As of a few days ago, there are now two statements relating to philosophical rankings, the September one (603 signatures and counting), which is a protest against Brian Leiter continuing to lead the Philosophical Gourmet Report, and the October one, which is a protest against any and all philosophical rankings.
After thinking about this I feel compelled to defend the Karenskies among us. This is particularly important, both because it would be very bad of if the October revolutionaries got their way (reasons given below) but also because I think that most concerned people would much rather have the PGR as currently constituted (with all of its problems) than nothing at all. In this way utopians are almost always the enemy of true progress.
Before adumbrating the virtues of the PGR, let me first note that there is a severe informational asymmetry in populations of undergraduates concerning graduate study. To put it charitably, most undergraduate majors work in departments that do not have up to date specialists in every dominant subfield of philosophy. Many work in departments with people whose advice about these things is so out of date, or so ideologically driven in weird ways, as to be harmful. From the time I was an undergraduate through now, I keep seeing students waste three to five hundred dollars and I don't know how much time and energy applying only to long-shot aspiration schools or applying only to schools where nobody there worked on the stuff they were interested in. But the students who pay attention to the on-line rankings do not tend to do this.
In my experience, here are the three ways that rankings are extremely useful to students, and two more ways they could be:
Via specialty rankings, they are place to to get a good start of finding schools that track students' research interests. With the exception of 20th century continental philosophy the PGR does an excellent job here. But this could not be done adequately without some form of ranking. For example, I have philosophy of language as an Area of Competence, and in my small department I'm the one who teaches it. But a student interested in philosophy of language who can get in any of the Leiter speciality ranked philosophy of language program would be (all else equal) absolutely daft to come to LSU. And there is no way whatsoever most students could get the information relevant to making that choice without ranking. This is not just important for where they might thrive, but also for what schools are likely to accept them, given their statement of purpose (point 3 below).
As a rough guide to job placement (mod Dr. Zamalek's worries). Students interested in becoming career academics deserve to have the most honest information possible about the career prospects of students in various graduate schools. The big promise of PGR general rankings is that it was a good guide to this. Carolyn Dicey Jennings' group is going to do better. To oppose this kind of ranking is morally problematic, given the economic situation of our students.*
As a defeasible guide for for how hard it is to get into various places. Having to pay to apply somewhere is already a bit of a rip off. Robbing students of information that will help them be informed about which schools are aspiration, plausible, and safety schools would be a complete rip off, and against an economically vulnerable population at that. Right now the PGR general rankings are the only guide to this. I hope that someone with CDJ's statistical talents comes along and does better.
A guide for acceptance rates. As far as I know, PGR only defeasibly tracks this, but it is also needed for the reasons given above. It would not be hard to do a CDJ on it.
A guide for attrition rates. It's long been an open secret that some schools have good placement rates because so many students are weeded out. Prospective students need to know this. In addition, attrition rates are the best defeasible barometer we have for climate issues in departments. Places where well over less than half of matriculating students end up getting Ph.D's are toxic environments. One could also aggregate this data by gender. As far as I know, nobody collates this kind of information now, but it is just as important as the other three. I should say that I bugged Brian Leiter about this a few years ago and he was publicly supportive.
Academics who are prone to overshare their political beliefs on the internets and elsewhere tend to have poor practical instincts precisely because we are so prone to making the great the enemy of the good. We forget that "utopia" means "nowhere." It's fine to argue against false dichotomies in people's work, but political reality largely is a set of false dichotomies. Yes it would be nice if things were constituted where nobody needed rankings. But this would be a world where a sizable portion of the six hundred or so undergraduate philosophy degree granting institutions had lots of hires right out of graduate school. It's not going to happen. This would be a world where graduate application was free and not time consuming. It's not going to happen. This would be a world where the economic costs of making bad decisions about graduate application weren't so vicious. It's not going to happen. Etc. Etc. Etc.
John Protevi has a thought provoking and helpful post at his blog here. The back story is that some people are unhappy about signing the September Statement, because it seems to presuppose support for the project of reputational surveys, even though several people with the statistical and methodological chops have made good arguments that there is no way to do such surveys fairly. Protevi aggregates these arguments and points out that signing the September Statement does not in any way implicate support. Some people in the comment mention an "October Statement" concerning general disapproval of rankings. As far as I can tell, no official October Statement has been written up. I find myself somewhere around September 21st as far as I understand this, and put this comment on Protevi's blog:*
Thanks for doing this John. I think that it's important in it's own right as well as important for people to realize that signing the October statement needn't presuppose support for reputational surveys.
