Sunday, January 27, 2008

Rocking the Passive Voice XX

In case anyone's missed it, people have been talking about the PFO we all got from Princeton. Here, read the whole thing:
Dear Applicant,

Once again I resort to a form letter, this time to report that the committee charged with selecting a manageable number of junior candidates from the ~291 junior applicants for the positions that we have advertised have completed their work. They have selected a number of candidates from among whom they hope very much to make one or two appointments (one, should we decide to try to fill one position a the senior level).

I am sorry to report that you are not in this group. We are painfully aware of the difficulty and unreliability of these choices, but they must be made nevertheless. Although it is far from certain we will succeed in our present attempts, we wanted to let you know where you stood so that you may take full advantage of the other opportunities that will surely arise for you in the coming weeks. Needless to say, I will let you know right away should we have occasion to reconsider your candidacy.

Once more, I wish you the best of luck and thank you for the opportunity to consider your candidacy.

Sincerely yours,

There's actually a couple of things here I like. One, the letter thanks me for applying. Now, it could be better. The best PFOs thank applicants for taking the time to apply. There's a cost to applying to jobs, and it's a sign of minimal respect to acknowledge that explcitly. And there's also a certain ridiculousness in Princeton thanking me "for the opportunity to consider" me for a job. That turn of phrase seems pretty gratuitous. But fuck it. Any thanks at all is more than some PFOs give, so I'll take it.

The other thing I like is the acknowledgment that the process is "unreliable." Word. It's a fucking crap shoot. Now of course, what's not getting said here is, in the absence of reliable ways of making good hiring decisions, lots of search committees rely on plainly anti-meritocratic heuristics, like counting the rank of your department and the fame of your advisor above all else. (Troll repellent: I'm not the one saying this is true. I'm getting it from search committee members who, giddy with man-crushes on famous philosophers, let that sad little part of their id out to play in public.) I'm not saying Princeton does that, but it'd also be pretty fucking shocking if those biases didn't creep in to the process for everyone, even just a little bit, and even at the best department in the business. Anyway, while the Princeton letter doesn't get into that ugliness, it does at least admit there's a real element of arbitrariness in the job market.

Of course, I also have to note the passive voice here. Here's the key sentence, one more time: "We are painfully aware of the difficulty and unreliability of these choices, but they must be made nevertheless." So Princeton's "painfully aware of the difficulty and unreliability of these choices". Great. As I say, that's nice of them to admit. But the author of the sentence slips out the back door so as not to be around for anything so distasteful as making choices. Better to just leave those to be made.

Bonus comedy: In comments, Anon. 2:16 flags this clause: "Although it is far from certain we will succeed in our present attempts [to hire someone]. . .", and responds, no doubt with a sentiment all of us can share, "Go, Princeton! We're pulling for you, you lovable underdog!"


Kalynne Pudner said...

So am I to infer that you had an APA interview with Princeton? Way to go! That's something.

Thanks for the link to the wiki, by the way. NOW I see what the big deal is.

Thanks also for making me thankful it's not me (and no, I'm not gloating; I'm not tt). But then again, if it were, I'd have it made with my two x chromosomes, right?

Keep keeping on. I, at least, am rooting for y'all.

Pseudonymous Grad Student said...

Kalynne --

Noooooooo! In fact, Princeton doesn't even do APA interviews. (Which I've been meaning to post about for a while. Gotta get to that.)

Anonymous said...

I was one of the people 'long-listed' by Princeton (the 300 or so applications were cut down to about 20, and those files were subjected to greater scrutiny.) I no longer have the letter advising me that I reached this next stage, but it has the same kind of polite, tortured prose as in the first round PFO letter.

On a completely separate note: Doesn't anyone notice that there is a consistency problem with asserting that "it's a crapshoot" while feeling good or proud of having an interview, campus visit, etc.?

Anonymous said...

I'm not saying Princeton does that, but it'd also be pretty fucking shocking if those biases didn't creep in to the process for everyone, even just a little bit, and even at the best department in the business.

I dunno. I can't imagine that Liz Harman's recent appointment has anything at all to do with her father or anything. I just can't.

Anon 9:38,

There's certainly no consistency problem with feeling good about it. And on a certain interpretation of the kind of crapshoot it is, there's no problem with pride, either. If you got the interview at least in part because they thought your work was good, then you can be proud.

Anonymous said...

Anon 10:15:

This is where I can see the downside of anonymity. Someone taking a potshot at an untenured philosopher, by name, from behind the blind, that's pretty crappy.

Anonymous said...

Anon 10:15, Yeah, by 'good' I meant more than 'pleased or happy about the state of affairs'. Something like 'pleased with oneself'. I should have been clearer.

