Philosophy Cliques Revisited


A graduate student who prefers to remain anonymous writes in:

Is it a step in the right direction towards abolishing white male supremacy when the mansions of Hollywood are opened to millionaire actors from minority groups or when the children of the global elite are allowed behind the gates of the Ivy League? Some say we have to start somewhere and we might as well start at the top. Others worry that such changes actually serve to reinforce the structural problems in our society because in slightly amending the male whiteness of the most visible parts of the country, we end up occluding the lack of positive change in other parts. A related worry is that in affording some members of underrepresented groups entry into old boys’ clubs, these changes only address the boys part of the problem with old boys’ clubs. The broader problem is that these are clubs, bastions of exclusion that afford their members unfair and unearned privileges.

Old boys’ clubs in philosophy have recently undergone similar changes. The Bellingham Summer Philosophy Conference, the Philosophy Mountain Workshop, the Ranch Metaphysics Workshop, and some of the Oxford Studies workshops come to mind as examples of workshops that are either wholly invite-only or that have highly intransparent selection procedures that evidently favor attendees who have attended the same event in previous years. The organizers of these events often serve as de facto gatekeepers for the most prestigious jobs in the discipline. The lineups of these workshops in any given year are impressively diverse, but everything else about them suggests that they are mere continuations of the problematic old boys’ clubs of the past. While it’s hard to fault anyone from attending these events, especially graduate students and junior faculty, and especially in today’s dire job market, those who return to these events year after year should not kid themselves into thinking that they are part of some positive social transformation. If they are serious about making the discipline more inclusive, fair, and pleasant, they should discourage these events from happening, or at the very least decline invitations from the events’ organizers and make room for people who haven’t had the same professional opportunities.

More generally, we all should ask ourselves why funding sources should support such exclusive clubs. Is there any reason to have high-profile conferences and workshops where people are invited as a result of some intransparent, non-anonymous selection process? If the rationale for hand-picking attendees is to ensure that the organizers end up with a group of friends who can do philosophy together in a safe environment, why don’t these friends just go on vacation together? After all, most attendees of such events hold quite secure, high-paying jobs. This would free up scarce resources to put towards, say, defraying the cost of attending conferences for adjuncts, graduate students, and junior faculty from institutions that don’t offer sufficient travel funds.

We should also ask similar questions about the abundance of edited volumes, special issues of journals, and even some journals as a whole. At the very least, edited volumes and special issues of journals should be clearly marked if they are put together through a process that didn’t involve fully anonymous refereeing. In the long run though, we should ask why there should be any need for such publications. We should also demand more transparency from some high-prestige journals, such as the Journal of the American Philosophical Association. Among the first twenty-one articles published by this new journal were articles written by Robert Audi, Simon Blackburn, Kit Fine, Alvin Goldman, C. S. I. Jenkins, Martha Nussbaum, Robert Pasnau, Hilary Putnam, and Galen Strawson. So, 43% of the articles published so far were written by extremely well-known philosophers. How did the triple-anonymous review process touted by the editor lead to this result? An excellent example of how to do things right is the journal Ergo, whose editors have given us an extremely detailed—and refreshingly self-critical—overview of what went into making the first issue.

On the whole, instead of simply replacing old hierarchies with new, nominally more diverse ones, we should collectively strive to abolish the power structures that exist within philosophy and the clubby atmosphere that reigns in many of its corners.

I recognize that this post is a bit provocative and accusatory. I gave the relevant parties a heads-up about its appearance here, and I hope that they will write in to join the conversation and, if necessary, clear up any misconceptions. Of course, everyone is welcome to join in. As it is a kind of touchy subject, let me remind everyone of the Daily Nous comments policy.

Some of these issues were discussed in a previous post here at Daily Nous. My view, expressed there, is that

when it comes to conferences, all that is needed is a sufficient number of high quality conferences so that everyone has a decent shot at going to ‘enough.’ This can be accomplished by having some conferences that operate largely according to anonymous review, such as the American Philosophical Association (APA) meetings and others, but can also be accomplished by increasing the number of conferences, even ones that are invite-only or do not use anonymous review.

I also suggested, in comment 6 on that post, a “quasi-libertarian” defense of invite-only conferences:

if, through my hard work and successes, I am able to acquire funding that allows me to put on a small conference each year (say, I win a grant, or negotiate it as part of a job or retention offer), and I will be the one to go to the trouble of organizing it, isn’t there something to the thought that I should be allowed to invite whomever I want, provided that they are qualified? If I couldn’t do that, maybe I would be less inclined to put the conference on at all. It’s not as if I am required to put on conferences! I think that this line of thinking has some appeal, and in practice gets thrown into the mix along with other considerations, such as balance and fairness. Allowing such discretion might indeed result in a greater and more diverse set of conferences, and that could be good for the profession overall, even if some of the conferences are invite-only.

I know that not everyone agrees. Even if I’m right, though, conference organizers and journal editors should be clear about their selection processes, and I think that our anonymous graduate student correspondent raises concerns and questions that are shared by a good number of people in the philosophy profession.

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anonymous
anonymous
6 years ago

I agree with some of this and disagree with some of it, but I just wanted to note that the “freeing up resources” argument doesn’t seem to apply to 2/3 of the conferences linked to. Those conferences (I think, I could be wrong, but one of them says this explicitly on its website) don’t seem to be externally funded at all. It basically is just a bunch of friends going on vacation together to do philosophy. And yes, they are almost definitely using their research/travel funds to do so, but the way most universities are structured, it would be impossible to redirect those resources somewhere else. WWU did fund the Bellingham conference, I think, but it’s also a bit unclear exactly what the argument is there too: if it’s a university administrator making these decisions, I somehow highly doubt that, if the organizers chose to end the conference because it was elitist, there would be any way to redirect the money that was used to support people who need it. But now I’m starting to think that I’ve missed the point of the objection, maybe. I don’t know. Anyway, I have mixed feelings about this issue but I’m just not sure I get the “we should redirect resources” argument since I’m not sure it’s possible to redirect any of the resources typically used in these events to somewhere/one more deserving.Report

anonymous
anonymous
6 years ago

also, if Ned Markosian, Kate Manne, Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins, Raul Saucedo, Nina Emery, David Plunkett, Seth Yalcin, and Laurie Paul are the “de facto gatekeepers for the most prestigious jobs in the discipline” then I, for one, welcome our new overlords. Sadly, though, I think they are not.Report

Shelley Tremain
Shelley Tremain
6 years ago

I think that this post which I wrote at the Discrimination and Disadvantage blog is relevant to the issues raised here: http://philosophycommons.typepad.com/disability_and_disadvanta/2015/05/ten-significant-ways-to-improve-the-situation-for-non-tenure-track-faculty.htmlReport

Tom
Tom
6 years ago

“We should also ask similar questions about the abundance of edited volumes, special issues of journals, and even some journals as a whole. ”

Amen about this. It is disheartening (to say the least) to know that one has to suffer through the often dreadful procedures of peer-review while others get a nice chunk of publications in books and journals just by virtue of knowing the right people or by virtue of their advisors knowing the right people.Report

Kate Norlock
Kate Norlock
Reply to  Tom
6 years ago

I’m sympathetic to wondering why we have quite the publication-mill in academia that we have, but the implicit disregard of authors with publications in edited collections is misplaced. I’ve edited my fair share and all the volumes and journal issues I’ve edited went through anonymous peer review. The results already get slapped with auto-suspicion despite the many rounds of revisions all the authors are put through; they’re not just being handed “a nice chunk of publications,” and are on the contrary usually contributing out of love of the topic in addition to their ongoing work of publishing in the peer-reviewed general journals (accorded automatic respect though not obviously having more rigorous review). Further, at least in my corner of ethics, collections are often made with an eye to expanding an under-theorized area and having a body of new essays on a topic in one place. The work that goes into original collections is not even close to captured by the uncharitable reduction of such projects to “just” knowing people.

I would agree with the more pressing question as to why we continue to obediently produce an abundance of publications, of any kind, but singling out the ones that usually stem from efforts to further a discussion in one’s specialty despite the lower prestige that such publications are accorded is bizarre.Report

Paul Prescott
Paul Prescott
6 years ago

“On the whole, instead of simply replacing old hierarchies with new, nominally more diverse ones, we should collectively strive to abolish the power structures that exist within philosophy and the clubby atmosphere that reigns in many of its corners.”

This sentence strikes me as almost entirely correct. I would add that some power structures are appropriate, while others are not. But I agree that the clubby power structures that predominate in philosophy are of the latter sort. And so we confront a systemic problem. My view is akin to that of the anonymous graduate student. It’s time for philosophers to aspire to a level of professionalism that transcends the social clicks and clubs that, by and large, dominate the activities of the profession.Report

radical
radical
6 years ago

“On the whole, instead of simply replacing old hierarchies with new, nominally more diverse ones, we should collectively strive to abolish the power structures that exist within philosophy and the clubby atmosphere that reigns in many of its corners.”

Indeed. The more suspicious among us would add that the new clique is just using the cover of righteousness and the expediency of universities’ Title IX panic to displace the old clique. The new clique gains enormous power at the expense of allowing a few different faces in the mix. Not a bad deal.Report

radical
radical
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
6 years ago

An example of enormous power: the direction and priorities of the APA.Report

radical
radical
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
6 years ago

Oh come on, I think people know what we’re talking about it. And I don’t want to name specific office holders. But here’s one way to look at it. What major professional organizations have “Nondiscrimination, Diversity, and Inclusiveness” right on their home page? The MLA, Psych APA, AHA and APSA don’t, for instance.Report

radical
radical
Reply to  radical
6 years ago

Justin, that would be true if the APA’s resources and attention were limitless. The fact that someone has been able to put those issues high on the agenda of the APA, and have certain people placed in certain positions of responsibility, is indeed an indication of tremendous power being wielded.Report

radical
radical
Reply to  radical
6 years ago

There is a concern that evidently doesn’t rank as highly in comparable professional organizations. What explains the difference? What items I’d like to see on that home page is irrelevant.Report

Abc
Abc
Reply to  radical
6 years ago

Another example of new clique power: the APA site visit cttee managed to get several people fired (including innocent like Barnett) and a whole department placed under receivership. It is now reckless to not be afraid of this faction.Report

radical
radical
Reply to  radical
6 years ago

If the “reasonable concern” were with “diversity” then the APA should focus primarily on race and socioeconomic background. Instead most of its efforts are about gender. Why? Because that is the minority with the most powerful, overall privileged people in it.Report

radical
radical
Reply to  radical
6 years ago

Thanks, but I think I’ve made my point.Report

Paul Prescott
Paul Prescott
Reply to  radical
6 years ago

No, radical, you really haven’t.Report

Tom
Tom
Reply to  Paul Prescott
6 years ago

Gotta go with Paul here. In fact, I’d say that the direction of the argument has made Justin’s claim that there is no conspiracy in place the far more plausible option. But by all means, radical, if you have anything substantive *at all* to say, please do say it. We’re all listening.Report

Adrian Piper
6 years ago

This is in general an excellent post. But it neglects the extended process of evaluation by which elite old people’s clubs (they don’t comprise boys alone) are formed, and the extent to which their existence obviates the need or desire to re-evaluate the quality of their members’ performance at each stage of professional development, and on each occasion on which an invitation might be issued.
Anglo-American undergraduate admissions committees ordinarily perform very thorough evaluations of their applicants’ high school performance (that is, unless they are legatees, offspring of the rich and famous, or offer to endow the institution). Graduate admissions committees in most Anglo-American philosophy departments perform evaluations of their undergraduate applicants that are almost as thorough and rigorous. Philosophy department job recruitment committees perform evaluations of their graduate school applicants that often rely, to varying degrees, on the outcomes of these previous evaluations: That an applicant has a Ph.D. from a highly regarded department, and/or has worked with a highly regarded person, and/or has a dossier containing letters from highly regarded members of the profession, often functions as assurance of the person’s basic competence for the job to those who review these documents.
Once that job is secured, so many other factors (not only race, gender and ethnicity but also personality, “fit,” administrative ability, opportunism, networking talent, political resourcefulness, navigational dexterity, etc.) enter into the equation determining the person’s success at joining the permanent elite old people’s clubs that in turn set the standards of quality for the field, that actual considerations of quality itself often play a relatively minor role, if any, at these later stages of professional development.
The result is elite old people’s clubs that often seem to have nothing to do with merit, and that generate arguments, presentations and publications which hoi polloi take justified pride in demolishing. More than a few elite reputations have been made by achieving professional prominence only to continuously churn out arguments and positions so poorly thought out and vulnerable to objection that their mere appearance in print generates a feeding frenzy among the multitude whose job is, in effect, to hold the elite to the standards of philosophical quality they purport to embody.
It’s not a bad job, I think, and not obviously inferior in any way to that of the elites who regularly receive the drubbing. But to eliminate those elites would require attending ONLY to the quality of their work at each stage of the professional process by which those old people’s clubs are formed. And who has the time or inclination to do that? Were it not for the general mediocrity of the professional philosophical elite, the rest of us would have nothing to do.Report

radical
radical
Reply to  Adrian Piper
6 years ago

Yes, you can demolish a big name in print somewhere. But chances are your critique will appear in a lesser journal, given the gatekeeping. Also, it will likely be ignored if you’re a nobody, since so many within the system are invested in the big name’s continued prominence.Report

noonoo
noonoo
Reply to  radical
6 years ago

So if I make some objections to John Rawls, you think they won’t make any difference?Report

anon
anon
Reply to  Adrian Piper
6 years ago

Let’s not forget that with each year comes increased levels of competition at all stages of evaluation, which entails a heightened degree of scrutiny. Such high levels of scrutiny create a generational gap wherein the evaluators on the whole would unlikely measure up to those they evaluate. It’s important that our analysis not be historically invariant given the transformation of the field since the rapid expansion of philosophy jobs in the 70s to the contraction of such jobs in the 00’s.Report

Adrian Piper
Reply to  anon
6 years ago

Yes, anon 25 is absolutely right about the dangers of an historically invariant analysis. It is true that a decreasing number of available academic positions in the current climate is effecting increasing competition and scrutiny at all stages of professional evaluation; and that there is often a generational gap between the evaluators and the evaluees.

I am less convinced that the evaluators “would unlikely measure up to those they evaluate,” absent more information as to what counts as “measuring up.” The quantitative demands now made on younger scholars have increased exponentially: more teaching, more research, more committee work, more conference presentations, more articles, more books are required now even to get a toehold in the field; and the number of available conferences, journals and book publication venues have increased correspondingly in order to meet these demands. But we see from the OP that even this expansion is not sufficient, because it merely replicates existing elitist hierarchies in new venues under greater pressure, and raises the bar for entry into the competition for everyone (woe to anyone with a writing block or poor social skills – Socrates, for example).

