November 30, 2014

Poses of Rebellion

I was on the job market in the Fall of 2007, and so was part of a weekly group meant for discussing the writing samples and job talks of the graduate students going on the market. The meetings were led by the placement director, who that year at Harvard was Susanna Siegel. One day, as the job openings were becoming known, a graduate student said near the beginning of the meeting, to no one in particular, "There don't seem to be that many good jobs opening up. A lot of the jobs are at places I am not sure I want to live." Siegel, seemingly half irked by what she felt to be a thoughtless comment and half feeling that she can't just dismiss it, replied, "Comrade, that's not important. No matter where you are, you can publish and look for other jobs." More than what she said, it was the way she said it that stayed with me. She seemed to communicate in her demeanor and her general attitude something like, "Don't be so arrogant as to assume there are the good jobs and the bad jobs. All jobs are jobs, a way to contribute to the good of all, and to fight the power structures. Some people, like some of you, will have to do it at lower tier schools. Some people, like me, will have to do it from the higher tier schools. Who is at what school is mainly a matter of luck and chance. But we are all in it together, fighting the old privileges together."

I was reminded of this when I saw the 2014 PGR philosophy of mind rankings. 3 of the 42 evaluators were members of my dissertation committee: Susanna Siegel, Peter Godfrey-Smith and Sean Kelly (the fourth member of my committee was Richard Moran). When I think of them I think of good philosophers who are good people. In particular, as with most people I met in academia, I think of people who seemed to insist when I was talking with them that we are simply a couple of people discussing philosophy, and that the hierarchical power structures within which our relationship existed were not that important. 

As someone raised in a Indian family context in which teachers were gurus, more important and more revered in fact than parents, when dealing with my professors, such as my committee members, I often found myself looking up to them. Not in the sense of putting myself down, but in the sense of always being mindful of the difference in where we were in the hierarchy. I see now this was implicitly annoying to my professors. For it was central to their self-understanding, as with most academics after the 60s, that they were rebels, comrades, friends, equals, but not the professors on high, sitting at the high table, talking down to the common folk. The Indian sense of being respectful of one's gurus, which I brought with me to my education, seemed to many of my teachers as if I were pegging them into the role of the Ivy League professors who were floating above the rest of the common academic folk, precisely the kind of narrative they were trying to distance themselves from.

In a way I felt it was more straightforward to engage with academics like Warren Goldfarb, Christine Korsgaard and Gisela Striker, who exuded a sense that of course there is a hierarchy in academic philosophy. When I interacted with Goldfarb it was hard not to think of Quine and Dreben, and the sense that I was talking with someone who is an intellectual hier of those seeming giants. It was hard not to think this because Goldfarb himself seemed to think it. Similarly with Korsgaard and Rawls. With these philosophers I had a sense that they were good people and good professionals. But what I never had was the sense that we were equals, not yet anyway, not just in virtue of being a graduate student. If there was an equality to be found, it had to be earned by oneself going up the ladder in due course. I didn't mind it, since it seemed to me perfectly natural that a tenured professor and a graduate student were not institutional equals. 

But with philosophers such as those on my committee, I felt a confusion of how exactly I was supposed to interact with them. They seemed hipper, cooler, as if they had moved beyond all hierarchies and divisions, such as between teachers and students, prestigious and non-prestigious schools, analytic and continental, or Western and Eastern philosophy. As if they were engaging with everyone as complete equals, as nothing more than comrades in a common cause, and that if I seemed to still feel remnants of these hierarchies and divisions in our interactions, then it must be my misunderstanding and my fault; I must still be holding onto these outdated notions and not embracing the revolution enough, not seeing that we are already all in it together.

Seeing the PGR philosophy of mind rankings, the main reaction I have is not whether in fact NYU is the top department, or if Rutgers is better than CUNY. It is mild disbelief that people I knew in academia, such as Susanna, PGS and Sean, think in terms of rankings at all. I imagine them sitting in front of their computer and deciding which philosophers of mind are more significant than other philosophers of mind, and so which departments are better than others, and I wonder to myself, "Are these the same philosophers who exuded the happy, positive sense that academia as a community could move beyond its traditional hierarchies and all that matters is good philosophical dialogue leading to good ideas? What happened to the idea that it doesn't matter what department one is at as long as one just focuses on contributing to philosophy?" Seeing their names in the list of evaluators makes me wonder if perhaps I had misunderstood them, that they are not as radical as they seemed to me to be, that they also see the world in the same hierarchical way everyone else does, that behind the friendly demeanor and the smiles and the sense that we are all equals, that they might have the feeling that they are better than others, that they deserve privileges like being evaluators that most members of the profession don't have, as if it were an objective fact that they are near the top of the philosophy of mind pyramid.

