Monday, September 29, 2014

Brian Leiter and the PGR - the quality problem in academic philosophy

Blog visitors outside philosophy (the discipline) will be forgiven if they haven't heard of the Philosophical Gourmet Report and/or Brian Leiter. Leiter is a professor at the University of Chicago, but that's neither here nor there really. I have read and do like some of his work. Leiter seems to be a belligerent kinda guy who sends nasty, over-the-top emails to people who criticise him.

He also publishes a gossip document (aka said Philosophical Gourmet Report) that ranks philosophy departments according to 'quality'. What determines quality? One would hope straightforward testable criteria such as publication records of faculty members, job placement and the like would be binding criteria to be used by evaluators. One would also assume that it's comprehensive and that it covers all doctoral degree granting philosophy programs. You could not be more mistaken. There's a pre-selection of 'top programs' which were somehow chosen, if you trust the Report's explanation of 'method'. It seems the Report picks faculty members from ranked programs and asks them to evaluate faculty lists. To take away the marketing effect of prestigious university labels the faculty lists do not include university affiliation. So, that would probably mean that if I received a list including Jeff McMahan I wouldn't think Oxford U. Fun approach that. Still, at least an effort is made to reduce bias based on institutional affiliation. That's kinda tricky as that is pretty much all that philosophers typically go by.

Well, what criteria are the evaluators given? They read like this: '"Faculty quality" should be taken to encompass the quality of philosophical work and talent represented by the faculty and the range of areas they cover, with the two weighted as you think appropriate. Since the rankings are used by prospective students, about to embark on a multi-year course of study, you may also take in to account, as you see fit, considerations like the status (full-time, part-time) of the faculty; the age of the faculty (as a somewhat tenuous guide to prospective availability, not quality); and the quality of training the faculty provide, to the extent you have information about this.'

Pretty obvious that this approach stays remarkably clear of measurable faculty outputs. Instead people affiliated with pre-selected programs evaluate the quality of people in pre-selected programs based on ... well, apparently, whatever criteria they choose to evaluate quality. Yep, that's how this works. This probably gels well with standard approaches of academic philosophers telling you that philosophy journals, usually old ones, that demonstrably nobody reads or cites, are top journals, simply because people from - you guessed it - top programs populate their editorial boards, and people from - you guessed it - top programs publish in them. Another sign of quality are typically inefficient review processes. The longer it takes the better it must be. Philosophical logic when it comes to evaluating philosophical quality is somewhat... well, unbeatable.

Anyhow, so that's this Report. Not once in my academic career did I bother looking it up. To be fair, it supposedly serves to assist in helping graduate students make sensible choices regarding graduate programs. Because it is used by lots of graduate students and apparently departments when they make hiring decisions, it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The beauty of academic philosophy. Never ceases to amaze me.

Well, Leiter also hosts a lively blog that I would probably be interested in if the above mentioned academic discipline and its shenanigans were of deep interest to me. There's on and off content posted there, often by Leiter himself, that's relevant to me (he does a bit of work that's of interest to secularists and academic freedom folks). I don't think I check-in more than once a month for a couple of minutes.

Anyhow, some philosophers think that Leiter is way too influential and ... well, a bully. So they try to have him removed from the PGR. A petition is circulating asking that folks sign it. Essentially it repeats that Leiter is a bully and that the signatories won't participate in reviewing for the PGR. Among the signatories are a whole bunch of very well-respected people, including personal friends of mine. I don't think I will sign the removal demand, because, frankly, the story is fairly convoluted and I can't quite make sense of it. Each side seems to represent a somewhat jaded (and incomplete) account of what it is that has transpired between the protagonists. Here's the Chronicle of Higher Education's take on the saga. Leiter doesn't seem to be a particular pleasant correspondent if he thinks you've crossed him, and some of his language is out of line by most standards. He does seem to do a decent job with the PGR, by philosophers' standards (whatever they might be). I suspect he might not be entirely mistaken if he assumes that the current kerfuffle is both sour grapes by programs not crowned by his philosophical gossip report as well as personal vendettas by folks he crossed in the past (and, no doubt, there will be legions by now).

Grab your popcorn, sit back and enjoy the latest philosophical fireworks, or, get a life.

1 comment:

  1. I really liked your post about Brian Leiter and the PGR - the quality problem in academic philosophy

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