Networking and Merit in Philosophical Success
Critiquing the Philosophy Tag game, commenter “Aspasia,” a tenure-track professor, worries about it “perpetuating the status quo of getting somewhere by networking rather than on the basis of merit in philosophy.” Leave aside Philosophy Tag. Let’s look at the broader issue about the role of networking in philosophy. It crops up in a lot of places such as publishing (see recent discussions here and here about journals, for example), conference and talk invitations, and, of course, employment. The influence of networking will never go away, but we can ask what we can and should do to manage its influence.
There are a number of relevant questions. Here are just some: (1) Networking’s influence in the philosophy profession is sometimes thought to be pernicious because it detracts from the role of merit, but it can be asked whether that is (always) the case. (2) What forms of networking are problematic? (3) Are there other concerns with networking besides its effect on the role of merit? (4) What forms of networking are good, and is their goodness merely instrumental to countering bad forms of networking? (5) Generally are things better or worse than they used to be regarding the influence of networking? (6) How do or should we determine “merit” in the philosophy profession, anyway? (7) What ways of arranging our institutions and practices contribute to or detract from the influence of networking? (8) Ought we teach our students how to network, and if so, what should such instruction look like?
I welcome your thoughts on these and other related questions. To save me the trouble of responding to individual commenters, I would ask that contributors to the discussion refrain from reporting rumors, making unsubstantiated or unverifiable accusations, or naming particular people whom you believe have inappropriately benefited from networking. (Note, too, that comments of the sort, “it seems like Journal X publishes a disproportionate number of articles from School Y,” that do not have any data to back up their claims are unlikely to get approved.)
(art: detail of “Chimera” by Sarah Morris)
Question 6 is the only real issue here. Currently the answer seems to be elite consensus, and ‘networking’ is about gaining the assent from others that you are securing a reputatation for sharing in the good judgement of those elites. This is not about identifiable elites or explicit elite values, but consensual forms of intellectual domination.Report
1. Very few things are “always” the case. A better question would be whether or not networking is more or less beneficial/pernicious to philosophy (and especially underrepresented philosophers).
2. Forms of networking are pernicious if entry into a group is substantively defined by already partaking in forms of unearned privilege (what constitutes unearned privilege? this is a discussion worth having). If there is a “good old boys” network in philosophy then there is a problem.
3. Yes, as noted in my responses to #1 and #2. The perpetuation of privilege, the exclusion of already excluded or underrepresented groups, and the continued ‘narrowfication’ of what counts as “real philosophy” are all at stakes in networking problems.
4. Inclusive networking is good even when it’s not entirely desired by those in positions of highest power. We should be forming philosophical networks much more often with community college professors, for example. Interdisciplinary networking has already born many fruits as well. All of this should continue.
5. Don’t know.
6. A good question that I think is worth tabling (pace Matthew) in favor of a discussion of 1-5.
7. Philosophy as a discipline seems to be just becoming conscious of the reality of the pernicious effects of its own social structures. I think this thread is a good indicator, for example. The privileged informality of philosophy, I would wager, contributes to most of the discipline’s problems.
Becoming an academic philosopher requires you to subsist on a low income for years while doing a PhD, with a ridiculously slim chance of a permanent job at the end of it. This is the overwhelming reason people are being excluded from philosophy. Shouldn’t we be talking about that, rather than endlessly agonising about social structures, “privileged informality” or the minutiae of personal behaviour?Report
Before we can seriously address the question of the role of networking (or the meaning of merit) we need to get clearer on what purpose(s) we mean academically institutionalized philosophy to serve and how closely we identify being a philosopher with being an academic. If we think of academic philosophy as primarily a job, then it seems that networking is going to be an integral part of selection and advancement just as it is in almost all other contemporary lines of work. Moreover, identifying philosophy in this way with academic institutions will mean that networking (or the benefits thereof) will be an important part of what counts a philosophical ‘merit,’ since it makes one better able to serve the needs of those institutions. For example, better networked faculty will be better able to attract guest speakers and even future colleagues via their network, and they’ll also be better placed to raise the profile of the department/university and/or to bring in grant money.
