November 9, 2014

PGR's Supposed Altruism

The main defense of the Philosophical Gourmet Report (PGR) is that it helps students. But which students does it help? And how does it help them?

Does PGR help all students of philosophy? There are at least three groups of students PGR does not help.

1. Given that PGR has limitations in the forms of philosophy that it evaluates, PGR does not help students who want to pursue graduate studies in those forms of philosophy. For example, if you want to study Latin American philosophy, PGR would not be much help to you.

2. Even assuming that a prospective student is interested in the kinds of philosophy evaluated in PGR, it is not much help to students who do not get into the ranked programs for graduate school. If you are a graduate student at an unranked program, you might benefit from PGR in knowing who some people think are the best philosophers in this or that sub-field. But there is no way to have this benefit without the implication that you, in virtue at being at an unranked programs, are not getting educated by the best philosophers. Hence, in order for a student at an unranked program to benefit from PGR, they have to disassociate from the department they are actually at, and be always mindful of where they are in the hierarchy. A student at an unranked department has to always have their heads tilted up to where the supreme scholars in the profession reside. No doubt for some students this kind of head titling doesn't feel bad, and can seem like nothing other than having standards, with the hope that one day they could be part of the elite group. But given that the majority of the students at the unranked programs can never be part of the limited positions in ranked programs, "standards" have the practical effect of making one feel second rate, and having to fight through that feeling in order to  thrive as a philosopher.

3. Even for students who are at ranked programs, PGR doesn't help them if they do not identify with PGR. Perhaps a student doesn't think philosophy can be neatly divided into sub-fields. Or perhaps they are ambivalent about whether philosophy departments can be ranked. Or they have worries about the ways that PGR might reinforce implicit biases. Here it is paternalistic to say that in spite of these students' own concerns, PGR is nonetheless of benefit to them.

It cannot be denied that PGR is of benefit to some students. People testify to this. But this cannot be taken as a blanket statement of how PGR helps, or can help, all students. In effect, PGR helps the students who want to do philosophy in the way that the editors, Board and evaluators of PGR think of philosophy. The phrase "PGR helps students" really means:  if you want to be like us, and like that we use these rankings a way to understand the profession, then this will be helpful to you

In a way, this is perfectly understandable. Some philosophers want to pass on how they conceive of the discipline to some students who are inclined to see the discipline that way. That is, PGR is the way that some philosophers pass on their image of philosophy to younger versions of themselves.

However, this is no defense at all against objections to PGR. Imagine someone defending racism by saying it is beneficial to some people and that those people deeply identify with, and are able to succeed within, it. Of course this would be true: young people who identify with racist structures will find racism is beneficial to them and they would be affronted with the idea of dismantling racist structures. But what does this tell us about whether one ought to support the structures themselves? Not much. Pointing to the younger generation is just a way of saying, When I was young I found it helpful, and, by Golly, I am a good person and I turned out well and I didn't do anything wrong, so the structures must be fine! It is a way of refusing to hear the objections to the structures by just saying, I was a good person when I was younger and liked these structures, I am still a good person, so they didn't corrupt me in any way, and so the structures must be good!

Clearly there are some professors who like PGR and some professors who don't. Some who think it is beneficial to the profession and some who don't. This disagreement between professors doesn't stay simply, magically just between professors, as if it were a disagreement happening only in the faculty lounge. The fact that it is a disagreement about the profession and its future, doesn't mean that only professors might have opinions about it. Rather, the disagreement can, and does, exist between students as well. For students to be part of the profession means that they themselves have to think through the issues the professors are thinking through. It is not for them to be treated like children who are not supposed to hear the parents fighting, but to be treated as reflective beings who might themselves have differing views on the self-understanding and future of the profession. It is amazing that a profession which encourages students to question if the physical world exists doesn't want them to question, or be bothered with, issues such as the basic structure of the profession.

Sometimes "PGR helps students" sounds like short hand for saying "PGR helps the good students." The ones who are seen to have the talent to make it up the hierarchy and who can in due course themselves become evaluators or members of the Board. But what counts as a good student? What counts as making it up the hierarchy? These are not neutral issues just because they happen to be about students. They are themselves precisely the issues at stake in the disagreement.