One quick question, does the October statement preclude what Caroly Dicey Jennings is doing (ranking in terms of graduation rates and placement records) or what Noelle McAfee** has suggested (speciality area rankings in terms of citations in the manner of the scientists)? I think that both of these would get what PGR promises but does not deliver. In the first, you have to consider graduation rates because just ranking placement would reward and encourage places that fail out those not likely to place. In the second, you would have to aggregate in terms of areas because citational habits are so different in different sub-areas of philosophy.
I find myself somewhere between "No Leiter" and "No rankings" ("no reputational surveys" doesn't sound as good). Anyhow, thanks again for aggregating the articles. I just wanted to add my two cents in case someone is going to draw up an official October statement. It would be nice to know how it stands with respect to CDJ and McCaffee rankings.
Protevi has just killed the momentum against Leiter by creating the "October Statement." Now the movement is divided, people will hesitate about what to sign, and ultimately they won't sign anything at all. Leiter could not be happier with Protevi right now.
And Protevi's rallying cry, "No Rankings, Not Now, Not Ever," is terribly naive. There will be rankings; the question is whether they will be controlled by philosophers (as they currently are) or by university administrators, magazine editors, and crackpots.
The cure is going to be worse than the disease, I'm afraid.
Even though this is a little unfair (I don't think it's naive, and Protevi should get kudos for raising the issue and aggregating the relevant sources), I do think it raises a couple of valid worries. Especially the last part about how we are going to be ranked anyhow and isn't it better to make sure the process is fair. I also do think that the Leiter specialty rankings are very helpful for students (even though the continental one is bad with regards to contemporary French).
Rachel McKinnon is called “singularly unhinged” and “Current Student” is advised again to leave academia.
Noelle McAfee is publicly called “a disgrace” and is privately threatened with legal action.
The author has lots of other links in her/his description of each controversy, as well as a page of other relevant resources.
The page isn't completist, as it doesn't give examples of the way that Leiter incessantly demeans philosophers that he doesn't respect and scholars who work on them, or the many times he has responded abusively when people take issue with him about that. However, since Leiter's responses during those controversies have been of a piece with the above, the page is still pretty representative.
On of the nice things being shown the door by the newapps mandarins* is that it's helping me get past blogarrhetic urge to share every half-baked opinion I have on any issue of consequence. I'm trying to limit myself to weighing in only if it at least seems to me that I have something plausible and non-boring to say. But maybe I just think I do with respect to the recent Brian Leiter brouhaha? Let's see.
First, the background as I understand it:
Sally Haslanger and David Vellman publicly post e-mails that Brian Leiter sent to Caroline Jenkins and Noelle McCaffee. The e-mails include at least implicit threats of legal action by Leiter against McCaffee and Jenkins and ad hominem attacks of the sort we (at least those of us who teach informal logic) spend a great deal of time helping freshman students avoid.
Brian Leiter writes a fairly long-winded response, getting his side of the story across. In it he doubles down, absurdly (see point 3 of the second list below) claiming that to say that someone is not a philosopher is defamatory, and mischaracterizing the criticism he received for previous public ad hominem attacks on philosophers such as when he divined Carolyn Dicey Jenkins motives for ranking graduate programs in terms of placement rate (please see points 4,5, and 6 below).
To put it kindly, the e-mails and Leiter's response does not go over well in the blogosphere. See this and this at dailynous, this and this at feminist philosophers, and this (have to go down in the discussion) and this at philosophy metablog.