I don't know much about crapshoots, but my guess is that when people wail that the job market is a crapshoot, they mean more than that there is some element of luck. Hell, on that measure anything is a crapshoot (the Superbowl, the Olympics, etc., surely all have some such element). The idea I gather is that luck plays a huge role -- hence the wailing. And that's inconsistent with certain pro attitudes one has when one gets an interview, etc.

It's also inconsistent with certain negative attitudes when one doesn't get an interview, etc., such as thinking on is a loser or philosophically shitty or whatever.

Anonymous said...

How ironical to find a post criticizing a letter for its poor style in which this is contained:

"There's actually a couple of things here I like."

Anon 10:15 said...


You're right. That was extremely shitty of me. I hit send, and then immediately regretted it.

My apologies.

Anonymous said...

"This is where I can see the downside of anonymity. Someone taking a potshot at an untenured philosopher, by name, from behind the blind, that's pretty crappy."

Well, maybe. But one might also think that having the ability to air doubts about hiring processes at elite programs anonymously is a good thing.

By way of comparison, think about the widespread unhappiness in the discipline with the way Leiter wields his power. How many people -- especially untenured -- are willing to express this discontent in public, with their name attached? Not very many. And for damn good reason.

tenured philosophy girl said...

Did Liz Harman's dad also get her the tenure-track position she held at NYU (#1 on Leiter) *before* she was hired at Princeton?

10:15 - thanks for the nice apology ... However it is revealing to see what people think about successful female philosophers when they accidentally press 'send' before censoring themselves.

So far, Liz Harman and Tommy Shelbie, both with Leiterrific jobs, have been accused on this blog of not earning them on their merits. No one else has been accused of this by name. Does anyone *truly* maintain that it's just a coincidence that neither happen to be white males, who make up almost 80% of tenure-track philosophers?

Save your anti-dynastic wrath for Hilary Clinton.

Anonymous said...

I think the application process is a crapshoot only within a certain range. Run it over and over again without variable change for a given school and there will likely be some people interviewed every time and others who never get an interview. The intermediate range has an element of chance, but I bet the odds are better for the better candidates. Same goes for Ph.D. applications.

the seeker said...

Please notice that it wasn't me that brought up E. Harman, but I think it's a fair and good question. We should be able to talk openly about what we think. You really don't think her dad had anything to do with her going to Princeton? I suppose you don't think Bill Clinton has anything to do with Hilary getting this far in her presidential run either. Wow!

Anonymous said...

"Did Liz Harman's dad also get her the tenure-track position she held at NYU (#1 on Leiter) *before* she was hired at Princeton?"

I don't think the claim (later regretted, although perhaps not recanted) was that he "got" her the job. It's that him being her dad made a substantive difference. And that could easily be the case regarding the NYU job too. Growing up in a house with a famous philosopher as a parent -- and an even more famous philosopher as a God parent, if I understand right -- has its advantages. (Did it help her get into MIT?)

One other point -- there are lots of people not at Princeton who could be, that is, who deserve to be. So just saying someone may have gotten a job for nepotism isn't to insult them, is it?

Anonymous said...

Yeah, sure, everyone should be allowed to "say what we think".
But look at what you're doing.

Nobody here has any reason at all to think the Elizabeth Harman got her job at Princeton because of her father -- only your suspicions that maybe he had some influence. So this isn't sharing information, it's just spreading nasty gossip.

People who are upset about "the power Leiter wields" who then flex their own muscles *anonymously* by spreading vicious, malicious gossip, you are the worst kind of hypocrites. Disgusting.

And I'm not even counting Tenured Philosophy Girl's suspicion, which if true makes it even worse. (Nobody has speculated that Galen Strawson's father used any influence to get him a job, huh? Alexi Burgess's? Paul Audi's? No? Huh. Go figure.)

At least the original 9:38 apologized, which showed some integrity.

I'm writing this angry, so I may very well regret hitting the PUBLISH YOUR COMMENT button, but here goes.

Anonymous said...

I think we need to have serious discussion about alternative for careers for philosophers.

Let’s face it, not all of us are going to get academic jobs.

Anonymous said...

Good Lord it just gets worse and worse! This blog has the nerve to bitch about departments “rocking the passive voice” in rejection letters, yet the white male moderator of the comments section *passively* allows idiots to disparage by name successful black and female professors. Pseudonymous Grad Student, you claim you are only allowing people to be called out by name so as to do your part to educate the profession about the racism and sexism in philosophy. To this observer, it seems like you are allowing these individuals to be disparaged by name for your own, less-than-noble, resons.

will philosophize for food said...

"I think we need to have serious discussion about alternative for careers for philosophers."

I've been thinking about this:

a) Stand-up comedy: the only thing more improbable than a career in academic employment, it seems.

b) Tradesperson: Go the inverse Jesus route: from philosopher to carpenter.

c) Drive a big rig: There's a lot of time to read on those long cross country hauls.

d) Go corporate: I could sleep through an MBA program and market myself as a middle-management "idea-man." I can see the cover letter now (I "think outside the box," I can explain abstract ideas well, etc., etc.)