So just as the right combination of race, gender, ethnicity, academic pedigree, personality, adaptability, political connectedness, etc. does not necessarily lead to higher quality work, facility at meeting these increased demands on productivity doesn’t, either. The greater the adaptation to these new demands, the more distant, nebulous and unimportant that ideal becomes.Report

Internet Reader
Internet Reader
6 years ago

Old complaint: “they are making us include them!”

New complaint: “why won’t they include us?”Report

recent grad
recent grad
6 years ago

This is a mild tangent, but nonetheless somewhat relevant. There’s a big difference between a peer-reviewed article and an invited one. Would people who get their first publications in invited volumes please list them as such on their CVs? I think it’s misleading to simply list them under ‘publications’ as if there’s no difference.Report

Tom
Tom
Reply to  recent grad
6 years ago

You realize how incredibly unlikely this is, right? Maybe it’s the “right” thing to do, but it also is actively changing one’s CV in such a way as to *dis*advantage oneself on the job market.

Incidentally, I agree with you. It would be great for me if everyone else disadvantaged themselves in all the ways that helped me!Report

NN
NN
6 years ago

“Among the first twenty-one articles published by this new journal were articles written by Robert Audi, Simon Blackburn, Kit Fine, Alvin Goldman, C. S. I. Jenkins, Martha Nussbaum, Robert Pasnau, Hilary Putnam, and Galen Strawson. So, 43% of the articles published so far were written by extremely well-known philosophers. How did the triple-anonymous review process touted by the editor lead to this result?”

Perhaps despite their celebrity these people submitted the best articles? Or, to render my thoughts in slightly less flippant terms, perhaps the standards by which they were judged worthy of academic success and pushed to the forefront of the profession were also used to select the articles for the first issue of the JAPA, thus rewarding the same set of people in two different situations. If you don’t think the current standards habitually result in the publication of the best philosophical writing–and the promotion of the best philosophers–I presume you’ve encountered philosophical writing you deem better elsewhere. Where? What criteria would you like to use in the reviewing process to highlight that writing? “I don’t like the identities of the authors with whose publication anonymous peer review correlates,” is not a strong challenge to the peer review process.

And if your concern is not with rewarding the ‘best’ philosophical writing but with diversifying the pool of philosophers who are rewarded, why should that goal take precedence over ‘objective’ ‘quality,’ however you understand that term? And if in your opinion the objective quality of a philosopher’s writing depends on their demographic profile/relative privilege within their society, why?

The pseudo-colonialist practice of admitting select women and people of color into the inner sanctum of elite academia on the condition that they write and act exactly like white men, and thinking yourself enlightened for it, is morally untenable, but saying “the peer review process is broken because despite its anonymity it rewards people who’ve already been rewarded plenty” does not cut the mustard as reasoned critique.

On a different note, I see nothing wrong with people soliciting entries in edited volumes from people they already know, especially when it comes to commemorative volumes presented to specific scholars and so on. It’s up to the editor to convince someone the volume is worth publishing, and up to the readers to make the same judgment before they pay for it (unlike with journals). That being said, it would be nice to have edited volumes assembled in a more egalitarian way alongside the buddy-system ones.Report

Anon Grad Student
Anon Grad Student
Reply to  NN
6 years ago

Another reason might be that only fairly established people feel confident submitting to new (hence not yet super prestigious) journals.Report

Joe
Joe
6 years ago

In-groups are never going away (a philosophy department is an institutionally mandated in-group). The only salient question is: (a) what features of individuals explain their being selected into the relevant groups, and (b) do those features constitute (or perhaps correlate with) one’s excellence as a member of the discipline?

We should be very careful with this second question. Charges of “elitism” are often accompanied by the assumption that philosophical excellence consists only in the weighing of argument. But in an institutional setting, this is a terrible assumption. Teaching ability is often overlooked by this model, as is personability within the group, willingness to take the initiative, and administrative ability. Once we appropriately broaden our view of what constitutes excellence as a faculty member, it is not at all obvious that the selection-procedures that go into high-profile conferences are as non-meritocratic as they appear to be. Some will remain objectionable. But others may not. Suppose a well-placed person forms a conference aimed at being maximally friendly and supportive (self-consciously opposing the awful combativeness of the discipline). He then prioritizes people that have shown care, sensitivity and openmindedness in other arenas; these will quite naturally be people he likes. Are those features disconnected from philosophical excellence? Again, not in an institutional setting, not even close.

So if it’s non-meritocratic job placement you’re worried about, you’d better be 100% clear on what faculty merit is, and you’d better be able to show (or at least reasonably suggest) that the procedures involved in the formation of various in-groups are in fact not tracking the relevant features of individuals.

On a more personal level: if you’re a logic-chopping blowhard whose sole contributions to philosophical discussions involve accusing people of failing to make distinctions or declaring their views “unintelligible”, then: surprise! You don’t possess philosophical merit, and you don’t belong in our in-groups.Report

Chris Surprenant
6 years ago

On organized events, I find a lot of this power discussion to be mostly nonsense. I am someone who both organizes and attends the type of events that this graduate student is talking about, although not the particular ones mentioned. Maybe this graduate student would call me a gatekeeper, but I see myself just as someone who has a limited amount of free time that I can devote to these types of activities given my teaching load and family obligations, and that those constraints dictate many of my decisions.

When I’m looking for people I want to bring to our campus or to participate in invitation-only events, I’m looking for people that I want to meet and have a conversation with for one reason or another. They may be friends of mine, I may have read something interesting by them, we may have had a friendly email exchange, they may be friends of friends who have been recommended–whatever. When I’m looking to attend a conference or gathering, I’m looking to go where enough of my friends are. Every hour that I’m organizing or away at a conference, or that I’m organizing or spending time with a visiting speaker, is an hour that I am away from my family, and so I want to make sure that time is both intellectually rewarding and enjoyable for me.

I understand why people can feel frustrated when they believe they’re excluded from things. But for many of these organizations the quickest way to become included is simply to ask to be included. A nice email to a conference organizer or program director will go a long way, and then, when you get invited, show up, be friendly, contribute, and you’ll be invited back. For the most part, the world isn’t out to get you and no one is trying to exclude you on purpose. While I imagine that there are some groups that aren’t welcoming and actively try to exclude people, I’ve never encountered any. And, if I did, it’s almost certainly not a group I would want to associate with anyway.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
6 years ago

Wow, talk about missing the point! No one is claiming that there is some big conspiracy where white men sit around a table and plot strategies to keep women and minorities and poor people out of conferences and edited volumes. Instead, this type of exclusion operates exactly as you describe: people think about who to invite, and the people who come to mind are those in their in-group.Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

I think there’s a lot of merit in Justin’s correspondent’s original post. But I also think it’s a shame that these legitimate concerns are being used as a cover by others for bitterness about attempts to diversify the profession and some kind of bizarre anger that the APA mentions inclusiveness on its website (seriously??). There’s a difference between on one hand the quite correct point that the fact that these conferences are often diverse doesn’t (at least, not entirely) mitigate concerns that they are elitist, cliquey and non-transparent in their invitation procedures, and on the other hand saying that this diversity is itself a bad thing or part of some supposed conspiracy to keep the white man down. In the context of a profession still so dominated by white men, this kind of insane paranoia is no less fantastical than the right-wing loons who say that American society is unfairly biased against the whites. Putting it under a cover of “truly radical” concern with socioeconomic class is just excuse-making; concern about different kinds of underrepresentation is hardly zero-sum.Report

radical
radical
Reply to  Anon
6 years ago

Of course it’s largely zero-sum. And nobody said it’s a conspiracy to keep the white man down (!). We had this discussion here with the ‘poverty’ thread. If we enact affirmative action in favor of women in hiring, who do you think will lose those jobs? I doubt it will be the rich white men. The least advantaged will lose out. In principle the least advantaged, intersectionally speaking, is probably a poor, foreign born, black, disabled, trans woman. Given the demographics of people who even consider doing a BA in philosophy, though, the typical least advantaged person is just a random poor white male. I’d be all in favor of ranking candidates by overall advantage, rather than picking one aspect of disadvantage and let it trump all others, which seemms to be the de facto current APA approach. Remember: of all the underrepresented groups, women is the one with the most members of the upper/upper-middle class. Coincidence?Report

Shelley Tremain
Shelley Tremain
6 years ago

I’d be grateful if Justin could be a bit more explicit about the form that his moderation of this blog takes in is offered in his Comment Policy. In particular, I am concerned about the ableist language that appears in Comment #27 and would like to know why that is considered publishable, why that is not regarded as a manifestation of the hostility and lack of respect that many of use confront in this discipline and profession.Report

Anon
Anon
Reply to  Shelley Tremain
6 years ago

I’m the poster of comment #27. I definitely didn’t mean to use ableist language and to be honest I’m still not sure which language in the post you found ableist. That said, if there is something that I’m overlooking, I’d definitely appreciate your pointing it out for the future. As I hope you can see from the content, the post was intended to be in the spirit of support for inclusiveness and diversity of all kinds within the profession.Report

Fool
Fool
Reply to  Anon
6 years ago

I take it that Shelley Tremain is referring to your use of the words “insane” and “loon.” Some people think that the use of these words results in material harm and increased stigma to and against the mentally ill. ST’s confident pronouncement that they constitute “hate speech” doesn’t grant that this is, to put it lightly, not a universally accepted position. I myself, a disabled academic, absolutely reject it, for example.

But I’m pretty sure those are the terms at stake: do with that what you will.Report

aaa
aaa
Reply to  Fool
6 years ago

aren’t those two terms you mention in 29, not 27?Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
6 years ago

“Is there any reason to have high-profile conferences and workshops where people are invited as a result of some intransparent, non-anonymous selection process?”

Yes, there’s a reason: if the organizer(s) that’s the best way to maximise the contribution the workshop makes to research progress. If I organise a small workshop on (say) symmetry, or non-equilibrium statistical mechanics, it’s because I think there’s an opportunity, given what’s currently going on in the published literature, to make some progress on the issues by putting various people working on those topics in the same place and get them to engage sustainedly with each other. It’s easy to see circumstances where that’s going to be better achieved by hand-picking the participants than by a general call for papers. (A conference that’s mostly about presenting the content of a bunch of unrelated papers, and not mostly about discussion and multi-way engagement between participants, probably isn’t worth going to in the first place. Just read the papers online.)

“If the rationale for hand-picking attendees is to ensure that the organizers end up with a group of friends who can do philosophy together in a safe environment, why don’t these friends just go on vacation together? After all, most attendees of such events hold quite secure, high-paying jobs. This would free up scarce resources to put towards, say, defraying the cost of attending conferences for adjuncts, graduate students, and junior faculty from institutions that don’t offer sufficient travel funds.”

That would make sense if the point of conferences and workshops was to advance the career prospects of the attendees. But the point of conferences and workshops is – or ought to be – to make progress on research questions. It only makes sense to prioritise attendance for people without travel funds if that would get a better research outcome. (Perhaps sometimes it will; no doubt some conferences and workshops really are put together on friendship grounds rather than research-motivated grounds.)

To put it bluntly, given the choice between spending £2000 of my own money to go to a philosophy workshop and the same £2000 to go on vacation in Italy, I’ll probably do the latter. Funding me to go to the workshop doesn’t make sense if you’re thinking of the workshop as a career opportunity for me, so that attending is a perk for me. But it does make sense if you’re thinking of the workshop as a research exercise that’s going to go better if I’m there than if I’m not.Report

Anon
Anon
Reply to  David Wallace
6 years ago

But how many of the get togethers in philosophy reflect this highly thought out structure, and how many are closer to annual jollies where people simply present their assorted and not necessarily closely related works?Report

Ananimus
Ananimus
6 years ago

@ Anon 27

It was probably the bit about ‘insane paranoia’. Some people object to that sort of pejorative use of mental illness.Report

Shelley Tremain
Shelley Tremain
6 years ago

This comment is in response to the poster at 27 & 29. Thank you for your earnest response to my comment. I recognized your claim to support efforts for diversity. However, your remarks “insane paranoia” and “right-wing loons” should be regarded as ableist. Perhaps you need to become better informed about ableism and what it is. I think many (perhaps most) philosophers are not informed about ableism or indeed much of the phenomena surrounding the apparatus of disability. There are a number of things on my academia.edu page that might be helpful to you if you want to learn more about ableism, especially with respect to philosophy. In particular, I recommend that you (and anyone else reading this comment who wants to know more about ableism and disability in philosophy) read my “Disabling Philosophy,” “Introducing Feminist Philosophy of Disability,” “Biopower, Styles of Reasoning and What’s Still Missing from the Stem Cell Debates, and “The Biopolitics of Bioethics and Disability,” especially thee first two articles.Report

Grad Student
6 years ago

I don’t find this post convincing at all. Like everyone else, I’m happy to endorse the values of inclusivity and anti-discrimination, and I reject old-boy networks, which I take to mean groups of people where admission is granted on the basis of being a person of the “right sort”, or “One of Us”, rather than on merit. But I don’t see that the OP makes any sort of case that small conferences or journal issues should be “transparent” in some fully open way, nor even that the small conferences mentioned are “Old Boys Networks” in the exclusionary sense intended. For one thing, the OP immediately concedes that the “lineups of these workshops in any given year are impressively diverse”, but quickly moves on as if this wasn’t a very important point. There’s strong evidence that most of these workshops do not select participants on the basis of some irrelevant demographic characteristic. We’re already a long way from Old Boys, then.

Is the problem selectivity as such, then? As David Wallace argues, the point of small workshops and conferences is to advance research in specific areas. People are recruited to attend on that basis. There’s absolutely no reason to think that participation wouldn’t be selective. How could it be otherwise? If your conference is on Problems in the Philosophy of X or Y you presumably want experts in the Philosophy of X or Y to attend. You’re not going to invite Chemistry professors, or corporate managers, or ninth graders, and by not doing so you are not “excluding” anyone. Similarly, you are probably not going to invite college sophomores, or first year graduate students, or even experts in the Philosophy of A or B. Again, you’ll certainly want to make sure that you’re not excluding people who do work on X or Y on the basis of irrelevant considerations — like their gender, or their race, or whatever. But the OP has already conceded that the conferences mentioned are “impressively diverse” on these fronts. So what’s the problem?

