Wednesday, November 30, 2011

More Geuss

Geuss discusses four objections to the doctrine of natural rights (pp. 140-146 of History and Illusion in Politics). The first is that natural rights have traditionally been thought of as negative. He dismisses this objection pretty quickly (in one paragraph), doesn't name anyone who makes it, and I don't really see why he even brings it up. The second is that rights are entitlements, and this (or rather "a political philosophy based on the assignment of entitlements to people" p. 141) might be thought to encourage passivity. He points out that even if rights are thought of as entitlements they could include entitlements to act (not be passive) in various ways. This too gets a paragraph. The third criticism gets two paragraphs, and is that rights are too individualistic. Geuss points out that groups might be thought to have rights, although he sees this idea as having little psychological appeal. (Presumably he throws in "psychological" to make it clear that he sees the whole idea as having no real appeal at all, only, at best, an illusory one.)

It is the fourth criticism that, he says, "is lethal to the whole idea of a natural or human right" (p. 146). So what is it? I'm not sure, but I'll do my best to make it out. It "is directed at the nature of a 'natural right'." (p. 143) Geuss says that he has "strongly suggested" (he doesn't say where and I don't know, but then I haven't read the whole book, so that's likely to be my fault) that it is "essential to the existence of a set of 'rights' that there be some specifiable and more or less effective mechanism for enforcing them" (p. 143). Presumably this suggestion is based on some kind of conceptual analysis, but Adam Smith's idea of moral rights as rights in a metaphorical sense, and J. S. Mill's idea of rights as "essentials of well-being," suggest a different conception of rights than the one Geuss seems to have in mind. So I don't accept his suggestion.

On p. 144 he writes:
     Either there is or there is not a mechanism for enforcing human rights. If there is not, it would seem that calling them 'rights' simply means that we think it would (morally) be a good idea if they were enforced, although, of course, they are not.  
He doesn't say why it would seem that this is the case. I don't see why someone couldn't think that something was essential for living a good human life, or flourishing, and yet not want to see force used to ensure that everyone gets this something. Perhaps the violence necessary for enforcement would be worse than the violation of the right. But I don't mean to exaggerate my disagreement with Geuss here.

He then discusses the possibility that declarations of rights might somehow become enforced, and says:
The question is not whether this is possible or whether it would be a good thing, but whether such a development is the invention of a new set of positive 'rights' in a new international legal system or the emergence into visibility of a set of natural human rights that already existed. (p. 145)
He sees the point of appeal to natural or human rights as being undone if we admit they are "something we made to exist" (p. 145). They are, after all, supposed to be "something we discovered which served as the grounds for judging actual legal rights" (p. 145). This does not fit the idea of moral rights as the imperfect cousin of legal rights, but it does fit one kind of idea of human rights. So let's stick with that conception of rights for now. What could provide such grounds? "The only thing that can serve that purpose seems to be the flickering light of our variable moral beliefs" (p. 145 still). Huh?

Consider some examples: the right to freedom of speech, the right to equal opportunity regardless of race or gender, the right to freedom of religion. To say that such rights exist, according to Geuss, is to say that it would be morally good if the law were used to protect such freedoms and opportunities. Did we make this moral goodness exist? I don't think so. Did we discover it to exist? Perhaps not literally, but yes, I think we did. (Or we realized that it existed, or came to accept its existence, or something like that.) Sometimes our moral beliefs vary because we come to appreciate something more or better than we had before. Why not call this discovery? What else should we call our having come to regard the sexes and races as being morally equal, as requiring (as a matter of right) equal treatment and opportunity? Flickering? Waffling? I don't buy it.

In the end Geuss seems to think that belief in human rights is "only a moral belief" (p. 146). He then adds that people's moral beliefs vary, and that agreement does not guarantee effective action. He concludes that there "are no natural rights" (p. 146). I think this is because of the lack of the enforcement mechanism he thinks is essential to the very idea of a right. If we give up that requirement then his argument seems to be reduced to the observation that a belief in human rights is a moral belief. And I agree with that, but don't see it as a problem.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Geuss on rights

OK, a more philosophically contentful post for a change.

In History and Illusion in Politics Raymond Geuss writes that:
A 'human right' is an inherently vacuous conception, and to speak of 'human rights' is a kind of puffery or white magic. (p. 144)
His primary complaint seems to be that there is no means to enforce these rights, and perhaps should not be. So to say that everyone has a right to x is to say no more than that it would be good if everyone had x, and yet to imply somehow that one means more than this.

