Archive for the ‘Academia’ Category



March 16, 2010

This seems to be making the rounds, so I might as well pass it along too. Philosophy Q&A etiquette. Here’s my favorite:

Please, stop prefacing your questions with drawn-out compliments. It’s not useful for the speaker, and it’s tiresome for the audience. Get to the point. A philosopher is happy when the audience is after her like a thief.

Emphasis on the “drawn-out.” Some short, non-hand-waving compliments, IMHO, are fine.


Trade Offs

March 13, 2010

Flagship universities and liberal arts colleges, it is sometimes argued, should reshape their curricula so that their classes can be put to better use… you know, like a trade school. The New York Times has a nice bit on the trade offs of trade school, all worth bearing in mind for managerialists who want to downsize the university and exclude the core liberal arts curriculum from the list of requirements.


The Point

March 11, 2010

Here’s this nice response to our question earlier in the week about the relevance of philosophy, from Harry Brighouse:

If I were in the position of having to justify my own department’s existence, and was unconstrained by the comments of my colleagues, I would focus on the service we do to students for whom the course they take from us is the only Philosophy course they take. For many Business majors taking an ethics requirement, this is the only course in their upper years that they will write a paper, and for most it is one of very few courses in which retaining information will be less important than exercising higher order cognition, facing up to questions to which the answers are not known with certainty by anyone. We serve ethics requirements for many majors, and what we do in those courses is NOT tell them what they ought to think about ethical issues, but introduce them to intellectual resources which, when used by people of good will, will help them to get closer to the truth concerning the hard ethical questions they will face as citizens, professionals, and in their personal lives. Like most Philosophy departments we have an informal logic/critical reasoning course, which teaches students how to identify various kinds of fallacious reasoning, and targets instruction to contexts which the students are likely to find themselves in in the course of their lives. We teach aesthetics, environmental ethics, and philosophy of religion, all of which courses attract students with other majors who want to think at a higher level of abstraction than their regular courses allow about what they are doing in their major.

Yes, you read that correctly, students o’ mine: “Facing up to questions to which the answers are not known with certainty by anyone.” Turns out, that is how we roll in philosophy.


Stone Tablets

March 9, 2010

The Washington Post has an interesting piece on computers in the classroom. I’ve had this discussion at length with my colleagues, and I seem to be in the minority with regard to limiting extracurricular activities.

I tell my students that they can come and go as they please, that if they’re hungover they probably shouldn’t be in class, that they’ll learn more if they’re not facebooking, that I don’t take attendance — evah — and that if they’re in my class, they should be there for the right reasons.

Essentially, my attitude is that students should be in my class because they want to learn the material, because they’re interested in the discussion, because they are motivated to engage deep issues with other students, and so on. I don’t want them there for the wrong reasons. If they’re there for the wrong reasons, they’re just bodies, taking up space.

I’m not at all a fan of authoritarian edicts, and I don’t see edicts as an essential part of a professor’s role. Quite the contrary. It seems to me that the role of the professor is to cultivate an interest in the material that “comes from within,” even if it means that some non-insignificant portion of the class is checked out.

Any thoughts?


Why Bother?

March 8, 2010

Why bother with academic majors that essentially make up the core of the academy…like, oh, I dunno, philosophy. It’s useless anyway.


Kiss of Death

February 19, 2010

Adam Winkler offers some insight into the process behind the University of Alabama-Huntsville tragedy. Not that I object to tenure, mind you. I actually think it’s important on grounds other than those that Winkler sketches. Among other things, it gives junior faculty a serious incentive to be top scholars and publish a lot during their early years, and it gives senior faculty — by then hopefully vetted and productive scholars — a reprieve from the early publishing demands so that they can work with their junior colleagues and students. They can also contribute more productively to the University infrastructure.  (Universities don’t function like businesses, you might be interested to know. They’re run on a disaggregated, decentralized, quasi-volunteer basis. And they actually work pretty well.)

I just think that the downside stakes are so high that it makes incidents like the Alabama-Huntsville case terrifying:

A tenure denial can be a career killer. Many professors find that no other university will offer them a job. The old adage “publish or perish” isn’t hyperbole. An adverse tenure decision often marks the end of an academic career.

Today’s economic climate makes finding a new job that much more difficult. University endowments have been hit hard and public universities especially are struggling with severe budget cuts. Hiring at most schools is frozen. Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, says, “The most likely result of being denied tenure in this nonexistent job market is that you will not be able to continue teaching…. You probably can’t get another job.”