Maybe the problem is supposed to be the sheer fact that academic research is oriented towards excellence or quality in particular areas, and that means that not everyone gets to attend everything? If you want to argue that excellence or quality are an illusion then go ahead, but don’t expect many people to be convinced. Or maybe the problem is supposed to be that busy academics who are still willing to put time in to organizing a small conference, perhaps after begging their Dean for a few hundred bucks in support, should somehow be obliged to run a national selection process recruiting a staff of reviewers and filtering submissions from literally anyone in the name of “transparency”? In the end maybe the problem is that it’s impolite to suggest someone’s work might not be interesting enough to attract an invitation. Too bad. The leveling impulse the OP feels is completely reasonable when it comes to making sure that irrelevant criteria like race or gender don’t dominate conference selection procedures. And the bigger the event the more that sort of thing matters. But there’s a huge gulf between this and claiming that small conferences function as “Old Boys Clubs” in the manner of a Southern Golf Resort.

“Transparency” or “Openness” are magic words here. Everyone agrees they’re important values, but what burdens exactly do they impose? It can’t mean that everyone gets invited to everything. There’s no reasonable sense in which someone voluntarily organizing a small conference should be expected to run it as if it were the French National Examination System or the GRE. The OP decries a few small conferences and some journals, but why stop there? Departments have weekly speaker series, or informal reading groups. Should they be subject to the same demands for fully “transparent” selection procedures? If not, why not? Should spots be allocated by lottery, or on a first-come, first-served basis? I’ve never been invited to give a talk at Princeton or NYU or MIT. Perhaps I’m being excluded by these Old Boys Clubs. Or perhaps I’m a fourth year graduate student with some working papers who has no reasonable expectation of such an invitation.

Some experts in particular areas find the time and initiative to organize conferences on topics they are working on. (I don’t have the energy, frankly. Having seen one or two small events close up, I’m amazed at conference organizers who do. It’s a lot of work.) As long as organizers are not discriminating on the basis of the usual protected categories I just don’t see the grounds for objecting to their existence. Calling them “Old Boys Clubs” doesn’t make them so. Most of the conferences decried by the OP originated as local efforts by faculty (often at smaller schools, too) who wanted to get some interesting people together. Most events weren’t “elite” when they started. They slowly built their reputation over time by picking good people and running good events. Many now famous invitees were Assistant Professors or Grad Students when they first presented, or the organizers were junior faculty themselves, or not well-known. If the subsequent success of the events has increased the competition and desire from others to attend or get an invite, I think the organizers have earned their position. This is just how pushing a research program in an expert profession works. These event aren’t exclusionary just because you didn’t get invited.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
6 years ago

I think this is a great post, although I would quibble with some of the examples. Conferences that have open calls for papers, even if the standards for acceptance are obscure, shouldn’t be singled out for criticism. But closed workshops like the “Princeton Ethicists Network” are fair game, I think. I mean, really? Do we need to cement the hierarchies quite so explicitly? Not only to these sorts groups disenfranchise, but they are also bad for philosophy.

Philosophy is already too insular, and many philosophers spend their careers responding to small points made by other philosophers in their circle. This is part of what makes philosophy so boring and tedious. Philosophers should strive to talk with people in other fields, rather than cocoon themselves in the familiar thoughts of their friends.

I think people should be embarrassed to participate in these kinds of chummy, closed groups.Report

anon princetonian
anon princetonian
6 years ago

what is this princeton ethicists network?! how does one get in on it? (being a member of the princeton philosophy department apparently doesn’t even qualify one to *know* about it…)Report

Anon
Anon
Reply to  anon princetonian
6 years ago

From a real CV: “Member, Young Ethicists Network, led by Michael Smith, Liz Harman, and Sarah McGrath”

Sorry ‘anon princetonian’, I’m sure your invite is in the post…Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
Reply to  anon princetonian
6 years ago

Ha! Clearly it is too elite for you. It looks like it also might go by “The Young Ethicists Network” (although that could be a separate group). So maybe you are too old to know about it.

I’m not going to name names although the names are familiar and don’t strike me as people who need special help forging a professional network.

My point isn’t to pick on this particular group. I honestly believe that these are all people of good will, but I think those who participate in these types of groups, especially those connected to high prestige institutions like Oxford and Princeton, should think more about the points made by the OP.Report

Michael Smith
Michael Smith
Reply to  Professor Plum
6 years ago

Since this group was my idea, I guess I should say something by way of response. Let me say right at the outset that I am sympathetic to some of the OP’s points, so it may well be that the group was misconceived. At the time, however, I thought of it as helping tear down a hierarchy, not as creating one. Here is the backstory. In addition to Liz and Sarah at Princeton, there were ten young ethicists whose work I admired. They worked in similarish areas, but almost without exception, in their own work they talked about the work of established figures rather than each other’s. I thought that this was a pity. We invited them to Princeton for three meetings over three years: this means there were twelve young philosophers in all, six men and six women, the non-Princeton philosophers all recently tenured. At each meeting, draft papers by four people were circulated, and there were prepared comments by two others, so over the course of the three meetings, everyone had a paper of their own discussed, everyone wrote comments on papers by two of the others, and everyone participated in the discussion of all the papers. It is true that membership of the group reflected my own judgement about the value of these young people’s work, and the value judgements of those whose advice I sought in deciding who to invite, but it isn’t true that those who weren’t invited were deemed not to be good enough to be invited. There are lots of great young people working in ethics, and the hope was that we would get funding to do another iteration of the group with different members, and that over time many more good people would be included, even if not every good person could be included. I also told everyone in my generation in ethics who would listen about the group, as I thought that our meetings were very productive, much more productive than one-off colloquium or workshop sessions. I hoped that others might get funding to form similar groups at their own institutions. As it turned out, the funds at Princeton dried up after the first iteration, and to my knowledge, no one found funds to form similar groups elsewhere, and I still think that this is a pity. It is yet to be seen what effect the experience had on the work of the twelve young people who were members of our group. As I said, my hope was that it would expand the topics that they work on and the people whose work they talked about. I thought of it as helping shifting the focus away from the work of the older generation, and onto the work of the younger generation.Report

radical
radical
6 years ago

It might be helpful to distinguish between two separable points in the OP:

1. Invitation-only conferences and volumes are bad from an equal opps point of view.

2. Gender and ethnic inclusivity doesn’t do much to challenge the most regressive structures of power within the discipline.

I think (2) is a lot more defensible. It’s hard to defend (1), e.g. for the reasons offered by Wallace.Report

John Turri
6 years ago

I just wanted to remark briefly on a clash between two themes in the OP: (1) the request for more transparency and (2) the request to use more “fully anonymous refereeing.” By definition, fully anonymous refereeing promotes opacity. It eliminates accountability and is frequently a source of harm and abuse.

For anyone thinking about how to improve the profession, I’d suggest reconsidering what role anonymous refereeing should play in evaluating research.Report

Without Tenure
Without Tenure
6 years ago

Suppose X gets together with three friends to discuss their work in progress in X’s department’s lounge. Call this the “Let’s Meet in the Lounge Workshop” (LMLW). Now consider two different sets of questions:

1. (a) Is there anything problematic about LMLW?
(b) Does X do anything wrong in organizing LMLW?

2. (a) Would it be problematic if X then went on to create a website for the LMLW, where X listed a program for the event, a list of invited participants, and made it clear that others are not allowed in?
(b) Would participants in LMLW do anything wrong if we were to list their presentations in LMLW on their CV?

It seems clear to me that the answer to the first set of questions is “no”. And so it seems to me that responses to complaints like OP’s along the lines of “organizers have limited time, so why shouldn’t they just go ahead and invite their friends or whatever”? may be missing the point.

(Note moreover that this is independent of whether the goal is to just have a jolly good time or to make progress on some research questions or to network or whatever.)

It also seems clear to me that it would be misleading, at the very least, to treat participation in LMLW as some sort of professional accomplishment. So I’m inclined to say “yes” in response to the second set of questions. (Although I’m not sure I have a good enough explanation for why I’m inclined to say “yes” in response to 2(a) and not just to 2(b).)

So here’s what I take to be the harder question: what distinguishes LMLW from the relevant small, invite-only events?

I do not claim that there is no relevant difference. But I honestly do not know what to think about small, invite-only events (with respect to the second set of questions), especially those without any form of blind-review policy.Report

Anon Male Grad Student
Anon Male Grad Student
Reply to  Without Tenure
6 years ago

The situation you outline in (1) happened to me, and I had a complaint lodged against me. I asked two people in my department who work in my area to have lunch with me and talk about my paper. Someone in the department who doesn’t work in the area dropped in to pick up her mail, noticed that we were talking, and left. Later that day she lodged a complaint against me–apparently she was offended that she wasn’t invited and she attributed the non-invitation to sexism. I had two meetings with the Director of Graduate Studies to see if I should be disciplined. I was officially cleared, but of course she didn’t keep the complaint to herself, so the whole department heard that I was sexist.

So no, it’s not obvious to everyone that it’s okay get together with friends to talk philosophy.Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

Martha Nussbaum on Allan Bloom and Judith Butler: “”I thought of the Butler and Bloom reviews as acts of public service,” she said. “But a lot of my impatience with their work grew out of my repudiation of my own aristocratic upbringing. I don’t like anything that sets itself up as an in-group or an elite, whether it is the Bloomsbury group or Derrida.” And she has a point: you don’t have to be anything sinister to set yourself up as an ‘in-group’. Something as seemingly innocuous as the Bloomsbury group is still exclusive in a way that those who aren’t invited to ‘join the party’ might feel legitimate resentment over.Report

ejrd
ejrd
6 years ago

I’m glad that discussions like this are happening and couldn’t imagine them even being had 10 years ago (the dark Leiter-monopoly days of online Philosophy are thankfully over). As with most of these discussions, it seems like privilege and power help define the battle lines. I’ve noticed a promising uptick among younger philosophers, however, who seem very sympathetic to the social justice issues in the profession and I’m optimistic about the future of the discipline. FINALLY, these issues are being talked about (and mostly from the ground up). Thanks Justin for providing the venue (and impetus) for the discussion.Report

Tom Hurka
Tom Hurka
Reply to  ejrd
6 years ago

Actually, there was a lengthy and very vigorous discussion of this topic around ten years ago on — of all places — the Leiter site. It was prompted by worries expressed by Keith de Rose and others about the selection processes for Oxford Studies and similar volumes, in particular that the processes were too cliquey. (A particular volume was the special subject of attention, but the issue was more general.) And it’s not at all true that “privilege and power” defined the battle lines — the worries were expressed as much by established philosophers like Keith as by younger ones. Not everything in philosophy is new, nor is everything in the critique of how the philosophy profession is structured.Report

real_email_fake_name
real_email_fake_name
Reply to  Tom Hurka
6 years ago

I believe this may be the thread to which Tom Hurka refers (it’s on TAR, not LR — and still worth reading a decade later!):

http://tar.weatherson.org/2004/12/07/philosophical-perspectives/Report

Andrew Moon
Reply to  real_email_fake_name
6 years ago

Just spent about the last hour reading that thread. Wow, very informative. Thank you for digging that up.Report

Andrew Moon
Reply to  real_email_fake_name
6 years ago

I like this quote from Tom Hurka:

“Some, especially those at less prestigious departments, are doing it the hard way: busting their hump submitting papers to refereed journals and waiting 6-12-18 months to get a response. And then some others with the right connections get nice invitations to contribute to volumes like this.”

A qualification is that sometimes, the right connections are earned, and even those at less prestigious departments can gain those connections. (I’m from a lower ranked department, but I published papers in the epistemology of memory and made an effort to get to know players in the field by way of e-mail and conferences; I think this played a large role in my getting invited to contribute to a volume on the epistemology of memory.)Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

Who’s to say this is just limited to faculty. Isn’t the move towards ‘in crowds’ already there in grad school as students attempt to form exclusive (and therefore exclusionary) reading groups? I find these just as bad…Report

gopher
gopher
Reply to  Anon
6 years ago

Yes. And graduate seminars.Report

Joe
Joe
Reply to  Anon
6 years ago

I’ll repeat that there can be no reasonable blanket condemnation of such groups. I formed a couple of invite-only reading groups in grad school. We mainly sought to exclude people who had demonstrated their complete unwillingness to do the relevant readings, develop an awareness of surrounding literature, and debate in a friendly and informed manner about the topic. It’s all too easy to cry foul over exclusionary tactics, ignoring that some people willingly invite exclusion via either self-imposed incompetence or (what is far worse) a dismissive and confrontational attitude in discussing philosophy. I’ll repeat: our discipline needs mechanisms that eliminate both kinds of person from its ranks, because it needs to be stocked with well-informed, well-motivated, well-meaning, collegial people. Exclusion can be (and is) one of those mechanisms, and while it sucks to be on the losing end of that process, it will sometimes (not always) be the case that one’s own attitudes and habits are ultimately responsible. Welcome to the real world, everyone.Report

Wesley
Wesley
6 years ago

It is a shame that more invitations and other professional advancements aren’t extended based on merit. Of course, the negative impact of cliques doesn’t stop at invitations. Philosophers can be just as snotty or totally indifferent to others once they show up at conferences too when they do not agree with you or are not part of their cohort on some issue or approach.Report

Jonathan Ichikawa
6 years ago

I think there’s a lot to think about here, and I may come back with a more engaging comment later, but I thought I’d at least make one factual observation now: contrary to the implication of the post, the BSPC (the only one of the examples cited I’m familiar enough to speak to) has an open call for papers and an anonymous refereeing process. The other conference positions—chairs, commenters, and at-large members, were not selected in that way, and I can certainly see a possible case being made that selection in these areas ought to have been less cliquey. But the papers themselves—the central philosophical component of the conference—were selected via anonymous review.

These issues are ones that Carrie Jenkins and I are thinking about a lot at the moment, as we’re planning to take over, starting next summer, a Vancouver-based continuation of the BSPC. The VSPC will certainly continue the precedent of anonymous selection of papers, and we’re also thinking about ways to involve new people at the other levels. I confess I have a difficult time seeing how practically a conference organizer could select commenters for papers anonymously, but if people have ideas, I’d be interested to hear them. One thing we certainly can, and intend, to do is to do an open call for volunteers for these positions, so that we at least know some people who are interested.