But if we take a broader view of philosophy, on which philosophical excellence is only contingently related to institutional needs of university, present employment conditions should cause us to reassess whether academic jobs are the best place for those with this broader sort of philosophical ‘merit.’Report
By all means pay no attention to the man behind the curtain! The funny part about AC’s response is that it implores is to consider some social structures (those responsible for the academic job market) while ignoring others (those that determine who gets and keeps jobs in philosophy). I’d love an argument that tells me why we can’t worry about both.Report
I don’t think there is anything inconsistent about what I said. Yes, they are both sets of social structures, and one set bears far more responsibility for causing certain groups to be excluded from philosophy. The issues you are talking about are not unimportant, but talking about them non stop seems like fiddling while Rome burns. I’m also not very keen on this argument, which I have seen elsewhere before, that “informality” in itself is bad because it equates in various ways to an old boys club which excludes certain groups. This doesn’t follow, and is playing directly into the hands of the neoliberals who want academic departments to be run like any business.Report
In response to anonymous coward: there’s an obvious reason for focusing on privilege and networking rather than facts about the numbers of jobs available for philosophers: we can very easily control the former, but have at best only a bit of control over the latter. I can’t force my institution to produce more philosophy jobs. I can modify my own behavior, and try to influence others to do the same, in an effort to avoid unfair privileging of those in certain networks.Report
As with all things, including Justin’s original post, very few things are “always” the case. The same is true of informality. We can all agree that informality is not always a bad thing while agreeing on the fact that the particular forms of informality that are dominant in the academic culture that philosophers have created are not good for the profession IF the profession cares about injustices related to gender, race, ethnicity, class, and ableism. We don’t need to create a false dichotomy here and I think it’s worth acknowledging that other disciplines seem to have more success in their climates than philosophers do (though things are, I think, moving in the right direction).Report
I’m not generally clear on what is meant by networking as its own activity, as opposed to things like meeting people, having interesting conversations, going to talks and asking questions, etc.
While surely this sort of thing affects professional activity in different ways, it’s worth noting that some of what looks like networking from the outside is also just becoming friends with people. I have met and become friends with some amazing and interesting people through philosophy, some of which has led to collaborations of various sorts, some of which just involves having good conversations when we are at the same conference, or being excited when I see a paper by them that has recently come out.
I count it as one of the unexpected but treasured perks of this line of work that I have made such friends, when I realize that these people I met/meet as fellow younger scholars are people I will still be having detailed and interesting philosophical and personal conversations with in 30 or 40 years.Report
Here are two voices in my head when I think of persons who are well-networked or not:
“If someone is well-networked, then this is evidence that he made the extra effort to submit to, present at, or even just attend conferences; was friendly to folk at those conferences and left an impression of being good to chat with in philosophy; e-mailed professors about their work; was willing to share his work with them; made a good impression to professors who were at his university colloquium talks; was of sufficiently good talent such that his professors wanted to introduce him to others.”
I tried really hard to go to conferences and do the things mentioned in the above quote. I remember driving to Chicago from Missouri, staying at my uncle’s house and taking a 1-hour or so train to the APA early each morning just to attend the conference and meet people (I didn’t have a paper accepted that year); I was living on my grad. stipend. I remember risking embarrassment by e-mailing some professors, some of whom ignored me. I worked really hard on networking in these ways because I felt that I needed whatever help I could get because I was not in a top-20 or so school.
The other voice says,
“Not everybody has as many opportunities to go to conferences. Some people have less money, families to raise, etc. Some people have a harder time to leave a good impression because of gender/racial bias and because they’re worried about getting hit on. Some people have more connections simply because they are at a more prestigious university. Some people have a good reputation not because they’re good philosophers but because they’re very charismatic. Some people just have a harder time being sociable.”
The first quote makes me think that some parts of networking are “up to us” and reflect hard work and devotion. The second quote makes me realize that some parts of networking are outside of the person’s control and the lack of networking is a result of inequality.
Lesson for myself: Do my best to, and advise others to, network well. Be sympathetic with and realize that others have fewer opportunities to do this than others, and do whatever I feasibly can to lend a hand.Report
Here’s a small thing about networking that is problematic (on questions 2 and 3).