The beginning of a real conversation about PGR in the profession requires combining the idea that it helps some students with the idea that it doesn't help some students. There is no magic ground where disagreement about the PGR disappears into a pure ground of PGR helping students.

Speaking for myself, I can say with confidence that as a student PGR did not help me. I felt as a student that it tended to reinforce aspects of my education which were already oblivious to many of my concerns, and I felt that at every turn PGR was used as a way to silence me by saying, But see, this helps students.

Imagine walking up as a student to a professor, gathering your courage to put words to inchoate feelings of alienation and disappointment and one's struggles with PGR as a representation of the profession, and to be told by the professor, simply and decisively, that there is not much to my concerns, that I must be misunderstanding, that I must be over-sensitive or confused, because well, see, PGR obviously helps students. But the student might wonder, But how does it help all students? How is it helping me? How can I understand how it is helping me if my questions and concerns are not being talked about or addressed? Here it would be altogether natural for the student to feel that the professor, by claiming it is obvious that PGR helps students, is also implying that the student must backward as a student or as a potential colleague insofar as she is not able to grasp this obvious fact. That the problem must be with the student, as if she were unable to see something as simple as 2+2=4, that her grasp of reasons is flawed, that she is slow, dim-witted, that she is having trouble latching on to something as basic to the philosophy profession as modus ponens. But in reality, what is happening is that the professor is implicitly saying, PGR helped me, and helps others students I get along with now, and I don't want to be forced to think otherwise, so yeah, it helps students. It is helping. It is helping. Got it? 

This is a defense mechanism. It is a tick. It is a way to brush off people and objections. But it is not an argument. For it to be an argument, it would have to engage with the possibility, and the reality, that PGR is also not helping many students. But often the claim that PGR helps students is meant not as a move in the giving and taking of reasons, of engaging with the possibility that PGR might be harmful, but as a way to set aside the whole issue of concern about PGR as confused. It is, simply, a power move. And insofar as philosophy is the attempt to get beyond power moves to reasoned discourse, it is bad philosophy.


Even for the students that PGR does help, how does it help them? The unspoken truth is that it helps them at the cost of other students. The privileges and opportunities it enables for some students come at the expense of keeping other students in structures of exploitation.

Here is the best case scenario for PGR. Suppose a student is interested in analytic philosophy of language, but his undergraduate department does not have faculty who are experts in that. So they can't provide the student information for where best to go to pursue graduate studies in her interest. She then goes to PGR speciality rankings, and gets a lay out of the land according to some of the experts in analytic philosophy of language. The student reads more of the work done in those departments, sharpens her skills in that sub-field, and applies to those graduate programs, and gets in. Possibilities have been opened for the student through PGR which otherwise would not have been possible for her. Great.

Is that the extent of the help PGR provides: that it gets some students into graduate programs they would otherwise not have gotten into? Well, it can't be the extent of the help, because the graduate education is practically not much use to the student if she can't get a job. 

Sure, by being in grad school for five to eight years in her 20s or 30s, the student is able to get time to pursue her intellectual passions. Yet it is not simple altruism on the part of the graduate schools. As is well known, but rarely publicly thought through, what the department gains is cheap labor, often at less than minimum wage. The situation is not unlike that of student athletes: they are said to gain intangible benefits as student-scholars which getting paid as employees would rob them of. Similarly, graduate students are said to gain intangible intellectual benefits which worrying too much about their rights as employees would get in the way of. No, it's supposed to just about the graduate student having the leisure to pursue her intellectual passions.

The intrinsic worth of intellectual passion is all well and good, but having a majority of graduate students who are unemployed would be bad for morale and the self-esteem of the professors themselves. After all, for all the leisure and passion of comparing Kripke's interpretation of Wittgenstein with that of Cavell, with that of Hacker, with that of Diamond and so on (and, oh, how passionate that can be!) graduate education is meant as professional training, where one is purporting to gain skills which can be used to make a living. Would PGR be benefiting students if it let them get a graduate education while being completely silent about whether it can help them actually get jobs? Would it then be helping the students or would it just be a well-meaning but exploitative scheme for enabling cheap labor for graduate departments? Yes, we are letting you pursue your passion. And no, of course, we are not using you, we are simply training your mind and habits. But even the training must have an end, a goal. A job one can aim to have on the other end of the graduate education.