In fact, we’ve already done that: http://www.thevspc.com/callforpapers/ I hope that lots of people interested in participating will submit papers or volunteer to comment or chair. And Carrie and I would be very interested to hear other suggestions for how best to make an inclusive event.Report

Shelley Tremain
Shelley Tremain
Reply to  Jonathan Ichikawa
6 years ago

I would like to encourage Jonathan Ichikawa and Carries Jenkins to begin thinking of accessibility in the initial stages of their conference planning and to make explicit on their conference website and in their registration materials what services and provisions they will make available. I would be happy to offer any advice or recommendations.Report

vspc
vspc
Reply to  Jonathan Ichikawa
6 years ago

Professor Ichikawa, thanks for your engagement with these issues. It’s great that the VSPC will have a blind review process (I have heard that while the BSPC papers were by and large blind reviewed, some were invited; I hope the VSPC will be clear about which are which, if any are invited). But why does conference attendance need to be by invitation? What is the loss of making it open to the public? If the worry is size, then why not have a lottery to determine attendance (weighted, if you like, to ensure a diverse group)? And then select commenters and chairs from that group.Report

Alex Worsnip
Alex Worsnip
Reply to  Jonathan Ichikawa
6 years ago

Hi, Jonathan. You could select commenters and chairs anonymously by inviting the people who submitted the next-best papers, as determined by the paper review process. Obviously, matching people up to comment on papers they are qualified to comment on would provide some constraints, but I think it could be done. (At a general interest, non-specialized conference, if there’s a paper where no-one in the pool of commenters/chairs can profitably engage with it in 10 minutes of comments, that’s probably a sign the paper wasn’t an appropriate pick.)Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
6 years ago

Cliques in philosophy are a serious problem. Philosophy needs to be more diverse, but there is indeed a tendency for us to produce more diverse cliques, replacing an old “aristocracy” with a new one, and to treat this as serious progress. The biggest and most problematic of the cliques is the one encompassing professional philosophers (and sometimes other academics) but excluding everyone else. We tend to consider “making a contribution” as a matter of contributing to the understanding of fellow professionals, without thought of bringing the ideas we produce to the broader public we theoretically serve.Report

Shane Epting
6 years ago

“why don’t these friends just go on vacation together?” I laughed so hard at this line that it brought me to tears. That’s good stuff.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
6 years ago

According to Professor Smith, the aim of Princeton’s Young Ethicist Network was to break down hierarchies. I’m afraid I’m not convinced. A quick Google search turns up 10 of the 12 “Young” Ethicists. They are all white, and they are/were members of pretty elite departments (Princeton, Pittsburg, NYU, MIT, Stanford, University of Minnesota, Berkeley, UCLA, and USC). Given their editorial work at “high ranked” journals and their membership in prestigious departments, I think it is fair to describe these young philosophers as gatekeepers in their own right.

According to Smith, the aim of the network was to encourage the young philosophers to engage with and cite one another’s work instead of focusing on the work of older philosophers. This puzzles me because it is difficult for me to see how this could be considered a liberatory aim. The rich get richer, I guess.

Why not have an open invitation for philosophers working on interesting projects? Or what about reaching out to members of non prestigious institutions? Or philosophers of color? Or how about highlighting the importance of independent thought rather than encouraging philosophers to work on the problems set by other young philosophers?

How anyone, let alone a group of prestigious ethicists, could see this sort of project an an *answer* to the inequities and hierarchies in academic philosophy is beyond me.Report

anon grad student
anon grad student
6 years ago

I think the author’s point would have been better made by highlighting some of the seriously non-diverse (in pretty much every sense) invite-only conferences and workshops that go on, many of which lead to fancy publications. Here’s one, for example, in which every speaker is male, almost all or all of them are white, and the junior people involved are *the* golden children of Oxford-and-its-diaspora: http://www.ylivakkuri.net/williamson-in-montreal.html
While I’m sympathetic with a lot of the author’s worries, I don’t think he/she is highlighting the right set of conferences, and I suspect that is part of what is leading to people reacting uncharitably. It is hard not to read the post as targeting *diverse* conferences, which make an effort to be inclusive. This I suspect is making people assume the author has a particular set of intentions that he/she may or may not have.

I would invite people, if the author is going to be given the space to call out diverse and inclusive conferences for being cliquey, to post in the comments examples of conferences and workshops that are far worse, and are far more deserving of negative attention, than the ones in the original post.Report

Fool
Fool
Reply to  anon grad student
6 years ago

Surely the “diverse” conferences etc discussed in the opening post just reflect the kind of data necessary to make its argument, which is something like “institutions that tick a couple of identity-diversity boxes but maintain opaque in-crowdy admission processes don’t really solve the biggest structural inequities in the discipline.” It would surely be pretty weird for a post making that argument NOT to “target” conferences that shared two features: A) a nominally “diverse” program, B) an in-crowd un-diverse program. I’m not sure what intentions we can attribute to the author on this basis, other than the intention to support his or her argument with relevant examples.Report

v
v
Reply to  anon grad student
6 years ago

68: thanks for your point. I imagine that the reason OP focused on the conferences they did is that it is already blindingly obvious (to many, at least) how laughably counterproductive for the field conferences like the one you link to are. Whereas it is I think far less obvious to many that conferences like those mentioned in the OP are also counterproductive; and indeed these conferences are sometimes touted as signs of PROGRESS in the field.Report

anon grad student
anon grad student
Reply to  v
6 years ago

Right, that is the charitable reading. But even though I’d like to read it charitably, my worry is that others are reading it as though–let me just come out and say this–the author is just another bitter angry white male grad student who thinks the feminist conspiracy is “out to get him” and is hence specifically complaining about especially diverse conferences (well, let’s get real, they aren’t especially diverse, but by the standards of our profession they are). Of course, it’s probably impossible to have this discussion without having it collapse into more of these polarized sides reading everything in the middle as sympathetic to one or another of their sides (the “metabros” vs. whatever their current name for their enemies is). I would like to think you are right, v, but the thing is that I think some of the people who push the hardest against conferences like the BSPC think there is nothing whatsoever wrong with a conference that looks like the one I just posted. I have no idea about the actual author of the post. My point should have been different, and I appreciate you pointing that out: I hope that those whose views are on some middle ground here will hold that ground. I hope there’s room for people to speak up and say that there really are genuine, serious issues with these kinds of conferences, without those people either being “claimed” by the “metabros” or villified by the friends of those conference organizers. That kind of reasonable criticism is what would actually change the future of the profession–because the people who are being called out here for organizing cliquey conferences are, for the most part, I think, interested in hearing it and engaging with it. But who can blame them if they ignore it if it is couched in polarizing terms and seems to be thinly veiled stuff coming from the bitter angry white male grad students/unemployed/underemployed/sometimes bordering on MRA contingent? I would do the same. Anyway, I still think there has been a fairly productive discussion here, it’s just too bad that the philosophy internet has turned into this polarizing thing which, I think, also really distorts the picture of what philosophers actually think about this stuff.Report

v
v
Reply to  anon grad student
6 years ago

Yes, this all makes sense. I happen to know who the original poster is, so let me just say for the record that they are not ‘just another bitter angry white male grad student who thinks the feminist conspiracy is “out to get him”’, in your nice turn of phrase, but someone who is profoundly committed to diversity and social justice in the field, as evidenced both in their avowed commitments and in very substantial work they have done towards improving the profession.Report

anon grad student
anon grad student
Reply to  v
6 years ago

Yeah–I want to make clear that I don’t doubt that at all!Report

Zara
Zara
6 years ago

This is in reply to Jonathan Ichikawa, #60. It’s good to hear that the BSPC has an open call for papers and an anonymous refereeing process. And it’s good to hear that the VSPC will continue the precedent of anonymous selection of papers.

There’s a problematic practise I’ve seen at some conferences with open calls for papers. The organizers single out particular individuals — friends, friends’ students, friends’ mentees, etc. — for a kind of “special” invitation. I’ve received such special invitations myself, and have taken advantage of them (I am now a little ashamed to admit). I know others who have received such invitations.

A friendly suggestion: Don’t send out special invitations. Do not contact anyone in particular to nudge them or encourage them to submit a paper to a conference you are organizing.Report

Jonathan Ichikawa
Reply to  Zara
6 years ago

I don’t understand why this should be problematic.Report

zara
zara
Reply to  Jonathan Ichikawa
6 years ago

Suppose that A, B, C, and D are four graduate students in the same program, all talking about whether to submit papers to the VSPC. Then, about two months before the deadline, D gets an email from one of the conference organizers, inviting her to submit a paper. What effect does this have on A, B and C? Well, one would expect A, B and C — and maybe D herself — to wonder why D was picked out for special consideration. A, B and C — and D herself — might reasonably conclude that the open call, in this case is a sham. If I were A, B or C, then this would substantially lower the probability that I would submit a paper, having the suspicion that the invitees’ papers will be refereed more lightly and less anonymously. I would also feel excluded from the outset: sure, my paper might slip by, but I am not one of the select few that the organizers WANT there. So, even among us four graduate students, there would start to develope the feeling that only D is truly wanted there, and the others might get in on sufferance.

This is not some far-fetched story: I’ve seen it in action. It is bad for the profession. Word gets out that some people are specially singled out for an invitation — word is out, for example, that this is the case with some of the conferences already discussed. Once word gets out, this practise contributes to the feeling of an exclusive clubby event, where a select few have special status, and where knowing the right people matters as much as merit. It causes reasonable resentment among those who don’t get the tap on the shoulder — i.e., the email from the conference — both have a smaller likelihood of getting their papers accepted and are not really wanted there anyway.Report

Kathryn Lindeman
Kathryn Lindeman
Reply to  Zara
6 years ago

I’m in agreement with Jonathan: I don’t see why emailing people you think would be interested in submitting an abstract/paper to a conference is problematic, so long as the review process is sufficiently anonymous.

This year I co-organized the St Louis Annual Conference on Reasons and Rationality (SLACRR) and sent several emails to people I knew working in the area encouraging them to submit abstracts. (I hereby encourage everyone reading this to consider submitting an abstract next year!) That a submission was from someone who received such an email had absolutely no bearing on whether or not it was selected to be included in the conference. (It couldn’t have, given the level of anonymity of the selection process.)

If there weren’t anonymous selection procedures or if there was insufficient advertising (or if people believed they shouldn’t submit to conferences unless their submission was solicited), I can see how email nudging could lead to problematic outcomes. But the problems in those cases would be the procedure, advertising, or whatever circumstances led to the perception that unsolicited submissions were unwelcome, not the nudging emails.

(I should add that it might be the case that other conferences do treat submissions received in response to “special invitation” preferentially in otherwise anonymously refereed conferences. In these cases it seems that it’s the preferential treatment of the submissions, not the way in which they’re solicited, that is problematic. I don’t see how emailing people encouraging them to submit is itself inappropriate or that receiving such an invitation involves being benefitted in a way one should feel shame about.)Report

p
p
6 years ago

The open call is many times a sham…I was part of a conference of 16 people which was officially “open call”. I submitted and I got invited, albeit in my invitation, I was told of 12 other names who were already coming. By that time I knew of 3 people who personally told me they were invited (without submitting an application) but couldn’t make it. I am not sure what the final ratio of people who actually submitted and who just got a straight invitation was, but it was clear that it was not as “open call” as it was promoted. In any case, I also often wonder about conferences that accept “abstract” and decide on the basis of those. I wonder why not just send names and departmental affiliation as that must be what really counts… i very much doubt an abstract can say much about the quality of the presentation.Report

real_email_fake_name
real_email_fake_name
6 years ago

I’ve been to two of the three mentioned conferences and several others like them. I’m grateful for the experiences and will continue to attend such events (less indirectly: I don’t write out of sour grapes). But I have a few reservations, and I share many expressed in this thread.

One is personal. I still don’t feel quite at home among those crowds. In the main, this is because of life priorities. My research in philosophy is simply not a major factor in my sense of self-identity or self-worth (though it once did play this role to an unhealthy degree). But I believe it may well be for some folks who attend these things; in fact, in many cases (“regulars”) I’m quite sure of it. And it affects the whole atmosphere pretty deeply. So I feel a little alienated and out of place when I go to these things. The culture of exclusivity (fueled by the invite-only nature of the affair — submitted papers aside) and subtle ways of looking down on those whose priorities differ from the research-heavy norm (with a focus, of course, one what other people in the in-crowd have been thinking about lately) only deepens the alienation. This is, incidentally, a culture I see exemplified to a much lesser degree at, for example, APA meetings.

That’s mostly autobiography. A more interesting reservation goes like this: as many professional goods as possible should be distributed through mechanisms that are as anonymous as possible. Justice is not just about outcomes. It’s about process, and anonymous processes are the most just. Invitations (esp. to comment and chair) at these exclusive conferences are largely doled out through professional networks. That’s why so many MIT, Princeton, and Michigan people show up in Bellingham every summer. And professional networks are about as opposed to the ideal of anonymity as one can get. They are, literally, a matter of who you know. That’s not so good.

If professional goods weren’t at stake and this were just about some philosophers hanging out with their friends, I would feel much more comfortable with the current arrangement. But professional goods *are* at stake. We put these things on our CVs. We report them to our deans as professional activity demonstrating research excellence. And at the conferences, we talk about new ideas long before they see the light of published day. We talk about up-and-coming professional trends (and philosophers) — and so on. These are all important professional goods, and should not be ignored when thinking about how to make our discipline more just and inviting.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
6 years ago

Please, please, please keep this conversation going, wherever it leads. Like many say above, I don’t agree with everything in the original post. However, self-reflection (individually or institutionally) is a healthy practice – especially right now in professional philosophy.Report

JK
JK
6 years ago

As someone who organizes a fair amount of conferences, I would find it difficult to justify (to myself, and to my university) putting on a conference that was not open to the public. However the program is arrived at, excluding people from attending seems wrong. This is not to deny that there are alot of benefits to a small closed group discussion. But if public funding is involved, it seems important that the public receive the benefit too, at the very least in the form of videos of the talks, or in some other fashion.Report

gopher
gopher
Reply to  JK
6 years ago

Also graduate seminars. They should always be open to the public, *especially* at state universities because those are publicly funded.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
6 years ago

A lot of the comments here – and a lot of the comments on similar discussion threads recently – seem to display a lack of confidence in the intrinsic value of philosophy research. If philosophy research were not actually valuable in itself – and valuable, moreover, as part of an ongoing dialogue between many researchers that collectively improves our understanding of the problems more than we could do individually – then the whole whirl of conferences, workshops, and papers would just be a very complicated and indirect way of establishing who gets what professional prizes. At that point, there’d be a good case that equity ought to be the primary factor in invitations – but there’d be an even better case for abolishing the whole thing.

But – rightly or wrongly – professional philosophy is built on the assumption that research is intrinsically extremely valuable, and that the primary point of conferences, workshops, collections, and journals is to advance research. From that perspective, what matters is having those workshops and conferences and the like that most effectively move the research frontier forward. Paying attention to issues of diversity and equity still matters, *partly* because conferences also serve a secondary goal of distributing professional goods but *mostly* because if you’re not paying attention to these issues, you’re plausibly missing some of the best work and so doing less well than you could at advancing research goals. But when workshops are understood as primarily research activities, the main focus of organisers isn’t, and shouldn’t be, to address issues in the profession; it’s to advance our understanding of the research topics around which the workshop is constructed.