I don't see what's wrong with this though. That is, I don't see what would be wrong with rights talk if all it amounted to was "a moralising conception about what would be desirable" (p. 142); nor do I see what would be wrong with such talk if it were meant to be more than that (but less than the claim that there is an actual, enforceable, legal right), because adding the word 'very' or 'extremely' before 'desirable' would provide the more without introducing any obvious error; nor do I see anything wrong with the allegedly implicit suggestion that we can discover what is so desirable, given that we can discover what is desirable and have discovered (or perhaps remembered) that women and men are equal, for instance, and that their being treated so is desirable; nor do I agree with Geuss that, if rights are a fiction, they are an inconvenient fiction (see p. 147). Rights talk isn't going away, as he recognizes, and whether it does more harm than good surely remains to be seen.

More on this soon, I hope, but Geuss strikes me as better on the idea that rights are a fiction than on the claim that they are a malign fiction. I don't deny that they are a kind of fiction, so it's the malign part that most interests me. He sometimes seems to think the fiction is malign just because it is a fiction, and I don't buy that. He also seems to be thinking of heavy-handed attempts to enforce moral views, which I agree could well be bad, without considering the good that can be done with this kind of rhetoric. (For an example of the kind of thing involving rights-talk that I like see here.) A quick read suggests that there is some old-fashioned positivism in his thinking (rights are either enforceable or mere expressions of moral views), but I'm curious to find out what I might have missed or got wrong.      

Let there be fruit!

Apparently it was World Philosophy Day yesterday. To celebrate, several philosophers asked themselves where we're going and "Are we there yet?" Brian Leiter recommends this essay by Matti Eklund, so I read that first. Eklund argues, plausibly to my mind (though see here for some skepticism about Eklund's claims), that philosophy moves not according to where the best arguments lead but away from programs that come to seem sterile and toward programs that promise to bear fruit. "Sterile" here means, I suppose, something like boring and pointless, which is surely how the whole of philosophy seems to many undergraduates (and others). And I wonder whether this is connected somehow to the fact that undergraduate essays are often so hard to read properly, to engage with. Are we all just pretending to care about ideas and arguments, when what we really care about is something more social? By which I mean the kind of tribalism involved in analytic vs continental 'debates' (and others between consequentialists and non-consequentialists, resolute Wittgensteinians and non-resolute Wittgensteinians, etc.), the concern with pedigree that we see all too often, and the desire to be entertained (by exciting new theories). It's not as if theories and arguments (and wise insights and grammatical reminders, etc.) are irrelevant, but they seem to be a little more off to the side than we like to pretend. 

So what's in the middle, not off to the side? And so what? "Interesting" work in philosophy often seems to be work that expands the empire of one's own interests (e.g., by applying a theory you like to some new area) or strengthens one's own position in relation to rival positions (by attacking them, defending yours, or both). I don't think it's all politics (but then I wouldn't, would I?), but it's hard to deny that it's more political, more a matter of power plays, than it's meant to be. Students don't have a position to defend, though, so why should they care? I think grading can be hard because it's hard to focus on what each student is saying. And that's because many of them aren't really saying anything in their papers. They're just parroting what others have said, or trying to play the game without having yet mastered it. There is something to be said for getting students to think abstractly about things of no immediate concern to themselves. But there's also something to be said for relevance to actual problems of life (to steal a phrase).  

Somehow questions about the teaching of philosophy, the philosophy profession, and philosophy itself all seem to me to come together here. In the profession I think it's important to try to resist mere tribalism (without ceasing to have opinions in the process), to resist the power of mere pedigree (without kidding oneself that people educated at Chicago or Pittsburgh or Oxford are no good), and to resist the lure of the exciting and new. Which all means, I suppose, being open-minded, focusing on the quality of ideas (or maybe just their truth), and being somewhat conservative (or just skeptical about what might be fads). This is how philosophy ought to be done, I think, how the profession ought to work (for instance, pedigree and working on hot topics ought to count for nothing in the job market), and what we ought to be teaching our students (i.e. open-mindedness, love of truth, skepticism). Perhaps no one would disagree. But it doesn't seem to be how things are actually done in reality. And I'm not sure how much fruit this kind of approach would bear, at least in terms of anything that looked like progress.

(Would this make grading student papers any easier? Probably not, if only because it's already pretty much what/how I try to teach. But if I thought about it more I might try less to get them to take a side on some debate and try more to teach them some basics of logic or to engage with a specific issue. The latter is not easy in an introductory or survey course, but it's what I try to do when I teach applied ethics. Maybe I should move all my teaching in that direction.)