Imagining all this, what I feel most vividly is a sense of sadness. For in spite of my own instinct of looking up to my professors as gurus, what I was implicitly most inspired by was their attitude that I didn't have to think of them that way, that a new world, a different world is possible, one in which rich, private schools and and community colleges could be equal partners, and so set a beautiful example for what a world without class structures might look like. Though through my upbringing my instinct was to be a shishya (student) to my gurus, a part of me was actually more inspired to be a fellow comrade, one among equals. Where in these rankings is that beautiful ideal? Or is it that the ideal was nothing but a fantasy all along, or worse, just a way for my professors to mitigate their own guilt brought about by their perhaps unexpected professional success? Their commitment to the rankings suggest that the hierarchical ideas must have been implicit all along, that the sense of equality is a nice image used to keep away dissent by implying that there are actually no distinctions of hierarchy and that all are already equal.

I think this is why being on the job market is so brutal. It is not just whether one will get a job that is painful. It is that whether, and where, one gets a job is treated in the profession as a marker of one's philosophical worth. Nothing in grad school explicitly prepares one for this implicit judgment. If anything, in grad school, atleast in the circles I was in, this kind of judgment is treated as passe, as egoistic, as unfair and outdated as any class system. Even in that job market seminar, there was the persistent sense that all of us going on the market together were equals, and that how the job market turns out for any of us is no judgment on us as thinkers. That was why Siegel was annoyed by the student's comment about the dirth of "good" jobs, for it seemed to break through the vaneer of equality she wanted to foster, which might keep us a bit longer in our professional innocence, that yes, a philosophy profession without class structures is possible. 

But ultimately, the year of being on the job market itself breaks this illusion, for irrespective of whether one gets any job or some job or a top job or a handful of top job offers, it no longer seems as if the profession cares to even keep up the illusion that we are all equals and are in it together. Whereas at the beginning of the year everyone is still treated as equals, by the end of the year the profession seemed to have sorted people into ranks, as if beyond luck, implicit biases or magical halos that some people acquire more than others, one's job placement, or lack therefore, says something deep about one's philosophy abilities. And yet, I could have misunderstood, but the main feeling I had from Siegel as the placement director was that none of this mattered, that placements are institutional necessities which we should not take too seriously, since really, at bottom, we are all in it together.

But what then are rankings other than a way of saying that it most definitely matters, since supposedly some departments are objectively seen to be better than other departments, and so whether one gets a job there or not is tracking something of one's philosophical talents? Just from his blogging, it is easy enough to see why someone like Leiter believes in rankings, since, like Goldfarb and others, he doesn't seemed moved by the ideal of a classless philosophy profession. If someone thinks that there will always be hierarchies of philosophical talent, and that where one has a job tracks that, then there is nothing more natural than having rankings. I get that. What is harder to get is why people who want to push for equality in the profession nonetheless are happy to rank departments and philosophers, and so reaffirm the sense that the class structures of the status quo are tracking something of philosophical significance? This seems like just double talk or basically being confused.

Consider David Chalmers, who is said to be one of the best contemporary philosophers of mind and who also seems like the hippiest of the lot. There is no doubt that he is a good philosopher, someone who writes high quality stuff on both technical and perennial topics. And it is understandable that others might want to think of him as a top philosopher of mind. But what is the point of him ranking philosophers of mind? Or better, how is that compatible with the sense he conveys of everyone being at just one big philosophy party, as if he could never be someone who could sit at the high table at Oxford? Could be it that while outwardly he walks around like Bill Murray, inwardly he is walking around thinking, "yes, I am one of the best. I deserve to be at NYU, and it is the best place to study philosophy of mind because of people like me?" It seems not wrong, but somehow sad, if he were to think that. But if that is not what he thinks, it is unclear what implicit judgments he is making explicit in filling out the rankings.

And of course it is only a matter of a few years before Chalmers, Siegel and others become the next generation Jerry Fodors and Tyler Burges. It is already happening as they get promotions into the chaired positions, and words like "distinguished" and phrases like "one of the best of their generation" start getting bandied about in introductions and author blurbs. As this process continues, what will the future rankings be based on? On whether Chalmers is better than Siegel? Godfrey-Smith better than Kelly? L.A. Paul better than Aaron Zimmerman? What is left out of saying that these philosophers are evaluators is the reality that they are letting themselves be evalauted, that they are not simply objective, disinterested parties ranking others, but that they themselves are some of the people being evaluated. This suggests a root motivation for evaluating: to find out where, according to one's peers, oneself is in the hierarchy.

Ironically, now I feel equal to my former professors in a way I never did before. Assuming that we were equals in the way they suggested left me confused and puzzled, as if implicit in their narrative of equality was nonetheless a sense of hierarchy. Now seeing them explicitly rank each other and others brings out that they are not different from other academics or people in general. If anything, they seem as confused as anyone else, because they don't seem to know whether they are coming or going, whether they want things to change or to stay the same.