Case in point: Michael Smith @48 describes the Princeton Young Ethicists’ Network as having arisen from a desire to get young people in ethics to engage with each other’s work directly rather than just respond to a previous generation. Professor Plum @67 says “it is difficult for me to see how this could be considered a liberatory aim. The rich get richer, I guess.” And if one construe’s Smith’s aim as liberatory, that might be fair. But I read Smith’s aim not primarily to do a service to young ethicists, but to do a service to *ethics* by revitalising the discussions and moving them out of old ruts.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
Reply to  David Wallace
6 years ago

Hey, I’m 100% in favor of moving out of old ruts, and if these events helped do this, then that would be one reason in their favor.

However, I don’t see that being a result of these events. While of course there are exceptions, in general people get jobs at high prestige places because they are super smart, and also because their work resonates with the high status people who are already working in the department. Usually, work will resonate with people when it is familiar to them, i.e., they are working on the same or similar problems themselves or taking the same basic approach. Successful candidates will cite the big names in the hiring department or at least cite the same big names as the big names in their department.

So now we are in the situation Smith describes: smart young philosophers at top departments engaging too much with an older generation of philosophers (I think one could worry about the ageism in this formulation, but I’m borrowing it from previous commentators).

I agree with Smith that this is a potential problem. OK so what do we do about this? The idea that the thing to do is bring the top young philosophers together so they can engage with each other’s work strikes me as a bad solution to the problem. How does citing one another rather than citing the old big names help get philosophy out of its ruts? Remember, these are all people who got where they are, in part (and this is not a slight ) because their work is continuous with and resonates with the big names in their field.

So, if successful, we have a group of powerful philosophers citing one another in their work while still working on problems given to them by the old big names. Now if you want to get published in a “top” journal and you are outside this group of young philosophers, well it seems like you will have the most luck if your work cites these young philosophers. And so the rut deepens instead of evening out.

If we want to move philosophy out of ruts, then it seems to me that we should be attempting to widen philosophy’s scope by taking up new problems and approaches, rather than reifying the status quo.Report

Matthew Smith
Matthew Smith
6 years ago

Long post below, sorry!

Three of us worked together to start and then co-organize an annual invite-only workshop called the Midsummer Philosophy Workshop (it is invite only, although people from the hosting department and associated with the institutes that give us money are all welcome to attend). We do invite only because it is a read-ahead workshop. The read-ahead method is really effective for producing great workshops. We’ve had 3 so far.

It’s hard work putting together a good workshop. My co-organizers, Paulina Sliwa and Nick Treanor, deserve a lot of the credit for pulling the money and the logistics together for the first three so I am not even fully aware of how hard the work is and yet I am confident based on my own contributions that it takes time and effort to put it together. One reason we want it to be invite only, then, is that it would sort of suck to work really hard putting together a conference and then have people show up to 1/3 of the sessions, not really pay attention to the papers, choose to attend the famous people’s stuff more than the new people’s stuff. And so on. Invite-only, read-ahead conferences are more likely to produce great participation with far fewer people defaulting to not really paying attention to the not-so-well-known people. So, hard work + a desire for engaged and equitable participation = a preference for invite-only.

Anyway, here is our invitation/review policy, from our website:

“Submissions will be blind-reviewed by the organizing committee. Among the criteria we consider in accepting submissions are (this is not an exhaustive list): (i) quality of abstract; (ii) area coverage (e.g., so that not all papers are on metaphysics); and (iii) diversity of attendees (including but not limited to gender diversity, career-stage diversity, and geographical diversity). We will use a similar range of criteria in selecting commentators and chairs.

We are committed to hosting a high-level and diverse workshop that gives members of the discipline an opportunity to interact with each other. In the service of this aim, we may make non-blinded decisions regarding chairing and commenting. For example, in the service of career-stage diversity, we may check to ensure that we do not invite only people with tenured or tenure-track jobs.”

As you can see, we do not do pure blind reviewing, especially when it comes to chairing and commenting. Sometimes people who submit very good abstracts are not chosen to participate because, e.g., they participated before, or because of gender/geographical/career stage equity, and so on. There are other concerns. So far, we have tried not to ask people from subdisciplines that don’t fit a paper to comment on the paper. So, for example, we might not ask an epistemologist to comment on a paper in political philosophy. This adds even another consideration that pushes towards unblinding at certain stages in the decision making process.

It is difficult to organize a good workshop that meets standards of different kinds of procedural justice!

Finally, I just want to come out and say that my career has definitely benefited from being invited to BSPC. I really wish more people associated with the BSPC and the Laurie Paul conferences, and the Mountain conference, and the Princeton thing would just own up to how beneficial it has been for their careers to be a part of those networks. Seriously people! We all have so little to lose, partially because of the benefits we’ve reaped from being a part of these communities (btw, I have only attended or been invited to the BSPC).

I loved the BSPC and think that Ned Markosian, who was the main organizer, is a very admirable human being (and is a tough guy to guard on the basketball court). And, Liz Harman and the many others who contributed to making the BSPC run well also deserve praise for what they’ve done. So, I do not mean to be criticizing them personally. They deserve praise for their efforts.

But, people are kidding themselves if they think that the BSPC, and the Laurie Paul conferences, and the Mountain conferences, and the Princeton ethicist reading group don’t produce and then reproduce very stable hierarchies in the discipline. I do not think that we need Nate Silver-level data analysis to work that out. A little less defensiveness from the people who benefit from those networks would probably be good for the discussion!

One solution to all of this is to rule out “invite only” conferences or workshops. In the UK, it is very rare to have invite-only conferences. One of course needs an invitation to present at the conferences, but it is pretty rare that one needs an invitation to attend. Perhaps that is a better system. But, as I said at the outset, we would lose something from that!Report

Grad Sockpuppet
Grad Sockpuppet
Reply to  Matthew Smith
6 years ago

Alternately, you could refuse to run parallel sessions. Conferences that do this generally have very high attendance for each session. Making it read-ahead is similarly simple: tell people that’s how it is, and distribute papers ahead of time. The mechanism of making a conference invite-only is hardly the only way to achieve those aims, and it’s not clear to me that it even *does* foster those aims.

It also strikes me, however, that if you’re asking for submissions generally, rather than merely asking certain people to submit, then your conference isn’t really invite-only. But maybe I’ve misunderstood.Report

Matthew Smith
Matthew Smith
Reply to  Grad Sockpuppet
6 years ago

By “invite-only” I mean that one expresses the expectation that only people on the program – speakers, chairs, commenters, those associated with the host institution – will attend the event.

So, you can have an open call but then make the workshop/conference invite only.Report

Grad Sockpuppet
Grad Sockpuppet
Reply to  Matthew Smith
6 years ago

Huh. That’s not at all what I’d have thought it meant.

It also doesn’t seem to be what the OP meant by it, nor indeed does it seem problematic in the same way as what I took us to be discussing. So, kudos, I guess.Report

anon
anon
Reply to  Grad Sockpuppet
6 years ago

If it wasn’t what the OP meant, it’s not clear why they mention the BSPC, which works exactly like that.Report

Lynne Tirrell
Lynne Tirrell
6 years ago

I took a key point of the OP to be that in organizing conferences, organizers who issue invitations should think beyond their first thoughts, because that initial short list will likely include familiar names and help the rich get richer (so to speak). Philosophy has very deep benches! So go to the benches and let’s play the whole team, obviously not all at once, but across the season. How does this metaphor cash out? Think beyond those teaching in the elite or we’ll known grad programs. Look for people you don’t already know of, and talk with them about what they are doing. Make sure there is diversity of ranks, invite someone unexpected, use anonymous review when moving beyond invited only, etc. Transparency is not the issue. Broader inclusion is the issue. And, look for people who have something new to say, or people who could not only benefit the conversation but also benefit from inclusion, the way we would in guiding a class discussion. I’m reminded of something Anthony Appiah said (years ago) in a talk at U Mass Boston, that his idea, of a democratic classroom is that the discussion isn’t over until everyone has participated. (Sorry, Anthony, if I am mangling this.) Obviously that’s impossible with a large group and a 50 minute hour, but the ideal is one worth striving for. We need more voices, greater inclusion, not only for our students, but as colleagues as well. If this becomes an operative norm, then the feelings that spurred the original post might well subside.Report

Carolyn
Carolyn
Reply to  Lynne Tirrell
6 years ago

Many of the points made here are helpful, and I am in agreement with the OP that diversity can be challenging to achieve, while I also think it is crucial for the health of the discipline and for the value of our research. Following up on these ideas and on Lynne’s point, I have a suggestion for those who don’t have the time/resources for the anonymized review process but want to try to achieve a wider diversity: you can use PhilPapers search function and Excel’s consolidate and sort functions to determine who has published more than two papers (say) in a given area in a given time frame. I did this for my area (attention) and was surprised at some of the results. I suspect that even experts in relatively narrow fields would be surprised at all that is being published in their fields. (See Philosop(her) for more details: http://politicalphilosopher.net/2014/11/28/featured-philosop-her-carolyn-dicey-jennings/). Of course, this method isn’t perfect. I would be interested in other techniques that philosophers have come up with to tackle this problem.Report

Bharath Vallabha
Bharath Vallabha
6 years ago

Thanks to the author for a great post. Here is one thing I take away from it: right now no one – including ethicists, political philosophers, feminists, pluralists – has any idea what an equitable academic philosophy looks like. This is not a put down of anyone, but a claim of our collective ignorance, like that we don’t know how to cure cancer or how consciousness is related to the body.
What there are many disparate groups trying to improve things in a piece-meal way. But each piece-meal improvement (a conference with more minorities along a few dimensions) also reenforces a whole bunch of other practices which are clearly inequitable. Michael Smith’s defense of the Princeton reading group is a great example. It sounds like a sincere attempt at, in his words, “helping to tear down a hierarchy”. But the overall inequity in academic philosophy doesn’t consist of, say, a 1000 independent hierarchies, such that each can be isolated and teared downed one at a time. The hierarchies overlap in an intricate web, where it is possible to move one rock from here to there while leaving the entire edifice mainly as it is.

So how to make progress on the web as a whole? The author’s suggestion of more transparency re publications, etc. is a good start. But also what is needed is more honest and bracing Nietzschean realism about how power and knowledge, inequality and excellence go together. My sense is that those in prestiguous positions are covering over, and hiding from public view, their privileges – not with bad intentions, but probably from guilt, or discomfort at their own institutional luck. Whatever the cause, this covering over, which often goes with the rhetoric of being a part of “the cause”, is as bad as when the inequalities are covered over by the rhetoric of meritocracy. In a sense everyone knows the structures are deeply unequal, that this is because in the past things were even more unapologetically unequal, and that this isn’t going to magically change in the next generation or two. If someone is in a cushy position in academia, then they should enjoy it; after all, I am not homeless, and I am enjoying that. But there is no point pretending that the privileges one gets to enjoy can be made up for by making it open to everyone. That’s impossible. The privileged believe the feel good story so they don’t feel bad themselves, and the majority believe it to keep up hope that they can climb higher. Either way, the feel good story creates more complacency than real change. If the people with privileges are more open about their privileges, that might rile others up enough to create deeper change.Report

Meghan Sullivan
6 years ago

I’ve attended the BSPC (starting near the end of grad school, when I sent in a paper and went through the anonymous review process) and Ranch conferences (once I was established in my job at Notre Dame). These have been excellent conferences, and they absolutely benefited my research. I also feel confident that the organizers are doing great work to put together programs that are a good balance of (1) sharing the highest quality philosophy papers, (2) inclusive and supportive, and (3) small enough so the participants and the organizers have a chance to have in-depth discussions. I am really grateful that these conferences exist, and I think a lot of good philosophical work has been developed because of these conferences.

I’ve also organized a few conferences myself, and with Jon Jacobs and Tim Pawl started up the Midwest Annual Workshops in Metaphysics. MAWM speakers are invited by the host institution’s organizers, in accordance with the policies we list on our website. Attendance is open to any faculty, graduate student or postdoc who wants to register and come. Putting together conferences is hard, thankless work. I am sympathetic with many of the posters who want there to be more opportunities for great work to be showcased. But rather than just complain anonymously on blogs, I might recommend that some of the posters organize a conference of their own and create the opportunities they think are missing in the profession. That is what Ned did when he started up the BSPC at Western years ago. That’s what we are trying to do with the MAWMs

Finally, while faculty are often in a better position to organize things, graduate students certainly can as well. I joined the MAWM founders when I was still in grad school. And I have been to some fantastic workshops put on by grad students and postdocs. There is clearly a lot of demand for good conferences with a variety of formats and invitation processes—so get out there and organize one.Report

Sacco
Sacco
6 years ago

” But rather than just complain anonymously on blogs, I might recommend that some of the posters organize a conference of their own and create the opportunities they think are missing in the profession. ”

While Meghan Sullivan tentatively recommends that posters create the opportunities that they think are missing in the profession, I wholeheartedly encourage such posters to do so at least to the extent that it is possible for them. Note, to cancel some untoward implications, that encouraging people to create opportunities to the extent that they can is not to endorse the status quo of philosophical cliques. As someone who spent a decent amount of time in other professional circles before philosophy, I have to say that, on the whole, philosophers are some of the most passive or deferential people I’ve ever met. Many of the genuine complaints people have about this profession would go away if, in general, philosophers were to be adopt a more DIY, or dare I say, entrepreneurial attitude, toward the profession, at least, again, to the extent that it is possible for them to do so. Doing so wouldn’t solve everything, but it would be a good start.

Take ownership of your professional lives, since no one is going to do it for you.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
Reply to  Sacco
6 years ago

Well, not everyone works in institutions that provide funds for putting on conferences, so that’s one barrier. Second, not everyone has social relationships with philosophers working in their area, so that’s another barrier. Third, no matter how hard they try, someone from a low status department will not be able to create the same professional “good” as someone from a high status department; only people at Oxford can create the Oxford Ethics Circle, or whatever.

To claim that these opportunities are open to all who are willing to put in hard work strikes me as naive at best.Report

Gopher
Gopher
Reply to  Professor Plum
6 years ago

Only Western Washington can create the Bellingham Summer Philosophy Conference.Report

Michael Cholbi
Michael Cholbi
6 years ago

I agree that the original post identifies a genuine problem with our field, but I’m not sure that we have an adequate diagnosis of why the problem arises. I offer a two-word diagnosis: graduate school.

Philosophy relies far too heavily on where one received one’s final academic degree in determining reputation and prestige. It is in grad school when individuals are initiated into these professional networks, and many of the events and opportunities about which suspicions were raised in earlier comments seem to be dominated by individuals whose ties are established via graduate education (A was B’s student, C attended grad school with D, E spent a semester studying with F at this program, etc.).

