APP Editors’ Note: Jeremy Tauzer is a PhD student in philosophy at Saint Louis University.
Imagine, or perhaps recall, the ideals of the incoming philosophy grad student. This student has emerged from encounters with the sarcasm of Socrates, the loftiness of Plato, the painstaking system-making of Aristotle, the epistemological turmoil and ethical theorizing of the modern period, perhaps also from engagement with medievals or existentialists, perhaps from loving or hating the creative broad-sweeping depictions of a “continental,” perhaps from loving or hating the scrupulousness of an “analytic.” The student unequivocally believes with Plato that wisdom and its pursuit are worth more than gold. Perhaps they also believe with Socrates and Plato (Lysis 211e) that friends, especially philosophical friends, are worth more than gold. What could be better than giving up high-paying career options to pursue wisdom and truth in a community of like-minded like-desiring seekers? In other words, going to grad school in philosophy, despite the random warnings of hardship, stress, and few jobs available at the end, seemed to be the obvious choice. Our passionate learner would join the community of philosophers and live happily ever in noble and fulfilling pursuits.
Needless to say, our young, naive student is in for a shock or two. S/he is about to hit the world of academic philosophy, a world where unforeseen forces like money, prestige, recognition, rankings, departmental politics, and broader political and economic factors will (often) knock our student off her/his high horse to a well-prepared place in the hierarchical dirt from which they are invited to respect and admire the already established and renowned high-horsed riders. If the student manages to survive grad school and perhaps also braves the academic job market and perhaps also enters and survives the pre-tenure professor years, then our survivor will have inevitably transformed into something other than the incoming passionate student described above.
Part of what APP does is to try to make sense of this sort of transformational process and the causes and values that are involved. In this essay I will be grappling with my own frustrating grad school experience and trying to connect it to broader tendencies and others’ experiences, and thereby joining this conversation.
Why, then, do graduate students make the choices they make? What are their actual lived-out ethics, and how do their ethics change, and how do the grad students themselves change? I entered grad school with the idealism depicted in the first paragraph above: valuing the serious seeking of truth and wisdom and valuing the friendship that can naturally arise with others who are seeking the same things. The values that I found being lived out and promoted in my philosophy department were puzzlingly foreign. What I found is that the most sacred things in life are publications, awards, rankings, positions, and getting that coveted elusive tenure-track job. In order to publish, I was advised to throw things out there until something sticks. A “good” grad student is one who takes no incomplete grades and is getting their ducks lined up for the (very slim) possibility of a research job, or at least a tenure track job. The telos of the department as a whole is to increase its Leiter ranking.
What happens to incoming idealistic grad students in such an environment? First, the incoming grad student is put in her/his proper place at the bottom of the hierarchy (undergrads are too Other to even be considered as part of the hierarchy). Bureaucratic hoops and receiving needed advice for navigating them helps with this process, sometimes making the student feel grateful and ignorant in comparison with those with bureaucratic experience. In my department, the department chair was highly praised and highly regarded largely because of his pragmatic/bureaucratic effectiveness. The graduate program’s requirements continues this demeaning professionalization process as the grad student realizes that their class schedule, in fact their whole schedule (and life), has less flexibility than it did when s/he was an undergrad. And s/he must submit to each teacher’s particular standards for writing a paper. I have yet to meet a professor who encourages students to choose between writing an analytically-styled paper or a differently-styled paper, or even acknowledges the awkwardness of judging papers by standards that have only come in vogue in the last 50-some years or less. (The reason for my use of the expression “in vogue” is because these writing standards are not imposed out of a reasoned-out and generally-agreed-upon discussion of such standards.) Often these standards are mere conformity to the standards of “top” journals. This can result in a strange twist of values in which form takes on a prominent role and receives all the attention, whereas content becomes backgrounded and ignored. For example, making a paper too broad or leaving a crucial term undefined are heinous crimes of form, whereas depth or insight or creativity might be “too subjective” to evaluate.
A few caveats are in order about how this professionalization process can differ for other grad students. For those who are used to being subservient, or who are used to hiding and keeping their own values while being externally subservient, this process affects them less. Also, in my program we are strictly limited to five years of funding, so my story is one of less flexibility and more stress than those who are able to extend their funding far longer than five years. Finally, who knows, maybe there are places where writing standards are openly discussed and reasoned about (besides APP) beyond the impelling reason to train us to write for professional success.