A focus on networking in order to advance one’s position can lead to seeing potential relationships solely as mere means to the end of academic success. It can also result in treating as less than persons those who will not help one toward that end.
I remember, at some conferences, having to consciously choose to value each person equally. Yes, it is nice if I can have a conversation with super-star philosopher, but I must also respect as a person the random person who happened to find himself in the conference, is not a hotshot, and will likely never help advance my career. I’ve had to learn that, during the “lunch time” at conferences when people are grouping up, to think not, “Who are the hotshot philosophers that I can eat with to advance my career?” but “Who might be a grad. student who doesn’t know that many people and who would feel really relieved to be invited to lunch?” I had to decide to orient myself in these ways.Report
a: My point wasn’t intended to mainly be about the number of jobs available. It was about privilege, my point being that that the relevant kind of privilege is mostly exogenous to the philosophy profession, e.g. having the financial security and willing to put yourself through graduate school even when your chances of employment at the end of it are poor. It’s true there is not much we can individually do about this. But I don’t think it is a good idea to make academic politics a substitute for actual politics.Report
“my point being that that the relevant kind of privilege is mostly exogenous to the philosophy profession, e.g. having the financial security and willing to put yourself through graduate school even when your chances of employment at the end of it are poor. ”
AC, the point that I am trying to make about your claims is that there ARE indeed special problems with philosophy that exist above and beyond the general problems implicit in going to graduate school. Most humanities departments do not have the kind of gender, racial, and class under-representation problems that philosophy has. Justin’s extremely well-received blog posts about economic class and philosophy are testament to the fact that philosophy has a lot of internal structural problems that are, if not unique to philosophy (I doubt they’re unique), quite pervasive.
Changing the academy writ-large or the educational system in the nation, or the distribution of wealth are problems that are worth addressing but these issues are much larger and the solutions more nebulous than the kind of work we can do to acknowledge how we perpetuate privilege in philosophy itself via our own actions. Andrew Moon’s posts, for example, are quite excellent with regard to these kinds of changes.Report
One prestigious generalist conference that seems questionable in certain respects is the Bellingham Summer Philosophy Conference.
Despite their admirable commitment to diversity in other ways (e.g., a ‘card system’ for raising questions), one wonders just how ‘blind’ the blind review process really is there.
First, I noticed that I got many hits on the last couple of papers I submitted on my academia.edu page (despite not having sent those papers around anywhere else). They were under consideration nowhere else at the time (since the conference was (is?) linked to Phil Studies!). And my academia.edu page is not exactly the Huffington Post. (I guess this is the new normal for journal submissions, too.)
Second, one can see that graduate students from just a handful of departments (MIT and NYU in particular) coming year after year, if only to give comments or be a time chair. Even that kind of minimal exposure at the conference can be invaluable at the early stages of one’s career; the conference is a kind of “who’s who” in contemporary analytic philosophy. People in full-time positions are more varied in terms of institutional affiliation, but I bet where they got their PhDs aren’t.
The deliberations that go into choosing commentators or chairs is far from transparent, which is a shame, since going to the conference can be huge before one goes on the market. And I highly doubt that deciding on commentators/chairs is anonymous. Consider, for example, the number of couples you can spot on any given year’s program. I can spot at least 4 couples in the most recent program (not including people at WWU). Do you really think that each of them applied separately and got in, anonymously, on their individual merits?
