Philosophical Insights for Good Professorship

A good professor “will be able to put philosophical insights to practical use,” argues Robert J. Bloomfield, a professor at the School of Management at Cornell, in an extraordinarily useful paper, “How to Be a Good Professor.” The paper offers an impressive range of good advice, including a section on the value that an appreciation of philosophy has for all professors (pages 19-27).

As much as we hard-headed researchers might believe ourselves to be exempt from the influence of beard-stroking intellectuals, too many of us are slaves of philosophers who are not so much defunct as unstudied. And those who don’t study philosophers are condemned to repeat their mistakes and misapply what they got right….

Professors in America tend to belittle idle disputes with no practical importance, even though such disputes arguably capture the very definition of an “academic” argument. Even worse, many professors simply assume that their unstudied pragmatism gives them a ‘get out of philosophy free’ card, and that they will never need to understand arcane terms like epistemology, ontology and incommensurability. But these terms have powerful practical impact on both the content and conduct of research, teaching and service (as we apply our knowledge to the world around us). 

In particular, professors must use philosophy to find a middle ground between many compelling extremes. We must recognize how little we actually know, but still be able to teach our students in the classroom and our colleagues in workshops and journals. We must be skeptical of evidence, but not ignore it completely. We must categorize our objects of study, but avoid claiming that those categories indicate their members’ essential natures. We must ask whether our theories are falsifiable, without placing too much weight on falsifiability as the one true method of science. And we must develop valid rules for selecting one theory over another, while recognizing that those rules are shaped by sociological forces.

The rest of the section presents a number of philosophical points and methods that should be appreciated by all academics. It really is a useful distillation of a great many insights.

The rest of the paper is not to be ignored, either, as it is an impressive attempt to make the tacit knowledge of good professorship explicit, across a range of domains. If I have time later today, I will point out some of the gems. Feel free to call attention to specific pieces of advice you find especially helpful or well-put in the comments, or add advice of your own. (via Tyler Cowen)

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