Now, to continue my story: philosophical conversations outside of class started undergoing a subtle transformation. The sorts of informal discussions of philosophy that I had enjoyed before grad school, for example, in cafes and during office hours, were rare. Philosophical discussions seemed to become streamlined into certain scheduled times and certain delineated topics. The scheduled times included colloquia receptions, perhaps a few minutes after class, and the occasional times offered by the professor who was kind enough to invite students out for drinks (a practice that has mostly vanished at my school now, due to worries about inequality and harassment possibilities). The unspoken delineation of topics was designed to mirror the philosophical problems brought up in the class or colloquium or a topic which one is exploring for the sake of writing a paper about it. In pre-grad days, I would enjoy philosophical conversations with friends that might start with something mentioned in class or in a reading, but then might connect with various personal/existential issues in our lives, or might lead to a discussion of how a philosophical view might integrate with or disintegrate with a religious view. Likewise for office hours discussions before grad school. But grad school was making us into specialists inside and outside the classroom, changing us into people who thought less about broader questions of integration, connection, and synthesis. As we thought less about these broader questions, we were subtly being transformed into beings who cared less about them.
Needless to say, philosophical conversations inside of class followed the same pattern. I was lucky enough to be at a university which offers a greater variety of classes than many, including analytic classes, historical classes, and perhaps a few somewhat “continental”-oriented classes. But grad students at other universities will often be practically forced into conforming to a particular school of philosophy, typically the analytic school for most American universities. And I believe the analytic school very easily fits in with the whole idea of specializing into a narrow field and avoiding integrating and synthesizing one’s professional philosophical positions within one’s field with broader philosophical considerations and with considerations from other disciplines and aspects of life. In the analytic school, the most common criticism aimed at the student-in-training is along the lines of “that’s too broad, don’t talk about that, narrow your scope, don’t mention this other topic, don’t synthesize (because analysis is of utmost importance).” (On the other hand, I’d be surprised if a professional hierarchical “continental” department didn’t also have its own unique problems.)
What about that old Socratic ideal of reflection, i.e., living a reflective life? Socrates seemed to think that reflecting on oneself and one’s life was essential to living a philosophical and worthwhile life, and this seems to be a bit different than what might be called theoretical reflection on a topic (such as knowledge or justice). Personal reflection and theoretical reflection are not only both valuable, but are both valuable for each other, i.e., for helping to provide insight to each other. But grad school with its priority on the measurable and the products (papers) and the quantity of products, and with its streamlining of conversation topics inside and outside of the classroom, gradually crowds out the time, space, and energy for personal reflection, including personally reflecting on one’s own philosophical activity. I remember a classmate in an undergraduate ethics class explaining his taking the class in terms of his desire to be a good person, but one rarely hears this sort of thing in a graduate ethics class.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this edgy essay, I went into grad school believing that the quality of my relationships with my colleagues was of great importance. Good relationships help facilitate good philosophical conversations. One doesn’t just get into philosophy by one day making an isolated calculation which yields the conclusion that philosophy has more intrinsic value than other subjects; one needs some sort of friend (or midwife), whether that friend is a crusty and fiery professor, a cynical friend, or an author who happens to be long dead. Not to mention that good relationships are also intrinsically valuable, being some of the most valuable things in life.
But in grad school I found that all things relational were peripheral if not discouraged by professional values. Well, perhaps that’s not entirely true. New relational bonds were being forged on the basis of shared professional values and visions, such as shared views of undergrads as inferiors who can’t write, shared desires to publish, exchanged congratulations on publishing, shared frustrations about funding troubles and administrative issues, and perhaps shared philosophical positions. But bonds over shared philosophical positions can become weak in relation to professional issues and politics, as I found when I was rejected by my first choice for advisor despite our philosophical commonalities. Meanwhile the idea of an Aristotelian complete friendship rooted in mutual practice of and recognition of virtue seemed to fade away. Even relationships with classical philosophers and their texts easily transform under the tide of professional forces. Reading often becomes a stressful chore that is reoriented toward professional purposes such as critical publication, and this can crowd out a more open and appreciative relationship with author and text.