Thursday, November 24, 2011

After Mahler

In his essay "Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony," Lewis Thomas writes that:
The man on television, Sunday midday, middle-aged and solid, nice-looking chap, all the facts at his fingertips, more dependable looking than most high-school principals, is talking about civilian defense, his responsibility in Washington. It can make an enormous diffference, he is saying. Instead of the outright death of eighty milliom American citizens in twenty minutes, he says, we can, by careful planning and practice, get that number down to only forty million, maybe even twenty. The thing to do, he says, is to evacuate the cities quickly and have everyone get under shelter in the countryside. That way we can recover, and meanwhile we will have retaliated, incinerating all of Soviet society, he says. What about radioactive fallout? he is asked. Well, he says. Anyway, he says, if the Russians know they can only destroy forty million of us instead of eighty million, this will deter them. Of course, he adds, they have the capacity to kill all two hundred and twenty million of us if they try real hard, but they know we can do the same to them. If the figure is only forty million this will deter them, not worth the trouble, not worth the risk. Eighty million would be another matter, we should guard ourselves against losing that many all at once, he says.
If I were sixteen or seventeen years old and had to listen to that, or read things like that, I would want to give up listening and reading. I would begin thinking up new kinds of sounds, different from any music heard before, and I would be twisting and turning to rid myself of human language.
It's funny how the world has changed since the days when we worried more about almost predictable total annihilation than more or less random acts of terrorist slaughter. But Thomas's last paragraph sounds almost like a prediction, rather too late, of modernism. As a prediction, being about a hundred years late, it's hopeless. But as an insight into what has motivated a lot of what has gone on culturally since, say, the First World War, I think it's pretty good.   

One thing to be thankful for today is that we don't face the immediate prospect of the Russians killing forty million of us. Of course not all is well in the world, but it's not all bad either.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Could life ever be sane again?

My recent claim that the places where British people live don't matter (which is not to say that Britain as a whole doesn't matter) has prompted me to resurrect an old, unfinished post from August. In it I sort of argue from song lyrics, which is a dubious form of argument. The idea, though, is that these are expressions of popular sentiments, and that if enough of them say more or less the same thing then this thing must be a widespread feeling. So my claim is not really that British towns and cities are insignificant so much as that they are felt to be insignificant by the people who live there. Maybe the point is just obvious (Britain is (often thought to be) a satellite of the USA, and satellites are always dead: as the song written about the town where I grew up says, "in satellite towns there's no colour and no sound"), but I feel like trying to make it anyway.

If you Google "Panic on the streets of London" you get lots of discussion of last summer's riots in London and elsewhere, as well as links to do with the song "Panic," from which this line comes. The song connects desperation with attacks on music that "says nothing to me about my life," i.e. that lies or indulges in escapist fantasy. You might insist that it is about panic rather than despair, but the emotion in question is contrasted with the hopes that "may rise on the Grasmeres," so I think desperation or despair is a fair characterization of it. Wordsworth lived in Grasmere and (rightly) called it lovely, so there is a contrast here between the loveliness of the Lake District and the banality of town and city life (as well as the contrast between honest, or realistic, and dishonest music).  

There's a similar theme in one of the songs that presumably influenced "Panic," The Fall's "Eat Y'self Fitter." (The Fall and The Smiths both come from Manchester, "Eat Y'self Fitter" was recorded just a few years before "Panic," and it contains the lyrics: "Panic in Sudan, Panic in Wardour, Panic in Granadaland [the independent television company in Manchester is/was called Granada], Panic all over," so the influence seems likely.) And The Fall have been no friends of certain aspects of modern, industrial life or dishonest music ("stars on 45 keep my pockets lined," etc). Ozzy Osbourne said that Black Sabbath were inspired by the bleakness of Birmingham (roughly: England's Detroit) in contrast with the happy, sunny music coming out of California at the time they started. It would have been dishonest for them to have been more fun. And this is reminiscent of Larkin's statement that deprivation was for him what daffodils were for Wordsworth. It's all more or less summed up in Blur's deliberately banal complaint, "modern life is rubbish." So, what's the problem and what's the solution?

The problem is more or less explained by the anthem "Jerusalem," whose words were written by William Blake. The popular ideal of England is that of a green and pleasant land. The reality is often ugly and dirty factories, warehouses, shopping malls, and the like: Blake's "dark, Satanic mills." Another version of this diagnosis is "Dirty Old Town," written about Salford, which, along with Trafford, has now merged with Manchester into one big metropolis. Ewan MacColl presents city life as contrasting with love, so that the two are almost incompatible. A place full of factories and gasworks is no place for romance. And you get similar sentiments in The Sex Pistols' singing that there's "no future in England's dreaming" and in several songs by Suede.

