

3:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

[Part 3. I can quit any time I want to.]

Now, when a spot become available, the job goes onto the Jobs for Philosophers site, where it can be read by everybody. Whatever the ultimate ratio of new PhD's and adjuncts to tenure track jobs, which we can assume sucks as always, throwing the die requires applying for all the jobs posted for which you somewhat meet the criteria. ("AOC: Mathematical Intuitionism and Neo-Confucianism"? Well, there's always Wikipedia.) If your AOS is not really off the wall, there's probably something like 50 positions that you need to apply too. Putting together 50 applications to tenure track positions involves choosing a particular writing sample that reflects well on you and also fits the job description 50 times. It means 50 rounds of drafting a cover letter and personal statement which cannot look too much like the result of find/replace. It means collating thousands of pages of paper and mailing them on separate deadlines, and fifty rounds of wrangling recomendations. This is a ridiculously onerous task, even if you were not finishing a dissertation or teaching a 4/4 adjunct load, which you are. The time commitment is nearly unsupportable. Even the cost of xeroxing and postage at that scale becomes a burden. This is a burden that must be born to get the same chance at a tenure track job as under the old regime, just with much, much greater effort.

Of course, the fact that this burden is nearly unsupportable from the graduate side doesn't mean that faculties won't continue to impose it. (Hell, if the burden were only a little greater, then maybe the application piles would be a bit smaller. Perhaps an application fee...) The only thing that would keep faculties from soliciting 100+ carefully crafted applications would be if the process became unsupportable from the hiring side. But what keeps the situation from becoming unsupportable? Available, generally agreed upon screening criteria: the PGR.

And that, Winston, is my reason for saying that the PGR harms grad students, because it is one of major institutional supports for the hell that is contemporary hiring practice. (Bonus reason: insofar as the PGR makes possible the centralized listing of jobs, it creates the illusion of a better job situation than actually obtains. Hearing of a 1/7 job to PhD ratio, many are inclined to look at each job as a 1/7 chance, then add up the 50 near fits and think their individual odds aren't that bad. Really the odds for each individual job drop as the listings are centralized, since you just get more applications crossing in the mail. This is a hard fallacy not to commit, mentally, I find.)

So there you are. Too long, as usual, but you did ask for details. Now I await stern correction from one of Lieter's ubiquitous sock puppets.

3:22 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Thanks for that, A...

As you suspect, I really don't disagree with anything you say...except that I'm not really clear on how the PGR is involved in this. This sounds exactly like my application experience in the pre-PGR...or...I guess *early* PGR maybe...days... At least the PGR wasn't some big thing when I applied... And I reckon dossiers got culled on roughly the same grounds, just not in as centralized a fashion...

Still...I appreciate the input, and I'll think more about this.

And let me say again, just for the record: I'm no fan of the PGR.

4:59 PM  

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