Third, the conference is invite-only. You cannot even show up, at your own expense, if you’d like to hear a talk. This just compounds the insidery feel of the conference. (I also don’t see how wanting to have a read-through conference is incompatible with having an open-admission policy, which is cited as a reason for keeping the conference exclusive.)Report
The safest path to success: be born in an upper middle class family in the English speaking world, so go to an elite university for undergrad, so be noticed as relatively talented by someone who is “a name”, who in turn will facilitate your admission to the right grad program, which in turn will give you the connections necessary to get a good TT job right out of grad school based mostly on hype rather than publications or any other actual achievements.Report
I am curious how decisions are made regarding access to the Metaphysics at the Ranch thing in Arizona.Report
I second the thought expressed by HK @9. I’d add that I have met great people and have seen great places. As someone who never had the opportunity to travel often for the first 25 years of my life it was a chance to go on an adventure and listen to some great philosophy being done. I suppose going to conferences and chatting with folks after their talks is networking but I don’t see this as a problem, even if it means that they take a longer look at your application when and if you apply to where they might be working, or if they take a longer look at your submission to their edited collection or special issue. If that is the issue here with networking, that one who networks gets an unfair advantage, I’m just not seeing how it’s unfair. Is the thought that some folks can’t travel or network? Well, how about twitter? How about networking by email? Is that problematic as well because some people don’t have access to the internet? I ask these questions in earnest because I seriously want to understand this issue better. As someone who has not attended a prestigious University I see networking as a chance to show I belong, to show that I have some interesting things to say as well. You don’t need an ivy league stamp to be good at philosophy and networking affords those without that stamp to have a stage.Report
Justin C. – I am more or less on your side, but I think one of the worries is that social aptitude and opportunity for networking are not equally distributed. I am a white guy, and I hazard it is just easier for me to network than some other people, ceteris paribus. And that distribution worry is amplified if you think (as my guess is that many do) that networking itself is not an element of merit within the field. If networking is a way to increase the favor to the already fairly social and to decrease the favor to those who would do philosophy in a nook, then that is going to make networking look poor in some people’s eyes.
We see the same kind of worries come up in discussions of department social life, the appropriateness of having drinks with colleagues, and the like (sometimes amplified by other issues). Just because you’re good at and comfortable with having a drink with the metaphysician across the hall does not mean that your paper on the direction of time is very good at all.Report
If you peruse the CVs of young faculty members at prestigious programs, it’s not uncommon for them to have 0 publications. The other day, I came across a person with a tenure-track job at a Leiter top 20 program who has never even given a presentation before. That honestly strikes me as almost obscene, and indicates that networking sometimes has too much influence on employment.Report
Brother Justin, I think the viewhere is that we should strive to minimize networking’s role in securing employment/publication/conference acceptance/whatever, since it is upon the merit of one’s work that these things should be decided. Networking savvy seems irrelevant (with a possible caveat that good networking skills might make one a more attractive employee, meaning networking skills might be among the relevant factors considered in the employment case).Report
Are there steps that can be taken if a department heavily relies on networking in its hiring decisions? What can be done if powerful department members take interviewing and hiring friends and students of friends to be normal? Thoughts and suggestions are appreciated.Report
I wrote this blogpost about networking a while ago http://www.newappsblog.com/2013/11/is-it-possible-to-engage-in-ethical-career-networking-.htmlReport
FWIW, I think Moon’s got it exactly right. By networking, I just meant something a bit nebulous I guess and can count as a lot of different things, one of which is hanging at conferences. But I have seen what happens. You met someone who knows so and so and you meet so and so and so and so knows your name, and then you get invited to give a talk because so and so remembers your name, and and and… Of course, you can’t eliminate this kind of thing. And of course, it certainly doesn’t follow that the people who get invited to give talks this way are not good philosophers. In fact, I suspect the well-networked, well-respected BAD philosopher is pretty unlikely. It’s just that there’s plenty of good philosophers, who, by luck of the draw, don’t get on the inside track. And I think we somehow need to correct for that. But I have no suggestions about how to do that. In fact, tbh, I LOVE what’s called “networking,” but for its own sake. I’m an intro-extro. So I love to hang hard and then hibernate for three months. Rinse, repeat. I just think we ought to make it easier to somehow to see people’s work who are not necessarily in the cool crowd, and if you think there is no cool crowd, you’re part of it 😉Report
When Socrates went around ancient Athens singing for his supper he was supposed to be doing so in commitment to the truth and due to his acceptance of the consequences of living a life seeking after it. Perhaps a big difference between today’s academic technician and the philosopher as Plato envisioned it is that for Plato/Socrates there is no difference between seeking the truth and being a good person. Is it worth acting unethically (by jostling for unjust and unequal work) if your philosophical output will thereby always have an unethical basis? It is worth considering whether it is likely that academic philosophers taint their philosophy per se by performing it within their current idiom. I’m sure Socrates would remind us that if the academy at the moment is not the best place to pursue philosophy, then we should abandon it. I know that we don’t tend to see it like that, but can say ‘he had a perfectly wonderful philosophical mind but was only nice to you if he could get something out of it’, and that does not trouble us. I think there is a big tension there, and I think it should trouble us indeed. Perhaps the problem isn’t the lack of philosophical jobs, but why real philosophers allow those who thrive in such jobs to speak in the name of philosophy.