Blake's solution is to build a new Jerusalem in England, which is perhaps not entirely realistic. MacColl's is to cut the city down with an axe, as the Sex Pistols' is to get drunk and "destroy." Morrissey, equally pessimistically, declares that "London is dead." Suede manage to create a sort of romantic cynicism, along the lines of Oscar Wilde's idea of looking at the stars while lying in the gutter. But how anyone could live that kind of self-consciously trashy life in middle age, especially if they had children to raise, is hard to see. The Kinks, of course, offered straightforward conservatism--"what more can we do?", which sounds like an admission of defeat right away. Decades later the Libertines complained that "there's fewer more distressing sights than that/ Of an Englishman in a baseball cap" in their song "Time for Heroes." But, of course, there are no more heroes any more.

Relative and absolute value

In the Lecture on Ethics, Wittgenstein distinguishes between relative and absolute good, identifies the absolute sense of value with the sense used in ethics, and labels this use of 'good' nonsensical. This is often associated with Kant's distinction between hypothetical imperatives, which are indeed similar to Wittgenstein's idea of relative 'oughts', and the categorical imperative. But there are echoes of Schopenhauer too. As I say here, according to Schopenhauer:
Wrong is what we call one will’s encroaching on another, seen at its extreme in cannibalism. Right is a negative term, meaning only the opposite of this. What is on the side of our will we call ‘good’, and what is opposed to it we call ‘bad’ or, rarely, ‘evil’. “[T]hus every good is essentially relative, for it has its essential nature only in its relation to a desiring will. Absolute good is, therefore, a contradiction in terms …” The highest or ultimate good would be something that so satisfies the will that it never wanted again, but it is the nature of the will always to desire more, never to be satisfied. So there can be no such thing: the concept is self-contradictory.
Presumably Wittgenstein was influenced, directly or indirectly, by both Kant and Schopenhauer in making his distinction. But he puts his own stamp on it too. He has a much broader sense of his subject than Kant does, for instance, covering not only which acts are permissible but also a lot that might ordinarily be classed as belonging to religion or aesthetics rather than ethics. And he says that absolute good makes no sense, but not because of the nature of the will. It is simply that a non-relative sense of 'good' cannot be found. (Roughly because if it could be found then it could only be found in the world, and what is meant by 'absolute good' is precisely something above and beyond the world.)

I don't have any larger point at the moment to make about this. Mostly I just want to note the apparent connection to Schopenhauer in Wittgenstein's absolute-relative distinction, which I don't remember having  read much about in the literature (although that might say more about my memory or my reading habits than it does about the literature itself).

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The destruction of the world

As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says:
Hume famously declaims, “'Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger. ‘Tis not contrary to reason for me to chuse my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian or person wholly unknown to me. ‘Tis as little contrary to reason to prefer even my own acknowledg'd lesser good to my greater, and have a more ardent affection for the former than for the latter.” (
I've always thought that Hume was choosing extreme examples just to make the point. But Samuel Fleischacker discusses the saying "Fiat iustitia, et pereat mundus" (Let justice be done, though the world perish) the motto of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I (1503-1564), and, reading this, it seems at least possible that Hume had that motto in mind. If someone else were to scratch Hume's finger against his will, after all, then this would be unjust. The example of the Indian or stranger might be based on the story of the Good Samaritan. The third example is harder to relate to some satirical parallel, but perhaps Hume has in mind either the kind of rejection of worldly goods suggested by the Sermon on the Mount or else the more worldly phenomenon of loving what is not good for one, such as eating lots of veal. None of this changes the point, but it's fun to think what Hume might have been hinting at.

That is, I'm not suggesting that if Hume had these (or other) specific examples in mind that it would make a difference to the meaning of the passage. But it would add some rhetorical complexity. The very people who might object that
of course it's irrational to prefer the destruction of the world to the scratching of someone's finger might be the same ones who insist that justice be done though the world perish. They might, in other words, support the very idea that they want to insist is irrational. It certainly wouldn't be beyond Hume to be wily in this way.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Evidence of teaching excellence

This post really belongs over at The Philosophy Smoker, but the comment that I started to write there got too long. A lot (OK, a high proportion) of jobs in philosophy these days ask for evidence of excellence in teaching, without specifying what this means. I suspect that's because search committees want whatever you've got. But perhaps it's possible to be more specific than that.