Here is the back end benefit of the PGR. If it enables a student to get into a ranked program, then it also enables that student to go onto the job market as a grad student from a ranked program. Which is to say that having been baptised through the trials of getting the best philosophy education possible, one is also able to increase one's chances of getting a job through the association with the departments dubbed as the best.

The primary winner in the process are not the graduate students but the ranked departments. For if the graduate student from the ranked program gets a job, then the ranked departments can pat themselves on the back, celebrate with the student and be content that the process worked as it should. Though, as stated here, given that 50% of graduate students from ranked programs get jobs in unranked programs (even while 37% don't get tenure track jobs), the relative success of ranked departments in placing their graduates is not part of a self-sustaining ecosystem, but one where that success comes at the cost of passing on unemployment down stream onto the unranked graduate programs. 

But one might say, "Surely, how can the ranked programs be blamed for this. In an open competition some graduate students who are better win out over others who are not as good. That is just competition. It can't be avoided." Certainly competition can't be avoided, but can it be called open competition if the system is in fact rigged? If there was no PGR, and so no explicit sense of which departments are better than which, would graduate students of ranked programs fair as well in getting jobs at unranked programs?

An intuitive thought, often quick to be articulated by proponents of PGR, is: "Yes, of course! In fact, if anything, without PGR it would just be many of the traditionally prestigious departments which would get most of the jobs. Not even many of the other ranked programs, from public schools such as Rutgers, would place their graduates as well, because the halo of the Ivy League would act as a de facto ranking, and many more of their graduate students would get the jobs at the cost of even the other ranked programs, let alone at the cost of the unranked programs. In this way PGR lessens the problems of prestige by spreading the prestige out over a great number of departments. There will always be a distinction between prestigious and non-prestigious departments, but the most one can aim to do is to expand the circle of the prestigious so that circle of the latter grows smaller, and everyone can be on a level playing field."

A thoughtful argument. But with a main drawback: it assumes, falsely, that, say, fifty years ago the Ivy League schools needed to disrupt the hiring patterns among non-prestigious schools in order to place their own graduate students.

In the 1940s and 50s higher education in America was beginning to explode and expand as a result of the GI Bill, the focus on science and technology, the interplay between universities and the military and so on. The main increase in students - women, minorities, lower economic classes - had not yet started, and so schools were not yet faced with a radical increase in the numbers of students in the classes. Hence at the time the number of faculty in a department was still low, and so similarly the number of graduate students in a department was low as well. As a result, though the Harvards and Princetons used their prestige to place their graduate students, they didn't have to get that far beyond their local ecosystem to place their students.

Here is a way to put this point: in the 40s and 50s the circle of where graduate students were placed didn't extend much beyond the circles which the faculty could maintain through their personal interactions and networks. This is the flip side of the point that the main way jobs were determined back then was by the advisor making some phone calls to his friends in other departments. This is a system well suited for finding jobs which were not well outside of one's normal circle of acquaintances. Back then there were different ecosystems mainly due to the fact that no faculty member could be personally acquainted with all the philosophy professors in America. Circles were local and plural. With student body sizes themselves still relatively small, this system was feasible.

The rapid increase in enrollments at colleges in the 60s and 70s changed this system and rendered it obsolete. More undergraduates meant more graduate students, which meant there was a need to place those increased number of graduate students in jobs, which meant that the older way of job placement through personal acquaintances couldn't keep pace with the increase in graduate students.

Hence in the 70s there arose the modern job placement system with each candidate applying for jobs and the APA being set up as the institutional framework through which the jobs placements would be managed. As with the PGR, there is a myth in the profession as to how this change in the 70s happened. According to the myth, the faculty at the prestigious departments decided that it was unfair to not have an open competition for jobs in those prestigious departments, and so they magnanimously decided to forgo the old calling-up-buddies system and instituted a more fair system. The myth continues: as a result anyone in principle could get that Harvard job; they can apply for it and be chosen, or not, mainly based on their merits, and not so much on one's personal network. The philosophy profession started to become professionalized.

