Archive for August 24th, 2010


Tenure and Jobs

August 24, 2010

Okay. Semester’s upon us. I’ve been slacking like a fishing line on my blog, but you guys keep coming back for more. Or, at least, my blog-hits are still on the high side. Apparently I can leave this puppy to sit for a while and people still come. Honestly, I’m flattered. Apologies for the delays. I’m working on a book and I’ve been deeply engaged in that project.

Here’s a thought that’s been irking me for a while. The philosophy blogosphere was a little nuts earlier last week with some garbage by┬áMark C. Taylor when he wrote on academic bankruptcy. I don’t agree with him about academic bankruptcy, and I think tenure is a pretty important institution, as I’ve argued before.

Today I read a piece on the philosophy job market. The author there rightly explains that it’s pretty dismal and that it’s nearly impossible to get a job. She laments this state of affairs as akin to sending out a message in a bottle.

Naturally, this raises a question posed succinctly by snwiedmann in the comments. ┬áHere’s the thought that caught my eye:

When a small college offering only a one-year position receives 350 applications and a large university 750, isn’t time we began to examine the admission practices of our graduate programs?

My view is this: it is a pretty serious mistake to assume that the reason that people go to grad school in philosophy is because they expect (anticipate? feel entitled to?) a job on the other end. Surely, some people go to grad school in philosophy under the mistaken impression that they will waltz into a tenure-track job somewhere. I must assume, however, that these folks are in the minority. Most people enter grad school — or, at least, they should enter grad school — knowing full well that the likelihood of landing a job in philosophy, not to mention a good job in philosophy, is pretty slim.

It’s my attitude that just because there are few jobs available that this doesn’t at all call into question the admission practices of our graduate programs. I have two reasons for this:

1) I think there is intrinsic value in studying philosophy (or most other academic topics, though I’ll speak mostly about philosophy). If an undergraduate finishes her BA in philosophy and feels that she has only scratched the surface, feels that she would like to scratch deeper, who are we to stop her? Seems to me that we should encourage her to scratch deeper, to continue scratching, even if it involves living the life of a grad student for two to seven years or more. It’s a nice life. It’s rewarding. It’s fulfilling.

FWIW, this is exactly how I felt when I left my BA. I wanted more. I thirsted for more. And I entered my PhD knowing full well that the odds were against me ever landing a job. As it happens, the stars aligned in my favor, but I had no way of knowing this when I went to grad school. To hedge my bets, I got a professional degree that kept me sane; I carried at least some reassurance that I could always land on my feet. But even without the professional degree, my suspicion is that most graduate students can land on their feet if they really have to.

2) Accepting that there is intrinsic value in studying philosophy, but perhaps stipulating that the value is primarily extrinsic, I even still fail to see the logic in re-evaluating our admission practices. Why not instead re-evaluate the options at the back-end? Why not try to entertain, and even elevate, the status of non-academic positions? Or, perhaps seek to capture some more academic positions by creating new areas of study? Or, even more radically, push for philosophy to be taught at different levels, perhaps even in high school?

I, for one, feel that philosophy is deeply underutilized, and I think some (if not most) of the jobs crisis in philosophy falls squarely on the shoulders of a philosophical establishment that chastises innovation and deviation from a very small sample of questions.

My two cents. Discuss. I’ve got a book to work on.