Senior female philosopher said...

Can we be clear about one thing? Princeton sounds nice, but they really are sending out a PFO. And they mean it. They make fun of people who apply again.

Obama/Kennedy Connection said...

The reason the moderators and those who post are anonymous is to allow people to truly speak their minds. I applaud them. Harman and Shelby will be fine. You should worry about yourself.

Pseudonymous Grad Student said...

Anon. 6:38 --

Let me ignore your nonsensical charge about what my "own, less-than-noble reasons" (what could those possibly be in this case?), and try to address what I take to be the substance of your comment.

I have allowed, and will continue to allow, all manner of comments that I find offensive, including the ones you identify. This is because I believe sunlight is the best disinfectant, as they say. Let me expand on that in two directions.

First, I believe--and have been dismissed by some people around here as some sort of PC nutjob for my belief--that philosophy is often extremely hostile to women and visible minorities. I also believe that hostility is often extremely difficult, if not impossible, for many white male philosophers to see. Why? Because we're not very good at seeing it, and because it can often manifest itself in very subtle ways, especially when everyone's on their best behavior. Allowing the most plainly sexist and racist comments is way of making that hostility visible to any and all fair-minded philosophers. Then those philosophers can at least see what the problem is.

But there's a second reason. I like having politically noxious views out in the open, so they can be subject to public scrutiny, refuted openly, and finally, marginalized. If you'll forgive a little autobiography, long before I read J.S. Mill, as a high-school kid I was aware that no one motivated me to learn more about the Holocaust than Holocaust deniers did. They brought the Holocaust out of textbooks and into the news, into discussions among smart people I respected, and motivated child survivors to go tell their stories to kids like me. I realize that here you might think I'm naive, but this made me believe that politically noxious views are more quickly and decisively defeated when they're aired openly.

So both I and PGOAT allow comments we disagree with and find offensive.

I realize your concern has to do with the fact that some philosophers have been named. Please note that the above reasoning applies: Tenured Philosophy Girl has already made the appropriate observation here, highlighting just what's revealed by who's been named. For my part, I can't really take seriously the idea that Shelbie or Harman need my help--or yours--defending themselves against anonymous blog comments.

I realize that reasonable people could disagree about this, but I hope I've at least made my reasons intelligible.

Altgeld-literally said...

I think Shelby and Harman and any other philosopher mentioned here would give two ***** about what a "nobody" says on a blog. They have bigger fish to fry. Get a life people.

Anonymous said...


I love this blog and applaud every sentiment in your comment except for this one:

"First, I believe--and have been dismissed by some people around here as some sort of PC nutjob for my belief--that philosophy is often extremely hostile to women and visible minorities."

Can you identify the posts that support your claim that "some people" dismiss you as a PC nutjob for your belief that philosophy is hostile to women and visible minorities?

If you can't do this, and my guess is you can't, then please explain why you want to play the martyr and strawman those who raised reasonable objections to Female Grad's position (especially the way it was defended) which you rightly gave voice to on this excellent blog.

Anonymous said...

PGS, Okay, that's a fine general policy, except in this case there are actual human beings, and one of them is an untenured philosophy professor, who are being sacrificed to the lovely principle.

But, now that I say that, I guess I agree that you (the bloggers) shouldn't censor the comments. So I half agree with 'Obama/Kennedy': people should be allowed to 'speak their minds', even if, as in this case, what's on their minds is a bunch of vitriolic gossip.

Anonymous said...

On a sort of related topic, what do people think about spousal hires? In particular, what do you think about hiring spouses X and Y when Y would not have otherwise been offered a job? On the one hand, it seems like a great (and probably even necessary) way to get or retain X, but it also seems massively unfair to other job candidates to give such an advantage to Y merely because Y has attached Yself to X. Do most departments have a policy or a justification for this?

Anonymous said...

Can be a little more specific in your question.

Do you mean hiring 2 spouses in one dept or hiring a high flying computer scientist whose spouse/partner is a philosopher?

Anonymous said...

Echoing the 'leave Harman alone' sentiment... BOTH because of what Tenured Philosophy Girl said, AND because her appointment is the tip of the fucking iceberg of Princeton's dubious hiring of late.

hottotrot said...

anon 1007

We'll let's expose the entire glacier.

Anonymous said...

Princeton's "dubious hiring"...

Why do you people care who Princeton hires? Do you have children enrolled in Princeton's philosophy department? Have you endowed a chair in philosophy?

Oh, I forgot, you are bitter because Princeton didn't pick you.

Prof whio interviwed at APA said...

It will be a cold day in hell when a dept has to explain who they hired and why to the general public.

Pseudonymous Grad Student said...

A Prof Who Interviewed --

Ain't that the truth.