Saturday, June 30, 2007

All the Small Things

Let me tell about something that happened to me yesterday. I was trying to claw my way out from under a pile of grading when I got an e-mail from a drone in some administration office. She was telling me the deadline had passed and my course evaluations hadn't shown up.

Now, the first thing to say is, there's nothing I can do about that. As I'm sure you remember from college, a student takes the course evals back to whatever office they go to. I'm not allowed to touch them. The student who'd volunteered to take them back to the right office had just flaked out. Nothing I can do about that.

The thing is, this was totally predictable. See, in the past, the student just had to walk the course evals across the hall to the philosophy office and drop them off there. The philosophy secretary would put them in campus mail, and they'd make their way to the administration offices. But this year, for the first time, the student has to personally walk them over to the admin offices. That's about a four block walk.

Why the change? Who the fuck knows? I mean, I don't doubt that campus mail loses shit. And god knows I've never been able to figure out how it can take three days for an envelope to go one block down the street. But do you really think an undergrad is going to be more reliable? Can you count on them to take a random walk, even just four blocks, when they're in the middle of the last week of classes, finishing term papers and gearing up for exams? Does anyone really think you can count on them? If anyone thinks that, they're idiots.

So I spent a panicked half hour trading e-mails with the administration drone and trying to track down the student who had the course evals. In the end, I got him to bring them over to the drone's eager little hands.

Now, here's the point of all this. In the scheme of things, course evals are a small part of of an application package. They're just one part of the teaching portfolio, which is just one part of the application. At the same time, every little thing counts, so I take every little thing very seriously. But there's a lot of little things, and a lot of them depend on stupid people making stupid decisions entirely out of your control. And somehow, that makes for a steady stream--and in the fall, a torrent--of stupid little problems that take a half hour of panicked e-mailing to solve. Days go by, and you can't figure how you can be so tired, and yet have so little to show for it.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Nothing Left to Give, Nothing More in You

Lots to post about today, but a grading marathon here at PJMB HQ means that some of it'll have to wait. For now, let me follow up on yesterday's post. If the Professor's serious that I need a new writing sample for next year's market, I'm actually sort of fucked. Because I got nothing.

Okay, that's not exactly true. Let me explain.

You know how my work is so obscure that no one's ever heard of most of what I work on? Well, that's a problem. (I know, you're fucking shocked.) First, it means I had to send out two different writing samples last year. That's not unheard of, but it's not exactly common either. The Professor suggested I do it, since I was trying to spin my AOSs one way for some jobs and another way for others. You know how I picked which two papers to send? I sent the two most generally accessible papers I have. Now the Professor wants me to keep the one that's most accessible and replace the other one. But replace it with what? The only other papers I have are even less accessible. They're about crap that's so obscure that, like, eight guys have heard of it.

So, I don't got nothing. But all I got looks like nothing to most philosophers. Awesome.

Calm Like a Bomb, Ignite, Ignite, Ignite

I had a meeting with the Professor this morning. He told me I need to have at least one new writing sample for the job market next year. I told him I thought my main writing sample is good. I'm not the only one who thinks that either, since I got it past the referees at an okay journal. He said, sure, publication is one thing, but the paper didn't get me a job, did it? Touché, Professor, touché. And thanks for your tact.

The best part of the Professor's advice today? It's the exact opposite of what he told me less than three weeks ago. Then, I didn't need a new paper for the job market.

You know what the the advice flip-flops did to me last fall, and what they'll do again this fall, when I'm really freaking out about the market? Rage. Seething rage. Rage that spits nails into a mic. Rage engineered on test-monkeys in labs. Rage that pulls an army into a decade-long quagmire on a Turkish beach. Serious fucking rage.