CV: It hasn't mattered to me how someone's CV is organized, as long as I can find what I'm looking for. Personally, I would put research-related material such as publications first, if only because there's usually less of it than of other things (such as graduate-level courses taken), and you don't want it to be hidden.

Teaching awards: I expected these to make a bigger difference than they have ended up doing in my thinking, for several reasons. One is that very few applicants have ever won one, so you can't insist that only those who have will make the shortlist. Secondly, the information provided about them varies and is usually minimal. Some are university-wide awards, with lots of competition, while others are department-wide with who knows how much or how little competition. Some are called "teaching fellowships," but it's hard to know how competitive or prestigious these are. Some were won last year, others several years ago. Some people who have won awards seem by every other measure to be no better than, and perhaps worse than, other applicants. Still, having won a teaching award of any kind, or even having been nominated for one, is a very good sign in my book. Definitely a plus rather than a requirement though.

Student evaluations: These came to seem more useful than I had expected. If your average scores out of 5 for things like "overall teaching effectiveness" are in the 4s then this is a big plus. Not providing any such scores makes it hard to compare you with other candidates, which makes it harder for you to seem better than the competition. Not providing recent evaluations looks odd, as does providing them from only one course (assuming you have taught more than one course). I pretty much ignored seemingly cherry-picked student comments, but read through them all if all were provided. Complaints like "too much reading" and "graded too hard" are good to see (within reason), and can make up for relatively low scores, whereas complaints like "course was too easy" and "the instructor sometimes let the class get out of hand" look bad, and can make good numerical scores less impressive. Of course, there are well known problems with student evaluations, but I don't know of any better way to judge someone's teaching, especially before you've had a chance to meet the person or see them teach.

Reports on teaching by observers: These usually seem helpful, but the more detailed ones are certainly preferable to the brief, sketchy ones (which are not very helpful, and can even seem damning in their apparent inability to find much good to say). I know from experience that people will rave about the teaching of someone they like, and find fault with anything done by people they dislike. And letters about teaching tend to rave in the same kind of way that letters about research do. So I don't put too much weight on these reports. But good reports are certainly better than either bad ones or none at all.

Other evidence: A really well written teaching statement and/or evidence of taking extra steps to improve one's teaching will help (if someone like me is reviewing your file, that is). Some people combine these into a kind of narrative, combining their approach to teaching with the story of how (and why) it has developed. This can be very effective, especially when combined with other evidence that you are now a much better teacher as a result.

Syllabi: As with statements of teaching philosophy, I find myself not caring much about these in most cases. I look at them, and note anything especially good or bad that sticks out. But most seem pretty similar. "Good" here refers to unusual choices that I like, "bad" means elements of a course that I think would not work with our students.          

In statements about someone's teaching (one's own or someone else's, that is) I think a good approach is to provide a kind of list of good points about it and then illustrate each one with an example or two. So you might end up with a paragraph on dealing sympathetically with students' problems, another on designing imaginative assignments, another on having infectious enthusiasm, and so on. Ideally these would be put in some sort of non-random order. That can't be easy to do, but I have seen it done. And it always impresses me.

Do candidates really need all this? No. If you sound fantastic enough from a research point of view, you might need only a few of the things I've said it's good to see. And no one has them all. But if your research record is less stellar than some other people's then enough of these good things might get you an interview despite that fact. There is no standard set of materials to provide, so it would be harsh for anyone to hold it against you that you left this or that out. But some things are pretty standard (statement of teaching philosophy, one letter exclusively about how good a teacher you are, some student evaluation data). Including weak material might well hurt you, but not including it might seem like a red flag to some people. And too many red flags will hurt you too.

All I can do is wish you luck.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Emanations II call for papers

This a follow-up to my earlier post on Wittgenstein and shamanism. Carter Kaplan writes:
When it comes to essays, we are especially looking for treatments of Wittgenstein (and shamanism, if possible), Milton, early-modernism, continental philosophy and politics, skeptical-empiricism, analyses of psychiatric theory, scenes from academic culture, academic politics, and so on. While conventional academic papers are welcome, we'd like to veer off the pedantic route and publish papers operating in "essay" mode--like Francis Bacon's essays, for example.
The full call for submissions is here.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Anscombe's Moral Philosophy reviewed