In response to this a number of top philosophers posted a public letter declining to contribute to the Philosophical Gourmet Report if Leiter didn't step down. As of the posting of this, they include the following [update: Go here to see the (at press time) list of 138 additional philosophers who have added their signatures to the pledge]:
Scott Anderson (UBC)
Paul Bartha (UBC)
JC Beall (Connecticut and Aberdeen)
John Beatty (UBC)
Sylvia Berryman (UBC)
Ben Bradley (Syracuse)
Rachael Briggs (ANU)
Michael Griffin (UBC)
Sally Haslanger (MIT)
Richard Heck (Brown)
Christina Hendricks (UBC)
Jonathan Ichikawa (UBC and Aberdeen)
Hilde Lindemann (Michigan State)
Ned Markosian (Western Washington)
Chris Mole (UBC)
Alan Richardson (UBC)
Chris Stephens (UBC)
Evan Thompson (UBC)
Robert Williams (Leeds)
Crispin Wright (NYU and Aberdeen)
Stephen Yablo (MIT)
I'm sure I'm not the only past recipient of public and private censure from Professor Leiter who is surprised by the extent to which the comments are unsympathetic to his practice of denigrating people with whom he disagrees. When anonymous posters at philosophy metablog overwhelmingly think you are going too far in this regard, you really are doing something wrong. In any case here are my thoughts and worries:
I don't see anything good coming out of the public acceptability of posting someone's private e-mails. I know it's legal (I'm not sure that it should be), but that doesn't make it right. Everybody has to be that much more guarded now in their private speech. Even if you think that Haslanger and Vellman are on the side of angels here (and I do), this should give you pause. Do you want to live in an ecosystem where people not on the side of angels can do the same thing with impunity? Shouldn't there be a sphere of privacy that works better than the old Get Smart cone of silence? The irony here is that Leiter's own public behavior has a chilling effect on public speech (see 3 and 5 below) and then his critics respond in a way that will have a chilling effect on private speech.
It's hard for me to see the point in releasing the e-mails. As far as I can tell, the only difference between the e-mails and Leiter's public behavior on his blog and in commenting on other blogs is the use of profanity in the e-mails.** Maybe I'm being obtuse here though because I'm already reading the public stuff in terms of lots of private (some quite incensed) e-mails from Leiter over the years! Clearly, from the reactions to the critical posts I linked to above these e-mails have changed minds. Charitably, that's because people weren't paying attention before (and nobody has an obligation to follow various bloggy soap operas). I think in many cases the obscenity might lead to a change in gestalt, enabling people to see all the other Brian Leiter ad hominems for what they are. Perhaps I'd already been doing that given all the angry letters I received from him when at newapps?
If posting someone's private e-mails is chilling to private speech, then threatening critics with defamation is chilling to public speech. There's a wide literature on this with respect to countries like England where the burden of proof is on the defendant. Leiter is surely aware of this, yet he routinely notes that a critics comments are defamatory in less liberal countries. The nadir of this was with respect to Graham Harman's posts while he was living in Egypt (since it actually increased the very real physical danger Harman faced during the revolution). And Leiter's complaints are usually beyond silly. It's defamatory to say someone is not a philosopher? O.K. If this is the case, then I've defamed Leiter, myself, and possibly anyone reading this several times in the past few years when I say that most of us are not philosophers, but really teachers of philosophy because it's a bit presumptuous to group ourselves with the Mighty Dead. More generally, natural language allows fuzziness between someone being very bad at something and someone not being something. People working in lexical semantics have actually used this as a test case for semantics of adjectives for years (e.g.. Muffy Siegel's work). But it's an obvious point. Leiter also has made noises about finding out the identity of anonymous posters, though again he surely knows what a dead end this is given the protections of the Decency Act when added to the spuriousness of his claims about defamation/perjury. A public figure in the United States has to be able to establish: (1) that the claim is false, (2) that the defamer knew it was false, and (3) the defamer intended to cause harm by uttering the falsehood. Someone who sincerely believes that Leiter is not a philosopher isn't going to cut it. Thus the appeal to Canadian, English, and Egyptian libel law. This being said, even though his appeals are ridiculous, they still chill speech. Being dragged through the courts by Leiter's lawyer would be financially and emotionally ruinous for most of us. Nearly every philosophy blog moderates comments now in part because of Leiter's spurious threats, and as a result (of the time lag plus the sorites series between trolling-comment, offensive-but-earnestly-meant-comment, and comment-I-disagree-with) there is vastly less philosophical conversation on the internet now. Thank you Brian Leiter.