Right now, though, I'm just a little bemused.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

I Can Tell Because it's Plain to See

I've mentioned before how senior profs in my department used to tell us grad students not to bother trying to get anything published. You might well wonder, why the fuck not? Well, let's see what philosopher James Pryor says:
I expect different departments have different attitudes towards published work. But in the departments I've worked at (Harvard, Princeton, NYU), there's been no requirement or expectation that the leading candidates will already be published. Having a paper that's good enough to be in J Phil will certainly be to your benefit; you should use it as your writing sample. The extra time it would take you to really get it into J Phil would (I think) often be more productively spent writing another paper that good, or making your dissertation project better developed, more polished, or more marketable. So I never push my grad advisees to publish.

There's a lot here I want to unpack, and I'm not going to get to it all today. Let me start by saying, these are exactly the reasons why, until recently, my own senior profs told me not to worry about publishing.

Notice the key idea here is that I'm supposed to write a paper good enough to get into a good journal, but then not bother with the painfully slow process of actually getting it past the journal's referees. Okay, fine. But good enough by whose standards? I'm pretty sure most search committees look for publications as evidence that a candidate's work is good. The whole fucking point of that part of your CV is to show the level you're working at.

It’s no accident Pryor's talking about his experience with search committees at Harvard, Princeton, and NYU. (For lay readers, those are three of the hottest shit departments in America, and Pryor has some pretty serious game of his own.) Maybe the best philosophers in America feel like they can judge a candidate’s quality on their own, but my hunch is, the rest of the profession needs the signal sent by publications in good journals.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

It's So Hard to See the Truth With the Sun in Your Eyes

Do philosophy departments encourage an overly-optimistic view of the job market? Yes, they absolutely do. Think about the way departments often talk about their placement records. An old Leiter post has an example of Columbia claiming that they'd "recently" placed their students in jobs at Chicago and Harvard. What does "recently" mean here? In means these guys got their jobs over a decade earlier.

But this is just par for the course. My own department's website has a list of big placement successes that goes back to a time when Kurt Cobain was just a skinny high-school kid trying to find decent punk rock records in Aberdeen, WA. Of course, the website doesn't tell you my department's got to reach back to the pre-grunge era to put together a list of placement successes. And it doesn't tell you it's not listing the people who never got tenure-track jobs at all--even though they make up nearly half of each class. No, the website just makes it look like grads from my program get all these awesome jobs at super-awesome schools.

A grad student looking for a clear-eyed sense of the job market has to see her way through that bullshit. And that's not always easy.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Just Tell Me the Truth Now

Let me pick up a thread of the discussion we were having last week. I was talking about the lack of clarity in thinking about the job market on the part of undergrads heading to grad school as well as junior grad students. There's no doubt that profs play a role in giving students those fuzzy ideas. Maybe some do it by talking too optimistically about the job market. I bet most do it by just not talking pessemistically enough. There's some real bad faith involved in the way some profs talk about their students and the market, and that's something I want to come back to sooner or later.

But for now, I want give propers to someone who's more honest than a lot on these issues. Look at this disclaimer Leiter has at the bottom of his rankings:
There are, by almost everyone's admission, too many PhD programs, perhaps especially in the United States; students should think very carefully before enrolling in the programs that are not well-ranked overall, though some have, to be sure, particular niches of excellence, that are reflected in the specialty rankings later in this Report. For those specialty niches, programs not well-ranked overall may be a good choice. Be sure, in any event, to get a complete report on job placement from these programs before enrolling: some have better records than others.

As far as honesty about the job market goes, that's probably not as brutal as I'd be. But it's a hell of a lot more honest than anything anyone ever told me when I was heading to grad school. So good for Leiter.

Rocking the Passive Voive XII

I've got an impressive feast of shitty Chinese food in front of me right now, but it's still too hot to eat. So while it cools, let me fill you in on a short exchange I had over the weekend with a PJMB friend and former roommate. He got a PFO about wrting a paper for an anthology, and it included these sentences:

We received an overwhelming number of fine proposals, but space and overlap of subject matter limits us from accepting all of them. We are sorry to inform you that for these reasons we are unable to accept your paper.