About every month (probably exactly once a month, but I haven't checked) I get a set of cards in the VMI mail with reviews of philosophy books that I might want to ask our library to order. Looking through the latest batch at the orthodontist's yesterday (waiting for my daughter) I came across a review of my book. The review is copyrighted (Choice, November '11 ~ Vol. 49, No. 03), so I'll just quote the best bits (none of it is negative, though--honest):
Richter ... provides a helpful guide to the moral philosophy of G. E. M. Anscombe, a leading 20th-century philosopher. His exposition of Anscombe's moral viewpoint develops through a thoughtful, accessible attempt to clarify and defend it against many leading critics. Throughout, Richter's development of Anscombe's views is sympathetic without being insensitive to Anscombe's often-shallow treatment of the history of philosophy. Accordingly, Richter succeeds in bringing out the manner in which Anscombe's thought is important--not for its penetrating insight into the history of ideas, but for its novel contribution to that history. [...] Ultimately, this volume is not only an important supplement to the Anscombe literature, but also one that, in the process of clarifying the philosopher's views, makes an important contribution to contemporary moral philosophy.
 Thanks, A. L. Morton!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Job stats, etc.

(Apologies to readers who aren't interested in this, but it's become a consuming interest for me, and I hope some of what I say will actually be helpful to people looking for jobs in philosophy.)

Two things have been bothering me since yesterday. One is Matt Pianalto's question about how much conference presentations count in a job application, and the other is where to draw the line between candidates who are "too good" for us and those who aren't. Partly I'm bothered because it's just so hard to know how to rate or rank candidates. But far more than that I'm worried about being unfair or part of a cruel system. It's so hard to know who the best candidate is that it seems almost impossible that we will succeed in hiring that person. (No offence to whoever we end up hiring!) On the other hand, if we play it safe it seems as though we can hardly go wrong. That is, we might not get the best person, but I'm very confident we'll get a really good person. Anyway, here are the facts.

I believe I have now seen every application file. We got a total of 156 applications. Only two of these that I can recall are not really qualified for the position. Of those who are qualified, about (I might have miscounted) 62 don't yet have their PhD and 58 have no publications yet.

If we automatically rule out people who don't yet have the PhD (which we haven't done, but I have been encouraged to downgrade their status) then we will miss out on some great candidates. On the other hand, we aren't exactly short of great candidates. So one way to make a first cut would be to do this. I don't think we will do it, but other schools might, and most of the people we interview will, I am sure, already have their PhDs.

Much the same goes for publications. What we really want in this regard is someone who will publish enough to get tenure, if the position becomes tenure-track. So promise is the really important thing. But people who have already published surely show more promise of publishing in future than those who never have so far. Especially if their publications are many and good.

Some people will probably be cut because their publishing record is too good or, more accurately, because they are being marketed as researchers rather than teachers-who-also-do-research. This includes people who have no publications yet. Having stellar publications is one thing that suggests a candidate belongs in this category, but the main things that do so are letters focusing solely on the candidate's research (with perhaps the occasional reference to teaching, apparently as an afterthought) and the absence of much teaching-related material in the application. I am aware that terrible injustices could be done here. There are people who very clearly ought to get jobs who might not do so because schools like mine see them as belonging to a different league but schools in that league see them as not quite good enough for them. But I've sounded this note before.

The most important thing is teaching, but this is also one of the hardest things to assess. One or more letters saying that the candidate is great in the classroom help, but don't prove much. Student evaluations also don't always provide a reliable picture of who is good and who isn't. But, just as you have to publish to get tenure (even if you are Socrates or Wittgenstein), you also have to appear to students to be a good teacher. So good evaluations from students are a very big plus. Candidates whose evaluations seem relatively weak might well be cut. So might those who simply don't provide such information. This won't happen automatically at our school, but candidates who have provided very favorable student evaluations will be at an advantage.

What about relevant expertise? Since pretty much all our courses are introductory, almost anyone with a PhD in philosophy should be OK to teach them. Anyone who looks doubtful in this regard will be at a disadvantage, but almost no one is in that position. Personally I care more about whether the candidate's work sounds interesting. If you work on Wittgenstein, Heidegger, virtue ethics, or military ethics, this will probably help. But we want someone to teach a philosophy of mind course, so that's a good strength to have too. We have even had applicants who work on several of these.

Having said all that, let me finish with a few important points:

  1. No one has been eliminated from consideration yet  
  2. I haven't read any of the applications very thoroughly yet
  3. At least one person that (at this preliminary stage) I think we should interview does not fit the profile outlined above 
  4. I honestly don't know how much say I will have in choosing who we interview, let alone to whom we will make an offer 
I hope this doesn't plunge anyone into despair. As I've mentioned before, I'm happy to answer questions. I'm also interested in hearing suggestions as to how best (most fairly and most prudently) to draw up a shortlist. Otherwise, I think I'd probably better leave the topic here before I either put my foot in it or get too boring. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Advice to [and other information for] job candidates II

[Updates to the original post are in brackets. Thanks to Matthew Pianalto for spotting the need for some clarification.]