Likewise, the public acceptability of ad hominems is chilling to free speech. There's a canard in the blogosphere that personal attacks are especially bad when pointed at people without tenure. While this is surely true as far as the consequences to that person, it covers over the systematic threat of the acceptability of ad hominems. If it is acceptable to treat people who believe a certain thing you disagree with as being bad people in virtue of believing those things, then nobody (especially the non-tenured) will want to defend those claims. In this manner shaming a tenured person will still create a culture of fear and freeze speech with respect to views unpopular with those who get away with ad hominems. Leiter is not alone here (cf. my surreal experience at newapps).*** The entire point of getting away with being over the top insulting towards, for example, senior people who take contemporary French philosophy seriously is to silence junior people who might take it seriously. I think that in this regard the blogosphere has been terrible for philosophy, which constitutively needs people defending views that the rest of us view as weird an unacceptable. One, the consensus might be wrong. Two, responding rationally to interesting false views gets us closer to the truth. Wasn't that the point of Descartes' gedankenexperiment?
Regarding Leiter's response- "Calling it like you see it" is just a transparently bad thing to say, on a par with saying "f--k them if they can't take a joke" after having done something particularly cruel. One of the commetators at philosophymetablog makes what should be an obvious point: Just because, in our heart of hearts, we "think someone is being an idiot, is a s--t philosopher, works in a branch of philosophy that we think is bulls--t etc." this does not make it appropriate to publicly say such things. If Leiter or the folks at newapps doing their weird mirror image of his schtick seem reasonable in this respect, please consider the points I tried to make in 4 above.
Regarding Leiter's response- He just spectacularly mischaracterizes what happened with the outcry over how he treated Carrie Dicey Jenkins [Update: Oops, see comment below]. Leiter writes: "During the summer, after I criticized some misleading job placement ranking data, Carrie Jenkins (British Columbia) took to the web to make clear that in her view such criticism was not permissible in our profession and that, therefore, she viewed my blog post as "unprofessional and unethical," and that, in consequence, she was no longer going to treat me as a "normal or representative member of" the profession." No. No. No. No. No. Nobody complained about criticism of the data. There was good discussion at newapps and elsewhere, some of it very critical, and at every point CDJ worked to incorporate the criticism to make the thing better. What people objected to were Leiter's ad homimen attacks on CDJ, and the way they fit into a public pattern of his personal attacks.
No matter what problems one might have with the PGR (see 8, below) one should not lose sight of the fact that the PGR specialty rankings are extraordinarily helpful to students.
The problems with the PGR are proof of philosopher's innumeracy. Richard Heck has been arguing as much for years (see here). As far as I understand the mechanics, the two biggest sources of heuristic bias are: (1) Leiter picks the various area advisory boards, (2) Leiter determines which departments get ranked. On the first, note how few specialists in contemporary French philosophy are on the board. Is it any surprise that the rankings come out the way they do? On the second, I know for a fact that the possibility of moving into rankability drives hiring decisions. Philosophers have shared with me purported conversations where Leiter tells them that their department needs to hire in X to be eligible. These conversations are brought up in faculty meetings in some departments "poised to move into the top fifty." When put together with (1), this ends up being pretty problematic.
Some of Leiter's fanboys, who he approvingly quotes on his blog, are astonishingly like the Mitt Romney of the infamous 47% speech. Consider this representative gem from today's post: "Even supposing the polls are not being jobbed, which I'm not sure we can suppose, I'd expect them to reflect a reporting bias, since the mediocre, the incompetent, the internet ax grinders, and the angry will likely be MUCH more likely to vote than the functional rank and file of the profession, a high percentage of whom use the PGR in advising students." Please consider again the list of people who signed the public letter, linked to above. Is it even remotely plausible that this comes out of mediocrity, incompetence, ax grinding, and anger? But just because the claim is absurd, it is no less toxic with respect to the rest of us who are not as good as the signatories.
The internet cult of the ad homimen represents everything that disgusts me in popular culture. I became a philosophy professor in part to do better than this. I think that we all can.
*See: here for pros and cons of leaving a heavly trafficked group blog, here for newapps quantitative decline, here for newapps' qualitative decline.
**On bullies and profanity see this earlier post. I wasn't actually thinking of Leiter when I wrote it, but I think it applies pretty well.
***Please also read the comment by Todd May that John Protevi and Eric Winesberg did not approve after taking over moderation of the post.]