But the worst chore is teaching. Nothing gets in the way of advancing one’s publication, career, and departmental ranking as much as exerting extra effort in teaching, grading, and holding extra office hours, unless one remembers the obvious fact that teaching is the primary role of most attainable academic jobs. Have you ever seen academics bonding, encouraging, and congratulating each other over how well they are caring for their students? Or have you ever been to a philosophy department orientation that concerns itself with the vital issues of how we are to midwife undergrads into thoughtful and reflective lives and how we are to form ourselves into wise and tactful midwives, not to mention good philosophical friends? No wonder care ethics with, for example, its idea of “organizing schools for caring” (Noddings 2013, p. 197) sees itself as a different voice in such an environment. Or, as Buber (1970) would say, professionalization acculturates us into the world of “I-It” rather than preserving the sanctity of the Thou of “I-Thou.” Or finally, to use inverted Kantian language, we become lost in a kingdom of mere means.
Why does professionalism seem to have a deep discomfort and disjointedness with (1) reflection/self-examination, including examining how one does philosophy and (2) the cultivation of caring and authentic relationships? Professionalism is a particular specification or embodiment of the idea of specialization. Specialization is the broader idea of organizing activity, whether work or play or other activity, such that each participant has their own role(s). But this does not yet specify how this role is defined, re-defined, contextualized, or integrated into larger functions and goals. I don’t have a problem with specialization: it would be very hard to deny the value of having roles. However, professionalism trains a person to hold back or bracket important parts of themselves, such as reflection and attentiveness to relationships, for the sake of a pre-set (specialized) role according to a pre-set order including a pre-set method of evaluation. By ignoring or devaluing reflection about ends and about the integration of philosophy into a well-ordered life and a well-ordered society, professionalism thus focuses on effectiveness or means such that “the crucial distinction between a virtue and a skill is obscured, if not obliterated” (MacIntyre 2006, p. 117). Professionalization thereby turns authentic, serious philosophers concerned with higher goods into technicians concerned with techniques.
Professionalism in philosophy is particularly ironic and insidious because the nature of philosophy is such that it concerns itself with itself, i.e., self-examination is integral to philosophy. To cut off a baseball player from providing input to those who formulate the rules of baseball may be mostly harmless; to cut off a doctor from providing input to the those who formulate the rules and ends that structure medical practice may be somewhat more harmful; but to cut off a philosophy grad student from providing input to those who formulate the structure and standards of doing philosophy (such as graduate program requirements and paper-writing standards) is to strike at their very identity as a philosopher.
Meanwhile, professionalism recognizes no value for relationships or persons as ends in themselves, though of course they can be means for professional success. As Schmidt (2001, pp. 2-3) notes about his PhD program in physics, devoting time, effort, attention, and care to relationships can be a handicap in the competition instilled by professionalism. But more than this, the hierarchical structure of professionalization can put walls between different hierarchical strata. Furthermore, the compartmentalized pre-set structure of the professionalization of philosophy can have a diminishing effect on conversational horizons, visions and ideals, and bases for friendship.
WHERE TO GO FROM HERE
At the same time that professionalization threatens a philosopher’s efforts and ability to reflect and self-examine and lead an integrated life, professionalization also threatens the quality of a philosopher’s conversations and relationships, including their capacity for care and for virtue-based friendships. Is there any hope for the downtrodden?
As this essay has been mainly focused on describing the problem rather than solving it, I will end with a few suggestions on how my description of the problem provides material to go on in working out solutions.
First, I believe we should continue understanding, criticizing, and deconstructing professionalism and professionalization. This is the first and perhaps biggest step in overcoming professionalism, as it helps to desanctify it and to welcome the envisioning of alternatives.
Second, I think that we need to use that understanding, criticism, and deconstruction of professionalism and professionaliztion in order to desanctify the academic hierarchy, to reconsider the reasons for according respect to the philosophers who are published in “top journals,” and to understand the severe limitations of Leiter rankings. We can recognize that severe power imbalances can have strange and terrible effects for both the powerful and the powerless. We can also promote more even distributions of power.
Third, and finally, I suggest that we revisit the values of personal reflection and friendship (broadly construed), and that we endeavor to live out these values as we practice philosophy.
Buber, M. (1970). I and thou. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
MacIntyre, A. (2006). Moral philosophy and contemporary social practice: what holds them apart? In The Tasks of Philosophy (pp. 104-122). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Noddings N. (2013). Caring: A relational approach to ethics & moral education (2nd ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press.
Plato. (1997). Complete works (J. Cooper, ed.). Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett.
Schmidt, J. (2001). Disciplined minds: A critical look at salaried professionals and the soul-battering system that shapes their lives. London: Rowman & Littlefield.