Too late for this year, no doubt, but perhaps this will help someone sometime. Having read over 100 application files now it's hard to resist saying something about what things make an application appealing to me and what has the opposite effect. It's important to distinguish, though, between what is merely likable (or irritating) and what actually helps (or hurts) an application. I'll get to the trivial stuff later.

What hurts?
  • No PhD yet. This won't hurt in every case, but some people don't finish when they expect to, and it can be hard to finish while working full-time. So having the PhD in hand is a definite plus. If you don't yet have your PhD but have reason to be very confident that you will by the end of the academic year, make this very clear in your letter. 
  • Little or no teaching experience (with sole responsibility for the course). 
  • No decent publications. By decent I don't mean top ten journals, just ones in journals I've heard of or think I should have heard of. An essay on pp. 131-132 of the Bulletin of the Duns Scotus Society (if there is such a thing) won't hurt you, but it won't help much either. Two is probably the ideal number of publications to have for a school like ours. It suggests that you will publish enough to get tenure but are not such a publishing machine that you will be unhappy at a school that puts teaching before research.  
  • Evidence that you are not a good fit for a teaching-oriented school, e.g. too many really impressive publications, letters that focus exclusively on your research (i.e. all your letters do this, not just some of them), references to how close you have come to landing a tenure track job at Big Name Research University.  This kind of thing doesn't make you seem too good so much as it suggests that you are likely to get a more attractive offer elsewhere and that you will try to leave if you ever do come here.
What helps?
  • Obviously having the PhD in hand, having taught several courses of your own (or several sections of the same one or two courses, perhaps), and having a couple of decent publications. 
  • Having won a teaching award.
  • Having student evaluations of your teaching in which you regularly score above 4.0 on a scale out of 5 for overall instructor effectiveness.
  • Having a detailed letter about what you do well as a teacher.
  • Having a record of attending teaching workshops or showing an interest in becoming a better teacher.
  • Doing research that sounds interesting. Obviously one person's interesting is another's boring, and different members of the same search committee might have different tastes, but I mention this because it seems to me to be a very big factor. I would guess that few hardcore analytic departments really want to hire a Continental philosopher, and vice versa, just to give one crude example. If all the ethicists in a department work on Kant and your dissertation is all about how badly misguided Kantian ethics is, they probably won't hire you.        
  • Letters of recommendation should be as recent as possible and should focus on your scholarship and your teaching. Three seems like enough letters to me. No one sends any fewer. Some people send two or three times as many as this, which doesn't hurt but doesn't do much good either.   
What else matters, albeit perhaps not as much as the above?
    • Our school is a military school, so having military experience or being from a similar school is a definite plus. This point won't generalize very well, but I suppose if you are Catholic and you're applying to a Catholic school, that would help in a similar way. 
    • Being someone who would add diversity to the faculty is, at least in my opinion, a plus. [Not that there is much you can do about this.] 
    • Evidence of service is good to see.
    • We have various programs that it would be nice if the person we hire could help with. For instance, we have a new program relating to poverty, so experience of teaching relevant courses is a plus. [If you have the time, it might be worth looking at each school's web site to see if you have experience or skills relevant to programs they might have that aren't mentioned in their ad. It probably doesn't matter enough for it to be worthwhile spending much time on this though.]
    • If you live nearby you will be cheaper for us to interview and are (possibly much) more likely to get an interview. [We are only doing on campus interviews.]
    What else does not matter but is either nice, irritating, or amusing?
    • Personally, I like cover letters that are one page long. For what it's worth (which is probably not much) I think they should briefly say what position is being applied for, highlight the best parts of the application package, and then say something about why you are a good fit for this job. It is common for people to be very precise about which job they are applying for, specifying the number assigned to it by the APA, for instance. This strikes me as unnecessary in most cases and should be cut out whenever it isn't needed, especially if you care about keeping your letter short and relevant.   
    • Our advert specifies that applications should be sent to "Search Committee." The people receiving the applications, rightly or wrongly, dislike seeing applications addressed to the department head, whose name is not mentioned in any of our ads. Especially when his name is misspelled. 
    • Don't try too hard to impress. If you're going to praise some characteristic of our students or the local geography, make sure it is a characteristic that is not imaginary. Come to think of it, perhaps all of the points in this list belong under the heading "Don't try too hard to impress." I made this mistake when I was on the market, so I understand why people do it. But it is a mistake.      
    Other advice:
    • Not everyone reads every writing sample (feel free to read between the lines) before the first cut is made. So your writing sample should probably come last in your application packet. Other materials placed after it might be overlooked otherwise, i.e. might be mistaken for part of the not-to-be-read sample. I have learned to double check, but other people reading your file might not learn fast enough.
    • In an attempt to treat everyone the same, and in order to save time, I have not been looking people up online. But occasionally there is a reason to make an exception to this rule. It's a good idea to try to ensure that what comes up when people Google your name is a professional-looking website and not lots of negative comments about you on I don't trust that site, but who knows what others might think of it?  
    One final observation: almost exactly 10% of our applicants so far are women. That isn't very many. It could be the "military" in our name that puts off potential applicants who are women, but I suspect there just aren't that many women in the profession.