I’m not suggesting that academic training makes no difference to the kind of philosopher one becomes. Nor am I suggesting that where one attended grad school should never make a difference in how we evaluate a person’s credentials or potential (indeed, I don’t see how it couldn’t make a difference in hiring junior faculty or awarding post-docs). But I am aware that philosophy is much more obsessed with graduate training as a mark of ability than other disciplines are. The neverending focus on the PGR and its legitimacy is an indication of this obsession.

So if we are serious about reducing the “clubbiness” of academic philosophy and reaching a more equitable distribution of professional opportunities, I think we have to address the clubs that make the most difference: graduate programs. (That said, I have no good ideas on how to change the discipline’s culture and biases.)Report

Mm
Mm
6 years ago

Bspc was hosted by a philosophy department in a state school with no phd or masters program. It was run by faculty who teach a 3/3/3 load.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
Reply to  Mm
6 years ago

I once submitted a paper to one of the closed-doors conferences discussed above. My paper wasn’t accepted, but it was later published in a very prominent journal. I took the rejection with equanimity, and happened to see one of the organizers of the conference a few days after getting the rejection. I hadn’t realized at the time that the conference was an elitist one, so I mentioned to the organizer, “Hey, looks like my paper didn’t get accepted. Ah well, I’ll come to the conference anyway! Looks good.” The organizer grinned and said, “Actually, no, you can’t attend. It’s only open to people who get their papers accepted.”

I have to admit, my first reaction was to say, “Fuck you!” I mean, look, I get it that not everyone gets into every conference even if his or her paper is good. It’s just the nature of conferences. and you can’t take these things personally. There are only so many slots, and the organizers have several desiderata they want to satisfy. Fine. But to take that farther in the way these conferences do is a lot like saying, “Not only do we not want your paper on our program, we don’t want to hear your comments or even have you around. We feel that your presence at the conference and at the sessions would make the whole event less good. So you’re not welcome.” Actually, it’s exactly that.

And the next reaction I had was, what the hell kind of person would think that this is a good way to run a conference? What sort of values does such a person have? I thought of other conferences I had attended. They were open to everyone. People could have walked in off the street and attended sessions, for all anyone knew. Somehow, these other conferences were just fine despite the fact that any number of ‘undesirables’ could have walked in the door. I’ve never heard anyone at any conference or colloquium say, “I wish the riff-raff of the profession had not been allowed in” or anything like that. And if I ever did hear someone say that, you can bet I’d have a strong response. I smiled and said OK, but I went away thinking that the organizers were jerks. Keep in mind that that’s not sour grapes for not getting my paper in. I genuinely wanted to go after my paper was rejected. I just got rubbed the wrong way by the elitism. Glad I’m not the only one.Report

Rachel McKinnon
Rachel McKinnon
Reply to  Anonymous
6 years ago

See, one could have your reaction, or one could not. I was invited one year to submit to BPSC, but my paper wasn’t accepted. However, the paper was published (relatively as-is) in a good journal. No sour grapes. I figured that they had very good papers to select from, and there were reasons mine wasn’t selected. I think they have good reasons for running the conference the way they do. You’ve had pretty much the exact opposite reaction I’ve had.

Just one data point among many.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
Reply to  Rachel McKinnon
6 years ago

Rachel, please read my comment again. You’ve missed the entire point and got my comment backward somehow. I was stressing that I DIDN’T mind that my paper wasn’t accepted, and that it WASN’T a sour grapes feeling. The bad reaction was ONLY to the organizers going beyond rejecting my paper (which is of course fine) and saying further that, because they rejected it, I shouldn’t even be allowed to go to their conference because it would go better for me not to be there even to learn from and make helpful comments on others papers. That’s a fucked up way of thinking. Reject whatever papers you want, but don’t lock philosophers or any other non-disruptive people out of the conferences you organize.

A good general rule, to summarize what someone else said earlier: it’s one thing to meet other philosophers in private to talk shop and review each other’s papers or ideas. Make those private meetings as exclusive as you like. But if the organizers or presenters are putting the event on their CVs, or otherwise getting direct professional credit or funding for it, like a conference, then it’s not a legitimately private event. In those cases, no matter how choosy the committee is in selecting presenters, the doors must be open to anyone who wants to participate.

I’m still surprised this is a conversation we even need to have.Report

Rachel McKinnon
Rachel McKinnon
Reply to  Anonymous
6 years ago

No, I read your comment the right way the first time. I’m saying that I didn’t have your reaction–the opposite in fact–to not being allowed to go to a conference, since my paper wasn’t accepted.

You wrote:

““Not only do we not want your paper on our program, we don’t want to hear your comments or even have you around. We feel that your presence at the conference and at the sessions would make the whole event less good. So you’re not welcome.” Actually, it’s exactly that.”

No, it’s exactly NOT like that. In fact, maybe they would have loved it if you had asked to comment (or chair), even though your paper wasn’t accepted. Or even if they didn’t think your area of specialization was well matched to comment, maybe they still think highly of you and your work.

You drew an absurdly hasty conclusion, and one that bred resentment. That’s not good.

And here you write: “I shouldn’t even be allowed to go to their conference because it would go better for me not to be there even to learn from and make helpful comments on others papers. ” Seriously. Stop drawing that absurd inference.Report

Rachel McKinnon
Rachel McKinnon
Reply to  Anonymous
6 years ago

Perhaps you haven’t read some of the reasons why the conferences are kept small: they’re pre-read conferences, and that’s facilitated by keeping attendance small. And they keep attendance small–thinking primarily of the BSPC here–by restricting it to those who are presenting, commenting, or chairing. That’s a *good reason* to keep it small, because they want it to be a workshop where everyone pre-reads the papers. It’s a trade-off, because, sure, some interested parties might be excluded who would have pre-read everything and been an wonderful participant. But it’s a pretty decent policy to achieve a variety of competing aims.

You’ve had a very bad, and I think distressing, reaction to this style of conference. There are plenty of other opportunities. I think our discipline is better for having conferences like the BSPC in it, not worse. That conference doesn’t exist to the exclusion of other conferences.

P.S. I think it’s bad form to suggest that someone didn’t read a comment carefully. Maybe you didn’t read my comment carefully.Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
Reply to  Anonymous
6 years ago

In their original comment, Anonymous wrote: “I hadn’t realized at the time that the conference was an elitist one, so I mentioned to the organizer, “Hey, looks like my paper didn’t get accepted. Ah well, I’ll come to the conference anyway! Looks good.” The organizer grinned and said, “Actually, no, you can’t attend. It’s only open to people who get their papers accepted.””

If that’s what was said to them, it would be too much, I think, to expect them to then follow up by asking if they could comment on a paper or chair a session.

I agree that for a pre-read workshop style conference, the benefits you can achieve through invite-only can be a great enough good that it outweighs other considerations, but just as another data point, Logos, an annual philosophy of religion conference at Notre Dame, is pre-read as well (the sessions begin with the responding comments followed by a short reply from the paper author before Q&A begins) but the last few years that’s been achieved through open pre-registration rather than limited to invitation, and I think it’s worked really well.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
Reply to  Mm
6 years ago

Le sigh. Do you honestly take this to establish that anyone, anywhere could found a high prestige conference or “network” if they just put their noses to the grindstone? I don’t know the details of this conference or its organizer, but clearly he had support ($$$) from his provost, and this is simply not something everyone has access to.

I can’t decide if I am more troubled by: (a) the powerful who with their impressively bad arguments have seemed to convince themselves that there is nothing wrong with activities that create and promote unfair hierarchies, or ( b) the powerless who seem eager to accept these weak arguments in the hope that maybe someday they will come out on top, or (c) the powerless 2.0 who are happy to blame all the current problems in philosophy on “the feminists” and unselfconsciously claim that poor white men are the most oppressed group in philosophy, all the while ignoring that the groups under discussion in this post were created by white men.

It is just like American domestic politics, I guess: we can’t have genuine reform because the haves cling tightly to what they have and rationalize existing power structures, and the have-nots, self-interest be damned, defend the current distributions, deluded by the false hope that they, through hard work and determination, will escape their situation.

I would have hoped philosophers would be better than this.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
Reply to  Professor Plum
6 years ago

The above was supposed to be in response to MmReport

Anon Research Faculty
Anon Research Faculty
Reply to  Professor Plum
6 years ago

I think Mm was responding to your remarks,

“no matter how hard they try, someone from a low status department will not be able to create the same professional “good” as someone from a high status department; only people at Oxford can create the Oxford Ethics Circle, or whatever. ”

The fact that the Bellingham conference did create a much greater professional “good” than any conference or circle that Oxford has done demonstrates, decisively, that you were wrong. Instead of your patronizing, diversionary reply, you might try admitting that you were wrong.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
Reply to  Anon Research Faculty
6 years ago

I cited three reasons for why it is naive to claim that disenfranchised should stop whining and simply create their own opportunities through hard work and determination.

How, exactly, was my reply patronizing or diversionary?Report

Anon Research Faculty
Anon Research Faculty
Reply to  Professor Plum
6 years ago

I cited three reasons for why it is naive to claim that disenfranchised should stop whining and simply create their own opportunities through hard work and determination.

Indeed you did, and then one person pointed out that one of the reasons was simply wrong. But instead of admitting it, you scolded that person.

How, exactly, was my reply patronizing or diversionary?

Patronizing:
1. Calling the arguments of others “impressively bad arguments” without bothering to say what’s bad about them.
2. Imputing to powerless people who disagree with you a motive that requires self-deception (“in the hope that maybe someday they will come out on top”) instead of taking them at their word.

Diversionary, in that instead of addressing the point that Mm actually made, and admitting that you were mistaken, you accused them of bad motives, without evidence.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
Reply to  Professor Plum
6 years ago

Dear Anon Research Faculty,
If you’d like a refresher as to why I think the arguments defending the status quo are impressively bad, please see my comment from 8/14, 9:54. Since you are such a fan of careful argument as opposed to dismissive rhetoric, I’d be curious to hear your response to what I wrote there.

Also, since you haven’t answered my post about differential access to funding, I will take it that you have conceded that point.Report

JDRox
JDRox
6 years ago

I don’t know to what extent the objection in the OP is really about “identity politics”. There are really cool events that some of us just don’t get invited to, and that sucks! Of course, life sucks, and maybe that’s the right response to people like me who are jealous of those who get to go to these cool events. (I admit I’m jealous, pure and simple.) But I myself would appreciate a wee bit more compassion from those for whom life doesn’t suck in this way.

That being said, there (evidently) is a real identity politics aspect. It is argued on Facebook that one important reason for not making cool events (like, e.g., BSPC) open to the public is that they will then be “overwhelmingly male”. BSPC, evidently, has had 50%+ women in attendance for a while now. But if *interest* in these events is “overwhelmingly male”–say 90% to make the math easy–that means that to get a 50/50 distribution of participants there is a 50% “acceptance rate” for women (50% of the interested women are invited to come) and a 5.5% acceptance rate for men (making some simplifying assumptions). This sort of sucks if you’re a guy that doesn’t quite make the cut, and especially if you’re a guy graduate student worried about getting a job etc. Again, life sucks, and maybe this is completely justified in the name of equity. But a little more compassion for such dudes seems in order (more than I’ve seen on Facebook at least). Some of these hapless dudes are pretty nice guys! Like, with beards and feelings and everything!Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  JDRox
6 years ago

Some more compassion is definitely appropriate. There is some black-and-white thinking that goes on according to which if affirmative action is a good thing, then it doesn’t hurt any innocent people. Rules, even good rules, are generally going to hurt at least some innocent people and not acknowledging that is dangerous. It is a bad time to be a male philosopher looking for a tenure-track job and yet it seems taboo to admit that, let alone show sympathy for males in this position. There’s even a reluctance to admit that they are being discriminated against at all and that some discrimination is justified for the greater good.Report

Anomnomnom
Anomnomnom
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
6 years ago

The fact that male philosophers aren’t benefiting from their maleness as much as they used to doesn’t indicate, at all, that it’s a “bad time to be a male philosopher.” (This claim actually sounds a little ridiculous to me.) It’s just not as good as it used to be.Report

harry b
Reply to  Anomnomnom
6 years ago

Or, you might think, it is better than it used to be, since the environment one inhabits is more diverse and intellectually alive.Report

Greg Littmann
Greg Littmann
Reply to  harry b
6 years ago

Nobody said that it’s a “bad time to be a male philosopher.” Fogies like me with tenure are doing just great. It is a bad time to be a male philosopher looking for a tenure track job. The fact that things are great in the profession for males like me doesn’t help some other chap on the job market who might have to leave the profession entirely.Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

Aren’t these semi-public Facebook discussions just a continuation of such cliques by a different (virtual) means? You hear about so-and-so’s oh so interesting post second hand if at all. Still, nice to see such insular networks are keeping up with the technology…Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
6 years ago

In the spirit of honoring JDRox’s comment while also respecting the opinions of those who reject the thrust of OP, Justin, I wonder if you could solicit a post from someone with experience organizing conferences with the aim of offering practical advice on how to do just that. I take it that if an anonymous graduate student is writing in because they feel excluded from important professional networks, they might also lack the kinds of mentoring resources necessary to follow, e.g., Sullivan’s suggestion without further information.Report

Anonymouse
Anonymouse
6 years ago

I think Nietzsche had the number of a lot of the commenters here when he said, in GM I 15, “These weaklings! – they intend to become powerful as well; there is no doubt about it, some time their kingdom also must come […]”Report

Shelley Tremain
Shelley Tremain
6 years ago

I ‘d like to encourage readers of this thread to go to the Discrimination and Disadvantage blog on Wednesday, August 19th at 8am EST for the fifth installment of the Dialogues on Disability series of interviews with disabled philosophers. My guest for this installment is one of about 40 Indigenous philosophers in North America (as well as disabled) and makes a number of provocative observations about some of the issues raised in the thread. The Discrimination and Disadvantage blog is here: http://philosophycommons.typepad.com/disability_and_disadvanta/2015/08/dialogues-on-disability-wednesday-august-19th-at-8-am-est.html.Report

Dan Dennis
Dan Dennis
6 years ago

Hey Nonny Mouse on August 15, 2015 at 6:42 pm says “some discrimination is justified for the greater good”

This is wrong on two points.