Now, my friend points out that the second sentence is, strictly speaking, in the active voice. And yet the sense of passivity is unmistakable.

Think about the phrase, "we are unable to accept." Unable? As in, can't? As in, it's not in their power to accept the paper? Obviously, that's complete bullshit. They could accept the paper if they wanted to. They're the editors of the antholgy, for fuck's sake, they can do what they want. But "unable," if you squint the right way and don't think too hard about it, kinda sorta makes it seem like it's not their fault. Which of course is the whole point.

I think my tofu's cooled off enough to eat.

Chinese Dinner Update: A philosopher couldn't ask for better fortune than this. My fortune cookie says I "have an ability to sense and know higher truth." I feel like I should put that on my CV or something.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

For Everything the North Gives it Exacts a Price in Return

One strand of the discussion we've been having over the past few days has been the things the job market makes you give up. We've been talking in the abstract, but for whatever reason it felt concrete today.

I love where I'm from more than anywhere else I've ever been, but I don't see how I'll ever live there again.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Preaching 'Bout the Better Life I Learned in School

Yesterday was an office-hours-marathon-plus-travel day, so I'm late jumping back into this discussion.

Yesterday PGOAT was talking about the legendary APA letter of death, which they stopped sending out before our time. (It's terrifying to think of a time when the job market was even worse--so bad that the APA sent out letters to grad school applicants basically telling them to forget about grad school and do something else with their lives.) But I'm not sure the APA's to blame here.

I'm with NS. I think most of the reponsibility has to lie with individual philosophy departments. If the bottom third of the PhD programs in the US could disappear without it making a difference to the profession, why are they there in the first place? I mean, we all know the answer to that question, don't we? Profs like teaching grad seminars, departments need TAs, and deans like grad programs. But the whole thing is a fraud. Grad seminars and teaching experience are supposed to be "graduate training." But training for what? You can't train students for jobs you know they'll never have.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

On Delusions.

Happy First Day of Summer, folks. We all know what that means…

Heh. Seriously, though. This business about who’s responsible for the false hopes of people who don’t stand a snowball’s chance of ever working in the profession deserves further comment.

I have to confess, I’m kind of torn here. On the one hand, as I mentioned in comments yesterday, I think there’s really only so much responsibility it’s fair to lay on the profession. And the APA has been pretty good about issuing statements intended to scare off the faint of heart.* But, on the other hand, as NS points out in comments today, sometimes actions speak louder than words. And a lot of departments are perfectly willing to feed people’s delusions by putting their own interests in having a grad program (no matter how mediocre) ahead of the interests of the people who are actually in the program.

So I dunno. What I do know is that there’s a patio with cheap beer and Mexican food calling my name. Ta ta.

* On second thought, I'm not so sure about this. 15 minutes of poking around on the APA's website has failed to come up with any statement to this effect. So maybe I'm wrong here. But I think I remember reading something like this somewhere. Hmm. I'll keep looking, and get back to y'all.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Ain't Coming to You, Not in this Life

I've been talking about how hard it is for grad students to see clearly what their job prospects are. When you're applying to grad school, and even in your first few years, when you're still doing coursework, you don't see yourself scraping by with one-year after one-year, moving every couple of years from one shitty town to the next, chasing temporary appointments. Let me make this concrete.

A good friend of mine just told me this story last week. He knows a guy who's doing philosophy at department that's not ranked on Leiter's List. That means it's below the top 50. My friend wanted to know why this guy was doing the degree, since--my friend figured--this guy has no reasonable expectation of ever landing a tenure-track job. The guy's response? He figured he'd be fine, since he didn't really want a high-powered job at a big research university. He'd be perfectly happy settling for a nice liberal arts college.