A basic requirement of contemporary culture is that one master the pose of rebellion: the wall street analyst with the Che Guevara T-Shirt,  Brad Pitt flying to save the world right after the Vanity Fair Oscar party, Justin Bieber fighting the system which is keeping him down. I suppose it shows a kind of equality of all people that even philosophy professors need their poses of rebellion as they go about their normal, institutional work.


  1. "Comrade, that's not important. No matter where you are, you can publish and look for other jobs."

    It's interesting to me that you interpreted this as a statement of equality, that "all jobs are jobs." When I first read it, I took it to indicate that "some jobs are merely places from which to apply for better jobs," as an endorsement of the hierarchy but in a sense that suggests that it isn't so set in stone that one can't move up or down. Or, at least, that one with a degree from a prestigious program cannot move up or down. I would guess that your interpretation was conditioned by contextual elements of which I am not aware, but my immediate response was to interpret this as a reinforcement of institutional hierarchies.

  2. Anonymous, I can see how it could be interpreted that way. As you say, the context is relevant, and in context I don't think Siegel meant that some jobs are good just for climbing up the hierarchy. But I think there is something strange about what she said. She was trying at once to do two things: to acknowledge, however dimly, the reality that not all jobs are equal, and yet maintain some sense of equality and comradarie; and the way the two got combined is in the idea that what all jobs have in common is that one can publish from any job and so move on to another job if that is what one wants.

    This raises an interesting question: if you are a placement director at a top school, and so you have the kind of secure job that you cannot guarantee your graduate students that they can have, what can you say to them? I think anything short of being up front and explicit about the difference in positions and luck between the placement director and the graduate students is going to seem like wishful thinking. Siegel could have used the students' comment about the dirth of jobs to open a conversation about the job situation in academia, and how, though it is not fair, it is how things are. By talking about the hierarchy, the sting of it can be reduced and so change becomes possible. In contrast, wishing away the hierarchy and acting as if all are already equal only ends up implicitly strengthening the hierarchy, as if for the most part the status quo is justified after all.

  3. 'I think this is why being on the job market is so brutal. It is not just whether one will get a job that is painful. It is that whether, and where, one gets a job is treated in the profession as a marker of one's philosophical worth. Nothing in grad school explicitly prepares one for this implicit judgment. If anything, in grad school, atleast in the circles I was in, this kind of judgment is treated as passe, as egoistic, as unfair and outdated as any class system.'

    I went to a non-fancy school, and from my end, this is not how it was. Those kinds of implicit judgments were handed to me constantly, even from faculty at my own school who took a dim view of grads there. (Grad students themselves were very good at setting up hierarchies - at grad conferences and at professional conferences.) Now I am at a fancy place, somewhere much like Harvard, and I see it from the other side. The fanciness hierarchy pervades almost every interaction.

  4. Anonymous, I had the same experience. I didn't mean to deny that hierarchy wasn't important in my graduate education or in my experience in academia more generally. The sense of the hierarchy is every where present. At the same time, I feel many academics fail, or even refuse, to acknowledge this hierarchy, and like to live into the idea that we can overcome the hierarchy just by treating the hierarchy as not important. This was a prevalent feature of my education as I experienced it.

    Suppose a Harvard professor is talking to a UMASS Boston professor, given the differences in prestige, research time, financial position, etc. between them. One way the two people might interact is to be keep explicitly in mind these differences and treat them as justified, as if the person at Harvard just is a better philosopher, and their position in based just on a meritocracy. Perhaps this is how things were more explicitly fifty years ago. Another way is for the two people to interact as if the differences are irrelevant, and that the two can interact as equals as far as philosophy is concerned. This was the attitude fostered in my education. But the problem is that simply ignoring the differences doesn't lead to overcoming them, and in fact, only ends up reaffirming them in a more unconscious way. This is what tends to happen on the job market I think. When going on the market there is the avoidance of talking about differences between jobs, as if to mention the differences is something uncouth or as if one is saying the hierarchy is justified. But the job market itself, as with most things in academia, functions to a great deal based on the hierarchy. So there is a disconnect between the reality of the job market and the narratives about the job market. I found this the most confusing thing when I was on the market, and when I was a professor as well.

    A third way is to make the differences between jobs explicit, and try to talk about those differences in a rational way, without assuming that talking about the differences is to endorse them. My sense is that many of the people at the "top" places right now not able to handle doing this, mainly out of a sense of guilt at the privileges they have. Academia is so lob sided now, and is getting more and more so, that the people at the top would rather live into not talking about the hierarchy than confronting the fact of the hierarchy. I think they don't see that talking about the hierarchy without endorsing it can displace the guilt much better than simply avoiding mention of the hierarchy.