    More stats available upon request.

    Friday, November 4, 2011

    New novels

    Michel Houellebecq has a new book (new in English translation, that is) coming out, which sounds good. This review does a pretty good job of assessing his work's strengths and weaknesses (although amateurish plot devices feature in some pretty good literary works, I would think, so that criticism might be a little unfair).

    My other favorite contemporary French writer, Fred Vargas, also has a new one out. I've mentioned Houellebecq before, but not Vargas, so let me say something about her books. She writes mysteries, and not particularly philosophical or literary ones. Just really good ones. It's a funny genre because the rules are so strict. The protagonist pretty much has to be a middle-aged man with a dead or divorced wife (the divorce should be because he worked too hard or too dangerously), the makings of a drinking problem, and a mess of a personal life. He should not play by the rules. (I wonder what it says about us that this is the model of our hero.) I used to like Ian Rankin's books, but it started to feel as though he was just churning them out, which perhaps he was. It can't be easy to stick to the required formula but still keep things fresh. Vargas is the only person I know of who can do it.

    Unless you count Malcolm Pryce. (Who, I've just this minute discovered, also has a new book out!) His books are set in an alternate version of Wales, a sort of cross between the real Wales (which is something like the Appalachia of Britain) and a gritty, Hollywood version of the United States. It's surreal, funny, and sad. A big part of what makes it funny, after all, is the idea of great drama (Pryce's novels are noir-ish detective stories) taking place in such an inconsequential backwater. So what makes it funny also reminds you of what a nowhere place Wales can feel like, which is sad. But without that sadness the comedy wouldn't work. And it does work, so it's not so sad after all. Pryce pulls off the delicate balancing act incredibly well. I'm tempted to call his novels hilarious, and others have done so, but that might make them sound jollier than they are. They aren't depressing, but they are sort of dark. Philosophical too, which is always a plus.

    In case I've made Pryce's comic stories sound sadder than they are, or insulted Wales, let me say a bit more. As I recall, Terry Wogan once remarked on the fact that it was impossible to imagine a song about a British city along the lines of songs about American cities such as Chicago and New York, New York. American cities can be taken seriously, partly because (enough) Americans do take them seriously , and partly because they are genuinely important places, which is related to the fact that the USA is a superpower. CSI: Miami sounds exciting (to some people, at least), but CSI: Birmingham just sounds like a joke. The places where British people live don't matter. And by this I mean mostly that they don't seem to matter to the people who live there, not that I judge them to be objectively insignificant. Everyone in Britain knows this (correct me if I'm wrong), and it is a fairly standard source of humor. Places that don't matter can't be taken too seriously, after all. So you have to laugh instead. This might sound bleak considered in the abstract, but I think it's pretty much part of daily life for a lot of people. Pryce's comedy is in this tradition, and neither particularly anti-Welsh nor gloomy.          

    Wednesday, November 2, 2011

    Bede Rundle

    Bede Rundle has died. I believe he graded some of my final exams when I was an undergraduate (our exams were all graded by people other than the ones who taught us), so I've known of him for a long time. I've don't know that I've ever read anything by him, but Edward Kanterian obviously thinks highly of him:
    Bede Rundle is one of the best philosophers right now, unfortunately not widely known because of his non-conformistic approach to philosophy of mind and language, which is highly [critical] of current cognitive science bubbling.  
    Mohan Matthen, with whom I always seem to disagree, takes a different view (although he remembers Rundle fondly and respectfully):
    Can you imagine somebody using ordinary language to investigate why there is something rather than nothing? He drove me mad. Right up until when I last saw him, he thought that empirical philosophy of mind was the craziest, most contradictory thing anybody had ever dreamed up
    Sounds like time for a revival of interest in Rundle's work. (Or at least a revival of the name Bede.)