That's it right there. That's the disconnect from reality I've been talking about. Tenure-tracked teaching jobs go to people coming from the middle and bottom half of the top 50. If you're in a department that's below the top 50, you're looking at very long odds. But that's not the way it seemed to this guy my friend was knows. He figured he'd be fine.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

I Hope Tomorrow is Like Today

In comments, PJMB friend NS has an interesting (and Humean!) suggestion about why people entering grad school have such a foggy view of the difficulties of the job market:
Good students getting into grad schools have been beating "the odds" all their life, so why should it continue to be any different? . . .[W]here would one have ever gotten the message that being at the top of the heap and the class will eventually not continue to open whatever door you knock upon? The first real rejection these people (like many of us) have ever experienced is from their job apps.

That's a good point as far as it goes. If you're going to grad school, you're probably used to being better than most of your classmates, if not all of them. Your experiences up to that point in life probably don't prepare you all that well for thinking clearly about the job market--especially not years before you hit it.

At the same time, in philosophy there really are clues out there for people with eyes to see. There's the Leiter Report, for one. You apply to a range of schools in the top 50 and below, and you only get into schools below the top 40. There it is, staring you right in the face: you are no longer the top of the heap. I guess it's just hard to take that on board.

Monday, June 18, 2007

It's the Good Advice that You Just Didn't Take

I know, my advice seems pessimistic. Some undergrad's all psyched about grad school, and I piss all over their enthusiasm

Well, someone has to piss on their enthusiasm. I remember being at that stage of the game, and I just didn't have a clear idea of what I was heading into. I had a vague sense it would be hard to find a job in the same place as the Future Dr. Mrs Dr. PGS. But no one looked me in the eye and said, "You'll spend the next ten years scheming about how the two of you can be together, and a lot of the time--maybe most of the time--you won't make it happen." And I remember when my friends asked me when I'd be moving back home, I said I didn't know. But that was bullshit--I should have known. The answer was, and is, never. But no one looked me in the eye and said, "You'll never live here again."

It's hard to get a clear-eyed look at the sacrifices you'll have to make when they're still a long way off.

Words of Advice

I've talked before about PhD programs in philosophy where grads have close to no chance of ever getting a tenure track job. As Leiter put it at one point, "there are surely PhD programs where "one in five" would overstate your prospects" of getting a job when you were done.

Looking back to when I was thinking about grad school, I can see how my profs tried to warn me about those realities. The advice I got from a few profs was not to got to grad school if I had to spend a cent of my own money to do it. If a school's not willing to give you a decent stipend, these profs implied, that's just their way of saying you're not cut out for the business.

But that advice? It doesn't even come close to seeing things clearly. I'd forgotten that old advice when undergrads started asking me about grad school, and this is what I told them instead:
  1. Do you ever want to have any choice at all about where you live?
  2. Do you think you might ever have a partner whose career won't let him or her drop everything and relocate whenever you need to move for a job?
  3. Are you thinking about going to a grad school that's not in the top 30 on the Leiter Report?

If you answered "yes" to any of those questions, do not go to grad school in philosophy.

That's not to deny some poeple make it work. But having a reasonable expectation of ever finding a job means answering "no" to all three of those questions.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Rocking the Passive Voice XI*

The asterisk in the title means I'm doing rigorous analytic philosophy. Because when you make simple ideas needlessly obsure by sticking asterisks and primes and acronyms into them, that means you've developed the ideas rigorously.

Anyway, I realized there was something else I had to mention about that PFO from yesterday's post. Here's the PFO again, in case you missed it:

Thank you very much for your interest in our open-rank positions this year (JFP vol. 171, positions [#] and [#]). We wanted to let you know that we have now filled both positions from an extremely impressive pool of applicants.

Please accept our best wishes for your future endeavors.

[So and so]
Professor and Chair
Department of Philosophy
[Fancy pants] University.

That's the whole thing. Notice anything missing? There's no "Dear Mr. PGS." There's no salutation of any kind.