Aspasia – I have met plenty of ‘well-networked, well-respected BAD philosopher[s]’, notwithstanding my above comments.
So, then, my cards are on the table. (the cat is amongst the pigeons, and etc.)Report
Re Matthew @24:
While I share much sympathy with the spirit of your comment, I have to object to this invocation of Socrates. Do you really think you get invited to Agathon’s parties, get to hang out with hot young guys like Charmides, or get to challenge sophists like Protagoras without a lot of networking?Report
No I would rather doubt that anything you would be happy to call ‘networking’ in the current academic sense has sufficiently much to do with ancient Athenian society. Socrates, in addition, wasn’t rehearsing the history of philosophy but trying to sort through various contentions to find the truth (and from this came his notoriety, not his ‘academic reputation’).Report
It depends on what ‘networking’ is supposed to be. Obviously the specific social forms are going to be vasty different in ancient Athens than in contemporary America. But if ‘networking’ in the modern context is meant to include the kinds of examples listed above (presenting at conferences, seeking to make connections with people whose work you know and admire), then I don’t think the differences with Socrates are as stark as you make them.
It was only by way of his connections (and his social status as a male Athenian citizen) that Socrates was able to be a part of most of the dialogues (historical and fictional) depicted by Plato. Just read the opening story of the Protagoras. Socrates shows up at the gathering of Sophists because he’s famous/established enough to get his young friend in. Even if his goal is truth and not career advancement, his ability to pursue the truth in the way that he wants is dependent upon his status as part of the right in-crowds.
I agree that philosophers need to spend more time thinking about the way in which the institutional structures we maintain for practicing philosophy may have a pernicious effect on our philosophical practices, and I agree that Socrates is one useful model for comparison. But if we’re going to take that comparison seriously, we can’t romanticize away the social circumstances that allowed Socrates to practice philosophy in the way he did.Report
Especially in light of the number of “likes” for comments 14 and 16, it might be helpful to have a separate post about invitation-only conferences. There is at least a prima facie tension between such events and making the profession more inclusive. I’m wondering under what conditions (if any) are invitation-only conferences okay…when anyone’s allowed to apply to attend? When decisions about who should attend are made on the basis of anonymized applications (as the Midsummer Philosophy Conference does)? When they’re not being organized by people with a lot of clout in the profession? On the other hand, part of me thinks that perhaps it’s always okay…after all, we’re under no obligation to invite everyone to a party who might want to come. But it seems that more is at stake in the case of invitation-only conferences (extended opportunities to network, perhaps a stamp of professional approval…?)Report
Derek Bowman – Seems we went off the rails with this. My comment at 24 says ‘supposed to be’, I didn’t mean to discuss the merits and demerits of Athenian networking, but meant to point out the difference between the supposed Socratic legacy of seeking after truth, not wearing many clothes, hanging out looking at the moon, Diogenes deciding to thereafter live in a tub, and so on, and what we think is being a philosophical truthseeker today. It’s an image I wanted to invoke, not the injustice of Athenian society. They kept slaves after all.Report
I agree with ejrd and especially Matthew. The consensus of the elite few always hold more weight than the consensus of the many “average” people in our society, irrespective of course, or beneficiary. Humans tend toward a social, herd-like mentality (with a few outliers), but a million citizens with ALL the merit but no political clout will ALWAYS have their ideations trumped and subsequently overruled/overwritten by the few with all the political clout and absolutely NO merit whatsoever. Thus is the rule of politics, as i said irrespective of course or beneficiary of said ideation or actionReport