1) It is wrong to discriminate against anyone – male or female, black or white, able or disabled. Each person should be treated as an end in himself/herself. It is wrong to use people as a mere means to achieving some goal.
2) The greater good – looking at society as a whole – is promoted by producing the best philosophy possible and by educating students as well as possible. This is most likely to be achieved if those selecting individuals for jobs, PhD and undergraduate places focus solely on selecting those with the greatest philosophical ability and teaching ability. Doing otherwise is bad for philosophy and bad for society.Report

felonius screwtape
felonius screwtape
6 years ago

as i read through this thread, the first thought that i am left with is that, although i still think Philosophy Matters, leaving professional academic philosophy as a career will prove to have been a good choice. because… oy … you people.

the second thought i had was that no one has really mentioned the costs associated with these cliquey clubby conferences. where does the money come from ? various departments and colleges chip in, okay — but where does that money come from ? and if people who attend these conferences are not paying out of pocket, and are instead billing the R&D budgets in their departments, then where does *that* money come from ? in an age of skyrocketing tuition costs, cutbacks, layoffs, increasing dependency on poorly paid adjunct labor, etc., is using university money to hold these cliquey clubby conferences really the best and most judicious way to use money that ultimately comes from student tuition, endowments, and (in the case of state universities) state budgetary contributions ?

and, what is the purpose of these kinds of conferences? is it *really* to exchange ideas in an idyllic agora-like atmosphere ? or is add another line to a CV, with a mention of how elite the conference is, thus raising one’s academic Klout score ? given today’s communication technologies, open-source platforms, is it really necessary or wise to direct a lot of institutional money so that a lucky few can go hear a few papers in between hikes in the mountains or perambulations through the remote Italian countryside ? put in more practical terms : how much could each adjunct’s pay be raised if the elected few didn’t have their “working vacations” funded by institutions?Report

v
v
Reply to  felonius screwtape
6 years ago

the last of these is an important question–thanks for raising it again–and this gets back to some issues that Prof. Wallace was raising. If it really was plausible that these kinds of conferences are crucial for producing good research in the field, that would tell in favor of keeping them around. And I do think that there is absolutely a place for conferences with invited speakers on particular topics–bringing together the top researchers on symmetry, or whatever. I don’t think OP was challenging that. Even in those cases I am still quite skeptical that there is any reason to limit ATTENDANCE. But if there were an academic reason to do so—say, so that people wouldn’t keep asking stupid questions about physics—so be it. I just don’t believe that, insofar as the conferences like the ones mentioned in the OP (all general (or at least very broad) philosophy conferences, some of which come with specific requests that submitted papers be widely accessible) produce good research, this depends in any way on their being closed door. At least no one has made a good argument for this, as far as I can see, and I would want to see one to be convinced that these are anything but ways to build and maintain (non-merit-based) hierarchies in the profession. (Some people have said that keeping these conferences closed facilitates the read-only format. Why? You can have a read-only conference open to the public. I have been to EXCELLENT conferences of that format. You just say: ‘you have to read the paper if you want to come’. It works exactly like closed-door read-only conferences—except without the little frisson that comes from excluding people.)Report

Jon Cogburn
6 years ago

What we do is puny compared to what’s going on in your local convention center or in Vegas every night of the week. As long as private industry continues to decide (for whatever reasons) that conferences are a good thing, academia will too. Our conference-going really is nothing compared to theirs.

I wish someone would write a history of the academic conference. They don’t occur in academic novels until the 1980s. David Lodge’s early work is almost entirely a gentle satire of the conference scene, which he clearly presents as this weird new thing. Prior to that, academic novels give you successful academics living for a year as visiting scholars in other universities and not yet or unsuccessful academics contingently employed and trying to get something permanent. I suspect that in the 1980s academia was just following the general cultural trend towards conferences, a trend that itself only followed airline travel becoming vastly cheaper.

Re: Felonius Screwtape (howdy!) – I’m sorry if I misunderstand your gedankenexperiment, but this does seem relevant to me: if philosophers unilaterally withdrew from conference culture (again, which is not primarily an academic thing), it would not effect adjunctification at all. If all philosophy professors unilaterally took pay cuts I guess the administrators could redistribute the money to adjuncts. But they wouldn’t.

On the other hand, as a Calvinist I try to feel at least a little bit guilty about my own privilege. Nobody (Calvinist or not) wants to be that moderately wealthy uncle at Thanksgiving dinner defensively talking about how he earned every cent. I worry that some of the conference go-ers above might sound that way to people who are un(der-)employed through no fault of their own. Maybe I’m misreading the anger though.Report

JPM
JPM
Reply to  Jon Cogburn
6 years ago

“As long as private industry continues to decide (for whatever reasons) that conferences are a good thing, academia will too”

Yes – and that is precisely the bizarre thing in all of this! Why on earth should academia follow what private industry thinks is good for itself!?! Other than the fact that more and more, academia is controlled by the interests of private industry. One question: were conferences as ubiquitous when private industry was largely out of academia (and when, precisely, was that)? So yes – the “history of the academic conference” is a really interesting, and potentially useful, idea.Report

felonius screwtape
felonius screwtape
Reply to  Jon Cogburn
6 years ago

my fairly obvious point, jon, is that the money has to come from somewhere. barring donations from private individuals or institutions such as, say, the Getty or Ford Foundations, then it comes from the universities. and where do they–especially state schools like yours–get their money? not from the Koch brothers. so institutions make decisions to direct monies derived in part or in whole from tuition payments made by students–who will go in to debt for twenty years to pay off their loans–and from state subsidies made by taxpayers to send an elite few to cliquey clubby conferences (let’s call these 3Cs henceforth) that typically lack both transparency and diversity, and are often closed (a fourth C) to the uninvited non-elite. is supporting 4Cs–which ultimately maintains and benefits an elite and exclusive class of bourgeois individuals who are already enjoying an excess of privilege–the best way to spend that money? could those monies be redirected elsewhere in a manner that benefits a broader constituency while still pursuing the university’s mission to advance knowledge? of course you’re probably right : redirected monies would probably be used to increase the salaries of upper-level administrators and hire more minions for them, and not to the benefit of adjuncts or anyone else. convincing us peons that the conference culture / system is a necessary good is, after civili society, perhaps the second greatest trick that the rich and played on the poor. frankly i don’t understand why more people aren’t enraged with blood coming out their whatevers by this profligate and abusive scam. maybe john oliver can get on it.

and p.s. we all know what (not who) gets banged the most at these conferences.Report

Jon Cogburn
Reply to  Jon Cogburn
6 years ago

I’m sorry, but F.S.’s point just sounds like Peter Singer’s argument to me. Yes I should have given money to famine relief instead of purchasing a Zagnut bar this afternoon. I agree with FS that it’s an obvious point (at least since Singer made it), but it’s such a general one that I still can’t see what it has to do specifically with any of the issues above. One could just as easily (and with just as little justification) use those considerations to tell adjuncts to shut up since they live in luxury compared to the global poor.Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
6 years ago

Helen De Cruz was kind enough to put together a blog post with advice on how to organize a conference: http://philosopherscocoon.typepad.com/blog/2015/08/how-to-organize-a-philosophy-conference-or-workshop.htmlReport

Anon
Anon
Reply to  Kathryn Pogin
6 years ago

“Whom to invite” the suggestion is: “You should invite people you believe will be beneficial for the goals of the conference. Sometimes these will be senior, prominent philosophers, sometimes they can be junior. Sometimes senior people decline but suggest other potential speakers (typical more junior). I’ve had this twice, and twice followed a suggestion. In both cases was very pleased with the person they suggested.” But isn’t that exactly what this whole discussion has been against? Senior faculty anointing junior faculty in this way?Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
Reply to  Anon
6 years ago

I’m not sure offering suggestions is tantamount to anointing, and I actually thought this discussion was more specifically regarding whether or not conferences should not be closed only to those who are invited — something that doesn’t seem to conflict with offering ideas for speakers if you are unavailable yourself to take up an invited spot, but do you have an alternative suggestion as to how one should select invited speakers/commenters/chairs? Or do you think no conference should have any invited participants? If the latter, do you have ideas for selecting commentators and session chairs?Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

Have a list: If your first choice person can’t make it, then choose your second choice, and if they can’t make it, your third etc. This just seems perfectly straightforward. So I don’t know why you’ve set me up for a dichotomy between (a) rely on people’s suggestions or (b) no invited participants.

Unlike your reading of the above, I do think the point was to not rely on recommendations, taps on the shoulder so to speak, and instead invite those people who you, as conference organiser, determine to be most appropriate given their published or presented work.

Why are such suggestions problematic? Well:

1. If person A can’t make it, you’ll invite person B or person C, who are both equally good. Person A can’t make it, but says: ‘You should really invite person B, they are fantastic!’ Well, all of a sudden the choice between person B and person C doesn’t look so equal. But it should be.

2. Person A is highly influential, and either explicitly or implicitly has dangled a ‘I can’t make this conference, but perhaps another time?’ And here you are, running the risk of ignoring their suggestion if you choose person C…

I really think that the risk of these kinds biases should removed from conference invitations. And that is why I am uncomfortable with these kinds of suggestions. You find ‘anointment’ problematic. Well, what about ‘appointment’: haven’t the senior faculty essentially ‘appointed’ the junior faculty in their place?Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
Reply to  Anon
6 years ago

Three points in response and then a request: (1) Well, what followed after the passage you quoted is: “For speakers, you don’t need to be restricted to your network; looking at PhilPapers might give you inspiration about who wrote what on a recent topic,” so I didn’t take the advice to be that you should necessarily rely on suggestions (since doing so is more likely to restrict you to your network), but rather that sometimes this is a nice way of finding speakers you hadn’t thought of yourself. (2) No, I don’t think this is equivalent to appointing either, as someone need not follow such a suggestion when it’s offered to them. (3) I agree we should mitigate the role of bias, but often whose work we’re familiar with in the first place is itself, in large part, a function of bias — following the suggestion of someone else to find work that you might not otherwise be familiar with, then, could function to undercut bias depending on the particulars.

And the request: Would you write a comment on Helen’s post so that way folks who aren’t following this discussion but will look at that post could be aware of your suggestion too?Report

Beneficiary
Beneficiary
6 years ago

I’ll apologize ahead of time for not reading this whole thread, but I want to comment from the perspective of a grad student who has the experience of being invited to participate in a few things because the people who organized those things seemed to like me for some reason.

Now, the things I was invited to participate in were really good for me, and I’m grateful that I got a chance to do them. But to be honest, every single time, I was a bit confused as to what I had done professionally to earn those opportunities.

I ended up feeling a little nihilistic about the whole discipline for a while. It sort of seemed to me like nothing I did mattered, and that people just wanted me around because I was funny, or enthusiastic, or supportive, or something.

I’m not sure what else to say about that for now. So I guess back to you, Everyone.Report

anonymous17
anonymous17
6 years ago

This might be off topic, but I thought I would share a recent experience I had with conference organizing, since it touches on the idea of privilege. Here is the story: The initial list of speakers for our conference included some very prominent philosophers, real mega-stars. A number of them confirmed they were coming well in advance, including one, who also committed to coming, but then s/he would check back from time to time to make sure that the other mega-stars were still coming too. At one point a few people had to withdraw. At which point the first mega-star, upon hearing this, also withdrew.

From the perspective of planning the program, it would have been much better to have gotten a straight up yes or no. And then if the speaker has to cancel, fine. But this behavior left us all feeling mildly degraded. As if what we had to offer, on our own, was not good enough. (The program committee was a mix of senior and junior philosophers.)Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
6 years ago

“If person A can’t make it, you’ll invite person B or person C, who are both equally good. Person A can’t make it, but says: ‘You should really invite person B, they are fantastic!’ Well, all of a sudden the choice between person B and person C doesn’t look so equal. But it should be. ”

This isn’t a realistic description of the situation. A more realistic version is:

“You know enough about the area in question to rank person A as better than person B and also better than person C. You don’t know enough to form a preferences between B and C, so left to yourself, you’d choose between them at random if you can’t get person A. Person A can’t make it, but says: ‘You should really invite person B, they are fantastic!’ Well, all of a sudden the choice between person B and person C doesn’t look so equal. And rightly so. Because now somebody who ex hypothesi you rate very highly in the area has given you their informed opinion on the relative ranking of B and C. Other things being equal, you should yourself now rank B as higher than C.”Report

Anon
Anon
Reply to  David Wallace
6 years ago

“And rightly so. Because now somebody who ex hypothesi you rate very highly in the area has given you their informed opinion on the relative ranking of B and C.” Really? When a big-shot says: “Look, I can’t make it, but you should really invite person B, they are fantastic!” How often should that be read as:

“Look, I can’t make it, but you should really invite person B, they are better than C” (when neither you nor they have mentioned C)

As opposed to:

“Look, I can’t make it, but you should really invite my mate B, they are fantastic!”

Which they very well might be. No-one’s questioning that they are fantastic. Just no more fantastic than person C, who isn’t big-shot’s mate…

Which goes, I think, to the heart of the matter: You think suggestions by senior faculty about junior faculty are well intentioned attempts at de novo ranking for your benefit by an expert in the field. I fear I, and perhaps most people on this thread, would regard such suggestions less favourably, along the lines of “I know someone who would be a good fit for this conference”, the operative part being the “I know someone…”Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Anon
6 years ago

All I can say is that when I make suggestions, the operative part is the “a good fit” bit. Perhaps there are people out there who recommend their friends while believing that someone they’re not friends with would be a better participant, but it’s not behaviour I’ve come across myself.Report

kv
kv
6 years ago

Warning: this may sound highly conservative, in a traditional way.

The Ergo experience–referred to in the original post–clearly shows that even the best actual approximation to an unbiased, truly triple blind, clique-free refereeing system does not result in an equal number of male and female authors (not even close).

Personally, I have found a good number of comments I have received from prestigious journals very bad indeed, showing clear signs of not having read the submission with minimum care or charity, only looking for reasons to reject it; still, I think that the profession is healthy on the whole. Take the APA new journal–again mentioned in the original post–for instance. Remove the names of those “extremely well-known philosophers,” and just read the papers. Most of them are of very high quality, if not excellent. Quality matters, and I think many of these are much better than many papers written by the young and the underrepresented.

I, for one, like diversity. But I also think that the main objective of professional philosophy (with all its conferences, journals, etc.) is to do first-rate research. I do not want to see a watered-down version of The Philosophical Review or Ethics just to have more diversity.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
Reply to  kv
6 years ago

@kv:
OK, but who, exactly, is advocating that we accept watered-down journal articles or less competent conference participants in the name of diversity? Instead, the issue seems to be, what counts as philosophical merit? Sometimes, work that is familiar or work that is being done by one’s friends or work that is being done by people at elite institutions might seem to have more philosophical merit than it actually has. Conversely, work being done by people at low status institutions, or work that is unfamiliar can have a great deal of unrecognized philosophical merit.

When it comes to conferences, we might think that diversity is important not simply as a matter of justice, but also because people of diverse backgrounds may bring diverse points of view to the discussion, thereby moving it forward in interesting ways.

At the risk of sounding patronizing, I must say that my 19 year-old ethics students seem to have a more philosophically sophisticated understanding of affirmative action than many people who have contributed to this thread. While some of my students conclude (wrongly, in my personal opinion) that affirmative action is mortally pernicious, they don’t tend to make the same sort of mistakes as I regularly see in these threads (e.g., arguing against strawmen or insisting that affirmative action is just “reverse discrimination” without any defense or explanation, etc.).