Meanwhile, Brian Leiter points out that some departments are simply firing tenured faculty. What gives?


The Benevolent Lie

February 11, 2010

For all prospective PhD applicants, this article bears reading. Lucky as I feel to have the job I have, I know many exceptionally talented and driven academics who are never so smiled upon. A taste of what it’s like:

The myth of the academic meritocracy powerfully affects students from families that believe in education, that may or may not have attained a few undergraduate degrees, but do not have a lot of experience with how access to the professions is controlled. Their daughter goes to graduate school, earns a doctorate in comparative literature from an Ivy League university, everyone is proud of her, and then they are shocked when she struggles for years to earn more than the minimum wage. (Meanwhile, her brother—who was never very good at school—makes a decent living fixing HVAC systems with a six-month certificate from a for-profit school near the Interstate.)

Unable even to consider that something might be wrong with higher education, mom and dad begin to think there is something wrong with their daughter, and she begins to internalize that feeling.

Prospective grad students, undergrads, parents, friends of the afflicted… take heed. Your misery keeps the rest of us feeling powerful.

We make our admissions decisions in the next few weeks. Best to know what awaits you. Do yourselves a favor and read the whole piece, including the very, very long set of comments.


Dancy with the Wolves

February 8, 2010

Claire Danes talks about the exceptionally prolific moral philosopher Jonathan Dancy on the Craig Ferguson show. Daines is married to Jon Dancy’s son, actor Hugh Dancy.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

FWIW, I rarely wear cardigans, I do not smoke a pipe, I do not indulge in tweed, I do not sport a beret, and leather pants? I’m strictly a leather long-johns kinda guy.

Incidentally, what the hell is up with the camera shot? Why so much headroom?


FOIA Exemption

February 3, 2010

Lookie here. Turns at that those of us who have been saying that not every scientist is required by law to release all of their data or their research if they’ve been FOIA’d…why, we’ve been right all along. I think it’s even true ethically speaking. It could not be the case, and it ought not to be the case, that every scientist should be required to release all information and all data if someone files a request for that information.


GRE Hate

January 27, 2010

If I may indulge myself here a bit. I’m reading our graduate applications at the moment. We have lots and lots of them… by which I mean, lots and lots. When they come in, we sort candidates by several categorization standards, including their GPA, their last name, their stated area of interest, and their GRE score.

I’m sure I’m not alone in this, but so far as I can tell, the GRE is a near meaningless measurement of a candidate’s potential. I fail to see why we (academics) place so much weight on it.

Oh, sure. Since the GRE score is the only standardized metric between all candidates, it offers a compelling measurement against which to compare. X person got 720/760/5; Y person got 680/720/5.5; Z person got 500/620/4. (These are made up numbers.)

Seems like a no-brainer. Z person doesn’t make the cut. It’s a battle between X and Y.

And yet, there’s considerable vagueness in the scores. When one looks at the statement of purpose, or at the letters of recommendation, it frequently turns out that X and Y are boring drones, where Z is an interesting and motivated prospective, maybe with a serious and well-conceived project, or maybe even in some cases with a significant history of professional accomplishment. The “bad GRE effect” is amplified in candidates who haven’t been in the educational system for a while, perhaps because they’ve been in the business world doing something that doesn’t demand that they calculate the volume of a sphere.

Moreover, it’s not entirely clear how standardized they in fact are. I’ve heard from more than one candidate with widely discrepant scores between two contiguous test sessions. To my mind, if there’s a discrepancy of several hundred points between a set of scores from the same person, this test doesn’t have much to offer in the way of measurement.

So what, exactly, are the GREs in place to measure? And why do we (academics) continue to rely on the GREs as strongly as we do? Why do we (academics) sing the praises of our departmental units when we have a high GRE average, all the while admitting to one another that the GREs are unreliable?

I’m very much persuaded that the GRE ought not to play a strong role in admissions decisions at all, and at best should serve only as a vague data-point or an extra accomplishment signalling positively in a person’s favor, but not negatively in a person’s disfavor. Others with whom I’ve spoken disagree. They think the GRE can serve as a workable cutoff.

What do you think?

(With my luck, I’ll get sued by ETS for disparaging the GRE, but I think this is a legitimate academic concern. I suspect that they disclaim the value of the GRE as the sole measure of a candidate’s fit; but I similarly suspect that they think it’s a valuable measure of something. Just what it’s a valuable measure of is beyond me.)