No doubt there was an altruistic dimension to the changes in the 70s, an attempt to make the job placement process more equitable. But if one steps back even a bit from the myth, what stands out is just how beneficial the modern system being implemented was to the prestigious departments. The idea that anyone can apply for a job at Harvard means that there is now a mechanism by which not only any graduate student from less prestigious departments can in principle reach Harvard, but also where graduate students from Harvard can reach less prestigious departments. With the new framework, the traditionally prestigious departments solved the problem of placing their increased number of graduate students simply by becoming nominally open to anyone getting a job at Harvard. In exchange for the possibility that a few graduate students from non-prestigious departments can get a position prestigious departments, the latter could now place many of their graduate students at non-prestigious departments, and claim who got jobs where was no longer due to hidden forces of prestige but just because of the market forces of which philosopher is simply better than another.

From the perspective of academic philosophy as a whole, the change in the 70s was a way for the prestigious departments to place their graduate students in less prestigious schools, and so therefore pass the burden of dealing with the increased graduate student population onto less prestigious programs. A way for the prestigious programs to say: "We have a way of handling the increase in graduate students, even if the less prestigious departments don't, and that actually shows why we are better than those less prestigious programs." Instead of thinking through how the fact of the rapid increase in student enrollments in the 60s and 70s might affect the profession as a whole, in the name of altruism the prestigious departments helped institute a system which covered over how the large scale, unsavory down-stream effects were simply passed on to other departments lower down the totem pole.

This was made possible by the fact that though in principle the system instituted in the 70s was supposed to be fair and equitable, there was also back then an implicit, oral tradition of rankings which guided the job placement process. In 1985 would two job candidates for a position at Berkeley be treated the same if one candidate was getting his graduate degree from Princeton and the other from Michigan State? Of course not. Because the implicit, oral rankings implied that it wasn't a case of two equal candidates at all, for the student from Princeton had already proved that he is the better student by having gotten into Princeton. The implicit, oral ranking plus the veneer of an objective, impartial job placement system reinforced the power dynamics in the profession.

The rise of PGR is the 90s was an online extension of this framework setup in the 70s. It took the implicit, oral tradition of rankings and made it into an explicit, written tradition of rankings. But why? What was the need to do this? 

It was because even with the changes in the 70s the job market was still tight for the prestigious departments. Meaning: the framework of an equitable, neutral job process was still not enough to find job placements for all the graduate students from prestigious departments, and there was still a push back from other ecosystems to hire graduate students from within their own ecosystems. After all, the downside of implicit rankings is that they are implicit, and so in different circles there can be different implicit rankings, which enable different criteria for determining whether one graduate student is better than another. The only way to push through this situation of different implicit rankings is to have one main, explicit ranking, which can wipe out any residual plurality of implicit rankings and lay claim to the one objective framework guiding the whole profession.


Ultimately, the argument against PGR isn't that it fosters prestige-mongering. Defenders of PGR are surely correct that PGR can't be blamed for people's interest in prestige, as if PGR created a sin we would otherwise be free from. No, the argument against PGR is different and more practical.

It is that, like the job market process institutionalized in the 70s, PGR exaggerates the extent to which it is an advance over earlier generations in the profession, and so fails to face up squarely to how the professional as a whole can deal with the rapid changes happening in academia. By focusing attention entirely on the ranked departments, PGR perpetuates the change blindness to the large scale, down stream affects by thinking that the profession is fine because the 75 top-ranked departments seem to be doing fine. Failing to see how all the departments in the profession are inter-connected and so stand or fall together, PGR fosters the illusion of the prestigious that as long as their day-to-day activities can continue on as before, then everything must be fine. Even as that sense of normalcy is maintained at the cost of taking more and more of the resources in the philosophical landscape. One day the PGR ecosystem will wake up to find that the departments they were not thinking about, the ones which they presumed to judge as inferior to themselves and which they claimed didn't merit greater attention, are the very ones which are the essential bedrock of the philosophy profession and without which the PGR ecosystem itself cannot survive.

Here, as elsewhere, it is helpful to see the philosophy profession not as an elevated space separate from the cultural and economic forces at play in America at large, but rather as yet another instance of those forces. The profundity of philosophical ideas cannot protect the philosophy profession from all the same institutional forces affecting higher education and America as a whole. PGR is a last ditch attempt to remain blissfully oblivious to this fact, and to assume that just because philosophy is an eternal pursuit, it as an institution can survive in roughly its current form forever, as if the current institutional practices of the top ranked departments were themselves somehow universal and eternal. This is an illusion. And it is no service to students to pass on the illusion to them.

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