I would encourage everyone interested in the topic to take a look at some of the standard essays on the ethics of affirmative action. I wouldn’t jump into a discussion about, say, the philosophy of physics without doing some background reading, and I don’t think it is unfair to expect that commentators on professional philosophy blogs do the same before they jump into some debate about feminism or affirmative action.Report

kv
kv
Reply to  Professor Plum
6 years ago

To Professor Plum:

I do not know much about conferences, and I do not quite follow your last two paragraphs either; so I will focus on the first.

The original post mentions the new, high-profile APA journal, saying that of its first series of articles, 43 per cent were written by extremely well-known philosophers, and asks how this could happen if the refereeing system is really triple blind. In reply to this, I suggested that the readers not look at the names and make a judgement of the quality–I myself find the majority of those papers very good indeed. So if quality is our number-one priority, I see nothing missing in that journal.

Professor Plum thinks that more diversity should be introduced to peer-reviewed journals. I wonder how that could be done without actually giving up anonymous refereeing. Ditto for Professor Plum’s other worry, namely that the work done by people of low-status institutions might have unrecognized merit. How should the journals become more diverse, authorwise and otherwise? Should there be a quota on the number of famous contributors? Should we say that no more than half of the submissions may come from the top-20 universities so that to make room for the underrepresented?

Call me old-fashioned; but I think when you read a good piece of philosophy, the quality shines through, regardless of the author’s name and affiliation.

Professor Plum thinks that what is “familiar” may seem to have more merit than what it really has. If “familiar” means that the referee personally knows the author and is therefore inclined to accept the submission than he/she would otherwise be, then this is carelessness or outright dishonesty (but I have no hard evidence to accuse to journals of habitual carelessness or dishonesty). If, however, “familiar” means non-standard and revolutionary, then I think that being resistant to the unfamiliar is a healthy thing in science and philosophy. This way those with revolutionary ideas may try to express themselves more clearly and more eloquently, so that to force the journals to publish them.Report

BLS Nelson
Reply to  kv
6 years ago

“Call me old-fashioned; but I think when you read a good piece of philosophy, the quality shines through, regardless of the author’s name and affiliation.”

I think old-fashioned curmudgeons everywhere could reasonably ask that you stop begging the question on their behalf.Report

Enzo Rossi
6 years ago

Fascinating discussion, but not unlike any discussion about the ideal deck chair arrangement on the Titanic. Philosophy, like the rest of academia, is by now a neoliberal professional enterprise. As such I don’t think we can expect it to not reproduce the inequalities and injustices of wider society. We can move some inequalities around like a ruck in the carpet, but I doubt there’s much point to that. The very real problems many people point out here are symptoms, not the disease. The disease is called capitalism, for lack of a better word.Report

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan
6 years ago

Enzo, do you have any reason to think that philosophy is more cliquish and inegalitarian now, as opposed to, say, 50 or 100 years ago? On the contrary, it seems that 50 or 100 years ago, it was far more of good old boys network, full of white professors from privileged backgrounds. The complaint about neoliberalism seems to get the trend-line backwards. Surely, there are far more people from disadvantaged backgrounds in philosophy now than in the past, before neoliberalism came in and ruined everything.Report

Enzo Rossi
6 years ago

Jason, apart from the fact that academia was vastly different 50 or 100 years ago, I’d say that capitalism has just changed its outward shape. It’s no longer a near-exclusive playground of white males, though it’s still dominated by them. Academia follows suit. And the economic upper middle class still utterly dominates it. So I suppose an upshot of my view is that the kind of diversity that can flourish under neoliberalism may have a lot that’s good about it, but it doesn’t do much to address the most important aspects of inequality. I take it your position is that there’s nothing wrong with inequality per se, and there we differ.

Also, I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with cliques. Intellectual history is full of philosophically productive cliqueism. What is bad is the fact that (Anglo-American) academia is so inegalitarian that clique membership can also help accessing vastly more desirable jobs, opportunities, etc. But, again, that’s just a feature of capitalism.Report

Chris Surprenant
6 years ago

Enzo, I’m somewhat confused about how your observations connect with capitalism. If anything, and if the observations are correct, it seems to suggest that the scheme is more cronyist than capitalist. Can you see a bit more about this association? You seem to think there is an obvious connection that need not be explained, but I’m missing what that connection is.Report

Enzo Rossi
6 years ago

Chris, actually existing capitalism just is what libertarians call ‘crony capitalism’.Report

Jason
Jason
6 years ago

I’d like to see a bit more nuanced discussion about the transactions costs or information costs of conference organizing.

Consider two methods of organizing a conference. Suppose I want to hold a conference on commodification.
Method 1: I think of the people who have published good work on this topic, and invite them to write new papers.
Method 2: I have an open call for papers, blindly referee the papers, and accept the 10 best.

Method 1 is far less inclusive than method 2. It will have many of the problems people have identified above.

But method 2 is costly. It requires me to collect and read a large number of papers. Suppose I receive 100 submissions, and spend 20 minutes on each. That’s 33 hours of reading. I basically lose a weeks’ worth of work. In the end, I might end up with better papers than I would have with method 1. But even that’s not clear. After all, a person reading a large number of papers in a row is likely to be biased in subtle ways, e.g., by ranking papers she reads right after lunch as better than papers she reads right before lunch. (See the famous Israeli parole hearing studies for evidence of that.)

A rational person will use a search method where the expected benefits > expected costs. Unless I value inclusiveness very highly, then it’s not clear method 2’s benefits are worth the costs.

Now, perhaps there are “in-between” methods. Rather than just inviting the people I can think of off the top of my head, I might use PhilPapers to search for people who have worked on a topic, or I might ask colleagues who work on that topic to recommend people. We might follow the various suggestions about how to ensure we have a good ratio of women to men. (In fact, this is what we’ve tended to do when we’ve invited people to our GISME conferences.) Nevertheless, this is far less costly than doing an open search.

Put this in terms of statistical discrimination. Suppose I have a reliable generalization, e.g., that the typical philosophy professor at Princeton is more talented overall than the typical philosophy professor at East Mississippi Community College. It’s rational for me to rely on this generalization so long as the expected costs and benefits of acquiring further individuating information expected costs and benefits of relying upon that generalization. Accordingly, if I want a good conference, it seems rational for me to invite the winners rather than invite people on more inclusive grounds.Report

Carolyn
Carolyn
Reply to  Jason
6 years ago

I like this attempt to spell out the relevant factors, but its seems overly individualistic (i.e. what are the benefits to me and my conference/workshop?). Other costs and benefits to consider are how one’s choice of speakers will impact those invited and how one’s choice of speakers will impact the field at large. We might reason that it is everyone else’s problem that invitations to these things are taken as a sign that this particular group is important in some way–that those who are invited to write SEP articles, provide chapters in books, give talks at conferences/workshops/colloquiums are just more important to the field than those who are not. Everyone else should change so that we can organize our stuff in peace! In a sense that is right–everyone else should not take the method to say more about the people than that these people came first to mind, with all of the failures of memory and salience kept clear. Yet, we can’t help ourselves but to infer that these people are special in some way, that they deserve these merits, that the system must work in some mysterious extra way to pick out just those who really are gifted and unique. Further, if you are invited to all of these things, you probably do have more of an opportunity to impact the field than someone who is not, even if all of those invitations are due to reputational snowballing on a thin thread of merit. So, practically speaking, it is probably going to work better if each of us tries to make sure that who we invite tracks merit as closely as possible, since each of us has trouble remembering that these invitations don’t mean as much as we will take them to mean, and that will spell trouble down the line for our field as the collective effect of cliquishness gets out of control (or has it already?). And what about the effects on those invited or not invited? Being invited to a conference/workshop/etc. is a boost to one’s confidence, and makes it more likely that one will be able to resend out that paper, survive a tough department, etc. This is all just to say that the effects go far beyond the single conference invitation, at least in our field, and we have a collective problem of making sure that those effects are as close as is efficiently possible to what is right, with more pressure on the more important-seeming events to do so.Report

Chris Surprenant
Reply to  Carolyn
6 years ago

Carolyn, this is likely to be an unpopular position, but I think being able to network and knowing how to promote yourself and your work is a skill important to being a good academic. As a result, when the people who are well networked get rewarded for being well networked, then there is a certain kind of meritocracy at work.

There’s a lot of whining in academia, and in philosophy especially. You can see it in this thread and in any of the discussions relating to jobs and the hiring process. As best I can tell, the general position is something like: “If I don’t get selected, then the selection process is corrupt and not based on merit.”

Anyone can start a conference or study group, either in person or over the internet–it just takes time and effort. When other people have put in the time and effort to create things (and, in many case, to raise the funding to support and sustain them), who am I to question their selection criteria? Sure, it’s unfortunate if I’d like to be invited to something and they don’t want to have me, but no one is stopping me from creating an alternative product, design that product in whatever way I think is best, and then compete with them (or coexist along side them).Report

Carolyn
Carolyn
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
6 years ago

I am with you on social skill being valuable to our field and something that deserves reward. But I am not sure that those who come first to mind even pick out those with social skill first. I wouldn’t even be surprised if it were the opposite. Perhaps this method picks out those who are best at putting themselves above everyone else. I don’t think that would be something we would want to reward. As for complaining versus doing–I have heard from those in other fields that they find philosophy to be especially interested in online discussion of professional issues. Perhaps those in other fields have less tolerance for bullshitting without checking facts, taking action, etc., which speaks well of those fields. But on the other hand, perhaps those in other fields are less willing to simply reflect, think, and discuss through things in general–isn’t that the calling card of philosophy?–and I think that speaks well of philosophers. I am ok with opening all kinds of things up for discussion and reflection, including our professional practices. I think that the OP is on to something with this post, even if I am not sure what the answers to these multi-faceted problems are. I am with Jason that we have to weigh lots of things, including practical things. You probably know that I have operated on the invitation model as well as the submission model in the past: Neuphi was all invites, IGCC (the interdisciplinary graduate conference on consciousness) was submission-based. Neuphi had a starry line-up of speakers (http://faculty.ucmerced.edu/cjennings3/neuphi.pdf), and probably helped to draw positive attention to BU. But IGCC was pretty great, in my opinion, and we had speakers in areas that I would not normally think of that had very interesting talks (http://www.bu.edu/conscious/archive.html). In more recent times, I ran a speaker series called MTS at UC Merced this year as invitation only, with an eye to different forms of diversity, but especially diversity of content (http://cogsci.ucmerced.edu/mts-talk-series/mts-spring-2015/), but I was also on the organizing committee for the Cognitive Science Society Meeting this year, which had an extremely impressive peer-review system (some papers were reviewed by 7 people!). The peer-review system required the labor of a number of people, and took more effort and time. But the conference is a high-profile one for that reason. On the other hand, I thought that MTS held together in some nice ways, because I tried to balance different areas and ideas. In sum: I think there is room for invitation-only conferences/workshops/colloquiums, etc., but welcome discussion on how to do this right.Report

Jason
Jason
6 years ago
Jason
Jason
6 years ago

Sorry, I garbled a sentence above. It should read:

“It’s rational for me to rely on this generalization so long as the expected benefits minus costs of acquiring further individuating information < expected benefits minus costs of relying upon that generalization. "Report

Enzo Rossi
6 years ago

Jason, I don’t think anyone believes that there isn’t a conflict between reasonably expected philosophical quality and inclusivity. But I thought this whole discussion was the consequent of a conditional whose antecedent is “if one wants to increase inclusivity”. I’m sceptical about liberal/non-structural solutions to this sort of problem for the reasons given above. I think a less question-begging argument for your conclusion might use Walzer’s idea of spheres of justice.Report

Enzo Rossi
6 years ago

A study showing that significant inequalities are cemented at the undergrad admissions stage. Worrying about conference inclusivity is a bit like the proverbial bolting of the stable door after the horse’s escape.

https://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/news/affluent-children-reach-top-universities-no-matter-systemReport

Adrian Piper
6 years ago

One purpose of a conference that hasn’t gotten much attention in this conversation is that of educating its audience, both specialists and non-specialists alike. A tall order, given the range of background information to be found among an audience that includes (I would argue, should include) students as well as colleagues both inside and outside of the subspecialty; but one that has to be filled, if a department is motivated to ensure its future survival by attracting new recruits, from all academic levels, into its ranks.

At CUNY in the early 1970s, conferences as well as graduate courses were open to all (you needed permission from the professor teaching the course and the undergraduate department chair to enroll in the graduate courses). I can speak only from my personal experience as an undergraduate at that time. But for me, attending and enrolling in these fora was crucial for sampling the tantalizing taste of advanced philosophical discourse that motivated me to pursue it professionally. Several of us from that CCNY undergraduate class who had had that experience went on to do graduate work at Harvard, Princeton, MIT and Pitt. I now think this kind of early exposure is very important in order that highly motivated undergraduates understand concretely what they will be expected to do as full-time philosophers. They need to know what they are in for, in a good way.

The impact on me was not dissimilar to that of a more recent (admittedly subjective) experience: From 2007 to 2009, while finishing Rationality and the Structure of the Self and publishing it at my website, I attended as many conferences in logic and decision theory as I could fit in, with an eye to finding out whether anyone I may have overlooked in the literature was taking the same approach to resolving some of the conflicts between them as I had. I was gratified to see that no one was. But I was utterly unprepared for the subculture I inadvertently discovered at these conferences: innovative, experimental, creative, highly receptive to new arguments, theses, formalizations and notations, without any sacrifice of rigor or quality, and very supportive of graduate student and junior faculty contributions. Only in these conferences have I ever seen the “swap session,” in which two scholars working on the same problem from disparate or conflicting approaches are assigned (or volunteer) to present and critique the other’s work, and then engage in an extended dialogue about it, before opening the discussion to the general audience.

To my way of thinking, these conferences were models of pedagogical as well as research excellence. They also successfully combined justified selectivity and democratic anti-elitism, both in their choice of speakers, of all ages, who were doing cutting-edge work in their subspecialties, and also in their receptivity to whomever wanted to attend, contribute … and, in some cases, be invited to present at the next conference. If I hadn’t felt that I’d said what I had to say about these topics and needed to move on to finishing my Kant book, I would be participating in these gatherings even now, eight years later. They are really great, and it broke my heart to have to stop attending them. But I would definitely advise any conference organizer who is unsure how to combine the goods of research quality, academic merit, intensive specialization and democratic openness to check out the conferences in this very technical subspeciality. They are, in truth, special, and very illuminating relative to the problems that have been raised in this discussion.Report