That's really fucking shabby. I mean, the least they could do--and I mean least--is to get a work-study student to plug names into the form e-mail. But I guess not. If the work-study student was doing that, there might have been a whole hour when professors ran the risk of having to do their own photocopying. And god knows that's more important that acknowledging the personhood of job applicants.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Rocking the Passive Voice XI

It's a Saturday night grading marathon here at PJMB World Headquarters. Why? Because that's just how we roll around here. But let's a take break from all that for a little passive voice:
Thank you very much for your interest in our open-rank positions this year (JFP vol. 171, positions [#] and [#]). We wanted to let you know that we have now filled both positions from an extremely impressive pool of applicants.

Please accept our best wishes for your future endeavors.

But wait just one god-damned minute. It reads so smoothly. It doesn't sound sound like shitty undergraduate prose. What's going on here? Jumping Jesus on a pogo stick, there's no passive voice here at all!

No, indeed. This PFO goes beyond the passive voice. Clumsy auxiliary verbs simply cannot capture this degree of passivity. No, whoever wrote this letter is so fucking passive, he didn't even say he was rejecting me. That "Please accept our best blah, blah, blah"? That's just like when that girl you liked ended your date by saying nothing but, "Well, have a great rest of the summer!"--right before she slamed her door in your face.

Friday, June 15, 2007

I Think We Better Wait 'Till Tomorrow

Going back to that meeting I had with the Professor a couple of days ago, he was asking me what publications I'd have on my CV by the time I hit the market in the fall. I had to tell him I didn't know, since I'm still waiting to hear back from journals about a couple of papers. So he gave me some homework. He told me to send an e-mail to this one journal asking them (politely, naturalich) when the fuck they'd have a decision about my paper. In fact, I'd already sent them an e-mail asking them exactly that a couple of months ago, so this would really just be a follow up to that.

I've been sitting here in front of the computer trying to compose the e-mail, and I've lost my nerve. I don't want to write it. I don't want to push too hard. But if I wait for about a week and half, it'll be seven months since I first submitted the paper. No one can blame me for asking about the paper after seven months, right? Right?

Thursday, June 14, 2007

I guess I could just rap their knuckles with a ruler or something.

[Photo redacted to protect pseudonymity.]

All my end-of-semester paperwork has gotten me thinking about the evaluations we get from our students. The problem with instructor evaluations is that they actually give you a pretty big incentive to be a crappy teacher. This is because good pedagogical methods are pretty much completely at odds with what it takes to make most students like you.

A surefire way to make most students love you, and thus give you fabulously high marks in your evals, is to give them high grades and not make them do much work. Of course, this is pedagogically unconscionable. Students really only learn anything when they actually have to work for it. And besides, most schools have at least a tacit expectation that your curve can’t be too high. You can’t very well give every kid in the class an A, just for showing up.

A colleague of mine has figured out a brilliant way to game the system here. He gives his students really easy assignments, and totally inflated grades, throughout the quarter. Everybody loves him. And then he fucks them on the final exam. Super hard exam; super tough grading. But the final exam doesn’t happen until after the students have filled out their evals. So he gets the curve he needs, and still gets great evals.

Genius. I’ve got to start doing this. Of course, it doesn't really solve the problem of forcing your students to actually learn something from you. But we all have to make compromises.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

I Can Cut the Lawn, Cut My Hair, Cut Out My Cholesterol

I had a good meeting with the Professor yesterday. (Okay, it was good in a certain sense.) We were talking job market strategy for next year, because I wanted some advice about job talks. I know, it's early to be thinking about those. If I'm lucky enough to be giving job talks, it won't be until the new year. But I wanted to be thinking about them way out in advance.

The Professor's advice was that I need to have several different job talks ready to go on several different topics. As I've mentioned, my work is obscure. I need to spin it in one direction or another to make it interesting to different people. But now the advice is, I need different jobs talks about different things so I can spin myself in various different directions, depending on who's thinking about hiring me.

So that's a lot more work for me. But okay, I can handle it. And I'd rather be thinking about it now, rather than next January.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

And Maybe I'll See You, At a Movie Sneak Preview

I knew this had to happen eventually, but I didn't think it would be so soon. I just got my department's colloquium schedule for next year, and one of the people coming is a guy who interviewed me at last year's APA before passing on my application. I wouldn't be suprised if I have to go to dinner with the guy.

What's the ettiquette for that? I know, I know. I have to be all fucking smiles, and "It's good to see you again," and blah, blah, fucking blah. I can do that, I guess. But I really just want to tell the guy he's an asshole for not seeing what an awesome philosopher I am.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Rocking the Passive Voice X

I can still get a little overwhelmed at just how many of these things I have:
I regret to inform you that the position in philosophy was offered to another candidate and that person has accepted the offer. We do not anticipate another opening in the near future.

It's one thing to get a rejection from a good, or even passable department. But so many of them, like this one, come from nameless little shit holes that no one's ever heard of in the middle of nowhere. God damn.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Well it Didn't Work Out That Way

Via Yglesias, get a load of this, from BarbinMD at DKos:
By the way, did I mention that [Eli] Lake majored in philosophy in college? Currently writing for the New York Sun, he apparently couldn't find a job in his chosen field.

Um, can I get a job writing for the Sun? I've never done any reporting before, but how hard can it be? I understand it involves phoning people.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Rocking the Passive Voice IX

Guess what turned up in my mail today? A PFO! I thought I'd got the last of them, what with the decision to toss my application having been made almost six months ago. Anyway, let's see what passive voice we've got here:
I am writing to let you know that we have completed our search, and that you are no longer under consideration.

There's really a couple different things you could say about this. One is, if they've just told me they completed their search, they don't need to tell me I am no longer under consideration. See, what "we have completed our search" means is that no one is under consideration any more, because all the consideration is over.

The other thing is the weird switch from active to passive in the middle of the sentence. It's like there's someone doing the action right up to the moment where things get awkward, and then they very discreetly bow out of the sentence to let events unfold without them.

Monday, June 4, 2007

More Than Words is All You Have to Do to Make it Real

Alright, PJMB friend Z calls me out in an e-mail: "So lay some of those mad abstracts on me!" And yeah, looking at the two sentence abstract I've got on my CV, both of those sentences are way, way too long. I feel like the real problem are the noun phrases. There's a couple that would have outlasted Mao on the Long March. Gonna have to work on that.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

There Are Many Things That I Would Like to Say to You

PGOAT and I were going back and forth this morning about how to write an abstract of your dissertation. Some tool from her program was whining about having to write an abstract that's accessible to non-experts. He didn't think he should have to do that. Bear in mind we're not talking about writing for lay people here. We're just talking about writing an abstract that makes sense to other philosophers, just ones who aren't specialists in your AOS. This is a low fucking bar for accessibility.

I have to say, abstract writing is one area where working on completely obscure philosophy actually gives you an advatage in prepping for the job market. (Come to think of it, it might be the only area where working on obscure philosophy is an advantage on the job market.) I have never once, in all my illustrious career as a graduate student, had the luxury of being able to assume that who I was talking to understood even the basics of what my dissertation is about. I mean, my committee members have mostly got on board as I've talked to them over the years, but even that was initially a hurdle. If there's one thing I can do, it's make my work accessible to non-experts. I can even do it in a two sentence abstract suitable for page 1 of my CV.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

No Time for the Killing Floor

There's this conference I want to go to in the early fall--not to present, mind you, just to see the talks and do some shmoozing. Actually, the shmoozing is the main thing. Now, one of the profs at this conference is a guy who knows me and who's very kindly looked at some of my work before and given me comments on it. Him knowing me is probably going to make the shmoozing easier. So that's good.

But this prof hasn't seen any of the work I'm going to be talking up while I'm there. And he's not going to see it either, because I didn't have my shit together enough to give it to him before the summer. ("Summer" is a senior faculty idiom that means "grad students go away.")

I should have gamed-out that shmoozing six months in advance. Fuck. I'm still learning lessons the hard way.